There are literally hundreds of canoe manufacturers out there, each with an endless assortment of canoe models, as well as their own private classification system. On top of all that, there's those opinionated canoeists that also go out of there way to tell you you've bought the wrong boat the moment you bring it home. It's absolute insanity. Quite honestly, purchasing a canoe can be more stressful than buying a car. But like buying a car, the perfect scenario would be to own a dozen models. And just as golfers choose the best club to get the ball to the green, a canoeist would choose the best boat for the water to be paddled each trip.
Of course, acquiring a dozen or so canoes can be a little expensive, and storing them in the backyard tends to be a problem. I have eight canoes now and I'm quickly running out of room. So for most canoeists, your best bet is to buy the most versatile canoe afloat - the quintessential tripper.
The most important elements that make up a good tripping canoe are dimensions, shape and material.
This is the easiest to deal with. The minimum length of a tripping canoe is 16 foot and maximum overall length is 18 foot. A 16 foot canoe gives adequate room for two people and gear for a week long trip. However, if you're heading out longer or you need room for a third party (a young child or pet dog), then lean towards the 17 foot or even 18 foot. The trade off for the extra length, of course, is how well your boat handles on the water. A 17 foot or 18 foot canoe will be much faster across the water but is not good for whitewater. The 16 foot boat will do much better in rapids and is far more maneuverable, especially while paddling down one of those constantly twisting streams, but will be slow across the lake and may even take on the odd rolling wave. Some canoes have transom for mounting small outboard engines which make the trip back across the lake a little less strenuous.
The shape of the canoe is a little more confusing. The width of an average tripper ranges from 30" to 36", up to 44" are available. But that's not really what counts. First, consider the entry line of the canoe. If the bow has a narrow entry line then it will cut through the water nicely. However, it will also allow more water to splash up and into the canoe. A canoe with a blunt entry line will make the boat slower but will also tend to ride up on the waves and keep the bow person dry. If you paddle big lakes, some rapids, and you're not too concerned about how fast you go, choose the blunt shape.
Another part of the canoes shape is how its bottom sits in the water. The flatter the bottom the more initial stability the boat will have, meaning it doesn't feel like you're going to flip over the moment you push off from shore. This shape, however, reduces your speed considerably and can be quite dangerous when out in rough water (the waves tend to splash over the gunwale easily). If the bottom of the canoe is more rounded, it will feel a little tippy at first, but you will have a much easier time moving across the water and be much safer when the size of the waves build up.
Tumblehome(sponsons are slightly wider) - a traditional term meaning that the sides of the canoe are widest just above the waterline (basically, it bulges out wider than the gunwales) - lets you paddle in a straighter line without much effort.
Depth is also important. The bare minimum is 12 inches. But if you have a large load (up to three packs) and plan on paddling some whitewater or large lakes, then go for 13 or 14 1/2 inches.
Finally, you have to look at the canoe's rocker. It's the term used when dealing with the flatness of the overall canoe, as viewed from along the keel line. Basically, a boat made for extreme whitewater has more of a banana shape to. This enables it to turn on a dime. However, it's almost impossible to go straight while paddling across calm water. A lake touring boat is close to dead straight from bow to stern. This allows it to track well. But don't try to turn quickly into an eddy or you'll end up missing the turn completely and end up going sideways down the river.
Canoe materials are just as varied as their dimensions and shape. It's hard to believe that the choice of materials used in construction of a canoe started with a walk in the woods. Now it seems everything is done in the science lab.
Weight and strength are the two major factors to consider when choosing the material to construct a canoe. Some materials create an almost indestructible canoe but are back-breaking on the portage; others are light as a feather but are as brittle as a potato chip. Here are some of the choices on the market.
I've been told by many traditionalists that a canoe is made of wood and canvas and a boat is made of anything else. Even though wooden canoes are expensive, require far too much maintenance, heavy when wet, and are, at times, far more fitting for a showcase than a wild river, I must admit it feels wonderful to paddle one.
