While this article is far from exhaustive, it will give you a very good idea of the most important items you’ll need as a beginner canoeist, both from a legal, as well as a practical standpoint. Along the way in my canoeing journey, I’ve learned many valuable lessons. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know to get started.
As a general rule, beginner canoeists will need a canoe, paddles, US Coast Guard-approved life jackets, safety gear, and in some states, a registration permit. Knowledge of canoe parts, basic strokes, steering, and boating rules is also valuable.
That’s really just the beginning. I’m going to unpack the basic steps, costs, and things you must know in order to get onto the water safely and legally, while at the same time, actually having fun!
Table of Contents
1 What You Need Legally
It’s important to note that certain states require canoeists and kayakers to obtain a registration permit before they head out onto the water. These states are Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Oregon.
To find out more about the particular laws that govern your state, head over to our map HERE and click on your state.
In addition to registering your craft, there is mandatory safety gear that is required by law in every state for canoeists to carry with them at all times.
The list includes the following items as set out by the U.S. Coast Guard;
- Life Jackets for every person on board
- Bailer or pump
- Whistle (sound signaling device)
- Watertight Flashlight
- Buoyant Heaving Line
- Extra Paddle (many paddlers forget this one!)
A detailed and complete guide to required items (and “almost required” items) is available HERE.
2 What You Need For Comfort and Safety
While not necessary by law, you’ll absolutely want to have certain items on hand. In fact, without some of them, you won’t even be able to leave your driveway with your canoe! Some items we outline here may be obvious, but others are not so much. In any case, it’s good to have a bit of an outline of why you may need these items.
Please note that the items we list are meant for basic canoeing only. The list does not include items you’ll need for very specific purposes like canoe racing, canoe camping, fishing, etc.
Vehicle Carrying System
Everyone knows about the foam blocks system that includes 4 blocks and some slippery, yellow nylon rope. I would STRONGLY discourage anyone starting out to avoid this system. I suppose if you just bought your first canoe and you’re only traveling locally and you really want to get out on the water, you could use this method in a pinch, but here’s why it’s generally a bad idea;
Foam blocks don’t work at all if you have a pickup truck with no back, or any other unusual vehicle configuration other than a large, flat roof like on a fairly big car or a mini-van or SUV.
Now, let’s say you’ve conquered that problem since you own a big car. The blocks don’t separate the canoe from the roof very much at all (2 inches at best) which means the bow of the canoe (especially if it’s a prospector style) could sweep way too far into the driver’s line of vision and create a potential safety problem for your trip.
But, none of those reasons are the biggest reason I dislike the foam block kits.
With the block system, comes awful, slippery nylon ropes which make it impossible to use unless you graduated top of your boy scout troupe and know how to tie lots of useful knots.
If you don’t, you’re out of luck.
But even if you do know knots, the nature of the rope tying, canoe binding system means that over a journey of an hour or more (especially with windy conditions), your canoe will loosen the tightness of the ropes and cause the canoe to slide at least a bit (or a lot) side to side – which serves to loosen the ropes further.
You’re endangering your $500 – $5000 investment and worst of all, you are endangering others in vehicles around yours if your knots aren’t perfect and extremely tight. No pressure eh?!
WHOA! Are Foam Blocks That Bad???
Okay, so I have to add this disclaimer; Foam blocks are fine if you ditch the slippery yellow rope and get some decent tie-down straps and thin paracord or braided rope and some hood anchors. Check out our full video on how to effectively use foam blocks to tie down your canoe HERE!
To circumvent this issue, we strongly suggest 2 things:
- First of all, invest in a good roof rack system like the ones available from Yakima or Thule. There are others as well, so once you know what to look for, you can get whatever system works for your vehicle. Be sure to include all the connectors for your specific vehicle.
- Second, you’ll want to get Canoe Tie-Down Straps.
Canoe Tie-Down Straps
Trying to make the perfect knot at the perfect tightness and tension level is difficult at best, and disastrous at worst! For barely more than the price of a good rope, you can skip the whole knot-tying process which takes way too much time when you’re tying down you canoe in the pouring rain after a 10 mile paddle! Get yourself a good set of Canoe Tie-down straps.
You simply pull on a flat strap and you’re done! It’s way quicker, easier, more secure and the flat, wide strap hugs your canoe much better than a round-profile nylon rope. You can even get trunk anchor straps for more options to further secure your investment and protect others.
Furthermore, I would suggest attaching canoe holders on your crossbar which prevents side-to-side movement in even the strongest wind. Thule has the Portage Canoe Rack Carrier System, and Yakima has their version as well.
Obviously, you’ll need paddles…but which ones? To start, here’s a quick way to find the best length; take hold of your paddle like you’re ready to paddle in the water with it. Then, without letting go of your grip, hold the paddle above your head parallel to the ground. If your elbows are bent at 90-degree angles, the length is a good fit for you.
There are more considerations like the depth of the water you’re paddling and the distance from your shoulders to the surface of the water, etc. but we’ll cover that in another article. This is just to get you started.
Shapes and designs of paddles are endless, but for starters, a regular straight shaft wood paddle will suffice quite nicely.
Attach a good quality, but relatively small diameter rope to the bow (one in the stern is a good idea while you’re at it as well). I’d make it a minimum of 10 feet in length. Its purpose is to help guide the canoe in rapids or just beside a dock. It’s also used to tie the canoe to the shore/dock.
