Want to glide swiftly across a quiet lake or float slowly down a lazy river? Try a canoe.
Canoes offer an easy, fun way of experiencing the outdoors. Although designs and materials have been refined over the years, modern canoes still evoke memories of the functional boats used by Native Americans and early wilderness explorers.
This article gives you the basics on how to shop for a canoe.
First, Consider Your Paddling Plans
Ask yourself the following questions when choosing a boat:
- What kind of paddling do you like—general recreation, flatwater touring, river touring or whitewater paddling?
- What kind of trips do you prefer—day trips, weekend tours or week-long excursions?
- How many people do you paddle with?
- How much gear do you want to bring along?
Choose a Canoe Type
Fun and easy to paddle, recreational canoes are perfect for flatwater paddling. Stable, easy to control and tough to flip over, they’re ideal for birding, photography, fishing and general paddling. Because they are so stable, they aren’t as agile as other canoe styles.
Canoes in this category are built to handle everything from calm lakes to whitewater rivers. In general, they offer greater maneuverability and more capacity than recreational boats. Included here are high-volume “tripping” canoes, designed to handle big gear loads and extended trips.
River canoes are designed specifically for paddlers who love the challenge of running rapids and negotiating rivers. They’re impact- and abrasion-resistant, with high sides to deflect splashes. Lots of rocker (end-to-end curvature) enhances maneuverability.
Length, width and depth help determine the best use and the carrying capacity of a particular canoe.
Canoes in the 16 foot to 17 foot range are among the most popular. They offer a great combination of speed, manageability and carrying capacity. Longer canoes, once you get them up to speed, are easier to paddle over long distances. They also stay on course better and hold more gear. Shorter boats weigh less, are less affected by winds and are easier to maneuver and transport. They can take you places larger boats don’t fit, such as narrow streams and inlets. For long touring trips, consider a boat at least 17 feet long for greater stability.
In general, the wider the boat, the more stable. The narrower the boat, the more efficient and easier the paddling. Narrow boats are slightly more “tippy”, but they tend to be lighter and easier to keep on a steady track.
Depth is the distance between a canoe’s gunwales (side rails) and the bottom of the boat. Deep boats have tall sides, which help keep water out while increasing carrying capacity. The taller the sides, though, the more the canoe will be affected by wind. Shallow canoes are less susceptible to wind, but are more apt to let water in.
Other Design Features
The shape of the hull and other design features can affect the stability and maneuverability of a boat in the water. Stability is divided into 2 types. “Initial stability” means the boat is stable when resting flat on the water. “Secondary stability” means the boat resists tipping in rough water.
There are 4 general hull shapes to consider, but the differences can be subtle, so it’s often hard to categorize a boat.
- Flat canoe bottoms provide excellent initial stability. They’re perfect for flatwater paddling and general canoeing fun. Flat-bottom boats tend to turn easily (since very little of the hull is below the water line), but they can be slow when fully loaded with gear.
- Canoes with rounded bottoms provide little initial stability, but they offer excellent secondary stability. They’re slow to tip over in rough conditions. Rounded hulls are designed for speed and efficiency through the water. They are usually found on specialized, high-performance canoes.
- Shallow-arch bottoms provide a compromise between flat and rounded bottoms. They offer decent initial stability and very good secondary stability. They’re more efficient through the water than flat-bottom boats, and they stay on track better.
- V-bottom hulls have a slightly more pronounced centerline or “keel” than shallow-arch hulls. They provide a good mix of initial and secondary stability, with even better tracking and maneuverability than shallow-arch boats.
The amount of upward curve in the hull of a boat from end to end is called the rocker. The shape is best compared to the rails of a rocking chair. Canoes with a lot of rocker are easier to turn and maneuver, but harder to keep on track when paddling in a straight line. Canoes with little or no rocker track better and move faster through the water. Most canoes fall somewhere in between.
Canoe sides that flare out shed waves and enhance stability when paddling with heavy loads. Inward curving “tumblehome” sides make it easier to reach the water, but they can let water in when paddling in rough waves. Canoes with a lot of tumblehome have less secondary stability. Straight canoe sides offer a compromise between these two styles.
Freeboard is the distance between a canoe’s gunwales (side rails) and the water line. A higher freeboard keeps you drier in wind and waves, but makes you more vulnerable to side winds. Lower freeboard has the opposite effect.
The shape of a canoe’s hull where it cuts through the water is called its entry line. Sharp entry lines slice through the water efficiently for better speed and easier paddling. Blunt bows ride up slightly on incoming waves to keep water from slipping over the gunwales — perfect for rough-water paddling.
