During my decades of paddling, almost 100% of my outings involved multi-day canoe trips with lots of portages (carrying the canoe overland from one body of water to another). I’ve carried canoes made of every common material like plastic, fiberglass, aluminum, wood, and kevlar.
Of course, the one you want to carry (if you have to carry a canoe) is the lightest canoe ever made. But is weight the only consideration? I’ll let you know which canoe the average paddler should use in what type of portaging situation.
What’s the Best Canoe to Portage?
The best canoe is the one that is the easiest to transport from your starting point to the finish point of the portage. For most paddlers, that will probably be the lightest canoe to carry in your situation. For other paddlers, the weight won’t matter as much since they’ll be using a canoe cart to transport their vessel.
While every canoeist would love to carry a lightweight pack canoe, kevlar, or carbon canoe on their portage, inexperienced canoeists often tend to virtually overlook the issue of weight, focusing instead on price, color, availability, comfort, etc.
After 40 years of dragging my blade through the water, I can tell you that for me, THE BIGGEST factor that goes into my choice of a canoe is its weight! I will actually tailor my paddling style, preferences, locations, techniques, and routes based on accommodating the qualities of a super ultra-light canoe.
How Heavy Should a Good Portaging Canoe Be?
A good weight for any vessel you’ll be carrying on your shoulders over land is anywhere between 20 and 40 pounds. Of course, that’s a very simplistic answer, but all things being equal, every adventurer would like to carry a canoe made of tissue paper if only for the portage itself.
The problem, of course, is that light canoes come with a whole list of cautions, potential problems, and concerns that need to be accounted for.
Light canoes are often more fragile than heavy canoes. They are also almost certainly more expensive, and by a long shot too!
I own a Bell Magic solo canoe (now Northstar Canoes). It’s 16 feet long and it weighs only 29 lbs. That’s a whopping 7 lbs heavier than some other brands/models of the same size (here’s an example), but the added weight offers added durability as well.
I own a kevlar lake tripping canoe that’s 17 feet long and made for 2 paddlers (the Wenonah Escape). It has tons of cargo space and a generous freeboard to keep me dry. It weighs 41 lbs which is wonderfully lightweight.
Understand the Psychology
There’s a psychology that kicks in with carrying canoes and I discovered it during my many years of portaging.
If your mind understands that a canoe you’ll soon be picking up for the first time is made for 3 people, is 21 feet long, and holds enough gear for 3 people for 2 weeks, your brain will apply a bit of an “assumption” that it will be heavier than other canoes.
If, however, you discover that it’s only 65 lbs and you’re told that the average weight of such a big canoe is 90 lbs, you’ll feel like you’re carrying a feather on your shoulders, and you’ll complete the portage quickly and easily (relatively speaking).
On the other hand, if you own a 15-foot solo carbon canoe that weighs 19 lbs, and you go to pick up a 16-foot aluminum solo canoe, you’ll feel like you’re pulling up a ship’s anchor! It’ll probably weigh in at 65 lbs which is heavier than any TANDEM kevlar tripping canoe.
That 65 lbs would feel much lighter if you were carrying a 20-foot, 3-person canoe though it’s exactly the same weight.
How Do You Portage a Canoe?
Portaging a canoe usually involves only one person. Typically, the paddler would stand at the side of the canoe near the center balance point, then pull the gunwale nearest him/her up near the thighs. Then, they would reach to the opposite gunwale with one hand while the other hand sits on the nearer gunwale.
A simple, quick roll of the canoe onto their shoulders would complete the maneuver. There are, however, other methods I outline in THIS ARTICLE.
Here’s a quick video to show you how it’s done.
Once the canoe is mounted on your shoulders, a brisk walk will minimize the time you have to carry 30 – 100 lbs on your shoulders!
To return the canoe to the ground, you would simply reverse the steps you followed to mount the canoe.
How Do You Portage a Heavy Canoe?
If your canoe is over 70 lbs it can be uncomfortable and potentially even dangerous for all but the strongest and most fit paddlers to carry. A canoe cart is a great option to help carry your canoe across a portage, and you might not even have to empty it!
This is a super-helpful article to help you determine if you need a canoe cart!
The downside to a canoe cart is that it cannot be used in a deep wilderness, remote locations that don’t have a wide, flat, hard, and non-hilly path for your cart to travel.
That would exclude most portages in Canada! There are, however, portage trails that would work (on well-known and popular lakes, parks, and routes). If you plan on using a cart, we’d suggest contacting the park (or the “friends of…” organizations in Canada) to confirm the presence of such portage trails.
Canoes to Avoid if You Plan on Portaging
While any canoe made of any material can be carried on a portage, no serious wilderness tripper will consider the long-term use of any of the following materials unless they are very muscular and/or they have a point to prove.
Otherwise, any sober, sane and experienced paddler will stick with Kevlar or Carbon (if possible) and try to avoid:
Wood – a well-made wooden canoe is a joy to look at and it can be luxurious to paddle on a quiet lake. However, it will almost certainly be excessively expensive and far too heavy to be practical for long portages.
Polyethylene – This is just a fancy term for “plastic”. These 70+ lb canoes are wonderfully inexpensive. They are, however, on the lower end of quality and performance.
