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How to Choose A Canoe

In the Canoe & Kayak Magazine 2006 Buyer’s Guide, over 90 canoe manufacturers were listed, and this doesn’t include many of the smaller companies that build only a few canoes a year. Quickly scanning the listings, it easy to conclude that the magazine lists over 900 models of canoes. That’s a lot of canoes and that makes choosing a canoe one of the most complicated buying decisions out of any outdoor sport. Combing the number of models with the average canoe cost of around $1000 US, this can make the first-time canoe buyer nervous about their canoe purchase.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Making decisions about how you anticipate using the canoe can make buying a canoe easy, and also by understanding a little about construction materials, canoe shapes, and the designer’s intentions the models can quickly be narrowed down to several canoes that will meet your needs.

How Will You Use the Canoe

The first step in deciding which canoe to buy is figuring out how you will ultimately use that canoe, because not all canoes are built to do all activities.

Solo Vs. Tandem Canoes

This is probably the easiest decision to make about buying a canoe. A solo canoe is one, which has only one seat at the center of the canoe and designed to be used by only one person. Most solo canoes do not perform and will not perform well with two people in them. A tandem canoe is one that has, at least, two seats and is meant for two canoeists. On larger boats, a third center seat is sometimes an option for a third canoeist called a duffer. Sometimes, you may want to use your canoe mainly for soloing, but want the option of bringing someone along with you. It’s important to decide how often you will be soloing vs. tandem paddling, because a tandem canoe will probably not paddle solo as well as a solo canoe. In many cases, buying two solo canoes may turn out to be a better option. In the opposite situation, you may want to occasionally paddle solo and in most canoes, this is no problem. In symmetrical canoes (see below), you can simply paddle the canoe backwards from the front seat, and in an asymmetrical canoe (see below), you can install a kneeling thwart or center seat to accommodate your desire to use your tandem solo. (Read more: How to Paddle a Tandem Solo.) Most first-time buyers will end up buying a tandem canoe.

Pick the Type of Canoe Trips

After deciding on tandem or solo, you need to look closely at the types of trips and the conditions you will be taking trips in. This following list is a good starting point to use to help you figure out what you want the canoe to do.

  • day trips, overnight camping trips, week long camping trips
  • streams, rivers, lakes, big lakes
  • low distance trips, long distance trips
  • fishing, bird watching, photography or simple paddling
  • racing, touring, just messing about, family trips, picnics, for the kids
  • whitewater, flat water

For example, as a buyer, you may want a canoe mainly for day trips, but will take week long camping trips once a year on lakes and some big lakes, most will be low distance trips, except for that one trip, and you’ll be fishing out of the canoe, your kids will come on day trips and you’ll probably never go on whitewater. That a few minutes and come up with a statement like this, so when you head to the store, you know exactly what your looking for your canoe to do.

Touring Canoes vs. Recreational Canoe

For the most part, you can narrow canoes into two main categories: Touring and Recreational. Both of these categories have crossovers and just because a canoe is considered a Touring Canoe doesn’t mean you can’t use it to fish. A Touring Canoe is one, which will perform best for camping trips and paddling long distances on big lakes. There are also Touring Canoes designed for touring on fast moving water, streams and rivers. Within the Touring category, you can also break down the designs into the number of days that the camper anticipates being out in the boat. Small Touring Canoes from 15′ to 16′ generally can carry enough gear for shorter three to four day trips. And because they are shorter, then can be slower and less efficient, which means that you’ll work hard for the distance traveled. A second category of Touring Boats, those in the 17′ and above range, also work fine for shorter trips, but they will carry enough gear for longer trips, and they generally will be more efficient. For the most part, Touring Canoes designed for flat-water travel also work perfectly well for family day trips, fishing, photography, etc”¦

Recreational canoes are those designed specifically towards daylong activities, like hunting, fishing, day trips, family play, picnics, or just messing around. These boats are generally perceived to be more stable (see below), and are willing to give up efficiency and positive performance aspects to cater more towards the activity they were designed for. Although they can be and have been used for camping, they are better for canoeists looking for a canoe to perform daylong activities. These are a good buy if you only plan on day trips in good conditions.

