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How to portage a canoe | tips for smaller people

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Not built like a football player? Don't let that limit your canoe tripping and/or partner options. Here's how smaller, less strong people can still get a canoe on their shoulders. 

First, take all the gear and loose stuff out of the boat. Any paddles/ropes/bags that remain clipped or strapped in to the boat will affect the balance and potentially make it difficult to portage, so be aware of this. Yokes are positioned so that a canoe will be perfectly balanced and it doesn't take much to throw that off.

Stand beside the canoe nearer the stern (back end). Reach for the far gunwale with the hand closest to the bow (front end) of the boat. The other hand can grip the close gunwale or you can try sliding it under the hull of the boat to help flip it.

Portaging a canoe

Lift the canoe so it rests on your thigh. Your leg will be the power and drive behind the lift.

small person portaging a canoe

Rock the canoe a few times and then flip it over your head, pivoting on the bow (which should stay on the ground). Use the power of your leg to help boost the canoe up. Commit to this movement. It should be quick and fluid; it is technique, not strength that gets the boat over your head. 

Woman portaging canoe

Steady yourself and the boat, then "walk" your way up the canoe until you can get your head under the yoke. Slowly help the bow lift until the canoe is balanced on your shoulders.

Woman portaging canoe with yoke

To get the canoe down at the other end of the portage, simply reverse the steps. You can try putting the stern down instead of the bow to see if this is easier for you - either works. 


  • Spend as much money on an ultralight canoe as you can afford. Even 5 lbs makes a difference over a long portage.
  • Pad your yoke or buy clamp on pads if portaging causes pain on your shoulders (some of us don't have a lot of muscle mass up there so the boat is resting on bone). You can cut a piece of closed-cell foam and glue it to your yoke, or buy a special yoke pad that velcros on. Some people try to place their PFD on their shoulders but this usually causes slipping issues. Our personal favourite is the clamp on pads as these can be positioned perfectly to fit your shoulders, unlike a generic yoke.
  • Walk with good posture. Your spine is much stronger if you are upright and not hunched over. Go carefully. If the load gets too heavy, look for the crotch of a tree to perch the end of the boat in (let the other end rest on the ground) and give yourself a break.
  • Get the technique down before you attempt a real portage. Practice at home with a friend to hold the end of the boat if necessary. Once you get it, you're ready to go!

woman portaging a canoe


canoeing paddling

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