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How To Paddle A Canoe

Nicola Burridge
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Canoeing is an exciting and rewarding outdoor activity that allows you to explore the waterways and enjoy nature.

However, to fully appreciate the experience, it is important to learn how to paddle a canoe correctly. 

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced canoeist, mastering the basic techniques of canoeing will make your time on the water more enjoyable and safe. 

In this article, we will provide a comprehensive beginner’s guide on how to paddle a canoe, including proper paddling techniques.

How To Paddle A Canoe - Pinterest ImagePin

How To Properly Hold A Canoe Paddle

Before you start paddling a canoe, it can be a good idea to make sure you are holding the paddle correctly. 

A canoe paddle tends to be a single-bladed paddle, unlike a kayak paddle that usually has a blade at either end of the shaft. You use two hands to paddle a canoe through the water. 

So, how do you hold a canoe paddle? Depending on what side you are paddling on, one hand should be on the top grip of the paddle and your other hand should be on the shaft with your knuckles facing up and your thumb closest to you. 

If you are paddling on the left side of the canoe then your right hand will be on the grip at the top of the paddle and your left hand will be on the shaft.

If you hold the paddle over your head, with the shaft resting on top of your head, your elbows should be roughly at right angles.

How To Paddle A Canoe With A Partner

Who Sits In The Bow Seat?

One of the first things you should decide between you and your paddling partner is who will sit at the stern (the back) and who will sit at the bow (the front) of the canoe.

Generally, the heavier or more experienced paddler should sit in the stern seat and the lighter or less experienced paddler should sit in the bow seat.

This is because the person at the stern will tend to have more control over the canoe than the person at the bow. This can make it easier to turn.

The bow paddler will still be able to set the pace on the forward strokes but most of the directional control will generally come from the stern paddler. The bow paddler won’t be able to see the paddler behind them, which is generally why this paddler sets the pace.

No matter where in the boat you sit, you should always wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). A PFD is required while paddling just about everywhere. 

In some places you need to wear a PFD at all times while on the water and others you may only need to have it in the boat with you. But if you are not wearing it, it can’t save your life, so it’s best to keep it on while paddling, especially if you’re solo paddling and have nobody nearby to help you in an emergency.

Basic Forward Stroke Techniques

Couple Paddling A Canoe Pin

To start paddling forward, you and your partner should be in unison. You should each paddle on the opposite side of the canoe so that the boat will head straight and in the right direction.

As you reach to put your blade in the water on the left side, you should rotate your torso towards the right. This means when you pull your blade backward in the water for forward momentum, your torso should rotate towards the left side as your blade moves through the water.

This technique should be repeated for each stroke. The other paddler should also be using this same technique but paddling on the opposite side of the boat from you. 

If both paddlers are paddling in unison, the canoe can move more efficiently, which can be easier for both you and your partner. Remember to maintain communication so that you can avoid going in the wrong direction, moving in circles, or capsizing. 

Turning A Tandem Canoe

There are a few different ways you can turn a canoe when you are paddling in tandem. Usually, it will be the paddler at the stern who will do most of the turning, since they have more control of the boat from their position at the back.

One way you can turn a canoe is by implementing techniques known as the stern pry and the stern draw. These strokes are often used by solo paddlers. But they can also be used by tandem paddlers – usually the stern paddler. 

Video: Stern Draw And Stern Pry Strokes

Pry Stroke

The pry stroke can be used on either side of the canoe depending on which direction you want to turn. 

Using this technique on the left side, you will start with the blade close to the side of the canoe, immersed in the water and in line with your body. The power face of the blade will be toward the canoe and your right arm should be across your body toward the left side of the canoe. Your right hand remains on the top of the paddle. 

Using your top hand to pull the grip of the paddle toward the canoe, your lower hand should remain close to the gunwale while the blade acts as a rudder. The canoe will gradually turn toward the left.

Stern Draw

The stern draw stroke lets you turn your canoe in the opposite direction without switching sides with your paddle. 

Starting on your left side, rotate your torso toward the left with your paddle in both hands. Keep your right hand on top of the grip and make sure the blade is away from you and slightly behind you when you put it in the water. 

Pull the blade back toward the stern of the boat. You are essentially pushing water toward the back of the canoe as you do this. Remember to pull the blade out of the water before it hits the back of your canoe. 

This paddling stroke, when performed on the left, will begin to turn your canoe toward the right hand side.

Forward Sweep Stroke

You can also use a forward sweep stroke, which is similar to the stern draw, but the blade moves in a wide arc as you bring it back to the stern of the canoe. 

The sweep stroke can be more commonly used by solo canoeists and kayakers than tandem canoeists, as it allows the boat to keep moving forward while the paddler performs the turn.

How To Paddle A Canoe Solo

How To Paddle Forward In A Straight Line

If you are paddling a canoe on your own, you might encounter some difficulties that you wouldn’t otherwise. For example, you may need to balance the boat a little more, especially if you will be paddling a tandem canoe by yourself. 

Sitting at the stern may mean the bow of the canoe lifts up out of the water. If you have a solo canoe, you probably won’t encounter this issue. 

