I can hear the laughter from you West Coast boaters all the way across the country in my little western North Carolina home where, by your standards, we probably don’t know squat about hiking with our kayaks. Yes, it’s true. Many of our classic, favored runs are roadside or otherwise easily accessed with minimal lower-half powered effort. But if you find yourself opting out of paddling a particular stretch of river due to that fabled hike out, or you stay in your boat while your buds re-run a rapid, hear me out.
The juice is worth the squeeze, I promise.
Hiking with your boat is an under-practiced, under-emphasized skill. But once you get better at hiking and more comfortable shouldering your boat, you’ll realize hiking into an upper section, or out of a lower section, or back to the start to do another lap will expand the possibilities for river enjoyment immensely.
One of my favorite short but sweet hikes is from the take out of the Green River Narrows up to the last major rapid, which has a stellar eddy line and a big pool to spend hours stern squirting and splatting. I’ve even seen a few people sinking with squirt boats. If I hike up a little farther on the other side of the river, I get access to an excellent Class IV section where I can practice boofing, technical lines, and comfort building on more difficult whitewater without the commitment of the entire section—but it requires a little bit of work.
Whether you’re portaging a rapid you’re not feeling, helping a buddy out by shouldering his boat, or looking for a new way to bite off a section of whitewater, hiking with your boat and gear should be practiced and embraced on the water. Plus, the water always feels better after a little leg work.
Get a good pair of shoes. Kind of a no-brainer, but wear shoes you’re willing to walk in, and if your river kicks don’t fit the bill, pack in a pair that will make hiking more manageable. Sticky rubber and full coverage that still provides flexibility is a must. I’ve long trusted my feet (and knees and ankles!) to Astral’s Brewer but recently swapped to NRS’s comparable Vibe water shoe for some stout riverside hiking on a recent trip to China. Find something that works for you in both wet and dry environments.
The Technique—find what works for you. I prefer to leave all my gear on as it provides a nice buffer between the hard plastic of my boat and my shoulder. Some people like to wear their skirt over their head instead, and still others would rather head or backpack carry the boat. You can easily make a quick ‘portage pad’ with a pool noodle to lessen the harsh feel of the boat on your shoulder.
Start small. I recommend gradually working toward that mile or so hike into that elusive and otherwise appealing run you’ve been eyeing. Start with some more manageable tasks. Lapping rapids is a great way to get more comfortable putting in legwork with your boat and it boasts the added bonus of giving you the chance to try new lines or to stick one that has been eluding you. If you don’t have a local ready-made hiking challenge to work up to, this gives you the chance to research a new river and hopefully take your new-found skill to a new place. Although, I’d practice a little harder before I started searching “hike-in rivers out west.”
I can still feel the hard plastic of my first, shiny new kayak digging into my shoulder bone as I made my first significant portage not long after I had started paddling. It was winter—sharp, biting wind, and a healthy threat of snow—but somehow, I was managing to sweat enough to melt the snowflakes before they landed on me. There was nothing fond about this half-mile hike, as I remember it, but this one—and others like it—set me up for success a few years later as I began to travel to South America for kayaking.
A steep, hot, and dusty hike in to a river gorge with snow-melt flow had me thankful for my many days of embracing a portage or opting to re-run a rapid. My legs quivered like jelly from the steep descent down in the gorge, but my feet were strong and my mind was eager as my effort would eventually reward me with an eight-foot seal launch from a natural bridge in to cold, crystal clear water to begin a sweet section of river with fun, classic whitewater.
Make time. Hiking with a boat and gear is hard, and it’s even harder when you try to do it quickly. If your goal is to work on this skill by lapping a rapid or hiking in to a section, give yourself plenty of time and find a crew that’s willing to savor the moments with you.
Save energy. Instead of dropping and picking up the boat over and over again every time you need a break, a quick and easy way to rest while hiking is to lower the bow of your kayak down in front of you and rest forward on to the boat.
Embrace the process. Prowess with my boat on my shoulder is a skill I’m proud of, and even though it’s not always fun in the moment (we call that ‘Type B’ fun), I love cruising to my destination quickly and being able to turn back and help my students or friends with a tricky portage or access a particularly savory piece of whitewater as a result of my hard work (read: small sacrifice to the River Gods).
Sometimes, the river demands that we’re smooth on our feet as rescue and recovery situations can likely result in lots of unforeseen hiking with heavy kayaks and equipment; the flip side of the coin is that in being willing to work a little bit for our prize, we get to reap the reward of special sections of river, quick sessions with friends, or that greasy line that took the charmed third try to dial.