5 tips for portaging with kids

Algonquin Park portage

A family portage can be a lot of fun if you prepare for it properly.

We’re in the middle of summer vacation and if your family is as adventurous as mine, you might be considering portaging together over the next couple of months.

What is portaging, you ask?

Portaging is a lot like regular camping only you need to work harder to get to your campsite. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word portage is to “carry a boat or its cargo between navigable waters.” And that’s exactly what it is. You pack everything and everyone into a canoe, paddle across a body of water to the other side, get everyone and thing out and carry it all, including the canoe, to the next body of water. Rinse and repeat until you find a spot you want to call home for the night or next few days.

If this sounds fun to you (and you’ve never done it before with kids) here are five tips to help you stay happy and dry and ensure you have a great time.

1. Practice beforehand

Practicing beforehand is crucial as it will let you know what you and your family are capable of. Before our recent portage to Ralph Bice Lake in Algonquin Park, we rented a canoe near our home and took the kids down a nearby river. This got them use to balancing in the canoe, paddling and sitting still for a long period of time (a full canoe is no place for fidgety kids). It also helped put any worries they had of being out on the water aside.

Algonquin Park portaging

Practicing ahead of time helps when you’re in the bush with a canoe on your head and a 60 lb pack on your back.

Getting your backpacks filled a few days ahead of time and wearing them around the house is also helpful. My pack weighed just over 60 lbs and getting used to it enough so that it was comfortable made it much easier to carry when I was in the bush with a canoe over my head. Same goes for the kids, who both had their own stuffed backpacks which were much heavier than when they wore them to school.

2. Don’t bring more than you need

When you camp with a car you have the luxury of keeping everything stashed inside said car. When you portage everything is on your back and because you’re going deeper into nature, anything perishable needs to be hung up so that bears and other critters can’t get to it. You also have to make sure everything can fit comfortably into the canoe along with you and your family. This means that you should only pack the essentials.

Besides your food, tent, sleeping bags and clothes (which should be kept to minimal amounts, even for kids), essential items include a map of the area you’re canoeing in, something to cut wood with and light a fire with, flashlights, a set of dishes for each person (sporks are great for camping), a pot and a pan, bug spray, cooking stove and fuel, a tarp, rope, knife and a water filtration system. A book and small toy that the kids can occupy their time with is also essential for when you need a break from entertaining them.

Algonquin Park portage

My kids loved the portaging experience and can’t wait to do it again.

Non-essential items like camping chairs, electronic devices, hammocks, pillows, alcohol and dishes you won’t use will just weigh you down and make the portage more work than it needs to be (and could get ruined or lost if the canoe capsizes). Also keep in mind that any garbage you create must be taken back out with you.

3. Plan all your meals

If you don’t plan your meals you’re going to either bring too much food (see tip #2) or not enough food. Either scenario is not good. Along with planning all your meals ahead of time, preparing food in advance greatly helps when you’re in the middle of nowhere with limited equipment (it will also keep you on a budget).

We made a pot of chili to eat on the first night of our portage and froze it before leaving the house. This helped keep our other food cold and kept our belly’s nice and full after our long trek into the woods. We also pre-sliced a large bar of cheese and vacuumed sealed it into smaller packages (great for snacking on as well as for using on burgers, sandwiches, etc.). We marinated, vacuumed sealed and froze pork loin to eat on the second day and had potatoes and other veggies cut and ready to roast.

It’s also a good idea to bring a small amount of snacks (separate from the rest of your food) that can be eaten throughout the day and during your portage. This will help keep the kids happy and everyone less grumpy.

4. Prepare for the worst

What happens if your canoe capsizes, it rains all weekend, you cut yourself bad while chopping wood or someone breaks a bone? These are all real concerns (two of which happened to us) and being prepared could save your life.

Bring a first aid kit (another essential item) that includes many different size band-aids, sanitizer and a suture kit. The tarp I mentioned in tip #2 should be large enough to keep everyone in your group dry in case of rain. Use Ziploc bags to pack your clothes (this will keep them from getting wet and also keeps them organized in your backpack). You should also have a poncho or raincoat on hand as well (I didn’t and ended up using a large garbage bag as one).

Ralph Bice Lake, Algonquin Park

Ralph Bice Lake was beautiful when it wasn’t raining.

A small radio is a good idea in case weather turns bad and you need to know when it will be safe to get back on the water. Having knowledge of bears and their actions (and carrying bear spray) is a good idea, even if you’re not going that far into the bush. Something to quickly filter lake water with, such as the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle, is also super important in order to keep you hydrated (especially if you get stuck or injured).

Another good rule is to let someone back home know what days you are going and where you are exactly going in case you don’t make it out when you’re supposed to.

5. Don’t do it alone

This is the best advice we were given while planning our recent portage and we went with another family and two single friends.

Having other people with us, especially other people who didn’t have kids, was a huge help for many reasons. For starters, it made the trip in and out super easy (more people to carry things) and gave us more space in our canoe as things were spread out among three groups. The two single friends helped with meal prep, collected and chopped firewood and kept the kids occupied when we were in charge of meals and the fire. It was also nice to have the extra company around the campfire at night so we weren’t just sitting there listening for bears.

Most importantly, though, in the event that something truly bad did happen, we would have been able to get out of the bush and back to safety having extra people around to help. Having that fear off our minds made the trip a lot more fun and relaxing in the long run.

Have you gone a portage with your family or plan to this summer? Share your tips and thoughts in the comments below or at facebook.com/bamcatBuzz.

5 thoughts on “5 tips for portaging with kids

  1. Thanks Jennifer! Portaging is a lot of work but it’s also very fun! The whole family needs to be on board though (kids included) or it just won’t work.

    Great job with the #SHINEbloghop! Always find good posts to read on it even when I’m not sharing myself.

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