How to Start Canoeing

Photo: Howard Newcomb/TandemStock

Canoeing 101: Getting Started

Launching a canoe into your local lake, hopping in, and paddling from one point to another seems so straightforward. That on-water simplicity makes canoeing so attractive: silently slipping through calm water in the modernised version of a dug-out tree, powering ahead with only a flattened piece of plastic or wood in your arms. But for all its purity, you still need a few critical pieces of paddling knowledge before your first day on the water. 

What You Need

So you picked up your new canoe. You obviously know that’s not all it takes to safely hit the water. Here are the other essentials needed before your launch.

Canoe Paddle: The most important factor when choosing a canoe paddle is comfort, factoring weight and feel in your hands. Wood, composites like fiberglass, and aluminum are the most popular paddle materials offering varying degrees of strength, flex, and durability. For most adults, a paddle should be between 52 to 60 inches in total length. In the canoe, that means the paddle’s top handle should be chin- to nose-height with the full blade under the waterline. 

PFD: On many U.S. waterways, carrying a personal floatation device (PFD) is the law. Wearing one on any waterway is an even better idea, regardless of how good a swimmer you are (wearing one is federal law for children under 13). Standard, Coast Guard-approved, vest-style PFDs are a durable, versatile option that could easily save your life. You can also consider an inflatable PFD which comes as either a vest or waist pack that is less bulky—though they require upkeep with CO2 cartridges that need to be activated in an emergency situation.

Clothing: Always dress for the contingency that you could end up in the water. And dress for the water temperature accordingly. To account for the difference in the air temperature during warmer summer days of paddling, layer in light, wicking, and especially sun-protective clothing. And pack extra layers in a dry bag, just in case. For footwear, be prepared for your feet to get wet, especially when launching and landing. Wear shoes or sandals that will provide ready traction on a slippery, muddy shore, and that can comfortably drain and dry on board—and consider a synthetic, wool, or neoprene sock to help insulate soggy feet in between. 

Dry Bags: Protect any accessories or electronics that you wouldn’t want to get wet in a sealable dry bag or box.

Loading and Launching 

Load your gear into the center of your canoe, making sure it’s balanced left and right. Keep heavier objects as low as possible to prevent tipping, and avoid having too much weight toward the front (bow) of the boat, which can make it hard to steer. 

Once your gear is on board, the person intending to paddle from the rear (stern) should hold the canoe steady while the bow paddler gets in: keeping weight low on the centerline of the boat, placing hands on the gunwales for stability, and preventing the canoe from tipping in either direction. The bow paddler can now sit and steady the canoe with their paddle while the stern paddler gets in the same way, pushing away from the shore as they do. 

Canoe Safety

Most canoes, especially recreational styles, are incredibly hard to flip. But inclement conditions can still catch you off-guard and result in an unexpected swim. Avoid those conditions whenever possible by always checking the forecast. Weather can change fast; getting caught in the middle of a lake during a thunderstorm or wind event (or both) is a recipe for disaster. Stay alert and paddle closer to shore. If conditions deteriorate, have a plan where and how to land. And always wear your PFD. 

Paddling Strokes

Propelling a canoe forward is all about efficiency. The less energy you can use to go a certain distance, the farther you can go. And when you’re making thousands of strokes every day, optimizing each one can make the difference between your arms feeling strong or wobbling like Jell-O. 

Mechanics: Place your upper hand on the top T-grip of the paddle, and your other near the bottom of the shaft, hands farther than shoulder-width apart. Lean forward and extend both arms to reach out for each forward stroke, placing the blade in the water. Sink the blade as you push your upper hand forward. Use the twist of your torso to pull the paddle blade back through the water. When you’re seated upright again with your lower hand lined up along your waist, reach and repeat. The more efficiently that you use your core for each stroke, the more energy you conserve in your arms. 

Dynamics: In a two-person canoe, the bow paddler should pick a side and paddle normally. It becomes the stern paddler’s job to adjust accordingly and steer. For beginning paddlers, steering is as simple as changing the side they paddle on and moderating power: sweeping forward strokes on the right will turn the canoe turn left, and vice-versa. They can also counteract the bow paddler by “holding water,” to make quick adjustments, holding their blade in the water on the side they want to turn toward. Beware that this technique kills momentum, so don’t use it often if you’re making miles. Better to sync with your partner, each paddling on opposite sides with equal power to keep the canoe straight, using small adjustments without sacrificing speed. 

Transporting Your Canoe

At the end of the day, it’s time to take out and head home, but transporting a bulky canoe isn’t always easy. The easiest way to transport a canoe is with it on your car’s roof, upside-down. Use either a dedicated canoe carrier or foam blocks to brace the gunwales of the canoe on your roof or rack. Use two straps over the hull to secure the canoe down on your vehicle, then add a strap or rope to both the bow and the stern to back up your rack, and keep the canoe in place while you’re driving. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.