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How To Paddle A Canoe – Top Tips In Solo And Tandem Rowing

How To Paddle A Canoe

Nothing beats the smooth glide of a canoe through water as you listen to the birdsong and feel the sun on your face. Whether canoeing solo or in tandem, this is one of the most enjoyable ways to experience nature. But learning how to paddle a canoe can be a little trickier than it looks. However, it is mostly a question of learning by doing: the more you practice, the better you will get. That being said, it’s important to get familiar with the basics strokes and the fundamentals of canoeing before getting in the boat. You won’t master them all immediately, but understanding how they work is the first step.

Where you should sit in a canoe depends on a few things: the size of the canoe, the number of paddlers, and your experience level. Knowing where to sit in a one-person canoe is very simple: simply sit where the seat is positioned. Usually this is near the middle of the boat.

When paddling in tandem, decide who will sit in the bow seat (the front of the boat) and who will sit in the stern seat (the back). Usually, the more experienced paddler should sit in the stern as they are responsible for steering.

Deciding where to sit when solo paddling a two-person canoe is a little more complicated. Those new to canoeing should kneel just behind the center line. This is more stable and will give you better balance. More experienced paddlers can sit on the stern seat at the back of the canoe. While this provides less balance, it allows you to steer more efficiently.

Getting Started In The Water

Before you jump in your canoe, make sure you have a good PFD (personal flotation device) that fits correctly. Next, make sure you know how to hold your paddle. A canoe paddle should be held with one hand at the top and the other hand a few feet down, at least a foot above the water. When solo paddling, you will need to switch sides every few strokes.

Then it is just a matter of getting on the water! Don’t expect to become a canoe master in one session – but as long as you can get a few basic strokes down, you will have a great time.

Paddle Strokes

These are the main basic paddle strokes you will use when paddling a canoe like these.

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the paddle stroke you will use most of the time, particularly if you are in the bow seat. Simply place the paddle in the water in front of you with the blade perpendicular to the boat, and pull it back towards you. When solo paddling, alternate sides every few strokes. When paddling in tandem, you can stick to paddling on opposite sides of the boat.

Backward Stroke

The backward stroke is the opposite of the forward stroke. This stroke is used to get the boat to go backward or simply to stop it from going forwards. It can be used when you are about to bump into something or when you are already in a sticky situation and need to get out of it. This time, start with the paddle behind you in the water, and then push it forward towards the bow of the boat.

Draw Stroke

The draw stroke is used to move the boat sideways, mostly to avoid something you are about to hit or to get closer to something quickly. As a recreational paddler, you probably won’t use it very much. Place the paddle blade in the water directly to your side as far as you can reach, with the blade parallel to the boat. Then simply pull the paddle towards you.


The J-stroke is a slightly more advanced stroke that you can use for solo paddling if you want to move forward in a straight line without switching sides. It only works well when paddling from the stern.

Start off as if you are doing a forward stroke. When the paddle is behind you, turn it so that it is parallel to the boat and swing it forward in a sharp 45° angle. You can brace the paddle shaft against the boat if that helps.

Steering & Turning

Remember that the stern paddler is primarily responsible for steering and turning.

  • Forward stroke: for gentle turns, simply paddle exclusively on one side, and the boat will turn in the opposite direction.
  • Quick turns: for sharper turns when solo paddling, make one backwards stroke on the side of the direction you want to turn. Follow this up with a few forward strokes on the opposite side.
  • Pry stroke: this is used to keep the boat on course if it starts to veer. Place the blade of the paddle behind you as far as you can, parallel to the boat. Then swing the paddle forward to a 45° angle. This should turn the boat towards the same side that you are paddling.
  • Sweep stroke: this is similar to the pry stroke, except it will turn the boat towards the opposite side. Place the paddle in the water directly beside you, as far out as you can reach, with the blade perpendicular to the boat. Then swing the blade backwards in a full 90° motion.

Paddling In Tandem

Paddling in tandem is generally easier than solo paddling. However, it is important to discuss your paddling technique beforehand and continue to communicate so you remain on the same page.

Paddling In Tandem
  • Paddling forward: most of the time the two paddlers should work together to move forward by paddling on opposite sides of the boat.
  • Slow turns: to turn gently, both paddlers should paddle on the opposite side to the intended turning direction.
  • Sharp turns: to make a quick turn, the stern paddler should make a backwards stroke on the intended turning side. At the same time, the bow paddler makes a forward stroke on the opposite side.

