The venerable 17’ aluminum canoe put hundreds of thousands of people on the water from just after World War II. Brands like Grumman, Osagian, Smokercraft, and Alumicraft dominated the canoe scene in the 1950's, displacing the venerable wood and canvas canoes. Maintenance free and unaffected by UV, millions of miles passed beneath their hulls. Scout camps and outfitters stacked them like cordwood.
The unintended consequence of a 17-footer is that people believed that there was something magical about that length of boat. Looking at the origins of the canoes, there’s no inherent reason for choosing 17 feet.
Indeed, when you look at the older wood and canvas canoes, length varies considerably. A quick look at the Chestnut Canoe Company catalog from 1925 has canoes at 11’, 12’, 14’, 15’, 15’3” 16’, 16’6”, 17’, 17’9”, 18’, 20’, and 22’. I happen to own a 22’ Chestnut Ogilvy. Seats four plus gear.
So why do most people think tripping boats have to be 17’ or longer?
I think it’s because that’s what outfitters and camps use much of the time. Many people were introduced to paddling by way of camps and outfitters, so that makes sense it carried over into their way of thinking. I have to admit that 30 years ago, I felt the same way without thinking about it too much. That’s what tripping boats are.
After my kids were big enough to add some horsepower, we switched from one big boat to two smaller 16 footers. Easier to carry and easier to portage, we found that two 16 footers were perfect for us.
There are significant advantages to a shorter boat. Obviously, they weigh less than a longer canoe. They are easier to portage through brush and woods as they don’t stick out as far. Many of them are easier to paddle solo, should that be desirable. They also have less wetted surface area, which makes them more efficient. Not faster, but more efficient at a brisk walking speed. That’s how fast I like to go.
There are some disadvantages, of course. A 16-footer is slower than a 17, all things being equal. That’s important if you need to get off the water quickly in case of a storm. All things being equal, a 17’ might have more capacity than its smaller sibling. But not necessarily.
As a general observation, Canadians paddle with shorter boats, The venerable Prospector was made in 15’ to 18’ lengths, but the most common by far is the 16’. It has a lot of capacity - half a ton. That’s two average sized people, let's say 350 pounds, plus 650 pounds of gear. Unless you’re packing gold dust, it’ll be hard to put that much weight in the boat.
Many 16 footers have enough capacity for a moderate load. Boats like the Nova Craft Pal, Northstar Pearl/Northwind 16, Esquif Huron 16, Wenonah Adirondack, and the Swift Keewaydin 16 are all perfectly suited for tripping, Only one lists a weight limit: 800 pounds. But they’re all about the same size, so that’s not a bad frame of reference.
But let’s say we want a little more margin of error and say, for argument’s sake, 600 pounds. Let’s break that down.
Paddle One: 200 pounds
Paddler Two: 150 pounds.
Big Pack 1: 75 pounds
Big Pack 2: 75 pounds
Small pack, fishing gear, a few paddles, and whatever else: 50 pounds.
That’s a generous 550 pounds.
You might say “But Darren, that’s slower than a 17-footer. I want fast!”
I would respond, “No, you want efficient. You don’t want to go fast.” You don’t want to be exhausted when you get to camp. Even if you get there a few minutes later, since the maximum hull speed between a 16- and 17-foot boat is .2 miles per hour. Point two.
Besides, last one off the water wins.
Consider the weight savings, the cost savings, and the increased versatility of a smaller tripping boat. Most of my boats are shorter, lighter, and more playful, that’s why I love them.