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Learn How To Canoe

How To Canoe

If you’ve ever thought about entering a water sport for casual or serious purposes, canoeing is probably one of the best sports out there. Canoeing ranks highly amongst water sports due to its low barrier of entry and how fun it is for everyone. If you have been invited to canoe or have decided to take up the sport, we will help you learn everything you need for your first canoeing trip. You’ll learn how to position yourself, how to paddle, how to maintain composure, the differences between paddling with and without a partner and much more. From a bow seat to a pry stroke – if you’re ready to learn how to canoe, let’s dive in.

Here are some canoeing basics you should keep in mind.

Ride In A Straight Line

Knowing how to paddle straight is the most important move and the first move you should learn. There is a huge difference when you’re canoeing with a partner versus canoeing alone, especially when you want to canoe straight.

Paddling with a partner means that one of you has to constantly paddle on one of the two sides while the other paddler has to paddle on the opposite side of the boat. Sitting on the stern or bow seat is the best position for partner paddling.

One person paddling means that you’ll have to paddle on both the left and right side interchangeably. Kneeling on the center of the canoe is the best position for one person paddling.

Make sure to fix the line every few strokes with slight paddling into the appropriate direction so you keep going straight.

Avoiding A Capsized Canoe

Getting on and off the canoe is usually the moment in the canoe trip when most people capsize their canoe. Make sure your partner is firmly holding the canoe and that your canoe is touching the coast providing further stability.

Wear And Gear Up For The Occasion

Wearing casual clothing fitting the air temperature when lake canoeing is fine even with the usually cold water temperatures – when you’re canoeing down rapids, wearing a swimsuit, life jacket, waterproof shoes and protective gear is a must.

You can learn what size of paddle  you need on our blog.

Canoeing Tips

Here is everything you should know before going on your canoe trip.

Canoeing Tips

Before getting into a canoe, you should make sure to know the weight limit of your canoe.

How To Get In A Canoe Without Tipping

If you’re entering from a shore, you should throw your gear onto it first as well as your paddles. Make sure the paddles are in a position where you can easily reach them, but where they won’t bother you when you’re entering the canoe.

Push most of the boat into the water, leaving the end of it on the shore. For added safety, having someone such as your partner hold the canoe steady on the shore is a plus that makes entering the canoe a lot safer.

As you’re entering the canoe one leg at a time, make sure to stand as close to the center line as possible while walking down the canoe while you grab hold of the gunwales. As you walk on the canoe, lower your center of gravity as much as possible by crouch-walking.

If you’re canoeing with a partner, the partner should put one foot on the canoe while carefully pushing the canoe away from the shore with his other foot.

If you’re entering from a pier or dock, having someone hold the canoe safely is of more importance, unless you have rope keeping the boat near the pier/dock.

Unlike the shore entrance, your partner should hold the canoe parallel to the dock by holding onto its center spot.

You can learn how to build a canoe on our blog.

How To Get Out Of A Canoe

Getting out of a canoe is actually the same process as getting to the canoe, only in reverse.

If you’re exiting out of the canoe on a shore, you should slowly drive it onto dry land so that one end is on solid ground. The bow person steps out first and holds the boat down so that the stern paddler can exit the boat the same way they entered, walking down the canoe while crouching and holding onto the gunwales.

Getting out at a dock/pier is also quite similar to the way of getting in. One of the paddlers will grab hold of the dock or pier, holding it in place while the other paddler exits the canoe. As soon as the paddler exits the canoe, they hold it for the one still on the canoe.

If you’re a solo paddler, the way you exit on the beach is pushing the canoe further into the ground, then gently stepping off of it and into the shorewater.

If you’re alone and exiting at a dock or pier, grab a hold of the dock and the other gunwale to bring them close. After that, slowly crouch walk to the center spot on the canoe and climb up onto the dock.

Click here to see the best inflatable canoe.

How To Steer A Canoe

How To Steer A Canoe

You steer a canoe by placing the stern paddle into the water on either side of the canoe and sliding it towards the stern – make sure to use the J stroke for minor steering corrections – pushing the paddle forward while making a ‘J’ shape.

For large turns you need to use the paddle as a rudder by having the paddle fight against the water current. If the paddle is on the right side of the canoe, you’ll turn right, and if it’s on the left side of the canoe, you’ll turn left.

Tandem Canoeing: How To Canoe 2 Person

The first thing you should do when canoeing with a partner is establish the roles. One of you has to be the stern paddler and the other has to be a bow paddler.

