How to Buy a Canoe: Boating Basics

buy a canoe

How to Buy a Canoe

I once wanted to buy a canoe because it was green. Granted, it had other attributes: it was cheap and it had an all-purpose design that suited my intended use. But mostly, it was green. Why? Because I wanted it to blend into my parents’ backyard, where I planned to store it. They were indeed grateful that I hadn’t bought the bright yellow one.

The point is that, as a canoe buyer, you probably have your own priorities. What’s the ideal boat for you? A glance at the Buyer’s Guide listings will tell you that there are an overwhelming number of options. How do you narrow it down?

The Usage Codes in the Canoe & Kayak Magazine Buyer’s Guide are a good place to start. Besides general recreation canoes, you’ll see specialized boats at both ends of the spectrum. Long, sleek “competition cruising” canoes. Short, super-tough, spin-on-a-dime canoes designed for hard-core whitewater paddling. Extra-wide, ultra-stable “sportsman” canoes. But remember, the more specialized a canoe is, the less versatile it is. A majority of buyers are looking for a general recreation canoe, so we focused on that broad category in this introduction. It pays to start your search by learning a bit of the lingo, and some of the fundamental ways in which canoe design and function are interrelated.

Lingo First, the basic parts. The front end of a canoe is the bow, the back end the stern. Every canoe has top edges, or gunwales (pronounced GUNnels). These are made of vinyl (durable, economical, and quiet when bumped with your paddle), wood (sometimes lighter, generally prettier, and requiring higher maintenance), or aluminum (tough and flexible). Thwarts are crosspieces that add rigidity, and serve as attachment points for yokes, seat supports, and gear tie-in. Seats, in a variety of materials, affect comfort and stability. Some flatwater models have “tractor seats,” often designed to slide back and forth for optimum trim adjustment. They

Learn the Lingo
Find a glossary of canoeing and kayaking terms at


Design Length is probably a canoe’s single most distinguishing design feature. Canoes vary in length from less than 10 feet, for fast-turning, tight-maneuvering solo whitewater canoes, to stretch-limo-length, 23-foot, four-person wilderness trippers. In general, shorter canoes are better for faster turning, while increased length is associated with better tracking (however, there are many exceptions). A longer boat can also carry more gear. The average length for general tandem canoes is 15 to 18 feet. Remember, though, that longer may also mean more cumbersome to carry and load on your car (though not necessarily heavier). Maximum width varies from about 33 to 40 inches for tandem canoes. As you might expect, a “fatter” canoe tends to feel more stable, but it tracks less efficiently and may make it harder to take efficient strokes.

Bow and stern profiles, called the stem, affect the way a canoe slices through water. A vertical entry slices cleanly and maximizes boat length in the water. That means good tracking and excellent resistance to sidewind, but a reduced ability to spin fast, and possibly a wet ride in waves. Stems can also be “recurved” (slanted backward) or raked (slanted forward). A more rounded entry adds to the canoe’s ability to ride up and over waves but doesn’t track as effortlessly (you’ll also hear references to high- and low- “volume” bows).

Next, rocker. Take a lengthwise view of a canoe or kayak on dry land. How much of the keel-line touches the floor, and how much curves up banana-style? This is rocker. More rocker means faster spinning and a drier, up-and-over (if sometimes jolting) ride in waves, with the trade-offs of poorer tracking and more vulnerability to wind.

Tumblehome refers to the way some canoes bulge below the gunwales. Like rocker, the amount varies from canoe to canoe. Tumblehome adds stability while still allowing a paddler to take efficient vertical strokes. It can also aid in making turns when the boat is leaned sharply. The transition between the bottom and sides is called “chine,” and it can be “hard” and abrupt (giving a more “edgy” performance) or “soft” and smooth. Together, chine and tumblehome affect many factors, including turning and “secondary stability,” or how the boat handles when leaned.

Ask the Experts

Now you’re ready to shop. We asked some specialists to help guide you through your decision with answers to some crucial questions.

Q: What’s the first step a person should make when getting ready to buy a canoe, and how do you identify the best design?

A: Besides suggesting background research like the Canoe & Kayak Magazine Buyer’s Guide, every expert answered this question similarly: decide how you plan to use your canoe. This is crucial, because a canoe that’s perfect for one type of paddling will nearly always mean a compromise in another.

Be alert for discrepancies between how you wish you could use your boat and how you will probably use it. Be realistic. “It’s amazing how many people come to buy a tandem canoe but don’t have a regular partner,” says James Jackson at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. “There are also people who buy what I call a ‘someday’ boat: ‘Someday I want to do an Arctic canoe trip.’ ”

Where you live is also a big factor. “The first thing I ask paddlers is, ‘Where are you from, and what kind of paddling will you be doing?’ ” says Bob Taylor, owner of the Appomattox River Company in Farmville, Virginia. “Most people use their boats most often within one or two hours of their home.”

