Top 10 Things Newbie Paddlers Wish They Knew Before They Started

Everyone is a newcomer at some point to the timeless sport, pastime, and lifestyle of recreational paddling. Most new paddlers know just enough to get started, but they don’t realize how much there is yet to know and discover.

Indeed even veteran paddlers are not immune to discovering something previously unknown to them!

After over 40 years of wilderness paddling, I have a lot to learn, but I’ve also learned a lot. Here are my carefully chosen top 10 ideas, concepts, tips, and oracles of wisdom that, if you don’t already know them, you absolutely WILL want to learn them!

1 – What to look for when buying a new or used canoe or kayak

The task of acquiring a new vessel is most often a fun and exciting one, but too often, newbie paddlers jump into a purchase without considering all the potential consequences of their purchase decision.

Most find it easy to look at only 2 real factors; the price and the condition of the canoe or kayak. Those are certainly on the top of anyone’s list, but there is WAY more to your decision that you should be aware of.

This topic is close to my heart (can you tell I bought a “lemon” or two in my time?) so I’ve outlined a 15-point checklist that you’ll be kicking yourself in the butt if you don’t read before you buy;

Buying A Used Canoe (15 Point To-Do List)


2 – The massive difference between paddling a cheap, “affordable” canoe and a high-end premium performance canoe or kayak

There’s no question that the allure of a decent-looking canoe at a super-low price point is strong! In fact, cheap and heavy canoes or kayaks are made to fill the need for a low-priced canoe.

While there are circumstances where an inexpensive canoe makes sense (ie. kid’s camp or day use by families, etc.), a higher-priced canoe will elevate your experience so dramatically that it will be nearly impossible to move back to a cheap canoe except under duress or if it makes sense in the situation (as mentioned earlier).

I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve either read about or heard from people personally where paddlers have had such a bad experience (because of a heavy, old, cheap canoe) that they have been permanently turned away from any canoeing or kayaking in the future.

The difference between a cheap, poorly made, inefficient and heavy canoe, and a well-made, premium, efficient and light canoe is about $500 – $1,500. If you’re buying used, the difference will be less.

If you’re a veteran paddler, you’ll know this: that $500 – $1,500 will be the best-spent money to get a canoe that will make every minute you spend on the water so much more enjoyable. A good-quality canoe will increase your likelihood of continuing to explore nature with a canoe for many years and even decades to come.

This is a topic that I could write about for hours, but let me summarize the advantages of a good (and yes, pricier) canoe vs. a cheap one. This is only a basic generalization for beginners and does not address the various exceptions to these basic principles.

Premium CanoeCheap Canoe
Typically made of materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, or proprietary materials like Royalex or T-Formex Typically made of materials like aluminum, plastic, or fiberglass (and even canvas/wood)
A pleasure to paddle since their light weight allows them to “surge” forward with each stroke. The faster speed is encouraging for paddlers Plod along in the water and usually are less efficient (though not always) as they literally “plow” through the water with inefficient entry lines (and often blunt stems) at a slower pace
Are FAR more “efficient”, meaning they travel faster and farther for each unit of energy spent in moving them forwardAre extremely (or just a bit) less efficient and more energy is required to move them the same distance as an efficient canoe
Will seldom make noise when slicing or cutting through the water on a quiet, glassy surfaceWill almost always make a plowing or splashing noise when chopping through the water – even on a quiet, glassy water surface
Will VERY often attract attention and turn heads. Many conversations are started with others regarding your craftVirtually NEVER be the topic of meaningful discussion with other paddlers you meet en route, and will seldom attract attention or admiration

It’s important to understand that If you’ve never paddled BOTH premium canoes/kayaks and cheap ones, you’ll never appreciate the value of the better one.

The reason I’m a big fan of getting a Kevlar or carbon canoe is that the price difference is usually something that is affordable (even if it means saving a few extra dollars for another few months) as opposed to the more daunting price difference between a cheap car (maybe $5K – $15K) and a premium car ($100K).

Yet, the difference between a used Polyethylene or plastic recreation canoe and an efficient carbon fiber lake tripping canoe is incredibly huge and more than worth the price difference in most cases!


3 – How hard it is to paddle in windy and wavy conditions

It’s not hard to theoretically or academically understand the potential difficulty of paddling in whitecap waves or brisk wind, but it’s not until you experience it that you can really appreciate the nuisance and potential danger. Here’s an excellent video to help you learn some interesting and potentially life-saving skills for paddling in the wind.

Very few forms of transportation are more affected by wind than the canoe. Wind causes waves.

Even the most skillful open canoe paddler cannot paddle a canoe through a breaking wave without upsetting or swamping.

