The thought of tossing a 16-foot canoe over your head and down onto the base of your neck can be intimidating—until you’ve been schooled in the finer technical points of the one-person canoe lift. As impressive as it looks, the weight of the canoe is easily managed by most canoeists. The secret is to position yourself properly, let your legs do the heavy lifting and be sure to keep good time when you rock and roll the canoe onto your shoulders.

Solo Canoe Lift Technique

1 Grasp the near gunwale

Find an area with no obstructions, stand at the center of the canoe and grasp the closest gunwale with your hands about shoulder-width apart.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Situate yourself in an open area and grasp the near gunwale at the center.

2 Slide the canoe up your legs

Bend your knees and slide the canoe up your legs so it is resting on your thighs.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Use your legs as a base to lift the canoe.

3 Rock the boat, grab the far gunwale

Begin a gentle rocking motion to build momentum and establish your timing. When ready, use the leg closest to the bow to heave the canoe up so you can grab the far gunwale with your hand closest to the bow. You are now holding the canoe with your bow-side hand on the far gunwale and the stern-side hand on the near gunwale. The canoe’s weight is supported by your bow-side leg.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Rock the boat back and forth to get some momentum, then use your leg to lift and grab the far gunwale.

[ Paddling Buyer’s Guide: View all canoes ]

4 Use your leg to lift the canoe

Initiate another rocking motion using the strong muscles of your bow-side leg. Pick your moment and with a lift from your leg flip the canoe above your head so it follows an arc guided by your bow-side arm.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Use your leg again to lift the canoe and flip it over your head.

5 Settle the yoke on your shoulders

Duck your head forward slightly as the gunwale and yoke finish the roll. Settle the yoke down on your shoulders.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Settle the yoke on your shoulders.

6 Align your body to the boat

As you are swinging the canoe over your head you should be rotating your stance so you finish with your body facing the bow.

man demonstrates solo canoe lift technique
Rotate your stance so your body is aligned to the boat.

With a quick hop to help lift the canoe off your head you can reverse these steps to unload the canoe. And though you will be tempted to let other paddlers continue in the belief that this is a strenuous maneuver, pass on the tip of using the bow-side leg to propel the canoe upward and you’ll find you soon have other people offering to share the portaging load.

Paddling Magazine Issue 65 | Fall 2021

This article appeared in Canoeroots & Family Camping, Early Summer 2009 and in Paddling Magazine Issue 65. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or download the Paddling Magazine app and browse the digital archives here.



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