December 27, 2016

Lessons from the Bush: How to Portage Like a Pro (Sort Of)

Headed to the Boundary Waters? Make sure you're prepared to portage with these tried and true tips. Trust us, your back and knees will thank you later!

If you plan on taking any sort of paddling trip, you’ll have plenty of portaging to do while you’re out there. So, after a visit to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I decided I’d share some tips on how to portage when you’re out on your own adventure in the bush.

man rest by canoe in BWCA

The basic act of portaging is simple: You pull up to a portage—basically a hiking trail—unload all of your gear, then you carry it all (including the canoe or kayak) to a re-entry point. I’m making it sound really easy, but you’ll find it can be a very tiring ordeal, especially when you’re dealing with portages that span .5 miles or longer.

So let’s get into it. Here are five tips I learned out in the bush that’ll hopefully help you learn how to portage more efficiently:

man carries a canoe overhead

#1 Don’t Carry All Your Gear in One Trip

This reminds me of all the times my mom would bring home groceries. My brothers and I would rush to the trunk and try to carry as many bags in as humanly possible. So I get it. This tip seems counterintuitive. Trust me though, it’s not!

The more energy you’re able to save while portaging, the easier it’ll be when you get back to paddling. Try to carry a manageable amount of gear, but never overload yourself to point where you’re struggling to keep a good pace.

Portages are typically short walks, so taking a trip back to the rest of your gear shouldn’t be a major problem. Just keep this in mind, curb the machismo, and you’ll be golden.

#2 Earn Your Turns

Being an expert in portaging relies heavily on how willing you’re able to delegate tasks. Sometimes it takes a blunt, “Hey, can you please take the canoe on the next portage?” to keep the momentum going. Even if you have that one guy or gal in your group who volunteers to portage every time, don’t allow it. There’s no need to burn out your camp crew.

Repeatedly having a heavy canoe on your back is not fun. So keep cycling through your group as you portage and everybody stays happy.

two men carry canoe in Minnesota

#3 Bring Solid Hiking Boots

I had to refrain from shaking my head and verbally saying “Why are you wearing tennis shoes?” whenever I’d see someone portaging and not wearing hiking boots. I said it earlier, portages are basically hiking trails. There are loose rocks, mud, and lots of puddles along the way, making a pair of waterproof hiking boots a must. I was sporting the Mammut Comfort High GTX® SURROUND® Boots during my trip and I would have suffered without them.

Little features like the gripex™ outsole and GORE-TEX® SURROUND® product technology helped keep my feet planted on slick rock and free from soaked socks.

#4 Keep a Low Center of Gravity

When you’re hoisting the canoe on your back, it helps to bend your knees. I’d also recommend having a partner there to help balance the canoe until you’re absolutely stable.

Canoes can weigh upward of 40-50 pounds (give or take all the gear you load), meaning form and proper weight distribution are crucial aspects of comfortable portaging.

Be sure to ask everyone in your group if things look right to ensure everything is balanced correctly.

canoe on a roof

#5 Don’t Be Afraid to Take Breaks

It’s not a race. I can say from firsthand experience that portaging is an exhausting ordeal. The awkward position you put yourself in when balancing a 50-pound canoe that spans 10 feet is, well, tiring.

When soreness kicks in (and it will) take a step off the main path of the trail in case you have people behind you, and take a break. Just make sure your group knows you’ve stopped and then resume once you’ve got your energy back.

The last thing you want to do is overexert yourself on land when there are still miles of water to traverse thereafter. Slow and steady is the key.

The five tips I outlined above are just the start. You might find some different methods that work better with your group size or paddling area. Experiment until you’ve nailed portaging and you’ll find it’s really not that hard. As with anything, it takes some time.

Now get out there and start paddling!

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