Is Canoeing Difficult?

Canoeing on calm lake

Canoeing was popular in America long before the first Europeans even knew the continent existed. It is still popular today. But, as the canoe is still the same basic boat that was used by Native Americans for fishing, reaching hunting grounds and for transportation, some would-be canoeists wonder if its simple design makes it difficult to handle. Let’s find out.

Canoeing is not difficult. Solo canoeing and tandem canoeing require you to learn different paddling techniques though. You can learn how to paddle a solo canoe in a hour or two. You can learn how to paddle at the front of a 2-person canoe in about 30 minutes and you can learn how to paddle from the rear of a 2-person canoe in about 2 hours or less.

Is a canoe difficult to handle?

The canoe has changed very little since its conception. The first canoes were just dugout tree trunks propelled by simple paddles. Although a modern canoe can have a few different designs to help it perform better in different environments the basic hull characteristics of this ancient vessel remain pretty much the same today as they were hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago.

So without the aid of modern dynamic stability designs (with the exception of outriggers) that are seen in many boats some people wonder if canoeing is a difficult skill to acquire. With such a basic boat design and only a single bladed paddle to both propel and steer the boat it is not unreasonable to think that this form of boating is either easy or hard – there is probably no in-between.

So, is canoeing difficult?

The simple and quick answer is, “no, canoeing is not difficult”. However, to properly answer that question we first need to look at how a canoe is “operated” especially as it relates to different sized canoes. Unlike other small vessels, such a Jon boat or drift boat, which are operated by a single person, a canoe can have more than one person operating the boat.

For the most part a canoe is pretty easy to handle but there are different ways to paddle depending on the size of canoe you are in, and these are skills that need to be learned.

Typical 2-person canoeing

Most canoes on the water are fairly large and require two people to paddle them. Although you can put a motor on a canoe this is a DIY project and you will be unlikely to be in such a boat as a beginner. So, this means you need to learn how to paddle and if you are in a 2-person canoe you will need to learn how to paddle with a partner.

Tandem paddling in a canoe requires a certain amount of synchronization. Though this requirement is slightly offset by the fact that each paddler has an assigned job on the boat.

One paddler is located at the front of the canoe while the second paddler is located at the rear. Although both paddlers are responsible for propelling the boat forward with their paddles, each one has a different job to do when it comes to speed and directing the canoe.

As a beginner it is probably best you start your canoeing experience by paddling at the front of the canoe.

The paddler at the front of the canoe has much less responsibility over where the canoe goes. The front paddler will usually dictate the speed of the canoe but that is as far as his/her responsibility goes. Of course, the front paddler must also move the boat by displacing water via his/her paddle but there is very little responsibility in this role.

Front paddling can be learned in 15 minutes or less.

The paddler at the rear of the canoe has a much bigger role to play in canoeing.

Although the rear paddler must also provide the push needed to move the canoe in the water he/she is also responsible for maneuvering the canoe and steering it. As this role is undertaking from the stern of the canoe (the rear of the boat) it is sometimes referred to as sterning.

Learning how to control a 2-person canoe from the stern is a skill that requires more time than paddling from the front.

However, it is not a difficult skill to master.

2 hours or less is all that is required to learn how to steer a 2-person canoe from the rear.

If you have mastered the skill of “sterning” before you use a solo canoe then you will find the transition an easy one to make.

However, there are many canoeists who will argue that leaning how to handle a solo canoe is the best preparation for “sterning” on a 2-person canoe.

Solo canoeing

Solo canoeing is much easier to learn, and to do, than 2-person canoeing.

As you are solely in charge of the canoe’s speed and direction there is less of a learning curve involved in acquiring the paddling skills needed to canoe in a single-person boat because you are in complete charge of the watercraft and can immediately tell when an action you take affects the canoe.

You can learn how to paddle a solo canoe in less than 30 minutes.

Of course it will take several hours of paddling before you are experienced enough to canoe in anything but calm waters.

The difference between paddling a solo canoe and paddling a 2-person (or more) canoe is that you must continually swap paddling sides in a single-person boat. Paddling on only one side of the canoe will send it veering off in one direction or cause the boat to turn in circles. By swapping paddling sides after each stroke you ensure the canoe tracks straight.

The only time this may not happen is when you are fighting against a strong current pushing your canoe in one direction thus requiring that you battle the effect by paddling in the opposing direction. See our guide to paddling against the current for more information.

Learning to read the conditions

Learning how to read the weather and water are essential skills for the canoeist. Although these skills are not directly related to the handling of the canoe they are necessary if you want to learn to be an effective canoeist.

Just as there are inherent dangers in all water activities, with kayaking being a prime example, canoeing also carries risks and you must be skilled at spotting them.

Many of the dangers that are associated with canoeing can be offset, or completely eliminated, when you know how to read the weather, water conditions and the marine environment and react accordingly.

Here are a few tips for canoeing effectively:

  • Always wear a PFD while canoeing.
  • Watch the weather carefully for signs that strong winds may be on the way.
  • Learn how to read the river.
  • Try to avoid moving water until you are better skilled at reading the patterns in the water. Also avoid dams. You may need to be aware of how portaging works and its usefulness for avoiding such challenging environments.
  • It is also a good idea to avoid very remote areas where help is not easily at hand while you are a beginner. On the flip side though don’t go canoeing in very busy waterways either, like busy canals, as there are too many hazards to avoid and your steering skills may bot be up to the task.

After a few canoeing excursions and several hours on the water you will be able to start taking on more challenging activities.

Bad weather is the biggest enemy of a canoeist. Rough water is the second. Learning canoeing in rough water should only be done after you have some experience canoeing in calm water in a recreational canoe.

Remember a canoe can sink, or tip, like any other boat so take the proper precautions by learning how paddle a canoe properly, understanding how to read the conditions and knowing what to do when challenges present themselves.

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