Best Canoes for Big & Tall Paddlers (Tips from Industry Pros)

I’ve been dragging my canoe across the country, paddling, portaging, camping and learning for the past 40 years. I’ve seen some beautiful people who love the outdoors but are hesitant to embrace the world of paddling for fear of the consequences of being a bit larger than average or being exceptionally tall.

While size is a factor to consider when canoeing, it’s only just that – a FACTOR. It is not a restriction or prohibitive rule to keep you from enjoying freedom, fresh air, and exercise on the water.

I’ve talked with industry experts (canoe manufacturers) and consulted pros throughout the country (the continent, actually) to share with you the very best options to allow larger folks to paddle, and I have some very helpful (I think) thoughts on the topic.


Can a Fat Person Canoe?

Okay, please forgive the term “fat” if you find that offensive, but I use the term only because believe it or not, that is the actual term used by most Google searchers looking for info on this topic.

Of course, the answer is YES, any large person can canoe with about as much safety as anyone else, and that includes even those who are obese and may struggle to get around!

That may surprise you, but I would like to encourage anyone (especially if you’re in a position to lose weight for your health and quality of life) to use paddling as one element of an exercise routine to enhance a healthy lifestyle.

If you are on the “large” side and looking to paddle, I would strongly suggest using a canoe instead of a kayak.

Even the widest kayaks are not as stable as an appropriately-sized canoe, nor are they as easy to get into. They are also harder (and more dangerous) to exit in case of a capsize and they hold very little accessible gear compared to a canoe.

For big and tall people, I see no advantage at all in choosing a kayak over a canoe if you have the choice.

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My opinion is that bigger paddlers avoid kayaks at all costs and consider a large solo canoe or multi-purpose tandem canoe

How Much Weight Can a Canoe Hold?

Here’s the good news! A typical small 12-foot canoe might hold as little as 400 lbs, while the average 18-foot canoe can hold over 1400 lbs.

Obviously, as a large person looking for an appropriate canoe, I would focus on larger canoes. A good Kevlar canoe is very light (think less than 50 lbs) and aside from the weight factor, larger canoes give you every possible advantage you would want.

For example, a larger canoe will be more stable (in most cases) and it will hold more capacity (people, gear, etc.) and it will also allow you to enjoy the greatest variety of activities in a canoe while giving you the greatest enjoyment since you’ll be less worried about whether or not the canoe will stay in one piece and not capsize!

If you’d like to get more information on which canoes hold how much weight, I’ve written an extensive article:

How Much Weight Can a Canoe Hold? (With 31 Examples)


What Type of Canoe is Most Stable?

The size of a canoe is not the only factor that helps determine stability. The most stable canoe is one with a flat bottom which helps with initial stability (AKA “primary stability”).

This refers to the canoe’s ability to feel like it won’t list or tip to one side or the other. Canoes with a flat bottom give the most stable feel, but, like with all things, each good quality usually comes with a caveat or “catch”.

Canoes with a flat bottom are less efficient (meaning they require a bit more energy to move the same distance as an “efficient” canoe). Flat bottom canoes also offer less secondary stability, which refers to the canoe’s ability to stay upright when leaned significantly to one side.

My thought is that if you’re a big person looking to get on the water to simply paddle, exercise, or go fishing, I’d look for a canoe with a wide profile and flat bottom. The overall category of canoe you’re looking for is a “recreational” canoe or perhaps an “expedition” canoe.


Where Should the Heaviest Person Sit in a Canoe?

The heaviest person in a canoe should sit in a place that allows the trim (the amount of canoe freeboard at the bow as compared to the amount of freeboard at the stern) to be fairly even and level.

There is no better answer than simply to sit in a place that balances the trim or “level-ness” of the canoe front to back. If a heavy person is paddling with a lighter person, then the lighter paddler should sit with more gear around them to help balance the load.

If the heavy person is paddling solo, it’s best to sit either dead center or perhaps as much as a foot aft (towards the stern) of center.

The stern will change depending on which way the canoe is pointing, but when I say “stern” I mean the part of the canoe that is behind the paddler.


What Type of Canoe Should Large Paddlers Avoid?

Yes, there is a type of canoe I would strongly advise against if your weight is significantly above average. In most cases, large paddlers should avoid paddling in a canoe meant only for solo paddlers.

Solo canoes are most often extremely narrow (about 20″ – 25″ at the widest part – the beam) and are meant for efficient tripping (if it’s an expedition canoe) which means the hull is not a flat bottom, but a shallow arch.

Canoes with a shallow arch feel much less stable than a flat-bottom canoe and their decreased width only adds to the problem of stability.

Solo canoes are a tempting option because they are lighter to carry, and a large person is more likely to paddle as a solo paddler in his/her own canoe.

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Me in my solo canoe. I weigh only 169 lbs and my butt just barely fits on the seat with my knees sticking out past the gunwales!

