How to paddle a canoe (with pictures)

How to paddle a canoe (with pictures)
How to paddle a canoe (with pictures)

With its slim, tapered silhouette and top opening, the canoe has not changed since its invention by the indigenous peoples of North America, yet it remains one of the most popular choices for amateur paddlers and aficionados. Compared to other types of watercraft like kayaking, it may take some practice to learn to paddle a canoe. However, once you get there, you will have found a free and clean way to visit wildlife trails on your own or with friends, it is well worth it!


Part 1 of 3: paddle forward

Paddle a Canoe Step 1

Step 1. Buy or rent safety equipment before you begin

Just like all water activities, safety is one of the most important things when you canoe, which is why you need to make sure you have the right equipment before you go on an adventure. Although rare, tragic accidents like drowning are not to be taken lightly. Equipment tips are provided below, but contact a relevant local authority (for example, the National Parks and Forestry Office) to request more specific information about what equipment you should bring. Also see the “Items Needed” section at the end of this article for more information.

  • An approved life jacket that fits you well (you must wear it at all times when you are in the water).
  • A helmet (if you are going to paddle in white water).
  • A floating paddle large enough to almost reach your shoulder when standing.
  • A compact, airtight bag to store the gear you take with you.
  • On top of that, you need to be at least a 'good enough swimmer' as canoe capsizing can be a common problem for beginners.
Paddle a Canoe Step 2

Step 2. Keep a low center of gravity to keep your balance in the canoe

The first time you step into a canoe, you will surely notice that it is difficult to find your balance and that every movement causes the boat to sway in unexpected ways. To counter this problem, stay as low as possible, you can even sit or kneel in the canoe until you feel more stable. Most canoe seats should give you enough balance as long as you are not moving or standing. If you are paddling on your own, sit in the back and keep your equipment in front of you so you can steer the boat. If you don't have a lot of equipment, it might be easier to sit in the middle.

  • Try to sit as upright as possible in your seat. Keeping your body perpendicular to the surface of the water (usually this means straight) will give you better balance.
  • Do not worry ! The boat will be much more stable when paddling in the water because the resistance the moving water gives to the boat keeps it upright.
Paddle a Canoe Step 3

Step 3. Catch the paddle with one hand on the top and place the other hand about three inches lower

Sit securely in the boat and grab the paddle with both hands.

  • Place one hand on top of the end of the paddle (usually it should be rounded there, if not, grab the handle near the end). We will call this “the hand on the boat side”.
  • Use your other hand to grab a lower point on the neck where you feel comfortable. Usually this point is about one foot above the floating part of the paddle. It is not advisable to catch the paddle just above the flat part, as this will force you to force the paddle. Turn your hands so that the lower palm is facing the boat. We will call this "the hand on the water side".
Paddle a Canoe Step 4

Step 4. Launch the paddle forward

It's time to start paddling! Start by rotating your torso so that the water side shoulder faces forward. Move the paddle forward (out of the water), then plant it in the water so that the paddle blade (but not the shaft too much) is submerged. Keep the handle of the paddle as vertical as possible for more strength.

Pay attention to your body position as you paddle. You should throw yourself as far as possible without moving from your seat or leaning forward too much. It could make you lose your balance

Paddle a Canoe Step 5

Step 5. Bring the paddle back towards you

Rotate the paddle blade so it is perpendicular to the boat (and the direction you are paddling). Use your arm and core muscles to pull the paddle out of the water in a straight line parallel to the center line of the boat.

  • Try to keep the paddle close to the boat when pushing down on it (some sources even advise making the inside edge of the paddle touch with the canoe). A paddle that is too wide could cause the boat to overturn.
  • It is important to have good muscle control in order to paddle effectively. You should especially use your core muscles to give strength to your stroke, not your back muscles, as this may give you cramps and pain after canoeing.
Paddle a Canoe Step 6

Step 6. Repeat the movement with your hip

Stop applying force to the paddle when the blade is level with your hip. Start bringing the blade up and out of the water. Rotate the paddle so the blade is parallel to the surface as you throw it forward for the next stroke.

