Lifting and Carrying a Canoe

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Lifting and Carrying Basics

  • Lift your canoe with another person (or persons) whenever possible. Canoes are often carried by single individuals, but lifting is almost always easier with more than one person.
  • Empty your canoe of all water and equipment before you lift it. Extra weight is harder to lift and it can damage your canoe hull.
  • Lift your canoe using the muscles in your legs as much as possible, keeping your back straight and your knees bent.
  • Lifting and carrying techniques designed for two or more people require communication and coordination. Practice them before you leave on your first trip.
  • If you want to learn single-person lifting and carrying techniques, do so with the help of experienced paddlers (who can act as spotters). Never attempt such techniques for the first time alone.

Step-by-Step Procedures

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.

Lifting and carrying—more than two paddlers

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.

Lifting and carrying—two paddlers

Two-person lifts and carries are commonly used to carry boats short distances or to lift them up onto roof-top car racks.

  • The underhand lift and carry

    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.

  • The overhead lift and carry

    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).

Lifting and carrying—one paddler

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.

The single-person lift

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.

Alternative lift

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).

  • Stand to one side of your canoe, just in front (bow-side) of the carrying yoke. Grasping the gunwale closest to you with both hands, roll the boat up onto its side (away from you) so that the side of the hull is resting against your thighs.
  • Lean forward and grasp the middle of the carrying yoke with your rear (stern-side) hand, and the close gunwale with your front hand (just forward of the yoke).
  • Being careful to keep your back as straight as possible, slowly lean back and lift the canoe with your rear hand (the one grasping the yoke). This motion should rotate the canoe upwards and onto your thighs.
  • With the canoe resting on your thighs, carefully take your forward hand and shift it from the close gunwale to the far gunwale (still ahead of the yoke). Then, being sure to keep the canoe balanced, shift your back hand (the one holding the yoke) so that it is grasps the close gunwale (the one touching your thighs) just in back of the yoke.
  • In a single, smooth motion, lift and rotate the canoe upward until it's directly overhead. This motion is easiest when it's performed quickly and smoothly. For extra lifting power, use one thigh to hoist the canoe upwards.
  • Finally, carefully lower the canoe onto your shoulders so that the yoke rests comfortably across them.

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 canoers 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.

Getting a Helping Hand

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.