Consider the Materials
The best materials offer a balanced combination of weight, strength and cost. The lighter the weight, the easier the canoe is to transport and maneuver. The more durable the boat, however, the heavier it is. Think about what’s most important to you. If you’re constantly portaging, weight should be a big consideration. If you’re parking next to the put-in, weight’s not a big factor. See below for general characteristics of several canoe materials.
Designed exclusively for Old Town Canoe’s Discovery™ series boats, this ultra-durable, ultra-springy material bounces back from impacts. Strong, resilient CrossLink3 is made from a layer of closed-cell foam sandwiched between 2 layers of high-density polyethylene. It has so much inherent flotation that Discovery canoes float even when full of water.
Another Old Town Canoe exclusive, PolyLink3 is durable, affordable and exceptionally stiff (the stiffer a hull, the more efficient it is through the water and the less additional structural support it needs). Made of a foam core sandwiched between 2 layers of rotomolded linear polyethylene, PolyLink3 is lightweight and responsive.
Fiberglass canoes are known for their stiffness and their sharp entry/exit lines, which offer excellent efficiency in the water. Fiberglass construction involves layers of woven fabric bonded together with polyester resin. An outer gel coat is typically applied to fiberglass boats to enhance abrasion resistance.
Kevlar canoes are stronger than fiberglass, and about 25% lighter. This can make a big difference on long trips and long portages, but you’ll pay for it! Kevlar canoes are among the priciest available. Built like fiberglass hulls, layers of woven Kevlar fabric are bonded together with special resin.
Royalex is an exceptionally abrasion- and impact-resistant material that springs back from hard collisions. It provides excellent insulation from cold water, and is quiet to paddle. Royalex consists of a closed-cell foam core sandwiched between layers of ABS plastic, then topped off with a tough, vinyl skin.
Royalex® Lightweight (R-Light)
This substance offers a balance between light weight and durability. It can shave up to 10 lbs. off the weight of a canoe! Manufactured with the same materials as Rolayex, this weight-saving version differs in the placement and amount of reinforcing materials.
Don’t Forget the Extras
- Number/position of seats: Most canoes have 2 seats, although some solo models have just 1. Seats should sit low enough in the boat for stability, but high enough for comfortable kneeling.
- Type of seats: Woven cane seats are tough and durable, plus they let water drain to keep you dry and comfortable. Woven plastic seats work the same way, but require less upkeep than cane. Solid plastic seats are more durable, but they don’t allow air to circulate, so water won’t evaporate as quickly. If you prefer plastic, molded models offer more comfort than flat benches.
- Thwarts: Thwarts are the wood, fiberglass or aluminum struts that brace the sides of the canoe and provide support, stability and shape. If you plan on portaging your canoe, look for a center thwart shaped for comfortable carrying. Also, make sure it’s positioned so the canoe is easy to balance.
- Gunwales: Gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”) are the side rails running along the top edges of the canoe that reinforce it and provide a convenient place to grab hold. Gunwales should be strong because they take a lot of abuse. Look for smooth edges to protect your hands and paddles from wear. Wood gunwales are attractive, easy on the hands and quieter than other materials. They’re also tough, flexible and repairable, but they do require regular maintenance. Vinyl gunwales are less expensive and more durable than wood gunwales, and they don’t require special care. Aluminum gunwales are also tough and maintenance-free, but they can be loud when you hit them with your paddle. They’re also difficult to repair if damaged.
What Separates Canoes from Kayaks?
In most cases, we would assume that you have already done some research and know the difference between a canoe and a kayak going into this article. However, if you are new to the outdoors, we are happy to welcome you and explain the differences you will typically see between the two of them.
From an appearance standpoint, canoes are usually open vessels that can carry multiple passengers. In contrast, kayaks are traditionally a more closed vessel that you sit down into. Canoes are great if your trip requires carrying a ton of gear and are sometimes referred to as the “pickup truck of paddling.” Whereas, kayaks are much more nimble, but that causes them to sacrifice cargo space and are not able to carry as much.
These descriptions are genericized and in some cases, these vessels can appear very different depending on what you are doing. So, if you are unsure, the quickest and easiest way to identify canoeing from kayaking is to look a the number of blades on the paddle. Paddlers in a canoe will always have a single-bladed paddle and the user will be facing forward in the boat. Whereas the person will still be facing forward for kayaks, but instead, the paddle will have a blade on each end (double-bladed).