Bill Mason – canoeing Icon, Author and Explorer

Even canoeing icons like the legendary Bill Mason, are all too aware of the perils of wind and waves, and their effect on a canoe (especially in open water).

On larger lakes, he even advocates paddling in the very early morning or later evening hours to avoid serious trouble.

It is crucial to understand that different canoes paddled in different ways with different loads and load distribution scenarios, will produce radically different results.

Simply put, if you’re paddling in the wind (which also makes challenging waves) whether into the wind or with it, the best scenario is a well-balanced canoe with just enough freeboard to avoid easy swamping, but not too much to catch the wind and blow you off course.

When paddling solo, wind and waves are especially challenging, and virtually require that you are positioned in the exact center of the canoe (both front-to-back and side-to-side).

I have lots of solo experience and if you’re not in the exact center (especially if your canoe is not loaded with a week’s worth of gear), you will most likely spend far too much energy fighting the wind and waves.

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This canoe (as it is pictured) is not suited for windy/wavy conditions. The paddler (me) is not in the middle and the canoe is not loaded enough to make the hull contact the water along its full length. It will be blown around by wind and it won’t be as stable in the waves. It has too much freeboard that will catch the wind.

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This canoe is well-balanced with an evenly distributed load, paddler in the middle, and the entire hull connecting to the water for maximum efficiency. It will not be affected by wind from any direction and it has just enough freeboard to deal with waves.

4 – The difference between various canoe styles and their intended function

Far too few canoeists know that there are different hull designs and shapes for various canoes. Fewer still, understand what those differences are and how they should influence what canoe you use in what type of condition.

Here is a very quick overview of basic shapes and what they are good at – and not so good at doing!

PROSPECTOR

A prospector canoe is a classic and traditional canoe design that is meant to do lots of things fairly well, but nothing ideally. It has lots of rocker, which means it’s basically curved like a banana. This allows it to turn easier for use in avoiding obstacles while navigating rivers and rapids

The downside to this design is that because it is both symmetrical in design and rockered, it is not very efficient in keeping a straight line on flat water (more corrective strokes are needed) and it’s not as fast overall when lake tripping.

ASYMMETRICAL TOURING

Asymmetrical canoes (the front half is slightly different-shaped than the back half) are meant for maximum efficiency and the vast majority of flatwater lake touring/expedition canoes are made with an asymmetrical design. They are much better than prospectors for this purpose.

However, they are completely unsuitable for all but the most gentle rivers because they cannot be turned easily to avoid obstacles.

RECREATIONAL

Recreation canoes are usually styled after a prospector design, but they are often shorter or at least wider with a flat bottom. These canoes are the least efficient for lake tripping but they are excellent for stability (standing up).

WHITEWATER

Whitewater canoes have a very heavy rocker for ultimate maneuverability, and they are only as long as necessary. Solo designs are much shorter than lake touring solo canoes.

RIVER TRIPPING

A river canoe combines some of the features of both a touring canoe (tracking ability because of greater length, but no keel to help with quicker turning). It offers a heavy rocker for maneuverability, but also a longer overall length to accommodate more gear, paddlers, and decent tracking.

THE POINT OF EXPLAINING THESE DIFFERENT STYLES is that if you purchase any one of these designs without knowing exactly what they are intended for, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Most novice paddlers have no idea what design is intended for what purpose, or that there even are specific canoes made for very specific uses.

Most paddlers would want an efficient, asymmetrical lake tripping canoe, so it’s imperative that they do not choose a river tripping canoe, whitewater canoe, or even a prospector if they truly want to enjoy the trip to its fullest!


5 – The capabilities and limits of a canoe or kayak

We’ve discussed the different types of canoes that offer different capabilities, but all such canoes (no matter the design) have the capability to do lots of things, but in various degrees, while also offering minimal capabilities in accomplishing other tasks.

For example, a canoe with only a few inches more depth than another canoe will offer far more cargo-carrying capacity and seaworthiness (the ability to shed waves and not take on water in rough conditions).

Longer and thinner kayaks are more seaworthy than short, wide, and stubby kayaks which are really only calm water recreation canoes. Kayaks with a more rounded hull shape can overturn more easily and can also be turned upright more easily.

Canoes with a flat bottom offer wonderful initial or primary stability (how stable the canoe feels while sitting upright in calm water) while a canoe with a more rounded bottom (shallow arch) will offer better secondary stability (the stability level once your canoe is already rolled over heavily to a side).

Canoes with a tall bow offer wonderful resistance to waves crashing and spilling into the bow, but they also tend to act more like a sail and catch wind easier (and therefore can become harder to control) than a canoe with a shorter bow or stem.

It seems every canoe has its good and bad (like anything else) but the best way to discover the limits and abilities of your canoe or kayak is to test some of those abilities in a controlled environment.

