Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

How to Buy the Right Canoe

How to Buy the Right Canoe

Canoes have stood the test of time. As an important tool for travel and exploration for millenia, the basic idea has stayed consistent (what other piece of gear can you say that about?). But that doesn’t mean they haven’t evolved; today’s models benefit from modern technology and materials, not to mention centuries of design advances. So whether you’re looking for a craft to mount a weeklong expedition, a solo option for navigating moderate rapids, or just a stable boat for afternoon fish forays, the right canoe won’t ever go out of style—setting you up for a lifetime on the water. 

Ask Yourself These Questions

Step one in shopping for a new boat is anticipating its most demanding use and getting a model to match. Ask yourself these questions to zero in on the right one:

Will most of your trips be solo or will you take a friend or your kids? 

It might be tempting to get a larger canoe for the versatility—you can paddle it alone or with others—but it will be harder to handle on solo trips, both in the water and transferring to and from the car. 

Will you always be on flatwater or would you like to take it downriver? 

Consider both what you’ll do now and in the future. If you’re just starting out, you might spend time getting comfortable on flatwater before progressing to rivers with rougher conditions. 

Are you going to be cranking out the miles or bobbing around a lake with a fishing pole? 

If you want to go fast and far, pay attention to both design and materials, as they work together to improve efficiency. 

How much gear will you be carrying? 

Be realistic about this. An overloaded canoe is unstable, especially if you have to pile gear above the gunwales (the rim). 

Types of Canoes

Once you’ve determined your priorities, sift through these broad categories.

Recreational Canoes: Think flatwater, family outings, fishing.

Pros: Easy to paddle, super stable and tough to capsize (often thanks to a straight keel and wide, flat bottom). Can feature a flat stern for mounting a motor. 

Cons: A little slower to paddle and not as nimble as other crafts. 

Whitewater Canoes: Best for handling swift moving water and navigating rapids.

Pros: Highly maneuverable because they have more rocker (the curve of the underside from bow to stern); higher sides knock down splashes; tougher materials protect from impacts and abrasions in rocky rivers.   

Cons: The agile design has less initial stability (what you feel when you first get in the canoe), which might make beginners uncomfortable.  

Tripping Canoes: Also called touring canoes, these are a mix between recreational and whitewater canoes. 

Pros: They have some rocker but don’t sacrifice too much stability; design is a little bit narrower to help with speed over long distances; extra length compensates for the width, allowing them to carry more gear. 

Packable Canoes: These are all about portability, and can be either inflatable or foldable (meaning constructed with a breakdown skeletal frame covered by a canvas or poly-based skin).

Pros: Good for both beginner paddlers short on storage and expedition paddlers looking to go long with boats that can be disassembled for flights to remote put-ins.

Cons: Not as durable or efficient as conventional canoes. 

Size and Capacity

As a rule of thumb, the longer the canoe, the better it tracks and holds speed, while shorter canoes are more maneuverable, weigh less, and are less affected by wind. Most canoers choose a boat in the 16- to 17-foot range—a good combination of speed, maneuverability, and capacity (often for two paddlers). But anyone heading out on longer-distance trips over mostly open water might choose something longer, while those heading to small, twisting rivers might err on the shorter end (and potentially for only one paddler). 

In terms of width, wider canoes offer more stability, while narrower ones are faster to paddle. And deeper canoes (with taller sides) can carry more stuff but are more impacted by wind than shallower canoes. A canoe’s capacity is also impacted by its dimensions. The longer and wider it is, the more it can carry, including people. Solo “pack canoes” are often shorter, in the 11- to 13-foot range, which makes them easier to paddle and to carry alone. 

Design 

A canoe’s design and hull profile (viewed from either end) impacts its stability and performance. Stability is broken down into two categories: Initial stability while sitting still on flat water, and secondary stability experienced on rougher water when leaned on edge. 

Hull Profile

Flat-bottomed canoes have good initial stability—they’re incredibly hard to flip. And without much load, they’re not too difficult to turn (since there’s not a lot of boat underwater), but that gets hard with weight. The opposite is a rounded hull, which offers more secondary than initial stability, and is fast and efficient when loaded. Shallow-arch boats sit somewhere in between, with decent initial and secondary stability, and good tracking and efficiency. And finally, V-bottomed canoes improve slightly on shallow-arch by adding a keel along the center for better tracking and maneuverability. 

Rocker

Rocker is also an important design feature of a canoe hull (when viewed from the side profile). The more it has, the easier it is to turn, perfect for rapids or windy rivers. The less it has, the easier it is to track straight, which is preferable for lakes or more open water. 

Hull Shape

Another thing to take into account is the shape of the sides of the hull, near and including the gunwales. The sides of a canoe can either flare out above the waterline, or curve back inward (called tumblehome). Flared canoe sides keep waves from crashing over the gunwales while tumblehome makes it easier for you to get your paddle in the water, making it more common on solo canoes. 

Another note on the gunwales: Look for tough and durable ones along the top edge of the boat’s sides. You’ll be grabbing these a lot and the canoe could be resting on them in transit, as well. 

Features

The profile of a canoe obviously isn’t the only thing that makes up its design. Pay attention to these features, too. 

Thwarts: These are the (usually wooden) supports that brace the canoe from side to side, gunwale to gunwale. If you plan on doing any solo carrying of your canoe (even just from your car to the water), look for a center thwart (called the yoke) that is cut out for easy carrying over your shoulders and that is well balanced. 

Seats: They can be made from a lot of different materials from hard woods to woven natural fibers to solid plastics. Woven seats will drain water more easily while padded plastic or vinyl can offer more comfort over long distances. Sliding seats are a nice option that allows you to adjust seating to different sized paddlers. No padding? Strap-on seat cushions are an easy add-on. 

Handles: Look at these in both the bow and stern. You’ll be grabbing these to carry the boat and using them as attachment points to strap the canoe to your car—make sure they’re sturdy and comfortable. 

Materials

The canoe’s construction is the final big design consideration. While there’s no shortage of proprietary construction materials out there, most fall into a few broad categories:

  • Aluminum: Cheap and durable aluminum canoes are what you see at summer camps and in rental fleets, but they’re heavier, less efficient, and can get really hot if you leave them in the sun.
  • Molded Plastics: There are a ton of different plastics out there, which means there’s a lot of variety in this category with regards to weight and durability, but they’re often cost-effective. Though with added durability often comes added weight.
  • Composite: These canoes, made of layers of fabric and resin molded together, are light and efficient on the water, though offer less durability depending on the layup. The stronger and lighter the materials, the higher the price tag as you move from an entry point like fiberglass to materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, and graphite used by serious expedition paddlers on trips where weight and efficiency are critical.
  • Wood: Usually hand-crafted (or sold in build-your-own kits) these canoes are typically constructed with strips of cedar or birch and sealed with layers of epoxied fiberglass. While the most aesthetically pleasing, they require a lot of maintenance, plus care on the water as they’re some of the least durable models. 

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