Complete Canoeing Guide for Beginners

A boat that was once used mainly as a means of transportation is one of today’s most fun and relaxing vehicles to be in. Yes, I am talking about canoes. If you too love water, beautiful natural sceneries and exploring, you must try canoeing. It is easy to learn, exciting and fun! If you are planning on getting into this amazing outdoor activity, here is everything you need to know about canoeing as a beginner.

Reasons to Start Canoeing

There are multiple reasons why canoeing is a great outdoor sport. First off, you can reach different, smaller bodies of water with canoes, which cannot be reached with larger boats. This makes exploring different, more exciting places like creeks, small rivers and lakes which are surrounded by thick forests and mountains much easier. And I think it goes without saying that these places are much more fun and interesting than your standard beach.

Also, there are many different ways you can use a canoe. For example, if you want more adrenaline than simple exploration, you can try whitewater canoeing. Into fishing? Check out our Canoe Fishing Guide and start fishing while paddling in a canoe. Want to embark on an adventure? Plan a multi-day canoeing trip on a canoeing trail with camping. There are a lot of options, and they only get more exciting as you get more and more experienced.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

Starting Out

Just like most things in life, it is best to learn canoeing from experienced people. Unless you have a friend or group of friends who can teach you, we recommend you to sign up for a canoeing course.

Find another friend to join you, even if he/she is new too! Learning together is twice the fun. While there are solo canoes, canoeing is mainly a 2-person activity and tandem canoes are the most common types of canoes in the market for this reason.

Also, don’t buy canoeing equipment right off. Canoe courses supply you with the essential gear for the course’s runtime. If you are learning from a friend, try renting or borrowing. After you see whether you like canoeing or not, you can make your decision.

Choosing Your Equipment

There are 2 main ways to canoe: recreational and whitewater canoeing. Recreational canoeing explains itself, but whitewater is a bit more complicated. It involves paddling through fast rivers and rapids. This naturally demands more experience and skill than recreational canoeing. Assuming you are a beginner – since you are reading a beginner’s guide – we do not recommend you to start with whitewater canoeing.

Now that we more or less know what we want to do, we obviously need a canoe first. Among the 3 main canoe types, which are river canoes, racing canoes and recreational canoes, the only category suited for beginners is the recreational canoes. If you want to know more about choosing a canoe with all the details such as a canoe’s length, width, materials and such, head on over to our Canoe Buying Guide.

Our next main piece of equipment is a paddle. The main thing we need to consider while choosing a paddle is our height. As a general rule, you can try this quick method to decide whether a paddle is right for your height or not: Sit on a small bench or a canoe bench, and put it between out legs so that its grip – the end without a blade – touches the floor. While perpendicular to the floor, the paddle’s throat – the meeting point of its shaft and blade – should be between your chin and nose.

For recreational purposes, paddles that have smaller, narrower blades, palm grips and bent shafts do better since they fatigue you less during hours of paddling. If you can, get a paddle with these specifications. If you can’t, don’t sweat it; all paddle types do fine for recreational purposes. Also, grab 2 paddles for each person in case one gets lost.

Canoeing Accessories

Other than our main equipment, we also need certain essential and optional accessories to be safe and enjoy canoeing to the maximum:

  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device)
  • Water shoes
  • Helmet
  • Paddling gloves
  • Sunscreen
  • Polarized sunglasses
  • Dry suit
  • A set of dry clothes
  • First-aid kit
  • Food and water
  • Paddling whistle
  • Knife
  • Dry bag

Learn more about these items in our Canoeing Accessories article.


There are 2 main questions we have to ask while planning a canoe trip: where and when.

First off, where. For recreational canoeing as a beginner, you will want to plan your trip around small, easy-to-paddle spots that are relatively close to you. Places like bays, ponds, small lakes and gentle rivers are great for starters. They have calm waters and don’t have any fast rapids and obstacles like water rocks.

Secondly, when. While you can go canoeing in every season, it is best to plan your first trip around spring or summer since weather is more likely to be calm during these seasons. Also, always check the weather report before a canoeing trip. Bad weather can ruin your fun, and extreme weather can put you in danger.

If you have a kid or a pet, like a dog, you may have to leave them behind for your first couple of trips. You don’t have to be really experienced to take them with you, but having some knowledge beforehand really helps when there is a pet or a minor with you. When you are ready to take your dog or child with you, check our Canoeing with Dogs and Canoeing with Kids guides to learn everything you need to know.

How to Launch and Land A Canoe

Launching a canoe is all about keeping your weight low and getting on the canoe’s center of gravity. First, carry the canoe to the water, don’t slide it to the water from the shore; doing so will damage your hull. Put it parallel to the shoreline, on the water’s most shallow point. With your paddle in one hand, slowly get step into the canoe’s center while leaning to keep your weight low. After you balance your first step, simply hold the sides of the canoe with both of your hands and get your other foot into the canoe. Sit on your bench and let your partner do the same. After you are both done, you can simply paddle away from the shore. Landing a canoe is pretty much doing these steps in reverse.

Paddling Techniques

Paddling in canoes are relatively easier and more straightforward than paddling in kayaks. Since canoe paddles have only one blade, learning the techniques are easier. Remember, to move in a straight line, you and your partner should paddle in opposite sides.

Forward stroke:  The most basic stroking technique that will carry you forward in water. Simply reach a little ahead, dig the water with the paddle and pull the paddle towards you until you pass the hip. Don’t just use your arms; use your core by rotating your torso.

Reverse stroke: Used for deceleration and stopping, reverse stroke is simply forward stroke motion in reverse.

Sweep stroke: The first two strokes can be used by both the front and the back paddler, but the sweep stroke is the back paddler’s job. This is the main steering stroke. To perform a sweeping stroke – or a C-stroke –, dig the paddle to the water in front of you and draw a half circle that ends behind your hip. If you are paddling on the left and back, a sweep stroke on the left will turn your boat right.

J-stroke: The j-stroke is mainly a corrective stroking technique. To perform one, simply do a forward stroke, but at the end of the movement, flick the paddle away from the canoe slightly. If your canoe is going right slightly, assuming you are doing this on the left and back, a j-stroke will slightly turn your boat left, correcting your track. It can also be used as a steering technique if you do the end-flick with more force.

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