Many of my fondest memories and best stories stem from time spent in a canoe, as well as watching someone else’s flip over. In many of those cases, a group of us were just youths spending a day floating down a river that runs through Chattanooga, TN, and doing our best not to paddle ourselves in circles or into rocks in the middle of the river. The thought of “how to choose the best canoe” never crossed my mind, other than “do I want the one with the dent or the one with the small leak.”
Yes, back in those days I had no idea how many shapes and sizes that canoes come in, let alone all of the ways they can be used. I was convinced they were all made equally prone to flip over if you turn your head too quickly. Luckily, I have had time to age like a fine wine and my tastes have been refined. Ignorance is no longer bliss. In this post, we talk about all the things you need to know to make an informed decision when choosing the canoe that best suits your needs.
Table of Contents
This list outlines the various categories and considerations you need to consider when choosing a Recreational Canoe. Every adventure will have its own challenges and require its own items. However, hopefully, you will have the confidence you need to pick the First-Aid Kit that will best fit your needs by the end of this post.
Recreational Canoe Considerations:
- What Separates Canoes From Kayaks?
- How Will You Use the Canoe?
- Where Will You Use the Canoe
- How Do You Plan To Store the Canoe?
- Shape, Width, Length, and Depth
- Other Features
- Types of Canoes
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).
If you are headed out on a camping trip or traveling for a long distance (multi-day), then a canoe is usually going to be your best bet and recommended choice.
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.
If you are fairly new to canoeing and you want to read up on all of the various types of canoeing, we have put together a decent list of the canoeing varieties. Feel free to follow the link below to check them out.
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.
Shape, Width, Length, and Depth
The shape, width, length, and depth of a canoe are some of the most important factors to consider before making your purchase. Ultimately, it is these four factors that determine the type of environment the canoe can be used in. For example, shorter canoes with high sides (rockers) are swift to gain speed and easier to command.
Alternatively, if you are taking the family out for a fun paddle or new to the sport, a flat-bottomed canoe is the best option. The wider base provides greater stability, although it does limit the acceleration and maneuverability of the canoe.
On the other hand, a long canoe with a round bottom is exactly what you would want for building speed on long-distance paddles. This makes them ideal on wide waterways or ocean canoeing. However, the long shape can make the canoe a little more awkward to navigate on twisting rivers or narrow waterways.
Wider canoes tend to be more stable. This makes them a great platform for activities like fishing, where an exciting catch can quickly lead to imbalance and an easy tipping. They’re also great for pursuits like photography, where steadiness is key. On the other hand, narrower canoes tend to be faster, with better paddling efficiency.
A canoe’s length affects how it moves through the water. Longer boats track straighter. They move faster, glide farther, and can carry more weight than shorter canoes. However, shorter canoes are nearly always much easier to maneuver.
Depth is measured from the top of a canoe’s side rails (called gunwales) to the boat’s bottom. Deep boats can help keep water out while carrying heavy loads. However, boats with high sides will also be more affected by wind.
The shape of the hull and other design features can affect the stability and maneuverability of a boat in the water.
Stability and capacity are largely associated with length and width. The wider and longer the craft, the more stable it will be. The narrower the craft, the more efficient it will paddle. Consider how you intend to use the canoe to determine what length and width make the most sense for your needs.
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.
Hull shape impacts how the canoe will perform on the water. Some of our canoes are designed with rocker for added maneuverability, while others are designed with flat hulls for maximum stability.
- Flat-Bottomed Canoes:
- Flat canoe bottoms provide excellent initial stability. They are perfect for flatwater paddling and general canoeing fun. Flat-bottom boats tend to turn easily (since very little of the hull is below the waterline), but they can be slow when fully loaded with gear.
- Rounded Canoes:
- 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 Canoes:
- Shallow-arch bottoms provide a compromise between flat and rounded bottoms. They offer decent initial stability and very good secondary stability. They are more efficient through the water than flat-bottom boats, and they stay on track better.
- V-Bottom Canoes:
- 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.
