Can You Canoe Without Knowing How To Swim?

Can you canoe without knowing how to swim

It is no secret that there are certain varying risks that come with canoeing. These risks are mainly dependent on your skill level combined with the body of water you canoe in and how dangerous it is to navigate. But as canoeing becomes more popular as a recreational activity many newcomers to canoeing wonder if it is possible to canoe without knowing how to swim?

It is possible to canoe without knowing how to swim but you must take precautions and limit the types of activities you are involved in. Only canoe in mild weather and calm water. Canoeists, especially those who cannot swim, should always take necessary safety precautions such as wearing a PFD and carrying a whistle to alert others when they are in trouble.

How risky is it to go canoeing without knowing how to swim?

Swimming is not an essential skill to have if you plan to go out on the water in a canoe but is is a very desirable skill to have.

It is possible to go canoeing without knowing how to swim but it is much safer to learn how to swim if you want to canoe regularly.

Being able to sim could save your life if your canoe tips over and/or you end up in the water.

However, if you are intent on going canoeing even though you do not know how to swim, we are going to talk about the risks involved and outline the precautions that you can take to minimize those risks.

Canoeing, and any water-based activity, can pose a bigger risk to someone who does not know how to swim because they will be in greater danger of drowning than someone who knows how to swim.

However, canoeing does not require you to have this skill as long as you can properly handle the boat and you take the necessary safety precautions.

Precautions to take before canoeing

It is important to take specific steps to protect yourself before diving headfirst into canoeing.

There are safety precautions you should always take before you go canoeing but these are especially important for those who cannot swim.

Wear a PFD

A PFD is a Personal Flotation Device, the most common of which is a life jacket. Every canoeist should wear a PFD.

A PFD is a life-saver for people who cannot sim because it helps to keep the wearer afloat in the water.

Wearing a PFD will keep you afloat in the water with your head, and airways, well above the waterline. Wearing a PFD will also allow you to float until rescue arrives. If you have even rudimentary swimming skills a PFD will allow you to paddle your way with your hands back to your canoe or land.

No matter how mild the weather and how calm the water you should never canoe without wearing a PFD, especially if you cannot swim.

Not all PFDs are created equal. You need to be very selective when you pick one.

Here are some pointers you have to consider when choosing the right PFD for you:

  • Don’t penny-pinch! Invest in a good PFD. It could save your life and your life is priceless!
  • Fit is important. PFDs can be a pain when trying to put on or take off. Make sure that you get a PFD that is fairly easy to wear and easy to take off.
  • Comfort is also important. Get a PFD that fits snugly to your body but that does not restrict your movements or hamper your breathing.
  • Buy a PFD that has a good padding. When you are buying a PFD, check that it has sufficient padding especially around the back to ensure that it gives you good buoyancy.
  • Bright colored PFDs are advisable because they make it easier for people to spot you in the water.
  • Durability should also be considered when buying a PFD so that you will have something that is made of high-quality materials. Read reviews of different PFDs to see what others are saying about them.

There are some great high quality PFDs on the market many of which have whistles and flares built into them for additional safety.

Attach a whistle to your PFD

Many high quality PFDs will come with a whistle attached. However, be sure you get a plastic whistle rather than a metal one as they are more resistant to water erosion.

A whistle is used to alert other people nearby that you are in trouble. Never leave on a canoeing trip without one.

Carry flares

Another safety precaution you can take when you plan to go canoeing without knowing how to swim is to carry a flare. Though not an essential item a flare gun is both cheap and lightweight and it could save your life.

Many boat flares are designed to be carried onboard the boat, many times inside a recuse or recuse kit, but as a non-swimmer you need to make sure you carry a flare on your person – in a pocket of your PFD or attached to it.

Although as a non-swimmer you should not be canoeing in anything but mild weather and very calm water, a flare is a great way of alerting people that you are in trouble even in the worst types of weather conditions.

Consider taking canoeing lessons

If you plan to canoe without knowing how to swim then you should at least learn some fundamental paddling skills from a professional before venturing onto the water on your own.

As well as teaching you how to handle the canoe a professional canoe instructor will teach you what to do if you fall into the water.

If you do fall into the water keeping calm is essential for handling the situation because if you panic then the chances of you getting yourself in a far worse situation increases.

If you do not know how to swim then you should practice some basic canoeing skills in safe, calm water with a professional or experienced canoeist before going out on the water alone.

The instructor will not only help you learn how to paddle but he/she will also show you what to do if you fall into the water.

You should consider seeking professional instruction not only because it is dangerous to do be involved in any water-based activity without having the necessary skills but not being able to swim also increases your likelihood of being in a more serious incident or possibly even drowning.

Guidelines when canoeing if you can’t swim

Below are some safety tips to follow while you are canoeing if you cannot swim.

Do not go beyond your comfort zone

It is important to acknowledge your limitations, it is okay to avoid waters that you are not comfortable paddling in no matter how easy them seem to others.

It is advisable for you to start canoeing in fairly shallow bodies of water. Ensure you do not stray too away far from the banks or shore if you do decide to canoe in deeper bodies of water.

Although in many activities you should strive to get better by stretching your limits, this does not apply to any type of boating activity when you cannot swim!

After you become confident and comfortable enough, you can consider other places to go canoeing which are a little more challenging but in the beginning stay in safer waters.

You should start with canoeing in shallow waters and go with someone who is knowledgeable about the activity, so that they can give you pointers and help you improve your paddling skills.

Stay calm

We all know that fear of falling can often lead to falling so it should come as no surprise that fear of capsizing or falling into the water can lead to capsizing and falling into the water.

To help combat this fear it is a good idea to go to a public swimming pool, with a strong swimmer by your side, and practice floating in the water while wearing your PFD. If you have no access to a public swimming pool do the same thing in very shallow water – but make sure someone is with you who can swim and who get you out of the water quickly and easily should you get in trouble.

Once you overcome your fear of falling off the canoe then it will be easier to improve on your canoeing skills and eventually, become comfortable enough being a non-swimmer canoeist. It will also reduce the chance of you panicking if you do end up in the water while canoeing.

If your canoe capsizes, it is important that you are able to keep calm because most of the time people who do not know how to swim tend to panic once they fall in the water. Panic actually causes more problems. People can drown in even just a few inches of water if they lose control and panic because they are not thinking clearly.

Granted, it is a normal human response to panic when you lose control in a hazardous situation, but by practicing floating in the water with your PFD on (as outlined above) it will become second nature to you to keep calm when in the water.


All in all, it is possible to go canoeing even if you are not a phenomenal swimmer or cannot swim at all. You just need to be very careful and take the necessary safety precautions before venturing onto the water.

Wearing the correct safety equipment, such as a PFD, will help keep you safe by allowing you to float should you fall into the water.

However, because you cannot swim you should only canoe in calm conditions and should not push yourself past your skill level

You can also take necessary precautions, such as:

  • Take canoeing lessons.
  • Wear a PFD or life jacket.
  • Carry a whistel and flares.
  • Do not go beyond your comfort zone.
  • Practice floating while wearing a PFD in a swimming pool or very shallow water (with a strong swimmer by your side).
  • Keep calm and collected if you do fall into the water and paddle your way to safety and/or signal for help.

Do not let being unable to swim hinder you from going canoeing. As long as you take the necessary precautions canoeing can be a great recreational activity for non-swimmers.

As a last word though:

Learn how to swim. You will get more enjoyment from canoeing and feel safer when you know you can easily handle falling into the water!

When you know how to swim you can canoe in more challenging waters and thus open up a whole new marine world for yourself.

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