The canoe is one of the most ancient forms of water-faring vessel in human history, and has been around for thousands of years. According to Princeton.edu, the oldest canoe to be recovered was found in Pesse, Netherlands and was crafted sometime between 8200 B.C. and 7600 B.C. Over the centuries, the humble canoe has evolved from simple, hollowed-out logs (called dugout canoes) to large vessels capable of transporting more than a dozen people. For example, according to the National Register of Historic Places, “The Montreal” was a 35-foot freighter canoe operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company that was used to navigate the Great Lakes. Not only could it accommodate a crew of ten men, it could also transport more than half a ton of gear and provisions.
Today, after centuries of innovation and technological advancements, modern canoes still retain the same fundamental design that helped indigenous tribes travel from place to place before Europeans had even discovered North America. Despite a nearly endless supply of planes, trains, motorboats and automobiles, there’s still something magical about cutting silently across a serene lake or experiencing the rush of a whitewater paddling adventure in a canoe.
- Hull: The main body of a canoe that provides flotation.
- Gunwale: Pronounced “gunnel,” this is the top edge of the hull, which is reinforced with additional material for strength. Some common materials used to construct the gunwale include wood, aluminum and vinyl. Material choice usually boils down to intended usage and/or aesthetic preference.
- Thwart: A strut designed to provide structural integrity. Thwarts cross the hull width-wise, attaching to the gunwale on both the port and starboard sides.
- Yoke: A specially shaped thwart used to solo portage a canoe. Canoe yokes are designed to rest on the upper shoulders, allowing a canoeist to carry an inverted canoe overhead. This technique takes practice and moderate upper body strength.
- Seat: A sitting surface inside the canoe. Seats may be constructed of webbing, wood, metal, molded plastic or another durable material.
- Bow: The front or foremost portion of a canoe.
- Stern: The rear or aft-most portion of a canoe.
- Length: The distance between the foremost part of the bow and the aft-most part of the stern.
- Depth: The vertical distance between the top of the gunwale and the bottom of the hull, usually measured in the center of the canoe.
- Freeboard: The distance between the water line and the gunwale. In other words, freeboard represents how much of the canoe’s hull protrudes above the water when the canoe is empty. Obviously, as the canoe becomes weighed down with occupants and gear, this measurement will drop. This means that canoes with more freeboard are able to carry more weight. More freeboard also gives a canoe better protection from small waves that might splash over the gunwale.
- Draft: The distance between the water line and the bottom of the hull. In other words, draft describes how much of the hull is submerged. More draft (and subsequently less freeboard) can be beneficial in windy conditions on flat water. Since less hull sits above the water, there is less surface area to be pushed around by the wind. However, this also means that it’s easier for waves to splash over the gunwale.
Usually the most affordable, recreational canoes are good choices for day trips on lakes, ponds and calm rivers, as well as fishing. Most are designed to seat two people and may include features like built-in cup holders or molded seats. Larger models can be used for overnights and weekend trips. Most recreational models are made of polyethylene, although some Royalex® and wood models fall into this category. Aluminum canoes typically fall into the recreational category.
- Entry-level cost
- General versatility
Flat Water Touring Canoes
Sometimes called performance touring canoes, flat water canoes are often made of a fiberglass or Kevlar® composite, which creates a stiff, lightweight hull that is ideal for efficient paddling over long distances. Hull shapes are designed to provide good tracking, and usually have little or no rocker. Built to provide enough carrying capacity for two or three people, flat water touring canoes (also called tripping canoes) can accommodate at least several days’ worth of gear.
- Lightweight hull material
- Cargo capacity
River Touring Canoes
Sometimes called down-river canoes, river touring canoes often incorporate a symmetrical hull and rocker shape for enhanced maneuverability on rougher water. River touring canoes are frequently made of Royalex® or another durable material, which provides added protection from rocks and debris. Most can provide enough carrying capacity for two people and several days’ worth of gear.
- Rugged hull material
- Cargo capacity
Featuring a long, deep hull, expedition canoes have the highest amount of cargo capacity to take on extended trips of five days or more. Some models have a flared midsection to accommodate even more equipment. Most are made of Royalex® or a similar durable material and frequently have multiple thwarts for maximum structural integrity.
- Rugged hull material
- Maximum cargo capacity
Canoes designed for fishing are usually recreational models that come with built-in rod holders. Other features may include storage compartments, collapsible sun shades, padded seats and a built-in anchor. Fishing canoes also tend to be shorter for added maneuverability.