What type of paddling opportunities are most accessible to you-big or small lakes, whitewater rivers, protected estuaries? Do you live in the Midwest, and plan to use your canoe mostly for overnights into places with lakes and portages such as the Boundary Waters? A longer, lighter canoe (17 to 18.5 feet) with a sharp entry and minimal rocker might suit you. Or perhaps you’re from the coastal Mid-Atlantic or Southeast, where you’d like to explore some of the region’s ledgy rivers, and maybe take your partner or kids into quiet estuaries of the Atlantic coast. In that case, consider the versatility and toughness of a 14- to 17-foot Royalex or polyethylene canoe, with a bit of rocker and some volume in the bow.

Keep asking yourself questions. Do you want a boat that you can paddle either tandem or solo? Many 14- to 16-footers will fit that bill. Are you planning on long trips with lots of gear? Make that at least 16 feet, preferably longer (18 feet is a common length for wilderness trippers). Will you be paddling across big lakes? Make sure your canoe is deep enough to not ship water if the waves whip up. Are you a small person, or do you have health concerns like back trouble that might keep you from lifting a heavy canoe? Consider spending more money for a lighter canoe: if you can’t load it on the car, you aren’t likely to use it.

Still having trouble pinning down your goals and expectations? The experts can help. Darren Bush, of Rutabaga in Madison, Wisconsin, points out that a good canoe salesperson will ask the right questions. “I like to ask customers if they are serious cross-country skiers or cyclists. If so, I know they have good balance.” In Bush’s experience, these people might be happier sacrificing some stability for a faster canoe.

Just remember: experienced friends and relatives can be excellent sources of information, but they may have biases that don’t apply to you. Just because Uncle Harry loves his 15-foot duck-hunting canoe, that doesn’t mean it’s what you should buy. Sorry, Harry.

Q: Besides design, what are the most important factors buyers should consider?

A: Depends on whom you ask. “Weight,” says Steve Piragis of Piragis Outfitters in Ely, Minnesota, whose customers are largely Boundary Waters paddlers. “When people see others go by them on a portage with a 40-pound canoe, that’s what they want. Ultralight composites will spoil you.”

“Durability,” agreed several experts. If you’re shopping for a river canoe, toughness and turning ability will probably take precedence over weight.

“Money,” says Appomattox River Company’s Bob Taylor. For a lot of us, cost is an undeniable factor. Consider purchasing a good used canoe from an outfitter: you’ll get the same expert assistance and end up with a better canoe than if you had spent the same money on a new one. “Half our sales are used rental canoes,” adds Steve Piragis.

As it turns out, material is the critical variable that often determines all three: weight, durability, and cost. Canoes made of lightweight composites such as a Kevlar or graphite can weigh a feathery 35 pounds-but they won’t take the beating of a rocky river and they’ll set you back a big chunk of change. Fiberglass is a common material; cost and weight vary quite a bit with specific design and layup. Royalex is a sandwich of plastics and dense foam: it’s durable, quiet, and in the middle of the weight and cost range. Plastic polymers (polyethylene) cost less than Royalex, but they’re heavier and may not last as long. “The polymers get brittle and crack over time,” says Bob Taylor. “But if you really want to get into the sport and that’s all you can spend, you can upgrade later.” Aluminum is durable but relatively heavy, and noisy when you tap it with a paddle. Wood is beautiful, but isn’t cheap, and we’d hate to see you smash it up on a rocky river.

Q: If you had just one piece of advice to give someone shopping for a canoe, what would it be?

A: “Test paddle different canoes, even if it means driving out of your way to a shop on the water or to a demo-day.” -Darren Bush. Comfort factors like seat position, legroom, and width for taking paddle strokes are important to test before you commit.

“Make sure you test paddle in different conditions: take the canoe into waves and wind and see how it does.” -Steve Piragis.

“Buy your boat at a specialty shop, where you’ll get good advice and a good canoe. Remember to focus on value rather than just price. If you buy a $400 canoe and it doesn’t fit your needs, it was an expensive purchase.” -John Hart (Outdoor Play, Hood River, Oregon).

“Rent first, or take lessons or a guided trip, to get an idea of what suits you.” -Julien MacCarthy (ProCanoe and Kayak, Greensboro, North Carolina).

Finally, take care of your canoe once you buy it. Store it indoors if possible, or at least out of the sun and preferably off the ground. And always tie it on the car securely: that means a decent roof rack, center lines, and end lines. It won’t matter if you’ve just bought the ideal canoe if it flies off the car on your way home. And remember that in the end, gear is just a means to an end. Once you’ve found the perfect canoe, get out there and enjoy it!

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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