How Will You Use the Canoe?
When trying to determine the best canoe for you, the number one thing you should consider is how you plan to actually use the canoe. While some canoes are designed to do a little bit of everything, you will be best served to find a canoe that is best suited for its intended use. For example, you would not take a recreational canoe down a whitewater river. Will you be fishing out of your canoe or going on multi-day camping trips? Do you mainly just plan to take day trips floating down a river with the family? Will you need a lot of storage? How many seats will you need? How comfortable do the seats need to be? These are all questions you need to ask yourself when considering how you plan to use your canoe.
Where Will You Use the Canoe?
While the manner in which you plan to use your canoe should weigh heavily in your decision, sometimes where you plan to use your canoe can ultimately dictate your choice. If you are going to be paddling near a campsite or cottage and on calm lakes and flat water, then a recreational canoe may be best for you. Likewise, if you are going to be making overnight trips or traveling in your canoe for weekends or even several days at a time, a tripping canoe might suit you better. On the flip side of the coin, if you plan to constantly be headed through faster, rougher water, then a boat designed for whitewater may be the option you are looking for. They are designed to resist impacts, handle obstacles, and the more aggressive paddling techniques needed to navigate rough water and run rapids.
Below is a shortlist of the types of water you are most likely to encounter. The part in parentheses for the first three bullet points is a common way that you will often hear each category referred to. Additionally, the class of rapids are classified one to five and typically written using Roman Numerals.
- Lakes, Ponds, and Inshore (Flatwater)
- Rivers and Creeks (Class I-II)
- Whitewater (Class III+)
- Open Water and Ocean
How Do You Plan To Store Your Canoe?
We will cover the different materials a bit further down. However, when choosing your canoe, you want to make sure you have a place picked out where you plan to store it. For example, are you planning to store yours in your garage where it is safe from the weather? Alternatively, are you planning to keep your canoe upside down against the shed or on the bank of a lake? We mention this because you likely are not going to want to spend the extra money on a wooden canoe only to store it outside. Whereas aluminum boats tend to fare relatively well outdoors, due to aluminum’s natural affinity to resist rust.
If you do plan to store your canoe indoors, you will want to check and see just how much room you have. You do not want to make plans and buy a canoe only to get it home and realize it does not fit in the space that you picked out. So, make sure you measure your storage location, and then, either read the specifications online or make sure you ask someone for the measurements at the store if you are buying your canoe in person. One final note, when checking the measurements, make sure you note the width of the canoe as well and not just the length.
How do you pick the right size canoe?
A two-person canoe will often be at least 14 feet 6 inches long. If you need room for two adults and a third party (maybe a child or dog) you’ll want to go with a longer canoe that is 16 to 18 feet long. The length of the canoe can impact its performance. A general rule is the longer the canoe, the faster it will be.
Is a wider canoe better?
Canoes that are wider at the front will tend to ride waves more buoyantly, and if the hull is flared here this will also deflect waves better. Canoes that are more narrow at the front will tend to cut through waves, which is faster and more efficient but can get you pretty wet if you’re in big water.
What is more stable canoe or kayak?
Canoes are generally more stable than kayaks due to their width. Canoes are easier to enter and exit than kayaks. Canoes have a much higher load capacity than kayaks and so can carry more gear. You get a better view of your surroundings in a canoe than you do in a kayak due to the higher seating position.
Where should the heavier person sit in a canoe?
Sitting in the Stern (Back) of the Canoe
The back of the canoe is where the steering takes place. For this reason, the more experienced paddler, or more coordinated person, should be in the stern of the canoe. When there are only two canoeists, it is also better to have the heavier person in the back of the canoe.
When canoeing What is the most efficient position?
Most canoes will run most efficiently when level (no heel) and little/no pitch (the canoe is trim). When paddling straight in a large canoe the only reason to heel the canoe is that it allows you (the paddler) easier access to the water and stroke/body position (although see paddling inside an turn).
Can you stand in a canoe?
Everyone knows that you should never stand in a canoe. With practice, however, you really can stand up and cast. Move as close as possible to the midpoint of the boat, where the hull is widest and most stable.
Can one person paddle a two person canoe?
When paddling a two person canoe alone you should sit in the bow seat (the one closer to the middle of the canoe) facing backwards (toward the stern). This position prevents the other end of the canoe from rising too far out of the water due to your weight.
What does the front of the canoe do?
The front of a canoe is called the bow. The bow shape is important because it’s the part that cuts through the water, giving a canoe it’s speed and ease of paddling.