Is Canoeing Difficult? Paddling, Steering, Balancing & Transporting

I’ve been at this game of canoeing for over 40 years and while I still have lots to learn, I also have lots to say on this topic.

Paddling a canoe does require some dexterity skills but they can definitely be learned, and for some, it comes so naturally, that after only a few minutes on the water they’ll look like seasoned veterans!

I’ll give you my thoughts on questions like “is canoeing strenuous and hard to learn?”, “How stable is a canoe?” and “What is the most overlooked danger in canoeing?”

Is Canoeing Difficult?

The answer is absolutely YES for some and NO for others. It’s exactly the same as asking “is driving a car difficult?”

People have been canoeing for over 1000 years. Based on my knowledge of some of that history, and observing the world around me today, it seems, for the most part, anyone who would like to learn how to paddle a canoe can do so relatively easily.

If you’ve never been in a canoe or have little experience, I can tell you that most people think canoeing is more difficult than it is. You’ll find that getting your balance is more intuitive than you might believe, and figuring out how a canoe moves when you push or pull your paddle through the water won’t take you more than a few minutes.

My best advice is to watch some videos that explain the basics of how to control a canoe, and then get a friend to show you some basics as well. Then, immerse yourself into some good YouTube videos and invest in a book like Bill Mason’s Path of the Paddle for more education.

It may take years to be 100% comfortable in any canoe and to feel confident of your abilities, but it will only take a few minutes to a few hours on the water before you get the “hang of it” enough to head out on a cruise for a few hours and actually enjoy yourself!

Check out the start of this video to see how NOT DIFFICULT and absolutely relaxing canoeing can be!

Is Canoeing Safe?

Yes, canoeing is quite safe under most conditions. Of course, you could make it very dangerous by doing everything wrong, but that’s true of any activity.

A canoe is not that easy to tip over (especially if it’s loaded with gear and you have your wits about you). As long as you take some basic precautions, you should never have an emergency or panic situation on your hands.

The first thing to do is to research basic safety gear that will be required in most provinces and states. Here’s a good starting point:

Canoe Safety Gear (The Essentials & “Almost” Essentials)

After that, learn some basic rules. Here’s an idea of the top 10 or so:

  • Always wear (not just bring) a personal flotation device (PFD)
  • Carry a whistle attached to your PFD
  • Learn basic canoe strokes
  • Spend some time getting the “feel” of your canoe while it’s totally empty of gear and loaded with a few hundred pounds of gear
  • If possible, be sure to paddle the correct canoe for your purposes (there are dozens of styles for dozens of different activities)
  • Learn the pitfalls of suddenly having to paddle against wind or current
  • Experience sitting in the front of a tandem canoe with someone paddling at the stern, then you sit in the stern (tandem and solo). Get a feel for the various positions in your canoe and even in a different canoe (ie. solo canoe)
  • Learn the value of staying near shore as much as possible (I stick to the range of 10 feet to 50 feet from shore on most of my trips)
  • Learn the value of mentally playing out an emergency (ie. capsize) and what you would do immediately
  • If possible, connect with a paddling partner that you can trust to help you and accompany you on some trips for companionship and safety
  • If your budget allows, I would STRONGLY suggest a satellite communicator so you can always summon help if you experience a true emergency.

While there are 3 or 4 top-notch devices, our #1 recommendation would be the Garmin InReach Mini Satellite Communicator.

Remember, it’s important that you understand the logistical difference between paddling solo in a solo canoe, and paddling solo in a tandem canoe. There are several seating options in a tandem canoe (like sitting in the bow seat with the canoe turned around so the stern is now the bow).

Each position will give you a radically different feel for how to control the craft. Solo canoes offer much better control in windy conditions, but because you are sitting in the center of the canoe (front to back and side to side), it will be tougher to steer than if you sat in the stern of a tandem canoe.

The more experience you have (even starting at a few hours), the more easily you’ll see why canoeing is relatively safe and few people have true emergencies while on the water.

How Stable is a Canoe?

Canoes are meant to be stable enough to allow occupants to enjoy their time on the water without stressing about falling overboard or capsizing.

The topic of stability is a big one deserving a longer explanation, but in a nutshell, here’s the situation:

Canoes typically have one of two types of stability profiles. One is called “initial stability” and the other is called “secondary stability”.

Initial stability refers to those canoes with a flat bottom and wider profile. These canoes are preferred by anglers, hunters, and recreational paddlers since they feel very stable and “boat-like”. You can stand up in these canoes and they feel very difficult to flip over.

