How to Paddle A Canoe: Make Your Way On The Water

Canoeing is one of the most versatile and enjoyable outdoor sports. Since Native Americans invented them hundreds of years ago, canoes have been the perfect tool for hunting, sightseeing, bird watching, and exploring.

From blasting through white water rivers to coasting silently through marshlands, canoes are the perfect way to get out and explore the water. Learning how to paddle a canoe correctly, whether you are alone or with a partner, is essential to enjoying your time on the water. Once you’ve mastered the paddling techniques, you can confront any obstacle with confidence.

See also: Best Solo Canoe: A Review of 6 Great Solo Kayaks

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In this article, you will learn canoe paddling techniques for solo paddlers and tandem paddlers. There are advantages to both styles. In tandem, you paddle with a partner, and so you have someone to share your experience and make the paddling easier on your muscles. With solo paddling, you have the advantage of silence. Solo paddlers report seeing far more wildlife than when they are with partners.

The Essentials of Canoeing

Before getting into how to paddle a canoe, it is important to go over some of the essentials of a canoe. A canoe is a low, narrow boat that tapers at both ends, and has a wider bottom. The front of the canoe is called the bow, and the rear is called the stern.

The Essentials of Canoeing

Image credit: lakeplacid.com

When in a canoe, the most important thing is to keep it balanced, or trim, on the water. In order to do that, weight should be evenly displaced between the bow and the stern. If you are two people, one person sits at the bow and the other at the stern. If you are alone, you can either sit at the center of the canoe, where it will be more difficult to steer or sit in the stern with your gear at the bow.

Another important thing to understand is the design of your paddle. A canoe paddle is different from kayak paddles in that it has only one blade. Paddles are split into four parts from top to bottom: the top handle, shaft, shoulders, and blade. As a rule, you hold a canoe by the top hand and the shaft/shoulders. See our article on how to choose the best canoe paddle for a great experience.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of a canoe and the simplest terminology, let’s get into the paddling techniques for how to paddle a canoe.

How To Paddle A Canoe Solo: Paddling Forward

  • The first thing to be sure of, before you even hit the water, is that you are prepared and safe. Make sure you purchase the necessary safety equipment, such as flotation vests.
    More importantly, make sure you are at least a decently confident swimmer. Canoeing does not involve swimming, but the risk of capsizing, especially for beginners, is very real. Be confident in your ability to get yourself out of a tough situation.
  • Secure Your Seat. When paddling a canoe, you want to keep your center of gravity very low in the vessel. Canoes sit lightly on the water, which allows them to move quickly and silently.
    The downside to the lightness, however, is that they magnify every movement that you make. If you stand up or sit up too high, you will feel that the canoe is out of balance.
    The best option is to sit or kneel on the floor of the canoe. Sit in the back, or stern, with your gear in the bow. This will allow you to steer effectively. If you have no gear, sit in the center of the canoe.
  • One more tip about sitting: to have the best balance possible, always try to sit in an upright position, keeping your body perpendicular to the water. This will eliminate extra movement and help keep the canoe well balanced.
    As a beginner, don’t feel nervous if you have shaky balance, good balance always comes with movement, so get the canoe moving and you will feel more stable.
  • Grip the paddle: The right paddle grip is essential to canoe maneuvering. Grip the top grip in one hand. This is your boat side hand. Now, slide your lower hand down to grip the shaft of the canoe paddle, somewhere about a foot above the blade. This is your water side hand. The grip distance should feel comfortable and secure.
  • Begin paddling. Rotate your torso so that your water side shoulder extends forward. Lean your body forward and extend the paddle in front of you, above the water. Next, plant the paddle into the water so that the blade and beginning of the shoulder is Reach forward as far as you can, but do not lift your seat, this will throw off the balance of the canoe.
    With the blade planted in the water, pull the paddle firmly towards yourself. Turn the blade so that it is perpendicular to the boat and in the direction of travel. Using your arm muscles and the muscles of your core, pull the blade through the water firmly in a straight line.
    Try to keep the paddle as close to the boat as possible, in order to continue moving in a straight line. If your stroke is too wide, you may accidentally cause your canoe to turn. Thinking physically, try to engage your arm and core muscles when paddling. If you feel your back muscles doing most of the work, time to readjust!
  • Stop paddling at the hip. Once you pull the blade back so it is in line with your hip, pull the paddle up out of the water. Turn the paddle and bring it back in front of you to your starting position.
    You have completed one paddle stroke. Continue following these steps to paddle forward and gain speed. However, if you only paddle on one side of the boat, you may find yourself going in circles.
  • Switch sides of the canoe. Every few strokes, it is a good idea to change sides of the canoe. This will help you main a straight and true course through the water. To switch sides, finish one stroke as described above.
    However, when the paddle reaches your hip, pull it out of the water and perpendicular over the body of the canoe, moving the paddle over to the other side. In the process, you will need to switch your hands, so your water hand becomes your boat hand and the opposite as well. Insert the paddle on the opposite side and continue as before.

