Physical Preparation

Physical Requirements & Demands

Paddlers Aged 50+

Should You Hit the Gym Before the Trip?

The Two Week Switch

During the first two weeks the body panics. Unsure what is happening, it diverts blood from the digestive and other organs to supply your muscles. Consequently, you lose your appetite. After a long hard day of paddling, you find that you just can’t finish your dinner. It feels awful, but you have to force yourself to eat.


Around day fourteen you feel as if a switch has been thrown—suddenly your appetite returns (greater than normal too), and you have more stamina. This happened to me on both the Appalachian Trail and the Florida Circumnavigational Trail.


So take it slow the first two weeks and give your body time to adjust to the challenge of the trail. No amount of training can really prepare someone physically for a thru-paddle. The best training for the trail is the trail itself. Do only a few miles the first and second day, then add a few more. And take a break every twenty minutes—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. This is the best strategy for someone starting a long trek for the first time.

Long Distance Paddling Techniques

Recreational and racing paddlers use shorter paddles (210-220cm) with wide blades. This is the common genero paddle sold in sports stores. But for long-distance trips, use a longer paddle (230cm) with thinner blades. These are marketed as “touring” paddles and sold in specialty outfitters.


This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, the idea is to move the most water so that the boat goes farther. Right? Well yes, but remember that on a thru-paddle, you are paddling for hours a day, day in and day out. A short, wide paddle moves a lot of water but is exhausting. A longer paddle gives you a longer stroke, and a thinner blade pushes less water. This combination allows for easier, sustainable paddling for the long haul.


Paddle Efficiently:

sea paddle strokes by doug alderson

After I finished the Appalachian Trail, I had huge calf muscles, but after the Circumnavigational Trail, I didn’t have huge arm muscles. Why not? Because efficient paddling doesn't require huge upper body strength.


Beginning kayakers use their arms too much. If you watch their hands, it's as if they are turning the peddles of a bicycle, but experienced paddlers feather their blades and twist their bodies as they paddle. I often hear this description: “The pro thinks of the paddle as stationary and tries to pull the kayak past the paddle.” I know this doesn’t make much sense, and so I won’t try to write what can really only be learned hands-on with a good teacher. Check out books like Doug Alderson’s Sea Kayak Strokes, but then take a class offered by your local outfitter, or join a kayak club and learn from your new friends.


Once one has learned to “pull the kayak past the paddle” anyone, regardless of his or her age, size, build, strength, athleticism, et cetera can paddle all day long and be ready to go out again the next day. This begs the question, “How many miles does one typically paddle each day during a thru-paddle?”


On a good day where the wind and currents aren't against you (which is never) your average paddling speed is similar to the average adult walking speed: about 3 miles per hour. This puts the ceiling for the distance one can travel by kayak at about 21 miles a day (7 hours of continuous paddling in fair conditions). More likely, a typical day on a thru-paddle will be 15 miles (after the first two weeks).