How to Get Started Canoeing: Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide

Canoes may be the oldest boats ever used, and there’s no denying they were a major means of transportation in the past. However, even though cars and airplanes have surpassed canoes as everyday means of transportation, they have recently made a comeback, particularly for recreational use. Besides bringing you the benefits of peaceful contact with the outside environment and the beauty found in nature, whitewater canoeing and canoe racing add plenty of challenges for thrill-seekers.

To get started canoeing, you need to decide whether you prefer formal instruction or self-instruction. Whichever method you choose, you need to learn the basics, like how to paddle with proper form and rescue yourself in the event of a capsize.

This guide covers the basic steps to help you get started canoeing, including basic canoe anatomy and terminology. There’s a strong emphasis on safety precautions and rescue techniques, no matter the method you choose for instruction. I’ll also provide you with several resource options for paid or free online instruction courses, as well as links to where you can find these on-site lessons.

Step 1: Decide How You Want to Learn (Formal Classes or Self Instruction)

Benefits of Formal Classes

The main benefit of a formal canoeing class is having someone knowledgeable oversee your learning process, ensuring that you have a clear understanding of the essential canoeing basics. It will also help you apply safety precautions and respond with reassurance to any possible life-threatening or otherwise dangerous situations. 

One other noticeable advantage with in-person instruction by ACA or other certified instructors is having all the necessary equipment available for you to try out as you are learning.

Listen to the Experts

Even the publisher of a beginner’s guide shared online by the American Canoe Association (ACA) emphasizes the importance of getting as much knowledge as you can through some formal instruction. It will help you figure out what kind of canoe and equipment best suits you and what to buy if you plan to add canoeing to your regular activities. 

Hiring an instructor will ultimately eliminate some costly trial and error that would likely occur with self-instruction. An instructor will also ensure that you clearly understand safety rules, regulations, and precautions to avoid harming yourself or others.

Accredited Instructions

According to ACA, their curriculum is “acknowledged as the premier paddlesports education program” throughout the United States and thirty other countries. ACA offers classes at all canoeing skill levels along with additional classes if you want an ACA skills assessment credential. 

ACA also offers classes to obtain an Instructor Certification or the title of Paddlesport Safety Facilitator. For questions about this or the ACA Course Curriculum, you can visit the Safety Education & Instruction Department.

As an alternative to in-person, on-site courses, ACA also offers an online course titled Boat Ed. This is an official training program developed to meet safety standards established by (ACA). There’s no age requirement for taking the course, and the cost is only $24.50.

According to ACA, Boat Ed is “the only safety course provider that develops print materials that cover Paddlesports safety best practices and regulations.”

However, it’s important to note that the ACA still recommends in-person training after completing the online course.

On-Site Instruction

Beside’s ACA’s in-person training, you can find other choices for hands-on, on-site canoeing instruction at National Parks in the U.S.

For example, in the summer months, New York City’s Urban Park Rangers provide “Single Day Programs” in canoeing and other activities for groups of all ages, with the per-person cost at about $10 each, for groups of 30 children and up to about $30 for each adult.

Benefits of Self-Instruction

Two obvious benefits of self-instruction are convenience and cost—or lack of cost for that matter. The “Beginner’s Guide,” published by Paddler Magazine and posted by the ACA, is free, and you can learn the information and test it out at your own pace. This guide offers beginning canoeing tips on:

  • Starting out with the right canoe
  • Proper paddle stroke technique
  • General safety principles
  • Self-rescue skills
  • Camping basics
  • Whom to paddle with
  • What equipment to look for

The guide also provides information on schools for in-person lessons and other resources. According to the guide, it includes “just about everything you need to get started.”

Importance of Comprehensive Safety Training

ACA’s Beginner’s Guide recommends having at least some formal lessons. To support this recommendation, the Coast Guard published a document encouraging paddling sports but also warning that “You’re operationally and legally responsible for your safety and the safety of passengers and other boaters.”

Because of this responsibility, once you complete the self-instruction, you may find that basic knowledge is insufficient to meet legal safety requirements.

Additional Learning Resources

Compared to the availability of materials on kayaking, visual resources on teaching basic canoeing skills and safety are minimal. A course by provides lessons that are both authorized by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and acknowledged by the U.S. Coast Guard.

This course offers some valuable information about what to do if you’re caught in a storm or debris-filled waters after a storm—along with clear instructions on how to handle the situation if you or another boater are in distress.

