Rough Weather Paddling Techniques Photo: Jonathan Pratt
8 tips for big lake travel

Cresting whitecaps, furious winds and meter-high seas—many canoeists have harrowing campfire tales of fighting to stay afloat as the wind and weather changed rapidly. When piloting through rough waters, use these tactics to stay upright and (relatively) dry.


Install a spray deck

“It provides a drier and safer time in rough water,” says Morgan Goldie of North Water, manufacturers of expedition proven spray decks. “Aside from helping reduce the effects of wind on the boat and help keep water out of the boat,” he adds, “a spray deck can also aid in keeping the paddlers’ legs and bodies warmer during inclement weather and act as an emergency shelter in a pinch.”

Prevent seasickness

The time-honored herbal remedy of ginger root effectively prevents swell-induced queasiness. Available in pill form or as chewable candies—take the recommended dosage before heading out on the water. If you get sick, remember to lean straight forward, not over the side—this is not the time or place to flip.

Trim your canoe

A properly balanced canoe is important for performance and stability in rough conditions. Think about keeping canoe packs, barrels and paddlers as low and centered as possible. Sliding seats can help fine-tune the balance of a loaded canoe once you are on the water. Weight your canoe slightly fore of center for a headwind and slightly aft of center for a tailwind.

Try a double blade

Although traditionalists might scorn the use of double-bladed paddles, they’re ideal for big lake water travel. Even the late expedition canoeist, Herb Pohl, swore by it, as it allows the paddler to brace quickly on either side in unpredictable conditions.

Time your surf launches and landings

Before heading out from, or in to, the beach, take time to study the conditions into the surf zone. Avoid areas with large cresting waves and submerged rocks. Once in the surf zone, always stay perpendicular to the waves to avoid broaching. Launching into surf can be difficult, so maintaining power and direction through the break zone is important. Any bailing can be done once you clear the area. When landing, avoid surfing a wave to shore. Instead, paddle in the trough—back-paddling as needed to stay off the face—and aim to reach shore on the back of the wave crest in front of you. Once you hit the beach, jump out and pull your canoe out of the way before the next wave crashes down.

Steer clear of headlands and steep cliffs  

In rough conditions, waves typically bounce off these features, creating what is known as reflection waves. In turn, these reflection waves interact with incoming waves, forming confused and choppy seas. When planning your route, use topographic maps or charts to plot a smoother course around these obstacles.

Set a ferry angle

Crossing to an island in strong wind and waves is like paddling in current. Use a ferry angle to offset the forces working on the canoe.

Accurately gauge the size or power of waves

Depending on wave height and length, rough water conditions can be a fun challenge or hellish struggle. Beware of tall waves with short wavelengths, as these lead to cresting waves that will quickly swamp a canoe. Avoid taking any waves broadside. If in doubt, a wise paddler once gave me this advice, “It’s better to be on shore wishing you were on the water, than to be on the water wishing you were on shore.

 This article first appeared in Canoeroots and Family Camping, Early Summer 2010 issue.  For more expert tips, download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here.


Related items

  • Daily Photo: Shuttle Rig

    How do you get your boat to the water? Send us your photos.  This photo is was taken by Flickr user fudj and licensed under Creative Commons. Want to see your…


  • Daily Photo: Fairy Point

    Early evening sun glows on the bedrock and the trees near Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake about 100 meters past the famous Fairy Point Pictograph site. This photo is was taken…


  • Daily Photo: Fly In

    Have you ever taken a fly-in trip? Where did you go?  This photo was taken in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park and is courtesy Ontario Tourism.  Want to see your photo…


  • Great New Gear

    Here are some canoeing and camping products on display at Outdoor Retailer: Frost River Frost River is displaying their beautiful canoe packs in the pavilions at Outdoor Retailer. Their portage-style…


  • Outdoor Retailer Opening Day Roundup

    Here's what we found in canoeing and camping gear at the first day of Outdoor Retailer's 2014 Summer Market:   Mad River Canoe Canoeroots loved test paddling Mad River’s Serenade…


  • New Canoeing and Camping Gear

    Outdoor Retailer’s 2014 Summer Market kicked off with an Open Air Demo Day, where hundreds of brands shared their latest and greatest in boat design and new gear—some of our favorite…


Current issue of Canoeroots

apple appstore logo2014 android appstore logo2014 desktop
googleplay appstore logo2014 kindle logo2014 nook logo2014

Daily Photo

  • What hazard do you fear most on trip? Bears? Snakes? Lightning? Boat-munching rapids? Poison ivy? Injury? Answer below! This photo was taken by…

Video of the Week

Rapid Media TV

RPFF World Tour

Check out the Reel Paddling Film Festival in a viewing near you!

Paddling Buyer's Guide

BG-Out Now-CR
apple appstore logo2014 android appstore logo2014 desktop
googleplay appstore logo2014 kindle logo2014 nook logo2014

Popular Articles

Current issue of Paddling Magazine

Feb PM Out NowView-the-latest-issues-327pixel
apple appstore logo2014 android appstore logo2014 kindle logo2014

Follow Canoeroots

About Canoeroots

Published in the heart of canoe country, Canoeroots celebrates the rich tradition and heritage of canoeing with the gear, adventure and soul of today's canoeists. Every issue is loaded with canoes, news, techniques, gear and tips from the very best outdoor writers and photographers. In 2008, we merged Family Camping magazine with articles, stories and product reviews for North America's largest outdoor audience—camping families. Canoeroots & Family Camping is the best combination to come along since the S'more.