How to Choose a Canoe

A Primer on Modern Canoe Design
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Contrary to popular belief (and the claims of some manufacturers), there's no such thing as a"perfect" canoe — or even an "all around" canoe. No single watercraft, regardless of its design, materials, or quality of construction, can do everything well.

It's unrealistic to expect a single canoe to win flat-water races on Saturday, clean house in white water slalom on Sunday, and confidently truck the family and 150 pounds of camping gear on a three-week stint across wilderness waters. It's equally absurd to expect that same canoe to weigh 40 pounds and hang together when it's wrapped around a mid-stream boulder. Even if such a canoe existed, its high price would put it out of reach of even the most discriminating paddler. Canoes, like cars, have distinct personalities — a major reason why serious canoeists often own several canoes.

Since I can't put you into the"perfect" canoe — or even the best one for your needs — I'll instead offer some guidelines to help you make some intelligent buying decisions. In the process, I'll suggest some ways to keep you from getting ripped off when you plunk down your hard-earned dollars on a new or used boat. First, some terms and design principles to build on.


Other things being equal, the longer the canoe, the faster it will be. Canoes are displacement hulls; their maximum speed (displacement speed), which says nothing about the effort required to reach that speed, is determined by the formula; S (speed) equals 1.55 times the square root of the waterline length. Simple math reveals that an 18 1/2-foot canoe can be driven 6.7 miles per hour, while a 15-footer, can be driven 6.0 miles per hour. A small difference perhaps, but one which can translate into "ease of paddling."

The displacement formula breaks down some in water that is less than three feet deep. That's because a hard pushed canoe produces a substantial bow wave which is difficult to climb over. The result is loss of speed. Racers refer to this phenomenon as "climbing" and combat its effects by paddling canoes with wide buoyant sterns. Hence, the development of the asymmetrical canoe — a grand performer in shallows, yet equally formidable in the deep.

Rule One: Other things being equal, the longer the canoe, the faster it will be. And if you want the best shallow water performance, opt for asymmetry below the waterline.

On a negative note, canoes which are very asymmetric are often fickle (unpredictable) in tricky currents. For this reason, you're best advised to avoid these craft for use on white water or on twisty, muscular rivers.

Stability and Bottom Shape

Canoes usually have either high initial stability (the boat feels steady when it sits flat on the water) and low final stability (resistance to capsizing), or vice versa. It's impossible to maximize both variables unless the craft has a very wide molded beam.

High initial stability is best typified by a hull which is very flat in cross-section. High final stability is characteristic of a more rounded hull.

A flat bottom canoe at first feels stable, but when heeled past the bilge, turns turtle without warning. On the other hand, round or Vee bottom canoes feel shaky initially, but they firm up when heeled and thus resist capsizing. In short, rounded hulls are more predictable and controlled than flat ones on all types of water. And they're more easily propelled too!

Rule Two: Stability (initial and final), ease-of-paddling and seaworthiness are functions of hull shape. The round and Vee bottom hull excels in every category except initial stability. A canoe should have high final stability plus enough initial stability so you can paddle it without fear of capsizing. Unfortunately, most manufacturers boast the"initial stability" of their canoes, the less important of the two variables.


An external keel will make any canoe track (hold its course) better. However, it will also act as a cow-catcher in rapids; it'll hang up on rocks and cause upsets. There's smug satisfaction in watching your buddies spill when the keel of their canoe catches on the same rock that your "keel-less" canoe slid easily over just moments before. Later, when your friends have dried out you'll swear that your superiority in rapids is due to your impeccable paddling skill rather than a smooth bottom canoe.

Let's not mince words. External keels are an inferior canoe design. A canoe which requires an after-thought tacked on below to make it paddle straight, belongs back on the re-drawing board. Good tracking may be achieved simply by combining a round or Vee bottom, with narrow ends, a straight keel-line (more on this later) and somewhat squarish stems (ends). Aluminum canoes are formed in two halves, so they need a keel to hold the halves together. But even here, the keel could be mounted on the inside of the hull rather than the outside.

The real reason for keels is to stiffen a floppy bottom. The biggest, flattest canoe bottom can be strengthened considerably by hanging a piece of angle aluminum or one-by-two along its length. Throw in a bunch of ribs and maybe a vertical strut or three — and the most shapeless hull will become rigid.

Rule Three: Avoid canoes with keels. Exception — aluminum canoes which don't come any other way. Some aluminum canoe makers offer shallow draft "shoe" keels on their heavyweight white water models. Shoe keels make a lot more sense than the standard T-grip rock grabbers.


The inward curve of the sides of some canoes is called tumblehome. It's used for two reasons:

1.Floppy materials like sheet aluminum need some curvature for strength. The alternative to tumblehome may be more ribs, hence more weight.

2.Tumblehome reduces the width of the canoe at the gunnels. Thus, you don't have to reach so far over the sides to paddle.

Tumblehome is used in varying degrees on some of the most sophisticated canoes. But when you wrap a tight bilge curve you sacrifice seaworthiness. A very skilled canoeist can bring a highly tumblehomed boat through some awesome pitches. The variable here is called SKILL — something too seldom mentioned nowadays. However, even experts agree that minimal tumblehome, or better some flare, is a much more seaworthy and predictable configuration.

Rule Four: Avoid extreme tumblehome if you want a seaworthy canoe. Many flat-out race designs utilize excessive tumblehome for comfort of the paddlers; but these boats are not forgiving and should be avoided by all but highly skilled paddlers.


Other things being equal, the deeper the canoe, the drier it will run in rough water. A center depth of around 12 1/2 inches is plenty for a pleasure canoe, while an inch or two more is standard in wilderness trippers and white water craft.(Less than 12 inches is permissible in lightly loaded canoes that have seaworthy hull configurations — round or Vee bottoms with flared sides). Avoid high ends; they merely add weight and act as wind sails.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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