What is a Canoe? Its History, Design and Uses

what is a canoe

Canoes are older than many people think. The oldest boat that archaeologists have ever unearthed is a canoe. While modern canoes offer much better performance than their ancient ancestors the basic design of a canoe remains fairly unchanged. But what is this boat and what can it be used for?

What is a canoe?

A canoe is a small narrow watercraft that is pointed at both ends.

A canoe is traditionally propelled and steered via a single-bladed paddle by a person seated facing the direction of travel, though modern canoes can be fitted with outboard engines or oars.

As I will show you in this article, there are different types of canoes designed for different applications and environments.

A Quick History Of The Canoe

Canoes have been used for many thousands of years. The canoe began as a simple dugout, where wood was scooped out from the middle of large tree trunks, to allow people to sit in it.

The oldest known boat, the Pesse canoe, so called because it was discovered in Pesse in the Netherlands, is believed to be over 10,000 years old.

Using a simple axe the ancient Dutch dugout the canoe from a single scotch pine log. It is almost 10 ft long and 1.5 ft wide.

Even today you can see how this ancient vessel strongly resembles a modern canoe.

pesse canoe
The Pesse canoe

Of course most Americans will associate the canoe, and the kayak, with Native Americans.

Although Native Americans used the dugout style canoe, like the Pesse canoe, which was usually made from birch wood, they also used an alternative design for their canoes.

This secondary canoe type was made mostly from redwood, cypress and cedar.

The two different designs seem to be localized to different areas with the dugout being popular with Nations in the Northeast and Midwest and the birch canoe with Nations in the south and down into the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s the difference between the two different canoe designs?

The dugout canoe was a birch log that was hollowed out using a combination of fire and basic tools.

The other canoe type is a little more intricate in its design.

It was built with a wooden skeleton frame surrounded by bark which was lashed together using strong roots.

It was planked and ribbed before being sealed with pitch.

Native Americans used canoes in very similar ways that we do today.

They utilized their boats for transportation and moving goods as well as for fishing and hunting and although we don’t know for sure they likely used them for leisurely trips as well.

Originally, canoes were made from the trees that stood near the rivers, lakes, and seas that people traveled on.

Hence the preference for birch in the North of America while the other tree types mentioned were more popular in the South of America because they are more abundant there.

How Native Americans built ribbed canoes

How a dugout canoe is built

The many uses of a traditional and modern canoe

A canoe is a small vessel that is perfect for inland waterways such as rivers, streams, ponds and lakes.

However, certain modern types of canoe are capable of sailing on the sea and other modern hull designs make some canoes more than capable of riding whitewater rapids and turbulent water.

A standard canoe has a shallow draft, meaning it can be used to navigate shallow waters without worrying about snagging the boat bottom on debris or rocks.

If you want to know more about how shallow draft works on a boat or the difference between a shallow draft and a deep draft read this article.

Although there are different types of canoes, which are designed for specific applications, a canoe is a great all-round boat.

It can be used for hunting, fishing, transportation, utility work or just for recreational purposes.

This makes canoes very popular with people who work on the water, anglers and hunters as well as families who just want to enjoy paddling down a quiet river.

But, the fact that a canoe offers the same type of uses as other inland waterway vessels means that many would-be boat owners deliberate over whether it is better than the alternatives.

For instance is a canoe a better choice than a Jon boat?

To really understand how versatile a canoe is we need to look at the basic design features of this boat.

We must also delve a little into the different design characteristics used to customize the vessel for different, specific applications.

The different types of canoe designs

A canoe is a very versatile boat.

Canoes can be used for a variety of different activities from simple leisure pursuits to maintenance work on waterways and even racing competitions such as those seen in the Olympic Games.

They can also be used in a variety of different environments from the ocean to whitewater rapids and turbulent rivers.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all canoe that can be used for all these activities.

For specific applications and specific environments you will need a specific canoe designed for the purpose.

The one thing that sets a canoe apart from other inland waterway boats is the versatility that is offered in its design.

canoe in calm water

We will take a look at the different characteristics of each canoe type that makes that type a better choice for certain applications and environments.

But, before we do that let’s look at the basic design features that are common to all canoes.

Basic characteristics common to all canoes

Every canoe has three basic design characteristics.

The three basic characteristics of every type of canoe are:

  1. Length
  2. Width
  3. Depth

Let’s take a quick look at these.


This is pretty self-explanatory.

The length of a canoe is measured from the tip of one end of the boat to the tip of the other end, i.e. from the tip of the bow (front) to the tip of the stern (back).

Although there are other considerations, as you will see later, a longer canoe will tend to be faster than a shorter one.

However, it will be harder to maneuver a longer canoe especially if you are propelling it with a paddle.

Having said that, canoes in general are not difficult to steer no matter which design type you opt for, though a beginner may take a little time to get used to paddling.


The width of the canoe, also known as the Beam, is calculated by measuring the widest part of the boat.

A canoe widens from the bow as it approaches the middle before decreasing 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 bottom 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.

Canoe in choppy water

Greater depth will mean easier paddling through choppy water while allowing for an increased weight capacity on the boat.

However, the increased depth makes the boat is heavier, slower and less responsive.

Customizing the design of a canoe for specific purposes is common

As I already mentioned there is no one-size-fits-all canoe that can be used in every environment and for every purpose.

A whitewater canoe will have different design characteristics than a seaworthy sailing canoe for example.

Understanding the different design elements and how they are manipulated to make a one canoe better than another at a specific task, and in a specific environment, will help you select from the growing selection of canoe types.

It will ensure you make an informed decision about which canoe is best for you (if you are planning to buy one).

