Are Canoe Float Bags Necessary?

It doesn’t take long for a canoe to become swamped and pinned around a rock or fallen tree in white water. Once it’s pinned the odds are very low that your craft will be released from the grips of the current anytime soon.

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Canoe float bags can help prevent all of this in the first place.

Canoe float bags are necessary if you canoe in white water where the possibility of your canoe being swamped and pinned is much higher. If you are flatwater paddling, however, float bags are not as necessary as the danger of capsizing and losing your canoe is much less and usually the need for storage more.

Regardless of the type of canoeing you’ll be doing, flotation capabilities should not be overlooked. It’s important to consider how much flotation is already built in to your canoe as well as how you might add more, where to add it and why. We’ll cover all of that here, because once a canoe is swamped, you’ll appreciate any extra “flotation help” that comes your way.

Will a Canoe Full of Water Float?

A canoe full of water will certainly float, but the top (gunwales) will be about even with the top of the water. It won’t be in a condition for a paddler to stay dry inside of it. If it has built-in flotation chambers, it will float just under the surface of the water so it will not sink.

If you’d like the canoe to float higher and be easier to recover from a spill, then you will need extra flotation measures.

Can a Canoe Sink?

As a general rule, there’s no modern, commercially-made canoe on the market that will sink to the bottom of a lake or river if capsized. Modern canoes (even classic wood or canvas) are built with flotation chambers on each end. These will at least keep the canoe from sinking to the bottom.

In addition, composite canoes (canoes made from materials other than wood or aluminum) often have compressed foam material within the composition of their layers which will help it float.

The only scenario I can think of where a canoe might actually sink to the bottom would be a very old, wooden canoe that has been thoroughly soaked with water for many years, and does not have any flotation chambers or anything inside that floats. It would have to be swamped and filled with water, and perhaps after a few hours it might head to the bottom.

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Here’s a great example of a lashed in canoe float bag that won’t soon escape or slip out of the bow if the canoe gets swamped or flips over

Built-in Flotation

Most canoes have built-in flotation chambers. These chambers allow the canoe to float when filled with water. They are located at the bow and stern. Kevlar canoes usually have foam in between the inner and outer layers of Kevlar which also helps buoyancy.

Canoes made of wood or plastic may not necessarily have built-in flotation chambers because they are naturally buoyant. Whether it’s built-in or natural, this minimal amount of flotation does offer enough protection to prevent a canoe from completely sinking.

But what a canoeist ideally wants is a canoe that floats HIGH in the water. High enough that when the canoe is righted (and potentially filled with water) it will sit with its gunwales high enough above the water line that a bailer or bilge pump will work without more water coming in.

The Purpose of a Float Bag

The purpose of a float bag is to keep your capsized canoe as high in the water as possible. Float bags are tough yet pliable containers that can be filled with air and lashed into the hull of a canoe. Once they are filled with air, they float the hull higher in the water. Float bags prevent a high volume of water entering your craft. If water tries to get in, the float bag is there to displace it.

Also, when a canoe is upside down on the water, it will sit higher, so it won’t capture as much water once it’s flipped upright.

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Awhile back I asked a question regarding the purpose of a flotation bag on a forum I belong to, and here’s one excellent answer from a veteran paddler

Why Do You Need Extra Flotation?

If most canoes have minimal flotation already built in, it makes sense to wonder why extra would be needed. When a canoe becomes swamped in rapids, the greatest fear is that it will become pinned underwater and end up “wrapping” around a structure (like a rock or fallen tree).

But the best reason for a float bag is that your canoe will likely avoid getting stuck on all obstacles as it bounces off them and floats downstream.

When this happens the hull fills with water and the canoe lodges in sideways against the obstacle. This usually ends up damaging a canoe beyond repair. Extra flotation makes the hull float high in the water diminishing the chances of it hitting those obstacles and wrapping around them. By floating high, if a canoe does get stuck, it is more likely to slide off the structure and free itself. And if it remains stuck, because it is floating higher in the water, pressure on the canoe is reduced thereby lessening the damage.

But the best reason for a float bag is that your canoe will likely avoid getting stuck on all obstacles as it bounces off them and floats downstream.

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This old canoe had no flotation chambers in the bow and stern (presumably to maximize usable space) but instead, had flotation in the ribs

In a lake, while float bags are not as common (or deemed necessary), they do help in righting the canoe without an excessive amount of water left in the hull. If you have flotation bags and two experienced paddlers, you can likely right the canoe with virtually no water at all inside the hull.

How Much Flotation Do I Need in my Canoe?

You’ll need the most amount of flotation for white water canoeing on rapids of Class-3 or greater. This means filling the hull with two to three float bags and leaving just enough space for the paddler and minimal gear. For flatwater paddlers where the risk of capsizing is extremely low, the amount of flotation you’ll need greatly decreases.

Having said that, there is no formula for exactly how much buoyancy you’ll need. It’s kind of just an extra precaution rather than an exact science. The more you have, the more you’ll float … and higher!

