Do note you cannot paddle on just any bit of water. Some inland water and canals require a license or other restrictions might be in place. Even a complete novice can get into a canoe and reach a level of competence in a short time but you do require some skill level and coordination with your partner to prevent you zigzagging all over the place.
Lake canoeing or flat water requires less technical expertise but you may need to portage (carry the canoe to the next body of water) and it can be tiring if the wind gets up or there are big waves. Paddling a river is more sophisticated as the swift currents and rapids require a few more skills. However they don’t allow for back tracking so you either camp along the way or simply choose a day outing. Sea paddling is a way of navigating coastal waterways but be aware of tides and always take a current chart of the area.
Any overnight trips often require camping although there maybe lodges or cabins along the way so you won’t have to carry so much. On guided trips the camping and cooking is taken care of.
Canoeing - Beginners
The best way to start canoeing is to contact your local tour operator or club. There are clubs everywhere; contact the British Canoe Union, Canadian Canoe Association or the equivalent local version. Tour operators and clubs provide help and advice to get you started and experience in a safe environment. Clubs often run training courses for everybody from beginners to experts. They also know where and what you can paddle, and introduce you to like-minded paddlers and potential paddling buddies.
While you don’t need any specific ability to start you should know how to swim, as invariably you will come out of the boat. Pick sunny days and warm water for your first outings as fair weather boosts confidence and is more pleasurable. You should also consider day trips only before going overnight. Unless you are an experienced canoeist, do not attempt more than 6-10 miles per day.
Canoeing - Advanced
Once you have some experience you could consider getting your own equipment to open up the possibility of traveling further a field and undertaking bigger journeys. Paddling can also begin to accompany your other pastimes like photography, fitness, hiking, camping and fishing.
Once the flat stretches of lakes and inland creeks have been mastered you will probably want to turn your attention to rivers and rapids or the sea. This will require the better execution of strokes so make sure these are up to par. Practice your strokes, turns, speed and self-rescue before setting out. There are also moving water fundamentals to learn: picking the best route through riffles, getting in and out of eddies and understanding river hydraulics.
Advanced paddlers will invariably need camping and wilderness skills, plus the ability to understand tides, current, navigation, weather and charts. Educate yourself about the destination even if someone else is leading the trip and ensure your paddling partners can assist if you encounter the unexpected. It’s very important to recognize your own limits so don’t advance too quickly.