Their MAIN resistance to capsizing takes place on the first half of the “tip” (assuming you force a capsize).

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This canoe has a rounded hull shape for efficiency and great secondary stability. To enhance initial stability, I added this set of stabilizers.

The problem is that if you do happen to push a little too hard on one of the gunwales or lose your balance, they won’t resist tipping after a certain point.

By contrast, canoes with secondary stability feel tippy at first. Their hull profile is NOT flat bottomed, so they tend to list to one side or the other with the slightest shifting of your weight. To the uninitiated, this may seem like a bad style of canoe, but in fact, it is preferred by veteran paddlers.

The reason canoes with secondary stability are good is that while they feel tippy at first, if you were to lean over substantially, they tend to resist tipping all the way to a capsize. The main resistance takes place in the second half of the “tip”.

Canoes with secondary stability are also far more efficient while traveling through the water. “Efficiency” means they’ll go faster and farther with each unit of energy you spend on paddling when compared to canoes with initial stability.

Is It Hard to Steer a Canoe?

Once you get an idea of how your canoe reacts to your paddle strokes, then it is not too difficult to steer a canoe. Keep in mind that the closer you sit to the stern of the canoe, the easier it is for you to steer.

Solo canoes have your seat in the direct center front to back, so steering is not as easy, but that is often an advantage while solo canoeing, since you don’t have to use corrective strokes or change sides paddling as often.

Also, if you intend to canoe through rapids and whitewater, you can learn either (or both) solo whitewater canoeing or tandem whitewater canoeing.

If you’re thinking of paddling tandem, the skill of your partner is key. For example, a bow paddler on a flat lake excursion does very little steering. His/her only job is to paddle forward to add to the thrust and propulsion power of the vessel.

On the other hand, if a bow paddler is in whitewater, his/her actions/reactions are crucial to keeping the vessel afloat and successfully avoiding all major obstacles. A bow paddler in this situation is often steering the bow in a way that the stern paddler cannot.

Education is key if you would like to pursue whitewater adventure! Flat lake water is much more forgiving and you won’t need as much skill or education.

One last item; if you find yourself heading into the wind, please remember that whichever end of the canoe is higher, or sits taller/higher in the water, that’s the end of the canoe that the wind will desperately want to push DOWNWIND.

So what that means practically, is that when you head into the wind, it’s best to have the bow sit LOWER in the water (for a smaller wind catching profile) than the stern. Many canoes feature a sliding bow seat in order to allow for this adjustment.

This adjustment is called “trimming” the canoe.

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Here’s an example of a sliding bow seat to allow for proper trimming of a canoe in windy situations or an uneven load

Is it Hard to Transport a Canoe?

Yes, it’s often quite difficult to transport a canoe that is cheap, cumbersome, and heavy. Fiberglass, wood, and aluminum canoes are heavy, and while they are often fantastic boats while moving through the waves, they are a nightmare to carry over a 1200-meter portage.

Canoe Lifting and Carrying (Photo & Video Guide)

Because this issue is my biggest “peeve” I have gone to great lengths over the past 25 years or so to acquire canoes that minimize the horror of portaging over land.

If you choose a canoe that is made from a Kevlar composite or Carbon Fiber, you will be pleasantly surprised at how light it can be and how easy it is to transport with just one person.

My 17-foot solo canoe weighs a whopping 29 pounds and that’s only because it has a couple of coats of paint! A good tandem canoe made from relatively affordable Kevlar will weigh near 40 pounds and that’s still a joy to carry with only one person.

Once your canoe starts to exceed 18 feet in length and especially if it’s made of Royalex (T-Formex) whitewater canoe material, or aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, you’ll start to notice that the 80-pound weight profile makes it a restrictive chore to portage easily.

Most canoes are made to be carried by 1 person, and I find it distracting and stressful to carry anything more than a 50-pound canoe on my shoulders even from the car to the water. And I train with weights EVERY DAY! (no I’m not a body-builder).

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With the right technique, anyone can carry almost any canoe on their shoulders safely

Is Canoeing Strenuous?

As you might expect, canoeing can certainly be strenuous if you’re heading directly into a stiff headwind and you have to stay upright and safe!

On the other hand, I try very hard to limit my time on the water to quiet, sunny, or gently overcast days with few waves and minimal wind. In that case, canoeing is NOT strenuous at all!

For most paddlers, canoeing is a time to get away from your daily routine and actually relax. “Strenuous” is not a word you’d like to hear when referring to your canoe trip.

