An understanding of some basic design elements will help you decide what to look for when choosing the canoe that best meets
your requirements.

Choosing a Canoe

Design elements can be subtle and quite specific, but here’s a look at the basics:


As a general rule, longer canoes move faster through the water. Longer hulls track better (hold their straight line course), and have greater carrying capacity. Shorter hulls tend to be more maneuverable and lighter in weight.

canoe anatomy


The beam refers to the width of the boat at its widest point. Wider canoes offer more stability and more room for cargo, but as the beam increases, the boat will be slower moving through the water. Narrow beam canoes are faster, but less stable.


Other things being equal, the deeper the canoe, the drier it will run in rough water. Greater depth also increases cargo space. Deeper canoes are heavier, though, and can be pushed around more easily by the wind.

Bottom Shape

The shape of the bottom has a lot to do with the stability of your canoe. There are three basic bottom shapes: flat, round and vee.

  • Flat: This design has good stability when you first step in and paddle in calm waters (initial stability). It is not as stable in rougher water or when leaned over to one side (final stability). Flat bottom shapes are good for beginners, and calm waters.
  • Round: Canoes with round bottoms may feel a little shaky when you first step in, but with experience, this shape feels most stable in most waters; it also has a high final stability and is easier to propel through the water.
  • Vee: A ‘vee’ bottom shape offers a compromise between flat and round designs. With a little practice, this design offers good all-around performance.

canoe bottom


  • Flared: This design is more stable and drier because it pushes the water away from the boat. It is a little harder to paddle because you have to reach out a bit further with each stroke.
  • Straight: A nice compromise between flared and tumblehome, this design offers reasonable stability, dryness, and ease of paddling.
  • Tumblehome: Because the sides curve in with this design, you don’t have to reach over as far to paddle. This design is not as stable or as dry, and requires more skill to take advantage of the design feature.The angle of the canoe sides affects stability, dryness, and ease of paddling. The three basic side profiles are: flared, straight and tumblehome.

canoe sides

Bow Shape

Blunt, fuller bow shapes offer more buoyancy and help to shed the splashes when paddling through choppy water. They also provide a bit more room for lightweight items. Canoes with finer, thinner bow shapes cut through the water more easily.


External keels will help the canoe track better, but can also be a hazard. They can catch on obstacles in the water and upset the boat. A good hull design can offset the need for an external keel.


This refers to the fore and aft upward curve of the keel line of the canoe. Boats with little rocker will track better because more of the hull is down in the water. More rocker lets the canoe turn more easily. For general recreational canoeing, a little rocker is a good compromise.


Canoes today are made from a variety of different materials, all worthwhile yet with different advantages. Here are the most common you’ll find:


These come in two main varieties: “chopper gun” and “laid-up.” The chopper gun method is less expensive, but the boat will be heavier and not as strong. Fiberglass canoes are low maintenance and medium in weight. They can be fairly easy to damage, but are also pretty easy to repair.


Aluminum canoes are light to medium in weight and withstand abrasion better than plastic or wood. They can be a bit sluggish and noisy going through the water, but they are stable and can really pack a load. They are also low maintenance. Canoes with riveted hulls can develop leaks; the best are made of one stretched sheet.


Light in weight and quite strong, cedar-strip canoes come in beautiful designs and perform superbly on the water. However, these canoes need care and proper storage out of the sun. Often custom made, they can be quite expensive.

Wood and Canvas

Traditional materials. Excellent handling characteristics, and pretty durable. Require periodic maintenance. Expensive because of the cost of skilled labor.


One of the strongest materials for its weight, kevlar is puncture and scratch resistant. It can be tricky to repair, so some manufacturers use composites of fiberglass and Kevlar, which are less costly and easier to fix.


Also called ABS, Royalex is a foam-cored plastic. The most durable of all canoe materials, it can bend in half and spring back to shape. Royalex is high priced, but worth it. It’s strength and durability make Royalex a favorite of whitewater enthusiasts.


Some poly canoes come with inner structure of aluminum, others with foam-sandwich construction. These canoes are heavier but less expensive than Royalex. Polyethylene canoes are durable and abrasion-resistant.

Buying a Used Canoe

Buying a used canoe is a good way to get some experience on the water and learn what features you like when the time comes to “buy up.” It is also easier on the environment. To avoid buying a lemon, here are a few things to look out for:

Hogged Keel

Set the canoe on a flat surface, keel down. Look under and see if the center area of the keel is touching the ground. If it bows upward, if you can slip your fingers under the keel at the middle, the boat is “hogged.” Don’t buy it.


Improper storage can cause canoes to twist. Stand back and sight along the centerline of the boat, then look to each side for symmetry. If it looks twisted it won’t perform well for you.

UV Damage

Look for fading or bleaching of color and dullness of finish. Ask where canoe was stored: if outdoors, suspect UV damage. Avoid boats with extensive UV damage.

Seat to Hull Attachment

Seats are structural members which help keep the canoe’s shape. Look where they join the hull and inspect for cracks, loose fittings, or old repairs.


Fiberglass canoes are made of layers of fiberglass. If the layers start to separate, water gets in and the problem increases. Look for cloudy areas as signs of delamination since this is difficult to repair.


Good patch jobs, especially in fiberglass canoes, are just fine. Even large patches are not a problem if done well. Look at the edges of the patch for hairline cracks or slight lifting. Feel with your hand along the edge of patch: it should be smooth.

Canoe Sources Online

Man and dog sailing in a canoe.

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