These canoes are often made by companies like Coleman (discontinued) and Pelican. They are meant for recreational “cottage” use near the dock, and not meant for wilderness tripping and portaging.
If your first canoe trip involves portaging a plastic tandem canoe, you will most certainly be turned off of canoe tripping for the rest of your life!
Fiberglass – Fiberglass canoes are stronger and lighter than plastic canoes so they are definitely a step up. However, given the fact that they are still heavy (60 lbs or more), they are still not considered serious tripping canoes.
This truth is further emphasized by the fact that no serious outfitting company offers fiberglass canoes to wilderness tripping patrons.
Aluminum – steel canoes are about as heavy as fiberglass. They are very durable and can take a beating (especially if used by a rental company – they last a long time!). However, their heavy weight puts them in the category of a low-end tripping canoe or recreational canoe.
Royalex – Royalex or T-Formex (or a number of other similar materials) are composite materials made from ABS foam and vinyl. While a canoe made from one of these materials is perfect for an abusive environment like rapids, rocks, and trees, it is also super heavy. A 16-foot model will come in around 60 lbs or more.
The weight profile is the same as aluminum and fiberglass. That means it’s certainly not a “joy” to carry on any portage.
It may be, however, your only option on rough rivers.
What’s the Best Solo Canoe to Portage?
I hate using the term “best” because it can mean so many things in most contexts. However, if I cut through all the nuances and literal gymnastics, I can honestly say that the “best” canoe that I would want to portage is my 26 lb clear kevlar solo Bell Magic canoe.
NOTE: I used to own a clear kevlar Magic, but I now only own the 29 lb. Black Magic model (pictured below) which is a combination of Aramid (Kevlar) and Carbon.
I feel I should clarify that answer a bit because there are lighter canoes on the market. You see, my definition of “best” doesn’t just mean the ABSOLUTE LIGHTEST. The canoe has to be rugged enough for me to take on extended wilderness excursions without worrying about ripping it open on a submerged branch or rock.
It needs to have enough cargo capacity to supply me for a 10-day backcountry trip. It also needs to offer the right profile for a long flatwater lake journey. Only then do I combine those qualities with the weight profile to determine which canoe I would like to portage.
Keep in mind that if your trips involve mostly river runs, your ideal canoe is NOT a Bell Magic Solo canoe. You’ll want a prospector-style canoe made of Royalex or a similar material. It’s hell to portage, but you don’t have much choice if you’re going to be abusing it in a rocky environment with fast water.
Plus, if you do have to portage, it won’t be too far in most cases (just enough to pass a set of rough rapids).
Are Skin-on-Frame Canoes Lighter or Better?
Skin-on-frame canoes are vessels built with a wooden frame (usually) which is then covered in a watertight light “skin” or fabric/membrane. It has the potential to be a little bit lighter than the same-sized canoe made from any other material.
Skin-on-Frame canoes CAN be less durable, especially if they are noticeably lighter than a canoe of the same size made from Kevlar or fiberglass, or any other material.
The advantage of these canoes is, of course, their light weight, and some can even be folded and packed into the rear of a hatchback car.
If you plan on doing day trips or short overnight trips relatively close to your put-in point and you don’t have a lot of gear (or a big dog), this might be a great option for you.
Overall, I don’t think a skin-on-frame canoe is the best choice for wilderness trippers with any pets, lots of gear, or longer trips that send you dozens of kilometers from your vehicle and from civilization.
While some skin-on-frame canoes are fairly tough, those probably weigh about the same as a composite canoe and might be significantly pricier.
I like the true and tried construction techniques of a traditional Kevlar composite canoe or a carbon canoe (if I had the money!).
There are lots of advocates of Skin-on-Frame canoes. Here’s a great video that shows you a lot more about them in greater detail!
It is my strongly held opinion that if you’re on a solo canoe trip of more than 1-2 days, that you complete a portage in 2 trips.
While it may be macho and cool to do it in one trip, you will increase your chances of injury (especially if you’re not a teenager) and the process will be one that you dread.
Instead, I’d suggest carrying the canoe and your smallest container (food barrel?) in one trip, and then your larger dry bag of everything else on your back, while your hands carry small stuff like fishing gear, paddles, etc.
Most portages are measured in yards or meters rather than kilometers or miles. My guess is that 75% of all portages I travel are 400 yards or less. That means that I can finish the portage in 2 trips without stressing my body, in about 20 minutes or less.
For most paddlers, the best canoe to portage will be the lightest model you can find. But, weight should not be the sole factor in your decision to purchase. There are other important factors like payload, durability, canoeing environmental factors, and price as well.
I personally won’t buy any canoe over 50 lbs if I’m thinking of portaging. I’m pretty tough and I can carry any canoe, but my trip becomes dreary and burdensome with the thought of a heavy carry at every portage!
I’d suggest you learn the proper technique to mount and dismount a canoe to make carrying your light canoe an even more enjoyable experience.
Canoe carts can be useful under certain conditions, and of course, a skin-on-frame canoe might be the right choice for a very light canoe for someone not looking to go on really long, rough wilderness trips.
I hope I’ve been helpful and that you’ve gleaned some useful information on what type of canoe is “best” for portaging (wilderness tripping actually).
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Paddle on my friends!