Thoughts on Carrying a Canoe with a Tumpline

I have come across a number of articles and forums over the last several years expounding on the virtues of using a tumpline to carry a canoe. I have used a tumpline for portaging packs for years and have only recently tried using a tumpline on a canoe without much success. Before doing any more portaging I thought I would do some more background reading since I had problems getting the weight and transfer correct. The articles, mostly Internet sites, that I have found that expound on the use of tumplines for carring canoes either base their argument on somewhat questionable 'traditional' ways and/or reference the use of tumplines for carrying loads like wanagans, furs, packs, olive barrels, etc.... These sites make some astounding assertations that suggest there is no better way to carry a canoe - it all sounds too good to be true. I expect that when setup correctly a tump can be successfully used for carrying a canoe but I would suggest anyone thinking of trying out this technique should start with some scepticism and care.

Bill Mason in Path of the Paddle had the most balanced comments I have found about portaging a canoe with a tumpline "... and a tumpline installed to take some of the weight off your shoulders is the most comfortable arrangement. However, the tumpline must be adjusted perfectly or it's agony. It's an all or nothing arrangement. If done properly, it distributes the .... weight over your entire body. When your head and neck become tired, you lower the weight onto your shoulders. When they get tired, you slip the tumpline back on and so on." His comments seemed to be balanced with recognition of the both the limitations and strengths of the technique.

It is important to note that most of the literature dealing with the use of tumplines looked at individuals that carry dense relatively stable loads. The loads are carried in a slightly bent forward stance with the tumpline over the top of the head or forehead (above the hairline) with the weight also distributed over the back and shoulders. None of the scientific literature deals with carrying a long load with the weight straight down through the neck and spine using a tumpline. With that in mind there are a number of articles that discuss carrying weight straight on top of the head which, at least with regard to weight and carriage, is analogous to the canoe techniques.

With the exception of one site, the use of tumplines for carrying canoes shows or describes the tumpline over the top of the head with an upright stance and the weight carried directly down the spine. This form of carrying has been associated with the development of chronic neck injuries. The distinction between how the load is carried is important; in traditional tumpline use the weight is distributed over more than just the neck. It turns out that much of the load is supported and stabilized not only by the spine but by the muscles in the neck, shoulders, and back.

The stability of the load in more traditional tumpline use also appears to be important - loads are [relatively] stable and compact (dense). A canoe is very long and subject to torque from wind shear, running into trees, etc... The neck is not setup to deal with lateral and torsional forces when under load. Because of the extreme length of a canoe a small twisting force at the ends (e.g. breeze) can translate to significant torque at the carrying point. Some sources claim that a canoe tump makes dealing with the forces easier - how is my question.

The use of tumplines requires practise and time to build up both strength and technique. A tumpline should not be used intermittently without practise and training - placing significant forces on your neck without appropriate practise and training is asking for an injury.

I will not condemn the use of a tumpline for carrying bulky goods over portages but I am hesitant to encourage the use of tumplines for carrying canoes with out practise and careful consideration with regard to the potential risks. Traditional does not always mean safer/better.

Sites and Articles of Interest - do some reading, make your own choice but do so carefully and thoughtfully.

The following websites provide some background and demonstrations of using a tumpline to carry a canoe. Review the sites but be careful to separate out the discussions of using a tump for carrying pack loads and those for carrying a canoe.