While the person in the stern does most of the steering, the person in the bow should set the paddling pace. It is important to synchronize your strokes, and the bow paddler cannot see behind them, so the stern paddler should follow their lead.

Things To Consider

Even if you have mastered the basic strokes, there is a big difference between paddling on flat water versus moving water.

Moving Water

Moving water refers to any water with a current or tidal pull, i.e. rivers, streams and most coastal waterways. Although you will move faster with less effort when paddling with the current, paddling on moving water is always more tricky than flat water. It is much harder to control your course, and easier to bump into things. Plus, paddling against the current requires a lot more effort.

Flat Water

Flat water refers to things like ponds and lakes that do not have a noticeable current or waves other than those caused by the wind. If you are a beginner, you should stick to flat water until you gain more confidence and skill. Once you feel confident on a calm lake or pond, you can try a slow moving river or stream. Do not attempt ocean or whitewater canoeing until you are very experienced.

How To Choose The Best Canoe Paddle For You

If you are buying a new paddle and you want to get one that is best canoe for you, there are a few factors to consider.


A longer paddle will allow you to take powerful strokes and get a good momentum going, but it is not good for quick maneuvering. Therefore, a long paddle is better for large lakes and quiet ocean inlets, but a shorter paddle suits rivers and rocky coastlines better. It is also important to think about your own size and strength – longer paddles require more force, so are not ideal for smaller paddlers or beginners.

Blade Size And Shape

When it comes to size, larger again means greater leverage and speed but requires more strength. For beginners, long and thin blades are good for flatwater paddling. Very large blades are not recommended, as they are more tiring and they catch more wind. Short, wide blades are better for quick maneuvering and are therefore favored for whitewater paddling.


  • Wood: the classic paddle material, wood is still unmatched in terms of its flexibility and warmth. However, wooden paddles require some upkeep, such as sanding and varnishing.
  • Composite paddles: these are made from composites such as carbon, fiberglass, kevlar and graphite. They tend to be light and strong – racers favor carbon paddles. Composite paddles are usually on the pricey side.
  • Aluminum and plastic: most canoe paddles you will see feature plastic blades and aluminum handles. These are durable, low-maintenance and affordable. They don’t perform quite as well as other materials, but are perfectly good for recreational paddling.

Frequently Asked Questions

You paddle straight in a canoe by alternating which side you paddle on every few strokes. If you are paddling in tandem, one paddler can take the left side and the other the right. If you are paddling by yourself and want to go more consistently straight, you can try the J stroke. This stroke mitigates against the turning effect of paddling on one side and allows you to move forward. However, the J stroke will take some practice to master.

One person can paddle a canoe, depending on the canoe and the paddler. Some canoes are designed for solo paddling. It is also possible to paddle a tandem canoe by yourself if you sit in the stern or kneel behind the centerline. How easy this is to do in a straight line depends on your skill level as well as the size and maneuverability of the canoe.

You steer a canoe from the back. In a two-person canoe, the person sitting at the stern (i.e. the back) has much more control over steering. The person sitting at the bow should mostly concentrate on generating forward momentum. If you are paddling a single-person canoe, you will usually sit nearer the middle.

You paddle a two person canoe paddling in synchrony on opposite sides of the boat so that you move forward in a straight line. However, note that the paddler sitting in the stern is responsible for steering. When the stern paddler is performing a steering maneuver, the bow paddler should concentrate on moving the boat forward, paddling on one side or the other depending on the intended direction. The most important thing when paddling in tandem is good teamwork and communication.

Canoes can tip easily in certain conditions. The main cause of tipping is uneven weight distribution. Make sure to sit in the middle of the boat and do not stand or move unnecessarily. If you have to move, stay low. If you have to stand, imagine a line from bow to stern, and stick to that line. Also, avoid canoeing when there are strong winds. If you are in a calm, safe area, tipping your canoe is not the end of the world. Make sure you always wear a PFD and carry a safety whistle.


As you can see, there is a little more to paddling a canoe effectively than simply propelling yourself forward. There is certainly a knack to it and there are always more advanced strokes you can learn. However, as long as you master a few basic strokes early on, the rest will come through practice. Now that you know the basics of how to paddle a canoe, it’s time for your first canoeing adventure!

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