Get Started Canoeing

you can get started canoeing in the Boundary Waters
Canoeing in the Boundary Waters, Minnesota

Canoeing is a great example of an outdoor activity that’s both entry-level and can be advanced, depending on the water you paddle and your goals. You can get started canoeing with minimal skill, and enjoy learning more as you do it more.

If you want to learn to canoe, here’s how to get results the fastest:

  • Go with friends who are experienced and want to teach you. And go a lot.
  • Take a course through an outfitter, park or paddle sports retailer. You can find local courses with certified instructors through the American Canoe Association.
  • Go on a multi-day wilderness trip with an outfitter or experienced friends. I guarantee you’ll be very comfortable in a canoe by the end!

Tips on Using a Canoe

Center the Weight

Canoes will tip very easily if the weight isn’t centered in the boat. When getting in and out, or when moving around in the canoe, keep your weight low and in the center. Hang on to the sides as you’re moving.

This photo shows a great way to help your passengers get in and out—stabilize the canoe by sitting on the end that’s still landed (be sure it’s not too high out of the water!):

canoe entry
Scott, in the back, is stabilizing the canoe for Lisa to get in without dumping it!

Steer a Canoe

The paddler in the rear (the stern) handles the steering, while the paddler in front (the bow) supplies extra power.

The novice way to steer is for the stern paddler to continually switch sides to keep the canoe going forward in a straight line. But the most efficient way to steer is to learn and use a combination of “J” and “C” strokes that keep the boat in line.

If you’re paddling with a current or for just a short time, it doesn’t matter too much. But when you’re on the water all day, switching sides constantly is a lot more tiring.

If you get on multi-day trips, learning the strokes is essential. But they’re not hard and with a little practice you’ll be a pro in no time.

Bring an Extra Paddle

If you’re going to be out all day and especially for a few days, bring along an extra paddle. Although it’s rare, paddles do break. We’ve had to pull out our extra a time or two over the years.

Canoes will Float if Tipped

If that unfortunate event happens to you, stick with the boat. Even if it’s full of water, the canoe will stay on the surface. You’ll still have to get it back to shore, but at least you won’t have to worry about salvaging it off the bottom!

Paddles float, too, but if you tip hang on to it! Wind and current can move it out of reach quickly.

Canoe rescue is an important safety skill to learn if you’ll be paddling regularly.

On the upside, a capsized canoe can be great fun for the kids! Our three used to take our canoe out into deep water and use it as a jumping platform.

canoe and paddle on a misty lake
This aluminum canoe has been through decades of Boundary Waters trips! And that’s my beautiful Bending Branches paddle

Tips on Buying a Canoe

Weight and Length Varies…and Matters!

If you decide you want to buy a canoe, know that they come in all different lengths and weights. Solo canoes are around 14 feet, and they go up from there. A 16-17 footer is a nice length for an all-around, all-purpose canoe.

The weight is mostly determined by the material the canoe is made of. The most common are aluminum, fiberglass, Royalex and Kevlar. Kevlar is the lightest, and therefore also most expensive.

65 pounds is about the top limit for women if you’ll be throwing it up on your car for transporting or if you plan to portage it. Kevlars are in the 40-50 pound range, which is wonderful. Most of the rentals you’ll find for wilderness tripping (at least in Minnesota) these days are Kevlar.

Canoes are Durable

Since a canoe will last for decades if cared for properly, buying a used one can be a great option. We found our Old Town Penobscot (17 foot, 65 pounds) on Craigslist a few years ago for $650 compared to about $1,400 new. With some minimal maintenance it’ll last us the rest of our lives.

For that reason, you definitely want to keep weight in mind—don’t buy a heavy one. There are better options out there!

If you see a used canoe, find out the make and model. All the canoe makers list the length and weight of their canoes on their website. It’s not hard to research.

Buy Good Paddles

If you’re going to invest in a canoe, don’t do what we did for years and buy the cheapest paddles you can find. Invest in comfortable, light and well-made canoe paddles—you won’t regret it!

Your paddle is your motor. You’ll have less muscle strain and fatigue, fewer blisters and just a better experience. A good paddle should last 2-3 decades, too.

My recommendation is Bending Branches. I’m biased, I know, because I write for them. But I use their paddles and communicate with people all over the world who use them, too.

They’re top-notch, plus the company has amazing customer service and do great things for the paddle community.

portaging a canoe
Portaging a canoe, Boundary Waters style

Buy a Paddling-Specific Life Jacket

A life jacket (Personal Flotation Device or PFD) is essential safety equipment for everyone in the canoe.

You can buy a cheap one, as long as it’s Coast Guard approved. But I recommend buying one designed for paddlers. There’s less bulk around the shoulders which makes paddling easier.

Some also have pockets to stow small items like lip balm, keys, your phone and a map.

Learn More about Canoeing

Want more info to get you started canoeing? I’m going to steer you to Bending Branches’ blog. We’ve been building great content on their website for a few years now, so there’s a wealth of info there.

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