How to Solo Flip a Canoe for Portaging

When first learning how to flip a canoe get someone that is experienced in portaging to give you a hand. I would recommend a Paddle Canada instructor but that is probably because I am one of those people. Although canoes are not always heavy, some I have carried are in the range of 30-40 pounds (14-18kg) others have been monsters weighing in over 120 pounds, they are very large for their weight and can catch wind and other physical objects. You can easily twist and wrench your back or conk yourself on the head. If you already have back problems get help or don't carry a canoe. An incorrectly flipped canoe can easily be a dropped canoe causing an injury and damaging your canoe. Remember you and your canoe are required at the other end of the portage.

This description is for carrying a standard canoe that has a centre thwart or yoke located at or very near the balance point of the canoe. Practice flipping and portaging a canoe before you go on any trips. When you are first starting get someone to 'spot' you. Be careful canoes are big. Wind is very important since it can grab the canoe and cause a significant amount of damage to you and your equipment (if it is dropped). Only attempt to flip a canoe under calm conditions. Align your canoe so any breeze is blowing across the canoe into your face when you start (use the wind). One last thing to check is your footing. While it is possible to flip a canoe standing on a 6 inch log balanced between a bog and a rock generally it is not worth the effort. Move your canoe to a place with good footing and space enough to swing the canoe.

Don't lift the canoe with your back - I think of the olympic weight lifting event the 'Clean and Jerk'. Cleanly flip the canoe to your thighs then flip it over your head. What ever you do DO NOT LET AN END FALL or BANG ON THE GROUND. When this happens you might damage your canoe but more importantly it is an indication that your technique is poor and/or the canoe is not balanced properly leaving you exposed to an injury. If you do not feel you can flip a canoe without this happening then use a Tipi or lean-to style by leaving one end of the canoe on the ground while you flip the canoe. This method can be done from the front or the back of the canoe. I have found it easier to go from the back with a pack and the front all other times. If you do use a Tipi style lift make sure the end on the ground is braced or stopped against something - it is really scary to have the canoe slide backwards as you are trying to shift into the proper carrying location.

The instructions here assume that the front or bow of the canoe is to your left and the yoke (if you have one) is cut so that you carry the canoe bow first. Flipping a canoe can easily be done from either side or direction it just makes it easier for me to explain if I make these assumptions.

If you are carrying a pack then make sure that it is not adjusted too close to your body and it is not loaded much higher than your shoulders (if at all). Many good hiking packs do not work well when portaging canoes with yokes. The the yoke tends to be in the same place that the pack should be located and the buckles tend to get in the way or make the carry uncomfortable. I find that a traditional canoe pack (Duluth pack) without adjustment buckles on the top of the shoulder straps works the best.

Over the last 30 years I have paddled with people that carry canoes using a wide range of techniques and styles. In the end work out something that you find comfortable and safe.

Steps to Flipping a Canoe
1. Standing beside the centre thwart or yoke roll the top of the canoe away from you and grab the gunwale on either side of the thwart or yoke. Your fingers should be on the inside of the canoe holding the gunwale. Let the bilge rest against your thighs.

Before you start check the wind direction and strength. The wind should be light and blowing into your face (across the canoe). The breeze can give you a little help. If the wind is strong, or not blowing perpendicular to the canoe, get some help. Remember the canoe will act as a big sail; the wind will catch the canoe, it will be difficult to control, easy to drop, and there will be a good chance of injury.

A couple of notes about Yokes:

  • Sculpted yokes must be fitted to you or they get very uncomfortable. I have found the the buckles used on most hikeing packs for adjusting the top of shoulder straps cause problems with sculpted yokes.
  • Gumman type yokes get in the way when fipping a canoe unless you lift the canoe over your head. The long side of these yokes should go forward.
  • Paddles strapped into the canoe have often been used for a yoke. Users using the technique need to be careful when tieing paddles into the canoe. I have found some problems with getting my head between blades on the first few tries.
  • Using a thwart for carrying a canoe is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. It is easy to damage the neck vertebrae, muscles, and nerves. If you are using a straight thwart it should be padded
  • There are a number of people around that use a tumpline attached to the centre thwart and swear that it is the best thing in the world. I keep meaning to try this out since the claims are amazing. There are some very serious potential risks with this method that should also be considered.
  • Some canoes do not have a centre thwart or yoke. Use an alternative portage method.
In this document the term centre thwart and yoke are used interchangeably.
2. Lift the canoe slightly off of the ground. The canoe is then flipped from here to the thigh position. There are several critical motions that happen almost at the same time.
  • Push the canoe quickly with your thighs. Before going any further something to try is just pushing or bouncing the canoe with your thighs without moving your hands. Notice how the canoe starts to rotate up. This is motion that you want. In the end let the canoe continue this rotation until it is facing you.
  • Pull the gunwale toward your stomach (do not lift any higher!). You will need to move your right hand to the centre thwart as the canoe comes up into the thigh position.
  • Bend your knees to lower your body and give the canoe a surface (your thighs) to sit on.
The far side of the canoe should rotate toward you and the bilge or gunwale should 'hop' slightly off of your legs. The next position has the canoe sitting on your thighs and facing you.
3. As the canoe comes around to face you reach out your right hand and grab the centre thwart near the middle. The canoe should be sitting on your thighs facing you.
4. Shift your left hand to the far gunwale infront of the centre thwart by about 6 inches (15cm). The fingers on of your left hand should be on the outside of the canoe. Move your right hand to the gunwale on you thighs. Hold the gunwale as close to your thigh as possible. Your fingers should also be on the outside of the canoe with your palm facing up. Some people find it easier to cradle the canoe with their right arm at this point and the next.

