Lifting Canoes

Canoes these days are pretty light! My usual rental is a Swift Algonquin canoe, which weighs the same as two sacks of potatoes. That's not too bad! They do get a little bit lighter if you are willing to spend more; some canoes weigh as little as 35 pounds. They get a lot heavier too; an aluminium canoe weighs about twice that.

You can lift a canoe solo, but getting it on a car by yourself is not easy. You'll be in danger of damaging the roof of your car or the canoe. Ask someone for some quick help, I do! I honestly don't think I can do it alone without scratching my roof. I think I'd try placing some thick sheet to protect it if I had to.

By Unknown or not provided [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lifting a Canoe on to Your Shoulders

You should have some padding between yourself and the canoe's yoke (the curved cross bar) or its going to start digging into your shoulders like an angry falcon halfway through your portage. A lot of people use their PFD, they provide pretty good padding.

When I'm picking up a canoe, I like to stand alongside it and lift it up by the yoke on my thigh to start.

With one hand on the yoke, I reach over to the farthest gunwale and just lift the thing up above and on to my shoulders in one quick motion.

Here's a video to illustrate. I'm not the guy in the video, but he does a pretty good job of illustrating!

Putting a Canoe on Your Car

When I went on my first solo trip, my biggest worry was getting the canoe on my car. I already knew I could portage between lakes and navigate, I was mostly worried that I wouldn't secure the canoe on my car and it would fly off. What I didn't really consider was how tricky it can be to get the canoe on there in the first place without smashing the roof of your car!

I tried for a bit on my own. I had already lifted canoes enough to have no trouble with that part, but with the canoe on my shoulders I realized that I had no idea what the next step was going to be. I knew I had to get it on the car roughly in the middle, but I can't hold the canoe on one side! I asked someone for help, and we had it up there in a few seconds. Do the same, get help!

If you don't have a roof rack, canoe rental stores will have these foam blocks you can buy for about $5 that fit around the gunwales (the outer rim that you grab) of the canoe and will cushion the canoe against your roof. Put two in the front, two in the back, and you'll be good to go.

After you get the canoe up there, position it so that it's stable (doesn't rock like a see-saw), roughly in the middle. Then you tie down the front, back, and the body with a rope over the canoe to keep it straight and keep it down.

I've made a diagram below that illustrates the movement you have to protect against. Here's the same in list form, too:

  • The canoe shouldn't bounce off the roof if you hit a nasty bump. Try to move it up from the front and back to make sure it's secure.
  • It shouldn't slide in any direction because of the wind or because you suddenly brake. Give the canoe a good shove from all four directions to make sure you secured it.
  • The canoe shouldn't rotate. If you've done a good job securing it against sliding, it should be secure against rotation too. Give it a good shove from the side, but at the back and front to make sure it doesn't want to move.

At a minimum you should need 3 ropes or other fasteners. One that goes over the canoe in the middle and keeps it pressed firmly against the roof, one that pulls it forward towards the front of the car, and another that pulls it firmly towards the back of the car. These should all be quite tight, and the canoe should be pretty much immobile even if an angry bear slashes at it. Pretend to be an angry bear and give it a few pushes.

Photo credit: Christopher Ziemnowicz
Photo credit: Christopher Ziemnowicz

Walking with a Canoe (Portaging)

Mosquitoes are going to make your life very unpleasant while you are portaging, depending on the season. There is nothing quite like being overburdened, sweaty, tired, and also having your face being eaten alive by bugs. You can't do anything about it at the time either, because you'll lose your balance and drop your canoe! Bug nets help, and a lot of people love bug sprays. You are much better off going at a smarter time of year, though!