Solo Canoes

As Cliff Jacobson likes to say, “Solo canoes are different.” And they may very well be, but they still can be placed into the above categories, but because most of the available models are designed as River or Flat-Water Touring Canoes, there is a small choice of Recreational models.

Racing, Whitewater, and Play Canoes

Canoes can also fit into several additional categories: racing, whitewater, and play canoes. These canoes are geared more towards experienced canoeists, but if in the quantification exercise above one of your picks was to use the boat in whitewater, for racing or for freestyle play make sure you pick a canoe geared specifically towards those activities, otherwise, you may find out that your compromise canoe doesn’t do what you wanted it to.

Simple Canoe Design For the First-Time Buyer

As a first-time buyer, you needn’t have an engineering degree to understand the basics of canoe design. John Winters, a famous canoe designer, writes in The Shape of the Canoe, that the primary characteristics of canoe design are:

  • Aesthetics
  • Construction
  • Controllability
  • Cost
  • Displacement
  • Durability
  • Maintenance
  • Seaworthiness
  • Stability
  • Speed

Most of these characteristics trade off between each other and there is no way to design a canoe with the maximum performance in each of these categories. Here is a quick breakdown of the characteristics of canoe designs.


Aesthetics is the look of the canoe and although the look of a canoe can be tailored to achieve appearance of a type of performance, it has nothing to do with the actual performance of the canoe. Mainly, you will see two types of appearances: that of a modern canoe with low stems (the ends of a canoe), and those with high ends and recurved stems. The later is a more traditional styling that reflects the look of canvas and cedar canoes from the early twentieth century. High ends, like those found on traditional canoes, can affect the canoe in winds. The higher the ends, the more likely that wind will move the boat around.’s Picks

Still confused by the plethora of choices. With over 900 canoes to choose from this year, it’s no wonder. Don’t worry, if you pick a canoe off of this list, you’ll end up with a winner. Without further ado here are some of’s top picks:

Flat Water and Light River Touring

  • Bluewater Freedom Tripper
  • Bell Northwoods
  • Souris River Quetico 17

River Touring

  • Swift Dumoine
  • Bell Yellowstone
  • Old Town Tripper
  • Old Town Disco 169

Solo Flat Water Touring

  • Bell Magic

Solo River Touring

  • Bell Wildfire or Yellowstone Solo

Recreational All Around

  • Old Town Osprey 155

Classic Good Looks

  • Esquif Prospecteur 17
  • Old Town OTCA 16

Construction, Cost, Durability, and Maintenance

These design criteria all seem to go hand in hand and stem directly to the type of material used to construct the craft. In modern canoe design these are the materials you will most likely encounter when shopping: cedar and canvas, wood and fiberglass, single layer polyethylene plastic (RamX â„¢), three layer plastic (Polylink 3 â„¢), seven layer plastic (Royalex â„¢), aluminum, fiberglass, aramid (Kevlar â„¢), carbon fiber

Cedar and Canvas Canoes

Cedar and Canvas Canoes are a direct descendant 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, 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, properly cared for will last 100s of years.

Wood and Fiberglass

A wood and fiberglass canoe uses wood as a core and stiffener and 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 built very tough. The typically are heavy and are not as durable as plastic or composite canoes. 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 they often become misshapen after one season of use. They are cheapest out there, they are durable in the fact that it’s hard to punch a hole through them, but they are very flexible, fail to perform well, and have a limited life span. Plastic degrades in sun, so requires treatment with a UV spray monthly. Also, any damage is almost impossible to repair.

Three Layer Plastics

Using similar technology to manufacture as single layer canoes, these canoe address the main downfall of single layer plastic, the flexibility. By sandwiching a foam layer between two layers of plastic, this material stiffens and strengthens the canoe. The stiffer a canoe is the better it will hold its designed shape and the more efficient it will be. Still, it has a tendency to oil can when on the water, and the canoes tend to be heavy. Repair is also difficult on this material.

