How to Portage: 7 Tips for Moving Your Kayak or Canoe on Land

It’s inevitable. If you paddle long enough, eventually, you’re going to run out of water. As a result, anyone looking to lengthen their trip to the next pond or lake, bypass a dangerous rapid, or even simply carry a boat from the car to the water is going to need to know one dreaded but crucial paddling skill: the portage. And, doing it efficiently makes the carry move along easily and quickly.

Credit: Marcus Johnson
Credit: Marcus Johnson

1. Don’t drag the boat

Dragging the boat across the terrain may seem like the easiest thing to do, but it could result in damage that ultimately shortens the amount of time you can spend on the water. You don’t want to get to the end of your portage, only to find a fresh hole in the hull of your new canoe. If you’re paddling with a partner, share the weight. If you are solo, make sure you have a boat that you can carry by yourself.

2. Share the weight

Whether you have a kayak or canoe, there are multiple ways to carry the boat. If you are paddling with someone, each of you grabbing an end is the simplest solution. If you are paddling two separate boats of the same length, carrying both at the same time, with one in each hand, can be even easier than supporting one, as the weight distributed on both sides helps with your balance.

To carry, insert your arm into the cockpit, and rest the cockpit’s side on your shoulder to balance the boat. This can save a great deal of arm strength, and on narrower trails, having the boat up high may be easier than carrying it in your hands.

In a canoe, use the center yoke to balance the boat upside down on your shoulders. However, be sure to practice getting the canoe up by yourself first and keeping it balanced. You wouldn’t want to pull a muscle out in the backcountry when you’re trying to lift.

For any of the shoulder-carrying techniques, it helps to bring along some foam padding, such as a cut pool noodle or your life jacket, to add some cushioning between your shoulders and the boat. Two people sharing one canoe can do something similar: Rest the seats on your shoulders, or even on top of a backpack. 

3. Plan ahead

Unless you’re scouting unexplored water on Mars, you should always have a map for your paddling trip. As you plan, look at your route to see where your portages will be and what type of terrain you will be crossing. Then, ask yourself a few questions: What is the distance of the portage? Will it go through the woods or on a trail? Is there a road that can be taken? Is it dirt or pavement? How much elevation change does the portage involve?

Having the answers will further help you bring along the right equipment and get a better idea of what’s coming.

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4. Scout the portage

You might not always be able to answer those questions just by looking at the map, however. In that case, scout the portage without the boat before you go through it. Check for fallen trees that you may have to go over or under, as well as any number of natural obstacles. Sometimes, a planned portage route may have an unexpected gate or washed-out trail. It is better to find this out before you go through all the effort of carrying your boat halfway along, only to find the route impossible to pass.

5. Bail water

When you paddle up to the shore, your boat will likely have some water inside. Water is heavier than many people realize, so take a few moments to bail or dump it out. Your muscles will thank you later.

6. Carry your gear

Longer paddling trips may include a few bags’ worth of gear and food. However, keeping that weight inside during the portage makes the boat much heavier and more difficult to lift and maneuver. Instead, a dry-bag with straps that you can wear makes it much easier to move the boat on its own. If your bags are not wearable, on the other hand, consider making two trips to carry your gear and boat separately. Take your packs first, and consider that your scouting trip.

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7. Use portage wheels

For especially long portages, wheels or a cart will be helpful. First, however, make sure you know what kind of terrain lies ahead. A cart with small wheels, for instance, will be almost useless on a rugged trail or sand. On the other hand, if you have a long road portage, wheels may save lots of effort and time.

But, be sure that you know how to secure the boat. In the middle of your trip, it’s not any fun to realize that you need an extra strap in order to keep the boat from sliding around. As well, remember that the portage wheels need to come in the boat with you. So, make sure you have enough carrying capacity and can firmly fasten them.

 

Being able to portage your boat helps you reach those difficult-to-access lakes and waterways, and can mean finding better fishing spots or a quieter campsite. In any case, have fun exploring, and try not to drop the boat on your partner!

 


How to Make a Custom Map

Even in the age of GPS devices and cell phones that can pinpoint your location within feet, nothing is as simple, useful, and trustworthy as a good map. But maps haven’t been immune to the same technological advances that brought us our fancy electronics.

Rather than visiting a store to search through set USGS Quads, atlases, or pre-set maps, today’s adventurers have the ability to customize their own to their exact specifications. The type of map, its details, the trails and points displayed on it, and its area can all be tweaked and adjusted, so that when you head outside, you have the exact combination you need. To make your own, the data is out there, if you can figure out how to put it together.

What are “layers?”

