What is Canoeing?
For centuries, men have been using canoes for all manner of tasks. It’s an age-old sport that has been used for transportation, fishing, hunting, sport, and in more modern times recreation. Surprisingly, not much has changed about the design of a canoe over the thousands of years that they’ve been used. Really the only changes have been due to advances in technology, which have led to improved canoe performance and affordability, for people like you and me. To get us started, let’s reference Wikipedia, to set a baseline and provide a clear definition before getting into the various types of Canoeing.
“Canoeing is an activity which involves paddling a canoe with a single-bladed paddle. Common meanings of the term are limited to when the canoeing is the central purpose of the activity. Broader meanings include when it is combined with other activities such as canoe camping, or where canoeing is merely a transportation method used to accomplish other activities. Most present-day canoeing is done as or as a part of a sport or recreational activity. In some parts of Europe canoeing refers to both canoeing and kayaking, with a canoe being called an open canoe.”
Why go Canoeing?
Generally, when people head out in a canoe they’re looking to enjoy a leisurely ride on a tranquil body of water. Getting out and cruising down a river with a good buddy, the person you’re dating, or, even better, your family is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the outdoors. However, others will load down their canoe with everything they need for a multi-day trip of canoeing all day and camping at night. Furthermore, there are more intense individuals that will take a canoe through icy waters or even a swamp. The point is there’s a reason canoes have been around for centuries with very little changes. They’re adaptable, durable, and really good at carrying all your stuff for a trip on a relatively flat body of water.
I’ll close this section with a few quick tips intended for those of you thinking about getting into a canoe for the first time. For starters, do your best to protect any electronics you plan on taking with you. Next, do your best to find a way to attach everything you bring to the boat. Finally, make sure you or someone in your group brings a bilge pump. You’ll thank me for these later.
“As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.” – Katharine Hepburn
“Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe.” – Henry David Thoreau
The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. – Sigurd F. Olson
What do you need?
Ultimately, what you’re going to need while you’re canoeing will depend on the type of canoeing you’re going to be doing. Some versions of canoeing limit the supplies you’re able to carry. However, other types of canoeing allow you the advantage of bringing plenty of supplies. So, why not? Fortunately, we’ve taken the time to research everything you might need regardless of the type of Canoeing you’ll be doing. For more information, follow the link below to check out our comprehensive Kayaking/Canoeing Checklist.
Table of Contents
This list outlines some types of canoeing that you may or may not have heard of, or perhaps you just know them by a different name? The list is certainly not definitive, just a guide to help canoers (and future canoers) understand the full breadth of canoeing scenes that are available to them.
Types of Canoeing
- Outrigger Canoeing
- Ice Canoeing
- Wildwater Canoeing
- Recreational Canoeing
- Canoe Diving
- Canoe Slalom
- Canoe Camping
- Canoe Marathon
- Canoe Sailing
The Outrigger Canoe is a type of canoe featuring one or more lateral support floats known as outriggers, which are fastened to one or both sides of the main hull. They can range from small dugout canoes to large plank-built vessels. There are different types of Outrigger Canoes based on, the number of hulls (single or double), the number of paddlers (1, 2, 3, 4, 6 or 12), and whether there is a rudder used or not. Unlike a single-hulled vessel, an outrigger or double-hull vessel generates stability as a result of the distance between its hulls rather than due to the shape of each individual hull.
Today, Outrigger Canoeing is mainly used by Hawaiians for sport and they have been racing since around the 1700s. In fact, Outrigger Canoe Racing is the State sport of Hawaii and an interscholastic high school sport. Due to the way Outrigger Canoes have been built, they are faster than typical canoes and can withstand more harsh waters because of the lateral floats on the side. The most common type of canoes used for competitive racing are the six-peddler single-hull outriggers referred to as OC6 and the single-paddler outriggers referred to as OC1. Major races in Hawai’i include the Molokaʻi Hoe (43 mi/69 km men’s race from the island of Molokaʻi to Oʻahu across the Kaiwi Channel), Na Wahine O Ke Kai (same race for women) and the Queen Liliʻuokalani Race held near Kona on the Island of Hawaiʻi.
