Portaging canoe

As summer vacation soon comes to end you might be considering one or two more family camping trips. And if you haven’t taken your kids portaging yet, the end of August is a perfect time to do one before sending them back to school.

What is portaging?

Portaging is a lot like regular camping only you need to work harder to get to your campsite. The Dictionary.com definition of the word portage is to “the carrying of boats, goods, etc., overland from one navigable water to another.” And that’s exactly what it is.

You pack everything and everyone into a canoe, paddle across a body of water to the other side, get everyone and everything out and carry it all, including the canoe, to the next body of water. Rinse and repeat until you find a spot you want to call home for the night or next few days.

If this sounds like fun to you here are five tips to help you stay happy and dry and ensure you have a great time portaging with kids.

Practice portaging beforehand

Practicing beforehand is crucial as it will let you know what you and your family are capable of. Before our first portaging trip as a family we rented a canoe near our home and took the kids down a nearby river. This got them use to balancing in the canoe, paddling and sitting still for a long period of time (a full canoe is no place for fidgety kids). It also helped put any worries they had of being out on the water aside.

Getting your backpacks filled a few days ahead of time and wearing them around the house is also helpful. My pack weighed just over 60lbs and getting used to it enough so that it was comfortable made it much easier to carry when I was in the bush with a canoe over my head. Same goes for the kids, who both had their own stuffed backpacks which were much heavier than they were used to carrying at school.

Don’t bring more than you need

When you car camp you have the luxury of keeping everything stashed inside your vehicle. When you portage, everything is on your back and because you’re going deeper into nature, anything perishable needs to be hung up so that bears and other critters can’t get to it. You also have to make sure everything can fit comfortably into the canoe along with you and your family. This means that you should only pack the essentials.

Besides your food, tent, sleeping bags and clothes (which should be kept to minimal amounts, even for kids), essential items include a map of the area you’re canoeing in, something to cut wood and light a fire with, flashlights, a set of dishes for each person (sporks are great for camping), a pot and a pan, bug spray, cooking stove and fuel, a tarp, rope, knife and a water filtration system. A book and small toy that the kids can occupy their time with is also essential for when you need a break from entertaining them.

Non-essential items like camping chairs, electronic devices, hammocks, pillows, alcohol and dishes you won’t use will just weigh you down and make the portage more work than it needs to be (and could get ruined or lost if the canoe capsizes). Also keep in mind that any garbage you create must be taken back out with you.

Plan all your meals

If you don’t plan your meals you’re going to either bring too much food (see above) or not enough food. Either scenario is not good. Along with planning all your meals ahead of time, preparing food in advance greatly helps when you’re in the middle of nowhere with limited equipment (it will also keep you on a budget).

We made a pot of chili to eat on the first night of our portage and froze it before leaving the house. This helped keep our other food cold and kept our belly’s nice and full after our long trek into the woods. We also pre-sliced a large bar of cheese and vacuumed sealed it into smaller packages (great for snacking on as well as for using on burgers, sandwiches, etc.). We marinated, vacuumed sealed and froze pork loin to eat on the second day and had potatoes and other veggies cut and ready to roast.

It’s also a good idea to bring a small amount of snacks (separate from the rest of your food) that can be eaten throughout the day and during your portage. This will help keep the kids happy and everyone less grumpy.

Prepare for the worst

What happens if your canoe capsizes, it rains all weekend, you cut yourself bad while chopping wood or someone breaks a bone? These are all real concerns (two of which happened to us) and being prepared could save your life.

Bring a first aid kit (another essential item) that includes many different sized band-aids, sanitizer and a suture kit. The tarp I mentioned above should be large enough to keep everyone in your group dry in case of rain. Use large Ziploc bags to pack your clothes (this will keep them from getting wet and also keeps them organized in your backpack). You should also have a poncho or raincoat on hand as well (I forgot to bring one and ended up using a large garbage bag to cover myself with when it rained on us).

A small radio is a good idea in case weather turns bad and you need to know when it will be safe to get back on the water. Having knowledge of bears and their actions (and carrying bear spray) is a good idea (they can be a concern even if you’re not going that far into the bush). Something to quickly filter lake water with, such as the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle, is also super important in order to keep you hydrated (especially if you get stuck or injured).

Another good rule is to let someone back home know what days you are going and exactly where you are going in case you don’t make it out when you’re supposed to.

Don’t do it alone

This is the best advice we were given while planning our portage and we went with another family and two single friends.

Having other people with us, especially other people who didn’t have kids, was a huge help for many reasons. For starters, it made the trip in and out super easy (more people to carry things) and gave us more space in our canoe as things were spread out among three groups. The two single friends helped with meal prep and collected and chopped firewood. It was also nice to have the extra company around the campfire at night so we weren’t just sitting there listening for bears.

Most importantly though is that in the event something truly bad did happen, we would have easily been able to get out of the bush and back to safety having extra people around to help. Having that fear off our minds made the trip a lot more fun and relaxing in the long run.

Have you taken a family portage? Have any other tips or advice on portaging with kids? Share your thoughts in the comments below.