OUTDOOR BASICS

How to Paddle a Canoe: Make a Splash & Explore More of the Great Outdoors

Paddling a canoe
Mark Foster
Written by Mark Foster

Canoeing is an activity that is often underrated. If you enjoy being out on the water and are looking for something new to try, you should learn how to paddle a canoe. From a relaxed paddle along the river to a fast ride over rapids, canoeing is an accessible activity for everyone, no matter your age or ability.

While it’s relatively easy to pick up in comparison to other water sports, there are some basic skills that you do need to know in order to get started, which is why we have created this guide to developing your canoe paddling technique.

Canoe and paddle

Read on for why you should try out canoeing, the equipment you need and how to master the waterways.

WHY CANOEING?

Why learn to paddle a canoe in the first place? There are several reasons why canoeing is a fantastic activity to take up, check out what we think are the top reasons below.

  • It’s fun and a great way to explore: Canoeing is a lot of fun and will make for a great day out, despite the inevitable capsizes! Plus, there’s nothing like being out in the fresh air to improve your mood, and there’s something about traveling through water that is incredibly relaxing, so it’s sure to make you feel good too. Furthermore, it’s a wonderful way to explore and see more nature than you normally would; the local wildlife can be a little bit shy when you’re walking on the trail, but when you’re traveling via water you’re a lot quieter and less threatening.
  • It’s social: If you join a canoeing club, you’ll meet many like-minded people. If you go out solo, you’re sure to run into other canoe enthusiasts out on the water and make some new friends.
  • It’s exercise: You can tone up those biceps while paddling; canoeing works your upper body so you’ll be improving your fitness and health at the same time.
  • You don’t need expensive equipment: Unless you wish to purchase your own canoe, it’s relatively affordable to rent a canoe and the necessary equipment such as lifejackets and helmets.
  • It’s the ideal activity for you to do with your children: Canoeing is a great activity for all the family to enjoy together; it’s a great way to get everyone outdoors and is sure to be a bonding experience. 
  • You don’t need to be an expert: Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a canoe before, after learning the basics and ensuring you’re equipped with the right safety equipment, you’ll be ready to give it a try. Furthermore, canoeing can be as slow-going or as extreme as you like, making it a water sport that is accessible to people of all levels.

GET TO KNOW YOUR CANOE

A canoe is a small and slender boat essentially; it is tapered to a point at both ends, lightweight, and relatively easy to maneuver.

Getting to know the canoe

We’ve listed some useful terms related to a canoe that you should know:

  • Stern: The back of the canoe.
  • Bow: The front of the canoe.
  • Hull: The body of the canoe.
  • Paddle: The paddle is what you use to make the canoe move. It is made up of four parts; the grip which is at the top end of the paddle, the shaft which is simply the long pole of the paddle, the throat which is what connects the paddle blade to the paddle’s shaft and the blade itself which is the flat part of the paddle that goes in the water.
  • Boat-side: In the simplest terms; this is the side of your body that is on the opposite side of where the paddle blade will be entering the water.
  • Water-side: The opposite of boat-side; the side of your body that is on the same side of where the paddle blade will be entering the water.

For the best solo canoe you can easily navigate, do read our earlier article to find out more.

SAFETY FIRST & OTHER ESSENTIALS

Any activities involving water should always be treated seriously when it comes to safety, even if you are a competent swimmer.

Wear safety gear

Before setting off on your canoeing adventure, you should be sure to have the following equipment on board.