If you do, you may need to put some heavy gear at the other end of the canoe, sit closer to the center line, or paddle the canoe backward (sit backwards on the bow seat, facing the center of the canoe).

You can employ a similar technique as a solo paddler for paddling forward as you would if you were paddling as part of a duo. However, there are some differences to paddling solo, with one being that it can be difficult to paddle in a straight line. 

If you’re a beginner, canoeing solo, you may be inclined to switch sides with your paddle in order to maintain your direction and head straight. While you can do this, and many people do while solo paddling, it is not always the most efficient way to paddle. And you are likely to get wet each time you switch the paddle to the opposite side of the boat.


One way is to use the J-stroke. The J-stroke is one of the most efficient paddling strokes for a solo paddler. It lets you continue with your forward strokes while maintaining your direction in a straight line.

Solo paddling might be easier if you paddle from a kneeling position. This can give you better balance and stability in the canoe and can let you get more power behind your forward strokes.

More on the J-stroke later!

How To Turn A Canoe While Solo Paddling

The C-Stroke

Turning a canoe while solo paddling can sometimes be easier than paddling straight. One of the more effective strokes you can use is the C-stroke. This is generally the opposite of the forward sweep stroke, which means the C-shaped arc you make with your paddle is a mirror image of the one you make when using sweep strokes. 

The arc is toward the canoe this time, rather than away from it. So the paddle blade begins the C toward the front of your canoe, with your arms outstretched. When the blade enters the water, bring it back toward the canoe, drawing a C shape with your paddle as the blade goes under your boat and behind you to finish the C. 

The C-stroke is one of the strokes that you can use to maintain your course while solo paddling as, like with other strokes, it can also be used both for turning and heading straight, helping to counter the effects of wind and currents without having to paddle on the opposite side. 

What Is The J-Stroke And How Do I Use It While Canoeing?

The J-stroke is an efficient forward stroke technique that can be a useful skill to master. This is one of the few strokes that can help you both maintain direction and change direction, depending on who is using it and why. 

For solo paddling, it can be an excellent forward stroke for maintaining your course and paddling straight. This is because it can help to push water away from your canoe which means the stern of the canoe will start to turn, with the bow moving toward the same side that your paddle is on.

For example, using this stroke on the right hand side of your canoe will mean the bow of your canoe will start to turn to the right.

For solo paddling, this can help to counter the effects of paddling on one side so that you don’t need to switch sides every few strokes. 

The J-stroke starts just like a normal forward stroke but after you pull the blade back, you twist the paddle using your top hand. Your thumb should be facing down during this maneuver. The paddle blade should be facing away from the canoe just like if you are drawing the letter J with your paddle. 

You should begin twisting your top hand as the blade comes in line with your knee. This same hand should then start to pull inward slightly so that the blade forces water away from your boat. This is in a similar way to the stern pry stroke, where the paddle blade becomes almost like a rudder to control the direction.

Tandem paddlers can use this stroke to help maintain the direction of the boat while moving forward if the bow paddler is a weaker paddler. But this stroke can also be used to turn the canoe and can be used by both paddlers in a tandem canoe.  

How To Paddle A Canoe Backwards

Performing a reverse stroke can help you paddle backwards. Canoeing backwards might be required if you need to move away from a bank, for example. You may also need to go backwards if you have entered an area that is too narrow to turn around.

Reverse Stroke

A reverse stroke is basically like the forward stroke but in reverse. But instead of using the power face of the blade, the reverse stroke uses the back face of the blade. 

Start by rotating your torso towards the side of your canoe where you are holding your paddle. The blade of your paddle should be near the stern of your canoe and facing flat toward the water.

Put the blade into the water and push it forward toward the front of the boat. Your canoe should start to reverse. To stop the canoe from going in circles, you can rotate the blade similar to a J motion to keep the boat heading straight. 

Video: Reverse Stroke For Canoeing  

Can You Paddle A Canoe Sideways?

Yes, you can. And sometimes, you might find that it’s necessary to move sideways, for example, if you need to paddle alongside a dock or paddle sideways to another canoe in a rescue situation.

To move sideways, you can use the draw stroke. To do this you should rotate your torso to face your paddle. Your arms should be extended and you should position the blade away from the canoe but in line with your hip.

Try to keep your paddle as vertical as possible so that the blade can move as much water as possible when you bring it back through the water toward you. 

As your paddle gets close to the side of your canoe, you can slice the blade out of the water toward the stern. Or you can rotate the blade 90-degrees so that it slices back toward your starting position to repeat the process for more efficient strokes.

This technique can also be used to rotate a canoe 360-degrees if you and your tandem paddling partner both complete the same draw strokes on opposite sides of the canoe. This can be useful if you need to make sharp turns quickly.

Wrapping Up

Once you’ve mastered the basic paddling techniques of canoeing, you can improve your paddling efficiency (whether solo paddling or tandem paddling), be safer on the water, and have more fun enjoying the beauty of nature.

Remember to always wear your PFD and don’t paddle in conditions that are beyond your skill level. Maintain communication with your paddling partner and have a little patience while you practice those essential canoeing skills. Before you know it, you’ll be mastering those techniques with confidence.  

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. And if you think this might help others pick up a paddle and get outdoors, share it.

> How to paddle a kayak

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