I make the joke often enough “Portaging is french for torture” and the uninitiated usually reply with a strange uncomfortable laugh and a quick flash of uncertainty in their eyes.
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, portaging is simply carrying your canoe and kit between waterways via an overland trail. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, there are many variables which can impact your fun meter, such as the weight of your canoe or the number of roots which endeavour to entangle your feet. Also, a portage can be referred to as a carry.
Don’t fret! Canoe tripping, even when combined with portaging, can still be fun. It really boils down two two principles:
- Pack conservatively
- Consolidate your load
Let me explain:
Packing conservatively requires decision making. Rather than daydreaming at the office and drawing up a list of everything you can imagine yourself using for perfectly instagramable backcountry moments, you have to tease out the items you actually need and then leave the rest behind. A dear old friend once told me to sort gear into three piles: In the first pile you place luxury items, in the second pile you put items you might need and the third pile is everything imperative to the trip. He finished his advice by telling me to only bring one pile.
What’s more, you not only have to be conscientious of how many items you’re packing, but also the volume. What I mean by this is, if your packed sleeping mat is the same size as an industrial garbage bin, you should consider purchasing a smaller and lighter model (or renting one). The same logic can be applied to absolutely everything you’re packing, except for your coffee mug. Leave that alone. Also, don’t overlook opportunities for how one piece of your kit can pull double duty, such as stuffing your sweater with clothing to double as a pillow.
The consolidation of your packed kit is equally important. In my experience the massive horseflies with a shark’s appetite will congregate along portage trails and await the paddler so encumbered by doodads and danglers they don’t have a free hand to defend themselves. From the fly’s perspective it’s a walking all-you-can-eat buffet.
Far too often I see trippers loading their canoes with collapsable coolers, folding chairs, rubbermaid bins, fishing rods, grocery bags, gallon jugs of water and myriad other well-intentioned items. Their first portage will be a scene even Clark Griswold would smirk at.
Admittedly, when Kar and I go tripping we pack all of the aforementioned items, except for the rubbermaid bins and jugs of water- there is no place in our canoe for those. What’s worse than a gallon jug of water? A Costco pack of water bottles… Please just bring a reusable bottle, water filter or purification tabs and treat as you go. I digress.
With consolidation in mind and experience guiding us, we pack our kit a bit differently. Here’s how we tackle it: we know a single-run portage is for emergencies or the proud, so we plan on at least two trips. This means we limit our packing to four heavy units (something of girth and weight where carrying two simultaneously has the potential for injury):
- The Canoe
- The Food Barrel
- The Kitchen Pack
- The Dry Pack (sleep system, wardrobe change, toiletries)
Each trip across the portage trail we’ll carry one heavy unit, and occupy one hand with small items such as paddles or the camera bag. As sailors used to say ‘One hand for yourself, one for the ship’, which means you’re expected to work, but not so hard you put yourself at risk, so keep a hand free for defending your flesh from combatant Insecta.
When you distil my long-winded advice, here’s what you get:
1. Pack Conservatively: Favour lightweight, compact, double duty, and paramount to the entire practice— favour less.
2. Consolidate Your Load: Use large bags and barrels with shoulder straps (so important) to pack all your small items into.
3. Count on a minimum of two trips across the portage trail- unless you need to get to emergency care or you’re Batman
4. Dress accordingly: personally I feel hiking boots have no place on a canoe trip- good old runners, sturdy sandals such as Chacos or Tevas, Bean Boots or rubbers, and some kind of non-chaffing non-cotton pants or shorts. From June through mid-September I wear chaco sandals, short running shorts and a tank top-- this is bliss. Attire may need a blog of its own.
I realize some of the items I’ve recommended you may not already own and which are a considerable expense. Don’t worry though, you can rent these items from us until you drink my kool-aid and buy your own:
- 30L Barrel and Harness— great for carrying food for a weekend trip for two
- 60L Barrel and Harness— great for longer trips or larger groups
- 70L Dry Pack— if you and your partner pack small and light (spare clothes: extra pair of underwear and a fresh t-shirt for day four)
- 115L Dry Pack— if you are not small and light packers (spare clothes: new wardrobe for each day)
- 70L Canvas Canoe Pack (indestructible heirloom items)— for packing hard, sharp and sooty kitchen items capable of destroying a vinyl dry pack
You can keep your items organized inside these large packs with smaller stuff sacks or compression sacks.
If any of the above needs clarification, please don’t hesitate to email us.
See you in the backcountry!