For my part, I take any new canoe I own to a beach with calm water (typically early morning or evening) to test its stability and its payload capacity, just before I put it through its paces on open water and challenging waves at mid-day.


6 – It actually takes a decent amount of skill and knowledge to paddle safely, properly and enjoyably

To many novice paddlers, canoeing often seems easy if all they’ve done is watch someone paddling from a distance. It comes as quite a shock to some, that canoeing properly is tougher than it seems once they are put in charge of navigating and propelling their own vessel.

Bill Mason said it well when he warned of embarking on wilderness trips without a storehouse full of knowledge and experience. He said that the greatest risk to traveling (alone) is for the novice canoeist. The second dangerous stage is when you think you know more than you really do!

The greatest risk in traveling alone in a canoe is of course, for the novice canoeist.

The second dangerous stage is when you think you know more than you really do.

Bill Mason – Canoeing Legend, Explorer and Educator

I could write a whole book (literally) on this point alone, but I’ll do my best to summarize in a paragraph or two.

Before embarking on a canoe trip, it’s crucial to learn not only paddle strokes for different conditions and to learn your vessel’s limits and capabilities, but also to learn basic wilderness skills that are not directly related to paddling.

For example, how much do you know about cooking, responsible hygiene (bathroom duties!), choosing campsites and setting up, proper clothing and gear to bring, starting a fire in wet weather, how to properly portage and carry a canoe and what to do in case of a major emergency like a broken limb or worse!

It’s best to scour good periodicals like Bill Mason’s SONG OF THE PADDLE for an overview of what you need to consider and then teaching points to bring you up to speed on the minimum of what you need to know before heading out on a trip.

This is especially true if you are either going solo, or you are the most experienced and knowledgeable in the group.

Regarding skills, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE until you have a high degree of confidence in your basic abilities to traverse the wilderness while remaining safe, well-fed, dry, comfortable and happy!


7 – How much fitness is needed for longer canoe or kayak expeditions (for safety and enjoyment)

Here is an easy issue to overlook but believe me, nearly everyone starting out becomes aware of this problem either right away, or at least by the end of their trip.

On my first trip, I thought I had taken care of everything from survival skills to gear and food, to skills acquisition. However, no one told me how much my muscles would hurt after carrying an aluminum canoe by myself for 900 yards at the age of 14.

The next day found me nearly motionless for much of the daylight hours in my tent, moaning with lactic acid buildup in my muscles causing tremendous pain!

Luckily, I had my older brother, father, and an experienced family friend along to help, so there was no major fallout from my temporarily crippling condition.

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Basic bicep curls, shoulder press, and cardio workouts like simple jogging are the basic exercises that would equip you for canoe trips

However, had I been alone, there could have been more serious consequences if my muscles had cramped up and I was unable to strike camp, make food or even go to the bathroom!

If you’re not in the best of shape, and you determine that you’ll be hauling a heavy canoe over multiple portages and paddling all day, it might be best to start an exercise routine to address the muscle groups you’ll be stressing.

The bad news (if you’re out of shape) is that you’ll need pretty much every muscle group in your body on a canoe trip. You’ll be using arms, shoulders, back, abs, and legs!

Of course, the good news is that if you canoe a lot, you’ll improve all those areas more quickly than you think!


8 – How to properly dress and pack for a canoe trip (the value of high-quality gear)

I learned this lesson the hard way back in 1982 when I started wilderness canoe tripping. Back then, there simply was not the selection or quality of gear (especially clothing) as there is now.

Even more importantly, my dad was super frugal, so we had gear and equipment from the 1950s and ’60s. I wore old jeans with a cotton t-shirt and cotton socks with my old canvas basketball shoes. Our tent was an old, musty canvas teepee-style tent with a rotting wood pole in the center.

My rain gear was, well, not really raingear. I had a yellow rubber jacket, but no hat or pants, so really, what was the point?

After several rainy and miserable trips to Temagami (Northern Ontario), I determined to slowly and methodically build my arsenal of good gear, but with the knowledge that it would be a task that would actually have no end since products improve every year.

I have lots of gear now, but here’s a short list (not exhaustive) of the priorities (and items) that you should focus on for any kayak or canoe wilderness trip.

The list could go on and on if we include fishing gear, canoe gloves, hats, sunscreens, sunglasses, etc. but this is not an exhaustive list of items – only the biggest priorities.

Gear prices have only decreased over the past decade or so, so there are fewer excuses to avoid proper clothing and gear.

I usually layer my clothing starting with a technical T-shirt, followed by another technical long-sleeved shirt. I bring a windbreaker jacket and a rain jacket, but I don’t usually wear either. My PFD goes on top of either my T-shirt or my long-sleeved second layer.