Seven Layer Royalex â„¢

The next step up and ultimate plastic used in canoes is called Royalex. Basically, 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. You may notice some oil canning on wide flat bottom Royalex boats, but on most models, it is slight or non-existent. 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. It is interesting to note that these canoes are made by baking a sheet of the Royalex in a oven and then using a vacumn and female mold the hot and flexible plastic is sucked up into the mold and cooled, then fitted out with seats, decks, etc”¦

Aluminum Canoes

Since after World War II, aluminum canoes have been a strong contender in the marketplace, and, even though plastic now produce 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 with any knock against the canoe echo 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.

Composite Canoes – Fiberglass, Kevlar, Carbon Fiber

Composite canoes are made from the combination of two materials. A 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 material, pound for strength, Kevlar is the best, but doesn’t 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 and carbon fiber is an expensive material and in times of war, both their prices can sky rocket, 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.

Displacement – Capacity

A canoe displaces an equal amount of water to its weight, including load. So, if you load 500 pounds into a 50-pound canoe, the canoe’s displacement will be 550 pounds, and while interesting, it doesn’t tell us much about the canoe. What is more important when selecting a canoe is to pick one with six inches or nine inches of freeboard at the maximum amount of weight you’ll be carrying in the canoe. Freeboard is the amount of the hull sticking out of the water from the water to the sheer at the lowest point on the sheerline. So, figure out the average weight of the paddlers, and a estimate of the maximum weight of the gear you will carry and compare it to the capacity given for the canoe at six and nine inches of freeboard. For example, for a tandem canoe one canoeist may weigh 160 and the other 220 and they carry 60 pound of camping gear and food between them, plus their paddles, vest and fishing gear for another 30 pounds and the boat weighs 70, then it must, at least, be able to 540 pounds at six inches of freeboard. As an exercise hold up your hand and typically, from the base of your palm to the tip of you middle finger will be close to six inches. This is all of the canoe that will be above water when at this load. Nine inches is a safer depth to shoot for, but keep in mind that the higher the canoe sits in the water, the more wind will affect it. In whitewater, though nine inches should be the minimum.

Bell Magic in the BWCA
Bell Magic in the BWCA


Controllability is how the boat handles on the water. There are two aspects of controllability that most paddlers are interested in and those are maneuverability and tracking, which is how well the boat goes straight. Generally, the more maneuverable a canoe is the less well it will track. There are several aspects of canoe design that you can look at to determine how a canoe will perform: Symmetry, Rocker. Below these are discussed further, but for boats used on lakes, tracking is generally more desirable than maneuverability and for rivers and streams, the opposite is true.

Asymmetrical vs. Symmetrical Canoes

Most modern canoes are designed with Asymmetrical hulls, which means that when looking down on the canoe from above, the back half of the canoe will be a different shape than the front half of the canoe. In a symmetrical canoe, the back and front halves of the canoe will be exactly the same. Both designs have an advantage, but asymmetrical hulls tend to be able to combine several positive characteristics. These are that even though they track very well, they also are able to maneuver well. They general have finer bows (fronts), and wider sterns (back), which allow them to slice through the waves, but still ride high. They also tend to be faster. Symmetrical canoes paddle the same forward and backwards, so they perform better when paddle solo from the bow seat, and some people say that their hulls are more predictable in whitewater.


The rocker of a canoe is how much curve it has along the bottom of the hull. The amount of rocker is indicated in inches and is the measurement of the distance from the lowest part of the canoe to some point (there is no standard among canoe designers) before the stem. The less rocker a canoe has the better it will track and the more rocker it has the better it will turn. Some Asymmetrical canoes also have Asymmetrical rocker with more in front than the back. This helps the canoe turn easier and also helps the canoe track.


This aspect of canoe design is how well the boat does in rough conditions. Often more seaworthy designs will have more flare which is an outward spreading of the hull as the hull goes from the keel (bottom) to the sheer (top) of the canoe. And although flared hulls will provide plenty of seaworthiness, they are harder to paddle because the sides of the hull are wider. In situations, where extreme seaworthiness is not required, canoes will have straight up and down sides or often tumblehome sides. Tumblehome is the inward narrowing of the hull at the gunwales or sheer. With a narrow sheer, it is easier to reach over the side of the canoe with a paddle, making it easier to paddle. Also, to a certain extent the volume of the canoe affects seaworthiness. The more volume and capacity the more freeboard a boat will have and the more that freeboard will resist shipping water. Generally speaking, for day trips you can sacrifice seaworthiness for comfort and efficiency, but even when flat-water touring, some seaworthiness will be desired for wind day. If rivers and large lakes, seaworthiness is paramount.