However, solo canoes are not advisable for large people because they are too narrow, tippy, and don’t hold nearly as much weight or gear volume.

That said, there are a few exceptions. Let’s take a look!


Which Canoe Brands and Models Are Best for Big Paddlers?

While the actual manufacturer is less important than the qualities of the craft itself, there are a few canoe makers who offer an extensive variety of canoes which means there are several excellent models for a larger paddler.

Generally, we want to consider asymmetrical lake tripping canoes and some symmetrical models that are NOT “PROSPECTOR” models.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend the Prospector model canoes for a person in the 250 lb – 400 lb weight range. True Prospectors are actually great river canoes but out on the lake they lack the stability of a good lake designed canoe

Wayne Docking – Souris River Canoes

Prospector” refers to a particular hull design used extensively 100 years ago and holds a nostalgic allure. It is not great for stability since the rocker makes it a bit less steady and the rounded hull makes it even more tippy!

Let’s touch base on a few brands that offer higher-end canoes (that won’t destroy your spine if you carry them) and whose reputation is second to none.

Our go-to solos for bigger folks are the Encounter and Solo Plus. The Encounter is a high-capacity expedition canoe that is capable of moving big loads quickly across the wilderness. The Solo Plus is the most stable of our solo canoes and also serves as a small tandem for lighter people

Wenonah Canoe Company


WENONAH CANOE COMPANY

Wenonah is among the best-known and highest-volume canoe makers in the world. Based in Northern Minnesota, their expertise is respected far and wide.

I like them so much, I bought a Wenonah canoe! I recently spoke to the sales staff about the best option for bigger people and was told that they actually have solo canoes that would work for most big paddlers.

While many solo canoes have only a 20″ beam (widest part of the canoe – usually the center point), the Wenonah Encounter measures 25″ and has an impressive weight capacity given its ample depth. Its 17′ length gives it efficiency and added capacity and seaworthiness.

The Wenonah Solo Plus is another excellent option that also offers the ability to be paddled tandem with 2 smaller paddlers (up to about 170 lbs each).

With a maximum beam of 29″, this 16’6″ canoe offers a center seat and plenty of capacity for paddlers even up to 300 lbs.

My personal opinion is that if your size is anywhere from about 5’8″ and around 160 lbs, up to about 6’5″ and 240 lbs, I’d recommend either the Wenonah Encounter Solo or the Wenonah Solo Plus.

For paddlers larger than about 250 lbs or for any bigger paddler who wants to experience a high-end canoe with maximum stability and seaworthiness, I’d suggest one of Wenonah’s most stable canoes, the Wenonah Champlain.

This 18-foot canoe features a 36.5″ beam (that’s pretty wide and stable) with a very high degree of stability and seaworthiness, meaning even a very large person won’t make it sit too low in the water.

It’s not great for solo paddling, but for 2 large people (say 250 – 300 lbs each), this would do the trick nicely.


SOURIS RIVER CANOE COMPANY

Based in Northern Ontario, Canada, Souris River is one of the brands that I see being used with more outfitters than any other brand.

One of the very best options for a big paddler is their Quetico 18’5″ model with a 36.5″ beam (gunwale width at the widest point) and a 1500 lb capacity.

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The Quetico 18.5 Kevlar canoe with a huge capacity, 3 seats (perfect for 3 people and/or one big paddler in the center seat). photo: courtesy Souris River Canoe Co.

Even a big guy who may be pushing 400 lbs won’t put a significant strain on the weight capacity of this beast. And, it only weighs 49 lbs or even less!

The Quetico 17′ is pretty well just as good though it’s slightly narrower (35″) and has no center seat. But at 42 lbs, it’s a tempting option!

… he was well over 6′ and weighed in at 275 pounds, but he informed me he was intending to lose weight. I honestly  suggested to him he might want to consider the Quetico 18.5 “family” canoe as a much safer canoe choice.

We are huge in the commercial rental/wilderness outfitter world both in Canada and the US and many outfitters use the Quetico 18.5 for their really big clients. When you get folks pushing 300 lbs, and I get a few, the choices really become fewer.

We often sell the Quetico 17 to folks who weigh 230-240 lbs with sensible warnings on seat strength and how to prevent premature breakage, especially the wider bow seat.

Wayne Docking – Souris River Canoes


Other EXCELLENT Canoe Brands and Models for Big Paddlers

Wenonah and Souris River are by no means the only options for a safe and sturdy canoe for larger folks, and here’s a chart showing several of my “other” best options. If you choose any of these options, you won’t be disappointed!

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The (rather lengthy) Northstar Northwind 20. This is an excellent large-capacity craft for even the largest paddlers.