“Rocker” refers to the amount of upward curve in the hull of a boat from end to end. Some canoes form a fairly straight line from bow to stern (front to back). While others will look more like an archer’s bow, with a lot of curvature along the length of the boat (think of a banana sitting in the water or rails on a rocking chair). The more rocker a boat has, the shorter it will act. If just the very middle of the boat is sitting in the water, then it will behave more like a short canoe, with easy turning but worse tracking. However, a slight rocker can increase maneuverability to a longer boat, without sacrificing too much tracking.
If you look at canoes from the front, you can see they differ somewhat in their shape or outline.
- Tumblehome canoes curve inwards as they go up. So much so that the sides of the canoe will point in towards the paddler at the top. The benefit of a tumblehome curve is to make it easier for a paddler to reach over the side and get a proper vertical forward stroke, which can be especially useful when trying to paddle a wider boat. However, an extreme tumblehome shape can make a canoe a little less stable when leaning, but generally a slight tumblehome shape does not affect stability much at all.
- Flared canoe’s shape is opposite to that of a tumblehome. The sides flare out so that the canoe is widest at the top, and narrows at the bottom. A flared canoe is extra stable when leaned. To the point, you can lean a flared canoe nearly all the way to the sides without issue.
- Straight canoes are a general compromise and balanced combination of the tumblehome and flare designs described above. By that, we mean that they have sides that are simply straight up and down
Freeboard is the distance between a canoe’s gunwales (side rails) and the waterline. A higher freeboard keeps you drier in wind and waves but makes you more vulnerable to side winds. Whereas a 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. Canoes with a more blunt bow are generally considered more ideal for rough-water paddling.
It is worth taking into account the weight of your preferred canoe. Namely, because it will affect the way the boat handles. For example, a heavier model will sit lower in the water and therefore provide greater stability and resistance to currents and winds. Whereas, lightweight canoes require less energy to accelerate and turn. Additionally, lightweight canoes are more portable, particularly for solo trips, as you will need to be able to lift the canoe out of the water yourself for portages or up onto a roof rack.
Finally, make sure to check the weight capacity of the canoe. Most can carry between one and four people but it is important not to overload the vessel.
Canoes go back thousands of years and have been seen all over the world. They have been found in the Netherlands, in Nigeria, and in east China, all dating anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Many of the earliest canoes were “dugout” canoes made from hollowing out enormous logs. Throughout history, these boats have also been made from birch bark, or canvas stretched over frames. Today, most canoes are made out of various synthetic materials. These synthetics all have their own advantages and drawbacks. Although regardless of what your canoe is made from, it is important to store it properly to help it last as long as it can.
Furthermore, you will want to consider the weight and durability of your canoe, both of which are factors influenced by the materials it is made from.
There are many types of materials out there, multiple of which are proprietary designs. We are only going to cover many of the more common large classes of materials here.
Since World War II, aluminum canoes have been a strong contender in the marketplace. Even though plastic now produces better canoes, you will still find many stores selling aluminum. Aluminum canoes tend to be heavy, slow, and cold to the touch, and also they are loud. Any knock against the canoe echoes through the water. They are durable, but dents are hard if not impossible to get out and holes need to be fixed by expert welders. The price is fairly consistent with Royalex.
Cedar and Canvas Canoes
Cedar and canvas canoes are direct descendants of the original birch bark canoes. Because birch bark is extremely hard to find in significant amounts and in high quality, canvas supplanted it as a waterproof covering. These canoes are built over a male mold on which the ribs are bent, planks nailed to the ribs, the canvas is stretched over the planks, filled, painted, and the boat is trimmed out then with seats, etc”¦ This construction makes a beautiful traditional look boat, but requires plenty of maintenance to keep it going. They take damage from rocks and fast water much easier than other construction types. Although, with that in mind, being properly cared for will last 100s of years.
