How to Buy a Canoe

If you want to experience nature, especially wildlife, you need to be quiet. No matter what you may have seen in a movie, walking through the woods is almost impossible to do in silence. Floating down a stream or along the bank of a lake, however, can be very stealthy. For centuries in North America, the canoe has been the most popular choice for getting away from land under your own power.

The paddlesports category is getting crowded with kayaks of many designs as well as sail- surf- and paddleboards, but canoes are still a good option for a lot of paddlers. A canoe is defined as an open-top boat with rails or 'gunwales' (pronounced 'gunnels') along the top edge of the hull, thwarts holding the sides apart, and seats that keep the paddler off the bottom of the boat while paddling on alternating sides of the boat with a single-blade paddle. Canoes range from 13 to over 30 feet in length, most commonly are designed for two people and cargo, and can be found in some form across most cultures.

When shopping for any kind of human-powered boat, it's important to establish how and where you are really going to use it. If you want to bring along another paddler (or two) on calm water or wide channels, along with gear for the day or overnight camping, a canoe can be a great choice. The action of paddling a canoe is remarkably natural and can be picked up quickly. The upright seating position and distance from the bottom of the boat are more comfortable for many casual paddlers.

Overall weight capacity for open-top boat designs like canoes is fairly high, so if you're not sure if you brought enough of something, bring more- the canoe can take it. You can expect a 13' boat to be able to handle about 500 pounds, with substantial increases as the dimensions get longer and wider. The 'bilge' or bottom of the boat tends to collect water and dirt, so a collection of waterproof bags or other sturdy watertight containers is recommended, as well as an ice chest that will hold up to rough use.

Length and handling

The biggest decision to make about your canoe is the length. Longer boats will have much greater capacity, be faster and track straighter, but be more difficult to maneuver, transport, and store, while shorter lengths offer the opposite. The value of the handling on any boat comes down to knowing where and how you will use the boat. Turning on a dime is fun until you're spending more energy correcting course than moving forward.

Hull shape and boat shape are key factors in handling, speed, and maneuverability. For flatwater paddling, some canoes are still available with a full keel, which will improve tracking but affect steering. When viewed in profile, the 'rocker' or overall upward curvature of the hull will be evident. More curve is best of higher maneuverability, flat for less. More width will result in a very stable boat, narrow much faster.

Materials

The weight and handling of the boat will be affected by the materials used in the hull. The first canoes were built of wood, but modern boats are predominately made of plastics and composite materials so we will deal with them primarily. In a given size and model of canoe, expect that the least expensive will be the heaviest, have the most durability and 'abuse resistance.'

Entry-level boats are made entirely from rotomolded high density polyethylene (HDPE) and offer designs very close to sit on top kayaks, with the benefit of easy customization due to the durability of the HDPE material. The cast-in seats and thwarts cannot be modified or replaced, and the overall stiffness of the boat can affect handling.

The majority of conventional style canoes are built of a combination of ABS plastic and foam called Royalex. The materials are layered over a mold to form the hull and then gunwales, seats, and thwarts are installed. This allows for variations in materials used for aesthetic and technical reasons.

A composite construction boat of fiberglass or Kevlar will provide the maximum weight savings and stiffness, with remarkable durability, but because the hull is built by layering the materials and resin, requiring far more skill, these boats will be twice to three times as expensive as 'plastic' options.

Aluminum canoes are still available from a few companies, and they can have a strong sentimental appeal, but the aesthetics and noise of the metal construction make aluminum boats practical only where very high durability is needed such as rental and camp fleets

Outfitting

Whichever hull material you choose, in conventional boats you still may have a choice for gunwale, seat, and thwart materials. The decision will need to factor in weight, noise, cost, and maintenance. Some generalizations:

Seats and thwarts will be either aluminum or wood. Wood is much nicer to look at, absorbs impact for less noise, and can be repaired or replaced pretty easily even in the field, though it will be heavier, more expensive and will require maintenance and careful storage. Aluminum can be much louder upon impact and the silver color doesn't suit everyone, but it requires almost no maintenance and is the lightest of the common materials.

For gunwales, vinyl is an option as well. It will usually be the least expensive, about the same weight/noise dampening as wood, but have almost no maintenance. Vinyl is also warmer to the touch than aluminum, but can't have the texture of wood.

Paddles, PFDs and Transport

Canoe paddle shape and design hasn't changed much in the last few years, but your price and construction options are fairly broad. Selecting your paddle is covered HERE.

Safety on the water comes from equipment and behavior. If you've ever been on a boat, someone should have mentioned lifejackets or PFDs. These are required by law in many states and are always a good idea, especially for casual paddlers. Whichever you choose, have enough for everyone who will be in the boat and make sure they are worn by younger paddlers and while sharing the channel with powered vessels, or readily available in calmer sections. More on PFDs HERE.

Transporting your canoe is as straightforward as flipping it over and strapping it gunwales-down on your roof rack crossbars or directly to the top of your vehicle, with some sort of padding or foam blocks to prevent scuffing and improve stability. Stabilizing lines from the bow and stern will give the driver more confidence and various accessories are available, but to just get the boat from point A to point B, it can be done without a lot of extra stuff. Pickup trucks can work well with the boat extending off the tailgate, but be careful or propping the boat on the cab- it will catch air with disastrous results. Better to carry the boat parallel with the ground or with the bow lower than the stern. More on Roof Racks HERE.

Glossary

Rotomolding

Thwart: Bar running across the boat attached to the gunwales to keep the sides of the boat apart and provide stiffness, structure and attachment point for cargo.

Seat: In conventional canoes, aluminum or wood frames attached to the gunwales and designed so the paddler's bottom is above the waterline, usually open underneath. May have solid or woven (ventilated) surface. Rotomolded canoes will have integrated seats, might not have space under.

Paddle: Stick with one end shaped into a wide, flat blade and a palm grip at the opposite end. Required for moving and steering a canoe. Can be made of wood, plastic, aluminum or composites.

Bow: Front of the boat

Stern: Back of the boat

Gunwale: Top edge of the side of the canoe, usually a separate piece of a different material.

Keel: Ridge running along the bottom of the boat from bow to stern. Usually found on flatwater boats. Improves tracking, but makes tight maneuvering difficult.

Rocker: Upward curvature of a canoe's hull. Whitewater boats will have a lot of rocker to increase maneuverability, voyageur hulls are very flat for long days covering a lot of water.