Outrigger Canoeing has also become a popular form of fitness training. The top benefits include a great upper body workout, as well as cardiovascular endurance, and all while being low impact your joints and body. Many clubs also offer Outrigger Canoers the opportunity to paddle on a recreational level without the commitment to train for competition. Luckily, since the sport of Outrigger Canoeing is simply designed for open water paddling there are many clubs along the coastlines of the continental US as well. Even better, many Outrigger Canoeing Clubs have even sprung up around large lakes and rivers. While you’re not expected to master the art of Outrigger Canoe Racing on your next vacation to Maui, we do encourage you to try your hand at paddling and Outrigger Canoe, while enjoying the views, learning, and experiencing nature in a new and exciting way.
Ice Canoeing hasn’t always been the sport that we know it as today. It originated from a need for transportation starting over 400 years ago. Ice Canoeing started as a way to cross the Saint Lawrence River when there was too much ice for ferries in New France way back in the 1600s. It was also used for a similar purpose in Montreal in the early 1800s. However, it was more short-lived for transport there, as steamboats gained the capability to break through the ice before the end of the century.
So, what exactly is Ice Canoeing? Ice Canoeing is a team sport in which a five-member crew comprised of at least 2 guides completes a course, in which riders have to push their canoe over the frozen parts of the river, and row through tough undercurrents. Canoers will usually wear shoes that have bolts screwed to the bottom to aid in traction while moving the canoe across the ice. Athletes compete in three classes: elite men, elite women, and sport. The sport class is unique in that it’s comprised of both crews of men and crews of mixed men and women. The Association des Coureurs en Canot à Glace du Québec (ACCGQ) was formed in 1984 and remains the governing body for organizing and standardizing Ice Canoeing races.
Ice Canoes are built to the specifications issued by the official in charge of the competition and commonly made from fiberglass, Kevlar, and epoxy with an internal metal frame. The minimum weight of a canoe is 250 pounds (110 kg) for the sport and elite men classes, and 225 pounds (102 kg) for elite women. Typically, the length of the boat must be between 20ft (6 m) and 28 feet 2 inches (8.59 m), contain 100 L of flotation material, and it must be possible to float the boat with 700 L of water on board. Finally, Ice Canoe teams will normally paint their canoes a bright color so that officials can always spot their canoe and verify that they are above the surface of the water.
“Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” – Henry David Thoreau
Wildwater Canoeing is a competitive form of canoeing in which canoes are used to negotiate a stretch of river as quickly as possible. In order to distinguish it from Whitewater Slalom Racing and Whitewater Rodeo, Wildwater Canoeing is also called “Whitewater Racing,” “Canoe Racing,” or “Downriver Racing”. The objective of the sport is relatively simple in theory. The Canoer’s goal is to go from the starting point of the course on a river to the endpoint as quickly as he/she can make their paddle and canoe take them. However, in practice, it can prove to be much more of a challenge.
Wildwater Canoeing consists of two forms of racing, classic and sprint. When the sport began only the longer-distance format, classic, was in use until a shorter sprint version was later introduced. Wildwater Canoeing courses can contain anywhere from class two to class four whitewater rapids. Classic courses can vary anywhere from three to six miles in length and take Canoers 10 to 60 minutes to complete. Whereas the length of sprint courses are 200m to 600m and take as little as 1 minute to complete. Some Canoers specialize between the two formats, but the majority of competitors compete in both.
By design, Wildwater Canoes are long and narrow, with a round hull. This allows these boats to move very fast through the water. However, this also makes them unstable and hard to turn. So, paddlers tilt the boat to one side rather than using wide sweep strokes, utilizing its curved profile to effect the turn. Depending on the event, Wildwater Canoes fit into strict size guidelines. Wildwater Solo Canoes (C-1) are 14 ft 1 in (4.3 m) long and 27.5 in (70 cm) wide. While Wildwater Tandem Canoes (C-2) are 16 ft 5 in (5 m) long and 31.5 in (80 cm) wide. The use of kevlar, carbon fiber, and glass-reinforced plastic construction has substantially reduced the weight of Wildwater Canoes while improving stiffness.
Most present-day Canoeing is done with leisurely recreation in mind. What’s great about this type of paddling is its design to teach you the fundamentals of Canoeing in a relaxed environment. Recreational Canoeing is very versatile as it includes Canoeing on lakes, rivers, oceans, ponds, and streams. Recreational Canoes are stable, easy to control and tough to flip over. Not to mention, they’re ideal for birding, photography, fishing, and general paddling.
Your typical Recreational Canoe is known for its stability and durability. These canoes are generally made of either plastic or aluminum and usually don’t contain any frills. To give you a frame of reference, these are the canoes you’ll find in a big-box sporting good store, as rentals at your local lake, and in fleets at summer camp. So, if you’re looking for a versatile canoe that you can paddle around your local lake and leave outside without worrying about damage, you’ll want to choose a Recreational Canoe.
Perhaps I’m biased but in my opinion, Recreational Canoeing is one of the finest ways to forget about the stresses of everyday life. It’s not uncommon to be out Hiking and happen across a river. The view of a river is something that most people have seen. However, the perspective of nature that you get while floating down a river is unique. Recreational Canoeing has a calming effect that’s hard to replicate with any other form of outdoor activity.
Some of my best memories growing up are canoeing down a river in Chattanooga, TN. The first time I paddled 10 miles I thought my arms might fall off. However, as soon as the soreness went away, all I wanted to know was when we would go again. However, these days there are a lot of kids out there that don’t know how much a flipped canoe full of water weighs and it shows.
“What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” – Pierre Trudeau
Canoe Diving is a form of recreational diving where the divers paddle to a diving site in a canoe while carrying all their gear in or on the boat to the place they want to dive. This allows divers to traverse greater distances at considerably faster speeds, and reach sites that are too far to comfortably swim. Canoes can hold a substantial amount of weight, and they have plenty of room for gear. All of this lends to giving divers more freedom to explore and dive as they are less reliant on dive boat operators and the locations their boats can reach.
Most Canoe Diving is done close to shore in places that would be easy to shore-dive if there were reasonable shore access. In most places where Canoe Diving is allowed, there is an important legal requirement to fly a “diver down flag” while diving, to indicate that the canoe has not been abandoned and that there are divers underwater. Also by law, it is the Coastguard’s duty to investigate reports of empty boats, and they may order a search of the area by an RNLI lifeboat or Coastguard helicopter if felt to be needed. This is why, under the best circumstances, a capable person should be left on the surface of the dive site, while divers are underwater. This person is the first line of defense to start a rescue and operate a marine VHF radio to raise the alarm in the event of a Canoe Diving accident whenever there is no easily accessible shore exit.
As one might expect, Canoe Diving is best suited for calm seas and fair weather. While any form of diving is discouraged under rough conditions, large waves, rough water, and strong winds make Canoe Diving unfavorable at best and extremely dangerous at worst. One place that Canoe Diving has recently gained popularity is along the Gold Coast of Florida where many dive sites are less than three kilometers from shore. Traditionally, a charter service was used to access offshore dive sites, which tended to put a dent in wallets and prevent diving from being a regular hobby. However, diving by canoe lowers the cost considerably and adds an extra element of adventure.
Canoe Slalom, previously called Whitewater Slalom, is a competitive sport in which canoers aim to navigate a decked canoe on river rapids through a course of hanging downstream or upstream gates in the fastest time possible. Each course is different but can be a maximum of 300 meters in length and contain a maximum of 25 gates, with a minimum of six upstream gates. Canoe Slalom Racing started in Europe, and in the 1940s, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) was formed to govern the sport. From 1949 to 1999, the World Championships were held every odd-numbered year. However, they have been held annually in non-Summer Olympic years since 2002.
In a Canoe Slalom race, a single-blade paddle is used by an athlete who is strapped into the boat with their legs bent at the knees and tucked under their body. Each gate on the course is designated by color. For example, red is used for upstream gates, while green is used for downstream gates. This allows the competitor to easily identify each gate while racing. Courses are designed so the top athletes will complete them in a time of between 90 and 110 seconds. Although, time penalties can be incurred. Athletes receive a 2-second penalty for touching a gate and a 50-second penalty for missing a gate.
For Canoe Slalom races, there are 18-25 numbered gates in a course, of which 6 or 8 are required to be upstream gates. Each of these gates are denoted using two poles hanging from a wire strung across the river. Upstream gates are always placed in eddies, where the water is flat or moving slightly upstream. Whereas, downstream gates placed in the current can be offset to alternating sides of the current, requiring rapid turns in fast-moving water. However, the catch with downstream gates is that they may also be placed in eddies, to increase the difficulty.
There are rules governing almost every aspect of slalom equipment used in a major competition, even down to sponsor advertisements. So, it goes without saying that people take Canoe Slalom competitions very seriously.
“Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe.” – Henry David Thoreau
If you’re one of those people that love Canoeing, as well as the adventure of spending each night Camping at a new place like with Backpacking, then Canoe Camping is the outdoor activity for you. Some of you may know it as Touring, Tripping, or Expedition Canoeing. However, regardless of what you call it, Canoe Camping involves carrying all of your gear in your canoe with you to travel and camp for several days. So basically, it’s the water-lover’s answer to Backpacking.
When Camping out of a canoe, self-sufficiency, challenge, and exploration all come together to bring paddlers to beautiful campsites on lakes and rivers throughout the country. For starters and despite the romantic thought of just winging it, you’ll want to make sure you map out your entire trip. Mark portages and campsites on your map. Then, call ahead to make any site reservations and ensure you have any necessary permits potentially required in that particular area for your campsites. You can reasonably expect to travel around 10 miles per day on flat water and 12-15 on a gently flowing river. Although, if you’re willing to put in the work, it’s not unheard of to average 20-25 miles per day on a Canoe Camping trip.
One of the largest advantages to Canoe Camping compared to Backpacking has to be the ability to transport significantly heavier and bulkier loads. With this benefit, Canoe Campers can bring more food and gear and undertake longer trips. The main component is the increase in the amount of food you’re able to bring along. The weight of gear is essentially fixed regardless of the trip duration. However, being able to pack heavier foods with high calorie and protein counts that normally wouldn’t even be an option for Backpacking can really add to the overall enjoyment of your trip. In addition, you’ll always want to pack a few extra days of food in case where you encounter some rough weather along your journey and have to hang out for a day or two to wait for the lake or river to calm down.
Before you head out on a Canoe Camping adventure, always make sure you’ve planned out your trip as much as possible. Lay everything out and go through your checklist a couple of times. You’ll definitely want to make sure you have some way to keep everything you bring dry at all times. Large dry bags are the easiest way to accomplish this. I personally always like to find a way to secure everything to the boat. That way in the event that the boat does take a spill, nothing is going to grow flippers and swim away. One of my favorite sayings is, “Plan for the worst, hope for the best, and expect somewhere in between.” I try to apply this to everything I do, but I think it’s especially true for any adventure outdoors. If you adopt this same attitude for your Canoe Camping trip, you’ll likely be able to handle whatever your outing may toss your way.
Canoe Marathon racing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a paddling sport where athletes paddle a canoe over a long distance to a finish line. It offers progressive challenges from a couple of miles to the ultimate challenge of the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. By that I mean, competitors range from newcomers struggling to complete a 4-mile course to hardened marathon racers used to racing over the aforementioned extreme distances.
Competitors using canoes for long-distance racing more than likely dates back centuries. However, it has only officially been recorded since 1929, when the Sella Descent was first held in Spain. Although, professional racers would have to wait until 1984 for the International Canoe Federation (ICF) to finally recognize it for the sport we see it as today. Starting then, ICF congress in Sofia, Bulgaria, approved the introduction of a world championship. Then finally, Canoe Marathon World Championships began in 1988 and were held every other year until 1998. Following 1998 they began being held annually.
The racing of canoes is surprisingly accessible and very safe. Beginner boats are very stable and steer easily, with most races on calm inland rivers and canals. Beginners and juniors are required to wear buoyancy aids, but a marathon racer doesn’t have to rely on one. More advanced and adult paddlers may choose not to wear one once they are comfortable with the boat they are in and the water they are on.
The Canoe Marathon racing system is based on ability divisions. Racers are generally divided into different classes, though the available classes at each race will vary. This format allows you to learn as you race against people of similar ability to you. Then, as you progress, you’ll be promoted to higher divisions and, with time, have the possibility to face some of the best paddlers in the world.
“Paddling a canoe is a source of enrichment and inner renewal.” – Pierre Trudeau
Strapping a sail to a canoe and using it to propel your canoe across a large lake or wide river for the first time can be absolutely exhilarating. Not only does Canoe Sailing allow you to increase speed and distance, but it’s also a fun and relaxing way to get around out on the water. Permanent sailing rigs can be built to match your canoe, and there are plenty of DIY guides and instructional videos online. However, if the idea of building a rig yourself sounds daunting, then there are plenty of Canoe Sailing rigs you can purchase.
The origins of Canoe Sailing are most commonly attributed to John MacGregor in the 19th century. John MacGregor of Scotland is generally believed to have developed the first modern sailing canoes. Initially, MacGregor sat in the canoe and used a moveable lead ballast, and during the 1860s, he had at least seven boats built that he called Rob Roys and sailed and paddled them in Europe, the Baltic, and the Middle East. Fast forward to modern-day, and Canoe Sailing has developed into a highly technical, lightweight carbon fiber, high-performance sailboat where the sailor hikes over the end of a sliding seat.
However, there is another group of people that have the right to lay claim to inventing Canoe Sailing. This version of canoes known for their use of sailing is the Austronesian Sailing Canoes. The initial creation of the outrigger canoe was one of the key technological innovations of the Austronesians, and comparative reconstructions indicate that Austronesians had the distinctive outrigger and crab claw sail technology dating all the way back to 2000 BCE. However, there’s a chance that they were using these boats even before then.
These days the design of the boats has been fairly refined. They are designed within a box rule with a maximum length of 17ft (5.2m), minimum width of 2.5ft (0.75m), 32.8sqft (10 sq m) maximum sail area, the minimum total sailing weight of 110lbs (50kg), and the distinctive sliding seat that allows the sailor to use their weight over 6.5ft (2m) from the centerline to counteract the force of the wind. While you will need a bit of practice to get the hang of sailing a canoe, their narrow, easily driven hull also makes them not only one of the fastest and most rewarding types of sailing but also one of the most rewarding types of canoeing.
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A. A. Milne
Imagine the soothing feeling as your canoe slices through the water in time with your paddle strokes. You’re floating on a placid lake, and you’re enjoying the sun on your face and a gentle breeze blowing through the trees. Moments like that are why Canoeing is popular throughout the world for recreation, sport, competition, and it’s even still used in some places for transportation. Canoeing is also an official Olympic sporting event for both male and female athletes. It’s even opening up new worlds of opportunity to the physically challenged. So, regardless of who you are and where you come from, there’s a type of canoeing for you.
“Originality is unexplored territory. You get there by carrying a canoe – you can’t take a taxi.” – Alan Alda