Wood and Fiberglass
Wood and fiberglass canoes use wood as a core and the stiffener (fiberglass) covers that wood to make it waterproof, add strength, and hold it together. These are some of the most beautiful canoes available and can be incredibly tough when built correctly. They are typically heavy and are not as durable as plastic or composite canoes. Additionally, these canoes often need to be re-varnished every year.
Single-Layer Plastic Canoes
These canoes consist of a single layer of plastic and are built in a big oven that rotates as it melts plastic beads that come together into the final shape of the canoe. Generally, they will have a metal rod running down the center of the boat to stiffen it up and often become misshapen after one season of use. They are usually the most cost-effective option available and fairly durable, in the fact that it is hard to punch a hole through them. However, they are slightly more flexible often desired, not the most performant, and have a shorter life span compared to other types of canoes. Furthermore, plastic degrades in sun. So, these canoes require treatment with a UV spray monthly, and unfortunately, almost any damage is impossible to repair.
Three Layer Plastics
Using similar technology as the manufacturing process for single-layer canoes, these canoes address the main downfall of single-layer plastic, flexibility. By sandwiching a foam layer between two layers of plastic, the hull of the canoe stiffens and strengthens. The stiffer a canoe is the better it will maintain its designed shape and the more efficient it will be. Still, these canoes tend to be heavy and repair tends to be difficult on this configuration.
Seven Layer Royalex
The next step up, and ultimate plastic used in canoes, is called Royalex. These canoes are made by baking a sheet of the Royalex in an oven, and then, using a vacuum and female mold the hot and flexible plastic is sucked up into the mold and cooled, Following that it is fitted out with seats, decks, etc. In the end, it is a seven-layer sandwich with a foam core. By using seven thin layers, the material is much lighter than three or single layer plastics, and also these seven layers stiffen the canoe considerably. Royalex is also very tough, easy to repair, and the best bang for the buck. Most Royalex canoes can be picked up for around $1000 and should give 10 to 20 years of good service. The only maintenance needed is treatment with UV spray, unless the canoe has wooden gunwales. If this is the case, the gunwale will need to be removed during the winter.
Finally, there is Royalex® Lightweight (aka R-Light). This substance offers a balance between lightweight 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.
Composite – Fiberglass, Kevlar, Carbon Fiber
Composite canoes are made from a combination of two materials, fabric material and a two-part liquid that solidifies when mixed together. To build these canoes, a female model is sprayed with a gel coat or release agent, and then the fabric (fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon fiber) is laid into the mold. The two-part liquid is mixed and is then painted or injected into the fabric. After the liquid sets up, the canoe is pulled from the mold and outfitted. Composites are stiff, strong, and light.
Generally, fiberglass is the weakest out of these three materials, pound for strength, Kevlar is the best, but does not do well in compression and tends to fuzz up with wear and tear, so often you will see Kevlar used with fiberglass and carbon fiber to make up for its weaknesses. Still, an all Kevlar canoe will be strong, durable, and light.
Kevlar canoes are stronger than fiberglass, and about 25% lighter. This can make a big difference on long trips and long portages, but it comes at a price! Kevlar canoes are among the priciest available. Built like fiberglass hulls, layers of woven Kevlar fabric are bonded together with a special resin.
Kevlar and carbon fiber are expensive materials and in times of war, both their prices can skyrocket, so be prepared to pay anywhere from $600 to $2000 US more for a Kevlar or carbon canoe then Royalex. These canoes are repairable, although it is nowhere near as easy as Royalex, and they require treatment with a UV spray.
The most affordable canoes are usually made from rotomolded polyethylene. It’s a highly durable type of plastic which makes them a great choice for both recreational and whitewater use. The downside of rotomolded canoes is that they are significantly heavier than fiberglass. Additionally, the fabric can, over time, become deformed due to long exposure to heat and UV rays.
Offers a compromise between the previous two materials, thermoform canoes are almost as light as their composite cousins but provide the durability of their rotomolded brothers. They have the added value of UV protection in the outer layer. This material generally comes with a mid-range price tag and is also largely recyclable.