Not all of the following articles deal with the use of a tumpline but they provide some thoughtful discussion on forces and consequences of loads placed on the head and neck.
Bridges PS. Vertebral arthritis and physical activities in the prehistoric southeastern United States. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1994 Jan;93(1):83-93. PubMed PMID: 8141244.
Cassidy, Delaney, Emma Healey, Kimberlee Kocienski, Ben Pulver, Improved Backpacking Load Carriage System, Project submitted to the Faculty of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in partial fulfillment of requirements for the Degree of Bachelor Science, March 22, 2017.
Craig, Cal. Tumpline Canoe Carry. Popular Mechanics, June 1952. pp 183-184
Datta Sr, Ramanathan NL. Ergonomic comparison of seven modes of carrying loads on the horizontal plane (1971) Ergonomics, 14 (2) , pp. 269-278.
Geere JA, Hunter PR, Jagals P. Domestic water carrying and its implications for health: a review and mixed methods pilot study in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Environ Health. 2010 Aug 26;9:52. Review. PubMed PMID: 20796292; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2939590.
Gerszten PC, Gerszten E, Allison MJ. Diseases of the spine in South American mummies. Neurosurgery. 2001 Jan;48(1):208-13. PubMed PMID: 11152349.
Hamalainen O. Flight helmet weight, +Gz forces, and neck muscle strain (1993) Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine, 64 (1) , pp. 55-57.
Heglund NC, Willems PA, Penta M, Cavagna GA. Energy-saving gait mechanics with head-supported loads. Nature. 1995 May 4;375(6526):52-4. PubMed PMID: 7723841.
Hoque MF, Hasan Z, Razzak AT, Helal SU. Cervical spinal cord injury due to fall while carrying heavy load on head: a problem in Bangladesh. Spinal Cord. 2011 Dec 6. doi: 10.1038/sc.2011.153. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 22143680.
Jacobson, Cliff. Expedition Canoeing: A Guide to Canoeing Wild Rivers in North America. Globe Pequot, 2005, pp56-57.
Jumah KB, Nyame PK. Relationship between load carrying on the head and cervical spondylosis in Ghanaians. West Afr J Med. 1994 Jul-Sep;13(3):181-2. PubMed PMID: 7841112.
Kaneda E., Yamauchi M., Ohwatari N., Lee J.-B., Kosaka M. Haulage methods in different areas of Nepal and the health condition of the porters in Kathmandu (1999) Tropical Medicine, 41 (1) , pp. 55-64.
Lloyd R, Parr B, Davies S, Cooke C. A kinetic comparison of back-loading and head-loading in Xhosa women. Ergonomics. 2011 Apr;54(4):380-91. PubMed PMID: 21491280.
Lloyd R, Parr B, Davies S, Cooke C. Subjective perceptions of load carriage on the head and back in Xhosa women. Appl Ergon. 2010 Jul;41(4):522-9. PubMed PMID: 19926071.
Lloyd R, Parr B, Davies S, Partridge T, Cooke C. A comparison of the physiological consequences of head-loading and back-loading for African and European women. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Jul;109(4):607-16. Epub 2010 Feb 26. PubMed PMID: 20186424.
Malville NJ, Byrnes WC, Lim HA, Basnyat R. Commercial porters of eastern Nepal: health status, physical work capacity, and energy expenditure. Am J Hum Biol. 2001 Jan-Feb;13(1):44-56. PubMed PMID: 11466966.
Mason, Bill. Path of the Paddle. Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd. 1980. pp 168-169.
Merbs CF, Euler RC. Atlanto-occipital fusion and spondylolisthesis in an Anasazi skeleton from Bright Angel Ruin, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1985 Aug;67(4):381-91. PubMed PMID: 4061591.
Mcgill S.M., Mcdermott A., Fenwick C.M.J. Comparison of different strongman events: Trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23 (4) , pp. 1148-1161.
Newman D.G., Ostler D. The geometry of high angle of attack maneuvers and the implications for G y -induced neck injuries (2011) Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine, 82 (8) , pp. 819-824.
Sokiranski R, Pirsig W, Richter HP, Lösch S, Struck U, Nerlich AG. Unique paleopathology in a pre-Columbian mummy remnant from Southern Peru--severe cervical rotation trauma with subluxation of the axis as cause of death. Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2011 Mar;153(3):609-16. Epub 2010 Oct 24. Erratum in: Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2012 Feb;154(2):379. Lösch, Sandra [added]; Struck, Ulrich [added].. PubMed PMID: 20972881.
Weber J, Czarnetzki A, Spring A. Paleopathological features of the cervical spine in the early middle ages: natural history of degenerative diseases. Neurosurgery. 2003 Dec;53(6):1418-23; discussion 1423-4. PubMed PMID: 14633309.
Weber J, Czarnetzki A. [Paleopathology of the lumbar spine in the early medieval period]. Z Orthop Ihre Grenzgeb. 2002 Nov-Dec;140(6):637-43. German. PubMed PMID: 12476387.

Final Note

You should not infer from this writeup that other methods of portaging a canoe do not have risks - they do. No matter what method you take for lugging your boat around spend some time to practice, learn the proper techniques, and train before doing those solo trips.

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Last modified: Thu Mar 14 16:51:49 2013