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A Beginner’s Guide To Canoeing

Everything You Need To Get Started On The Water

Photos by David Morgan


Canoes are an efficient and relaxing method for carrying people and supplies over long distances and a fun way to enjoy waterways near and far. You can see familiar landscapes from a new vantage point from a canoe. You can travel quietly amongst the landscape and animals. You can camp out on islands and watch the sunset over the water. Canoeing is a great getaway for the summer months and offers the tranquility of being on the water. 

New to canoeing? Here are seven tips to get you on the water:

1. Choose Your Destination.

Be on the lookout for any local waterways and launching locations. These can be very obvious (ramps leading into water), or not very obvious (an unmarked parking lot). 

Sometimes local organizations will have maps of launch points. Asking locals is probably your best bet when it comes to finding your launch point of choice, so never hesitate to hit up those Facebook groups, Reddit forums, friends/family in the area, or head to the local gear shop and talk to the employees.

2. Find A Partner

It’s fastest and most efficient to paddle with two people in the boat. You can consider adding a third person (or dog), but that person won’t be able to paddle. Bonus points if they know local wildlife or jokes and can entertain you while you travel (a six-pack doesn’t hurt either).

3. Pack Your Bags

Sun reflecting on water or off an aluminum canoe can burn some weird places such as the underside of your nose and ears, so always wear and bring sunscreen, or pack UPF apparel to protect your skin.

Plan on canoeing often? It’s also a good idea to invest in a comfortable personal flotation device (PFD) as well. 75% of paddle sport-related drownings occurred without PFD’s so they do their job! Put any important electronics in dry bags to protect them from water or go off the grid and leave them behind. 

Consider bringing a picnic lunch, fishing poles, binoculars, or, if you’re heading out at night, headlamps and glow sticks for the end of your boat!

4. Choose Your Boat

Renting is the most hassle-free way to start canoeing. It alleviates the need to buy a canoe (about $1,000 new) and find a way to secure it to a car, which can be a daunting task. 

Many rental shops go by an hourly or half-day rate and will be able to give you recommendations for routes and pleasant pit stops along the way. In addition to the boat, they’ll provide paddles and PFD’s.

5. Opt For A Guided Tour

Especially in a new area or when doing a new sport, it can be really fun and exciting to tour with a guide. You could meet others who are interested in canoeing and learn a lot about the waterway you’re on and the plants and animals with whom you share it. Plus, listening to live feedback on your paddling technique will make you a better canoeist.

6. Start Paddling

A great way to get better is to practice. A beginner goes about 2mph in calm, still water, and an intermediate canoer will go about 3mph. Anticipate what a river current or tide will do to your speed, like allow you to move faster going downstream. 

Ten miles per day is a rough average, including stops and accounting for some wind, rough waters, or other obstacles. Keep in mind that one person’s all-day adventure is another’s quick morning jaunt. Skill level, weather conditions, and desired pace are all things to consider when choosing your route.

7. Hone Your Technique

The back (stern) and front (bow) paddlers have different roles. The person at the back of the canoe will have more leverage for steering. Dragging your paddle on the right will make the canoe go left, dragging it on the left will make it go right. The person at the front is the motor: paddling steadily forward unless the paddler at the stern needs some help maneuvering. 

The front and back paddlers should paddle on opposite sides of the boat and paddle at the same time. Call a switch to change sides so your arms don’t get too tired. Aim to keep your paddle shaft vertical at the beginning of your stroke which will ensure you get optimal propulsion through the water.

If you’re looking to buy a canoe, PFD, or other boating accessories and have questions, you can talk to a Gearhead 24/7 by calling 1-800-409-4502 or chatting in online.

Bethany Clarke is a freelance writer with work in She Explores, Litro Magazine, and Amjambo Africa. You can find her art and hiking adventures on Instagram @bethanymclarke.