It may seem obvious, but you will want to make sure that there are enough seats for all your passengers. Additionally, you will want to consider the design and material of the seats. The most comfortable canoes will have moulded seats with backrests and foam padding, this comes in handy on full day trips.
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 do not allow air to circulate, so water will not evaporate as quickly. If you prefer plastic, molded models offer more comfort than flat benches.
There are a few other features that you will want to consider.
A keel is a seam-like strip running lengthwise down the middle of a canoe’s bottom. A keel improves straight-line tracking, minimizes sideways drift caused by wind, provides some protection against abrasion, and stiffens the hull.
In whitewater, a keeled canoe’s resistance to turning or being drawn sideways may not be a good thing. A keel can also interfere with a canoe’s ability to slide smoothly down the face of larger waves coming from the side. In addition, it can catch or scrape against rocks in running water, increasing the risk of capsizing.
These are the side rails that wrap around the top of the hull. This helps reinforce the canoe as well as provide a convenient place to grab onto. They can come in plastic, wood, or metal.
These are structural support bars that run across the canoe. Made of wood, plastic, or metal, thwarts can have an impact on if you plan on portaging your canoe. In that situation, you will refer to the center thwart as a yoke. Its center position helps increase balance.
Types of Canoes
At this point, manufacturers have managed to build a canoe to fit just about any situation that you might use them for. They come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, as we have already covered. They can carry multiple people or just one. Some can slice through waves or white water, while others can cruise down a flatwater river due to its streamlined design.
Below we are going to go through a series of the different types of canoes and what makes each of them different/special. If you happen to know of a canoe type that did not make our list, please leave a comment down below so that we can update this post.
A recreational canoe is an excellent choice for beginners or family trips. Fun and easy to paddle, recreational canoes are perfect for flatwater paddling. Stable, easy to control, and tough to flip over. They are ideal for birding, photography, fishing, and general paddling, due to their stability. The only drawback to this type of canoe is its lack of speed and agility.
Canoes in this category are built to handle everything from calm lakes to whitewater rivers. In general, they offer greater maneuverability and are designed to handle larger gear loads and extended trips.
River canoes are designed specifically for paddlers who love the challenge of running rapids and negotiating rivers. They are impact- and abrasion-resistant, with high sides to deflect splashes and extra rocker (end-to-end curvature) to enhance maneuverability.
Sporting canoes are designed for hunters and anglers. They tend to be shorter and wider than others. This helps them act as a stable platform where people can easily hunt and fish. They are more supportive when you need to stand up, and they are better suited to handle the disturbance caused by reeling in fish.
Tripping canoes are built for long-distance trips. You may also hear them called touring or expedition canoes. These are made to haul gear (and sometimes multiple paddlers) over long distances. They tend to be longer and narrower than others, to track straight and travel faster.
These hyper-expensive and ultralight boats are for serious racers. They are often made of advanced composite materials, which makes them light enough to pick up with a couple of fingers. This is not the recommended canoe of choice for a weekend warrior.
Square Stern Canoes
Typically using a small outboard motor or a trolling motor, you can mount it directly to the stern of the canoe to power your various expeditions. Many come with 3 seats, making them great for fishing or even family trips. Added support into the hull designs gives the square stern canoes a reputation for being phenomenally stable.
Folding canoes have been around for a long time but have continued to improve and innovate the technology that makes them remarkable watercraft. When you own a folding canoe, you get the unique experience of assembling and disassembling the canoe in its entirety. In addition to their storage convenience, folding canoes still provide a wide, stable structure that affords enough space for 1-2 canoeists and the equivalent weeks’ worth of gear.
Whether out on the lake for a casual picnic paddle, or on a multi-day expedition through unknown waters, there is a canoe to meet your needs. Once you have narrowed down your choice to two or three options, try to find a way to take them for a test drive. Either find an outfitter where you can rent gear or possibly borrow one from a friend. If test driving is not an option, try to find a paddling club. These can be a very good source of information if you are just getting started in paddling. Online groups can also be a viable alternative. Doing a quick search on a platform like Facebook can yield numerous available groups that you can become a member of.