Choosing a canoe a matter of fit and function

Posted on: May 3, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

It would have been a passionate love affair, to be sure, one burning bright and hot in the early going.

But it would have been a short-lived one, too.

Not necessarily by choice.

It’s just that lasting relationships require constant nurturing. This one, like so many others, would have started with the best of intentions, a compassionate desire to earnestly do right by the other.

But, in the end, there was certain to be gradual but inevitable neglect, a growing apart over time. Disappointment, frustration, perhaps even bitterness would have marked its ending.

Years ago, in looking to buy a couple of canoes for the family, a friend introduced me to someone with a wooden one for sale. It was strikingly beautiful.

Inside it had sleek, polished, clear-cut wooden ribs like the hard, defined abs on an athletic supermodel. Outside, its canvas skin was sleek, smooth, tender yet firm to the touch. Its cane webbing seats caressed your, well, bottom.

And …

Wait, did it just get hot in here?

Never mind.

I didn’t buy that canoe. For starters, with a young family at home, it was out of my price range, especially as I was looking to get two of something.

A wooden canoe requires a lot of care, too, much more so than those made of other materials. With youth baseball and basketball and Scouts already competing for time, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to do the necessary upkeep.

Inevitably, without proper nourishment, it would age and sag and wither.

I knew that would be me eventually. Who wants a boat that looks like that?

So we ended up getting two touring canoes, 16-foot, 4-inch models of layered polyethylene. They weren’t cheap either – we probably stretched further than we should have to bring them home – but they’re wonderful boats, sharp looking with deep green side and black trim, cane seats and ash thwarts and yokes.

Most importantly, they’ve served our purposes well.

Capable of holding more than 1,200 pounds, they’re perfect for canoe camping trips when the gear pile always seems to grow mountainous. We’ve paddled rivers and lakes, fishing, hunting, watching birds and wildlife, soaking up sun and lazily floating.

They’re nimble enough, if still more watery pickup truck than sports car. But that’s what we needed anyway. And 10 years after making our purchase, I wouldn’t trade them.

They may or may not be the best canoes for you, though.

There’s a lot to consider when determining which to buy.

First is where you will be paddling and what you’ll be doing. Touring canoes are typically longer and wider and great for carrying lots of gear. They cut through wind and waves well.

Whitewater canoes are shorter, with upturned ends – that’s called having lots of rocker – that make them responsive and quick to turn. It also makes them harder to track in a straight line.

Recreational canoes – the kind you generally get when dealing with an outfitter – are a good all-purpose option. They’re often the least expensive, too.

Second to consider is boat size.

Longer boats hold more equipment — critical if you’ll be doing weeks-long excursions in wilderness — but are heavier and often overkill for many waters. Short canoes are sporty, and good for solo paddling, but sometimes otherwise limited.

A good all-around boat is probably something in the 16- to 17-foot range.

Wider boats, of course, are more stable than narrower ones, and deeper ones keep out more water. But they are also more affected by wind.

Third, think of shape.

Canoes, based on their form, offer what’s termed good “initial” or “secondary” stability.

Flat-bottom canoes offer good initial stability. They feel steady when you climb in. Think of every summer camp canoe everywhere; they’re flat bottomed because they put beginners at ease.

They’re hard to tip over, so long as the water is flat and calm. In conditions any rougher, though, leaning too far one way causes them to flip quickly. They’re not very forgiving.

Rounded-bottom canoes offer better secondary stability. If they feel like they’re more likely to roll, that’s by design. They can cut through rapids almost on their side without going completely over.

Shallow-arch bottoms are a compromise. They’re more forgiving than flat bottom canoes without being too specialized.

Fourth, think about materials.

Aluminum canoes are almost indestructible and often inexpensive. But they’re loud and cold or hot, depending on the conditions. Most have a welded keel that makes it easy to go in a straight line, but also makes it harder to turn.

Kevlar canoes are really tough, too, capable of bouncing off river rocks and going back for more punishment. But Kevlar is also the costliest material out there.

Canoes made of Royalex or Royalex Light likewise offer some abrasion-resistance. But their chief calling card is weight. Royalex is lighter than most materials, something to consider if you expect to do much portaging.

Polyethylene-type materials are often used over top of closed cell foam interiors. That makes them pretty durable without quite the cost.

Then, of course, there is the wood canoe.

They’re beautiful, but demanding, requiring lots of maintenance.

I may yet get one someday, when I have enough time for doting over my boat when it’s far away from the water. I mean, those abs, right?

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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