- Customized for anglers
These canoes are built using a durable hull material, usually Royalex® or high-density polyethylene. Some inflatable canoes also fall into this category. Whitewater canoes are shaped to provide maximum maneuverability and are typically shorter than touring canoes. Most models also have a rocker shape to help power through rapids and maneuver around obstacles. For aggressive class II rapids and beyond, whitewater canoes are often equipped with float bags to add additional buoyancy and water displacement.
Although a single person can usually pilot a two-person canoe on calmer waters, a solo canoe makes this task much easier. These canoes are shorter than a comparable two-person canoe. The seat on a solo canoe is also situated closer to the middle of the hull, providing more maneuverability.
- Customized for one person
The key benefit of owning an inflatable canoe is ease of transport. Since these canoes can be folded up after being deflated, they can usually be transported in the trunk of an SUV or other hatchback vehicle. Inflatable canoes also provide more flotation than solid-hull canoes. Most inflatables are designed for either recreational or whitewater canoeing.
- Easy to transport
The shape of a canoe’s hull will determine how it handles in different types of water and conditions. Below is an overview of several common hull variations.
Canoes with a flat-bottomed hull sit flatly on the water and tend to provide more stability when entering and exiting the canoe (primary stability), and also when moving around inside the canoe. Although this hull shape is more difficult to tip over initially, significant rolling can cause the boat to rapidly capsize once the center of gravity passes a certain point.
Canoes with a rounded bottom provide less primary stability when entering and exiting, since the boat rolls more easily from side to side in the water. However, a rounded hull provides greater secondary stability. This means that, as the canoe rolls to one side, there is a much more gradual transition between tipping and capsize.
Canoes with a shallow V-bottom hull provide better tracking than round and flat-bottom hulls, making this shape popular for flat water touring models. The V-shape essentially channels water to either side of the hull as the boat glides along the surface. However, a V-shaped canoe hull offers slightly decreased maneuverability, requiring more effort to make sharp turns.
A tumblehome hull tapers inward as the sidewalls approach the gunwale. In other words, the width of the gunwale is actually narrower than the width of the hull at its widest part. This design makes it easier to reach over the gunwale with a paddle.
A canoe with rocker has a noticeable upswept angle toward the bow and stern, similar to the bottom of a rocking chair. A rocker hull enhances maneuverability, allowing the boat to turn with less resistance, which is ideal for fast-moving rivers and whitewater. Canoes with a rocker hull will not track as well, requiring more frequent corrections to maintain a straight course on lakes and calm rivers. Rocker may be combined with any of the previously mentioned hull shapes.
Prior to the 19th century, wooden canoes were the only kind available until the advent of the wood and canvas canoe in the late 1800s, which was first made popular by the Old Town canoe company. Although synthetic materials have become increasingly prevalent in the canoe industry, wood is still a popular choice for crafting canoes because of its natural beauty. Most modern wood canoes are actually made using a combination of wood and fiberglass, which is bonded together with resin. Thwarts, yokes and deck plates are also frequently made of wood on these models.
• Advantages: Pleasing aesthetics, most damage can be repaired
• Disadvantages: Less durable than Royalex®, more expensive than polyethylene
Canoes made of aluminum became popular in the mid-20th century, following the Second World War. At the time, these canoes were easy to mass produce, since sheets of aluminum could be cut and assembled quickly in factories using the same techniques that had been used to make aircraft. Aluminum hulls are quite durable and minor damage can usually be remedied with a hammer and some elbow grease. However, a significant impact could completely fracture the hull, which is very difficult to repair. Aluminum canoes also tend to amplify sound when moving around inside the hull or scraping along the bottom of a river or lake shore.
• Advantages: Good durability, fairly inexpensive
• Disadvantages: Loud, heavier than newer materials
Fiberglass canoes are among the lightest available on the market today. Most modern fiberglass canoe hulls are constructed using layered fiberglass sheets that are formed and bonded with resin. Fiberglass hulls have an extremely smooth finish for minimal drag in the water. The biggest downside is that fiberglass is less impact resistant than polyethylene and Royalex®. However, cracks and other damage can usually be mended with a patch kit that includes fiberglass cloth, resin and sandpaper.
• Advantages: Very lightweight, damage can be repaired
• Disadvantages: Less durable than polyethylene and Royalex®
Compared to other materials used to make canoes and kayaks, polyethylene is durable, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. Many canoes made of polyethylene are thermoformed, which involves heating a single sheet of polyethylene and forming it over a hull-shaped mold. Another method involves coating a hull-shaped foam core with liquid polyethylene in a process called rotational molding. This creates a multi-layer structure that is lighter and provides more flotation than a single-layer thermoformed hull. The biggest drawback to this material is that high-density polyethylene can be difficult to repair.