Thankfully, most home or apartment insurance plans cover any non-motorized craft up to around $3000 (some are less) so this covers most of us under most circumstances including damage and theft. Of course, you’ll want to confirm all this with your insurance company ASAP and be sure they’ve officially added your canoe to the house insurance policy.
First Aid Kit
Although not mandatory, I’d also suggest adding a first aid kit. We usually DIY our first aid kit to contain all the items we may need, but ready-made kits are also available at grocery stores, dollar stores, and many other places.
Canoe Repair Kit
Most canoes are made to withstand a good amount of wear and tear but they are not indestructible. Canoe manufacturers sell repair kits but this is also something you could put together on your own. Having a repair kit for the material your canoe is made from is just a smart addition to your gear bag.
Know How to Swim
This should go without saying. You don’t need to be an Olympic finalist, just have a bit of experience treading water. You’ll have your PFD, but if you know how to swim (at least reasonably well), you’ll be far less likely to panic – even with your lifejacket on.
That covers everything you’ll need to get out on the water! But remember, if you’re looking to go on a 5-day canoe camping expedition, you’ll need a whole different list!
3 Costs associated with getting started in Canoeing
The costs associated with getting into canoeing are varied and the spectrum is quite wide.
We’ve created a chart to show you both ends.
High/Low Costs for Getting into Canoeing
|Permits||Could be $0|
|Throw Line||$45 for kit|
|Flare||in kit (flashlight)|
|Waterproof Flashlight||in kit|
|Extra (emergency) Paddle||$14|
|Canoe Carry System||$21|
|Tie Down Straps||incl. in Carry Sys.|
|Paddle(s)||$15 for one|
|Insurance||Incl. in home|
|Permits||Could be $65|
|Extra (emergency) Paddle||$35|
|Canoe Carry System||$500|
|Tie Down Straps||$66|
4 Basic Knowledge You Have to Know!
While this section could be a bit subjective, I’ll be as clear and uncomplicated as I can be. I’ve touched on some of these items earlier, but here’s a good summary as well as a few new items you’ll need. This is not a “how-to” instructional, but only a reminder of what you should know ASAP after getting a canoe.
Basic Canoe Strokes
We have an entire article and video on this subject covering various strokes and canoe control techniques, but for now, let’s say you need to know how to pull your paddle through the water, and the stern paddler needs to know how to use his paddle as a rudder for basic steering. It gets a whole lot more refined than this, but it’s a start!
Parts of a Canoe
It’s good to know some terminology in order to communicate effectively with your paddling partner (or a canoe repair facility). Here is an overview of all the terms that you need to know so you don’t sound like a complete novice, and so you can communicate with your paddling partner to coordinate your efforts.
As I mentioned above, find out your States permit requirements. DNR wardens are actually checking people’s permits as I found out recently from a friend in the BWCA (Boundary Waters Canoeing Area) of Minnesota.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a set of boating rules and outlines that you need to know at least on a basic level. For more information, CLICK HERE.
Where to go Canoeing as a Beginner
This one’s pretty important too! If you’re a beginner just learning the feel for a canoe, it would be unwise to launch your craft at a beach or boat dock on one of the great lakes or a raging river. I’d strongly suggest a small lake with little wind or even a pond. Stay close to shore and don’t be too anxious to get onto larger lakes until you’ve acquired enough knowledge to give you a well-placed level of confidence.
If you happen to live in the Boundary Waters Canoeing Area, you’ll want to check out this site that has dozens of maps and entry points for beginners.
Know How to Transport a Canoe and Secure it Safely to Your Vehicle or Trailer
You really can’t even get started without some knowledge of how to transport your canoe. Learn as much as you can about this step because your own investment (both car and canoe) is potentially at risk, and even more importantly, someone else’s safety may be at risk if you fail to secure your canoe properly for highway travel.
In this article, we cover how to transport your canoe on a car with no roof racks.
In this article, we’ll show you how to tie your canoe down to a truck that doesn’t have a cap. We also cover how to carry two canoes at one time on your truck.
And in this article, we show you how a long arm truck bed extender is a great option for tying down your canoe to your truck.
What Paddles to Use
You can really use just about any paddle available to canoeists since this is not a safety issue. However, if you cheap out too much and get a heavy, non-ergonomic, cheap paddle, you’ll not enjoy yourself as much as you could and you may very well decide that canoeing is not as enjoyable as it could be.
I’ve seen friends of mine with a 75,000 pound Coleman canoe (slight exaggeration, okay, okay) and an “econo” aluminum and plastic paddle, trying to enjoy themselves on the water, only to conclude canoeing is not for them. I’m convinced had they been lucky enough to try an ultra-light carbon solo canoe with a classic bent-shaft Bending Branches paddle, they’d be evangelists for the canoeing lifestyle today!
Having your mandatory safety gear and a first aid kit on board is wise but that’s just a start.
Do you know what to do if you encounter big waves? What direction do you want them to hit your canoe? Is there a wrong angle? (hint: YES there is).
What happens if you capsize? Do you swim for shore or stay with your canoe? Do you try to get into it and bail the water, or just float with it?
If you’re in a canoe that’s losing stability because of wind, waves or human panicking, what’s a good way to stabilize? Did you know you’re supposed to steady your paddle against the gunwale with your hand and immerse the blade into the water to reduce side-to-side rocking?
Oh, the things you should know! We have articles to help in all these areas, but for now, a good book like THIS ONE is a good place to start. Don’t neglect this step for sure!