The first-time buyer will often think that they just want a canoe that is stable, and while an admirable desire, it should be understood that a stable canoe on flat water might not be stable at all when waves kick up. There are two types of stability to be concerned with: primary and secondary. The primary stability is how stable the canoe feels with you are sitting upright in the canoe, and the secondary stability is how stable the canoe feels as it is leaned on its side or as waves act against it sides.

A flat bottom canoe will have more primary stability than a round bottom canoe, but when leaned the flat bottom canoe will often be less stable than the round-bottom canoe. Depending on the expected condition, a canoe with high primary stability may not work the best in waves. Also, generally, flatter bottom canoes will be slower than rounded bottom canoes. Often, a new canoeist will find most canoes stable after his or her first season of canoeing.

There are many recreational canoes with completely flat bottoms, but most Touring canoe designs incorporate some secondary stability.


The common thought when thinking of speed is that the canoeist doesn’t care about making it to camp any faster, but when thinking of speed, it is easier to think of it as efficiency. How efficient a canoe is tells you how much energy is going to be required to move you from point A to point B. Sea Kayaker Magazine suggests that the typical paddler can perform well at 3 pounds of drag, and if this is true, a boat that travels at 4.5 knots at 3 pounds of drag will be easier to paddle than one that travels at 4 knots with 3 pounds of drag. Racing canoeist will want a canoe that paddles fasted at higher speeds and in order to reach these highest speeds, the paddler will often have to expend much more energy in terms of pounds of drag to reach them, but touring and recreational canoeist will want a boat that performs best at their average paddling force. This means that the canoe should be designed to perform best at lower speeds, which result in less work for the same distance. One other note about speed is often called Hull Speed. The longer a canoe the higher its Hull Speed will be, so it is often suggested that if you want a faster canoe get a longer boat. And although in a certain extent this is true, it is more important when looking for speed to look at the efficiency of the canoe at the speeds you think you will typically be traveling. A canoe with a higher top end speed may be harder to paddle at slower speeds. Unfortunately, most canoe manufacturers do not readily provide resistance numbers for comparison, so this is perhaps the hardest feature to compare when shopping.

Combining Design and Usage To Buy a Canoe

With so much information, buying comes back to the basics. In the first part of the article, it was suggest that you determine how you want to use a canoe, and in the second part designs characteristics were discussed. So, with this information, it’s time to pull the two parts together. So, make the main decision based on your list on whether or not you need a Touring or Recreational Canoe. Then you need to decide the amount of money, you’d like to spend understanding that if lightweight and better performance is desired, you will pay for it. Also, using cost, consider the materials. What materials fall into your cost range and do those materials address your needs? For example, if you have $3000 to spend, but most of your paddling is going to be touring fast rivers, you probably need a Royalex canoe for durability, so you can save the cash. But if you’re going to be travel on flat water for long distances with long portages, the lightweight and extra stiffness of the Kevlar will be worth every penny.

After narrowing down the material selection, look for canoes with enough capacity to handle your anticipated maximum load, and look for canoes with the desired maneuverability and tracking keeping in mind how seaworthy you purchase needs to be based on usage, and then consider the stability and speed. Here’s a quick list to help you organize your thoughts.

  1. How will you use the canoe?
  2. Touring or Recreational?
  3. Maximum amount of money to spend
  4. What type of material?
  5. Maximum needed displacement
  6. Tracking or Turing?
  7. Seaworthiness needed?
  8. Desired stability?
  9. How efficient do you need it?
  10. Do you want a classic looking canoe?

After doing this, head to your local store with you list in hand and ask questions. If possible paddle a couple of canoes and then load one up, tie it down and bring it home.

Note: You are welcome to print this article for purposes of purchasing a canoe for yourself. Retailers contact Bryan for permissions.

References for How to Choose a Canoe

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