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Canoeing For Beginners: A Guide To Get You Started


Young or old, trying something new is always exciting, and open canoeing, or Canadian canoeing, is a wonderful way to experience time on the water in a new way, whatever your age. Our guide to canoeing for beginners will help you understand what to expect and how to prepare for your first dip into the watery world of canoe paddling.

These floating transportation crafts may be new to you, but canoes are far from novel to mankind – remains of the earliest ‘dugouts’ have been found in the Netherlands, dating back to 8200 BC. In the past they were used to take on the high seas and conquer new lands, or to carry out the everyday necessities of fishing and hunting. And although there have been some significant technical upgrades throughout their history, the basic form of canoes remains unchanged.

Once you’ve experienced the simplicity of canoe life, you can easily while away the hours on the calm of a wilderness lake, fishing rod in hand. Or take to the river on a faster-paced journey to some place new. However you choose to use your paddle power, you’ll be sure to create some lasting memories that’ll leave you wanting more time playing on the river, Huckleberry Finn style.

Getting started on your canoeing journey

Before you delved into details about how to canoe and what to wear, it’s a good idea to understand a bit more about what to expect from a day canoeing, to see if it’s something you might want to try. Read on to find out.

Who is canoeing for?

Canoeing is for anyone who loves being outdoors and exploring. So long as you are wearing a buoyancy aid, you don’t even need to be able to swim. The waterways often take you far away from roads and towns so it’s a great chance to get away from it all.

Canoeing is also ideal for families, as the wee ones can just chill out in the boat whist you put in all the hard work. Plus, the older they get, the more they can get involved providing you with a your very own gondolier to escort you down the river!

Where can I go canoeing?

Well, although this may seem like an obvious question, there are actually loads of ways to approach where to go paddling, depending on your level and intrepidity. For total beginners, the best place to learn is on a lake or a slow moving river or canal. As you progress, you can take your boat to faster rivers and sheltered ocean bays, and then to the open seas and on gnarly whitewater river descents:

There are some legal restrictions to consider too. If you have your own boat then it will need a license to be paddled on certain rivers, and some bodies of water have access restrictions. So to be sure, make sure you contact your local governing body for canoeing, who will be able to point you in the right direction.

What to expect from your first time canoeing

Total serenity, closeness to nature and a slowed down pace of life. You can take photos, have a picnic in the boat or on the river banks, and if you are paddling downstream then you can often just sit back and let the current take you. But that’s only if you’ve mastered how to make your canoe go in a straight line! Otherwise, you should expect to slowly pin-ball from bank to bank as you overcompensate for every misjudged paddle stroke. This can be a little frustrating to say the least – especially when you see other paddlers going in a totally straight line with seemingly zero effort.

You should also expect to get a soggy backside, cold hands and a good shoulder and core workout.

How to get started on your first canoeing trip

Unfortunately, canoeing isn’t the easiest sport to just buy the gear and then go do. Not impossible though, and you can pick up some fun inflatable canoes without breaking the bank. But the best and easiest way to give paddling a go, is to rent a canoe. Most decent rivers will have a canoe rental outfit during the tourist season, where you can rent boats, paddles and safety gear for an hour or even a whole day. On safe rivers, you won’t need any prior experience and you’ll be dumped in your boat, have to fend for yourself and be expected to be back at base at an appointed time. Although this can be great fun for the more adventurous, it can also be a little daunting without the knowledge of how to turn or stop your boat, or the all-important knowledge of how not to capsize!

Tandem canoeing for beginners

So if you are totally new to the boating world, then it would be a good idea to get onto a paddling tour or beginner taster session where you will be taught the basics of how to paddle and how to rescue yourself if you do go under. Once you’ve got the bug, joining a canoeing club can be the most accessible way to get the best out of the rivers. Your membership to the club usually covers use of the boats and equipment, information, training and insurance. You will also get the benefit of going on organised trips with like-minded, boat-mad paddlers who are always good for a laugh.

What to wear canoeing

This is fairly dependent on the climate you are paddling in. At certain times of the year you will need to wear little more than your swimmers or a pair of quick drying shorts and a t-shirt, and at others, a fully insulated and waterproof getup will be more appropriate. This should include:

  • waterproof jacket or dry cag
  • waterproof trousers
  • thermal base layers
  • insulated jacket or fleece jumper

Either way, it’s a good idea to bring some spare, warm layers to get into incase you fall in and can’t warm up. These should be stored in a dry bag and secured to your boat. You should also wear shoes that are grippy and quick drying. Although it is tempting not to wear any shoes at all, you’ll be thankful for some protection against the unknown debris at the bottom of the lake or river if you capsize.

You should always wear a fully checked and approved buoyancy aid.

What to take canoeing

One of the great things about canoeing is that you don’t need to limit what you take with you, within reason. Pack up a fancy champagne picnic basket for a romantic relax on the river bank, or fill dry bags and barrels with camping gear for a weeklong trip. Just don’t go too overboard on weight and make sure your cargo is secured well to the boat using carabiners and rope, and it’ll be plain sailing all the way. For a regular day of paddling on the river you will need:

How to paddle in a straight line

Assuming you are paddling as a two person team, in tandem, your roles in the canoe will be slightly different. The person at the front, the bow paddler, is the paddling powerhouse and doesn’t need to worry too much about the direction of the boat. This job is the left to the person at the back, the stern paddler, who will be in charge of steering – no pressure! That’s not to say the roles don’t cross over – they absolutely do, and it’s imperative that you work together as a team and not compete against each other.

If you want to learn more about how to canoe then read our guide to basic canoeing techniques, strokes and skills.

Where to learn more about canoeing

For more information on how to take your first steps into the unstable bottom of an open canoe, have a read of Canoe and Kayak Magazine or The Paddler Mag.

Your local governing body will point you in the right direction for insurance and club membership details: BCU or USACK.


About the author


Joey is based in Cornwall, UK, and runs Cool of the Wild. She can’t get enough of being outdoors – whether that’s lounging around the campfire cooking up a feast, hitting the trail in her running shoes, or attempting to conquer the waves on her surfboard – she lives for it. Camping is what she loves to do the most, but has also spent many hours clinging to the side of a rock face, cycling about the place, cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard, and hiking small mountains and big hills.

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