Bring your own boat: selecting the best canoe for you

Canoeing is great for exercise and relaxation. Find the perfect model for your needs by considering materials, shape, size, and more.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Finding the right canoe can bring you fun, adventure, and peaceful times.

While some people thrive off a busy, unyielding schedule, many of us in fact long for a bit of serenity in our lives — especially after running in the rat race all week. An idyllic place for peace is on the water, where its sounds and swells can have a soothing effect on one's spirit. Time spent in a canoe on a beautiful lake or river can bring a bit of peace and joy to counterbalance aggravations from the daily grind.

We're all well aware of the serenity that comes from floating out on a calm body of water, but did you know that there's also a sport called freestyle canoeing, where canoers perform choreographed, interpretive numbers for a panel of judges? No? Then allow us to direct you to some amazing freestyle canoeing videos.

So whether you approach canoeing with athletic, artistic, or relaxed vigor, you'll need to pick from a variety of canoes made for different purposes. Choosing the right one can make all the difference when you head out into the morning fog for a paddle / rehearsal.

How to Choose a Canoe

The first thing to consider when shopping for a canoe is how you intend to use it. Are you planning to paddle alone or with someone? Will you be boating on flat water or whitewater? Will you haul along camping equipment for some boat camping?

As you peruse models online, keep in mind that shipping costs vary drastically according to your ZIP code, and few stores honor free shipping offers on these oversized items.

The length of a canoe goes a long way to determine its performance. A short canoe is more maneuverable, especially in turbulent water. A longer canoe has less "tracking error," less tendency for the bow to wander back and forth in response to each paddle stroke, which effectively slows it down. A longer canoe can also carry more weight, since it displaces more water. For single paddlers, a canoe that's 9 to 13 feet long is a good choice. For those paddling in tandem, 16- to 17-foot boats are quite popular.

If you are paddling two people, wider canoes are more stable, and have a higher weight capacity. However, a wider profile makes them slower than more streamlined boats. Narrow boats also track better. And as far as depth goes, deeper canoes (as measured from the the gunwales — the top lip of the canoe — to the deepest part of the boat at its midsection) will shed water better and hold more payload. The downside is that they are more affected by wind.

Hull Shape
The shape of the hull can also make a big difference in the canoe's performance. Imagine cutting a canoe in half at its waist, then looking at the shape of the hull at that cut line. On a flat-bottomed boat, the hull is just that, flat on the bottom. It has excellent initial stability, meaning that it isn't tippy when sitting still in the water. This makes it easier to load and unload. Because it doesn't sit as low in the water, it is also easier to turn when in motion. For the same reason, though, it is harder to keep going in a straight line when hit with a side wind or current.

A rounded-bottom boat is more tippy when at rest, but when in motion is actually more stable than a flat-bottomed canoe because the rounded hull takes a deeper bite in the water. It holds its course well in windy weather or in a current, and is fast and efficient. This type of hull is usually found on more expensive, high-performance boats.

The shallow-arch and V-bottom boats are variations on the rounded bottom.

Now take a side view of the canoe. It might be fairly flat from bow to stern, or it might have a curve in the dimension too, appearing as a smiley profile. This curve is called the rocker, because if you set the canoe on a flat surface, it would indeed rock.

A canoe without any rocker will track better and travel faster through the water. A canoe with lots of rocker will be more maneuverable, turning better, making it a desired feature in a boat meant to navigate tight channels and rapids. Most canoes are a compromise between the two extremes.

Perhaps the most important consideration, though, if you ever have to carry your canoe any distance, is weight. A heavy boat is awkward to portage, and every pound is one more you need to move with every paddle stroke. However, reducing the weight of a canoe increases its cost, sometimes precipitously.

Take Note of the Materials

The weight of a canoe is a function of the materials used. Wood was once the mainstay of canoes and a visual delight, but today wood canoes are very expensive and seldom seen. Like wood canoes, canoes made from aluminum have also been popular. They are like battering rams on the river, hard to puncture and almost impervious to weather degradation. However, they are also heavy, easily dented, can be worn thin by abrasion, are hard to repair, and are also an expensive option.

Nowadays most canoes sold are composed of manmade materials. Polyethylene is a popular material used in modestly-priced canoes. This canoe is flexible, and accordingly is forgiving when it hits the occasional log or sand bar, and can be repaired if broken. Polyethylene is heavy, though, and not a good option if you need to carry your boat very far.

Some boats are made from a fiberglass material that is comprised of a woven fabric held together by a polyester resin. This results in a durable mid-weight canoe that can take a beating, yet can also be repaired. Kevlar is similar to fiberglass in that it can be repaired, though Kevlar is more durable and lighter. However, this manmade material, which is also used in bulletproof vests, makes many canoes much more expensive.

The most favorable canoe material meets both the demands of performance and the price point of its riders: Thermoplastics. Thermoplastics are made from closed-cell foam wrapped in ABS plastic and covered with a vinyl skin. This set of materials results in a lightweight, durable, and repairable hull. They also offer great buoyancy.

Whether you lust for whitewater or just want to laze about on a lake for a sunny afternoon, a canoe is the right boat for you. Just shop wisely (and don't forget the proper accessories), and you can buy yourself some peace of mind or a frothy thrill.

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