Make Your Own Portage Pads


Each time that our group would go canoeing in the Boundary Waters, we would look for ways that we could more completely outfit ourselves. Over time, we've gotten to the point that we own nearly everything that we need. Sometimes, the drive toward self-sufficiency was knocked into our thick skulls through bad experiences with the packages with which we were outfitted. We endured trips with tents that lacked a rainfly, missing hatchets or unusable saws, no tarps, meager meals or so little coffee that it became a second form of currency. Little by little, the light went on, and now we're to the point that all we need to pick up from the outfitter is our permit and the occasional rental kevlar canoe. (Oh, and we still borrow a 4-place canoe trailer from a local resort; perhaps building one of those is next.)

One more little nagging item was always needed from the outfitter: portage yoke pads. They were always an afterthought, and seemed like such a trivial item (unless you were on the trip when we forgot to pick some up). They didn't really seem like they should cost all that much to rent but at $2.50 per day per canoe, it starts to add up. The twenty bucks plus tax that we spent on two canoes for each 4-day trip would certainly come in handy for some other items.

So the search was on for a plan for the perfect portage pad. Canoeing message boards and manufacturers' websites turned up some common ideas. Finally, after last summer's trip, I took the time to photograph and measure the pads that we had rented. So, along comes this project which we figure will pay for itself in fewer than two trips.

(I actually got enough materials to make two pairs of pads, but I'll just show what you'll need for one on this page.)

Tools Needed

Drill, bits: 5/8" wood, 5/16" metal
Metal file
Heavy duty staple gun, 9/16" staples

Materials Needed

3/4" green treated plywood 4" x 8"

I was after marine plywood, but my lumberyard guy said there wasn't much difference and he didn't have any anyway. I heard that finishing green treated is a waste of time, so I left it bare.

He gave it to me for nothing, even after cutting the pieces to size... hooray for small towns.

(4) 3" machine screws 1/4 x 20
(4) locking tee nuts
(4) wing nuts
(2) 3/16" steel bar stock 1" x 4"

I thought about the need for some washers but so far it has all worked out just fine without any.

(2) 6" thick foam blocks 6" x 10"

I got this at Mac's. It's the foam used for sofa seat cusions, and is very dense. It's sort of spendy, but seems worth it. Have them cut it for you there; they have a special saw that makes a lot neater cuts than you can do yourself. (Although the lady doing it for me couldn't always follow her own straight line...)

I realized during building that my foam blocks were actually cut to 6" x 9", but it worked out okay.

(2) pieces canvas 14" x 18"

I was originally after some Cordura nylon or heavier canvas, like what's used for Duluth packs, but found a suitable material at the shoe repair shop in town, Turns out, it's actually a "Boot, Shoe, Zipper and Canvas Repair" place. (Hooray again for small towns.) Dan the Shoeman had a yard of boat tarp canvas he could part with that was more than enough to make my two pairs of pad covers. Should be watertight enough so we won't ever be wearing two wet sponges. I really didn't want to use a vinyl.


The Build

Drill two 5/8" holes in the plywood, 3" apart on center.
3 1/4" from one end and 1 3/4" from the other.

Off-setting the holes this way allows the pads to be centered on your shoulders without pulling the yoke so far forward that it digs into the back of your neck. (You'll mount the pad to the canoe yoke with the 3 1/4" end toward the bow.)

Hammer the locking tee nuts into the holes. Their sharp barbs hold into the wood and they're threaded on the inside to accept the screws. 06
Thread the screws in the tee nuts and tighten down. These babies aren't going anywhere. (Which is good, since if they were to loosen, the 'anywhere' is your shoulder.)

It seems like a flat head countersunk into the wood might make sense, but this way we don't create any problems with potential weak spots. (And, if you say you can feel those little bumps, we'll just call you "The Princess and the Pea.")

Drill two 5/16" holes into the steel bar stock 3" on center. Cut a slot from the side of one of the holes to allow wrapping the bar around the canoe yoke without removing the wing nuts. Cut and file out enough only until it just swings freely over the two screws.

This was a fun adventure for me, as I don't have a drill press. I broke down and got a 5/16" cobalt drill bit, and used lots of oil and a bit of patience. It made really nice cuts, and seems like it's still ready to make lots more.

Using aluminum stock could eliminate some of the difficulties in working with ferrous material. I'll have to try that next time.

Center the canvas, foam block, and plywood on a flat surface.

Yes, that's a 6" thick block of foam. Maybe coulda taken that pic from a lower angle, eh?

I considered sandwiching a sheet of plastic between the canvas and foam, but hey, it's boat cover canvas, right?

Press down on the plywood, compressing the foam so that the pad has a total height of around 3 inches.

Notice how the foam curls around and covers the edges of the plywood? This eliminates the need for additional foam pieces that some builders use to protect you from these edges.

Here's where it gets tricky. Actually, I was surprised at how easy it was to press the pad down and wrap the canvas to the height that I wanted. It was trying to make cleanly finished corners that gave me fits.

I started out by folding down the corner at a 45 degree angle before bringing it up and stapling it into place.

After the corners, pull the end pieces up, folding over a small hem while trying to work a nice, neat 'hospital' corner. Staple into place.

Yeah, other plans I've seen just wrapped both sides and then tucked and wrapped the ends... just one pucker to deal with at each corner. If I go into full production, I'll try one that way and let you know how that goes.

I used 9/16" heavy duty staples for the job, as there were often multiple layers of canvas to penetrate and I really didn't plan to portage in a staple gun to perform field repairs on any popped staples.

Continue stapling: corners, ends, sides. Check your work to see that you're keeping things straight and balanced. It's easy to create a lop-sided kidney bean shape if you pull too hard here and allow too much slack there.

Not the prettiest, but certainly will do the job. Hey, go easy one me... it's my first one!

Still has some of that kidney bean look not seen in many of your professionally manufactured portage pads... 14
Slip one of the pad's screws through the hole in the steel bar stock and thread on the two wing nuts. There you have it.

You just swing the bar around the yoke and tighten down the wing nuts until solid.

Happy portaging!