  • Helmet: Be sure to invest in or rent a helmet that fits well and is designed for canoeing.
  • Lifejacket: Regardless of your swimming ability, wearing a lifejacket is essential. Whether you purchase or hire one along with your canoe, you should select a lifejacket that has a high buoyancy level.
  • Sunglasses, hat & sunscreen: UV rays can be especially harmful when reflected off the water, even when it’s cloudy. Avoid painful sunburn by taking action to protect yourself with a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses with a strap to prevent them falling off.
  • First Aid Kit: A fully stocked first aid kit is important and will be necessary should any injuries occur while you’re out on the water.
  • Repair Kit: Damage to your canoe can occur any time. Always carry a repair kit with you just in case. It’s also a good idea to carry some duct tape and wire as well.
  • Spare Paddle: Just as the canoe itself can become damaged, there’s a chance that your paddle could break or you could drop it in the water by mistake, for it never to be seen again! To avoid being quite literally ‘without a paddle’ make sure you have a spare to hand.
  • River Shoes: Wear suitable light-weight and comfortable river shoes which are designed specially to protect your feet while walking through water.
  • Drinking Water: In most cases, you will be out for half or the whole day undertaking a strenuous activity, so dehydration can be a risk. Always be sure to have more than enough drinking water available.
  • Dry Bag: It is worth thinking about investing in a dry bag which is a waterproof bag that is perfect for safely storing your valuables.
  • Float Bag: Float bags are essential items to have on your canoe to assist with buoyancy if the canoe capsizes. Float bags need to be fitted specifically to your canoe, so the canoe should come with appropriate float bags already, but always double check this.
  • Spare Clothes: It may be sunny outside, but sitting in wet clothes can still result in hypothermia, especially if the water is cold and there is a cool breeze. Take along a spare set of clothes just in case you get too wet and need to change. It is also recommended that you wear your swimsuit too.
  • Throw Bag: A throw bag is a bag with a rope enclosed which is used to throw to a person overboard in order to rescue them.
  • Painter Lines: These are ropes which should be present on both the bow and stern of your canoe, and are used for self-rescue situations or to tie onto a mooring ring or a tree when you stop and need to secure your canoe. They are also known as hauling or towing lines.
  • Pulley: A pulley will be a god-send if your canoe becomes caught between rocks or bogged in a swamp and needs to be pulled free using ropes; they will make such a task a lot easier.

THE BASICS & GETTING STARTED

Getting in and landing

First of all, know where you should be sitting. If you are paddling by yourself, you should sit at the stern (the back) of the canoe which is where you need to sit in order to steer, while you store your gear in the bow. If you are paddling with someone else, one of you will sit in the bow and the other in the stern.

Get on the canoe

As a guide, the most experienced person should sit in the stern as they will be doing the steering as well as paddling, while the person seated in the bow will only need to paddle. To get in, push the canoe out onto the water bow end first. If you are paddling solo, position yourself to get into the center of the canoe, and slowly move yourself back to the stern.

See also: Canoe Paddle Sizing: Shoring up the Competition

If there are two of you, it is advised that the person sitting at the bow gets in first, positioning themselves in the center to begin with and then slowly moving into position at the bow, while the person who will be sitting at the stern holds the canoe steady and then gets in themselves. Finally, push yourself away from land using the paddle.

Landing with care is important to avoid causing injury or damage to your canoe. As you paddle towards the shore, ensure that the canoe is pointed towards land. Reduce your speed, and avoid running aground by continuing to paddle, slowly.

When you come close to the shore, use the blade of your paddle to reduce the impact when you come to a stop but take it slowly; if the impact is too hard it could even throw you out into the water! Take care when exiting by slowly moving to the end of the canoe which is now resting on land by moving slowly down the center of the canoe, and then getting out. If you’re up to it, check out our easy guide on DIY canoe paddle for more information.

Keep your balance

When you first get in a canoe, the first thing that you will notice is that it feels quite rocky and even the tiniest movement will tip the whole thing over! In order to feel more stable, sit as low as you can in the canoe or even kneel on the bottom until you get your balance.

Keeping your balance

Remember that canoes are designed to be stable so as long as you’re not standing up or moving around too much it should stay upright. Furthermore, sitting with your back as straight as possible rather than leaning forward, backwards or side to side will further enhance your balance and once you start paddling the canoe will feel even more stable.

Hold your paddle

The best way to ensure a firm and controlled grip on your paddle is to hold it with both hands, covering the grip with your boat-side hand. The grip may be rounded or may have a handle that you can hold on to.

You then place your water-side hand lower down, about a foot above the blade of the paddle and grip the shaft with your palm facing towards the canoe.

Forward Stroke

Twist your torso so that your waterside shoulder faces forward. Reach forward with the paddle so that the blade is underwater, but do not submerge the shaft and position it in a way that it is almost vertical to the surface of the water.

Learn forward stroke

Then pull the paddle back through the water towards you and parallel to the canoe, making sure that you remain centered and upright, avoid leaning to the side. Reduce the effort when the blade reaches your hip, pull it out of the water and start the next stroke.

Alternate this movement on either side of the canoe every few strokes as you continue to move forward. To cross the paddle blade from one side to the other, once it reaches your hip on the backstroke, pull it out of the water and cross it over the canoe in front of you, while switching the position of your hands.

Ensure that the strokes are tight and close to the side of the canoe; a wide stroke could make the canoe turn to the left or right. If there are two of you, simply co-ordinate your paddling so you are always paddling on the opposite side to one another. Watch how to do the forward stroke here.