You are now in your starting position! Just repeat the previous steps to continue paddling, the canoe should gain momentum and move forward at a good pace. However, if you only paddle one side of the canoe, you will be going in circles. Read the information later in this article to learn how to paddle both sides

Paddle a Canoe Step 7

Step 7. Switch sides as you paddle after two or three strokes

If you've ever seen someone paddle, you've probably noticed that they pull the paddle out of the water every two or three strokes and pass it to the other side. This allows the canoe to go in a straight line, because if you only paddle one side you will end up circling. To move the paddle to the other side, lift it out of the water when it is level with your hip. Take it out perpendicular to the boat and pass it to the other side of the canoe, changing the position of the hands to find a more natural one. Immerse the paddle in the water and paddle as you did before.

  • Try to practice several times to find the right “rhythm” for changing sides of the paddle. Most of the time, it will be enough to change every two or three strokes, but the exact number depends on the shape of the paddle and how much force you put into your paddle strokes.
  • If you are paddling in tandem (i.e. there are two of you in the canoe), you should coordinate your side changes with your partner. See the instructions below for how to paddle with a partner.

Part 2 of 3: controlling the direction

Paddle a Canoe Step 8

Step 1. Continue paddling to one side to turn slightly

The best way to turn the canoe is probably the easiest, assuming you are seated in the back or center of the canoe, just paddle as you would on one side to make the canoe start to turn. So if you want to turn left paddle right and if you want to turn right paddle left. You should observe that the direction of the boat changes with each stroke of the paddle.

This method is great for making small directional corrections, because even if you don't turn fast, you don't lose speed either. For example, if you see a sandbar a hundred yards in front of you, you could use this technique to get around it, you are in no rush

Paddle a Canoe Step 9

Step 2. Use J-paddle strokes for more controlled turns

When you canoe you may find that while paddling on one side of the boat is often the most efficient way to turn, there are times when you need to change direction quickly. One of the quickest ways to do this is called a J paddle stroke. The best way to use this technique is to sit in the back of the boat.

  • To do a J-paddle, put the paddle in the water behind you so that it is almost flat against the edge of the boat, almost in contact with it. As you do this, rotate your torso so that your shoulders are parallel to the edge of the boat. Use your core and chest muscles to return to a normal position, facing the front of the boat. This should make the paddle turn a bit on its side and the boat should turn to the same side as the paddle is on, as if you have a rudder.
  • Avoid overusing this technique. While it can help you turn quickly, it will also slow your momentum.
Paddle a Canoe Step 10

Step 3. Use wide back sweeps to take tight turns

The J-paddle discussed above is just a smaller version of a special paddle stroke called a "back sweep." By increasing the size of the reverse sweep, you will increase the speed at which you turn. However, the wider back sweeps will also slow you down, which is why you should reserve them for situations where you need them or you are going to have to paddle harder to regain speed.

To do a back sweep, start with the paddle behind you as if you were doing a J-paddle. This time when you straighten your torso let the paddle swing all the way to the side, it should be perpendicular to the side of the back. boat when you complete the movement. You should immediately notice that the boat is turning on the same side of the paddle

Paddle a Canoe Step 11

Step 4. Otherwise, use “draws” to spin

There is another technique for turning at a tight angle called a "draw". This technique is effective, but since its shape is different from other techniques, it can be difficult to perform while moving unless you are an experienced paddler. Try it at a slower speed before calling it in serious situations.

  • To do a draw, you must plant the paddle in the water directly to your side. Your arms should stay as straight as possible, the paddle should be as vertical as possible and the arm on the boat side should be above your head. Bring the paddle back towards the boat until it touches or is very close to it, keeping the blade parallel to the side of the canoe as you do this. If you are sitting in the back of the canoe, it should go in the opposite direction of the blade.
  • Take the paddle out of the water by pulling it backwards without changing the orientation of the blade. From this point on, you can easily switch to a standard paddle stroke or a J stroke.

