How to Choose the Best Canoe (For you)

After 40 years of slapping my paddle into rivers and lakes all over Canada, I can assure you that nearly everyone has a different idea of the definition of the “best canoe”.

Most of those differences can be attributed to personal preferences about what type of canoeing is the “best”.

It’s true that the best canoe for whitewater is not the best canoe for lake expeditions, and neither is the best canoe for just fishing at the cottage or letting the kids hack around at the dock!

Luckily, I think I have the answer for you if you’re wondering what is the best canoe FOR YOU!


How do I Choose the Best Canoe?

The best canoe for any paddler is the most expensive one that fits into the budget and that fits exactly the intended purpose while still being as versatile as possible. For most canoeists around the globe, that would likely be a lake tripping canoe with a symmetrical prospector hull design.

While this may be a general truism, let’s look at just a few more factors that may confirm my idea of a perfect canoe for you, or perhaps move you toward a completely different kind of canoe!

What Will I Use My Canoe For Mostly?

Many novice paddlers know why they want a canoe but won’t think about purpose as the main factor before beginning their search.

If your main reason for wanting a canoe is to have something at the end of the dock at the cottage that will be available for anyone like kids and guests just plodding around the bay near the cottage, then you’ll want a recreational canoe.

If you’d like to challenge fast-moving water and rapids, you’ll need a white water canoe, and if you’re thinking about portaging on a series of small, remote lakes, you certainly will need a lake tripping or expedition canoe.

Let’s see what each of those canoes is all about!

RECREATIONAL

Recreational canoes (in my opinion) can be defined from a few different angles. For example, it could include a heavy, fishing craft that is purpose-specific but has a bit of versatility.

This would include models from manufacturers like Sports Pal, Grumman, or Old Town. They are relatively short (15 feet or less) but very wide, stable, and astonishingly heavy.

They are made of aluminum, plastic, or fiberglass which makes them pretty durable, but discouragingly heavy once pulled from the water.

Their cargo capacity is very good and they can hold motors and car batteries or gas tanks along with a half dozen tackle boxes and multiple paddlers or passengers.

WHITE WATER

A white water canoe is best made from Royalex or the newer material known as T-Formex. This is a super-durable material that is ideal for crafts that will almost certainly collide with rocks and logs while being handled roughly by the current and waves in a fast-moving river.

The hull design is usually symmetrical and the keel line of the canoe has quite a bit of rocker (amount of curve from front to back when viewed from the side).

I would suggest staying clear of any canoes made of fiberglass or kevlar since they are not as forgiving should you slam into a boulder or underwater structure.

FLAT WATER TRIPPING CANOE

This canoe can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical in hull design and is most often made of kevlar. It is light enough to be carried by one person, but can hold a lot of gear … like around 600-900 lbs and can carry 2 people with all their gear for a week or two.

The length of a tripper canoe is 16-19 feet with 16-18 being the lengths that most canoeists find most useful. If you know your cargo loads will be big (ie. long trips with at least 2 people, or perhaps a third person or big dog), you’ll want to consider an 18-foot or larger canoe with a greater depth and cargo load capacity.

Not sure what all the parts of a canoe are and how they affect your buying decisions? Click the image above and your problem is solved!

How Do I Pick the Right Canoe From All the Options?

Based on your purpose for needing a canoe, you can choose one that exactly fits that purpose if you like. For example, if you want an exclusive whitewater canoe, you can research those models and then determine how you’ll buy one.

However, unless you absolutely know that you’ll only use your canoe for a specific purpose, I might suggest a bit of versatility that will serve you in a way that does not feel like you are compromising.

Let me explain. As I outlined at the start of this article, I believe a symmetrical, prospector design with a Kevlar construction is the most versatile canoe you can buy.

The reason is that in my experience (which is around 40 years of paddling) a prospector design with a moderate rocker, a length of around 16 feet, and having the weight of a Kevlar layup, will give you the absolute most “bang for your buck” if you plan on using the canoe for a variety of purposes including white water, recreation, fishing (even standing up) and expeditions.

Though I can’t say for sure, that opinion may have come from THE icon of canoeing himself, Mr. Bill Mason who sang the praises of this canoe style.

