The Fat Girl's Guide to Canoeing
Posted by Tee in Sports + Recreation
Dirty, gritty, sun-kissed and happy on Utah's Green River

When I started telling friends earlier this year that I was planning to spend five days in a canoe in the southern Utah wilderness this summer, I got lots of odd looks. The you're crazy! look. The whatever for? look. The better-you-than-me look. The wow, your butt fits in a canoe? look.

A handful of friends did admit they thought it sounded like fun, but then most stared off into space as they imagined themselves getting stuck with their butts permanently wedged into the canoe seat, or worse, sinking the boat to the bottom of the river or launching a potentially smaller, lighter canoe partner 50 feet into the air, see-saw style, when they got in.

I am happy to report upon returning that my own smaller, lighter canoe partner, Billie, was at no time airborne for any part of those five days, no canoes were sunk and not once did I have to pry my butt from the gnarly jaws of the canoe seat. A guide was in order.

While canoeing is pretty simple, I'll leave it to a short video and how-to page to give you the basics on strokes, paddling style and other technical information. What I'll be focusing on here, naturally, are the questions and hesitations overweight women often have about canoeing. This guide will also be addressing day canoe trips, not overnight canoe camping trips, as well as standard canoe styles like those available for rent at most outfitters.

Can most overweight women fit in a canoe?

Unlike kayaks, which are also fat-girl friendly, most canoes are open-bottom vessels with bridge seats, that is, flat, bench-like seats that bridge the width of the canoe and attach to each side. These are usually level with the top edges of the canoe (vs. set down inside as with kayaks), which means there's not a closed cockpit to squeeze into so much as an open platform to sit on. In standard canoes there are usually two of these: one in the very back of the canoe (stern) and one up toward the front (bow). Typically the front bench is wider than the back, but both seats can usually accommodate ample rear ends comfortably. Example.

I have bad posture, and canoe seats don't have any back support. Is there anything I can do about that?

Yep! Most outdoor retailers sell stadium-style chairs designed to clip onto a standard canoe seat. These range from economy to mid-range to fancy, both in price and in comfort. I picked up a basic Walmart stadium seat for $17 and it worked great. The back support held a lot of weight, even leaning back on purpose, and it doubled as a camp chair every night around the fire.

If I'm really overweight, could I sink a canoe?

It would be tough to load a canoe with enough weight to sink it. Most standard canoes are rated with weight limits around 800 lbs, and some up to 1,200 lbs or more. That means if you and your canoe partner are each 300 lbs., you can load your canoe down with another 200-600 lbs of gear and supplies and be just fine (for most day trips, you'll only need a small fraction of that). My canoe partner and I tipped the scales at a total of 390 lbs between us, and then had another 200-300 lbs of camping gear, stoves, five days' worth of food and other items loaded in, and our 17' Grumman canoe moved like a dream.

I'm afraid of the *getting in* part, either tipping the canoe over or flipping it up when I put all my weight on one end.

Canoes are built for steadiness, and their shape is such that it distributes weight evenly over the surface of the water even when large, imbalanced weight loads are placed on it. Sure, it's possible to tip a canoe over if you're not careful (this is true for anyone, not just those who are heavy), but you're not likely to flip one up, see-saw style, unless you place more than half of the full weight limit on one end of an otherwise empty canoe. In most cases, you'll load your gear and supplies in first, in the middle section of the canoe. At that point, anyone can step in on either end - and as long as you keep the weight of your step(s) along the center line, your boat will remain steady.

If I'm overweight, should I sit in the front or the back of a canoe?

Both stern and bow seats can accommodate most body shapes and volumes, so that decision depends on your level of skill, strength and experience. If you're going solo in your canoe, you're in charge of both propulsion paddling (moving forward) and steering (guiding the direction). You'll want to sit in the back and put your stuff up front. If you've got a canoe partner, you can choose who sits where based on who wants to/can take on the majority of the paddling muscle (front) and who wants to/can do the steering (back). If you've both learned how to steer and paddle properly, you can change places as much as you like.

But if I'm heavy, won't I slow the canoe down?

Not unless you don't paddle! Weight-related drag is usually negligible unless you're paddling against wind or a current. If you're canoeing a river, the natural pace of the water will move you along, and you'll just paddle in the slow or dead spots to keep things going. You'd be surprised at the amount of gain you'll get from just a few strong paddle strokes, weight or no weight. We had five canoes on the river, which was flat and slow most of the trip, and the others nicknamed our canoe "Speedy Gonzales" because even being chubby we'd always end up far ahead of everyone else.

What is portaging, and should I be worried?

Portaging means taking your canoe out of the water and carrying it across land, sometimes for just a few feet around/over a sand bar, sometimes for several miles around impassable sections of river. Some canoers love the chance to portage (I, for the record, am not one of them), others avoid routes that require portaging at all costs. Most popular canoeing spots don't require portaging, but if you're heading out on an unfamiliar route, check with the outfitter or consult maps or local agencies to be sure - because if you're out of shape, portaging can make an otherwise wonderful trip go sour pretty fast. During the five days and 60+ miles of our canoe trip, we had to get out and pull our canoe twice over small sand bars, but neither of those required much effort or more than a few minutes.

What about life vests and personal flotation devices (PFDs)? Do I have to wear one, and will they fit me?

Whether or not a PFD is required will depend on where you're canoeing and who you're renting from (if anyone). Most outfitters are required to provide you with a personal flotation device like a life vest and/or floating seat cushion. Unless the stretch of water you're canoeing is known to get rough, using them is usually at your discretion. That said, standard adult life vests are usually one-size-fits all, and I can assure you they mean it. The straps are adjustable, and even the top-heaviest among us can buckle them fairly comfortably.

What else should I consider?

Canoeing and kayaking both are among the easiest sports for women who are overweight to take on. They're low-impact, can be learned quickly (an hour demonstration by an outfitter before launch usually sends you off with what you need to know), allow you to cover good distances and see cool things in a fraction of the time and effort it would take to walk, don't require you to be in good physical shape already, and give your core and upper body a surprisingly good workout without wearing you out.

General rules of outdoor recreation apply: wear sunscreen, bring a wide-brimmed hat for direct, mid-afternoon sun, have a basic first-aid kit available, drink plenty of water and let others know where you'll be. Dress casually but with weather in mind, bringing a change of clothes if you don't like spending the day partially wet (and you will, in most cases). If you're diabetic, bring a few pieces of candy and any medications along in a waterproof dry bag. Water shoes are a great idea, especially if you plan to do any swimming. Tip: Celery sticks dipped in peanut butter, ham and cheese roll-ups, and beef jerky are great for picking up waning afternoon energy!

Remember: if you go, let us know! Leave a comment about your trip or your plans for one, and as always, we'd love to see the photographic evidence over in our FGG Girls Flickr Group.