20 Things Every Paddler Needs To Know

The essentials you need to be a true paddle enthusiast

So you call yourself a paddler? Before joining this hallowed subculture, there are a few key lifestyle skills that you should look to work into your arsenal to distinguish you from other waterman wannabes. Here are a few to get you started.

1. Run Shuttle

St. Mary's River, Alberta. (Photo Credit: Ryan Creary)
St. Mary’s River, Alberta. (Photo Credit: Ryan Creary)

Just leave a vehicle at the takeout, right? If only it were that simple. First off, the eternal question: Should everyone meet at the put-in and then shuttle a car or cars down to the takeout, or just meet at the takeout and pile everyone and everything into one put-in rig? The solution will depend on seat space, rack room and comfort with your fellow boaters (e.g., lap space). Don't forget straps, and to leave your dry clothes in a vehicle that will be at the takeout when you get there. There's no one way to run shuttle, and there are hundreds of ways to botch the process, including forgetting to fill up with gas (nothing worse than arriving to a car on E at the takeout), not having a spare tire, or, worst of all, leaving your car keys at the put-in.

2. Portage A Canoe

canoe portage essential skills
A true paddling pro knows how to portage their canoe on their own (photo credit: Henry Georgi)


You can always double carry, but for real backwoods cred learn to hoist your boat solo. Stand adjacent the center thwart, facing the canoe. With your knees bent into a high squat, grip the gunwale closest to you and pull the canoe up so the hull is resting on your thighs. Reach across the boat to grasp the far gunwale with one hand, and then slip the other arm under the hull. Now, in one fluid motion, kick up with one knee and swing the canoe overhead. Allow the center thwart or yoke to settle onto your shoulders behind the neck. (WATCH C&K expert Paul Mason demonstrate this and other hoisting techniques.)

3. Change Clothes At The Takeout
Sometimes (as in, almost always) there are no changing rooms at paddling takeouts. Here's how to cope: Open two car doors to create a three-walled barricade, wrap a towel around your waist and then discretely disrobe under the cover of said towel. Key: Lay your clothes out beforehand to minimize potential exposure time, scan for errant passersby, and act natural.

4. Steady Your Boat
Here's a trick to steady your kayak when getting in or out: Place your paddle across the kayak just behind the cockpit, with one end extending to shore. Now grasp the paddle shaft and cockpit rim with one hand—creating an outrigger for added stability—as you ease in, or out, of your kayak.

5. Make Cowboy Coffee
No fancy French press or filter? Good, because a true river rat wouldn't use them anyway. Just bring a pot of water to a boil and throw in a few handfuls of grounds (technically, two heaping tablespoons per cup, but let's not complicate things). Stir them in, remove from heat, and wait a few minutes for the grounds to settle before decanting into an enamel camp cup. Some folks tap the side of the pot or add a little cold water to encourage settling, but the real trick is not to slurp down the dregs at the bottom of your cup.

6. Seal A Drybag

drybag essentials guide canoe kayak
Pack a drybag to help you travel in style (Photo Credit: Mike Tittel)

A drybag is only as good as the person who closed it. To ensure water-tightness, first pack it right—no bulgy items, with soft things toward the top, and not too full. To seal, match up the flaps, press down to purge the air, and then fold the closure tightly at least three times. "You want to fold it rather than roll it," says NRS rafting guru Clyde Nicely. Use your knee to keep the bag's seal from unrolling as you close the buckle.

7. Learn A Proper J-stroke

This stroke essential is a simple-to-learn technique that separates good canoeists from everyone else. It's a forward stroke that ends with a steering input, allowing the stern paddler (or a solo canoeist) to keep the boat tracking arrow-straight without scrubbing speed. The key, says expert instructor Gordon Black, is keep the paddle's power-face engaged throughout the stroke. "As the forward stroke finishes, twist your torso toward the paddle. Let the paddle blade travel behind you then twist your top hand down, pointing your thumb toward the water," he says. The power face will now serve double duty as a rudder to subtly correct the canoe's course. Lever the paddle by pulling the top hand toward the center of the boat, while pushing the shaft hand out away from the boat. Pick a point ahead, and use the J-stroke to keep your bow pointed straight toward it. (WATCH C&K expert Paul Mason's J-stroke tutorial.)

8. Roll

Roll Kayak Essential Paddling Skills
Rolling a kayak is the truest way to prove your expertise. (Photo Credit: Skippy Films)

Rolling a kayak is the perfect parlor trick—a simple maneuver that never fails to impress. It's much easier to do than to explain, so learn from a qualified instructor who will guide you through a progression of skills and confidence-building drills at a pace that's right for you.

9. Set up A Groover

Paddling Essentials Canoe Groover
Set up your groover, and redefine what it means to sit on your throne. (Photo Credit: Maxi Kniewasser)


Aside from the obvious—making sure the seat's on correctly, not placing it next to someone's tent door, and ensuring a modicum of privacy—there's really only one thing to make sure of when setting up a river toilet: Choose a spot with a great view.

10. Drink A Bootie Beer

booties beer paddling essentials kayak
Nothing tastes better than a cold one out of your bootie. (Photo Credit: Maxi Kniewasser)


Here's something you need to know about kayaking tradition: If you swim, you might be asked to drink a beer out of your wetsuit booty. To pour, fill the booty as you would any fine stein: tilt the ankle opening slightly to avoid foam and try not to gloat. When drinking, hold toe outward, purse lips around ankle lip and enjoy.

11. Monitor River Levels
At camp, when you're away from hydrographs and online flow reports, there's only one way to see if the river you're on is rising or falling: place an upright stick in the sand right at water level. In the morning, check to see if your stick is high and dry, or underwater.

12. Find A Paddling Club
To find like-minded paddlers to hit the water with, you won't uncover a more comprehensive listing that at C&K's Clubs Directory at canoekayak.com/start-paddling/clubs.

13. Support Your Paddling Community
You're a paddler now, and that means you're part of a community. Do your part by joining a group like American Whitewater, a nearly 60-year-old nonprofit protecting the interests of whitewater boaters. "Our love of whitewater makes us fierce defenders of rivers," says AW Executive Director Mark Singleton. "At the core of our river stewardship program is the understanding that conservation and healthy human-powered outdoor recreation are mutually dependent."

14. Take A Rescue Course:

Essential Kayak Skills Rescue Training
While learning to roll a kayak is an impressive trick, no skill will endear you to fellow paddlers more than learning how to watch their backs. (Photo Credit: Paul Villecourt)

Paddlers look out for each other. Your first responsibility as a paddler is to know how to react in a rescue situation. Learn basic safety skills by taking a swiftwater rescue course, available at such venerable paddling schools as the Nantahala Outdoor Center and official swiftwater rescue sources. Bonus: Classes are a great way to meet other paddlers.

15. Use A Tumpline
Developed by Native Americans and romanticized by fur-trading Voyageurs, the tumpline is the best way to carry heavy loads, including canoes, across long portages. The reason: It puts the weight in line with the spine. What it is: a 2- to 4-inch-wide leather strap with two long tails—usually five to 12 feet long—to tie to the load. These tips from Northwest Woodsman will make your portage load feel just a little bit lighter: First, tie the load high so doesn't interfere with your hip movement; and second, make sure the headpiece is on the top of your head rather than your forehead (if you feel your neck muscles straining, it's too far forward).

16. Know The Tides

tide tables essential kayak skills paddling kayak
Learn the tides. It can be the difference between setting up camp on a sandy alcove for the night or waking up to your gear floating away. (Photo Credit: Jens Klatt)


Rivers are easy to figure out; they only flow one direction. Tidal currents flow in both directions and at variable speeds, which means that understanding the tidal cycle is an essential sea paddling skill. A local tide chart is a good start. It tells you how high and low the tide will be, and when. Applying that information to real world questions however, such as whether now is a good time to paddle from here to Sleepy Cove, requires a little more thought. Nautical charts show tidal currents, and you can predict their strength based on the time and the day's tidal range. Remember that the strongest currents occur in the middle hours between high and low tide, while slowest currents coincide with high and low tides.

17. Bag A Swimmer
"The most important thing with a throwbag is practice," says river safety expert Charlie Walbridge. "Too many people never throw bags until they have to, with predictable results." Grab the top of the bag with your throwing arm and draw rope with the other hand. Concentrate on a smooth arm motion. Without taking your eyes off the target, throw the bag underhand, releasing it when your throwing hand comes into your line of sight. Aim right for the swimmer. "The argument about whether you should aim upstream or downstream of your target is nonsense," Walbridge says. "The best way to get someone's attention is to lay the rope right in their face." If you miss, pull the rope back in, coiling it loosely in your non-throwing hand, then fill the bag with water to weigh it down and toss again.

18. Know Your River Signals
On the river, where distance and the roar of rapids can make it impossible to hear, hand signals are crucial. William McGinnis, author of the iconic handbook Whitewater Rafting, advocates these universal hand signals. Stop—hand up, palm toward receiver in halt position; Are You OK?/I'm OK—tap finger tips on top of head or helmet; Eddy Out—circle upraised finger; Look—with index and middle fingers forming a V, point to eyes then twist and point; Scout—horizontal hand at brow, often combined with a stop signal. In rapids, a paddle held with the blade straight up means take the center route; a paddle or arm angled 45 degrees to the left or the right means you should run the rapid on the indicated side of the river. Always point in the direction you want someone to go, never in the direction of danger.

19. Pack A Kayak For An Overnight

packing kayaking essential skills
Learn to pack lightly. It will be a skill you cherish for life. (Photo Credit: Erik Boomer)


Erik Boomer knows a thing or two about packing a kayak. He's done countless multi-day whitewater trips, and a 104-day sea kayak circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island. "To me, this is what kayaking is about, going into the wilderness to live simply and creatively," he says. Boomer's advice: "Put all your gear into three piles—things you need, things you think you need, and things you want. Now take all of the first pile, none of the second and one of the third."

20. Kayak Re-entry

kayaking essentials re-entry kayak paddling
Being able to re-enter your kayak is a necessity. (Photo Credit: Brent Hall)


If you capsize and swim, getting back inside your sea kayak is paramount. If you're with another paddler, help your rescuer to drain your boat over their cockpit and then put it alongside theirs while they stabilize it and you climb in from the rear. If you're solo, fasten a paddle float to one blade and wedge the shaft under the deck rigging to create an outrigger. Climb in by kicking with your legs and pulling yourself into the cockpit.

–Visit our SKILLS PAGE for more paddling tips.