Canoeing How-to

When you set out to learn how to canoe or how to canoe camp, there is one important thing to remember: there are the fundamentals of canoeing–canoes, paddles, paddling strokes, etc.–and then there are the individual canoeist’s interpretations of those fundamentals. There are as many interpretations as there are canoeists. Every canoer has his or her own favorite canoe, best knot, killer breakfast recipe, and other canoeing secrets. You will discover yours the more you get out on the water and gain experience.

That said there are generally accepted best practices, like getting off the water during a lightning storm. And there is no reason to learn everything the hard way when you can benefit from the experience of others. The ‘How To’ pages have been designed to connect you directly with “how to” resources for everything from basic paddle strokes to hanging your perfect tarp to canoeing with kids.

Check back often for feature stories, in-depth articles on canoeing fundamentals. Looking for a topic that isn’t listed? Let us know. And don’t forget, as a beginner, it’s always a good idea to work with a professional outfitter or guide for some in-person instruction.

Canoe Basics

Choosing a Canoe

It’s not always as simple as renting an aluminum canoe at your local beachfront; canoe types are vast and varied, and figuring out which one is right for you can take some sleuthing. Visit the Canoe Guide to learn about canoe structures and types, which one might be most suitable for your needs.


Loading a Canoe

Canoe: long, narrow, and tippy. Gear Pile: a jumble of rotund packs, fishing poles, and gear that must fit in said canoe. But how? And how do you get yourself in there? Loading your canoe properly has a big impact on maneuverability. Too much weight up front makes it cumbersome to steer, whereas keeping weight low in the canoe will make it less prone to tipping. Check out the following links for other theories and advice on loading you and your gear into your canoe.

Transporting a Canoe

Getting a canoe to your destination safely and in one piece is a good way to start any paddling outing.

Canoe Safety

Wearing a Life Jacket or PFD (Personal Floatation Device)

Yes, we wear life jackets in canoes! Everyone, adults and children should wear a PFD when paddling. Check out our Gear Guide to PFDs and learn more on the USCG site about how to select a pfd for kids and adults.

Righting a Tipped Canoe

The risk of swamping your canoe can be greatly minimized by loading it carefully, using paddling techniques that enhance stability and maneuverability, and knowing when to stay off the water. But a key part of canoeing safety is being prepared for the worst–don’t wait until you and all your gear are swimming in the lake to figure out how to get out of such a messy situation.

Inclement Weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms

Weather changes often and quickly in canoe country, particularly in the North. It’s not unheard of to wake up to a sunny day and find yourself in the middle of a storm by afternoon. Knowing how to cope will help you stay safe and leave you ready to continue on with the rest of your trip once the bad weather passes. Reading Basic Essentials: Weather Forecasting, by Michael Hodgson will help you learn to read the weather, using common sense and researching safety will help you stay safe.

Inclement Weather: Wind Storms

The infamous July 4th storm that leveled parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1999 wreaked havoc not with lightning or fires, but straight-line winds. Canoe country storms are increasingly accompanied by strong winds, the precautions for which are sometimes different than those of lightning. Read Our Wounded Wilderness: The Great Boundary Waters Canoe Area Storm by Jim Cordes to get a better understanding of high wind storms and their dangers. And, for weather forecasting we suggest Basic Essential Weather Forecasting by Michael Hodgson.


Paddling Basics

Paddle Selection

The right size and type of paddle makes the difference between a comfortable, powerful stroke and a muscle-knotting, inefficient one. Check out our selection guide in the Paddles section in the Gear Guide for the information you need on types of paddles and their uses.

Paddling: Basic Strokes

We’ve all seen it or done it: a canoe weaving down the lake in a zig zag pattern and occasionally, perhaps, completing a circle. Or how about the canoe that gets broadside to the waves on a windy day and can’t get turned around? Learning paddle strokes and techniques will help you go where you want to go in the straightest line and using your energy efficiently. Let’s face it: in paddling, you are the motor. Why not make it a little easier for yourself?

Working with Outfitters and Guides

As a novice canoeist, learning the ropes from experienced paddlers is a great way to build your paddling resumé and acquire canoeing tips and tricks–without learning them the hard way! Whether you’re heading out for a day paddle or an overnight trip, outfitters and professional canoe guides are great resources for more than just gear rental. They can partner with you to find a route suitable for your skill levels, make sure you’re bringing the right gear as well as teach you how to use it, and educate you on safety and other precautions. Plus, they’ll watch for your safe return. Taking it to the next level and traveling with a guide will give you even more opportunities for hands-on-learning so that as your experience and comfort levels grow, so will your ability to someday head out on your own.

It’s important to use a guide or outfitter familiar with the waterways you’ll be paddling. Once you have selected a location in the Destination Guide, follow the links for outfitters and guides located in the region.


