Canoe, Kayak, Raft or Row: Paddle Sports

Physical activity   canoeWhether it’s floating down a quiet river, kayaking a big bay, rowing a small lake or rushing down white water rapids, taking up a paddle or an oar can be a fantastic way to enjoy the outdoors. This activity improves your aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility.

Canoeing, kayaking and rowing involve paddling a small craft through water. All of these can be done as a regular hobby, a competitive sport or as a fun activity on holidays. You can paddle on rivers, lakes and the sea.

Difference between canoe and kayak

Canoe and kayak are often used interchangeably, though there are a few basic differences:

  • Canoe – is an open vessel and the person either sits or kneels inside the canoe and uses a single-bladed paddle to push the craft through the water. Most canoes you are familiar with are operated by two people, though they can be operated with one (if you are experienced) and, of course, the ocean going canoes from the South Pacific are much larger.
  • Kayak – is an enclosed vessel and the person sits inside the kayak with legs extended and uses a double-bladed paddle. Kayaks can be for a single person or two people.

A range of paddling activities

Some of the different types of canoeing and kayaking activities include touring and racing. Touring is for the hobbyist and racing is for the more dedicated. Racing events are organized nationally and internationally and include Olympic competitions.

Physical activity   sea kayaking

  • River touring – this is what most people imagine when they think of canoeing. River touring can range from a gentle paddle down a slow scenic river to the challenge of negotiating white water rapids.
  • Sea touring – this is paddling in the sea
  • Flat water racing – this is a sprint race across calm water.
  • Wild water racing – this is a sprint race in white water (ocean). This discipline requires extreme skill and fitness.
  • Marathon racing – this is a lengthy race: for example, down a long river.
  • Slalom – the person must, against the clock, negotiate a white water course. This includes steering around obstacles (typically, poles suspended over the course).

Benefits of Paddling or Rowing

Total Body Workout. Paddling and rowing exercises all major muscle groups: legs, arms, back, abdominal and buttocks. It also provides an excellent cardiovascular workout that is low impact. In rowing, the legs provide most of the power of the rowing stroke; your upper body adds the rest. Rowing, along with bicycling, is one of the few aerobic activities that can actually strengthen your back.

Burns Calories. Paddling and rowing is a great calorie burner. Moving at an average speed of 3 – 5 miles per hour burns approximately 400 calories. You can also crank that up by paddling or rowing faster! Recent research showed that paddling and rowing burns calories faster than biking at the same level of exertion. In other words, it feels easier to burn more calories while rowing than while biking.

Strength Training. Paddling and rowing involves strength training, flexibility and aerobic workouts. The high number of repetition works your abs, arms, shoulders, back and chest. Paddling and rowing starts at the feet — which means your legs and butt are getting a workout, too. In one hour of paddling at 3 mph you are going to do about 1500 repetitions of low impact upper body movements, which, no matter what your fitness goals are, are going to tone up almost every muscle in your body.

Impact Free. Paddling and rowing provides a smooth, rhythmic motion that is impact free.

Improves Joint Health and Flexibility. The low impact movements of paddling or rowing can improve joint health in some people. The movement patterns improve range of motion and flexibility, which can keep the joints fluid and lubricated. The extra calories burned through the sport may function as a natural weight loss aid, which can also help tired and aching joints.

Improves Balance. Turning the vessel relies on the shifting and turning of the upper and lower abdominal muscles, which improves balance.

Reduces Stress and Provides Other Mental Health Benefits. If you are paddling or rowing outdoors you get the added benefit of taking in nature. One of the best ways to see nature is on a river where the water is its own force in shaping the topography of the land around you.

Paddling and rowing also has a rhythm and repetition that can create a sense of calmness and a feeling of peace with nature.

Lifelong Pursuit. Paddling and rowing are lifelong sport, able to be enjoyed by all ages, from kids to seniors.

Fun! Paddling/rowing is a complete exercise; the workout is satisfying and enjoyable to do, and provides a balance of fitness benefits.

Special Benefits of Rowing

Versatile. Rowing is versatile: you can row indoors or out, on water or on land, competitively or not, intensely or easily.

Time Efficient. Rowing is time efficient. It doesn’t take long to get a great workout that offers all of the features listed above.

Disadvantage of Paddling or Rowing Outdoors

If you are going to paddle or row often you need a few things that can be prohibitive: a water craft (canoe, kayak, boat or scull); a place on the water to store it or transportation to get it there; live within close proximity to water.

Physical activity   rowingGetting started

General tips for beginners include:

  • Join a club – the best way to learn how to paddle is to join a local club. It is possible to learn a great deal through reading or watching videos, and lessons from a qualified instructor will improve your technique, reduce your risk of injuries and help you become more aware of safety issues when on the water.
  • Be a competent swimmer – since paddling involves the occasional tip into the water, make sure you are a competent swimmer. If necessary, brush up on your swimming technique.
  • Try before you buy – paddling equipment isn’t cheap, so borrow or rent equipment first until you are sure that you enjoy canoeing and kayaking enough to pay for a full kit.

Basic Equipment

  • Canoe or kayak
  • Appropriate paddle
  • Personal floatation device (PFD), such as a life vest or jacket
  • Helmet
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Wetsuit (optional depending on environment)
  • Wetsuit shoes (optional depending on environment)
  • Spray deck, which is a cover that helps to keep water out of the craft. (optional depending on environment)

 What to take with you

Items you should take with you when you paddle include:

  • Diabetes testing kit, medications, glucagon kit
  • First aid kit
  • Repair kit
  • Water
  • Small pack of high energy foods
  • Dry clothes in a waterproof bag
  • Mobile telephone inside a waterproof container.

Health and safety suggestions

  • Make sure your preparation and skills are adequate for the planned paddling activity.
  • Be visible to other crafts. Put reflective tape or fluorescent paint on your helmet, life jacket and canoe or kayak.
  • Always wear your personal floatation device and helmet.
  • Know how to use your first aid kit. Take a first aid course if necessary.
  • Make sure you know about potential hazards in the proposed waterway.
  • Check weather conditions before you paddle.
  • Don’t paddle alone. Always tell someone about your plans, including where you intend to paddle and when you expect to be back.
  • Dress for the conditions. Apply 30+ SPF sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin.
  • Avoid dehydration. Take plenty of water to drink.
  • Keep your equipment in good repair.

Where to Paddle

Places to Paddle

Born to Paddle

Resources for Kayaking and Canoeing

Kayak Online

Canoe and Kayak Magazine


American Canoe Association

American Whitewater

Kayak Online

Canoe and Kayak Magazine