Beginner’s guide to kayaking in Ontario
Thousands of kilometres of Great Lakes coastline offer wilderness kayak touring and day paddling experiences with open horizons and island archipelagos. Other large lakes across Central and Northern Ontario, including Lake Temagami and Lake of the Woods, feature polished granite shorelines and towering pines, with secluded island campsites and endless bays and inlets. Eastern Ontario’s Ottawa and Madawaska Rivers attract the world’s best whitewater kayakers. Discover hidden island oases while kayaking adjacent to Toronto’s downtown.
Kayaking is suitable for just about everyone, from families to fitness enthusiasts, and it’s a great way to spend time in nature, birdwatching, fishing or capturing great photographs. If you’re new to kayaking, here is an overview of where and when to go kayaking and a list of great guides, outfitters and instructors who can help you develop your kayak skills and discover the joy of paddling in Ontario.
Where to go kayaking in Ontario
Ontario is home to amazing and diverse paddling destinations, from sea kayaking the big waters along the coastlines of Lake Superior and Lake Huron to the rough and tumble whitewater river action in the Ottawa Valley. Less experienced kayakers will want to start in calm (flatwater), sheltered locations with warm water conditions and easy access points perfect for entry-level recreation kayak models.
Here are some great places for your first paddling trips in Southern Ontario.
- The Grand and Nith Rivers: the wonderful flatwater kayak paddling is a great way to encounter the rich biodiversity of the region
- The Toronto Islands: explore quiet inlets and lagoons and get a unique perspective on Canada’s largest urban area
- Rouge National Urban Park: the lakeside marsh offers great paddling opportunities in the east side of Toronto
- Guelph Lake and Big Bend on the Thames River: both regional conservation spots provide excellent flatwater kayaking
Check out these destinations for beginner kayaking in Northern Ontario.
- Algonquin Provincial Park: although known as canoe country, the inland lakes along the Highway 60 corridor are great for kayaking, too. Stay at one of the park’s many campgrounds and enjoy quiet water paddling on pristine lakes
- Kivi Park and Ramsey Lake: Sudbury is aptly known as the “city of lakes” for the mosaic of freshwater lakes, many of which off beginner-friendly conditions
- North Bay: boasts a multitude of kayaking options including Lake Nipissing and Trout Lake
- Killbear Provincial Park: Killbear offers a great introduction to Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands with hundreds of campsites, sandy beaches, rocky headlands and great views out toward the open bay
- The Sault College Waterfront Adventure Centre: located on the shore of the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie, the centre is another hub for paddlers in the heart of the Great Lakes offering kayak rentals
- Thunder Bay: located on the northwest shore of Lake Superior and close to many smaller lakes, Thunder Bay features outstanding access to amazing freshwater kayaking, including Boulevard Lake
- Kenora: the capital of northwestern Ontario’s cottage country boasts many great options for beginner-friendly kayaking on Lake of the Woods and countless other inland lakes
Find even more of Ontario’s best places to kayak.
When to go kayaking in Ontario
The paddling season in Ontario spans May through October. During July and August the water temperatures are at their peak and weather conditions are generally the most stable. Of course, peak season also coincides with the greatest number of visitors to Ontario’s best paddling destinations, so you’ll want to book your Ontario Parks permits well in advance and make reservations if you’re planning to stay in a campground.
During the shoulder seasons of May and June, the water is cooler so you’ll want to dress for the water temperature with a wetsuit or drysuit to protect yourself from hypothermia in the event of a mishap. Springtime paddling often affords better fishing for kayak anglers, great wildlife encounters and quieter camping opportunities in popular destinations.
Many experienced paddlers argue that September is the best time of year to kayak, with its warm water, pleasant weather and fewer crowds. However, autumn tends to be windier, particularly on the Great Lakes.
Regardless of the season, you’re most likely to find calm, beginner-friendly paddling conditions in the mornings. Dawn outings have the added bonus of solitude and a greater likelihood of seeing birds and wildlife along the shores.
Guided kayaking tour companies
A guided kayak trip is a great way to get on the water while leaving the planning, logistics and equipment to be handled by experts. This allows you to enjoy the paddling experience comfortably and safely.