The good news is that most often when paddlers bring gear along with them, their gear acts as a natural float bag. Watertight barrels and dry packs will have sufficient air in them to help float a canoe higher in the water. If these items are lashed into the hull tightly, they act in a similar way to a float bag, displacing water, thereby making the canoe lighter.

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While certainly not mandatory, float bags on open water can be a helpful friend in times of distress. They’re not just for whitewater adventures anymore!

If they are lashed in more loosely and float out of the capsized canoe, they can still help a bit with keeping the canoe at least from sinking too low.

Keep in mind, the more firmly items are lashed into your canoe, the better. You’ll want to at least tie the main gear bags to your canoe loosely. If you capsize and all your gear begins to float away, it will be of no use in helping your canoe float higher. It will also be useless for you to use if it continues on 5 more miles downstream!

Nerdy Info Section

Each gallon of dry storage, whether it’s a float bag, barrel or dry pack, adds 8.36 pounds of flotation, minus the weight of the container and its contents. For you metric types, that would be a litre of dry storage adding a kilogram of flotation.

Where Do I Put Canoe Float Bags?

Float bags are generally lashed into the bow and stern of a solo canoe. In a tandem canoe, they are often put in three places – the bow, the stern and the middle, leaving just enough room for the paddlers to sit.


Do I Need to Add Special Features to my Canoe to Properly Install and Hold my Float Bags?

Unfortunately, you will need to install some extra fastening devices and modifications in order to secure your flotation bags. You will need a D-ring installed on the bottom of the canoe, just a few inches under from where both bow and stern bags extend out.

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In addition to a glued D-ring on the floor of the canoe, you’ll need a hole drilled through the bow for a painter line (bow rope) to be attached, as well as holes just under the gunwales above the flotation bag to allow for straps to be strung

You’ll need to add a painter hole in the front of your canoe through which you’ll run a tight rope or ring. It is to this ring that you’ll attach one end of a tie down strap (see the orange strap in the illustration above) while the other end of the strap will go to the D-ring which is a few inches under the back end of the float bag. This strap will be pretty tight to keep it from moving away from the bow when capsized.

Then, you’ll need a series of holes (yes, you’ll drill them) through the actual canoe just under the gunwales, but above the float bag. Through these holes, you’ll string a thin rope which will lash down the float bag and keep it from moving.

The D-ring attachment will be glued with a special glue that is meant for your specific canoe material surface. Most whitewater canoes are of a Royalex type material which would require a waterproof contact cement or VINYL ADHESIVE.

If you don’t want to drill holes in your hull, you can attach more D-rings along the inside of the inwales (inside and under the gunwales) to run your lashing cord, but this means a lot of gluing and an unsightly appearance when bags are removed.


Are Float Bags Expensive?

The average price for canoe float bags is $122 USD per bag. This price does not include kayak float bags but it does include an average of both end bags as well as center float bags for canoes. The price is a little lower on average if you DIY them, and it’s quite possible with sheets of vinyl and glue.

BRANDMODELPRICE (USD)
NRS3D Solo Float Bag119.00
NRS 3D Long Solo Canoe Float140.00
Harmony Nylon 3D End Canoe Foat80.00
NRSCanoe Center Float150.00
The Average of all these bags comes to around $122 USD for a single float bag. You can also make float bags yourself!

What size float bag do I need?

Float bags come in various sizes. Take measurements of your bow, stern and mid-section and order a size about 1” larger so that a fully inflated bag will max out the most amount of space. As far as any “correct” or “incorrect” sizes, there really are none. The “correct” size is whatever you’d like it to be. The bigger the bag, the better the flotation effect. Most commercially available bags are already standard sizes and are not specifically meant for a certain canoe.

Just be sure you choose the right shape. Center bags are more rectangular in shape while end bags are tapered. However, there are bags that are meant for canoes WITH or WITHOUT built-in flotation chambers, so keep that issue in mind for the best fit.

Can I Make My Own Float Bags?

Yes! Float bags can be made fairly inexpensively. An inner tube from an old tire and even foam pool noodles tied together in a bundle would work. Just make sure they are lashed in well. Solid foam blocks can be cut to fit more precisely but stay away from spray foam insulation as it absorbs water.

If you’d like to make your float bags look more like commercial bags you’d have in a more “professional-looking” setup, you can buy vinyl, air nozzles, and glue to make perfectly good (and decent-looking) bags. HERE’S a good website to get you started.

Final Summary

If your plan is to head out white water canoeing, check the conditions first. Know the river’s classification and plan accordingly. Class-3 rapids and higher will require float bags to keep your craft buoyant and floating high in the water.

Most other situations will not require float bags as built-in flotation chambers, as well as natural buoyancy from dry packs and barrels, will provide enough.

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Here’s a quote from an experienced paddler who understands the benefit of a flotation bag even in non-whitewater conditions!

Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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