CANOE BRANDMODELLENGTHWEIGHT CAPACITY
Mad RiverExpedition 18618′ 6″1250 lbs
Clipper Mackenzie18′ 6″1400 lbs
Grumman Square Stern19′1100 lbs
NorthstarNorthwind 2020′ 5″1500 lbs
LifetimeKodiak13′600 lbs (good solo for big person)


A Note About Seats

While the canoes listed in the previous section are all good options for a bigger paddler, I would be remiss if I didn’t draw your attention to the fact that many (if not most) of the factory-installed seats in most canoes are meant for body weights up to around 200 lbs.

After that, it gets a bit dicey. If I were to find myself in the category of a “big guy” weighing close to 300 lbs or more, here’s what I would do;

I would first get a canoe with a center seat or I would install a hardwood seat with 2″ nylon webbing (no cane seats).

Then, I would customize the seat by adding a wood brace or braces of some kind under the seat (or even a small wood box that wedges between the bottom of the seat and the canoe floor) to help take some additional weight pressure off the seat itself and the canoe’s gunwales.

Finally, I would purchase a good set of knee pads (the kind that attaches to the canoe, not to your knees) and install them properly.

At the same time, I would understand and practice half sitting and half kneeling (not a full sit) on the seat while paddling. This will alleviate pressure on the seat and offer you a more efficient and balanced paddling position.


My BEST Solution for the Ultimate Canoe for Big, Heavy, and Tall Paddlers

So far, I’ve covered normal canoes that would be great options for larger canoeists, but there’s an even better solution that would work for just about any hefty, bigger-than-average paddler who wants stability and safety.

This option assumes you won’t be portaging, though you certainly can if you add one more carry trip to each portage point.

Canoe Stabilizers!

With a high-quality set of stabilizers, you will add a level of stability that NO canoe can match on its own. I use stabilizers for fishing and they allow me to stand up and even walk around in a Prospector-style canoe (which is a very unstable design with little initial stability).

The Spring Creek Stabilizers I use include an option of a portage carry bag. If you decide on this option, your choice of canoe can be almost any size/shape/design out there, as long as you can fit into it.

I’ve done a full review on stabilizers and you can read the article right here;

How to Stabilize a Canoe (The best option I’ve found)

You can also check out our video to see the Spring Creek Stabilizer in action:


Best 7 Tips for Big and Heavy Paddlers

1 – It’s best to go solo

While it’s totally fine to paddle tandem, if you’re over 300 lbs and really would like to paddle a canoe, I would urge you to get one of the large solo canoes we mentioned earlier in the article or a tandem canoe that is meant to also be used solo.

2 – Learn the Basics

It’s easy to see someone paddling and think “that’s easy” but unless you’ve gained some experience, you may be in for a rude awakening when you realize you’re not sure how to control your canoe. This is true for all paddlers but especially for very large canoeists.

3 – If you capsize, you’ll need to swim to shore

Understand that the likelihood of getting back into your canoe on the water if you should capsize, is extremely low, and even small, light people often cannot (depending on the specific canoe).

You’ll likely have to swim and drag the canoe with you to shore.

4 – It’s best to stay close to shore ALWAYS

For the reason outlined in tip #3, I would suggest staying within 50 feet of the shore at all times. I do know that on an actual canoe trip, it will be impossible to do that and still travel efficiently, but as much as possible, stay close to shore!

5 – ALWAYS wear a Life Jacket

This one may sound obvious, but many larger folks cannot fit into a PFD. In such a case, I might suggest a Type 2, Type 4, or Type 5 personal flotation device. I won’t detail what those are since I’ve written extensively about them.

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Even bigger paddlers can find a PFD though it might take a bit of searching

See THIS article;

Canoe Safety Gear (The Essentials & “Almost” Essentials)

6 – Be sure to give attention to potential seat modifications

It’s likely that a factory-installed seat won’t do the trick for a 350-lb paddler, so I would remind you to look into reinforced seating options.

The good news is that it’s not that difficult to do and there are many canoes that will accommodate your weight and your seat modifications nicely. I would suggest contacting the sales team at a canoe manufacturer whose canoe you’re thinking of buying (or maybe you already have one).

I’ve found the most attentive and helpful sales team comes from SOURIS RIVER CANOES.

7 – Use a Stabilizer

I’ve outlined this option earlier in this article but it’s such a big deal, I’m reminding you again!


Key Takeaways

If you’re a big paddler, I want to encourage you in your pursuit of paddling for a whole host of reasons. However, it’s important to know that you’ll have to take extra precautions based on your size or height and weight.

To boil everything down to one concise piece of advice, here it is:

Get a canoe that will handle your weight and gear (you’ll need gear if you decide to go on an overnight trip) and SERIOUSLY consider a set of stabilizers that will increase the buoyancy, stable feel, and safety factors considerably.

Then, always err on the side of caution by wearing a PFD, staying close to shore and I would also suggest a personal locator beacon just in case.

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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