How to Portage a Kayak: Carrying Tips & Solutions

Learn how to portage a kayak with our comprehensive guide on route planning, carrying methods, and essential equipment to have on hand.

How to Portage a Kayak

Sometimes due to tidal fluctuations or other natural barriers, it can be necessary to portage your kayak from one body of water to another. Carrying a kayak long distances can be exhausting, so doing it as efficiently and safely as possible is essential.

We’ll show you how to portage a kayak in the most manageable way. Including how to select a suitable route, the different methods and equipment available, and other tips to make carrying your boat between waterways easier.

Preparing to Portage

Father and son carrying kayak along forest trail

There are a few steps you can take before you actually pick up your kayak and start heading across land. Following these suggestions can make your portage go smoothly, and they don’t require much extra work beforehand.

Plan Your Route in Advance

The more strategizing and planning you can do before you leave your house, the better prepared you’ll be when you arrive at your portage site. Having an accurate, detailed map is essential. 

Go over the portage location with your paddle partners and agree on the most efficient path. Sometimes the shortest distance isn’t always the fastest. Consider changes in elevation and other obstacles like thick forests or large boulders.  

In addition to detailed maps, online sources such as google maps can also provide valuable intel on the area’s characteristics. For example, Hi-res photos can show nasty tidal areas or thick underbrush that are best avoided when portaging.

Scout the Portage

Even if you’re well prepared, it’s best not to head blindly along your proposed passage with your gear and kayaks. Instead, take the time to walk the route first.

You never know how the trail may have changed since the map was created or the last time you walked it. Downed trees, flooding, or other hazards may have made what was once an easy walk unnavigable. Better to find this out when you don’t have a 100-pound kayak in tow. 

Carry Your Kayak Empty

The part of portaging everyone seems to forget. You’re not just carrying your kayaks across the ground, but all your gear too. Kayaking is especially ill-suited for this since most of your equipment is packed into small dry bags that are a hindrance to haul long distances. 

It adds time to your portage, but always carry your kayak empty. You and your carrying partners may be able to transport the kayak with some extra weight aboard, but long carries with that additional weight can damage your boat, causing it to flex or bend in the middle, creating long-term issues. 

How to Portage a Kayak

  1. Be generous with your time estimate. It’ll probably take longer than you think.
  2. If possible, time your portage for the first thing in the morning or before dinner. Odds are you’re going to want a break when you’re done. 
  3. Remove all gear from your kayak(s) and pile it to one side. Keep your equipment as organized as possible, even if it means bringing extra bags for deck accessories and other items.
  4. Divide carrying responsibilities between the group. Make sure that no one is stuck with the heaviest items for the entire portage.
  5. Use as many people as necessary to portage the kayaks. Four-person carries may take longer, but it will minimize how fast everyone tires.
  6. Take your time. Whoever is carrying the front of the kayak should go slower than they feel necessary. They can see where their feet are landing, but the people behind won’t since the kayak is in the way.
  7. Take frequent breaks and communicate. Ask for a rest before you need one. This gives you time to find a suitable place to set your kayak down gently. 
  8. It doesn’t matter if you carry gear first, kayaks first, or mix and match. But if you’re traveling in bear country, ensure your food is never left unattended. Keep it in bear canisters, or hang it from a tree if you need to leave it behind.

Equipment that Can Make Portaging Easier

If portaging is a regular part of your kayaking adventures, having a dedicated tool to simplify the process can be valuable. Here are a few items that can make portaging less stressful on your body and mind. 

Kayak Yoke

kayak yoke allows you to comfortably carry your kayak overhead. Horizontal slats can be secured to the outer combing of the kayak’s cockpit while the vertical struts rest on your shoulders. Make sure you use one that is well padded to minimize the stress on your shoulders as you walk.

These yokes are best for sit-in kayaks so that the slats can be secured to the combing. It’s also easier to carry shorter kayaks overhead as their weight is more centered with less shifting in front or behind you. 

Kayak Cart

A simple setup that removes all of the heavy lifting, kayak carts are usually made of two wheels and a sling that your kayak rests in. By holding the bow of your boat, you can easily transport your boat long distances. Since the same stresses aren’t being placed on your kayak, you can also leave some of your gear inside for the portage. 

While carts are suitable for long and short kayaks of all designs, they can struggle in a few areas. The biggest is when you’re moving through the wilderness or poorly maintained locations. Even heavy-duty carts with big wheels will have difficulty moving over large boulders and tree roots. 

They also don’t break down well and, in many cases, must be secured to the kayak’s deck while paddling. For short trips, this may not matter, but for more extended touring expeditions, there’s probably better use for your space than an extra pair of wheels. 

If your portaging route is well maintained, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a cart. But the additional space and difficulty on rough ground can outweigh the benefits for big touring trips in the middle of nowhere.

Kayak Carrying Shoulder Strap

A shoulder strap allows you to let your kayak hang on one side, transferring the weight to your shoulder. Straps do an excellent job of keeping a kayak’s center of gravity balanced and stopping you from tipping forward or backward under the load. 

Straps are much easier to carry into the backcountry than a cart or yoke. Still, you must completely empty your kayak before beginning your portage. Deeper kayaks with sharp chines may feel uncomfortable to carry with a shoulder strap, but for solo kayaking where a cart or yoke is impractical, a strap is a cheap and easy solution to your portaging needs. 

Additional Portaging Tips

woman preparing to enter river with her kayak

Everyone’s portaging strategy will be a little different depending on group number, personal strength, type of kayak, and the distance that needs to be covered. But there are a few additional tips that apply in most situations. 

Never Drag Your Kayak

It doesn’t matter what it’s made of; long drags, especially over rough ground, is a great way to damage your kayak. While plastic boats can be moved short distances, they, too, should be carried for any substantial portage. Failing to do so will leave deep nicks and grooves in your hull, diminishing your kayak’s speed and overall performance.

Lighter is Better

In the kayaking and camping world, lighter is always better. Lightweight tents, cooking gear, and other items can make those long walks much more straightforward. If you have the choice, try to go with equipment that doesn’t weigh as much. 

Of course, lighter also tends to be more expensive. So you’ll have to decide how much of a trade-off you’re willing to make in this department. If most of your kayaking trips don’t involve portages, you’re probably ok going with some heavier gear if it means saving a little money. But if many portages are in your future, the investment is more than worth it.

You may also want to consider investing in a lightweight kayak if you frequently make a lot of portages.

Install Handles if Your Kayak Doesn’t Have Any

Most kayaks come with handles built into the bow and stern to make carrying your kayak easier and safer. If your kayak didn’t come with handles, make sure you install a couple. This can usually be done pretty simply with a drill, but always be careful when drilling holes in your precious boat.

I prefer the t-shaped handles with ergonomic padding over the less flexible plastic ones. They may be a little more expensive but are much more forgiving on your hands for longer carries. 

Bring Some Extra Large Bags

Preferably these will be backpacks and allow you to decant all your little dry bags into one big, easier-to-carry bundle. If you’ll be portaging in a rainy environment, you can even go a step further and get a couple of large drybag-style backpacks, allowing you to carry your gear on your back while portaging your kayak.