There are three basic kinds of canoe lifts and carries; those performed by more than two paddlers, those performed by two paddlers, and those performed by single individuals. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Group carries, when performed correctly, are easy for everyone involved.
The most common group method for lifting and carrying is the simple underhand lift. Paddlers choose spots on either side of the canoe (everyone facing in the same direction), grab the closest gunwale with their boat-side hand and lift upwards. Group lifts work best when the terrain is relatively flat, the trail is wide and there are enough paddlers for the job (usually four or more). They can be difficult to coordinate on rougher terrain or narrow trails.
Two-person lifts and carries are commonly used to carry boats short distances or to lift them up onto roof-top car racks.
To carry your canoe short distances, use a basic underhand lift. Stand on the opposite side and opposite end of the canoe from your partner. Grab the closest carrying handle or gunwale edge with your boat-side hand (while your partner does the same) and lift straight upwards. Don't use your boat's deck plates for lifting unless they have a built-in carrying handle.
Face in the direction of travel so you can see where you're going and avoid obstacles in your path. Communicate with your partner, so they know if you need to stop and set the canoe down. The paddler in front should act as the eyes for the rear paddler, warning them of any obstacles in the path.
When transporting your canoe over longer distances (like during a portage), you can reduce arm and shoulder strain by carrying the boat overhead on your shoulders. The following lift procedure can also be used when lifting a canoe to place it on a roof-top car rack:
The two-person overhead carry is most effective when the ground is relatively flat and the distance to be covered is not too long. On rough terrain and long trails, it can be somewhat difficult to stay coordinated.
The two-person overhead technique can also make seeing the trail ahead somewhat difficult, especially if the paddler in front is the same size or shorter than the rear paddler. If this is the case, the front paddler may wish to scoot forward until they can rest the deck of the canoe on one shoulder or the other, so that their head is not under the hull.
NOTE: If you plan on doing a lot of 2-person overhead carrying, consider outfitting your canoe with front and rear carrying yokes. Carrying yokes are special, ergonomically curved thwarts designed to make carrying canoes easier on your shoulders. A single carrying yoke is usually found in the center of most canoes, but shorter ones for canoe ends are also available. For occasional 2-person carries, simply pad your shoulders (or if your PFD has padding over the shoulders, wear it as you carry your boat).
Surprisingly, one of the easiest and most efficient ways to carry a canoe is by yourself. With a comfortable carrying yoke, a little padding, and some careful practice, you can transport a canoe over long routes and difficult portage trails on your own with relative ease.
Single-person carries are popular among experienced canoe campers because they avoid the coordination and communication problems involved in multi-person methods. Picking up a canoe by yourself, however, can be somewhat challenging and should be approached with caution.
Single-person lifts should be performed only when necessary. Even if you're going to carry your canoe by yourself, let other paddlers help you get the canoe into position whenever possible. Learn and practice single-person lifts with other paddlers nearby before you try them alone. They are not difficult or dangerous when performed correctly. However, the risk of injury does exist.
NOTE: This procedure begins with the canoe on the ground, gunnel side down. It requires a centered carrying yoke (or at least a center thwart). All REI canoes are sold with carrying yokes already installed.
Facing the bow end of your canoe, carefully bend and lift the bow overhead, with the stern end still on the ground. A towel or pad under the stern gunnels and deck plate will help protect them from scratches.
With the bow overhead, turn so that you are inside and under the canoe, facing the bow end. Slowly walk backwards toward the carrying yoke until you can fit it on your shoulders, tilt the bow end of the boat slightly forward and downward until the stern end rises off the ground. Balance, and you're ready to go.
If you prefer not to expose your stern gunnels and deck plate to wear and tear, you may also attempt the solo lift described below. Keep in mind, however, that this procedure will be harder on your body (especially your back) than the one described above).
Once the canoe is positioned on your shoulders, shift it backwards or forwards slightly until it's comfortable and tilted up a little in the bow. This will make walking easier on the portage trail. Place your hands slightly forward on each gunwale to help balance the boat as you walk.
NOTE: Many canoeists find it more comfortable to grip the gunwales with their fingers on the inside of the hull and their thumbs on the outside when carrying a canoe solo.
When there's one extra person available to help get a canoe on your shoulders, have them stand just behind the yoke while you stand just in front of it (both of you on the same side of the boat). Follow the procedure described above, except with your hands a foot or so in front of the yoke and your helper's hands behind it.
When there are two paddlers available to help, stand at the yoke while the other two people line up at the rear and front thwarts. Again, follow the same basic lifting procedure above to get the canoe overhead.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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