If you think the gunwale is too far away to reach with your left hand then it is likely that the canoe is not rotated far enough towards you. Put the canoe down and start again. If you are really small you might have to use the centre thwart. I don't recommend this since you do not have good control over the bow/stern of the canoe during the flip.

The distance to the gunwale, if the canoe is sitting correctly, is roughly same as the distance from your thighs (your hip joint will work) to the middle of your shoulder joint. In typical adults this distance is 16 to 20 inches (40-50cm). This means that most adults should be able to flip a canoe of 32 to 40 inches (80-101cm) without a problem.

5. The next motion should make any ballet teacher cry. Once again there are a number of motions that have to happen together.
  • Rock the canoe two or three times to get a rolling motion started.
  • Pull your left hand towards you and over your head. This does not have to be a big pull just enough to guide the canoe. Most of the work is spread between your other arm and leg.
  • Push (a little) with your right hand. Some people find it easier to cradle the canoe in their right arm instead of holding the gunwale. I find I have problems with controling the canoe when I do this. This technique is often also used when putting the canoe down.
  • Push up with your right leg (sometimes I switch legs and I don't quite know why). Using your right leg allows you to more esily turn to the left
  • You might find it helpful to bend your left leg even more to lower your body under the canoe. Sometimes this is not possible or necessary.
  • As the canoe goes over turn left to face the bow.

Make sure your head goes infront of the yoke or centre thwart! The idea is not to lift the canoe over your head. The middle of the centre thwart should go above your shoulder but not above your ears - definitely not above your head. You should not have to lower the canoe onto your sholders it should just be there when you are finsished. Think of the canoe rolling over your shoulders instead of being lifted.

6. Catch your balance and your breath you are basically done. Notice at this point my legs are still bent. This is because I have lowered myself under the canoe as it came up over my shoulders.

Most people when first using sculpted yokes place the yoke to far forward on their shoulders - this is really uncomfortable.

7. Shift your hands out infront to help control and balance the canoe. Straighten your legs and go for a walk. When you are portaging I usually suggest that you keep your hands on the inside of the gunwales. This will save your fingers when walking a narrow portage through the bush.

A Note About Balance: you should be able to walk a level straight path without using your hands. Use your paddles, PFD, bailer, throw bag and painters to adjust weight forward/backward and side-to-side. If you look at my canoe you should notice I have two paddles tied into the canoe with a PFD around the front seat. The PFD counter balances the kneeling thwart and throwbag.

Practice flipping your canoe and portaging at home by walking around the neighbourhood. Make sure the balance is OK and yoke works for you. Some people find attaching a rope between the bow and stern (so it hangs about your hand level with your arm down) is helpful. Just pull the rope forward or backward to raise or lower the bow or stern of the canoe. I discourage this practice because the rope is just something else to get caught on trees, shrubs, and snags while walking portages.

A few tricks when walking. Move the canoe to allow altering shoulders to take the weight by shifting the canoe so it is slightly diagonal to the direction you are walking. Instead of putting the canoe down rest it on a tree branch or get someone to hold one end of the canoe up. This last point is also an easy way to switch between people carrying canoes.

8. Putting the canoe down is basically the reverse. Before putting the canoe down note the wind direction; put the canoe down into the wind. Have the wind blowing across the direction you are facing when carrying the canoe and into your face when you are finished.

It is important that the canoe is put down under control for both your safety and the protection of your equipment. Dropping the canoe is just a bad idea.

9. Shift your right and left hands to near the centre thwart on the gunwale. Your fingers should start on the outside of the canoe. Again your left hand should be slightly forward of the centre thwart allowing you to control the bow/stern of the canoe as you put it down. This means that your right hand should be just back of the centre thwart. Just like flipping the canoe up some people find it much easier to cradle the canoe in their right elbow when puting it down - give it a try.
10. Push up a little with the left hand and basically let the canoe roll or slide to your right thigh. Turn your body to face the canoe.
11. When the gunwale comes to rest on your thigh move your right hand and grab the centre thwart near the middle of the canoe. Bend your knees and lean back to balance the weight of the canoe as it continues to roll away from you.
12. Move your left hand to the gunwale next to you with your fingers to the inside of the canoe. Continue to let the canoe roll down your thighs - remember do not pick up the canoe, let your thighs (legs) take the weight.
13. As the canoe rolls to the ground shift your right hand to the gunwale when necessary. Either put the canoe down or roll it over as necessary.

You are done! Have fun and be careful.

Here is a short video that puts everything together from several different angles.

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Last modified: Fri Jul 26 01:36:32 2013