My pants are stretchy, semi-water repellent outdoor pants made mostly of polyester/spandex/lycra. I bring thin, wool socks and a croc-style pair of foam shoes as well as a pair of Columbia waterproof hiking shoes.

My hat is either a technical baseball-style cap or a Tilley hat that I waterproofed with oil. I use paddling gloves for comfort and blister prevention and a pair of UVA and UVB full-spectrum sunglasses with a tough frame.

I always remember to bring sunscreen for my ear-tips and lips for long days on the water, and of course, my camera gear and toiletries bag round out the gear list.


9 – How well you can actually eat on a canoe trip

I’m a bit late to the table in learning this lesson! As a younger paddler and outdoor enthusiast in the 1980s, I thought the only food anyone brings on a wilderness canoe trip (where one must portage) looks something like this:

  • GORP (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts)
  • Dry, crusty (lightweight) bread
  • Pepperoni sticks
  • Dried apple slices (home made)
  • Garlic

Seriously, that’s it! There was no fresh fruit or vegetables, uncured meats, canned goods, or dehydrated meals. Needless to say, by the end of the trip, I was starving for fried eggs and burgers!

Since that time, both my own knowledge as well as food processing technology, have advanced greatly to the point where my new camping menu looks vastly different. It’s important to me to keep it very light in weight, but with my discovery of DEHYDRATED FOODS (both on Amazon and DIY options), they form the backbone of my weekly trip menu.

Here’s a basic outline of what I bring nowadays on a 2 – 7 day trip (which is typical for me);

  • 2 days’ worth of fresh fruit like several apples or hard pears
  • Home made sourdough bread boule (loaf)
  • Couple pepperoni sticks (for nostalgia’s sake)
  • Risotto and mushroom dried meals (the exact recipe changes annually)
  • Energy bars (granola and dried fruit)
  • Home made dry fruit (usually apples and pears from our orchard)
  • Powdered milk in Ziploc bag
  • Instant coffee in Ziploc bag
  • Granola cereal

Those are some of my basics. I get my water from the lakes I’m on (using a high-quality ceramic water filter of course). My breakfasts include cereal and fruit (though I could explore dehydrated eggs!). Then, for a mid-day meal/snack I’m usually satisfied with bread and sausage on the run (aka. while paddling, so no need to stop for a shore lunch).

Then, supper is a dehydrated meal (very inexpensive and no artificial ingredients). Dehydrated meals come out just like the original, so it really feels like a “home meal” rather than a compromise you need to make while in the wilderness.

Of course, I supplement with fish if catch any and that’s always a bonus. Remember, if you bring a few other items like oil and spices along with your utensils and pot/pan, you’re good to go!

If you prepare with a bit of forethought, your meals can even (sometimes) make you feel like you’re eating BETTER during your expedition than you would at home, AND with almost no weight since everything is dehydrated or naturally light!

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Homemade dehydrated food like rice, beef and tomatoes are a perfect and even gourmet meal that’s easy to make at home and easy to re-hydrate on your trip

10 – Make friends who share your passion of wilderness exploration!

Here’s my single biggest regret! I’m a bit of a lone wolf in my life in general, and I don’t like the idea of having to rely on someone else in order to accomplish any task.

That said, if you have a friend or soul mate that shares your passion for wilderness tripping, a whole new world opens up to you.

Sure, it’s nice to share experiences like sunsets and record walleye catches, but even more importantly, your options for just about everything are increased.

For example, you have someone who can actually take a decent photo or video of you rather than relying on selfies. You have a partner that can help you move through the water faster and keep you moving even if you need a minute or two break.

You have someone who can be of crucial assistance if you find yourself in an emergency like a broken limb or serious fever/illness. Many a life has been saved by the sole partner of an adventurer who was injured or otherwise taken out of commission.

My Dad had a great paddling partner who shared his wilderness vision and philosophy and also had the same world view regarding religion, politics, family and life in general. WHAT A BLESSING!

I’ve found the most meaningful relationships can come from, first, a faith in the God of the Bible (specifically Jesus Christ) and then a connection with another Believer of like mind in faith and love of the wilderness. These relationships mean the most because you know they are not limited to this temporal life, but also because you know there are not that many people who fit the category of this type of friend so you cherish them all the more!


In Summary

There is quite a lot to learn before you feel safe enough and capable enough on a wilderness excursion to actually be able to enjoy yourself.

If you start by dealing with this list of 10 items, you’ll be well enough equipped to take some baby steps in starting to travel for several days into the wilderness. You’ll be capable of 2-week long uber-wilderness trips in no time with a bit of common sense and trip planning.

Whatever you do, don’t neglect SAFETY GEAR like GPS locators and 1st aid kits (which probably should have made my list!).

Blessings to you my friends and please paddle as long as you can and cherish each moment with those you love.


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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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