How to Buy a Canoe – Considerations

Souris River Skeena
Souris River Skeena

How to Buy a Canoe

Here is information to help make the right choice in buying a canoe that’s right for you.  I’m not recommending specific models or hulls because I don’t know who you are or what your skill level is.  I am pointing out details about canoes in general which could help you make a better choice in canoes.  Hopefully, it’ll help you wade through the marketing murk of buzzwords and fluff that’s prevalent on the net.  If you are like me, a practical view to canoe buying is what you want and there are a lot of impractical recommendations out there that are just plain confusing.  Read this first, check out the definitions, and then let the “experts” tell you what they think you need.  It’s always nice to walk in with a little bit of knowledge under your hat.  Happy Paddling!

Basic Considerations when buying a canoe

For the most part, canoes can fall into three different design categories:  performance, whitewater, and general purpose.  Without a doubt, there can be all sorts of variations and exceptions to this general description I’ve laid out, but the intent here is to hopefully offer a clearer picture of what’s out there in canoes.  I’m not comparing brands, but instead am laying out the differences as they currently stand with some details you might need to consider when shopping for the right canoe. My focus is on the population of general paddlers both new to the sport or seeking to upgrade their old canoes. The following info is for selecting a general purpose canoe or a canoe that would do well with recreational uses such as fishing, wilderness camping, sightseeing, or recreational paddling.  Performance and Whitewater canoes, while exciting to consider, generally are lacking in the necessary design features for the majority of general purpose paddlers seeking to get out on the water safely and comfortably.  Those paddlers interested in racing and whitewater canoes will need to check out other resources on the web.  Thanks!    -JB-

Canoe Differences –  Understanding the Three Basic Hull Design Differences
Performance Canoes –  Flatwater racing canoes are designed to be stiff and go fast in a straight line.  Predominantly kevlar construction, performance canoes are most often made with a diamond-shaped or oval foam mat sandwiched between a few sheets of kevlar in the bottom of the canoe to prevent the hull from shifting while being paddled so no kinetic energy is lost in a flexing canoe hull. This means that the most possible effort and power by the paddlers is put into moving the canoe ahead with the canoe absorbing very little energy from them.  All energy goes into making the canoe move forward. Typically, these types of canoes are traditionally difficult to turn (no rocker), narrow, somewhat tippy feeling, and offer very little freeboard (canoe sides sticking out of the water when canoe is loaded).  They are commonly paddled with the “sit ‘n switch” technique where both paddlers pump the water with bentshaft paddles on opposite sides of the canoe, switching sides simultaneously (HUT! = switch sides now!) after a preset number of strokes.   To turn the canoe, the paddlers literally “bull” it around on the water.  It’s not a pretty technique (in my opinion) to watch,  but a racing canoe does fly down the lake while doing this technique.  The sides (freeboard) of a performance canoe are built deliberately low to avoid catching crosswinds which aids in maintaining a straighter course on the water for a faster finish time. It is not uncommon for racing canoes to take on some water over the sides on rough lakes.  Rockerless canoes also tend to slice thru the upcoming wave instead of rising up and over it.  That does result in faster travelling because the distance from point A to B is shorter by cutting through the waves (in a straight line) and not rising up and over them.  This can, however,  be a problem if the canoe bow is 20″ high and the upcoming wave is 24″ high.   A sidenote: If you are a big guy, sitting in the bow of a racing canoe for more than 1 hour can be maddening.  Usually, they are so narrow that you’ll need to “stack” your feet on one another because they won’t fit side by side in front of you, plus, your knees will rub together for the entire trip.  I find them to be very confining and a pain to fish from.Summary:  Performance-oriented canoes tend to be best suited for racing paddlers who don’t mind getting wet and paddle best with other “stroke-knowledgeable” paddlers who can “team” paddle.  In other words, the bow paddler needs to know how to execute at least three specific maneuvering strokes  on command from the stern paddler to make this canoe turn, especially in a cross-wind situation.  Loaded down performance canoes become real dogs on the water because they are intended to be paddled hard when empty which “lifts” them up on the water, minimizing the amount of canoe hull surface that touches the water.  This, in turn, reduces drag and increases speed.  If you don’t maintain marathon speed with a lot of strokes per minute, the canoe settles into the water and slows way down. Then it feels like you are ever-so-slightly, pushing against a wall.


HULL DESIGN and its most important factors to considerHull Shape – For a general purpose canoe, you’d be best off considering a canoe with a stable hull design on the water.  The majority of folks who are replacing their heavy old aluminum canoes aren’t seeking a tippy, hard- to-turn, narrow racer.  They are simply seeking a canoe that did exactly what their stable aluminum did only with less weight.  Narrow is seldom better, and really wide and short will be stable but slow and hard to paddle.  You need to consider buying a canoe that will not limit you to certain areas or activities.  You need a nice mix of features and characteristics.