We will now look at these different design characteristics to see how they affect a canoe’s performance in specific environments and for specific tasks.

Canoe Hull Design Considerations

When it comes to the design of a canoe there are two considerations:

  1. The shape of the bottom
  2. The shape of the sides

We will begin by looking at how the shape of the bottom of a canoe affects its performance.

The bottom of a canoe can be one of four different shapes

There are 4 basic hull designs used on modern canoes.

They are:

  1. Round bottom
  2. Shallow arch
  3. Shallow v
  4. Flat bottom

canoe hull types

Round bottom canoe

A round-bottomed canoe has a hull design with a round bottom that is extremely curved.

Round bottom canoes are a favourite with experienced canoeists because of their speed and efficiency. But, because a round bottom canoe feels tippy it can be difficult for inexperienced paddlers to balance it.

A round bottom canoe offers poor primary stability but excellent secondary stability.

If you need a better understanding of primary and secondary stability read this section of my article on kayaking.

A short and simple explanation of both primary and secondary are as follows:

Primary stability refers to the stability of the canoe as it sits on calm water.

Secondary stability refers to a canoe’s ability to stay stable when rocked on its side.

So going back to our round bottom canoe we see that initial stability is poor because its round design means it will rock on even calm water.

canoe stable even on side
A canoeist demonstrating the good secondary stability of his boat

In contrast, when leaned towards its side this type of  canoe is very hard to tip over.

They feel tippy, but they’re actually hard to tip!

Flat bottom canoe

A flat bottom canoe has a hull design with a bottom that is the exact opposite of a round bottom.

The flat bottom of these types of canoes give them exceptionally good primary stability making them ideal for calm water usage.

On calm waters they are almost impossible to tip and feel very stable.

This makes them a big favorite for leisure activities on calm waters especially for families and beginners.

Unfortunately there is always a trade-off when it comes to primary and secondary stability.

The excellent primary stability offered by this flat bottom design means the secondary stability is poor.

What does this mean?

Well a flat bottomed canoe is excellent in calm water but in choppy water or waves created by strong winds it tends to feel a lot less stable.

If the weather turns bad and large waves start forming the likelihood of staying afloat right-side-up are greatly diminished; a flat bottom canoe will likely capsize.

canoe with flat bottom

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.

Shallow arch canoe

A shallow arch hull is designed to allow paddlers the initial stability of a flat bottom canoe but with the secondary stability of a round bottom canoe.

This is a type of hybrid design made to incorporate aspects of good primary stability but with the capability of handling more challenging environments.

This hybrid approach has made shallow arch canoes very popular in recent years with their popularity growing all the time.

Shallow arch canoe


There are a wide variety of different variations of shallow arch canoe.

Some manufactures preferring to offer more primary stability (like the one in the picture below) while others prefer to offer more secondary stability (remember there is always a trade-off between the two).

Shallow v canoe

This is another hull design that incorporates aspects of both the flat bottom and round bottom.

However, there is a slight “V” shape at the bottom of the boat that offers the canoe much better secondary stability than any of the previously mentioned designs.

This increased secondary stability comes at the cost of efficiency and speed but gives the boat a much deeper draft.

Where a flat bottom boat can navigate extremely shallow water, a “v” type hull in the same environment would likely snag on rocks and debris at the water’s bottom.

shallow v canoe

That is not to say that a shallow v canoe cannot navigate shallow water – every canoe can do that.

It just means it cannot safely access the very shallow waters that a flat bottom canoe can easily navigate.

A word about keels on canoes and the 2 different types

There is some controversy and argument among canoeists about the effectiveness of keels on a canoe.

It seems they play very little part in the actual stability of a canoe but they are such a common feature on modern canoes that they deserve a mention.

There are 2 types of canoe keel.

They are:

  1. Toe keel
  2. Shoe keel.

I covered these keel types in detail here in this article about the benefits of choosing a flat bottom canoe but below is a quick explanation of how they work.

A keel was originally only added to a canoe design in order to help hold the boat together but they are now added for performance enhancing reasons.

There is little to no evidence to suggest a keel will have any significant effect on a canoe’s performance, other than making the boat track slightly better but at the cost of paddling efficiency.

A keel on a canoe, like one made from aluminum or hardwood for example, can help to protect the bottom of the boat from damage should it snag on a riverbed or on scrape against rocks.

The keel is so designed that it will slide over rocks in shallow water and when navigating whitewater rapids.

So, for this reason alone having a keel on a canoe can be a good idea.

The sides of a canoe can be one of three different designs

The bottom of a canoe is not the only design characteristic that affects its primary and secondary stability. The shape of the sides of the boat also play a part.

There are 3 basic designs for the sides of a canoe hull.

They are:

  1. Straight
  2. Flared
  3. Tumblehome

canoe hull sides

Let’s look at how these design features are used to create canoes for specific purposes.

Straight sided canoe

Canoes with straight sides provide no particular benefit or limitation other than to maintain primary stability.

Many flat bottom canoes have straight sides as you can see in the image below.

straight sided canoe

Flared canoe

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 has much less chance of capsizing.

flared canoe

Tumblehome canoe

Tumblehome is the opposite of flared.

To put it simply 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.

You can see tumblehome clearly in the two canoes in the image below.

Tumblehome canoes

Final Thoughts On The Humble Canoe

Hopefully this short article has helped you deepen your understanding of what a canoe is and how it can be used.

All you have to do now is go and paddle in one.

I promise you that you will develop an appreciation of just how much this type of boat has to offer you while having a whole lot of fun.

Always be sure you use the correct type of paddle for canoeing and don’t end up with a kayak paddle.

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