If you’re new to canoeing, lifting a canoe without getting hurt can be challenging at the best of times. I’ve been slugging canoes over my head for 40 years and I’d love to save you some hassles I’ve been through for far too long!
The best way to lift a canoe for transport is to have 2 people lift it up from one end (while the other end stays on the ground). Then one person holds the end up high while the other person walks to the yoke. The person holding the end of the canoe high then lowers it to the shoulders of the person under the yoke.
While this method is ideal, it’s not always practical or possible. I’ll show you (with photos and video) the most common, easiest, and best methods of carrying a canoe, and I’ll also show you a trick when solo lifting a heavy canoe.
Table of Contents
How to Lift a Heavy Canoe (or a light one for that matter!)
Before we jump into how to lift a canoe, we have to figure out how many people will be involved. In most scenarios, I’ll guess there is one person carrying the canoe, and either 1 or 2 people that can help with the mounting on the shoulders part. Still, we’ll outline the most common carrying options.
1 – Solo (one person to lift the canoe, and that same person carries the canoe)
As a solo lifter with a heavy canoe, it’s best to be near an immovable object like a tree or large rock. This comes in handy when you start lifting one end of the canoe. The canoe can start to move (especially on smooth rock) so an object is helpful.
In the photos, I am using a LIGHT canoe made of Kevlar only because I don’t own a dozen canoes and of the 3 that I currently own, none are really heavy. However, I’ve been using this method of lifting on very heavy canoes I’ve had over the decades.
I would definitely use this method for canoes weighing over 60 pounds.
Here are the steps if you’re lifting a canoe on your own;
How Much Do Canoeists Paddle Annually?
8 – 18 Years Old
55 Years Old +
All Age Average
2 – Tandem Lift (2 people help get the canoe into position for one person to carry it)
Before I show you how the tandem lift works, let me address an issue over which I’ve received a bit of flack and resistance. Some paddlers take issue with needing 2 people to do this technique, and to an extent, they are right. If you push your canoe up against a rock so it doesn’t slide, you are likely strong enough to lift the canoe on your own in a similar fashion to the Tandem Lift.
However, if you are lifting on uneven ground, shifting ground (rocks, stones, sand) and especially if it’s windy, you could have bitten off more than you can chew.
When you are picking up a narrow bow (nose) of the canoe while the only point of ground connection is the stern point, there is virtually no stability in the entire body of the canoe, and you can easily lose your balance as the weight shifts randomly (especially in a stiff breeze) before you can get both hands on opposite gunwales a few feet in from the deck plate.
This technique is perfect if you have 2 paddlers and a canoe weighing over 60 pounds.
Here are the steps to lifting your canoe tandem;
3 – Solo Lift for Lighter Canoe (under 60 pounds)
It’s never a bad idea to use any of the first two techniques even if you have an ultra-light Kevlar canoe. The purpose of lifting a canoe is NOT to show the squirrels you’ve still got biceps.
Your purpose in lifting/paddling/portaging is to stress your body the least amount possible during your trip in order to conserve energy and most of all, prevent injury while you’re in the backwoods. Your safety and perhaps your very life could depend on your physical condition, so don’t be a hero lifting canoes using your ego rather than your brain.
Here are the steps in lifting a lighter canoe:
4 – Tandem Underhand Lift
This lift is so basic I didn’t even bother to take photos. All it involves is two paddlers – one grabs the carry handle on the front of the canoe (at the bow) and the other grabs the stern carry handle. Preferably, each of you is standing on opposite sides of the canoe (one on starboard, the other on port).
You just pick it up and walk. This method involves no unloading at all. The problem is that both of you need to be pretty strong, and even then, the portage should be short (like 50 meters or less). This method is potentially dangerous as it could damage the hull with one minor misstep from either of you.
I never use this method even for short portages (only beaver dam liftovers), but it’s still a method so I thought I’d give it a mention.
If you’d like a tad bit more info, it would probably be easier to watch this short video where I explain solo methods of lifting and mounting a canoe on your shoulders;
How Do You Solo Carry a Canoe?
We’ve covered a lot of ground regarding how to get that darn boat on your shoulders, but not much about what to do after that. I’ve learned a thing or two in my half-century of life canoeing, and here are some of my most basic tips starting the moment you get the canoe on your shoulders.
To Carry a canoe solo, it’s important to start with the right grip on your canoe. To avoid balance and potential injury problems, you must create a triangle of connection points on the canoe. Keep both arms in front of you with hands-on gunwales (elbows only slightly bent).
Both hands on the gunwales and the yoke on your shoulders creates the triangle;
Carrying and Portaging a Canoe – Best Practices
1 – Scout the portage trail if possible
On occasion, I’ve pulled up to a portage and I before I exit the canoe I can already see or hear the next body of water. That means it’s only a few dozen meters away. I usually like to run up the trail to see it, but in that case it’s almost not necessary.
However, many a portager has been left in the woods, off the trail, lost, cold, tired, lonely and scared (okay, a bit of an exaggeration) because he/she didn’t know the route before hiking it with a boat on your head!
2 – Do your best not to strap 15 lbs of random items to the canoe before you carry
More than once I’ve arrived at a portage only to watch a group of newby trippers tie life jackets, water bottles, fishing rods, paddles and even a bilge pump to the thwarts of a canoe BEFORE they pick it up to carry it.
I understand why they do it, but believe me, the last thing you need on a portage is a heavier canoe, and a canoe whose balance has been compromised with uneven random weights!
Part of the solution to this issue is to minimize the number of loose, random items you carry. I try to put nearly everything into my huge dry bags. Unfortunately there are items you just can’t do that to well. For example, a tackle box, fishing rods, paddles, life jackets, canoe emergency kit and bailer, to name a few.
But, with some forethought, the pain of carrying dozens of small items around your wait, shoulders, elbows, neck and hands can be minimized.
3 – Before starting to walk with your canoe, assess the blood-sucking insect risk factor
Few things annoy me as much as carrying a canoe over rough terrain, my shirt is sweating, my biceps bulging and glistening with sweat …. okay, that’s a bit too far, but I can get carried away sometimes when I write! Anyway, my hands are occupied with gunwale-holding, so I can’t swat anything. Then, without any warning, I’m accosted by thousands of blackflies or mosquitos or horseflies or deer flies!
This is all part of the experience but if you know what’s waiting for you, you’ll be able to prepare with a mosquito net hat and/or repellent to make your portage a little more bearable.
4 – When walking, angle the canoe slightly up at the bow and down at the stern so you can see where you’re going!
This may seem obvious, but when you get tired, it’s sometimes easy to slouch and let the bow dip down so you only see the path that is directly beneath the canoe about 6 -10 feet in front of you. That’s often not good enough for safety.
To avoid fatigue, either prepare for the trip with a basic exercise regimen or you can try another technique that’s worked for some – use a Tump Line. A tumpline is basically a strap that is used to carry virtually anything using your forehead to act as an aid in balancing a load and re-distributing pressure and stress points while carrying.
Tump lines are often used for carrying large backpacks, but can also be rigged to help carry a canoe.
Remember my friends, regardless of your pre (or mis) conceptions, nearly anyone (specifically able-bodied adults) can carry a substantial canoe for at least a short distance of a few hundred meters. It takes just a little bit of instruction, information, and practice!
Outdoor Foundation – Special Report on Paddlesports and Safety