• Advantages: Very durable, fairly lightweight, affordable
• Disadvantages: May be difficult to repair
According to Old Town, Royalex® is a proprietary multi-laminate material that combines an ABS foam core with layers of ABS substrate and an exterior layer of cross-linked vinyl. During canoe construction, Royalex® is heated to a precise temperature, lowered onto a mold and shaped using vacuum pressure. Because of its multi-layer structure and tough vinyl shell, Royalex® is extremely durable and impact-resistant, making it ideal for river touring, expedition and whitewater canoes. Although Royalex® is the toughest canoe material, it’s also heavier than fiberglass, Kevlar® and polyethylene, which makes it less efficient for long distances on flat water and most recreational paddling.
• Advantages: Extremely durable, can be repaired
• Disadvantages: Heavy, less efficient for long-distance touring
Developed by the DuPont Company, Kevlar® is an extremely tough synthetic fiber that has a higher tensile strength-to-weight ratio than steel. Kevlar® canoes are crafted using the same techniques used to make fiberglass canoes and are bonded together using resin. According to Canoeing.com, most manufacturing methods combine both Kevlar® and fiberglass, resulting in a finished hull that weighs up to 20% less than a comparably sized fiberglass-only hull.
• Advantages: More durable and lighter than pure fiberglass, easy to repair
• Disadvantages: Higher cost
All canoe paddles have a single blade with a handle on the opposing side of the shaft. There are four main considerations when choosing a canoe paddle: shaft style, length, material and grip.
- Straight-shaft canoe paddles are the most versatile and allow a canoeist to use both sides of the blade without having to rotate the shaft. This makes straight-shaft canoe paddles ideal for fast-moving rivers and whitewater because frequent back-paddling is needed to maneuver through rapids and tight spots. A straight-shaft paddle is also a good, versatile choice for beginners who are still mastering paddling techniques.
- Bent-shaft canoe paddles are best-suited for long tours on flat water and calm rivers because the angled shaft makes it slightly easier to gain pulling leverage. In other words, bent-shaft paddles allow for a stronger pull stroke without using quite as much torso rotation and effort.
Canoe Paddle Length
According to the folks at Bending Branches, the following size chart is a good starting point for most paddlers. In order to gauge your ideal paddle length, you’ll need to know your torso measurement. First, grab a flexible tape measure. Next, sit in a chair with your back straight and measure from the surface of the seat (in between your legs) to the tip of your nose (this is the level at which most paddlers hold the top grip of a canoe paddle). If you fall in between torso sizes, it’s usually best to go with the smaller size paddle.
Torso Length Straight-Shaft Paddle Length Bent-Shaft Paddle Length 20” 36” (Youth) N/A 22” 42” (Youth) N/A 24” 48” (Youth) N/A 26” 51-52” 48” 28” 54” 50” 30” 56-57” 52” 32” 57-58” 54” 34” 60” 56” 36” 62” N/A 38” 64” N/A
Canoe Paddle Material
Canoe paddles with a polypropylene blade and aluminum shaft are an affordable option for recreational paddlers. For a more traditional look and feel, a wood canoe paddle is a nice upgrade. The strongest wood paddles are made from laminated hardwoods like oak, walnut, ash, alder and willow, which also create a very pleasing appearance. Wood canoe paddles should always include a polyurethane coating to protect the paddle from water. High-end wood canoe paddles designed for whitewater and expedition canoeing may also include fiberglass-reinforced blade edging to provide additional protection from damage.
The two most common paddle grips are a traditional rounded grip and a T-grip. Selecting a grip style mostly boils down to personal preference. For recreational canoeing, fishing and shorter trips, a rounded grip is always a solid choice. For long-distance touring and whitewater, some canoeists prefer a T-grip.
PFD Life Vests
Aside from your boat and paddles, a PFD is the most important piece of canoeing equipment you’ll own. Wearing a USCG-approved PFD life vest is essential for all types of canoeing. For more information on choosing and fitting a life vest, check out our PFD Guide.
Canoe Float Bags
Float bags are essentially large air bladders that fit inside a canoe to increase flotation. Although most swamped canoes will float just underneath the surface, float bags help a swamped canoe float higher, which may prevent the hull from dragging along the bottom of a river and hitting rocks. For this reason, canoe float bags are highly recommended for anything beyond Class II whitewater.