Camping Basics

Minimum Impact Canoeing

There’s nothing as disruptive as a noisy neighbor on a serene northern lake or a trail of twist ties from the water’s edge to your picnic spot. Take care to leave your canoe destination as clean as, or cleaner than, you found it.

Learn more about minimum impact regulations in the Destination Guide–the Park & Permit section–for each canoe area. And for general low-impact camping practices, visit the center for outdoor ethics.

Campsites: Selection and Set-up

A solitary island campsite with a beautiful sand beach and a perfect view of the sunset can be hard to pass up. But taking the time to notice the fresh bear scat along the biffy trail, the too exposed tent site or the overhanging dead trees can be integral to a good night of sleep and even your safety. Learn how to select and set up your campsites before you set out for your trip–through the links below. Remember, it’s always a good idea to read up on the specific regulations at your destination. To find information on selecting and setting up campsites in specific canoe parks and wilderness areas, consult the Destination Guide–the Park & Permit section–for rules and regulations.

Outfitters offer suggestions for campsite selection; for the BWCAW and Quetico Park check out Canadian Border Outfitters’ website. Their information and suggestions can be applied to camping in most all of the northern canoe country areas.

Another worthwhile read is Discover the Outdoors article on choosing the right campsite; though geared toward backpacking it is still sound advice in canoe country.

And, don’t forget to be informed about tips for camping in bear country whether you are canoeing or backpacking.

Packs: Selection and Packing Guides

When it comes to finding the right pack for a canoe trip, you’ll find that while comfortable, internal frame backpacks designed for hiking aren’t an ideal fit for canoeing. The better choice is to go with a stouter, shorter pack designed for canoeing. These packs ride low in a canoe adding stability to the canoe while in the water. For more advice on selecting the pack that’s best for you and guidance on how to fill it, check out the Portage Packs section of the Gear Guide and these suggested links.


According to most dictionaries, to portage is to carry boats and gear from one navigable body of water to another. It sounds rather benign. In canoe country a portage is often a narrow and uneven trail between lakes and rivers; what sounds and looks simple can feel quite different with a canoe on your shoulders. Portaging is the great challenge of canoe tripping, and one thing is certain: paddlers have a lot to say about portaging. Read on for advice of all kinds as you prepare yourself to ‘learn to love it’.

Canoe Country Wilderness Canoeing by Lee Hegstand or One Step at a Time by Brian Cooke are good starts in offering advice for getting you and all your gear across a portage: techniques, handling the pack, carrying the canoe, and even portage safety.

Bear Packs: Hanging a Critter-proof Pack

Some canoeing outfitters and guides recommend hanging your food pack to keep it away from bears and chipmunks (yes, chipmunks really are a legitimate threat when it comes to safeguarding your food), and others leave the decision up to you. Left to their own devices, canoe campers generally fall into two categories: “I always hang my food pack” or “I never hang my food pack.” Where do you fall? Wherever you fall, it’s a good skill to know in case a late-night, unwanted visitor prompts you to change your strategy. And, in 1994 the U.S. Forest Service released a detailed report on low-impact food hoists. Its information is still applicable today.

Hanging a Tarp

Lunch in the rain, a blazing hot campsite with little natural shade, and a good tail wind all warrant a key piece of gear: the tarp. Yet a poorly hung tarp does little to assuage any situation, and hanging methods can be as personal and varied as the personalities on any given trip. Tarps can be found in the Tents and Tarps section of the Gear Guide.

Miscellaneous Paddling Tips

Dogs and Canoeing

Dogs have long been trusty travel companions. John Steinbeck recounted his cross-country adventures with his dog in Travels with Charlie. Author Peter Jenkins chronicled his walk across America with his beloved half malamute by his side. But getting a dog to sit still in a canoe? A challenge, yes. Impossible, no. Dogs really can be great canoeing companions. Listed below are several links that give good advice on canoeing with your beloved canine friend. To quote the experts at Rutabaga, a Wisconsin paddlesport shop, “Canoes + Canines…an equation that can work for you…

Kids and Canoeing

Who called it settling down? Starting a family doesn’t mean that canoe adventures have to come to an end. In fact, canoeing takes on a whole new significance with kids. A good, practical guide to canoeing with kids has been written by Rolf and Debra Kraiker, Cradle to Canoe, Camping and Canoeing with Children.

Knot Tying

The ability to tie at least a couple of good knots can go a long way when you’re canoeing. If you were never a Boy Scout or a Campfire Girl, or if you need a refresher on knot tying basics here are some resources. provides an extensive guide to ideal knots for four categories: paddling, the outdoors, fishing and boating while Folsom’s basic guide to knot tying offers basic information, the Web Knot Index will connect you to a variety of knot-tying web sites.

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