How to Pick the Best Canoe For You. Canoe Buyers Guide

Canoe buyers guide

Canoes are a popular recreational boat used across North America and around the world. But with different hull designs and different sizes how do you know which canoe is the best one for you and your needs? In this article we plan to give you the knowledge needed to make a quick, easy and informed buying decision.

The key to picking the right canoe

The key to picking the right canoe is to first know the answer to 3 simple questions. Answering these questions will help you to quickly identity the canoe type that best suits your needs.

The 3 simple questions to ask yourself to determine which canoe type you need are:

  • What activities will you be using the boat for?
  • In what type of marine environments will you be using the boat?
  • How many people will be on the boat at any one time?

As we progress in this article you will see how answering these questions will show you how to:

  • Understand which canoe hull type you need.
  • What size of canoe you need.

So let’s take a look at the above three questions in more detail and how you can answer them in a way that will help you narrow down the choices of canoe available to you.

What will you do in the canoe?

Before I cover the differences between the different types of canoe that are available in the marketplace it is important for me to help you get clarity about what you want to do in your canoe.

The purposes you intend for your canoe will go a long way towards determining the type of canoe you will buy.

In a previous article we covered the history and basic characteristics of a canoe. While in our article about canoe hull designs and their uses we went more in-depth into the different design characteristics of each canoe type. We will cover that again briefly here.

If, after reading this article, you need a deeper understanding of the differences between the available canoe types I suggest you read the previously mentioned articles, though the information given here should be enough to help you make an informed buying decision.

So, to begin, ask yourself what you intend to do in your new canoe.

Here are some common activities you can enjoy in a canoe:

  • Fishing.
  • Hunting.
  • Whitewater sports.
  • Recreational cruising.
  • Long journeys on inland waterways.
  • Ocean touring.
  • Boat camping (see our boat camping guide).

Once you have identified what you intend to use your canoe for you can review the pros and cons of each canoe type below and you will be able to tell which design is better for your intended purposes.

Where will you do it?

It is vitally important to know in what type of marine environments you will use your canoe.

You do not need to know the specific locations you will use your canoe in but you do need to know the types of waters you will be navigating.

Why is this important?

Well every boat is deigned for a specific purpose. As an example let’s imagine we own a boat that has been designed to be used in very shallow waters. This type of boat will have a flat bottom and a shallow draft. This means our boat will be able to navigate rivers, creeks and lakes that are only inches deep. However, the same boat would be dangerous to use in choppy, deep, open waters like the ocean.

There are exceptions to this of course, as we covered in the article can a Jon boat go in the ocean, but for the most part flat bottom, shallow draft boats should not be used in challenging waters.

Likewise, a deep draft boat designed for ocean, or deep choppy water use, is unsuitable for shallow waterways because it will either become grounded or get severely damaged in the shallows, or both.

This is why it is important to know in what type of environment you will be using your canoe.

The environment may also influence your choice of length, if for instance you intend to navigate narrow rivers with lots of sharp, tight bends. But, for the most part your choice of canoe hull design will be based on the environment in which you intend to use it and the typical conditions under which you intend to use it.

So, ask yourself if you intend to use your canoe in:

  • Waterways with very shallow areas.
  • Creeks or rivers with tight bends.
  • Large water bodies open to the wind with deep water.
  • The ocean.

Once you are clear on exactly how you intend to use your canoe and where you intend to use it, it will be fairly easy for you to make a decision about which type of canoe is the best fit for you.

As each hull design has different strengths and weakness you will be able to quickly identify the canoe design that is the best fit for your needs now that you know how and where you will be using the boat.

Next you need to determine it’s size and width.

How many people will be doing it?

The number of people you plan to have riding in your canoe will have a big impact on the size of boat you need.

Obviously the more people the canoe needs to carry the bigger the boat you will need.

Be aware that the activity you plan to engage in can also effect the size of canoe you need. For example, camping trips may require a lot of boat space for your gear especially if you plan to hunt or fish while on your excursion.

Which canoe type is best for you?

Now you know how you will use your canoe and in what type of environment you plan to use it, it is time to look at the different types of canoes that are available.

You will see that you can quickly pick a canoe type that is best suited to your chosen activity. Don’t worry if more than one canoe will suit your purposes. If that happens simply go with the canoe that matches your needs best or go with the one that you prefer the look of.

To understand which canoe design offers the most functionality for you let’s first look at the basic characteristics of every canoe and then see how small differences in the hull make all the difference in functionality.

Basic canoe hull characteristics

A canoe has three basic characteristics.

