Learning how to canoe is an exciting journey that can open up vast areas of wilderness for a lifetime of adventures

The details in learning this vast skill can be overwhelming and challenging. What is a bow-rudder? Why are soloists kneeling backwards in a tandem canoe? Make your learning process simple by beginning with these six important skills for beginner canoeists before you move onto more advanced areas and techniques. Happy paddling!

1. Learn the J-Stroke

How To Do The J-Stoke
The Canoeing J-Stoke |  Photo Credit: Ontario Tourism

This key stroke means you will be able to stop switching sides and artfully steer the canoe exactly where you want to go. Use it in the stern of a tandem canoe, or as an essential steering stroke while solo paddling. Learn the J-Stroke here.

2. Develop a great forward stroke

Becky Mason demonstrates the forward stroke in a canoe
Becky Mason demonstrates the forward stroke in a canoe | Photo: Becky Mason

It may seem simple, but pulling off a perfect forward stroke takes practice. You want to make sure the paddle blade is positioned in such a way that you pull water efficiently and use your core muscles through the stroke for maximum power and to reduce arm fatigue. Learn the traditional forward stroke here.

3. Learn how to tie your canoe to the car

How to tie a canoe to a car | Photo: Paddling Magazine Staff

It may not be a on-the-water skill, but properly lashing your canoe to the roof of your car makes you mobile. Most people aren’t lucky enough to live right at their favorite paddling destinations, which means transportation is part of their canoeing adventures. Learn and abide by a safe and effective system and you can cut down on time spent fiddling with straps and enjoy more time developing your paddling skills. Learn how to transport a canoe on your car here.

4. Master a canoe rescue technique

Two canoeists work together and use a parallel canoe rescue to empty a flipped, red canoe in a marshy bay.
Two canoeists work together to empty a flipped, red canoe in a marshy bay. | Photo: Leo Hoare

Flips happen. Once you have an understanding and practice of canoe rescue techniques, they go from being a catastrophic event to a formulaic fix. There are many different ways to execute a canoe rescue. Learn the parallel canoe rescue technique here.

5. Learn the low brace

Canoeing Skill: The Low Brace
Skills: The Low Brace | Photo: Paul Villecourt

If you end up in wavy and choppy waters, the low brace is a great skill that can help you maintain confidence and prevent a capsize. The low brace uses the paddle blade to create pressure against the water. Learn the low brace here.

6. Choose the perfect canoe paddle

paddles leaning against a wall

Like many things in life, with canoeing you need the right tool for the right job. Just because it has a shaft, grip and blade doesn’t mean a paddle is right for you. Paddles are designed for different styles and conditions of canoeing, and selecting an inappropriate one can make learning to canoe frustrating and slow. Learn how to choose the best canoe paddle here.


  1. You missed a couple of essential skills for beginners.
    How to carry a canoe is very important and how to lift it from the ground to your shoulders and later how to put it down.
    Also getting into the canoe from shore, or from a dock are important non trivial skills.
    It seems to me that some outfitters are incredibly irresponsible when renting canoes to novices.
    Once on Pen Lake in Algonquin Park, we encountered a couple of young women from Germany that were paddling about 5 strokes on each side then changing sides. It was about 5:00 pm on September afternoon and they were headed away from the landing..
    Not only were they having a difficult time paddling, but if they did not turn back soon they were going to be forced to traverse the portage back to Rock Lake or spend the night in the bush. Even if they did get back across the portage safely, they would have to cross an unfamiliar lake in the dark.
    I took a few minutes to demonstra5it rate the j stroke and give the a couple of pointers. I also suggested they head back soon.
    I don’t know if they did. We did not see them again as we were on our way back. I suspect they spent a night in the bush which never hurt anyone but it may have dampened their enthusiasm for canoeing.
    In retrospect, I probably should have been more insistant that they head back with us. I put the responsibility on myself as my bowman was an inexperienced canoeIst.
    Any I’ll fortune that befell these visitors could have been prevented had the outfitter taken a few minutes to instruct them.


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