LIFE JACKETS: When you’re in a canoe or kayak, a life jacket – aka a PFD (personal flotation device) – is nota suggestion – IT’S THE LAW. And it doesn’t do one bit of good laying on the floor of the boat. YOU NEED TO WEAR IT. It doesn’t matter how well you swim or how warm the water. Make sure you have a life jacket; make sure it’s in good condition; AND WEAR IT.
PACKING: As you pack your canoe with your gear, think “balance” – side-to-side and front-to-back. Keep your gear – especially the heavy stuff – low in the boat. This promotes stability more than anything else. If you expect to experience any kind of rough water, it’s a good idea to secure gear in place with some kind of tie downs to prevent it from sliding around and putting the boat out of balance.
STAY LOW: The same goes for the weight of the occupants. The lower you can stay in the craft, the more stable it will be. This is why native American canoes seldom had seats. Paddlers knelt on the floor of the canoe, putting their weight as low as possible.
STAY CENTERED: If you are paddling a canoe alone, you’ll have the best control positioned just rear of the center. Solo canoes most often have their seat in this position. If you’re paddling a larger canoe alone you should paddle from the “front” seat facing the traditional rear of the canoe. This is especially important in the wind as it will be easier to keep the canoe going the direction you want to go. Remember the universal law of canoeing – “the wind always comes from where you want to go.”
SPARE PADDLE: Nearly as important as a life jacket is a spare paddle. Where do you think the phrase “…up a creek without a paddle” comes from? If you lose or break your one and only paddle, you have no way of controlling your boat and you’ll be at the mercy of the wind an current. And even if you’re a master at camp craft, building a viable replacement for a paddle in the field is one tough assignment.
TETHER: If you’ll be going through rough water, consider a way to tether your paddle to the canoe or yourself. Should it be wrenched from your hands, you need to retrieve it fast to regain control so you don’t capsize. Depending on where your spare paddle is stowed, it’s usually much faster to retrieve a tethered paddle than get to the spare.
WHEN TO PLAY: Canoes and kayaks are meant to be fun. At the appropriate times, that can even mean some good-natured splashing and horseplay. Everyone who will use a canoe on a paddle trip should have the experience of swamping one intentionally under controlled conditions so they will know how to deal with the situation should it ever happen unintentionally. The place for that is in a shallow body of water with little or no current when others are around to help should anything go wrong. In the wilderness or a remote stretch of river far from help is no time or place for horseplay.