Trim and Canoeing

How to Trim a Canoe

The ability to ‘trim’ a canoe appropriately is a fundamental skill for any canoeist who wishes to paddle efficiently.  However, it can sometimes seem to be a bit of a ‘dark art’ as conflicting factors such as wind, direction of travel and flow of water all need to be balanced and trim adjusted accordingly.  In this article, we’ll look at basic trim and how to use it.

What is Trim?

‘Trim’ simply refers to how level the boat sits in the water when viewed from the side.  An empty boat will often sit level, and it is useful to think of this as a see-saw.  If we put a weight into one end of the canoe, that end will sink lower and the other end will go up.  If the weight is towards the back of the canoe we have trimmed the canoe ‘stern heavy (or ‘bow light’).  If the weight is toward the front of the canoe we have trimmed ‘bow heavy’ (or ‘stern light’).

The weight can be people or kit and equipment.  The important thing to remember is that as soon as we put weight into the canoe, we will almost certainly have changed the trim.

Why is Trim Important?

When we paddle, some of the canoe is submerged in the water.  The rest of the canoe is exposed to the air.  At any time water can either be still (for example when on a small lake) or moving (like on a river), and air can be still (no wind) or moving (windy).

Of the two ends, the end of the canoe which is deeper in the water will be affected more by the water.  The end which is higher into the air will be affected more by the air.

Depending on how fast the wind and the water are moving, one or other will usually have a greater influence on the canoe.  With appropriate trim, we can make use of this influence to help us steer towards our destination rather than get blown or washed off course.

We need to be careful not to ‘over trim’.  Usually, we’ll be able to achieve what we want with one end just a few centimetres (an inch or two) higher than the other end.

Standard Trim

On still water and with no wind, we want the canoe to glide over the water.  To do this we can raise one end by just a few of centimetres (an inch or two) and point the high end towards where you want to go.  I call this ‘standard trim’, because it is the trim I use 98% of the time.  I’ll usually maintain this until either the influence of the wind or the influence of the water makes the canoe turn away from where I want it to go.  I then ask myself, “is it the wind or the water which is influencing me most?”

The Influence of Wind

As the wind increases, as long as the boat goes where you want it to go in general terms we can maintain standard trim.  At some point, you may find that the canoe starts going off course or is not as easy to control.  This is usually because the wind is now the more significant factor and the high end is being blown down wind.  When this happens, imagine which way you want the canoe to go.  Then, with the canoe pointing in this direction, move the weight in small increments along the canoe towards where the wind is coming from (or towards the middle if the wind is coming from the side).  You only need to adjust the trim just enough to counter any negative effects of the wind until the desired effect is achieved.

The Influence of Fast Moving Water

Again, start with standard trim.  At some point, you may find that the canoe starts going off course.  This is usually because the water is now the more significant factor and the low end is being pushed down stream.  If this happens, imagine where you want the canoe to go and when pointing in this direction move the weight in the canoe towards where the water is going.  Again, adjust the trim in small increments until the desired effect is achieved.

What about a Combination of Strong Winds and Fast Rivers?

If the wind is strong and the river is fast, they could still be of equal influence so try standard trim.  However, if the canoe turns away from where you want it to go you may need to adjust trim.  If the strong wind is having the greatest influence, move the weight towards where the wind is coming from.  If the fast water is having the greatest influence, move the weight towards where the water is going.

Advanced Trim

As we become more skilful we can make trim adjustments more often –sometimes even changing trim several times within a particular manoeuvre.  If our trim is well adjusted, we can use subtle body weight shifts forwards and backwards to ‘micro trim’ our canoes.  For example, when we eddy out, we might be bow light as we approach the eddy line, then shift to bow heavy as we cross the eddy line.  This will cause the bow to ‘dig in’ to the water in the eddy.  The increased resistance will slow the front end down and the back end (now light) will skid sharply as is tries to overtake the bow and we should end up stalled nicely in the eddy.

Paddling Tactics

Trimming the canoe can be thought of as a tactic we can use to make our journey easier.  There are other tactics we can use which can help keep the boat pointing where we want it to.  We can paddle on the left or the right, we can apply the stroke further forward or further back, we can make the canoe move faster or slower, we can tilt the canoe over more towards one side or the other.  We can use different strokes and select different routes.

Often, to make the canoe perform at its best we need to apply a combination these tactics, and the exact combination will depend on the equipment we use, our skill level and the environment we are operating in.

One of the best ways to become skilful is to use as many different combinations in as many different environments as possible.  And remember, appropriate trim makes a good starting point which can make any other adjustments even more useful.  So if you are ever having trouble controlling your canoe, perhaps one of the first things to think about is trim.

For more information about canoe courses please contact me at

Open canoe, sea kayak and white water courses and coaching, 1:1 and group workshops, BCU Training and Assessments in Northumberland and the North East.

canoe, learn to canoe

2 Responses to Trim and Canoeing

  1. stuart fawcett at #

    Kim- Just read your article on trim and I think you explain things very clearly. Just need to practise it now. Stuart.

  2. Kim at #

    Hi Stuart,
    Glad you enjoyed it – I’ll keep an eye out for you on the water!
    Warmest wishes,

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