Step 2: Familiarize Yourself With the Canoeing Equipment

Recreation Equipment Incorporated provides a checklist to go by when preparing your canoe outing, supplemented here by suggestions and information offered by and others.

Pro Tip: Rent and try out different styles, models, and sizes of canoes and canoes prior to purchase. Once you commit to buying and realize you don’t like the product, you’ll be hard pressed to find any store that will grant you a refund.

Things to Bring

Canoeing Essentials

  • Canoe: Keep in mind that there are different canoes that are tailored toward different functions on the water. As a beginner, you likely won’t be choosing a canoe based on its racing or whitewater capabilities. Instead, it would make much more sense to select a canoe according to how many people will be in the boat, what type of paddling you intend to do, and the overall stability of the canoe in the water.
  • Flashlight or Lantern: If you will be canoeing after dark (or if there’s a slight chance that you might be), you are required to have a white-light lantern or flashlight on board.
  • Paddles: Bring one for each person paddling and an extra, secured in the canoe. Canoe paddles are single-bladed and used on either side of the boat.
  • Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs): In certain places, it is a legal requirement to make sure you have either a life jacket or life preserver for each person and at least one extra to throw to a distressed swimmer.
  • Signaling Devices: These include flares, mirrors, horns, and whistles for getting attention if needed. In some states, this equipment is required.

For Whitewater Canoeists: If you’ve got the initiative to go whitewater canoeing or paddling in the middle of harsh, unforgiving waves, float bags and spray covers are also a must. 

Other Highly Recommended Canoeing Gear

  • Dry Bags: Make sure these are attached inside the canoe. They can protect cameras, phones, snacks, and other things you need to keep dry.
  • Food & Water: You’re bound to get hungry and thirsty after so much physical exertion on the water. With food and water in tow, you won’t have to interrupt your paddling trip to reenergize yourself.
  • Rope Bag: This serves a variety of functions—from helping anchor the canoe to the dock to saving someone from potentially drowning.
  • Sunscreen: Most people know if and when they need sunscreen. Those who do should make an effort to bring some along while canoeing. If possible, make sure it is natural, biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and water-resistant, like this one from Dr. Mercola.
  • Throwable Flotation Devices: Although this coast guard requirement is geared more toward longer boats rather than canoes, it’s a piece of equipment that has the potential to save lives. Should the need arise, a throwable flotation device can come in handy when you least expect it. Not to mention that it also doubles as a seat pad!
  • Visual Distress Signal (VDS): This is important to have on hand no matter the length of your outing. Examples of visual distress signals include sea dye markers and night time flares.
  • Weather Radio: This device is especially important when scheduling a multi-day tour or paddling in areas where winds can be extreme and volatile. You can find an assortment of affordable, reliable weather radios on the best-sellers list at Amazon.

Helpful Canoeing Accessories

  • Bilge Balls: These can be used for soaking up excess water. Water will find a way into the canoe’s interior at some point, especially in rougher waters. These specialized sponges are available for purchase here at Amazon.
  • Bilge Pump: This can also be extremely useful if water gets into the canoe. There are several brands of bilge pumps on the market, and most are light-weight. In fact, certain brands even float. This one by Better Boat has received mostly favorable reviews by users.
  • Knee Pads: Some people may feel these are essential. Although canoeists can paddle from a sitting position, many people share the notion that paddling from a kneeling position is far more stable. The main drawback is the knee soreness that comes with it. Laying some knee pads down beforehand can help to ease this burden.
  • Knife: Just in case you capsize and get tangled in the rope, it wouldn’t hurt to have a knife that’s good for rope-cutting on hand.

The Basic Anatomy of the Canoe

A canoe is a long, slender boat that can be specialized for recreational purposes or racing purposes. It is comprised of a belly shaped by a hull, which is supported by ribs and planking. A standard canoe is also edged with what is called a rail or gunwale. The canoe has a front (bow) and stern (rear), both of which taper from the center of the boat to individual points, capped by small decks with handles. 

Thwarts, which are bars crossing the canoe’s width, from gunwale to gunwale, are aligned with at least one rear seat and one front seat.  Most recreational canoes will have an added keel, which runs along the center of the bottom or belly, from bow to stern and helps resist crosswinds. The online course by Boater, mentioned above, provides clear labeled diagrams on the main canoe parts.

Alternate Designs and Materials

Whitewater canoes will be keel-less in exchange for better maneuverability. Traditionally made from wood, canoes today are mostly designed from fiberglass, fiberglass blends, or molded plastic.

