Over time, important portages were sometimes provided with canals with locks, and even portage railways. Primitive portaging generally involves carrying the vessel and its contents across the portage in multiple trips. Small canoes can be portaged by carrying them inverted over one's shoulders and the center strut may be designed in the style of a yoke to facilitate this. Historically, voyageurs often employed tump lines on their heads to carry loads on their backs.
Portages can be many kilometers in length, such as the 19-kilometre (12 mi) Methye Portage and the 8.5-mile (13.7 km) Grand Portage (both in North America) often covering hilly or difficult terrain. Some portages involve very little elevation change, such as the very short Mavis Grind in Shetland, which crosses an isthmus.
Portage trails usually began as animal tracks and were improved by tramping or blazing. In a few places iron-plated wooden rails were laid to take a handcart. Heavily used routes sometimes evolved into roads when sledges, rollers or oxen were used, as at Methye Portage. Sometimes railways (Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad) or canals were built.
When going downstream through rapids an experienced voyageur called the guide would inspect the rapids and choose between the heavy work of a portage and the life-threatening risk of running the rapids. If the second course were chosen, the boat would be controlled by the avant standing in front with a long paddle and the gouvernail standing in the back with a 2.7-metre (9 ft) steering paddle. The avant had a better view and was in charge but the gouvernail had more control over the boat. The other canoemen provided power under the instructions of the avant.
Going upstream was more difficult, as there were many places where the current was too swift to paddle. Where the river bottom was shallow and firm, voyageurs would stand in the canoe and push it upstream with 3-metre (10 ft) poles. If the shoreline was reasonably clear the canoe could be 'tracked' or 'lined', that is, the canoemen would pull the canoe on a rope while one man stayed on board to keep it away from the shore. (The most extreme case of tracking was in the Three Gorges in China where all boats had to be pulled upstream against the current of the Yangtze River.) In worse conditions, the 'demi-chargé' technique was used. Half the cargo was unloaded, the canoe forced upstream, unloaded and then returned downstream to pick up the remaining half of the cargo. In still worse currents, the entire cargo was unloaded ('décharge') and carried overland while the canoe was forced upstream. In the worst case a full portage was necessary. The canoe was carried overland by two or four men (the heavier York boats had to be dragged overland on rollers) The cargo was divided into standard 41-kilogram (90 lb) packs or pièces with each man responsible for about six. One pack would be carried by a tumpline and one on the back (strangulated hernia was a common cause of death). To allow regular rests the voyageur would drop his pack at a pose about every 1 kilometre (0.5 mi) and go back for the next load. The time for a portage was estimated at one hour per half mile.