Old Town Canoe Co.

Choosing The Right Canoe for You

By Kevin Callan

"Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe."
- Anonymous (bumper sticker)


There are literally hundreds of canoe manufacturers out there, each with an endless assortment of canoe models, as well as their own private classification system. On top of all that, there's those opinionated canoeists that also go out of their way to tell you you've bought the wrong boat the moment you bring it home. It's absolute insanity.

Quite honestly, purchasing a canoe can be more stressful than buying a car. But like buying a car, the perfect scenario would be to own a dozen models. And just as golfers choose the best club to get the ball to the green, a canoeist would choose the best boat for the water to be paddled each trip. Of course, acquiring a dozen or so canoes can be a little expensive, and storing them in the backyard tends to be a problem. I have eight canoes now and I'm quickly running out of room. So for most canoeists, your best bet is to buy the most versatile canoe afloat - the quintessential tripper.

The most important elements that make up a good tripping canoe are dimensions, shape and material.

Dimensions:

This is the easiest to deal with. The minimum length of a tripping canoe is 16 foot and maximum overall length is 18 foot. A 16 foot canoe gives adequate room for two people and gear for a week long trip. However, if you're heading out longer or you need room for a third party (a young child or pet dog), then lean towards the 17 foot or even 18 foot. The trade off for the extra length, of course, is how well your boat handles on the water. A 17 foot or 18 foot canoe will be much faster across the water but will sink like a submarine while shooting whitewater. The 16 foot boat will do much better in rapids and is far more maneuverable, especially while paddling down one of those constantly twisting streams, but will be slow across the lake and may even take on the odd rolling wave.

Shape:

The shape of the canoe is a little more confusing. The width of an average tripper ranges from 30 to 36 inches. But that's not really what counts. First, consider the entry line of the canoe. If the bow has a narrow entry line then it will cut through the water nicely. However, it will also allow more water to splash up and into the canoe. A canoe with a blunt entry line will make the boat slower but will also tend to ride up on the waves and keep the bow person dry. If you paddle big lakes, some rapids, and you're not too concerned about how fast you go, choose the blunt shape.

Another part of the canoes shape is how its bottom sits in the water. The flatter the bottom the more initial stability the boat will have, meaning it doesn't feel like you're going to flip over the moment you push off from shore. This shape, however, reduces your speed considerably and can be quite dangerous when out in rough water (the waves tend to splash over the gunwale easily). If the bottom of the canoe is more rounded, it will feel a little tippy at first, but you will have a much easier time moving across the water and be much safer when the size of the waves build up. So, unless you're a complete novice and you'll never take the canoe away from the cottage dock, then go for the rounder bottom.

Tumblehome - a traditional term meaning that the sides of the canoe are widest just above the waterline (basically, it bulges out wider than the gunwales) - reduces stability but lets you paddle in a straighter line without much effort.

Depth is also important. The bare minimum is 12 inches. But if you have a large load (up to three packs) and plan on paddling some whitewater or large lakes, then go for 13 or 14 inches.

Finally, you have to look at the canoe's rocker. It's the term used when dealing with the flatness of the overall canoe, as viewed from along the keel line. Basically, a boat made for extreme whitewater has more of a banana shape to. This enables it to turn on a dime. However, it's almost impossible to go straight while paddling across calm water. A lake touring boat is close to dead straight from bow to stern. This allows it to track well. But don't try to turn quickly into an eddy or you'll end up missing the turn completely and end up going sideways down the river.

Materials:

Canoe materials are just as varied as their dimensions and shape. It's hard to believe that the choice of materials used in construction of a canoe started with a walk in the woods. Now it seems everything is done in the science lab.

Weight and strength are the two major factors to consider when choosing the material to construct a canoe. Some materials create an almost indestructible canoe but are back-breaking on the portage; others are light as a feather but are as brittle as a potato chip. Here are some of the choices on the market.

Wood
Living in Peterborough, Ontario, the birthplace of the modern canoe, I've been told by many traditionalists that a canoe is made of wood and canvas and a boat is made of anything else. Even though wooden canoes are expensive, require far too much maintenance, heavy when wet, and are, at times, far more fitting for a showcase than a wild river, I must admit it feels wonderful to paddle one.

Aluminum
The aluminum canoe, or what was once called the "Grumman canoe" until the company closed down a few years back, is mostly used for institutional use as it is durable and inexpensive. However, the aluminum canoe lacks the aesthetics of a wood and canvas canoe, they are pigs to carry on a portage, the bottom tends to stick when scraping over rocks, and there's a loud echoing bang every time your paddle hits the gunwales. But if looks mean little to you and you don't mind the possibility of announcing your arrival on the lake to every wild creature around, then the aluminum canoe is the choice for you.

Plastics
Royalex is a type of plastic material consisting of a foam core sandwiched between sheets of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene-Styrene) with a vinyl surface. It's strong and flexible, making it the obvious choice for whitewater canoeists. Just pray the river you're running doesn't have too many lengthy portages; Royalex boats can weight a ton. Thankfully, designers have worked hard in developing new lighter models. They're not as durable but you're not as likely in suffering from a hernia mid-trip.

Fiberglass
Fiberglass was the most common fabric used for canoe construction a few years ago. Fiberglass creates a moderately tough, lightweight boat, and is made up of either strips of cloth or chopped glass mixed with resin and then sprayed into a mold.
Some fiberglass models are superb and some are a joke. I'd stay away from the chopped glass types. They're cheaply made and not worth the hassle to have along on a remote canoe trip. In fact, I'd stay away from fiberglass completely, unless that's all your pocket book can afford.

Kevlar
Kevlar is more expensive than fiberglass. But it's lighter to carry and has added strength. Some manufacturers make up their own secret recipe of Kevlar and fiberglass. Some even make up their own Kevlar mixture and mold it around traditional canoe designs. But buyer beware; make sure you don't get swindled by any sales rep that doesn't know their stuff. I've only been happy with the Voyager Canoe Company in Millbrook, Ontario. The owner has the ability to blend chemistry with tradition extremely well.

"I used to think it was a major tragedy if anyone went through life never having owned a canoe.
Now I believe it's only a minor tragedy."

   - Bill Mason, Path of the Paddle, (1984)


Kevin Callan is the author of eight books including 'The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors'. He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and a regularly featured speaker at North America's largest paddling events.

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