How to Canoe – For Beginners

Last Updated: 09.07.20


While the Ugly Stik Bigwater combo is certainly a great tool for fishing in a canoe, you don’t need to be an angler to go sailing in one of these. While canoeing can be hard for beginners since both of them have to paddle and keep the boat straight, it can become a favorite past time once you get used to it.


A little bit of history

For anybody who does not know, a canoe is a light and narrow boat pointed at both ends and also open on top, propelled by humans (or whatever creatures are able to row) with the help of one or more paddles.

It’s hard to say exactly when canoeing started because the latest discoveries show they have been around for thousands of years. A while ago, a team of archaeologists managed to discover the remains of a dugout canoe among some old ruins which people believe to be some 8000 years old.

Even though today canoeing is a sport in its own right, it was not always like this. A great number of years ago, canoeing was used as a form of transportation and clues from the long history of Indian canoes go a long way toward making us understand the road it took to get us to this point.

As a rule of thumb, it is well-known that in North America, the very first canoes were used by the indigenous people in the Caribbean area to frequently travel between their islands.



What is a canoe made of?

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans had two main ways in which they designed their canoes, both of them based on the region they lived in. 

In the northeast and upper Midwest, the primary type of boat was the birch bark canoe. This was built right-side-up on a wooden skeleton surrounded by bark, lashed together with roots, planked, ribbed, and sealed with the aid of pitch.

On the other hand, the south, starting from the Gulf of Mexico and going all the way west to the Pacific Ocean, had chosen the dugout canoe as their boat of choice. There is no need to be confused by the name because this canoe was exactly that: a log partially hollowed by using tools and fire, expanded with hot water and later sharpened at the ends.

The Natives had to make this choice out of ecological necessity because while paper birch forests supplied the raw materials for the north and the east, the other two cardinal points had to rely on the use of cypress, redwood, cedar, and so on. 

After the Civil War was over, the quick advances in manufacturing coupled with a certain scarcity of right-sized birch trees led to new canoe ideas. These remodeled boats were being built upside-down from a strip of wood over molds, rather than going for the traditional choice of right-side-up from bark.


Modern canoe information

Most modern canoes are made from plastic as this makes them forgiving on the body while still durable and sturdy, especially for beginners who will need all the patience they can get.

When it comes to thinking about the best types of canoes for beginners, shape is not a huge consideration but it is probably worth mentioning that generally, its length will affect the speed of the boat but also its maneuverability.

The longer and thinner the canoe, the faster it will be able to get in a straight line but beginners may find turning it quite the difficult task. Likewise, a shorter canoe will turn easier but it may not glide so well as its longer counterpart.

Furthermore, the width of the canoe will have an impact on its stability, so wider ones will usually be a better choice for beginners because they will allow them to experiment with a softer learning curve.

When buying a canoe, the ‘you get what you pay for’ saying could never be truer. Cheaper ones will be heavier and harder to transport. They will also be less durable and this will play a crucial part when trying to paddle as a beginner since you will be likely to take a few knocks starting out.

As you move up the scale, the canoes become lighter and lighter and the prices become steeper and steeper. Therefore, in comparison to, for instance, cars, where beginners should get a cheap one to start with, a more expensive canoe is probably the better choice.

Money-wise, prices start at $600 and can get up to well over $2000-$3000 for wooden and personalized designs. You should be able to pick up a good quality and perfect for beginners canoe for around $900 to $1000. 

Among the more traditional canoe designs, you will find the ‘prospector’, which is a design made by many different companies due to its popularity. 


Canoeing basics

‘What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other’, wrote former Canadian PM, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Before you canoe that long of a distance, however, you should probably get a grip on the basics of Canada’s other national sport.



Where to start

The absolute best way to start this is tandem canoeing since keeping the boat straight is a much easier job when two people are involved, rather than a single one. While many people never take a formal lesson and instead learn from friends or family during summer vacations, a basic skills course can cut down on the frustration of zigzagging or tipping (falling from the boat). 

You can be sure to find recreational canoe, kayak, and even stand-up paddleboard instructions pretty much everywhere there is a steady and large stream of water around. Basic skills courses run from two to four hours while a one-day course on canoes can prove to be a more thorough training.

Beginners will want to start with calm, warm water that is close to the shore. A good choice for this would be a safe lake or even a pond, a small body of water unlikely to get wavy or agitated because of a current

We feel that it goes without saying that anybody wanting to get into a canoe should know how to swim or at least feel comfortable with a life jacket on and in water.


Equipment you will need

Even though many parks and campgrounds rent canoe packages with everything you need, it’s still a good idea to run through all the items just to be on the safe side.

First things first, you will obviously need a canoe. They are generally quite stable but, as we said, the longer and wider the canoe, the greater stability it has. For two people on board, the common size range is anywhere from 15 to over 17 feet long.

If you want to move your canoe, you will need two paddles. Determining the right paddle size is an art form in itself, but we’ve got you covered! Turn the paddle upside down, with the grip on the floor. If the throat of the paddle, where the blade begins, reaches between your chin and nose, then you’ve got a match!

You may also want to get a personal flotation device for each person, even though not all places make you wear them. However, the life jackets will work much better if you put them on. 

You will notice some other safety equipment is also needed. Usually, this will mean a whistle to be able to call for help, a bailer, and a rope at least 49 feet long.


Getting in the canoe

Even though getting in the boat can still be done without getting your feet wet, it’s a much easier task when you wear footwear that does not mind a little water.

Your sweet spot for this chore is the centerline of the canoe. You will want to maintain three points of contact, stabilizing the boat on both sides while stepping on that centerline with your first foot.

Have your partner kneel and hold the canoe while you step in, then you do the same thing in reverse for them. Getting in from shallow water or from a beach work in a similar way.


Basic strokes

Partners need to work together by paddling on opposite sides of the canoe, therefore creating stability and helping the boat move in a straight line. The front person just paddles forward while the rear one also steers.

Basic strokes you should learn are forward and backward paddling, the draw, and the pry. For people in the stern, the sweep and the j-stroke will help you guide the boat to its destination.

To start a simple paddle forward you have to reach ahead of you, dig the paddle into the water and pull toward you, stopping after your hip. A sweep is also just what it sounds like: with the paddle in front of you, sweep with the blade in a half-circle to finish at the back of your canoe.



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