Layers are map sections that can be examined on their own or, through a program, overlaid onto another map to compare and contrast details. For example, when you visit Google Maps, you can choose between street maps, satellite images, and even terrain. By adding traffic conditions or bicycle routes, you’re overlaying one layer on top of another to view even more data.

There are almost too many types of map layers to count, but these are some of the most commonly used ones:

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Google Maps

With 1 billion monthly users, Google Maps is probably the most well-known mapping site. It offers three different layers, including Street, Terrain, and Satellite, and has a few additional ones that can be turned on and off, including bike paths and traffic.

If you are trying to get to or return from the trailhead, Google Maps is definitely the best choice for avoiding the traffic and then finding some food after. However, while it adds some vague trails, other stronger options can help you find your way in the outdoors.

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USGS Topo

Using U.S. Geologic Survey data, the basis for decades’ worth of maps, the USGS topographical map is the most common layer for reading and navigating the outdoors. At a basic level, USGS maps show you roads, dirt roads, and trails, as well as clearings and many other manmade structures. Caltopo.com contains the full USGS map layer, which covers the entire country.

If you plan on traveling off the trail, a USGS or similar topographical map is a must-have for navigation. As you’re outdoors, use the elevation and land features to keep track of your position.

To add to the information you get from the USGS’ basic topo lines, layer in slope shading. Slope shading highlights based on the slope angle, which then shows where hills and mountains get more or less steep and helps you identify cliffs for rock and ice climbing. For backcountry skiers and snowboarders, this feature assists with planning approaches and descents while minimizing avalanche risk.

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Satellite and Aerial Imagery

Satellite images show texture and visual details that most map layers can’t capture. If you plan to check out specific terrain features or vegetation cover, this type assists with examining these facets more closely. Both Google and Bing Maps have satellite imagery, but the latter uses images from late winter or early spring. This combination allows you to see through the canopy and get more detail in the forests than you would from summertime-only images. As a result, you can look at the area around the cliff to identify trails that might not be mapped otherwise—a benefit to rock climbers looking for approach and descent trails.

Bing maps also have bird’s-eye view aerial imagery, and Google Maps offers a 3D function. Both options create more up-close imagery and provide a perspective different from straight satellite views. In the outdoors, bird’s-eye view can be useful for inspecting cliff faces for climbing routes or even looking at new areas in more detail before you make the trip out.

As another asset, Caltopo lets you layer topo maps over a satellite image to see contour lines on top. Doing so might help you make better sense of an otherwise-2D image—for instance, before finding climbing slides in places like the Adirondacks. First, the satellite images allow you to see the slide itself and pick out your route, and then, the topo map adds terrain information and even trails before and after.

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Map Builder Topo

Map Builder Topo is a Caltopo layer that uses USGS contours as a base, but then adds in a huge number of up-to-date trails and other waypoints. This layer is helpful for figuring out the best trails to get to where you want to go.

Caltopo allows you to add lines and waypoints, which can be measured for distance and elevation gain. If you are planning a hike, trail run, or even a paddle and want to know the route statistics, this tool gives you a good start. One fault, however, is it makes no distinction between hiking and biking trails. Thus, if you use it to go exploring with your bike, you might find yourself on gnarly terrain or trespassing on hiking-only trails.

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OSM Bike

The Open Cycle layer uses many of Map Builder’s trails, but softens the contours. Here, color-coded brown and blue indicate hiking and biking trails, respectively. As a result, this tool is essential for developing bike touring and bikepacking routes.

In addition to trails, it also highlights popular roads for cycling, as well as bike paths and lanes. When you want to get off the bike, it indicates important landmarks, such as campgrounds, hotels, hospitals, bike shops, coffee shops, and breweries.

Keep in mind that Open Cycle Map is open source. As such, the cycling community constantly updates it with the latest trail information.

Almost all of the map layers above can be accessed on Caltopo.com, one of the many free online mapping sites. So, before you plan to visit an area, take the time to review each map layer’s specific details. In doing so, you might even find something worth traveling to on its own.

Make Your Map

After you’ve decided on the layers forming your map’s core, you can customize it even further. Caltopo.com allows you to add waypoints, tracks, and more facets, just like you would with GPS software like Garmin BaseCamp.

Then, once you have your map set up with all the data you might want on your hike, paddle, or climb, print it out yourself. Use Rite in the Rain or National Geographic waterproof printer paper for a durable, outdoor-ready map, and then, hit the trails!


(Mini) Van Life: The Ideal Adventure Vehicle?

For those of us that get inspired by the social media accounts of pro athletes and adventurers with seemingly no responsibilities other than keeping their gas tank full to get to the next destination, the idea of van life can seem like a pipe dream. Particularly, in getting past that image, we start to think about those pesky things like jobs, bills, insurance, and everything else that doesn’t fit well into a custom-made white pine compartment next to a deep cycle battery.

