9th July 2021 | Words by Jay Oram @ WildBounds HQ
Bushcraft and wilderness travel guru Ray Mears once called the canoe the most natural way to travel, and the best way to get close to wild places. We completely agree. It’s easy to get lost amongst all those scenic canoe trip photos on Instagram, to yearn wistfully for a boat and paddle, for a river deep in the wilderness, and the chance to camp on the banks each night. Fortunately, that kind of experience is in easy reach. To help you out, here’s our first-timer’s guide to getting out on the water.
Getting hold of the gear Canoes are not cheap, but fortunately you don’t need to buy one to have a go. There are a number of canoe hire companies out there who can help, offering adventurous trips to suit all abilities. Joining a canoe club can also get you access to trying a canoe on a lake or reservoir to learn the basics and get familiar with manoeuvring a canoe on the water. If you’re committed to canoeing, it’s worth investing in your own paddle and a buoyancy aid. Here’s a simple guide to the essential bits of kit, but as you delve deeper into paddling you will find a myriad of kit to make your paddling more comfortable, enjoyable and safe.
The Canoe There are hundreds of models, different makes and sizes – but when you are getting started you can’t really go wrong. Almost anything will do as long as it floats! If you can visit your local canoe club, canoe and kayak store, you’re bound to get some solid advice, but ultimately the best boat is the one that gets you out there on the water.
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Inflatable or folding canoes are the easiest to transport, and are suitable for shorter paddles on flat water, like inland lakes and canals. They can still be a lot of fun and give you a taste of adventure. But if you want to do longer, extended trips, where you’ll need to carry a lot of gear in the boat (like tents and camping equipment), you are better looking at the more traditional large open boats. These are also what you need for taking on some whitewater. A brand new boat will be £900 plus, but you can find second-hand canoes from £200. It’s also worth seeking out specialist canoe shops, as they often sell beginners’ packages with a canoe, a couple of paddles and two buoyancy aids to get you started.
The Paddle You can pick these up relatively cheaply via places like eBay, Gumtree, Shpock or Facebook Marketplace. Handmade wooden paddles look beautiful and feel great when you are using them, but they can be expensive. For practicing your paddling, which will likely involve dropping, bashing, and clunking your paddle, an inexpensive but durable alloy shaft and plastic paddle will let you learn without fear of breaking a paddle. They can cost as little as £20.
A buoyancy aid This is to help you float when (not if) you fall in. Get a comfortable one that fits properly. You don’t want to be tempted to take it off! Basic ones start at around £40, offering flotation and little else. You can get buoyancy aids with extra pockets, that zip up at the front or slip on over the head. Top of the range aids may have built in tow lines, safety whistles, a chest harness and space for a hydration pack. Though these might be appealing, we repeat: don’t compromise on safety or comfort. These are the most important elements of any buoyancy aid. Buy one that is the right size and buoyancy for your weight and build, and that fits well. You can always buy the next model up when you progress. There is a good secondhand market for buoyancy aids, or alternatively once you have upgraded, your first one is always a useful spare for a mate who is just getting started!
Dry bag A plastic bag with a roll-top closure for you to store anything you want to keep dry, like spare clothes, your mobile phone, car keys or your lunch. Top brands include SealLine.
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Dry barrel A hard plastic barrel with a watertight lid. Used for longer trips or when you’re carrying more kit.
A roof rackThis is a lower cost alternative to a trailer to enable you to carry a canoe. You can get these to fit any car, from brands including Cruz, Thule, Exodus and Halfords. Add a couple of straps and you will be able to transport your canoe anywhere (pro tip: put a half twist in the straps to prevent them from vibrating and whistling in transit). But most canoe hire companies and canoe clubs will have racks and trailers to transport a canoe for you.
Waterproof clothing For most trips, the same waterproof jacket and trousers you use for hiking will do, mainly to keep off the rain and the odd splash. Alternatively, you could invest in a drysuit. These use latex seals and waterproof zips to keep your clothes 100% dry, but start at around £250. They’re not essential when you are starting out.
Getting on the waterYou’ll never stop learning canoe skills. I’ve been paddling for nearly 20 years now and I still pick up new things all the time. But to get you going, check out these useful how-to videos on YouTube. We’ve also summarised good technique in the two essential tips below:
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1. Paddling forward This is the stroke that propels the canoe through the water – basically, what gets you going. Place your thumb under the T-grip of the paddle and curl your fingers over the top. Now place your opposite hand about ¾ of the way down the paddle. This should feel a natural and comfortable position. Put the paddle in the water at the point where your knee is. Aim to get all of the blade in the water and pull it back in a straight line. Avoid following the curve of the canoe – just one straight, smooth line. Then take it out and do it all again!
2. Paddling with your partnerWith two of you in the boat, most people find it easier to paddle on opposite sides of the boat. The person in the front of the boat’s role is to keep paddling and to act as the eyes of the person in the back – you can see what’s coming up better than them.
The paddler at the back is in charge of steering – you paddle forward and hold the paddle in the same way as the person in front. But, to steer, little corrections here and there will keep the boat going in a straight line. To steer, place the paddle in the water vertically in line with the boat (point your thumb up to the sky), try and get as much of the blade in the water as possible. Then control the direction by pushing the paddle away from the boat or by pulling it towards yourself.
That’s it, to begin with – for most trips you will be fine with just these tips. As you progress, you will find many other ways of moving the canoe around. Watching YouTube tutorials, going canoeing with other more experienced paddlers, signing up for a beginners course or joining a canoe club will all shelp you continue to progress your paddling.
Images: 1: Roberto Nickson; 2: Ray Goodwin; 3: Jay Oram; 4: Kyle Finn Dempsey