Aside from handling the canoe on land, you’ll need to to consider your ability to control the canoe on the water, first and foremost.   Nobody ever drowned while carrying their canoe on land and a good canoe needs to be judged buy the way it takes care of its paddlers on the water.   A good canoe will have the proper mix of  tracking and turning built right into it’s hull.  A good, general-purpose, canoe will allow the stern paddler to turn the canoe from the stern position into a crosswind without being forced to make a 1/4 mile-long arc on the lake just to turn the canoe around.  If you’re fishing, a canoe that won’t maneuver is ridiculous!  A good, general purpose canoe needs to have a bit of  rocker that starts from the center of the canoe and not just on the ends of the canoe.  A good canoe with 1-2″ of rocker from the center of the canoe  will also tend to hold its position on the water while you are padding in the wind.  To determine the amount of rocker, take the easiest step first:  ask the salesperson.  If that’s not effective, you can flip the canoe upside down and look down the length of it to see if it has a slight “banana” shape to it  Another way to test it is to set in on a level, firm surface and push down on the bow or stern to see if the opposite end rises and falls like a rocking chair.  This may or may not be effective on plastic canoes with a more flexible bottom. 

Nothing can be more annoying and inefficient than a canoe which needs constant correction as the stern slips off course in an angled following sea – the wind hits you at an angle from the back and the stern goes with it usually forcing the stern paddler to constantly reach out with a draw stroke to correct the course of the canoe. All canoes will do this to some degree depending on the force of the wind.  Non-rockered canoes will have this happen and when they get blown off course a little, and, because they can’t correct easily by slightly turning the bow, the problem grows as they paddle the non-responsive canoe even harder to correct and fly WAY off course.  This event leaves less-experienced paddlers in the wrong canoe with the perception that the canoe “really blows around the lake easily” and it was not a good experience for them at all.   Canoes which are rockered only on the ends turn poorly at best and are not worth much of your attention overall.  You might as well have no rocker and be paddling a performance canoe.  They’ll handle about the same.

Stability –  If the canoe is “tender” (tippy & jittery feeling when somebody so much as scratches his ear or swats a bug), it’s not worth much as a general purpose canoe.  A good canoe will have the right amount of flatness in the bottom combined with what’s called  “shallow arching” in the ends.  A flat bottom in the canoe makes it stable when sitting loaded or unloaded on the water.  The shallow-arching contributes to the canoe’s secondary stability.  If you lean it over, the canoe fights your tipping over into the water, hence, this “early warning system” tells you it’s time quit goofing around and get back to the center of the canoe.  If the canoe is flat-bottomed from end to end, however,  with no shallow-arching, that’s not good either.  This hull will feel very stable in most situations with the exception of rough water.  It can tip over suddenly without warning as its paddlers do something dumb.  A shallow-arched bottom throughout the canoe will make the canoe feel tender whenever it is paddled without a load. That doesn’t mean it’s going to tip, but you’ll feel the need to be pay attention to the canoe and your partner’s movements all the time in a shallow-arched hull.  Generally, canoes with shallow-arched bottoms will stabilize when you load them up and the canoe rests on its maximum wetted surface from chine to chine (where the side of  the canoe meets the bottom).  In summary, your best general purpose choice is a canoe that offers a combination of both flat bottom with shallow arching.

Freeboard –  If you are not racing, sufficient freeboard is a big consideration.  Many canoes out there were built by designers who (I think) have watched “On Golden Pond” too many times.  Lakes can and do get rough!  Canoes with low sides (no freeboard) are great if it doesn’t get windy out.  How can you predict what the wind will do when you are 2 miles from shore?  If the waves never get higher than three inches then everyone can feel all warm and gooey inside.  However. the reality of canoeing is that many paddlers haul some kind of a load, be it people, the dog, camping/hunting gear or some combination thereof and the wind can come out of nowhere.  If the canoe you are in has low freeboard, doesn’t turn worth a darn (no rocker) and you get caught in rough water broadside to the waves, your experience for the trip might not be too pleasant.   Taking on water over the sides makes a difficult-to-turn, performance canoe go much slower with WAY less stability and even less turn-ability.  That’s a problem.  There’s nothing worse than the feeling of the ship going down into cold water especially when it can be prevented by paddling a better canoe design for one’s intended use.  For general purpose padding, avoid canoes with low freeboard like the plague and you’ll be much happier in the long haul.  Some low-freeboard, kevlar canoes will generally have only 4-6″ of remaining freeboard with a normal load.  Canoes which offer 8-10″ of freeboard are a much better consideration and keeping the water in the lake is usually preferred by most people.  The argument FOR low freeboard is a silly one about catching wind.  If you are not racing and instead, are out paddling for recreation, catching the wind is always much better than catching the water.  A good general purpose canoe should be keep its paddlers high and dry 99% of the time.

