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Lake Bala Challenge (or waves aren't only found at sea)

Posted by Gav Grayston.
First Published Sept 2014; updated May 2023.

We undertook Go Canoeing's Lake Bala / Llyn Tegid Challenge, paddling to the end and back again...only we did it in inflatable canoes, two of which had to be towed!

So, what would you do on a Sunday afternoon? Go for a leisurely walk? Spend time in the garden? How about paddling 7 miles across Wales's largest lake with the wind in your face and towing some kids behind? No?

The Bala Lake Challenge

The Bala Lake Challenge

Plans change.

What was expected to be a weekend camping while we had dry and warm weather in September turned into a day canoeing, as our two eldest daughters were invited to separate sleepovers on Saturday night.

We still had Sunday, though 😉

Earlier in the week, I saw that Go Canoeing had launched a three lake challenge, with one of the lakes being Bala in Wales, which is only 40 miles away from us. That's Sunday sorted, then!

Go Canoeing Lake Bala Challenge

Lake Bala Llyn Tegid challenge

Lake Bala Llyn Tegid challenge

Bala, or Llyn Tegid as it is meant to be called, is the largest natural lake in Wales, and the Go Canoeing challenge is to paddle from one end to the other and back.

The total distance is around 7 miles and expected to take between one and two and a half hours.....but that wasn't quite our experience.

Canoeing and Water Sports on Lake Bala

Lake Bala Charges

You'll find a lot of sailing and canoeing on Lake Bala. No powered craft are allowed (except for those with electric motors).

The town of Bala is the main foreshore for launching.

There are parking fees as well as fees to canoe in the lake.

You can pay the fees at blue meters (one by the entrance and one by the changing rooms), but these require change. Alternatively, you can pay at the office. However, on Sunday the office is closed. Fortunately, a warden (look for someone in a fluorescent jacket) could sort us out with tickets.

Another place that can be good to put in is at Llangower, about two-thirds of the way up the lake.

This is a favourite spot of ours. It has a car park and WC and is where the Bala Light Railway has a small station.

A beach with a jetty is on the other side of the train tracks from the car park.

We'd be visiting Llangower on our challenge (though not something you might do if you try to get on the leaderboard!)


Lake Bala is a big lake. Perhaps not as big as some, but big enough to get weather.

It's in a valley where the wind comes down the mountains and hits the lake.

You, therefore, need to check the weather and take sensible precautions.

We were familiar with paddling on Bala and knew what the wind could be like.

That Sunday afternoon, conditions were very good.

Hiring Canoes (or not)

On the main foreshore of Lake Bala, you can hire canoes.

Given that our chosen craft is inflatable canoes, a big lake known for being windy is perhaps not the best choice.

We enquired about hiring some rigid craft. It was £45 a day for a canoe or a double kayak......but it could only be paddled near the foreshore—no good for our Go Canoeing challenge.

Here's a little video of our challenge attempt.

YouTube Video Thumbnail

Our Challenge in getting started

The challenge - paddle to the end and back

The challenge - paddle to the end of the lake and back

After getting changed into our wet suits, inflating the two Intex Challengers and the Sevylor Hudson, we set off.

The wind was behind us, and the pace was good, but then we noticed a lot of water in the Hudson. The drainage hole had come open when we launched (yes, I had checked it was closed before launching).

The Hudson floats fine with the drainage hole open, but the water pooled around my seat since I was the heaviest. So we turned around, returned to the jetty, and started again.

At 14:26, we launched for the second time.

Gone With the Wind

When you stand on the foreshore, you can't see the end of the lake. Now with the wind behind us, a route down the middle of the lake would have got us to the far side relatively quickly.

However, not long after setting off, with two kids tired from their sleepovers, one of them decided they couldn't carry on.

towing another inflatable was like putting the brakes on

We had prepared for this, so we ran a line from the back of the Hudson to her Challenger. Towing another inflatable was like putting the brakes on.

Straight down the middle of the lake is the most direct route. We hugged the shoreline, adding further distance to our challenge (not sure why!).

Plus, the camera's memory card filled up, so time was spent removing old photos! 🤔

we weren't going to set the best time You may feel we weren't going to set the best time.

The Other End

Eventually, we got to the other end of the lake.

We paddled to the furthest point (a bit further than shown on the challenge map), but it was very shallow here, with the odd branch in the water.

Inflatables and submersed branches aren't a combination that goes well together.

Inflatables and submersed branches aren't a combination that goes well together

The plan was to stop for a small picnic at the end of the lake, but given the hazards in the water, we decided to paddle down to Llangower.

This time the wind was right in our faces. So were the waves.

With the wind coming down the valley from the mountains in generally one direction, the waves have a chance to build over 3.5 miles.

If you stop, you go backwards!

We now had that wind in our faces, plus waves.

(Unfortunately, there are no photos or videos of the impressive waves, as too busy paddling! If you stop, you go backwards!)

The trick with Bala is to hug the shore on the return stretch (depending on the wind).

There are lots of little headlands that can block some of the wind and waves, though there are points where you have to venture back into the main channel.

Tug Boat

Our eldest had done well, but she wasn't making much headway in places where we were exposed to the wind and the waves.

we were now facing into the waves and the wind, towing two inflatable canoes

The solution: she pontooned with the one we were already towing. That meant we were now facing the waves and the wind, towing two inflatable canoes.

There were plenty of moments on that journey where I was the only one paddling five people into the wind across three inflatable crafts! It was hard work.


A picnic spot with a view

A picnic spot with a view

After encouraging toots from the Bala light railway, we eventually reached Llangower.

Time for a refuel.

Here the water is calm and still. The lake looks like a perfect place for a paddle.

There are campsites here where you can camp and launch your boats from.

It looks so calm

It looks so calm

The campsite is usually pretty busy, and you'll always need to book in advance for summer weekends and bank holidays.

The Long Stretch

Refuelled but noticing the sun was lower in the sky, we set off.

All was great initially, but as we rounded the far end of the Pant Yr Onnon shore, the wind and waves hit us, pushing us back towards the beach.

Time to pontoon the girls and tow both of them to make headway.

If you dash for the shoreline, you can get some shelter from the prevailing wind, but there are places like this when you need to paddle hard to get there.

After a while, the main Bala shoreline was visible in the distance.

It was now getting later, and fortunately, the wind dropped a little, as it tends to do in the evening, so we made a direct line for the shoreline, which was probably still over a mile away.

Suddenly, our canoe flew through the water

With towing two canoes behind, this was a long slog.

Finally, we got close, and the wind and waves were less, and the girls wanted to finish the last bit themselves.

Suddenly our canoe flew through the water without the two boats behind, and we soon reached the shore.


So, at 3 hours and 44 minutes, I don't think we'll be at the top of the Go Canoeing leader board, even if we took off the 15 minutes for the picnic at Llangower!

The Final Kick in the...

There are toilets, showers, and changing rooms at the main Bala foreshore. BUT THEY CLOSE.

We hadn't seen any notices saying that they close, but by the time we put our gear away, the gents were locked, and the ladies were being cleaned and was 'closed to the public'.

Oh well. At least it wasn't cold and raining 😉

Evening sunset over Bala