The intended use of the canoe determines variation in design. Beginners will likely prefer flat-bottomed canoes because of initial stability and good performance on calm waters. The round-bottom canoes are chosen for speed, while others compromise between round and flat bottom, with shallow-vee or shallow-arch bottoms.

Canoe Terms

In addition to learning the basic anatomy of a canoe, it is crucial to be familiar with relevant terms, some of which are mentioned above. You can find common anatomical terms here with diagrams. They are defined below.

  • Amidships: The canoe’s center, where the maximum width is measured.
  • Beam: The canoe’s width at the widest point.
  • Belly: The canoe’s bottom. It makes up the bulk of the canoe. Its curve defines the hull’s profile, whether it be flat bottom, round bottom, shallow-vee, or shallow-arch.
  • Bilge: Refers to the area below the canoe’s waterline. It is the point of maximum curvature between the sides and the bottom, best indicated by viewing a cross-section of the canoe.
  • Bow: The canoe’s front (or forward end).
  • Deck: Triangular-shaped panels at the canoe’s bow and stern, to which the gunwales are attached.
  • Depth: Deepest part of the canoe, measured at the amidships from the top of the gunwales to the bottom of the canoe. Sometimes referred to as the “center depth.”
  • Draft: The depth of water needed for the canoe to float. It is also known as the distance between the keel of the canoe and the waterline.
  • Flare: The progressive widening of the hull from the waterline to the gunwales. It provides lift when waters are rough.
  • Flotation: Styrofoam or airbags placed into the panels of a canoe to promote buoyancy if destabilized or capsized.
  • Freeboard: The distance between the lowest point of the waterline and the gunwales, or the part that floats above the waterline.
  • Foot-brace: A metal or wood bar that provides support to the paddler, providing greater leverage on paddle strokes.
  • Fullness: The general structure of a canoe in terms of how it widens and how long it stays wide.
  • Gunwale: (pronounced “gunnel”) The finished edge around the hull that’s made from various materials.
  • Handles: Handgrips found at each end (bow and stern) to ease the burden of transportation.
  • Hogged: A canoe that features a bent-in keel line.
  • Hull: The broad structure, frame, or shell of the boat.
  • Inwale: The inside of the canoe’s gunwale.
  • Keel: A projection below the center of the boat’s hull that runs from bow to stern, adding strength to the hull. Typically found on wood or aluminum canoes.
  • Keel-line: The centerline that runs from bow to stern. It is located at the bottom of the canoe.
  • Maximum Width: The widest width between gunwales.
  • Outwale: The outside of the canoe’s gunwale.
  • Painters: These are ropes attached to either the bow or stern or both. They are used for pulling or lining and typically range from 15’ to 25′ (4.6 to 7.6 meters) in length.
  • Painter’s Rings: Brass rings used to attach painters (i.e., ropes).
  • Pick Pole: Used to propel boat in relatively shallow waters. Also referred to as a “canoe pole.”
  • Pike: Iron point of a canoe pole.
  • Planking: Lightweight boards attached to ribs of wood-canvas canoes. Their main function is to support the canvas.
  • Primary Stability: The canoe’s ability to remain upright in calm, smooth waters, such as a small lake.
  • Rail: See gunwale.
  • Ribs: Curved strips, running at angles to the keel, from gunwale to gunwale. They form the hull shape and provide it with rigidity and strength.
  • Rocker: The curvature of the keel, the sweep of which determines how easily the canoe pivots, with the more pronounced sweeps being the easiest.
  • Secondary Stability: The canoe’s ability to remain upright in rougher waters, such as whitewater rapids.
  • Spray Skirt: A fitted cover meant to close up the opening of a canoe to keep water out of the interior. It also retains body heat in frigid conditions. Another name for a “spray deck.”
  • Stems: Curved outer section of the frame which forms the extreme forward and back sections of the canoe.
  • Stern: The canoe’s back (or rear end).
  • Thwarts: Crossbars used to maintain the canoe’s structure, stretching from gunwale to gunwale.
  • Tracking: Describes how easily a canoe travels in a straight line.
  • Trim: The angle of how the canoe sits relative to the water. The canoe may tilt down at the bow, tilt down at the stern, or rest level with the water. A canoe with proper trim should rest level with the water.
  • Tumblehome: The inward curving of the sides of a canoe’s upper section, above the waterline, making it narrower at the gunwales and helping it keep water out.
  • Waterline: Where the water hits the hull of the canoe as it sits afloat. It varies depending on the weight inside the canoe.
  • Yoke: A strong crossbar with cushioned shoulder blocks. It is clamped onto the gunwale or mid-thwart to make carrying the canoe easier.

