Paddle Sports in Chicago


Chicago is a stunning city with all the metropolitan culture, history, sports and special events that go along with an urban environment. The Lake Michigan shoreline and all of the nearby rivers give Chicagoland residents a special chance to combine outdoor beauty with that urban scene. Imagine kayaking through the Loop “canyon” to see the fireworks at Navy Pier, propelling a stand up paddle board as the sun sets behind the Chicago skyline or racing against hundreds of other paddlers down one of the great regional rivers.

Kayak, Canoe and SUP

Kayaks allow the paddler to sit on a low seat inside the boat and use his or her feet to steer with a rudder. Recreational kayaks generally offer the most stability of all options. The two-bladed paddle and rudder allow even the newest paddlers to propel forward easily.

Canoers sit up a little higher in the boat, providing more comfort but less stability than the kayak setup. Canoe paddles have one blade, so canoers must switch sides frequently to keep the boat going straight. Canoes have no rudders and require more experience to steer well. Canoes range from heavy, stable boats to very light, “tippy” racing boats.

Stand up paddle boards allow a paddler to stand on a surfboard made for paddling. The paddle has one blade and a very long handle. The design makes the SUP easy to jump off and remount if needed.

All of these crafts can vary by speed, stability and comfort. In general, a lighter, longer boat with a more rounded hull will be faster but will also require more skill to handle and stay upright.

Chicago Outfitters

Founded in 1999 as the first kayak outfitter in Chicago, Kayak Chicago offers a year round, progressive array of group and private kayak and SUP classes from indoor pool sessions to Eskimo rolling.

“All of our guides go through extensive training to become fully certified,” owner Dave Olson says.

Kayak Chicago offers Chicago River tours, Lake Michigan treks and trips to Wisconsin destinations, and all tours start with a basic kayaking skills and safety course.

Chicago River Canoe and Kayak offers canoe and kayak rentals in several locations including the Chicago River, the Winnetka Lagoons and Busse Lake in Elk Grove. The group also offers guided trips to nearby rivers in the region including a fall trip on the Kankakee River to view the Sandhill Crane migration.

The Lincoln Park Boat Club has offered paddling and rowing programs since 1910. Members regularly paddle canoe, kayak and SUP in the Lincoln Park lagoon. LPBC offers a chance to learn to SUP for free on Learn to Paddle Day.

Chicago Paddle Company focuses on a safe, social, quality SUP experience with locations at Kathy Osterman Beach and Montrose Harbor. It offers rentals, lessons, group fitness classes and social tours. All of its leaders are World Paddle Association-certified Instructors. Chicago Paddle Company has a comprehensive program of SUP classes, including yoga, Pilates, Core Fit, RUN/SUP and others, as well as frequent SUP socials and kid-focused classes and camps.

Urban Kayaks provides kayak tours and rentals on the Chicago River in the Loop, Navy Pier and Chinatown. Owner Aaron Gershenzon says that the company’s most popular tour is the two-hour Historic Chicago Tour, where the guide will tell “lesser known Chicago stories of gangsters, brothels and hidden places along the river.”

Beyond the city limits

Many Illinois rivers and streams have wonderful paddling conditions. Consult with area experts before paddling a new waterway, asking which segments make for the safest and most enjoyable routes. Be extremely cautious around low-head dams, short dams that look unpretentious but are consistent killers. Perfect paddling rivers include the Fox River, Salt Creek, the Des Plaines River, the Rock River, the Nippersink Creek and the Kankakee River.

The Prairie State Canoeists are avid paddlers that gather for trips in the Chicago area. Most of the trips are one-day ventures within 100 miles of Chicago, but the group also organizes some multiday trips. Members must provide their own equipment.

Want to Race?

Illinois and its neighboring states have long traditions of competitive canoe and kayak racing. Area races start in April and continue through September. The biggest races include the Des Plaines Canoe Marathon and the Mid America Canoe races with hundreds of competitors and many decades of tradition. Numerous smaller races are held every week during the summer.

The St. Charles Canoe Club, founded in 1972, hosts two races each year, the Current Buster and the Fox River Fall Classic, both in St. Charles. Club members are long time competitive racers and welcome beginners and national class paddlers alike to their meetings and practices.

The Midwest SUP Racing Series sanctions races all around the Midwest including the Aug. 29 Skyline SUP Series at the Lincoln Park Boat Club.


Paddling is a wonderful, lifelong sport but it can also be dangerous. Always respect water conditions and take safety measures. Wear your lifejacket, and do not mix alcohol with paddling. Never paddle alone. If the water or air temperatures are cold, take extra precautions. Capsizing in cold water can mean disorientation and death in a short time. Know how to portage safely around all dams. Many can trap people and cause drowning to paddlers and those trying to rescue them.

Illinois Water Usage Stamps

If you own your own canoe, SUP or kayak, the Illinois DNR requires non-motorized boaters to have a Water Usage Stamp for paddling. The stamps cost $6 annually for each boat and can be purchased at many locations. See for more information.

Spend a day on the water seeing the city or the region from a different perspective. Whether learning city history, watching fireworks, viewing wildlife or enjoying physical activity, paddle sports in Chicago can enhance anyone’s summer experience.

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Chris Palmquist is an USA Triathlon Elite Coach, USA Cycling Elite Coach and Youth/Junior Coach with 19 years of coaching experience. She has written for Chicago Athlete Magazine for more than 20 years. As a Team MPI Head Coach, she has coached athletes to regional, national and world class success. She is a USA Paratriathlon National Team Coach and Team USA Coach at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, ITU World Paratriathlon Series and High Performance Camps at the Olympic Training Centers. Chris coaches youth and junior triathletes as Head Coach for the MMTT Youth Triathlon Team and for USAT at national Junior Skills Camps. In 33 years as an athlete, she has raced several sports including triathlon (13 Ironman), collegiate rowing (Cornell 83-87), canoe/kayak, cross country skiing (20 Birkebeiner) and road bike racing. Chris is married with two kids. Favorite Quote: “Do Simple Better” ~Joe Maddon