The Most Basic Canoe Strokes to Master

Canoeing isn’t rocket science! But it’s a whole lot easier and more enjoyable when you’ve mastered a few basic strokes…

basic canoe strokes

There are few things more wonderful than gliding out on glassy water in the morning mist. No wind. No current.

If all our paddling days were like that, learning canoe strokes wouldn’t be all that necessary.

But most of us also paddle in headwinds and sidewinds. Sometimes there’s a current. Sometimes we have to make our way around obstacles.

In those cases, having mastered a few basic canoe strokes will make life much easier and your time on the water much more fun. It may even get you out of trouble someday, so learning these is well worth your time:

Forward Stroke

The most basic stroke of all is the forward stroke. If you’re paddling on the left side of your canoe, your right hand will hold the grip of your paddle from the top, and your left hand will grasp the shaft down near the blade. Keep a firm but relaxed grip.

Simply reach the blade forward, dip it fully in the water and pull it back parallel to the canoe, keeping your arms almost straight. Use your torso, too, not just your shoulders and arms. Repeat all day!

If you see a little whirlpool form in the water just to the outside of the blade, you know you’ve got a good forward stroke!

Are you using a bent-shaft paddle? Be sure the angle is bent towards you, not away from you. That’s a common mistake! (See: How to Properly Use a Bent-Shaft Canoe Paddle)

Most people find they have a side that feels more natural for paddling than the other. You’ll have no problem sticking to that side for as long as you want after mastering the rest of these basic strokes.

Backward Stroke

Just as it sounds, the backward stroke is the opposite of the forward stroke. Instead of pulling the blade through the water starting in front of you, you’ll push the blade through the water starting slightly behind you.

Canoes can be rather awkward at times, especially in tight places. So having an efficient backward stroke is a great way to maneuver yourself out of tight spots, and to slow your forward momentum when needed.

If you’re in a tandem canoe, the fastest way to turn your boat quickly is for the stern paddler to use the backward stroke on the side you want to turn into, while the bow paddler uses the forward stroke on the opposite side. Very slick!

basic canoe strokes


If you aspire to go on all-day canoe trips and especially on multi-day wilderness trips, you’ll definitely want to master the J-stroke. We have an entire blog post about the J-stroke here that you can read for the how. Here’s the why:

Using an efficient J-stroke prevents the stern paddler from having to constantly switch sides of the canoe to keep a straight line. Because of a canoe’s length, the bow will move slightly away from the paddle-side of the stern paddler. The J-stroke compensates for that by turning the bow back just slightly.

Sweep Stroke

The sweep stroke is another correcting stroke, and can be either forward or backward. It’s great for turns and in windy conditions. Simply reach out and draw a big letter C in the water with your paddle blade.

(For that reason, some refer to this stroke as a C-stroke. Others use the term C-stroke for a completely different stroke.)

A forward sweep will turn the bow away from the stroke. A backward sweep will turn the bow into the stroke.

There are other strokes you can learn that are especially helpful if you paddle solo or if you’re in whitewater. Master these four, though, and you’ll be able to handle the vast majority of your canoeing conditions.

Do you have questions we haven’t answered here? Contact our friendly, Wisconsin-based customer service team today. They’d love to help: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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