Paddle Backwards or Stop

To make your canoe move backwards, or to stop it completely, carry out the same movements as the forward stroke but use the back of the paddle blade.

Basic Steering

A simple way to turn your canoe is to continuously start paddling on the opposite side of the canoe to the direction in which you wish to turn. For example, if you wish to turn right, paddle on the left side.

Steering the canoe

Although this method will not slow you down, it will not turn the canoe very quickly, so if you have a turn coming up plan to act sooner rather than later.

STEERING TECHNIQUES

As you get more confident, you will want to try out some more advanced steering techniques.

The J Stroke

The J Stroke is for when you need to turn quickly and works in a similar way to the way a rudder functions on a boat. In order to carry out a J Stroke, you need to be seated at the stern of the canoe.

You then place your paddle blade behind you, submerged in the water and positioned in a way that it is laid almost flat against the same side of the canoe as the direction in wish you would like to turn; so, if you would like to turn to the right, the paddle needs to be positioned against the right side of the canoe.

Basic paddling strokes

At the same time, twist your upper body so your shoulders are parallel with the sides of the canoe. To turn the canoe, you then need to return to face-forward using your core muscles; this should then turn the canoe. While a great technique to make a controlled turn, it will slow you down in terms of momentum. Watch a video of the J Stroke being performed here.

Sweep Strokes

To carry out a sweep stroke, twist your upper body as you would when performing the J Stroke, but this time as you turn to face forward, swing the paddle in an arc from the bow of the canoe towards the stern for the forward sweep, vice versa (stern towards bow) for a reverse sweep.

This stroke is used for tight turns or to spin the canoe around completely. Whether you use the forward or reverse sweep depends on which way you wish to turn. Watch how to carry out the sweep strokes by clicking here.

The Draw Stroke

This stroke will be easier for the more experienced paddler, but if you’re not so experienced yet you can still give it a try; but maybe practice it a slower speed a few times first before using it when you really need to.

This stroke will move the canoe in the direction of where your paddle is, so place the paddle straight out to side of the canoe which is the direction in which you wish to move the canoe.

Which stroke to use

Your paddle needs to be as vertical to the water as possible, with your boat-side hand holding the grip, which should be just above your head. Bring the paddle towards the canoe until they are almost touching each other, ensuring the paddle blade is parallel to the canoe’s side, and the canoe should move accordingly. Watch a demonstration of the draw stroke here.

Go grab that paddle!

In conclusion, learning how to canoe will gain you a new skill that will open you up to enjoying a brand-new water sport; and one that we think you will enjoy for many years! It’s an activity that can be used wherever in the world you travel, giving you an experience in a new destination which you otherwise may not have had. For more tips on how to choose the best canoe paddle, check out our earlier article on this interesting topic.

Start paddling now

We hope after reading our guide you’re feeling inspired and now have the know-how to get out on the water as soon as you can. Where are you planning to try out your canoeing skills? Let us know in the comments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Foster
Mark Foster

Mark Foster loves to push his limits when it comes to survival in the wilderness. He might go for a 30-days adventure without any food or equipment except for a survival kit and a knife. We should mention that his survival kit has 122 items in it, so he know what he is doing. Mark is working on his book to share with the world all his experience gained during those brave adventures.

  • Phyllis Perez

    I agree completely! You do not need to be an expert to paddle a canoe. Quite possibly it has been one of the simpler things I’ve used on the water. I love canoeing in lakes where it’s calm and clear. Quite an enjoyable and relaxing past time.

  • Tonya Murphy

    Fantastic article. But I’m probably prejudice because I absolutely love canoeing. It’s so relaxing and wonderful. It’s something I really can’t wait to start with my son. I really want to share my passion with him. What a great article! I really enjoyed it.

  • Mark Foster

    Yes – there are still some things in life that are simple, right? Once you have the paddle on your hands, you can easily find your groove and just paddle away! When with someone who has the other paddle, being in sync is important, but very easy to do. 🙂

  • Mark Foster

    Hi Tonya! I love canoeing, too and you can just paddle your worries away and just be in tune with nature. I usually have my camera with me and take lots of photos of my surroundings.
    It’s also a neat idea to include your son. I had wonderful memories with my parents when we rode the canoe. They let me paddle and I felt so responsible and mature. I know that your son will find the experience quite remarkable and fun, as well.

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