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Canoe Trips

Boundary Waters:

Boundary Waters Campsites

Bois Brule River

Flambeau River

Kickapoo and Mecan Rivers

Sylvania Wilderness

Wisconsin's Flowages

Wolf and Peshtigo Rivers


Boats & Gear

Boundary Waters Gear List

Bell Wildfire (Royalex)

Blackhawk Ariel

Mad River Independence (sold)

Wenonah Prism (sold)
-cane seat installation
-thwart replacement

Custom portage pads

Seat-mounted portage yoke

Outside canoe shelter

Inside canoe storage



Custom Portage Yoke Pads

Many a Boundary Waters tripper is challenged by the rigors of carrying camping and canoeing gear long distances over rough, rocky terrain. The typical portage pack weighs 40-50 pounds and has padded shoulder straps and a waist belt to take some of the weight off the shoulders. The typical canoe weighs 50-75 pounds and is carried directly on the shoulders with only a couple of small pads for cushioning. It's no wonder more and more people are buying and renting ultralight canoes, which tip the scales at 40, 35, and even under 30 pounds.

I don't have any ultralight canoes but I have an innovative streak and a certain intolerance for just toughing things out. On my September 2009 Boundary Waters trip I used a pair of Chosen Valley (CVCA) sling-style portage pads to carry my 50-pound Wenonah Prism. They worked fine for portages up to about 40 rods (200 meters), at which point my shoulders started complaining. At 75 rods (375 m) they began to conspire against me, and finally at 100 rods (500 m) they were in open revolt and I had to put the boat down and give them a rest. The pressure from the weight of the boat itself, together with it being bounced around due to the uneven portage paths, concentrated on a small space, took its toll. Despite their nice design, I vowed never to use those pads again.

I used a Knu-pac portaging frame on my next trip, and it worked fine, but I wanted to have a comfortable (OK, this is all relative) set of pads that I could use with any boat without having to deal with a clunky external frame backpack.

There's really nothing wrong with the CVCA design; in fact, it's quite ingenious. The problem is that it remains flat instead of curving over the shoulders it's supposed to protect. The usual portage pad - a block of vinyl-covered foam - is just plain ugly and I decided I could do better than either one. So I adapted the CVCA pads. Following is the story of that conversion.

I started by removing the nylon cover and padding from the aluminum frames. Using J-B Weld adhesive I glued the frame pieces together and then removed the webbing between the ends of the frames, leaving enough to provide an attachment point for what I was to add. In order to provide enough space for the new slings' curvature, I attached 3/4" thick walnut blocks (left over from a canoe seat frame) to the old sling stubs. I then fashioned new slings from 2-inch wide nylon webbing, holding them together with pop rivets and reinforced wtih heavy nylon thread stitching. This first picture shows the new sling and the wood blocks attached to the CVCA frame.


Here's a detail shot of the attachment. The webbing is stitched to help prevent the screws pulling through the material.


I cut up an old mouse pad and taped the pieces onto one of the new slings, just to see how it would work. With no pressure on the pad, it was fairly straight.


But pulling down on the pad, as would occur when in use, induced the intended curvature. So far, so good.


So I went ahead and made the second one.


I mounted them on my 18-foot, 51-pound Wenonah Sundowner and they were OK, but they put some pressure on my collarbones. I trimmed the pads to remove this pressure, but then the screws were exposed, which was even worse. Realizing that the padding should cover the collarbones completely - and after several failed attempts to use various foam pads on hand - I got something called "densified batting," 2 inches thick. When doubled, this material provided a compressible and resilient cushion.

The next step was to cut the batting, secure it to the sling, and cover it with a durable material. The big question was how to cover a mushy, concave object. After many attempts to visualize a solution, I was about ready to give up on the whole thing when I looked down at my shoes. There, right on my feet, was the answer to the question of how to cover a curved surface with a flat material. Viewing the padded sling as a foot I just needed to figure out how to lace up the shoe. Rather than use eyelets, as on most shoes, I decided to use a curved metal rod that the lacing would wrap around.

Luckily, I was able to use the original CVCA pads' nylon covers. I folded, glued and stitched the ends of the tabs for maximum strength. In the pictures below you can see a curved green rod on each side of the sling, each one passing through three tabs. The rods are pulled together snugly with lightweight cord, just like a shoelace. The tabs on the ends are held onto the wood blocks using brass eyelets and #6 screws. The whole cover assembly compresses the batting enough to make it quite firm, yet not so much as to prevent it from compressing further when in use.


There's a little sideways "slop" in the original sling ends, which is why they appear offset. Everything actually aligns quite well.


With one portage pad "in the can" I went ahead with the second one. Here you can see how the batting was attached to the sling. The thin white pad on top is from the original pad and is fairly stiff, which prevents the pad from feeling mushy.


Here you can see how much the cover compressed the batting.


The metal rods were challenging. I thought of using coat hanger but it didn't seem strong enough. So I used some leftover vinyl-coated garden fence wire, which was hard to work with but very strong. This picture shows the second pad's wires with one loop in each and bent to fit the curvature of the sling..


Here the first wire has been inserted through the tab ends and the second one is awaiting installation. The second loop is closed after the wire is in place.


Both wires are in their new homes and positioned as they will be when the pad is finished.


The completed pads:




I haven't used them yet on a real portage, but a brief test suggests that they will indeed be quite comfortable.



Comments and suggestions welcome. Feel free to e-mail me.
Last updated November 17, 2011
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