How to launch, land, and portage your canoe like a pro

Share This Story!

For new canoeists, flipping your craft is a natural fear. However, according to canoeing expert Kevin Callan, it’s not when you’re in the middle of the lake that you should be worried about—it’s when you’re closest to shore.

“There’s not much chance of you falling in, just as long as you follow basic safety precautions, properly position your weight, and don’t stand up and dance the jig,” says Callan, patron paddler for Paddle Canada. “It’s getting in and out when paddlers usually fall into the water. It’s also when everyone is watching you.”

We spoke to Callan about how to stay high and dry—and embarrassment-free—while landing, launching, and portaging your canoe.

Launch like a pro

Don’t be lured into the false sense of security that a dock offers; it’s actually one of the most difficult places to launch from. “You’re more likely to step into the canoe wrong,” explains Callan.

Launching from shore is the way to go. Rest the stern of your canoe on shore, with the bow in the water. As the stern paddler sits on the stern plate to steady the canoe, the bow paddler enters first. Walking along the centre line, they should stay low and keep their hands on the gunwales. Once they reach the front, they can kneel to keep the canoe balanced. Then, it’s time for the stern paddler to enter. Placing one foot in front of the seat, they push off from the shore with the other foot—all while keeping their weight on the centreline.

However, if you still want to launch from the dock, the same rules (roughly) apply. Make sure you keep your body weight low and centred. “It also helps to have the bow person get in first, since the front of the canoe is much wider and more stable than the stern,” says Callan.

Land like a pro

Using the same form—weight low and centred—will prevent you from flipping when you land your canoe.

Paddle bow-first towards the shore. The bow person then gets out first and stabilizes the canoe for the person in the stern. Alternately, you can land sideways on the shore or dock; one paddler does a low brace while the other gets out.

Regardless of whether you’re landing, launching, portaging, or paddling, the key to canoeing is communication. “Talk through how and where you’re getting in and out of the canoe and who is bracing and who’s getting in and out first,” advises Callan.

Portage like a pro

It might sound counter-intuitive, but portaging is actually a one-man (or woman) job. If both people try to carry the canoe, it can lead to disaster.

“You’ll have huge problems not seeing the trail, tripping on roots and rocks. You’ll become enemies by the end of the trail,” says Callan. In the interests of maintaining relationships, single carry is the way to go.

While it’s possible to lift the canoe solo, Callan suggests using the “two-person lift” procedure. Get your partner to stand near the bow beside the canoe. Position yourself an arm’s length away—roughly between the front seat and the yoke. Grabbing the gunwales, flip the canoe over your heads, making sure the back end of the canoe doesn’t leave the ground. As your partner holds the canoe up, slide backwards and position yourself under the yoke. Once you have control, you’re ready to portage.

Featured photo credit: Benedikt Juerges/

More from Cottage Life: