How to Steer a Canoe

Marcia Adair

Steering a canoe efficiently can cause quite a bit of frustration for the novice canoeist. The best advice is to do a little as possible and when you do need to correct the course, do it with the least amount of effort. This will ensure you don't get stuck in a cycle of overcorrecting yourself. If the two paddlers are well matched in terms of strength, major adjustments to the course will be unnecessary. When this is not the case, it is best to have the most skilled paddler in the stern seat in order to compensate for the increased steering responsibility.


Here are a few basic strokes:

  • The front or cruising stroke is the foundation for propelling a canoe in a straight line. The paddle should be moved in straight line rather than following the shape of the canoe.

  • The backstroke is simply the front stroke in reverse. It is used as a braking method and also to turn the canoe.

  • The J-stroke is used by the stern paddler to correct the course slightly with every stroke. The stroke begins as a regular front stroke would but then at the end, the paddle is moved in a curve away from the hull. If this is done on the port side, the shape resembles the letter J, which is how the stroke got its name.

There are two different schools of thought regarding what side the paddlers should paddle on. Recreational canoeists tend to paddle continuously on one side until they tire and then switch. This is usually done so that most of the paddling is done on the strong side but tends not to work so well when both paddlers are left or right handed.


Competitive canoeists switch every five or ten strokes. This has the advantage of minimising muscle fatigue and ensuring that the paddlers are more evenly matched for longer periods of time.

Balance is the name of the game when canoeing and the more evenly matched in weight and strength the paddlers are, the more efficiently they can use energy and the faster they will go.

How to Steer a Canoe

About The Author: Marcia Adair is a freelance writer and photographer living in Manchester, England.


August 21, 20080 found this helpful

Thank you Marcia - I am taking your instructions with me. I am 50 and will go canoing with my teenager and another adult who is clueless to what to do. Thanks.

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