They are:

  1. Length.
  2. Width.
  3. Depth.

The length and width of your canoe will become important depending upon the activity you engage in and the amount of people who will be in the boat. Obviously hunting expeditions and family camping excursions you will need a canoe that is longer and wider than a canoe you would use if you went off on a one day solo fishing trip.

So how do you measure the length of a canoe?

The length of a canoe is measured from the tip of the boat’s front end to the tip of the back end; the length of a canoe is said to be the measurement from the tip of the bow to the tip of the stern.

As with most things in life there are trade-offs between long canoes and shorter ones. A longer canoe will tend to be a lot faster than its shorter counterpart and will also usually be wider thus offering much more storage space and room for additional passengers.

However, a longer canoe will be much harder to maneuver and steer around tight bends. This is especially the case if you are propelling the canoe with a paddle. Shorter canoes are very easy to paddle, steer and maneuver.

This is not to say that large canoes are difficult to paddle. All canoes are fairly easy to paddle and after a short learning curve you will be able to steer the boat fairly easily.


The width of the canoe, unlike a Jon boat and other boat types, is calculated by measuring the beam – the beam is the widest part of the boat.

A canoe widens starting from the tip of the bow and increases in width as it approaches the middle of the boat before decreasing again in width as it reaches the stern.

All things being equal, a narrow canoe will tend to be faster than a wider one but will offer less stability and less room for storage.


The depth of a canoe refers to the measurement from the top of the side of the boat to the very bottom part of the boat.

Because a canoe is not a uniformed height across its length, depth is measured in the following 3 places:

  • Bow.
  • Stern.
  • Center.

The depth of a canoe affects how easy it is to paddle.

Greater depth will mean easier paddling through choppy water while allowing for an increased weight capacity on the boat as well. However, an increased depth will make a canoe heavier, slower and less responsive.

All canoes have the same basic characteristics.

Now that you understand the basic characteristics that all canoes share let’s look at the differences in hull design on specific canoe types.

A word about primary and secondary stability

Before we venture into the key differences between canoe types you should be given a quick explanation about primary and secondary stability as it will help you to better understand why some canoes are better suited to certain conditions while they are ill suited to others.

A simple understanding of primary and secondary stability will help you avoid buying the wrong type of canoe for your purposes.

The primary and secondary stability of a canoe are based on how the vessel curves at the sides and how it curves, or doesn’t curve, on the bottom of the hull.

Below is a simplistic explanation of what primary and secondary stability are but it is accurate enough to give you an understanding of how these two factors affect your canoe.

Primary stability, in simplistic terms, refers to how stable a boat is when it sits on calm water.

Secondary stability, in simplistic terms, refers to how stable a boat is when it is rocked by waves or choppy water.

Primary stability is affected by the design of the canoe’s bottom.

Secondary stability is affected by the design of the canoe’s sides.

If you plan to use a boat in calm inland waters in fairly good weather conditions then you need a boat with good primary stability.

If you plan to use your canoe in challenging, choppy or deep waters then you will need a boat with good secondary stability.

There is always a trade-off between primary and secondary stability.

A canoe with exceptionally good primary stability will feel incredibly stable on calm water but very tippy in choppy water.

A canoe with exceptionally good secondary stability will feel very secure in choppy water but will feel very tippy in calm water.

Different canoe hull designs

The design of a canoe depends largely on the shape of its bottom and the shape of its sides.

There are three side shapes each being specially adapted to specific uses.

They are:

  1. Straight.
  2. Flared.
  3. Tumblehome.

There are four types of canoe bottom each being specially adapted to specific uses.

The four canoe bottom types are:

  1. Round bottom.
  2. Flat bottom.
  3. Shallow arch.
  4. Shallow-V.

Let’s take a look at how these unique design characteristics are suited to specific applications and environments so you can see which one is best suited to your specific needs.

Straight Sides

Canoes with straight sides provide no particular benefit nor any particular limitation other than to maintain primary stability.

Many flat bottom canoes have straight sides as these boats are primarily used as recreational vessels in calm shallow waters.

Flared sides

A flared hull widens out near the gunwales.

A canoe with flared sides can more effectively deflect waves.

This type of canoe performs much better in choppy waters and ocean environments as it has much less chance of capsizing than a flat-bottomed straight-sided canoe though it will feel “tippy” in calm waters.


Tumblehome is the opposite of flared. Tumblehome is the narrowing of a ship’s hull with greater distance above the water-line.

Tumblehome refers to how the hull curves in toward the gunwales (the upper edge of the side of the boat).