The romantic idea of getting work done via coffee shop Wi-Fi, so that you can spend the morning or afternoon playing in the outdoors in some remote corner of the U.S., is both extremely appealing and difficult to realize. As a mechanical engineer, my current job keeps me pretty well tied to my desk, so I have to capitalize on my free time outside of normal working hours. On the bright side, between Friday afternoon and Monday morning every single week, my wife and I have 63 hours of opportunity. 

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Stage One: The Old Standards

Over the past few years, we figured out how to make the most out of a weekend trip. If we had to pay for a hotel every time we went away, we wouldn’t go very often. For a while, we would travel in the most cliché, outdoorsy-couple vehicle you could buy: a Subaru.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our Subaru, but it would require us to either tent camp or cram ourselves into the back with the seats folded down, which left no room for any of our actual gear. Every night and morning required shuffling gear between the front and back seats. Doing this in the winter would also add snow into the equation. The Subaru is great to drive, but not great to sleep in, especially with two full-grown adults, so we needed another option.

The next step was a Ford Ranger, or another small pickup truck. It has a six-foot bed, and if you add a cap, you have a perfect bubble to make a sleeping compartment. The aftermarket is flush with pickup truck campers and all sorts of accessories to turn your truck bed into a five-star hotel, but ours had 220,000 miles on it and was not as reliable as it once was.

We spent quite a few nights sleeping under its drafty and leaky cap, and it worked, but we decided it wasn’t worth spending the money and effort to fully build out into a camper. That put us back at square one, looking for a daily driving replacement that could still moonlight as an adventure camper.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Not What I Had in Mind

I entertained visions of big 4WD lifted vans, with all sorts of custom cabinetry and expedition-ready equipment. But, when I remembered I would have to drive this back and forth to my job every day, I came to my senses and realized the van I wanted was not what I needed. I was looking for a mobile bed with room for gear, not a mobile apartment.

So, I channeled my inner engineer and created an exhaustive spreadsheet that listed all types of automobiles: full-size cargo vans, pickup trucks, wagons, crossovers, SUVs, and even the dreaded minivan. And, once I ran the numbers, my fate was sealed. If I were going to buy the best vehicle to suit our needs, a minivan was it.

Although I was hesitant at first, My wife and I brought home a used Dodge Grand Caravan, and from there, I got a sleeping platform designed and built. About $90 and some sawdust later, we had a car that could transport four people and then convert to sleep two comfortably, without having to do the gear shuffle. With bike racks and a cargo box on the roof, and a set of snow tires for winter, we were ready for four seasons of adventure.

Hitting the Road

After a few short weekend trips, the van’s first real test came when the holiday stars aligned and both my wife and I found ourselves with over a week of free time between Christmas and New Year’s. We quickly decided that, because the East Coast was still a bit warm, we needed to head to Ouray, Colorado, to open up our ice climbing season at the Ouray Ice Park.

We soon realized that the cargo space underneath the bed was truly cavernous, and in addition to our ice climbing equipment, our backcountry ski gear, as well as our cross-country skis and multiple kitchen sinks, fit, as well—all without any extra baggage fees!

After a marathon driving session across the Midwest, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks and to catch a few hours of sleep at a rest stop, we made it to the Colorado border. We ventured through the mountain passes of the front range and down into the snowy San Juans. The combination of snow tires and common sense never left me wishing I had 4WD.

We made it into Ouray in a snowstorm and were soon swinging tools into the farmed ice of Box Canyon. After a few hours of climbing, meeting new people, and running into some people from our climbing gym back in NJ, we headed back to our mobile hotel room to warm up and relax in the local hot springs.

Ouray was a pretty amazing place, and being able to travel there without worrying about renting a cabin or hotel room (all of which were full) made traveling much easier. In fact, we enjoyed the town so much that we decided to stay for an extra day of ice climbing before visiting friends in Breckenridge for New Year’s Eve and backcountry skiing. No hotel reservation? No problem.

Although we were tempted to call in dead to work, and just keep living out of our van indefinitely, the big, ugly “responsibilities” thing loomed over us. We turned back east for another marathon of nonstop, 22 MPG driving and made it home in time to go to sleep and then commute the unpacked van to work the next day.

When all’s said and done, there is no magic wand or silver bullet that lets us live a perfectly balanced life between work and the outdoors. It’s a matter of identifying the opportunities and being flexible enough to take advantage of the time we get between all of the things that happen in our fast-paced lives. However, I am convinced that the minivan has been marketed to the wrong people. Soccer moms can step aside—the minivan is for the adventurer in all of us.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain