Paddlers can spend quite a lot of time huddled up in their canoes, particularly on all-day touring expeditions. For this reason, first-time paddlers often wonder how comfortable canoes really are, as they want to have a general sense of what to expect before they commit to an all-day canoeing endeavor.
The hard surface interior of canoes can be uncomfortable for paddlers that take part in prolonged trips on the water. Common issues linked with canoe discomfort include numbness in the feet and legs, knee and ankle soreness, and aches in the stabilizing muscles required for paddling.
Most people can tolerate canoes for brief stints on the water, but discomfort definitely becomes more of a prevalent issue the more time that you spend paddling. We’ll go over the reasons why canoes can feel uncomfortable, as well as viable ways to combat these issues and make your canoe more conducive to extended paddling trips.
Why Canoes May Feel Uncomfortable for First-Time Paddlers
When you enter a canoe for the first time, it will not seem all that bad. In fact, most beginners probably won’t encounter too many problems with the comfort of the canoe since they’ll only be on the water for thirty minutes to an hour.
The real discomfort only settles in once you begin to push past the hour-and-a-half or two-hour mark. At this point, the seeds of unease may begin to sprout.
Numbness in the Legs and Feet Due to Improper Seat Positioning
One of the major contributors to canoeing discomfort is numbness in the legs and feet. Since a canoe only has so much room available, paddlers often stay in one position for the entirety of the trip. However, by remaining in a singular seated or kneeling position, paddlers often run into problems with getting adequate blood circulation to the lower extremities.
You’ve probably experienced this numbing sensation before at school or work, as it’s a fairly common condition that results from sitting down for an excessive period of time. People sometimes reference this sensation by saying that their legs have “fallen asleep” (source).
The lack of cushioning within the canoe’s interior certainly doesn’t help with this issue. Instead, the rigid interior of the canoe staunches blood flow as you rest your legs while paddling, numbing the lower extremities and feeding that underlying feeling of unease.
It may even reach a point where the blood vessels become so compressed that you have difficulty getting out of the canoe because your legs are too numb to work properly. The majority of the time, this feeling of numbness only lasts for a couple of minutes, but it’s still an annoyance to deal with.
Kneeling Down Increases Knee and Ankle Soreness
If you’ve never paddled before, you may not know that kneeling is a popular means for people to balance in the canoe and maintain proper stability.
The seats on a canoe are deliberately elevated so that paddlers can rest their bottom on the seat, tuck their legs underneath the seat, and kneel on the canoe’s floor. Kneeling in this manner offers superior navigational control, as opposed to sitting on the canoe’s seat normally with your legs resting out in front.
Although this kneeling position does have its benefits in navigational control, it can lead to discomfort later on down the road.
As aforementioned, the natural surface of the canoe’s interior is extremely rigid. There’s no natural cushion that softens the impact between the paddler’s knees and the canoe’s floor. As a paddler rests a great deal of their body weight on their knees and ankles over long hours, this persistent pressure inevitably leads to soreness.
The Stabilizing Muscles are Not Conditioned to the Constant Repetition of Paddling
Furthermore, novice paddlers typically have not built up the stabilizing muscles associated with paddling to the point where they can withstand thousands of repetitions.
Over the course of a long canoeing trip, the obliques, latissimus dorsi, and triceps are heavily worked (source). Paddlers that aren’t used to working these muscles will have to face higher levels of discomfort during their first few canoeing sessions. Every new canoeist faces this. Building up the requisite paddling strength to endure long bouts on the water takes time for the muscles to adapt.
So although the structure of the canoe may not be at fault with this source of discomfort, it’s still something important to keep in mind when taking a holistic view of whether or not canoes are comfortable. Rather than automatically directing the blame onto the canoe, it would help if you realized your muscles might not be familiar with the taxing stimulus of paddling.
The Subtle Rocking of the Canoe Might Put You on Edge
Lastly, certain canoes have a greater tendency to rock and tip in response to your body movements or surrounding waves. People that aren’t used to being on boats may feel uncomfortable when the canoe begins to tip slightly.
This source of discomfort has to do more with a distressed mindset than actual physical unease. For example, people worried about the canoe flipping over often feel that way because of their lack of experience in being in a canoe.
If they continued to push past this fear and paddle, they would soon realize that canoes are fairly stable.
In fact, it’s a rare occurrence for paddlers to flip over the canoe in flat water conditions because of how structurally sound they are.
You can find out the exact reasons why paddlers hardly ever capsize canoes by clicking over to How Hard Is It to Flip a Canoe (+Tips to Stay Upright).
So if you feel the canoe slightly tipping this way or that, don’t panic! More often than not, you only have to marginally adjust your body positioning to distribute the canoe along the water evenly. Although it may seem intimidating at first, you’ll eventually come to grips with this discomfort and overcome it.
Tips and Strategies to Increase the Comfort of Your Canoe
There’s no denying that canoes can get to be uncomfortable after long bouts on the water. Luckily, there are ways to minimize this discomfort and make your canoe more favorable for all-day paddling journeys.
Install Canoe Seats that are Equipped with a Backrest
One way you can dramatically increase the comfort of your canoe is to install seats with backrests. Most canoes only come equipped with rudimentary seats that lack any back support. Consequently, paddlers have to rely heavily on their core to maintain a solid upright posture that’s conducive to paddling.
Setting up canoe seats with backrests will offer some relief from this constant lumbar tension. Plus, these seats are much more cushioned than the standard canoe seat. So not only do these seats reduce the pressure on your lower back, but they also help to keep constant blood flow to your legs and feet, decreasing the likelihood of numbness.
Fortunately, installing these seats into the canoe is fairly simple. With most backrest canoeing seats, all you have to do is clip the seat onto the preexisting canoe bench via fasteners. No drilling or hammering is necessary, so you’re in no danger of jeopardizing the canoe’s current condition.
Lay Down Foam Mats in the Canoe’s Interior for Extra Leg Comfort
If you’re more of a kneeler than a sitter, it may be better for you to experiment with layering the canoe’s floor with foam mats rather than investing in a canoe seat with a backrest.
As aforementioned, paddlers have to deal with excess soreness in the knees and ankles when they kneel in a canoe for long spans of time. This is mainly because the floor of the canoe is so unyielding.
To counteract this discomfort, it’s smart practice to pad the floor with foam mats before heading out onto the water. They sell flat knee pads specifically designed for canoes online, but you can really improvise with any foam mat that feels comfortable for you. For example, some people have been known to use foam gym mats, while others prefer to use foam mechanic mats.
Ultimately, it comes down to what you have at home and what your particular preferences are. You can see exactly how canoeists use foam mats to kneel—along with its many other paddling benefits—by watching the clip below!
Consider Investing in Paddling Gloves and a Loose Fitting PFD
So far, we’ve only discussed ways to modify the canoe to make it more comfortable. Many people overlook that making slight adjustments to your paddling attire can also do wonders for your overall comfort in a canoe.
After many hours on the water, canoeists have been known to get blisters on their hands from gripping the paddle all day long (source). These blisters can definitely make for an uncomfortable—if not painful—canoeing trip.
One easy fix to prevent these blisters from ever forming is to wear paddling gloves. By providing an extra layer of protection between your soft hands and the rigid texture of the paddle, the constant friction of paddling is less likely to be a major issue. Plus, these gloves have the bonus of increasing your grip on the paddle in extremely wet conditions.
Furthermore, an excessively tight PFD can be a major nuisance when canoeing. The restrictions in mobility and breathing can exacerbate the discomfort you may already be feeling from paddling in the canoe.
Before launch, check to make sure that your PFD is the appropriate size for you. The PFD should fit snug to your body, but not to the point where it interrupts your paddling motions.
Trust me. It’s better to take care of this problem early before committing to an all-day canoeing endeavor. By the time you hit the water, it’ll be too much of a hassle for you to turn back. So if you feel even the slightest discomfort from your PFD, take the extra couple of minutes to readjust the straps or exchange it for one that’s more appropriately sized.
Set Designated Intervals to Stretch, Switch Seats, or Break from Paddling
As previously discussed, paddlers often have a bad habit of remaining in one singular position for the complete length of a canoeing trek.
This strategy may work for some people, but most canoeists will need time to recuperate and ward off the feelings of unease that come with being cooped up in a canoe for multiple hours.
To avoid falling into this trap, it’s important to form a calculated plan as to how long you intend to paddle, how far you plan to go, and how often you’re going to need to break.
If you neglect this planning stage, you’re far more likely to experience additional discomfort as you edge past your paddling limits. Unfortunately, humans were not meant to stay confined to one small area for long periods of time.
It’s a smart idea to set aside specific intervals where you get up and stretch, switch positions on the canoe, or go back on land altogether to break up the monotony of the trip and restore blood flow to your lower limbs. These small actions may seem insignificant, but they can make a tremendous difference in the overall comfort of your canoeing excursion.
The Bottom Line
Most paddlers can tolerate being in a canoe for an hour or two, but any longer than that can make for an uncomfortable trip due to the hard interior of the canoe. Luckily, there are ways to get around this discomfort, like installing seats with backrests, laying down foam mats, investing in paddling gloves or a loose-fitting PFD, and taking regular paddling breaks.
Although this discomfort may seem like a big issue, it shouldn’t be enough to scare you away from canoeing. Canoeing is one of the most popular water sports out there for a reason. If you implement some of the tips and tricks listed above for making your canoe more comfortable, you’ll be well on your way to having a memorable experience on the water.