The bow paddler – also known as the front paddler has the role of maintaining more of the speed and power of the boat. The stern paddler – known also as the back paddler has a bigger impact on controlling the directions the canoe takes.

As both paddlers begin paddling, you both need to make sure you’re paddling on the opposite sides from each other so you can go straight forward with ease.

Both paddlers – especially the stern paddler – should make it clear when they move their paddle from one to the other side, so the other paddler can follow suit.

When you’re steering, you should sync up as quickly as possible, since lagging on one end can lead to unwanted steering. Communication should be constant – whenever you want to turn, speed up or slow down, you should make it clear to your partner.

To brake when you’re paddling as a duo is simple, you both have to put your paddles down in the water with the paddle blade being perpendicular to the canoe.

When you’re braking, both paddlers need to put their paddles down – if only one paddler is attempting to brake, you won’t be able to stop successfully.

How To Paddle A Canoe Solo

Canoeing solo without turning in circles isn’t as hard as it seems. When canoeing solo, you must first assume the position in the center of the canoe.

Paddling solo is slightly more demanding than paddling with a partner, as it requires that you alternate between right and left side constantly so you can paddle forward.

Another thing that solo paddling usually requires is using the kneeling position – make sure to buy knee pads. The kneeling position helps you alternate between sides with your paddle quickly and efficiently while granting you the most power.

Depending on what kneeling sitting position you choose should mostly depend on your comfort.

Moving the canoe sideways is easier than moving it straight, as it requires multiple paddle swings on one side of the canoe. Braking is also easier as no coordination is required, and you can just break by yourself with ease by lowering the paddle into the water with the paddle at a normal angle next to the side of the canoe.

You can learn how to store a canoe on our blog.

How To Sit In A Canoe

How you sit in a canoe depends entirely on your needs and comfort. If you’re canoeing as a duo, then sitting on the stern or bow seat is a necessity.

How To Sit In A Canoe

You need to make sure your pose is comfortable and helps you paddle efficiently.

There are plenty of kneeling forms:

  • Classic kneeling form
  • Forward form
  • High kneel/Two point form
  • Three point/Spread form
  • Sitting cross leg form
  • Leg out, leg down form
  • Transverse form
  • Racing form
  • Casual/Sleeper form

Classic kneeling form: known as the Canadian style is popular amongst solo canoers, in this position, you kneel close to the middle of the boat’s hull. The bow seat is supposed to give your body support and kneeling down on the hull brings you closer to the water, giving you better control.

Forward form: known as the spread two point high kneel is the position in which you have both of your knees up and legs spread. This form is great when paddling a canoe that’s small. The forward position is also great in rough weather.

High kneel form: known as the two point form, this is closely related to the classic form, but instead of resting on your heels, you’re off your knees. The high kneel form gives you better reach and a stronger stroke.

The spread form: known as the three point form, in this position you spread your legs while still kneeling on the hull. The spread form provides good control and helps you ride in a straight line with ease.

The sitting cross leg form allows you to sit on the stern seat of the canoe. In this pose, you keep your knees below the gunwale and have your ankles tucked underneath the seat you’re sitting in.

In the leg out, leg down form you’re also able to sit on the canoe seat, but you must have your paddling knee down as you paddle. The other leg can be stretched out in the most comfortable position. This form is meant for power at the cost of stability.

Transverse form is special since the paddler faces the side of the canoe they are paddling on while keeping their legs and knees tucked underneath them. This is a difficult pose to perfect and is not very popular.

Racing form is the position you want for maximum power and speed. You need strong legs for this difficult technique. It’s similar to the leg out, leg down form but instead of having one of your legs down, it’s at an upright angle making it look like you’re proposing. The racing form is most often used in competitions.

Finally, the casual form – known as the sleeper – is a position best suited for resting your knees. With this pose, you just lie down while slowly paddling yourself. It’s a very relaxing pose that really lets you soak in the nature around you.

Kneeling Vs Sitting

When it comes to kneeling position vs sitting, the biggest two arguments are comfort and necessity. Sitting definitely wins on comfort, making it everyone’s preferred pose, and while you can kneel while sitting, it is certainly not as comfortable as plain sitting.

When you’re canoeing solo, being able to lean from left to right when you’re paddling is the most important mechanic, which is where kneeling when canoeing becomes a necessity.

Of course you can do either pose whether you’re solo or with a partner and there are benefits to both poses so it’s really up to you which you’ll use.