A canoe with tumblehome lets the paddler paddle close to the hull. You will see this design most often in one-man racing canoes.

canoe hull sides
The 3 canoe side designs


Flat bottom

A flat bottom canoe has a hull design with a, not surprisingly, flat bottom.

The flat bottom of these types of canoes give them exceptionally good primary stability in calm water. On calm waters they are almost impossible to tip and feel very stable even to novice paddlers.

Because it is so stable in calm waters a flat bottom canoe is ideal for inland leisure activities especially for families and beginners.

Where a flat bottom canoe excels in primary stable it loses in secondary stability.

What does this mean?

Well a flat bottomed canoe is excellent in calm water but in choppy water or when navigating waves created by strong winds it tends to feel a lot less stable. If the weather turns bad and the wind starts whipping up strong waves a flat bottom canoe will feel very unstable and may even capsize.

Flat bottom canoes are therefore usually only seen on calm rivers, lakes and streams etc., or near the shoreline in the ocean when the weather is optimal.

If you plan to use your canoe only in calm inland waters and in fairly calm weather then a flat bottom canoe with straight sides would be a good buying choice.

Round bottom

Because round bottom canoes are faster than other types they are usually seen only in competitions and races and only in very calm waters

A rounded hull design means the boat encounters much less friction in the water making it fast but this type of rounded hull means the boat is not very stable.

It is unlikely you will want to buy a round bottom canoe unless you plan to use it only for racing in very calm and straight waterways.

Shallow arch

A shallow arched, sometimes simply referred to as an arched, canoe is ideal for paddling in calm waters that can become more challenging as the weather conditions change. It has a good balance of primary and secondary stability making it a good all-round canoe.

This is a type of hybrid design, taking the best of a round bottom and twinning it with the best of a flat bottom, means a shallow arch canoe is almost as good in calm water as a flat-bottomed canoe while offering much more stability in more challenging conditions.

However, it will be more restricted in shallow waters than a flat bottom canoe because it has a deeper draft. For more information about how draft works read shallow draft vs deep draft.

A shallow arch canoe will also offer increased speed on calm waters and the most paddling efficiency.


A shallow-v bottom offers the most versatility among all the canoe hull bottom designs.

A shallow-v offers some of the stability of a flat bottom canoe but has superior performance in rough water.

A shallow-v canoe is also better at tracking.

Unlike a flat-bottomed or arched canoe though a shallow-v will not be able to navigate extremely shallow waters without risking damage to the canoe bottom.

canoe hull bottom types
The 4 different bottoms on canoes

What does all this mean for you?

By knowing how each canoe type interacts with specific marine environments you can now choose the one that best suits the activity that you identified after answering question 1 at the beginning of this article.

You should now also know which canoe type is best suited to the type of environment you identified from answering question 2.

For instance, if you plan to use your canoe for recreational use in calm waters then a flat bottomed canoe with straight sides would be the best choice. However, if you plan to use your canoe for recreational use under a range of different conditions, from calm water to choppy water, then an arched canoe with flared sides would be a much better choice.

On the other hand, if you plan to use your canoe in very challenging waters, or the ocean, then a shallow-v canoe with tumblehome sides is probably going to perform the best.

Below we have an easy to view chart showing you which canoe type is best suited to specific activities.

Best canoes for specific conditions

You can sort the table below by clicking on any category column so you can see whether a canoe type is recommended for that environment/condition.

Please bear in mind that these are simple tables designed to make your decision easier. The information in them is not set in stone. For example, in the table below you will see that a shallow-v is not recommended for calm conditions. This does not mean a shallow-v cannot be used in calm conditions – it can be, but it will feel tippy so it is not the ideal boat for those conditions.

In the above example, if you plan to use your canoe only in calm conditions, a flat-bottomed or shallow arched canoe would be a better choice.

Flat Bottomyesnonoyesno
Shallow archyesyesnoyesno

Best canoes for specific activities

You can sort the table by clicking on the activity category so you see which canoe types are best suited to specific activities.

RecreationalCampingOcean FishingFreshwater FishingHuntingWhitewater
Flat Bottomyesyesnoyesyesno
Shallow archyesyesnoyesyesyes

What size of canoe do you need?

This question should be pretty easy for you to answer.

The more gear you intend to carry and the more passengers you will have onboard the bigger the canoe you will need.

Now you know which type of canoe you require finding the correct sized one is just a matter of looking at the specs of specific boats and getting one that can accommodate your weight requirements. If you don’t know how to work out what your weight requirements are follow this formula. You can also ask the dealer or look the specs of your prospective buy online.

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