Canoeing is a traditional means of travel in the wilderness and a skill developed over time. As a former canoeing instructor, I have learned many lessons on the water and under the power of a paddle. Some of the skills and information I’ll pass on here I’ve learned from books and online resources, and others are only learned through experience. In this article, I will look at the ABC’s of canoeing as I have learned since my first time in a boat back in 1994.


While not a canoeing necessity, it is nice to have an anchor handy. These are available in miniature versions of those used for powerboats or in the homemade variety, which consists of a #10 can filled with concrete. You will use it all the time to maintain position while fishing. Trust me, it is worth its weight in panfish filets.


Bannock is nothing more than flour, baking powder, a pinch of salt and whatever other ingredients you want to toss in. From cinnamon raisin bannock to cheesy bacon bannock, this traditional camp bread is a staple while canoe camping. It sticks to the ribs and is very easy to make fried in a cast-iron pan.


No boater should be without a knife at the ready. In addition to my usual belt knife, I have a knife attached to my PFD to cut line if necessary. I also carry an ax and a saw while exploring the backwoods in my canoe. Sometimes, you just need to clear a waterway for the next boater. Bring the right tools for the job.

Dry Bag

You don’t need to invest in the most expensive dedicated dry bags when quick-release knots in garbage bags and zip-seal bags work fine. Of course, the disposable variety won’t last as long, so if canoeing is a passion, think about investing in some dedicated bags.


Exposure can kill you. Cold is bad. Wet is bad. Cold and wet is really bad. Canoeing is a watersport, and you may end up wet. Make sure to have warm clothes to change into if the weather turns or if you go in the drink. Hypothermia is possible even in the summer. Wind-resistant shells offset the convection cooling effects of the wind.


Fire is life, especially if you go canoeing in cold weather. Carry an immersion kit with a fire-starter, a candle and other means to get a fire going. Also, make it a point to carry means to make fire in a compartment or ditty bag in your boat, somewhere on your person and redundantly again in your pack. Always have it within reach just in case.


Gloves will save your hands in cold weather. In the summer, they can protect your hands from the sun and from stinging mosquitoes. If you find your hands are always cold, loosen your grip. Too tight of a grip restricts circulation.


Nothing beats a canoe for payload. Either pack 20 percent of your body weight on your back and hike or carry upwards of 1,000 pounds in your canoe. Just remember, if you portage (a fancy word for canoe carry), you will still need to haul your gear on your back. There is always a tradeoff.


Depending where you are, even canoes may be required to have a “white light-emitting device” on board for night travel. If you share the water with powerboats, let them know you’re there with a good light.


How do you paddle on one side? Look up this stroke. That’s your answer.

Keel Guard

Hearing the sound of a high-end composite canoe scrape bottom is worse than fingers on a chalkboard. A keel guard is usually a piece of Kevlar attached to the keel at the bow and stern with epoxy. It is absolutely a good idea, and I recommend it. Maintain the value and integrity of your boat with this inexpensive accessory.

Life Jacket

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like how you look—wear one, and wearing one means keeping it zippered. Plenty of people have died when their unzipped jackets have come off in the water. A proper-fitting jacket will keep you afloat, but remember that it may not keep your mouth out of the water or keep you face-up if you’re knocked out.


Paddle in Maine at the wrong time of the year and you’ll learn what the state bird—cough—I mean insect is. Paddling jackets and head nets are nice to keep them off of you. Bug dope helps, but you’re doing a watersport and it will wash off. Invest in some quality insect-proof clothing.

Navigable Waters

You will be able to access waterways navigable only to shallow draft boats like canoes. Canoes are fantastic crafts for getting into those hard-to-reach places.


Nothing drives me crazy like someone who calls a paddle an oar. You will learn my frustration after using one long enough. People row a boat with an oar; you propel a canoe with a paddle.


Years ago, Maine guides were required to demonstrate proficiency poling their canoes. Get a good brass foot and a 12-foot ash pole. You will find you have better visibility standing in your boat, and attaining (a fancy word for moving back upstream) is much easier when pushing off the bottom than paddling in the water. This is a classic skill that separates the novice from the pro.

Quiet Canoeing

You will see more wildlife in a canoe than you will on foot. You’ll have almost no presence in the water, and if you learn a proper stroke, you will minimize the sound you make as you paddle. Canoeing can be very quiet, and it’s an activity perfect for times you need a clear mind. Make sure to keep a camera or a set of binoculars handy, as your quiet will pay off.

Roof Rack

You can use closed-foam blocks, or you can invest in a quality roof rack. Each has its benefits. One is less expensive while the other will last forever. When you lash your canoe to your roof, you should be able to wiggle the car. Protect both your boat and your car with a quality roof rack. Don’t even think about putting a rolled blanket down as a substitute.


If you don’t swim at some point in your canoeing career, you aren’t pushing your skill enough. Taking a swim is inevitable, and knowing the proper body position in a river will save your butt, literally. Keep your hips up to prevent your tailbone from hitting and your feet downriver to act like shock absorbers off of rocks. Scull, another “S” word, with your hands to safety and don’t stand up until you reach calmer water.

Throw Line

Reach, throw, row and go! This is what I learned as a lifeguard, and the same continuum applies to paddler rescue. Reach out a paddle or an arm, throw your line, row (I mean paddle!) out to them and if nothing else is available, swim for them.


Underwater features will determine the nature of a river and its rapids. Learn what causes an upstream and a downstream “V.” You will always find the deep water and never have an issue paddling downstream.


A gallon weighs a little over 8 pounds depending on sediment. Your canoe will hold almost 500 gallons, and you aren’t Superman. Learn to displace volume with float bags and learn how to self-rescue your boat even when filled. Respect the force of the river or you will learn a painful lesson.


A wetsuit may sound like the right solution to cold water, but they do restrict movement and are uncomfortable. I prefer regular clothes with dry or semi-dry barriers over them. Canoeing is an activity where clothing can extend your paddling season for months. Try out a wetsuit just to experience it, and learn from the experience that you want something that doesn’t chafe as much.

X-Shaped Paddles

Crossed paddles can be used to prop up boats or even support a tarp for a quick shelter. X-shaped paddles also make a great wall decoration for your cabin.


That cutout brace in the center of your boat is a yoke. As a 14-year-old boy, I learned to carry a boat using one. Once you learn to shoulder a canoe, you will find that carrying it this way is very comfortable.


Some of the best sleep I’ve ever had was underneath a canoe with a tarp draped over the top. Canoe camping is a great way to blend the passion for sleeping outdoors with the exploration possible in a canoe. Paddle hard and you will find out how easy it is to pass out at the end of the day.

This article is from a previous issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at

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