Durability – Some people are tough on canoes and simply need more durability. If you are looking to lighten your canoe carry weight, you may need to make some changes in the your overall handling  of cloth-layup canoes to make sure you don’t destroy your investment’s bow.  If you are accustomed to ramming shore at 20 MPH with your canoe, you would fall into the “tough” class of paddlers and should only consider aluminum, plastic, or epoxy-resin cloth lay-up canoes.  If you consider yourself tough on canoes, stay away from cloth canoes made with vinylester resin and gel coat or plan on making repairs to chips and cracks.   Overall comparisons of canoe construction materials are as follows:    

Aluminum canoes take a beating, take dents, last just about forever, are heavy and noisy in the water.   If you are located right on the water, they make a great general purpose canoe.

Plastic canoes such as royalex and polyethylene are very tough, limited in their hull shapes, tippier overall than aluminum and cloth layup canoes, tend to slip in the wind more easily, require more correcting strokes while paddling, and are heavier than aluminum,  but quiet on the water.  If you are located on the water or like to bash down rivers where you’ll be carrying very short distances, these are a good choice.

Cloth Layup canoes (canoe made out of kevlar cloth, fiberglass, duralite, tuffweave, carbon fiber, etc.) can be (but are not always) less durable, sleeker in design, both substantially lighter (OR heavier) than plastic canoes, and are quiet on the water.  Cloth lay-up canoes come from two schools of construction design with the primary differences being in the type of resin used to build them and the type of stiffening system used to keep the bottom stiff.  If you’d like to read more about these significant differences, click here.


Here’s what you should find out before you buy that canoe:

1. Is it stable overall or does it have better secondary stability?  If the answer is better secondary stability, then the canoe will feel tippy.2. How much freeboard is there with a load of two regular-sized paddlers and 200 lbs. of  gear?  It’s far better to have 8-10″ of freeboard when loaded than a paltry 4-6″ like some canoes provide.  Also note that the canoe depth spec’s have nothing to do with the amount of freeboard that will be remaining in the canoe on the water.  A 15″ deep round-bottom canoe may settle in to the water further resulting in the same amount of remaining freeboard that a 13.5″ deep canoe may have with identical loads.  A knowledgeable sales person would know how deep the canoe settles in with an average load.

3. How much rocker does it have and is it from the middle of the canoe or just on the ends?  1-2″ is nice for turning. Rocker only on the ends the canoe isn’t worth a heck of a lot compared to rocker from the center.

4. How is the bottom arched?  Various canoe’s bottoms will range from flat, to flat in the middle with arching towards the ends, shallow arched, cantilevered (looks like a flattened out letter “V”).  Flat in middle with arching towards the ends is desirable for good general purpose canoes.  Cantilevered bottoms never know which side they want to rest upon when the canoe is paddled without a load so they can tend to shift suddenly from one side to the other which can be unsettling for some folks.

5. How durable is the canoe in rocks or if it gets dropped accidentally and lands on or runs over a rock?  Does the canoe have skid plates?   Aluminums can dent and puncture if the rock is sharp enough but are the toughest overall with no need for skid plates.  Depending on where you are paddling and how tough you are on the canoe, skid plates are usually a must or at least a big plus for anything other than aluminum canoes.  Some manufacturers build skid plates right into each canoe automatically so you don’t have to do anything except paddle the canoe.   Most plastic and cloth-layup canoes do not offer built in skid plates to the general canoeing population so you need to buy and install your own after you buy your canoe.  It’s not real hard but it is an extra expense and pain, so getting the installed by the dealer (for an extra fee) or buying a canoe with plates already built in is a major plus.  Gel coat on cloth-layup canoes hold up to abrasions better than regular skin-coat hulls but “spider-web” crack on impacts and also adds weight.  Canoes made from plastic can usually flex without damage.  Foam core kevlar canoes can experience substantially more damage while crossing over an obstacle with the canoe – the foam crushes under the weight of it’s load and a rut and/or cut is formed.  Flexible rib kevlar canoes will act like plastic canoes, receiving minimal damage depending on the type of resin used in their initial construction.

For a good general purpose canoe, consider stability, weight, durability, and control on the water.  There are a lot of canoes out there some better than others in all different price ranges.  Hope this info helps you out!