Novice and beginner kayakers can venture into more exposed conditions on remote shorelines when accompanied by a professional guide.
Tour operators across the province offer routes and itineraries to match your skill level and aspirations, whether it’s a short evening outing, a day trip or a weeklong expedition. Kayaks and gear are provided on most guided trips.
Get started with these guided tour operators and kayaking packages.
- Check out Liv Outside Adventures for all-inclusive tours on Lake Muskoka and other paddling destinations in Ontario’s cottage country.
- Parry Sound-based Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company offers beginner-friendly sea kayak trips on Georgian Bay, including two-day skills clinics and three-day introductory trips.
- Sudbury’s Horizons Adventures offers guided day trips and multi-day trips for beginners and novices on Lake Huron’s island-pocked North Channel.
- Naturally Superior Adventures specializes in Lake Superior sea kayaking trips, beginner-friendly day trips, weekend getaways and five-day outings from the town of Wawa.
- Such a Nice Day Adventures provides basic sea kayak day trips and guided multi-day tours out of Thunder Bay and Rossport.
- Green Adventures in Kenora offers guided kayak day trips on northwestern Ontario’s Lake of the Woods.
- In southwestern Ontario check out Thorncrest Outfitters in Southampton and Paris’s Grand Experiences for guided kayak day trips on southern Lake Huron and the Grand River, respectively.
- 1000 Islands Kayaking in Gananoque provides guided day- and camping tours on Lake Ontario.
Where to take kayak lessons
Generally basic kayaking is easier to learn than canoeing. You often paddle solo so you don’t have to coordinate your motions with a partner, and the double-bladed paddle reduces the need for complicated steering strokes.
However, to fully appreciate all the advantages of a kayak, such as the ability to perform deepwater rescues and paddle in rough water conditions, you’re best to take individual or group lessons. A kayak skills course will arm you with safe and efficient paddling techniques. Many guided canoe trips will include a strong instructional component to ensure you’re using proper techniques.
Here’s a comprehensive list of kayak instructors across Ontario.
- A few great options for sea kayaking instruction includes Parry Sound’s Ontario Sea Kayak Centre, Toronto’s Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak, Wawa’s Naturally Superior Adventures and Sudbury’s Horizon Adventures.
- For whitewater kayaking check out Madawaska Kanu Centre and the Ottawa Kayak School, both located in eastern Ontario.
- You can also search the Paddle Canada and Ontario Recreational Canoeing & Kayaking Association (ORCKA) websites for course offerings across the province.
How and where to rent a kayak
Buying a kayak is a big investment. Renting kayaks is the best way to sample different kayak designs. It’s also convenient if you have limited transportation and storage options. And it’s usually a more economical option if you only plan on doing one or two kayak trips per year.
Per hour or per day rates decrease with the length of a kayak rental, so think about how long you’ll need a boat and make your reservation accordingly. Also be aware of pickup and drop off locations; you may need a roof rack (or at the very least, foam blocks) and straps to transport a kayak on your vehicle. Delivery can be arranged for rental kayaks in popular areas like Killarney and Algonquin Provincial Park, but this option isn’t available everywhere.
Local outfitters generally keep a fleet of kayaks that are suitable for nearby paddling conditions. For an afternoon midsummer outing on calm, sheltered water, a well-designed ,12- to 14-foot day-touring (single-person) kayak would be the safest, most efficient and comfortable to paddle. You’ll need a touring kayak for overnight trips, ideally ranging in length from 15- to 17-foot (for single person models) with bulkheads and storage hatches for camping equipment. Tandem kayaks are also available from most outfitters if you wish to paddle with a partner; tandems also work well with children over 10 years of age. Tandems are extremely stable but they’re also larger (18 to 22 feet long), heavier (minimum 110 pounds) and cumbersome to carry on land and require a large vehicle or trailer for transportation.
Ask the outfitter in advance for the makes and models of rental kayaks they supply and do some research on a website like the Paddling Buyer’s Guide to make sure you’re getting a boat that meets your needs. Durable plastic kayaks are most common for rentals, though you may find some outfitters with lighter weight, higher performance thermoform and composite kayaks if you desire a sleeker craft.
