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How to Choose a Canoe - Part 1: General Information

Posted by Darren Bush on 5/23/2013 to Canoe

There is a bewildering variety of canoes available out there—how do you ensure that you pick the one that’s right for you? We have broken choosing a canoe into three parts. Part one is general information. This section helps you think about, how you will use the canoe, and what type of canoe is best for your use. Part two is on canoe design. Part three is about which canoe material will be best for your budget and use. Be sure to check out our other articles on canoe materials, too.

Part One: General Information

The first step is to determine what kinds of paddling you’ll do. Most people can’t afford a specialty canoe for each of their activities, so the goal is to find one that strikes a good balance among all of your needs. I don’t want to discourage you from considering owning more than one canoe, because it helps eliminate some of the compromises, but all of us here at Rutabaga understand that it isn’t an option for everyone.

If you read that last sentence carefully you noticed an important word—compromise. Designing canoes is a study in the art of compromise. To enhance one quality, you will have to give up some of another and you should keep that in mind as you read this. It may help you to think of canoes as divided into types based on what they are designed for. Keep in mind that these are not universal categories, and that not every canoe fits neatly into one category. There will be some overlap, which is good, because your interests probably span more than one category. As you read this, don’t feel that you have to choose only one that describes you. In fact, it may be more useful to rank them in order of how important they are to you. Don’t worry if you see unfamiliar terms here, they’ll be explained a bit later in the article. Think about how you will be using your canoe the majority of the time.

Types of Canoes

More people shop for recreational canoes than any other. These hulls offer stability and predictability. They are versatile, since they are not designed around a particular specialty. Some will have capacity for shorter trips, others will be better suited for day paddling. Most will be flat or nearly flat on the bottom and they typically have generous width, which helps give them comfortable stability.

Looking for a design that gives you the best combination of performance and versatility? If you are, then touring canoes are for you. Compared to recreational boats, they are more high-performance. This means a bit more speed and efficiency, and the capability to handle rougher water. You have to give up a bit of initial stability, but you gain it back in secondary stability. They are like Swiss Army knives; they do a lot of things well, but a specialized tool can do it better. Some of us here at the shop like to say that touring canoes may not be the best choice for a specific use, but they’re never the wrong choice. If you need performance and you use your canoe in many ways, this is as good as it gets.

If you take day and weekend trips, and you want to cover the miles in less time, cruising canoes are where it’s at. They are suitable for paddlers with some experience since they usually have lower initial stability, but they cover more distance per stroke than any other type. They don’t have the depth of the other designs, so they won’t take a heavy load or handle rough conditions as well, but if you are someone who likes to maximize efficiency for each stroke, cruising canoes are the answer.

Think of a Suburban that floats. That’s what tripping canoes are all about. Their purpose is to carry people and gear (and lots of it) over long distances in safety and comfort. These boats also work well for those families with a couple of kids and a big dog who like to go for day and short camping trips. They are usually wide, but their extra length means that they are still very efficient. Most of these designs are meant to be paddled loaded, and they will feel very different if you paddle them empty. Also, these are the largest canoes out there, so give some consideration to the lighter weight construction methods. They are “a lot of boat” (too much for many people), but short of taking two boats, there’s just no other way to make so much gear float.

Whitewater boats are highly specialized hulls whose purpose in life is to turn rapids into a playground. They are deep for dryness, not capacity, and they have considerable rocker for unbelievable maneuverability. The downside is that they are very slow and have very poor tracking; only an experienced paddler can make them go straight in calm water. They are the best at what they do, but they are the least versatile of all the types. And yes, if you capsize, they can be rolled back up if properly outfitted.

Sport canoes are boats with features optimized for hunting, fishing, and photography. This means that they are stable enough for shooting and casting. They also need enough capacity for decoys, a dog, or camping gear. They are typically shorter so that they can maneuver into tight spots. They will not be as efficient as some of the other types, but if you compare them to row boats and duck skiffs, they have much wider use.

If you’ve been able to narrow the search a bit, it may be appropriate to give some attention to weight and outfitting. Weight is in large part determined by material, and that is a subject unto itself. Outfitting can also affect weight, as well as price. When you choose a canoe, you will have to make choices such as what type of trim and seats, portage yokes and foot braces you want. There are pros and cons to all the choices, so ask around if you have questions.


A few thoughts on weight—not everyone needs an ultralight boat, but do consider what the weight of a canoe means. If you drive a full-sized van and you weigh 115 pounds, getting that 80-pound boat on the car is going to give you trouble. Also, if you are “mature” enough to qualify for an AARP membership, a lighter boat may mean an extra decade of paddling independence before you have to get help getting the canoe to the water. I merely mention these possibilities since most people think that weight is only important to people who carry their boats on long portages.

Part 2: Canoe Design
Part 3: Canoe Materials

Well, that’s about it in a nutshell. Call us at (800) I – PADDLE if you have any more specific questions about information in this article or if you just want to talk about boats. We like talking about boats.

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