How to choose a canoe

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

Recreational Canoes

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.

Versatile/Multi-Purpose Canoes

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

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.

Size

Length, width and depth help determine the best use and the carrying capacity of a particular canoe.

Length

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.

Width (Beam)

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

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.

Hull Shape

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.

Rocker

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.

Side Shape

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

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.

Entry Line

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.

CrossLink3™

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.

PolyLink3™

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

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®

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®

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.

Take a Test Drive

If possible, after you've narrowed your choice down to 2 or 3 models, take them for a test drive. It's the best way to choose a canoe. Check out your local REI store; some stores with canoes will let members demo boats for free. You could also borrow from a friend or attend a symposium where manufacturers let you test gear. Local paddling clubs are a good source of information for these types of events.

Shop REI's selection of canoes.