Benefits of sitting when canoeing:

  • Increased comfort
  • Far more relaxing
  • Easy to maintain composure

Benefits of kneeling when canoeing:

  • Improved speed and power
  • Makes canoeing solo far easier
  • Improves your body muscles

In the event of capsizing, it is important to learn how to swim before canoeing.

Canoe Strokes

There are plenty of canoe strokes. We’ll list all of them for you as well as give you instructions on how to do them.

Canoe Strokes
  • The Forward Stroke: To do the forward stroke, you firstly need to push your grip hand down and forward while creating a lever with your lower shaft hand. As your grip hand gets to the gunwale, roll your thumb down. Relax your arms and let the bottom trail behind you as you do your correction stroke. Return the paddle to an upright state while letting the paddle blade recover. After the last move, repeat the process to continuously move forward.
  • The Backwards Stroke: Very similar to the forward stroke, but with the result that you’ll paddle backward instead of forward. As long as you make sure your weight is kept on the center of the canoe, you’ll be able to pull it off.
  • The Low Brace: By putting your paddle blade parallel to the water surface while moving your weight on the opposite side as well as keeping a low center of gravity, you’ll be able to stop your fall.
  • The C Stroke: Somewhat functioning like a forward stroke, and especially great if you’re a solo paddler, the C stroke is quite easy to pull off. Firstly, place your paddle blade further than you would when stroking forward and angle the paddle face towards the canoe hull. As you pull the paddle, keep it as close as you possibly can to the canoe hull. Finally, turn your control thumb forward and set the paddle up for step one.
  • The J Stroke: The J stroke is commonly used for maintaining the direction the boat is taking. The J stroke is very similar to the forward stroke, but with a different ending. When the paddle shaft reaches behind your knee, you begin to pry the paddle. To do this pry, simply twist your control hand so the thumb is pointing towards the canoe bow. After this, pull your control hand towards your canoe hull while bracing the paddle with the gunwale of the canoe.
  • Draw Stroke: The draw stroke allows you to move the canoe sideways so you could, for example, get it away from another boat or a shore by quickly turning it around. To move your boat sideways, you just want to keep your arms stacked and draw the paddle blade towards the side of the canoe. You finish the draw stroke by cleanly getting the canoe paddle out of the water. Make sure you hold your paddle vertical when doing the draw stroke.
  • Pry Stroke: Pry stroke also moves the canoe sideways, but it is executed in the opposite way of the draw stroke. You start the paddle close to the canoe then push it away.

Frequently Asked Questions

You row a canoe using oars safely attached to the canoe. You can easily modify a canoe into a rowboat with oars and an accurate position to hold them. Oars are quite lengthy, so you can comfortably sit and row on both ends of the canoe as long as you keep the blade straight. Rowing a kayak on the other hand only requires a single paddle with a blade on both ends and functions differently.

You can see the canoe vs kayak comparison on our site.

You hold a canoe paddle however is most comfortable. For the simplest of holding forms, you put your left hand, or the less dominant hand on the top grip of the paddle farther from the paddle blade – known as the top hand. Then you put your more dominant or right hand near the paddle blade – known as the bottom hand.

The left hand helps with stability and down force while the right hand is the main power output when you’re paddling a canoe.

You can learn more on how to paddle a canoe on our blog.

You sit in a canoe in many different ways depending on how you’re rowing. If you’re rowing with a partner, then most of the time you’ll be sitting on the stern and bow seat. If you’re canoeing solo then you’ll switch sides constantly, paddling on the left and right side of the boat – kneeling on the center of the canoe is the best position when you’re doing this.

How you dress for canoeing depends on what sort of canoeing you’re doing. If it’s a casual canoeing experience with low likelihood of whitewater splashing you, then wearing clothing that is comfortable and right for the air temperature is more important than water-proofing. Wear sandals or shoes that are fine to get wet in case you do get wet. If it’s a canoe ride with fast moving water or where you ride the canoe upstream, having a life jacket, swimsuit, and waterproof shoes is a necessity.

Yes, canoes do flip easily. This is due to their size and design – they are hard to get into and out of, but are relatively stable once you’re inside. Once you’re inside and paddling, the chances of a capsized canoe decrease rapidly. Keeping the canoe close to the coast is the best way to enter safely as the coast offers greater stability.


We hope you enjoyed our beginner’s guide on how to canoe. If you’ve read the entire article, you’re prepared to tackle this fun activity both with and without a canoeing partner – although you may want to join a more experienced canoeist for your first few expeditions. If you have any other questions about canoeing or any other water sport, take a look around our site.

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