Four Tips to Carry Heavy Canoe Pack Loads Lightly

By Bill Ostrom

Let’s face it…canoe packs and barrels can be heavy. But that’s no reason you can’t enjoy portaging and getting deep into the wilderness.

Can you eliminate the weight in your pack? No, sadly you cannot! But you’ll be happy to hear that you can load and adjust your pack to carry weight more efficiently, so it actually feels lighter!

Let’s dig into a bit of the science to understand what you can do to enjoy portaging more.

A Quick Intro to “Load Carriage” Science

To be right upfront with you…I’m a gear freak. I use it, design it and am always testing and evaluating gear. My dad got me out canoe tripping as a kid, and I feel my life is not complete without paddling and a long canoe trip each summer. At least one!

My love for designing canoe packs started in 1987. Then working with Queen’s University and the Canadian Armed Forces in the mid-1990s expanded my knowledge of “load control” and “load carriage,” i.e. strategies and designs that increase comfort and safety when carrying a heavy load.

Your goal is “load transfer”…”

Your goal is “load transfer” – getting the weight of your pack close to your body. Specifically, transferring the weight from your shoulder straps to your shoulders and down your spine to your hips. Your hip belt also transfers weight directly to your legs.

In general, an internal frame canoe pack will have better load control than a soft pack. And a pack that fits you well will have better weight transfer.

Here are 4 easy tips to make any canoe pack or barrel feel lighter on the portage, regardless of what type of pack you have.

#1 Pack Your Canoe Pack for Better Load Control

How you pack your canoe pack is the single most important step in load control. Your goal is to get heavier gear closer to your back and higher in your pack.

Here’s how you do that. Divide your pack into three equal load zones. In Diagram 1, you see the three load zones. In Diagram 2 you see how to load gear according to weight (as much as possible).

So…what goes where?

It is important to build a platform in the bottom zone of the pack using light- and medium-weight gear. In general, light- and medium-weight things like your sleeping pad, light clothing, tent (no poles or pegs) and sleeping bag go in the bottom, yellow zone of the pack. 

“Consider using compression sacs…”

Consider using compression sacs for all your soft, bulky gear, and packing gear into smaller parcels. (We even stuff our tent into a compression sac.) Avoiding large bulky items gives you more flexibility in loading your pack and controlling weight placement.

Your heaviest, most dense items go in the zone closest to your back (blue zone). For example, liquids, fuel, stove, tarp, tent poles, repair kit, first aid kit, or wet gear.

For the “light” zone farthest from your back – pack your lightest, least dense gear. For example, sleeping pad, crocs, fleece, toilet paper, and kitchen utensils.

“…same packing principles work for your canoe food barrel.”

The same packing principles work for your canoe food barrel. Create a layer of food on the bottom, e.g. dehydrated suppers. Then pack the heavy, dense cheese, salami, and liquids closest to your back. Then light bagels and rye crisp farthest from your back.

Experiment with this strategy of loading your canoe pack and pay attention to how you feel. Read further for three more important tips for a comfortable portage.

The Science of Centre of Gravity (CoG)

So, let’s take a step back and talk about what we mean by CoG, and why it’s important for a comfortable portage.

With reference to the human body, COG is measured (this is a very simplified description) by having a person stand, hands down their sides, in socks or bare feet.

Science has determined that a person’s theoretical CoG is near the belly button, halfway between the lower back and belly. This can vary slightly depending on things like gender or body shape. 

“…CoG is your balance point…”

Why is our personal CoG important? Consider that CoG is your balance point, your equilibrium point. It is where your mass is concentrated. It is also a fulcrum point.

A fulcrum point is defined as a pivot point or where a lever turns. For our use, the fulcrum point is our waist area.

It is also your CoG and where you place your pack’s hip belt. For good load control, all weight from your pack needs to be transferred to your shoulders, down your spine and to this fulcrum point, i.e. your hip belt onto your legs.

The CoG in Your Pack Matters!

CoG is a big deal for portaging. Loading your pack as described above is all about getting your canoe pack’s CoG as close to your back as possible.

The further away your canoe pack’s CoG is from your back the more energy you use to transfer it to your back. Put simply, you will feel less comfortable and more tired if your pack’s CoG is further away from your back.

#2 Compression is Key to Load Control

If your canoe pack has compression straps – put them to good use!

A smaller, more compact load will make your portage more efficient and comfortable!

WHY? A larger, bulkier load will be further from your back. The further the load is from your back the more energy you use to pull the weight forward.

As mentioned previously, one important way to compress your load is to use compression sacs to compress soft gear like clothes, sleeping bags etc.

It is also critical that you tighten all the compression straps on your pack. Be aggressive, smaller is better!

#3 Use Your Canoe Pack’s Load Lifter & Stabilizer Straps

Check out your canoe pack or barrel harness…do you have load lifter straps on the shoulder straps? How about hip belt stabilizer straps?

The yellow straps on the shoulder straps in Diagram 4 are called load lifter straps. They are attached to your shoulder straps and are threaded through two buckles attached directly to your pack.

Pay attention when you tighten these. As you tighten, notice how the weight of your canoe pack transfers to your shoulders, down your spine to your hip belt. This is load control! – getting your pack’s weight closer to your body’s CoG.

The hip belt has three adjustments that can help with load transfer, i.e., the centre buckle and the two hip belt stabilizer straps. By tightening all three straps you are transferring weight from your pack to your hips.

The chest strap (sternum strap) can be adjusted both horizontally and vertically. This strap helps with personal comfort and to stabilize the pack on your body.

#4 Got a Tump?

We’ve all seen photos from Asia, South America and Africa of people carrying heavy loads on their heads. Directly down the spine to their CoG!

Closer to home, Voyageurs carried a standard load of two fur bales of 180 lbs using only a tump. A press was screwed down compressing the fur bales into more compact loads. Sound familiar?

“…human body is perfectly constructed to carry heavy loads…”

The human body is perfectly constructed to carry heavy loads directly on the head, transferring weight down our impressive spine to our hips and legs, our strongest limbs. Very efficient!

So, common sense needs to be used here… I am not suggesting that we carry our canoe packs on our heads. Nor am I suggesting that we eliminate shoulder straps and hip belts and use a tump only.

But we can look to the research and science behind those cultures and use it to our advantage on a portage. It might simply be using a tump more frequently when carrying heavy loads over longer portages.

Be aware of your limits, many of us no longer have the neck muscles of the Voyageurs. But it can be used as a tool.

Feeling Better About Portaging?

Portages can help you truly get away from it all on a canoe trip. Follow these tips for a more comfortable carry so you can enjoy all that a portage has to offer.

If you’re still struggling with a heavy load, reach out and I can see if I can help.

Bill Ostrom

Canoe Pack Designer, Ostrom Outdoors

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