The aluminum canoe, or what was once called the "Grumman canoe" until the company closed down a few years back, is durable and inexpensive. However, the aluminum canoe lacks the aesthetics of a wood and canvas canoe, they are heavier to carry on a portage, the bottom tends to stick when scraping over rocks. If durability and usefulness are important to you, then the aluminum canoe is the choice for you.
Royalex is a type of plastic material consisting of a foam core sandwiched between sheets of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene-Styrene) with a vinyl surface. It's strong and flexible, making it the obvious choice for whitewater canoeists. Just pray the river you're running doesn't have too many lengthy portages; Royalex boats can weight a ton. Thankfully, designers have worked hard in developing new lighter models. They're not as durable but you're not as likely in suffering from a hernia mid-trip.
Fiberglass was the most common fabric used for canoe construction a few years ago. Fiberglass creates a moderately tough, lightweight boat, and is made up of either strips of cloth or chopped glass mixed with resin and then sprayed into a mold.
Some fiberglass models are superb and some are a joke. I'd stay away from the chopped glass types. They're cheaply made and not worth the hassle to have along on a remote canoe trip. In fact, I'd stay away from fiberglass completely, unless that's all your pocket book can afford.
Kevlar is more expensive than fiberglass. But it's lighter to carry and has added strength. Some manufacturers make up their own secret recipe of Kevlar and fiberglass. Some even make up their own Kevlar mixture and mold it around traditional canoe designs. But buyer beware; make sure you don't get swindled by any sales rep that doesn't know their stuff.
Some Additional Stuff to Help in Choosing your canoe
Longer canoes will have greater hull speed, better tracking, and greater potential for carrying capacity. Shorter canoes will be more maneuverable and lighter in weight.
Width, or beam as it is called, is given in two measurements; the beam at the gunwale and the beam at the 4” waterline. The 4” waterline beam has the greatest influence on performance. Wide beamed canoes offer great stability but may be somewhat slow. Narrow canoes may be less stable but afford better efficiency and hull speed.
Greater depth allows for increased carrying capacity and better water shedding ability. However, deep canoes can be harder to handle in windy conditions and will be heavier. The shape of the bottom of the canoe and how it blends with the sides will influence its performance. Stability of a canoe is affected greatly by its cross section.
The shape of the bow where it cuts the water will have an effect on the canoe's performance. A very sharp, knife-like entry will cut through the water easily and provide efficiency. A blunt bow will add fullness and give buoyancy in waves, thus a drier ride.
Symmetrical canoes have identical ends, bow and stern. They offer more versatile designs and convert more readily from tandem to solo. Asymmetrical canoes are usually designed for a particular specialty.
Flat bottom canoes offer great initial stability; that is, they feel very secure on calm water. Flat bottom canoes are great for the sportsmen and general recreationalists looking for steadiness.
Shallow arch bottom
Shallow arch bottom canoes have less initial stability but good secondary stability. As the canoe is leaned, it will balance on its side and resist further tipping. Shallow arch canoes work well in waves and whitewater. Shallow arch bottom canoes offer the best all-around performance.
Round bottom canoes have great secondary stability but very little initial stability. They are designed for speed and efficiency. Round bottom canoes are usually fast, specialized canoes.
A keel will help tracking in short canoes and will help the canoe's resistance to crosswinds. Keels also work well on canoes used with outboard or electric motors, as they decrease sideslipping. They would not be appropriate on a canoe used in whitewater or situations where quick maneuvers are essential.
Flare, Tumblehome, Straight-sided
Design options for the sides of the canoe include flare, tumblehome or straight-sided. Flare will shed water well and increase stability. Tumblehome gives a narrower beam at the gunwales and allows for easier paddling, however stability will be decreased. Straight-sided canoes are a compromise of the two. Many canoes will incorporate one, two, or all three of these in different areas of the hull.
Canoe Anatomy: Rocker
The curve of the keel line from bow to stern is called rocker.
Straight Line A straight keel line has no rocker,
which allows for exceptional tracking
ability but lacks maneuverability.
Moderate Rocker Moderately rockered canoes are usually straight
with a rise toward the ends. Most general
recreation canoes have a moderate rocker.
Heavy Rocker An extremely rockered keel line offers
exceptional maneuverability but will
not track well.