Part 3 of 3: paddling with a partner

Paddle a Canoe Step 12

Step 1. Sit on opposite sides of the canoe

Tandem driving is similar to solo driving, but it also has some crucial differences. When two people are seated in the same boat, it is important to keep the boat balanced in the water. You should then make sure that one person is seated in the front of the boat and the other in the back. This is the position that should feel the most natural to you and give you the most balance.

  • If one person is heavier than the other, you should consider placing that person's equipment on the other side of the canoe to distribute the weight evenly.
  • In nautical parlance, we often speak of the "bow" for the bow of a boat and the "stern" for the stern.
Paddle a Canoe Step 13

Step 2. Let the paddler at the bow set the pace

When you paddle in tandem, you must synchronize your paddling strokes to start and end them at the same time. Since the person in front is facing the other and not seeing them, it is this one that sets the pace. This means that the stern paddler should synchronize their paddle strokes with those of the bow one, not the other way around. Of course, paddlers need to talk to each other to establish a comfortable pace for both of them, good communication is the key to a quick trip in a good mood.

Paddle a Canoe Step 14

Step 3. Let the stern paddler take care of the steering

The person at the back of the canoe will still be able to determine the direction of the boat more easily than the person in front. Thus, the paddler at the back should make sure that the canoe is heading in the right direction. He should use standard techniques and more special techniques like J-paddling to keep the boat going in the right direction. The paddler up front could help, but usually won't be able to choose which one to take directly.

The reason that the person in the back has more control over the direction of the boat is because of the resistance force than water applied to the boat. Basically, since the front of the boat enters the water first, it constantly feels the pressure of the water as it pushes out the sides. On the other hand, the rear doesn't have that kind of problem, which is why it receives less pressure from the surrounding water, which makes it easier to maneuver

Paddle a Canoe Step 15

Step 4. Synchronize your side changes to move forward in a straight line

When you paddle forward, you will be able to move forward in a straight line as you both paddle on opposite sides. To make sure you don't accidentally start paddling on the same side causing the boat to spin, be sure to switch sides at the same time. Usually, the person at the bow calls for a change of sides when the time comes to do so.

Be aware, however, that since the paddler at the back has better control of the direction of the boat, the canoe will gradually turn away from the side on which the paddler in the back is paddling, even if the one at the back is paddling. 'front paddle on the opposite side, which is why it is important to change sides

Paddle a Canoe Step 16

Step 5. Know the difference in direction control techniques for the front paddler

When you add a second paddler, the steering control becomes slightly different. While the change-of-direction techniques described in the previous paragraph will also work, the efforts of the front paddler to steer the canoe may act differently due to their position in front of the boat. If the bow paddler understands these differences, they can help change the direction of the boat. Here is a summary of the different techniques the front paddler can use to change direction.

  • Paddling forward works normally (the boat will "pull away" from the paddler's paddle in the front).
  • The draws work upside down (the boat will turn towards the paddler's paddle up front).
  • Instead of back sweeping, the front paddler typically uses a technique called a "forward sweep" to help control the direction of the boat. This is actually the opposite movement of the back sweep, the front paddler throws the paddle forward and then out of the water sideways at a wide angle to the surface of the water. This acts as a more powerful version of the regular front paddle stroke, causing the boat to move away from the front paddler's paddle.


  • If you are paddling alone, the canoe is symmetrical, and you prefer to sit in the front rather than the back, try turning the canoe (putting the front seat in the back) and sitting down with facing forward (the direction you are heading). This will allow you to sit in your preferred seat without affecting your paddling technique.
  • If you are paddling alone and sitting in the back, you could add a pocket full of rocks or a water container on the opposite side to keep the boat balanced. You could also just sit or kneel in the center of the canoe, although you can spin the canoe better if you sit in the back.

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