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Choosing the Right Canoe

With only 900 or more canoe models to choose from — and with each manufacturer having its own classification system — what could be easier than picking out a canoe? And don't forget that canoes can be made from cedar strips, wood and canvas, aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar carbon fiber, polyethylene and Royalex. It's no wonder so many people end up buying the wrong canoe — which means enjoyment and safety are compromised. Following is a way to choose the appropriate craft for your intended use.

Ask yourself how you will use your canoe. This will make your final decision easy because shape, size, and construction all suit different performance requirements. Answer the following: Do I want to lake paddle, river paddle, or both? Will I paddle solo, tandem or triple? Do I want to do extended journeys? Will I be portaging, and how heavy a boat can I carry? How much maintenance am I willing to perform? Is my primary interest whitewater playboating and rodeo paddling? Will I use my canoe mainly for fishing or hunting? Do I want a canoe for casual use around the cottage?

You should now be able to place yourself in one of the following categories: Lake Touring; flatwater port-wildlife viewing, fishing and hunting; expedition paddling; whitewater touring; whitewater playboating and rodeo. Once you know the category of the canoe you want, it is simply a matter of knowing how to recognize what length, width, shape, and construction your hull should be.

The Right Stuff

Expedition and whitewater canoes must be strong to withstand the rigors of river environments, whereas lake touring and sport canoes must be strong enough to carry the desired load but light enough to be portaged. A nice combination of materials for touring and sport canoes is a hull made from Kevlar with wood gunwales, thwarts, and seats to keep it light. Expedition and whitewater canoes are best made from Royalex, polyethylene, or Kevlar — with vinyl-clad aluminum gunwales to ensure they can take abuse.

Shape Matters

The flatter the bottom, the more primary stability (steady when flat) the canoe has, but you give up some hull speed. The more rounded the bottom, the less initial stability but the swifter the hull. Flat-bottomed hulls are used in sport and cottage-type canoe hulls because their stability makes them good for fishing and for novice paddlers. A moderately rounded bottom is more maneuverable and capable of better speed; it is used in touring and expedition canoe hulls.

Choosing A Canoe


Lake canoes should have a keel or v-bottom to help the canoe track and river canoes should not have a keel, for maneuverability. Tumblehome (the width between the gunwales is less than the overall width of the canoe) allows the canoe to be paddled without giving up hull displacement — which determines weight-carrying capacity (burden). The greater the displacement, the greater the carrying capacity. Tumblehome is often achieved in whitewater playboats by using a gunwale tuck (a method of molding materials such as Royalex to create tumblehome).

Choosing A Canoe


Secondary stability (the canoe gains stability as it is heeled over) is created by flaring the sides of the midsections. This allows the paddler to heel the canoe over to carve turns — which is important for whitewater boats. Tumblehome is also found in some recreational hulls.


Rocker is the amount the hull curves from bow to stern. Rocker slows hull speed and decreases the accommodation of large payloads. Lake and touring canoes should have conservative amounts of rocker to increase hull speed. It is not critical for river hulls to be fast but it is important that they have rocker for maneuverability (5 – 6" is good for a 16-foot whitewater canoe). Touring and expedition canoes should have some rocker as well (2" is good for a l6- or l7-foot canoe). When choosing a touring, expedition, or sport canoe that will be paddled tandem and solo, look for a symmetrical hull (the shape of the canoe is identical fore and aft).

Choosing A Canoe


The bow is what cleaves the water, so it is important that the shape suits the use. Whitewater boats need high volume bows and sterns for buoyancy — assuring their ability to go over large waves and giving the canoe more buoyancy over shorter lengths. More rounded ends in whitewater playboats make it easier to change direction in upstream maneuvers as well. Touring and expedition canoe hulls need to take lake waves (and moderate whitewater) and still have good hull speed. This is achieved by shaping the bow and stern with a slight flare to direct water away. The bow and stern should have low enough volume, however, to cleave waves easily


The Final Tactic

Paddle as many canoes as possible before you purchase. Demo the boats in the same kind of water you intend to use them in. Try performing the same maneuvers in each hull to ascertain the responsiveness of each boat. Load the craft and see how it changes performance. Choose a dealer who is experienced in canoeing so that you get professional input and not guesswork. If you choose the right canoe it will spend more time on the water and less time under the front porch.

Courtesy of Doug Wipper at

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