How to buy a canoe

Canoe Shoping


The price of gas is making it much more expensive to get out and about.  The outdoors person is also feeing the pinch.  That big old bass boat pulled behind the pickup truck is getting downright pricy to operate.  One solution that will still get outdoors men and women out on the rivers and lakes is to buy a canoe.  A canoe is a highly versatile craft that will travel on just about any body of water.  A canoe can also handle just about any task on water with the exception of towing water skiers or wake boarders.  However, this is offset by the ability of canoes to run some very wild white water rapids, which in my mind is way more exciting and challenging than water skiing.  Canoes are some of the most efficient watercraft around with many canoes being able to carry 1000 pounds of gear and people.  A canoe can be transported from one location to another on nearly any vehicle.  I have hauled mine all over the Midwest on top of decidedly uncool station wagons.   Finally canoeing is wonderful family activity.  My own children began their canoeing careers at age one.  Over the years they have progress from 10 minute paddles on Lakes Menomin and Tainter to an 800-mile trip on the Yukon River. 

            Canoes have become very specialized; a buyer should first decide what will be the primary use of the vessel.  Canoes uses include white water, wilderness trips, hunting/fishing and general purpose.  Additionally, like many purchases, you get what you pay for.  If you buy cheap you get cheap.  If you buy an expensive canoe, the canoe will be lighter in weight, more durable and perform its given task much better. 

            Since a canoe is basically a hull, hull design is everything.  Hulls are made out of many materials and configured in many ways to create optimum performance for a given task.  Hull materials include plastics, composites, aluminum, wood and canvass, and birch bark.  The various materials differ in strength, mold ability, and weight.   Weights for a 16 to 17 foot canoe can vary from around 50 pounds to slightly over 100 pounds.

             Plastic is the probably most common hull material used today.   Brand names like Royalex, Superlink, Oldtowner, and Ramx are out on the market.  They generally consist of  two layers of plastic with a layer of foam sandwiched in between.  Royalex is considered to be the premier plastic material.  The hull is molded in a super sized plastic mold.  These materials are super tough.  Their drawback is that they tend to be heavier than other materials and more difficult to shape, so the hull are not as sharp as other materials which tends to reduce canoe speed.   

            Fiberglass and other composite canoes, under names like Kevlar, Tuff-Weave, and Black Gold, are the most sophisticated hulls available.  The builders can create just about any design with this material.  The canoes can be very lightweight, strong, maneuverable, and fast.  Kevlar and other composite canoes are the most commonly encountered canoes in areas like the Boundary Waters.  The quality composite canoes also tend to be the most expensive canoes. 

            Without a doubt, cedar strip canoes are the most beautiful canoes.  The cedar canoe transcends functionality and enters the realm of art.   The cedar stripper runs on the high end in terms of price and depending on the level of craftsmanship, can be near the midrange on weight.   Wood and canvass canoes are beautiful and solid performing canoes.  These canoes run on the heavy side, and the longer they are used on a trip the heavier they get as they soak up water.  They are much more durable than one would think.  They are the choice for someone looking for an old time or “retro’ canoe. 

            Aluminum was the gold standard in canoe materials until composite materials came along.  Aluminum canoes are still very durable and solid in design.  They can’t be made as lightweight as composite canoes, but they are as rugged as the plastic canoes.  An aluminum canoe's main draw back is that it is very noisy.  Some folks call them “boomalum” for the ringing tones they make when struck.  Prices for aluminum canoes are in the middle ranges of price. 

            The major factors in canoe design include rocker, tumblehome, hull length, hull width, symmetrical versus asymmetrical, initial and primary stability, and freeboard.      To understand rocker- think banana.  The more the hull is shaped like a banana from bow to stern, the quicker it will turn.  White water canoes have more rocker so they can maneuver around in rapids, tripping canoes have less rocker so they will travel a straight line (track) on still water.   Hull length, width and symmetry all affect the speed and weight carrying capacity of the canoe.  The longer the canoe is in relation to the width, the faster the canoe.  Thus a seventeen-foot canoe will be faster than a 16-foot canoe if both canoes are 33 inches wide at the mid section.  The shape of symmetrical canoes is the same end to end.  Asymmetrical canoes have a sharper bow than stern with the wide point of the canoe occurring further toward the stern than the bow.  The narrow bow makes for a faster canoe.  Asymmetrical canoes tend to be narrower and are easier to rock.   A square-sterned canoe is another example of an asymmetrical canoe.  Most square stern canoes are designed to be propelled with a small motor or by paddle, and some have oarlocks so they can be rowed.    

Primary and secondary stability depend on the side to side shape of the hull under the water line. A flat-bottomed canoe is not tippy and therefore has great primary stability.  But if it starts to tip it is very difficult to rock it back to an upright position, which is secondary stability.  A canoe with a perfectly round bottom has good secondary stability but poor initial stability.  So canoe designers create canoe hulls that are somewhere between flat and round to give the stability needed for the task for which the canoe is designed. 

Tumblehome and free board are related in that they are affected by the hull design above the water line.  Freeboard is the distance from the surface of the water to the gunnels.   Tumblehome is the shape of the hull above the water line, which can be straight, bowed out or bowed in.  Straight or bowed in makes for efficient paddling and flared out is best for keeping wave and water out of the canoe.  

            By understanding the basics of canoe design and hull material one can better chose a canoe that will give optimum performance.  If possible decide what the primary task of the canoe will be then head out to your local canoe store.  One other tip is when canoe shopping; ask to test paddle the canoe.