Your rental kayak should come with necessary accessories and Canadian Coast Guard standard safety gear, including a paddle (ask for a spare if you’re going on a longer trip); PFD (personal flotation device or life jacket); a bailer; a sound-signaling device (whistle) and a throw-bag or 15 metres of floating rope. Inspect the kayak to make sure that it’s intact and isn’t missing any parts, such as hatch covers. A spray skirt is necessary for open water paddling but requires specific knowledge to be used safely; the outfitter may ask you to demonstrate an emergency wet exit in order to include a sprayskirt with your rental. Wetsuits and paddling jackets may also be available to rent. Ask for instructions on how to adjust the fit of foot braces, thigh rests and seat, as well as how to properly seal the hatches and use features like a rudder or skeg. Some waterfront kayak rental locations may allow you to test paddle a few boats in advance before making your selection.
Kayak rentals are available in all of Ontario’s best paddling destinations, including:
- Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre, Toronto
- White Squall Paddling Centre, Parry Sound
- Muskoka Paddleshack, Muskoka
- Killarney Outfitters, Killarney
- Algonquin Outfitters, Huntsville, Algonquin Park and Minden
- The Portage Store, Algonquin Park
- Ottawa Valley Canoe and Kayak, Ottawa
- Adventure North, Elliot Lake
- Sault College Waterfront Adventure Centre, Sault Ste. Marie
- Naturally Superior Adventures, Wawa
- Wilderness Supply, Thunder Bay
- Green Adventures, Kenora
Here’s a comprehensive list of outfitters all across the province.
What to bring on a kayak trip
Items on a gear list for a kayak day trip come down to safety and comfort.
Once you settle on renting, borrowing or buying your own kayak, make sure it is outfitted to Canadian Coast Guard standards (see above). In addition, you’ll need:
- A paddle, lightweight models are easier and more efficient.
- Always wear your PFD while paddling (comfortable kayaking-specific PFDs are available for all body types, look for the Canadian Coast Guard certification on the label) and dress for the water temperature; it’s a good idea to wear a wetsuit or drysuit for spring and fall conditions, and often year-round on the Great Lakes. A good pair of paddling booties will keep your feet warm and protect them from sharp or slippery rocks on landings. Paddling gloves or mitts are also a good idea if the water and air temperatures are cold. Spray jackets keep you warm and dry in wet and windy weather.
- Sprayskirts keep water out of your boat and keep your lower body warm, which is essential when paddling in more exposed locations. Nylon (cooler, easier on and off) and neoprene (warmer, more waterproof) skirts are available in sizes to fit the cockpit rims of most sit-inside kayaks. Sprayskirts are only suitable for paddlers who have practiced the wet exit (the technique used to exit the kayak when capsized).
- Bring a map of your route, a compass and a waterproof map case so you can navigate on the water.
- Carry all electronics in waterproof cases or drybags, along with a change of clothes (including warm, insulating layers), a lighter or matches, and a small first aid kit. Bring your cell phone for emergency communication but make sure it’s fully charged and that it will have a signal in the location you’re paddling; you may want a satellite communication device (such as a Garmin InReach or SPOT) for longer stays in more remote areas.
- Pack drinking water (or a treatment system), snacks and food.
- A hat, sunglasses and sunblock are mandatory accessories for summer outings.
- A small tarp is a good idea in case of rain or weather delays.
- And leave a trip plan (including your route, schedule, group members’ emergency contacts, and what to do in case of delay) with a trusted friend before you set off.
What to know before you go kayaking
Good kayakers never stop learning. You will be constantly adapting your skills and packing list as your paddling skills progress. Here are a few important safety tips while you enjoy Ontario’s kayaking destinations.
- Always wear your PFD.
- Make sure your kayak is equipped to Canadian Coast Guard standards with a bailer (or bilge pump), sound signaling device (a whistle), 15-metres of buoyant rope, and PFDs for everyone on board; paddlers who fail to meet these requirements are subject to fines.
- Travel with at least one other kayak for safety on the water.
- Leave no trace. Review guidelines for Leave No Trace camping online.
- Treat the water. Boil your drinking water or use a filter or chemical treatment to eliminate the risk of water-borne illnesses.
- Be reasonable with your objective. The goals for your first kayak trip should be safety and inspiration, not epic distances.
Last updated: October 24, 2023