A Few Tips for Faster Portaging

“Anyone who says they like portaging is either a liar or crazy,” said Bill Mason, the legendary Canadian paddler and environmentalist, in his 1984 film Waterwalker. 

While there’s a gritty sense of satisfaction in carrying your entire camp over rocks, roots, and trees, for most paddlers portages are something to be completed rather than savored. And when you’re hoping to reach a certain lake by nightfall or escape the ever-present hum of mosquitoes in the summer woods, speed on a portage is a delightful thing. 

Here are a few tips for faster portaging. 

1. No loose gear!

One mid-summer afternoon on the portage out of Birch Lake in the BWCA, we came upon what appeared to be half a campsite strewn across the mouth of the portage - fishing rods, paddles, a northern pike, lawn chairs, and a multitude of small bags and packs. Though admirably eager, the poor folks were on their third trip across the portage. 

Juggling loose water bottles, fishing rods, or any other gear can slow down the most athletic of portagers, as well as increase the chances you’ll lose gear at the landing. Try to keep your gear consolidated to one or two packs per boat. 

Use bungees to strap rods to the canoe, or carabiners for clipping water bottles to packs. Keep rain gear or jackets at the very top of a pack so it’s easy to pull them out or pack them away with the changing weather. 

Not to mention, simply grabbing a pack and a paddle frees you to focus on the portage rather than thinking about the extra gear. 

 

2. Have the right gear (and make good use of it!)

If you’re hoping to venture into canoe country more than once or twice in your outdoor career, investing in gear specialized for canoe camping can make your trips more efficient. That certainly doesn’t mean you have to overhaul your entire gear collection, though, as one of the joys of canoe camping is the ability to improvise and make full use of the gear at hand. You don’t have to have the most expensive or largest arsenal of gear to enjoy the wilderness. But canoe camping brings a special set of demands, and a few pieces of specialized gear can help you get the most out of your travels.  

For portaging, packs and footwear are two of the most helpful. 

Canoe packs are designed to handle the rigors and unique needs of canoe country travel. They ride well in the bottom of a canoe, are easy to unload from a boat, and carry large quantities of gear over portages. 

While opinions vary on particular styles and brands, footwear should have sturdy ankle support and good traction. If you’re planning on getting your feet wet on landings, one favorite rugged option is a mid-length hiking boot that drains water. 

Along with functionality, there’s also a sense of harmony and delight that comes with using a tool for exactly what it was intended to do, and gear crafted specifically for wilderness canoe camping is no different. 

3. Figure out a system and stick with it.

Portaging is as much about maintaining a rhythm as it is about gear and organization. Make a plan for who will be carrying what and talk about it well before you reach the landing. As soon as boots hit the ground, you’re free to unload your gear and start down the trail instead of figuring out which pack to take.

Enjoy the Experience

Wilderness travel should never be inherently rushed, for part of a canoe trip’s restorative power comes from escaping imposed demands on your time. A pace slow enough to notice the occasional wildflower or ponder the swirl left by a paddle stroke is often the most rewarding. Do not rush through a portage simply for the sake of portaging quickly or racing to your next destination; portage quickly so you can cover more territory, spend less time reorganizing, and see more of the beloved wilderness you’ve been given time to explore.

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