Step 3: Schedule Out the Details of Your Paddling Trip

Plan on Paddling with a Group

Almost all canoeing safety tips suggest not paddling alone if possible. Companions can help you watch on any approaching vehicle. It would also help if others were familiar with markers and buoys you may encounter, although it is your ultimate responsibility to know how to navigate these markers (source).

Group Safety

Having others in your canoe is a smart idea, but it doesn’t mean that you get to be lax with your safety protocol. Their safety becomes your responsibility, along with any other people boating nearby. Be sure that your passengers have all the necessary safety equipment. Furthermore, take care that they know how to use the signaling devices and hand/paddle warning signs. 

Before setting off, check to see that everyone is wearing life jackets and suitable clothing for the weather. If it’s a hot day out, advising your peers to bring along protective sunscreen and a hat doesn’t hurt. Moreover, make sure they understand the importance of not overloading the canoe or loading it off-balance. Lastly, assess your companions’ paddling skills, and go over all the plans for how to handle any necessary rescue.

Pick a Safe Paddling Route on Calm Waters

Until you are proficient in canoeing skills, it is best to paddle in calm water without obstacles or marine hazards. When making arrangements for your canoe outing, you must check long-time weather forecasts for the area you choose and follow up with short-term reports before heading out on the water.

Avoid routes that force you into tight corners and waterways crowded with debris. In addition, you should steer clear of areas near bridges, dams, and channels that have high boat traffic. Finally, it would be best to take special care to keep away from areas with cruise-line, military, or petroleum facilities. According to Homeland Security regulations, your personal watercraft is prohibited from venturing within 100 yards (91.44 meters) of these facilities (source).

Don’t Overextend Yourself with a Long Expedition

Give yourself some time to practice your newly-learned skills and knowledge before planning any extended or overnight trips. It takes time to learn how to maneuver, propel, and keep your canoe steady while trying to concentrate on all the safety precautions at the same time. It’s like driving a car in a way—you don’t take a cross-country trip the day you finish drivers’ education.

Step 4: Learn How to Launch the Canoe Onto the Water

The very brief video linked below offers worthwhile advice on how to launch a canoe with a partner. It’s best to have another person hold the canoe steady while the other person boards.

However, the launch process is slightly different when you’re canoeing alone. The video below takes you step-by-step on how to perform this launch process on your own. As you’ll see in the video, it’s best to have the canoe down in the water as much as possible but still at the shoreline. From this position, you can use the paddle to push off from shore.

Step 5: Experiment With the Different Paddling Strokes

Canoeists use a paddle with a single blade on either side of the boat. The canoe is guided by the paddler at the canoe’s stern, using a singular stroke or a combination of multiple strokes. Popular canoeing stroke techniques include the draw stroke, the power stroke, the reverse stroke, and the “J” stroke. To prevent the canoe from rocking, you should execute strokes in a smooth, fluent fashion.

To ensure the paddling expedition goes as smoothly as possible, the person paddling at the canoe’s stern should inform the person located at the bow of their stroke selection before starting the trip. This minimizes the chance of any directional mishaps in the future that could potentially lead to asynchrony and put you and your partner at risk for injury.

Descriptions and Demonstrations of Paddling Strokes

It’s difficult to learn the fundamental strokes of canoeing through verbal instruction. Instead, it’s a far better strategy to learn these canoeing strokes through visual instruction. To learn more about the essentials of canoe paddle strokes, watch the short clip below.

Of course, the only tried and true strategy to grasp these paddling maneuvers is to try them out for yourself. Reading through written instructions and watching videos online will only be able to take you so far.

Step 6: Review the Basics of Self-Rescue Techniques (for Further Safety)

If your canoe capsizes or a passenger falls overboard, there are a couple of proven strategies to use to help keep calm and get yourself out of harm’s way. To perform a rescue, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Stay with the canoe if you can.
  • If your life jacket isn’t on, locate it immediately. Put it on and make sure others do the same.
  • Signal for help. Use all devices available, including your cell phone if it’s still operational.
  • Check to see that no one is missing. Look to see if anyone is overboard and throw floating devices to anyone in distress.
  • If your canoe remains afloat, attempt to re-enter the canoe and get as much of your body out of the cold water as you can.
  • If you are close to shore, use one hand to sidestroke toward shore while holding onto the canoe with the other hand.
  • Don’t panic if the canoe sinks. Try to grab buoyant items such as paddles, dry bags, or coolers to help hold you up as you swim to shore.