I should say at this point that your personal technique of mounting the canoe on your shoulders, carrying it, dismounting it, etc. will play a large role in determining if your canoe trip will offer you a minimal amount of strain and stress or a maximum amount.

Once again, education in technique is key. Here’s a link to an article where I outline exactly how to mount and dismount your canoe with minimal stress.

While paddling can be strenuous when you encounter headwinds or time limitations, I’ve been able to tweak my paddling technique and cadence over the years, so I can paddle for 8 hours without feeling stressed or strained (other than maybe a cramped knee or leg that needs to be stretched and walked).

You are in charge of the issue of whether or not canoeing is strenuous, so use your good judgment and don’t overload your muscles. If you do, your trip may be cut short and you probably won’t be a big fan of canoeing in the future.

Is it Easier to Canoe or Kayak?

There’s really no right answer to this one, but from MY PERSONAL point of view, canoeing is “easier”. Both disciplines require education and skill development.

It so happens my skill development over the past 40 years has been mostly canoeing, so you see my bias I’m sure!

I’ve explored this issue in more detail in this article, and I think it’ll help in your decision-making. Canoes are generally more stable, hold lots of easily-accessible gear, are lighter (if you get a good Kevlar Ultra-Light or Carbon model), and are infinitely more versatile than kayaks.

On the other hand, kayaks have the “cool factor” on their side (for now) and public preference for kayaks is far higher than for canoes at the moment. Both activities are growing, but kayaking is growing at a faster pace.

Kayaking certainly needs a bit more extensive skillset with more practice and lessons to be sure you can recover from a capsize (which is far more likely with a kayak than a canoe).

That said, both types of vessels can be mastered with a little skill, patience, and education.

Canoe or Kayak? What’s the Difference? (Experts Weigh In)

What’s the Most Overlooked Danger of Canoeing?

The most overlooked danger for most paddlers is being unprepared for situations they did not even dream could happen!

While there are many dangers like not wearing a PFD or running out of food, or getting a hole in your canoe that you can’t fit, etc. these are mostly dangers that canoeists can foresee and should plan for.

On the other hand, it’s tough to conceive of dangerous situations that no one tells you about and that you likely won’t face very often if ever!

Wind causes waves. Even the most skillful paddler cannot paddle a canoe through a breaking wave without swamping.

There are no waves on the lee side of the lake, but the farther you paddle from shore, the bigger the waves get. In the middle of the lake, the waves could be breaking and you won’t know until you get there!

Bill Mason – Song of the Paddle

Here’s an example;

I camped in a sheltered bay where the water was relatively quiet a few years ago on Wakimika Lake in the Temagami region of Northern Ontario. I knew I had to paddle against the wind, but I didn’t have to go far and the waves didn’t look that big.

By the time I committed myself to cross the lake, I realized the whitecaps were quite large and my canoe did not sit high in the water. Water was coming in over my bow and I was actually scared!

Just as scary was when I decided to turn and head back. This left me vulnerable to capsizing (losing my balance while turning sideways in large waves) and then more potential swamping from the stern as waves crashed over the rear of my canoe.

It was almost impossible for me to see those problems from my camping spot and I was tricked into believing the waves weren’t that bad.

In my opinion, situations like these are the unforeseen dangers that could turn a trip into a nightmare. Unfortunately, nothing outside of experience and education will prepare you for it.

By the way, so I don’t leave you hanging, here’s a short list of what to do in order to minimize your odds of capsizing or worse!

  • Stay close to shore if possible.
  • Get on your knees (figuratively and physically) ! This keeps your center of gravity lower (and prayer does work!).
  • If heading into the wind, trim your canoe so you’re a tiny bit lower in the bow (so wind won’t twist you around).
  • If heading either into the waves or with the waves, keep your canoe on a slight angle (not facing directly into the waves or directly with them). This will minimize changes of being swamped by a breaking wave.

The Takeaway

You can make nearly any activity strenuous and difficult, or casual and relaxing. Canoeing is a great example. For me, I prefer a combination of the two. I like to exercise and I deliberately push myself when I’m solo canoeing on an overnight or week-long trip.

Then, I’ll relax for a day and slowly fish along the quiet shorelines of a sheltered bay before sunset. Every canoe trip will challenge you at least a bit by giving headwinds, tailwinds, big waves, but also glassy surfaces in the early morning and quiet, sleepy environments – usually in the same day!

I would have it no other way!

Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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