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A quick guide to canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Paddle sports are a fantastic way of exploring the UK's inland and coastal waters, from our calm lakes and canals, to our rivers and seas with their waves and white water rapids. It is one of our best outdoor activities and is great for all ages and all abilities. Whether you simply want to take some time out and reconnect with nature, or improve your fitness, or put your skills and courage to the test, you should give it a go.

What is canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding?


A canoe is an open boat (think native American dug-out canoe). You paddle seated or on your knees using a single-bladed paddle and you can have up to four people in some boats.


A kayak can be either be enclosed (with a spray deck so you don't get wet) or sit-on-top. You paddle in the seated position with a double-bladed paddle. You can have either one or two person kayaks.

Stand-up Paddleboarding

Stand-up Paddleboarding (or SUP), is the newest of the paddle sports and was born from surfing. You paddle either kneeling or standing on a floating board (think long surf board) using a long single-bladed paddle. They are generally only used on flat water and best to head up wind first.

How do I get started?

Getting started with paddling is best done by first learning some skills in a safe environment with someone who knows what they are doing and can provide you with the kit you need. So, find a friend, club or outdoor provider nearby who can introduce you to the sport in a safe place.

You can check out great places to paddle with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder and filter your search to find places that are suitable for beginners, rent equipment and provide instructors and guides. You will be surprised how easy it is once you know how, and with a few skills and some knowledge you'll soon be able to set off on your own adventures.

What are the risks?

Any activity in the water comes with the risk of drowning and so should be conducted with care and forethought, especially where the water is very cold or fast-flowing, or if there are tides, waves or strong currents, or if the waterway is busy with other boats. Paddling on safe, predictable water such as a shallow lake, canal or slow-moving river is best for learning skills and gaining experience before you take on more challenging waters.

Risks can be easily managed by having a plan, being careful, learning a few skills and not overstretching yourself. For more on how to stay safe when paddling, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for paddlers.

What skills do I need?

To paddle without the support of a guide or instructor does require some skills and experience. These are quick and easy to gain, but essential if you are to paddle safely.

Beginner learning to kayak
Paddling skills - know your paddling techniques

Know how to handle your canoe, kayak or board

Before you paddle on fast-flowing or challenging waters you should learn the basic paddling skills. These are easy to learn but essential if you are to do anything more than paddle in shallow, static and predictable water.

Storm waves lashing a seaside town
Paddling skills - know how to identify suitable water conditions

Know how to identify suitable water conditions

Different bodies of water can vary in their conditions. The sea can have strong currents, waves or cross winds, and rivers can rise and fall to dangerous levels. You need to know how to check these things before you head out.

kayaking on a weir
Paddling skills - know how to avoid hazards

Know how to avoid hazards

Before you set off, it is important to know how to identify and avoid hazards in the water. Busy waterways, low bridges, weirs and rapids can all be identified on maps and, with a little research, you can find out whether there are likely to be fallen trees or other obstacles.

a capsized canoe
Paddling skills - know what to do if you capsize

Know what to do if you capsize

Capsizing is not dangerous if you know how to react and have taken basic precautions. Again, this is not difficult to do but does require some tuition and forethought.

What do I need?

Clearly you cannot paddle without a boat or board, and a paddle. A buoyancy aid (personal flotation device, or PFD) is also a must. These are an investment, so it is recommended that you try before you buy. You can find places to paddle where you can rent equipment or join a session on the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder (just filter your search to select hire locations).

What to wear and take with you will depend on how long you’re going for, the difficulty of the paddle and the time of year.

Packing list for paddlers

  • A buoyancy Aid (personal flotation device, or PFD) - essential

  • Trainers, sandals, wetsuit boots or water sports shoes

  • Wetsuit or waterproofs if it's cold

  • Spare warm layer (in case you go for a swim!)

  • Fully charged mobile phone in a sealed bag

  • Map and compass

  • Whistle (attached to buoyancy aid)

  • Water and snacks

  • Any medication you might need to take

  • Sun cream and sun hat if it's hot

  • A dry bag to keep your kit in

And if you're heading into white water...

  • Helmet

  • Spray deck if you're in a kayak

  • Throw line

  • Knife

Where can I paddle?

Where you can paddle in the UK is a complex and contentious issue - of the 42,700 miles of inland waterways in England, only 1,400 miles can be paddled uncontested (a mere 4% of what is available). To understand more about on-going efforts to open up our waterways, check out the 'Clear Access, Clear Waters' campaign.

Whilst this is a complex area, the good news is that you can check out great places to paddle with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder and filter your search to find out whether you need a licence and then where to get one from. If in doubt, the basic principles are to only access the water from public land and to assume that a body of water is private, with the following exceptions:

The sea and tidal rivers. There is a Public Right of Navigation in the sea and on all UK rivers up to the point at which a river stops being tidal - or where it would have previously stopped being tidal if a barrier has been placed across the river.

Canals and river navigations. Actively managed stretches of water also have public access, but a licence or registration may be required. These can be purchased from the owner of the waterway or by purchasing British canoeing On The Water membership which gives you a licence that opens up 4,500km of water for you to enjoy.

Where can I find out more about paddling?

British Canoeing is the national governing body for paddle sports in the UK. The British Canoeing website offers a huge range of advice on where and when to paddle, and how to stay safe, develop your skills and support access to and cleanliness of our waters.

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