Additional Rescue Techniques

  • The Towing a Swimmer Technique allows a swimmer whose boat has drifted away to hold on to your canoe stern, allowing them some relief from cold water as you tow them to shore.
  • The Bulldozing Technique involves the rescuer using his boat to push the overboard swimmer’s capsized boat closer toward the swimmer.
  • The Boat-Over-Boat Technique is when the safe boater pulls the capsized boat over his bow as the overboard swimmer helps to push it up. From here, the boat can be flipped back over, emptied of water, and pushed back onto the water in its normal, upright position.

Legal Obligations Involving Rescue

Canoeists on United States waters are legally obligated to help any other boater they see or hear in distress, so long as doing so doesn’t put the rescuer or their crew at risk. 

The organization advises that the rescuer try to get a flotation device to the swimmer as soon as possible while being careful not to destabilize their own boat or allow the swimmer’s pull on the rope to rock theirs out of balance. In addition, the floating device should be thrown past the person in distress, making it easier for them to grab it.

In addition to the safety gear listed above as essential and recommended, it’s advised that you consider carrying extra for added safety precaution. These additional items (that have not already been suggested) include:

  • helmet
  • first-aid kit
  • leash
  • rescue hardware (such as carabiners, webbing, or a z-drag kit)

Top Beginner Tips for a Successful Canoeing Outing

1) Learn the basics of canoeing via an in-person or online course. Having some baseline of knowledge before your first canoeing session will significantly ease the learning phase.

2) Check the weather where you plan to go canoeing. It’s advised that you take note of long-term and short-term forecasts. Be aware that weather conditions can fluctuate quickly over water.

3) Write up a Float Plan of your itinerary and leave it with a responsible person onshore. Inform them when you expect to depart onto the water and when you expect to return. The float plan should also include:

  • Names of those paddling with you
  • Where you expect to be canoeing
  • The route you plan to take
  • The make and model of your canoe
  • The color of your canoe

4) Obtain marine charts to check for local hazards. This is a useful tool for canoeists that are paddling in unfamiliar waters.

5) Ask yourself the following questions before heading out on the water:

  • WHO is going on this trip? Canoes come in different sizes, so you’re going to want to make sure that the size and weight capacity of your canoe matches up with the boarding party.
  • WHAT are you bringing? There’s typically extra space for a whole host of other boating and camping accessories on a canoe, but this doesn’t mean you should overload the boat.
  • WHEN do you plan on canoeing? Take into account the time of year and weather in order to prepare accordingly.
  • WHERE are you going to paddle?  The aquatic landscape will have an effect on what gear you bring. For instance, if you’re canoeing in tight places, it’s in your best interest to carry a shorter paddle for navigational purposes. If you’re in calm waters, a flat-bottom canoe would be ideal.
  • WHY are you canoeing in the first place?  The reason that you’re canoeing can have a tremendous impact on the pace and rigor of your journey. Are you paddling for exercise, excitement, birdwatching?
  • HOW is your skill level? Knowing your paddling limits is essential to maintaining your own personal safety. Pushing past your limits unnecessarily will likely only result in danger or injury.

6) Bring life jackets or other personal flotation devices (PDFs) that the Coast Guard approves. As a general rule of thumb, you should carry one for every passenger.

7) Familiarize yourself with all legal safety regulations, such as state registration requirements and local launch permits. This includes knowing the proper hand and paddle signals and how to identify and navigate all navigation markers (source).

8) Apply the waterproof “Paddle Smart Identification” sticker with your contact information. If your canoe is lost and is eventually found, your canoe will be easily recognizable with this sticker.

9) Only use canoeing equipment that has been maintenance-checked. This prevents any potential catastrophes down the line.

10) Paddle as close to shore as possible until you’ve gathered a proficient amount of experience. This is especially true for those that do not consider themselves strong swimmers.

Final Thoughts

Despite all the focus on safety and rescue, your first outing should be a safe, pleasurable experience. So long as you’ve had a basic introduction to the fundamentals of canoeing, you shouldn’t run into any major complications.

So take it easy, enjoy the connection with nature, do your best not to rock the boat, and bask in all the health benefits of canoeing. Just don’t forget those life jackets!

Sources: 1 2 3 4

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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