Paddling A Canoe Solo – Steering

Gentle Turns

If you are sitting in the stern of your canoe, a gentle turn is very easy to orchestrate. Simply paddle forward on only one side of the canoe. This may seem obvious, and that is because it is. By paddling only on one side of the canoe, you encourage a gentle turn in the opposite direction.

So, if you want to turn your canoe towards the right, paddle on the left side. And if you want to turn towards the left, paddle to the right. This style of steering works for subtle or gentle corrections of your course. In our earlier article, do read how to make a canoe stabilizer to help you balance your craft.

The J Turn

The J-turn is the most useful tool in your arsenal as a canoer. It will allow you to subtly correct the direction of your canoe without resorting to overt techniques that slow you down. With a well-executed j-stroke, you can correct the track of your canoe with much less pressure than you think you need to use.

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As a quick tip, if your j-stroke results in a lot of splashing, you’re working too hard. Quiet strokes are the best. Unless you’re in white water, a slow j-stroke with the appropriate amount of pressure will have you paddling a straight course.

  • To complete the J-stroke you want to be seated at the stern of your canoe. Reach forward and plant the paddle as if you were going to do a forward paddle, and pull the paddle back towards you until it reaches your hip.
  • Once the paddle reaches your hip, you want to turn your shoulders so they are facing the side of the canoe, and rotate the paddle in your hands, so that the paddle is parallel with the canoe.
  • From this point the paddle is like a rudder. Apply for outward, away from the canoe, and this should turn the canoe towards the same side you are paddling on.
  • Don’t overuse this stroke, and don’t apply too much force, or else you may find yourself turning too sharply.

Back Sweep

The J-stroke, as described above, is really a smaller version of the back sweep. If the J-stroke is used for small corrections in direction, the back sweep technique can be used to make a sharper turn.

Canoe trip

However, the back sweep will also slow you down dramatically, so use it only when necessary.

  • Begin the same as with the j-stroke, paddle in the water, paddling forward.\
  • When the paddle gets to your hip or slightly behind, turn the paddle in your hands as with the j-stroke, so that it is parallel to the canoe.
  • Now sweep the paddle out to the side, away from the canoe. The canoe should turn in the same direction.
  • Tip: if you need to turn quickly to avoid something, you don’t need to begin this stroke with a forward paddle, just plant the paddle in the water at your hip or slightly behind and sweep outwards.


A draw is a great technique for making a sharp turn, but it is more awkward and complicated than the other paddling techniques. Practice using this one in an open pond, or wait until you are a more confident paddling to begin using this technique. It is the most advanced technique on the list.

  • Plant your paddle in the water immediately out to your side. You want to extend your arms as much as possible, with your elbows locked. The important thing is to keep the paddle close to perpendicular to the water, straight up and down.
  • Pull the paddle towards the boat until the paddle nearly touches in the boat. As a beginner, bring the paddle all the way in, until it touches the canoe, to make sure you have executed the technique correctly.
  • The blade should remain parallel to the canoe the entire time.
  • If you orchestrate this technique correctly, the canoe should turn to the opposite side on the paddle.

