The basics of learning to paddle a kayak or canoe

July 29, 2015

Hitting the water on a kayak or canoe is a great way to enjoy nature and get some exercise. Here are some pointers to make sure you are safe on the water.

The basics of learning to paddle a kayak or canoe

Proper paddling strokes

It takes time to develop a relaxed and relatively effortless paddling technique.

  • Build experience and confidence by practising regularly in calm waters before going out into moving water.
  • When you paddle, keep a straight back, twisting at the waist so the muscles in your torso as well as your arms take the strain.
  • The kayak paddler, because of the double blade, is continually exercising muscles on both sides of the body.
  • If you are canoeing, swap sides with your partner every hour or so in order to exercise muscles on both sides of the body. This will also reduce fatigue.
  • Hold canoe paddles with one hand on the grip and the other just above the blade.
  • Grip kayak paddles evenly on both sides. Mark the best gripping point with coloured tape.

The basic forward stroke for a canoe


  • reach as far forwards as possible by twisting your body at the waist.
  • Make the stroke close to and alongside the canoe.
  • Pull the hand on the shaft back through the water, to provide the power of the stroke.
  • Use the other hand to give direction, occasionally pushing, in the rhythm of the stroke.
  • Continue the stroke until the paddle reaches your hip.
  • Withdraw the blade to take another stroke.I

The basic forward stroke for a kayak


  • Put one blade in the water well forwards, near the front. Keep your arm straight.
  • Pull the blade past the cockpit, keeping it close to the side, with the full blade just below the surface of the water.
  • Simultaneously, twist your body at the waist, keeping the other arm firm with your hand at eye level.
  • Twisting involves your large back muscles, so that the whole upper body is working, not just your arms.
  • When your front hand reaches as far as it can, relax its grip to allow the shaft to rotate freely within your hand so the blade enters the water at the correct angle.
  • The degree of rotation depends on the paddle's offset. The descending hand then grips the paddle to make the next stroke.


The kayak paddler, using the double blade on alternate sides, learns to keep the kayak in a straight line. It takes practice: the round hull of a kayak, designed for manoeuvrability, is sensitive to the most subtle strokes.

The stern paddler in a canoe steers by using a J-, goon or trail stroke. The J-stroke is the most effective and enables a canoeist to ­paddle tirelessly for hours.

Practice rolling in a kayak

Practise recovering from a kayak capsize by deliberately turning the craft over in shallow water with a few friends standing by to help in case of trouble. Learning to escape from the kayak and release the safety loop on the spray deck is essential.

All paddlers have had to start at the beginning and these tried and proven paddling instructions will help you get comfortable on the water.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
Close menu