Keeping your gear protected from water in the event of a capsize or unexpected rain shower is an essential part of any canoe trip. Dry bags and dry sacks are crafted of tough, waterproof materials and include a water-tight closure. This means that your bags can be partially submerged and should still keep your gear completely dry. Dry bags for canoeing and kayaking are available in a wide array of styles and sizes to accommodate clothing, food, camping gear and other items.
Although a bilge pump is not an essential accessory for most canoeists, it can help in the event that your canoe starts taking on water or become partially swamped. Bilge pumps are available in both battery-operated and manual models.
Although most canoes don’t come with an anchor, this can be a very handy accessory for fishing on a windy day when you want to stay in one location without drifting.
A throw bag is an important swiftwater rescue device that all whitewater paddlers should carry. In the event that another paddler falls from their boat and is drifting downstream, a throw bag may be used to aid someone who is having difficulty making it to shore. Typically, this requires that a rescuer get far enough ahead of a swimmer to deploy the throw bag from shoreline.
Keeping your canoe clean is a good way to extend its life and minimize abrasion from dirt and dust, which can degrade the finish over time. Canoes can simply be cleaned with mild dish soap, warm water and a sponge or rag. Be sure to wash both the inside and outside, rinsing thoroughly and allowing the canoe to dry completely before storing. It’s also best to store canoes out of the sun, as constant UV exposure can degrade the hull material or finish over time.
Deep scratches or chips in wood canoes can usually be touched up with a little clear polyurethane and a small brush. Significant cracks and other damage to wood canoes should usually be repaired by a qualified technician or the manufacturer. Moderate damage to fiberglass and Kevlar® canoes can be patched using a repair kit that includes fiberglass cloth, resin, an applicator and fine-grit sandpaper. Be sure to wear gloves when working with resins and polyurethanes.
Small- and medium-sized dents in polyethylene hulls will usually pop themselves out by leaving the boat in the warm sun for a few hours. If not, a hair dryer can sometimes be used, but be careful not to overheat the plastic, as this could cause additional damage the hull. Polyethylene and Royalex® hulls may be repaired with a special type of epoxy, but it’s always a good idea to call the original canoe manufacturer for detailed instructions before attempting a repair.
As mentioned earlier, the most important piece of safety gear for any canoeist is a USCG-approved PFD. Even strong swimmers should wear a life vest at all times on the water. The next step is learning essential canoeing techniques, such as how to get in and out of your canoe and self-rescue.
Entering and Exiting
First, you’ll want to learn how to enter and exit your canoe after launching from shore, since there won’t be a dock at most canoeing locations. Once you’ve mastered this, you’ll want to practice getting back into your canoe in deeper water, without using your feet. This can be much more challenging, but is an essential skill for self-rescue following a capsize. Another important skill all canoeists should learn is how to empty a swamped canoe in deep water. This skill is much easier to learn with a lightweight canoe and two people.
Flipping a Swamped Canoe
To begin, both paddlers should position themselves underneath the inverted canoe, facing each other and making sure the paddles don’t float away. Next, with one hand on each side of the gunwale, both paddlers must push up on the canoe while simultaneously kicking hard with both legs to stay afloat. At the height of the push, both paddlers will flip the canoe back onto its hull by pushing upward on one side of the gunwale. Be sure to coordinate beforehand so that both paddlers are flipping in the same direction. This technique may take several tries to get it right, so be patient.
Another self-rescue technique simply involves bailing the flooded canoe out with a bucket. Once enough water is removed, the canoe can be re-entered and a bilge pump can be used to clear most of the remaining water. However, this technique will only work if the canoe is floating slightly above the surface of the water.
It’s always a good idea to practice paddling and steering your new canoe on a calm lake or pond before attempting to canoe on a river. Even calm rivers can be more challenging, since the current will make maneuvering more difficult. Proper technique involves holding the paddle with one hand on top of the grip and the other a few inches above the blade. It’s important to use the torso to power each stroke, not just the arms and shoulders.
The lower body is used to maintain stability. Many beginner paddlers tend to sit on the seat with their feet resting flat on the floor in front of them. Although this is an acceptable way to sit in a canoe, it can make balancing harder. For maximum balance and stability, many paddlers prefer to sit on the front edge of the seat and kneel on the floor of the canoe with their lower legs pressed against each side of the hull (feet pointing sternward). This creates a lower center of gravity and offers increased stability. It also makes it easier to lean into turns.
For instruction on how to paddle like a pro, it never hurts to attend a canoeing class or arrange a lesson with a guide company.