Paddling with A Partner: How to Paddle A Canoe Tandem

Now that you’ve practices the canoe paddling techniques solo, its time to show off your skills and paddle with a partner. Paddling a canoe with a partner can be fairly different from paddling solo.

You have to coordinate your movements with your partner, so good communication is essential. Once you find a solid canoeing partner, you’ll have someone to share all your adventures with.

  • Sit at opposite ends of the canoe. When there are two people in the canoe, it is important to get the balance right, so that the canoe stays trim on the water. TO do this, have one person sit at the front, or bow, of the canoe, and one person at the back, or stern.
    If one person weighs a lot less, that person should also have most of the gear close to them, to offset the weight imbalance. The person at the front is called the bowman, and at the back, the sternman.
  • The bowman sets the place. When two people are paddling together, they both need to paddle at the same time and speed. In order to do this the most easily, the bowman should set the pace, because the sternman can easily watch what they do. If it is your first time canoeing with your partner, it’s probably a good idea to discuss this before you set out.
  • The sternman handles the steering. Generally, the sternman is the most experienced canoer, and is responsible for steering the canoe. The bowman can assist, but it is much more difficult to steer a canoe from the bow. For this reason, make sure your sternman already understands the paddling techniques described above.
  • Switch sides at the same time. Just as when you are paddling solo, you both need to switch sides of the canoe every few strokes. Even though there are two of you, the canoe will eventually turn according to the steersman’s paddling, if you both paddle only on one side.
    Alternate sides at the same time, either by saying “switch” or simply deciding ahead of time how many paddles per side.
  • Understand bowman steering techniques. The sternman has most of the control of the steering, but the bowman can also help. Just keep in mind that there are some different rules for steering from the bow of a canoe:
    • Paddling forward works the same, so the canoe will turn away from the bowman’s paddling.
    • A bowman doesn’t use a back sweep. Instead, she can use a front sweep, basically the opposite. Reach forward with the paddle and then push it out in a wide sweep to the side. The canoe will turn away from the boatman’s paddle.
    • A draw has the opposite effect, it will turn the boat towards the bowman’s paddle.
    • These rules are only for bowmen, the sternman’s techniques will work just as they are described above in the solo paddling section.

The Last Step

Now that you’ve studied up on all the different canoe paddling techniques, there is only one thing left to do.

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Get out onto the water and practice. Find a place nearby that rents canoes, and spend an afternoon or morning on the water.

How to Paddle A Canoe tips

Image credit: wildernessinquiry.org

The best time of day for canoeing is dawn. The world is quiet, the sky is beautiful, and the wildlife will be the most active. Find a partner or go solo. Whatever you choose, get out there and explore.

Check out more tips on how to size your canoe paddle before you embark on your next trip.


Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.


  • When I was camping a few years ago, I saw a guy there who used some crazy canoeing style. He was standing on the edges of the canoe and placed his paddle on the bottom of the boat. He used his legs to bounce the canoe and in that way he moved it forward. Later I found out that that style actually has a name. You can google Gunwale bobbing and see what’s it about. It’s unusual, but it works.

    • Indeed, Gunwale bobbing is effective although it may look peculiar for budding canoeing enthusiasts. This technique may require considerable amount of practice, but I assure you it is very much worth it.

  • My son and I are going canoeing in a week and it starts to bother me that I’m not 100% sure that he is going to be safe. He is much lighter than me, and I don’t know what the best way to make balance in the canoe is. I’m thinking about packing additional weight but I’m not convinced that it will be enough or simple enough. I’m open to any suggestions.

    • You have to put your weight in center and to deliver uniform strokes to move forward, and you should not panic if it tips quite a bit. It requires some practice, but it will be worth it and I know you can do it.