Canoes are versatile boats, and can handle a variety of lake and river conditions, but the shape, materials and design features influence how they perform for different uses. The first thing to think about when you’re shopping for a canoe is use: where you plan to paddle, for how long and the conditions you’re like to encounter on the water.
Lakes and flat water
If most of your paddling takes place near a campsite or cottage and on calm lakes and flat water, you’re likely looking for a recreational canoe. These boats have flat-bottomed shape that emphasizes stability. They don’t feel tippy when you’re getting in and out, or if you need to move around in the boat while on the water. This feature is known as primary or initial stability. A canoe designed for recreational use will generally be quite durable as well, so it can handle a bit of bumping and scraping.
If you intend to make overnight trips or travel in your canoe for weekends or even several days at a time, a tripping canoe might suit you better. This style is similar to a recreational canoe, but has a rounder, deeper shape that accommodates gear and offers a cleaner line in the water, so it’s more efficient to paddle and is better at holding a straight line (called tracking) even when the water gets a little rough.
Rivers and whitewater
Boats designed for faster, rougher water emphasize turning and manoeuvrability and have a high degree of secondary stability – they feel more tippy to begin with, but you can lean way over without capsizing. They are designed to resist impacts well, so they handle obstacles and the more aggressive paddling techniques needed to navigate rough water and run rapids.
The material of the body, or hull, of a canoe affect how heavy, how tough and how expensive it is. You might find a few traditional models made of wood or canvas, but the best balance of weight, strength and cost comes from either plastic or fibre composite. Most modern canoes make use of these materials for the hull and use wood, aluminum or vinyl to outfit the rest.
These boats are relatively inexpensive, highly durable and impact resistant. Higher-grades of polyethylene are stiffer and/or more resilient. Some inexpensive boats are made of single-layer plastic, but plastic has a tendency to deform over time and it’s susceptible to UV damage, so quality boats have at least three separate hull layers that sandwich an inner layer of foam. This produces a structurally rigid shell that’s still buoyant and not too heavy. Robust as they are, layered materials are difficult to repair if the hull gets damaged.
Fibre and fibre composite
These boats are made of layers of fabric, carbon fibre, Kevlar or other material impregnated with a liquid resin for a smooth surface. Often known by a manufacture’s proprietary name, composite boats hold their shape better than plastic, both on the water and in storage. The material is easier to mould into sharp lines that improve speed and performance. A composites hull with be lighter than plastic, making it faster and more efficient to paddle, as well as easier to portage and car-top. And the material can be patched – but they are a more expensive option.
Features and hull design
If you’ve chosen a style and material you think will suit you, you can narrow your choices by looking at the way it’s shaped and the features that are most prominent.
Beam and length
The beam is the width, measured at the widest point of the boat. A wider hull is roomier and more stable but slower than a narrower one. Wider hulls are more manoeuvrable because they sit higher in the water, although this is a mixed blessing since the boat may be blown about more by the wind.
A longer boat is generally faster and tracks, better in a straight line. Touring canoes are generally longer for speed and efficiency, while whitewater canoes are shorter. so that they can be turned quickly and easily. Clearly, the bigger your boat is, the more gear (and people) it will safely carry, but the trade-off is weight. Portaging and lifting a boat onto the top of a car are both more strenuous with a heavier boat.
Rocker is the degree of upward curve along the bottom, from one end of the canoe to the other. Seen from the side, a highly rockered boat would curve like a banana, a less rockered boat would look flatter. More rocker makes a boat turn easily and is easier to manoeuvre. Whitewater canoes are generally highly rockered, but if you want to travel in a straight line, they are not as fast or as efficient as a boat designed for touring. Touring canoes have less rocker so they can cover long, straight-ahead distances with less effort from the paddler.
Side wall shape
If you look at canoes from the front, you can see they differ somewhat in their shape or outline. A boat that has its widest point well above the waterline is called flared. A flared canoe requires you to reach further away from you with your paddle as you take a stroke, but you’ll likely stay drier as you paddle. A canoe that’s not flared, that has an inward curve above the waterline (called tumblehome) is easier to paddle, especially solo, but you lose a bit of displacement volume and won’t stay as dry on board.
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.