While I don’t share his preference for wood and canvas (since there are so many lighter and tougher materials available today), I understand his sentiment.

If I could have only one canoe, it would be the original chestnut wood-canvas 16 ft Prospector. There are faster, slower, tougher, less stable, more stable, more beautiful and less beautiful canoes than the Prospector, but none that do everything as well

Bill Mason – Song of the Paddle

Because I believe in this canoe so much, I went and bought one. It’s a 16-foot kevlar prospector design made by (the now non-existent company) Evergreen Canoe Company.

The prospector design is made to turn quickly in white water situations, and it can be paddled in either direction which makes it perfect for both tandem paddlers and solo canoeists.

The upturned bow and stern allow the craft to slice through waves without as high a risk of taking on water as a typical tripping canoe.

It’s true that the prospector design (with its heavier rocker) is harder to keep tracking in a straight line while lake tripping, the tracking ability is greatly increased as the canoe is loaded with paddlers and gear.

This design also allows for a greater variety of paddling positions because of its relative ease is being controlled by corrective paddle strokes – even from the center of the canoe.


Because I love fishing so much, I wanted to be sure I could fish from my prospector without feeling like I’m about to tip over every time I quickly shift my position while fighting a large fish or lean over to grab it.

The perfect solution is my stabilizer system which allows me to stand up (even 2 anglers can stand and cast at the same time) and I can even walk around in my canoe without feeling like I’m about to tip.

It even allows me to mount a trolling motor out to the side without any listing of the canoe towards that side.

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My 16 foot Kevlar prospector was set up as a fishing machine on a recent trip to Northern Ontario.

What Type of Canoe is Best for Beginners?

It just so happens that my idea for the best canoe for novice canoeists happens to be very similar to my recommendation in this article. You can read the entire post (it’ll only take a few minutes unless you want to deep dive into all the canoes I outline) – HERE!


Best Canoe for Beginners

Here’s an exhaustive article I wrote that you can either read in full (if you really want to up your knowledge) or you can just scan it for gems 🙂

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A Few More Things You Might Want to Consider

As if I haven’t given you enough info to get you started (or to confuse you), there are some other items that may be a big deal for you, but that you won’t necessarily know are options or features that you can choose or avoid.

SEATING

How many seats do you need? Most canoes have 2 seats unless it’s a solo canoe (that has only 1 seat). But many paddlers will need 3 or more seats for additional passengers. You’ll need to find a specialty canoe that has an extra seat, or you can easily and inexpensively MAKE YOUR OWN.

You may also want to consider the type of seating best for you (webbed, caned, tractor style, wood, plastic, etc.)

Each one of those options has its pros and cons, so research them well if you’re new to canoeing.

YOKE

The yoke is the doo-dad that goes across the canoe from one side to the other across the very middle of the canoe. It’s meant to add integrity to the structure of the canoe as well as being the piece of the canoe that sits on the shoulders of the paddler who carries the canoe to and from the car or across a portage.

The comfort of the yoke is no small matter on a long expedition, yet many novice paddlers are unaware of its importance. Please get a yoke that is molded and shaped to fit your shoulders or you may end up concluding that canoe trips are torturous and not for you!

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A Beautiful molded yoke on my 16-foot prospector

TRIM

The trim refers to the material that is used on much of the canoe other than the main hull construction. For example, the gunwales, thwarts, yoke, front and back deck or end caps can all be made of various materials, and those parts (cumulatively) are called “trim”.

The canoe in the photo above has all wood trim, while others are all either vinyl or aluminum with plastic bow and stern deck plates.


KEEL

A keel is most often unnecessary for most canoes, and keels are often found on lower-quality canoes.

However, if you’re looking for a lake tripping canoe specifically, then it’s not a horrible idea to get a canoe that has a keel, as long as it fits other criteria you might like such as light weight.

HULL CAPACITY

Most lake tripping canoes are 16-18 feet long with a beam (widest point of the canoe where the yoke is attached) of 31 inches to 36 inches. The depth of an expedition/tripping canoe is somewhere in the range of 12 inches to over 14 inches.

Obviously the wider and deeper a canoe is, the more storage it will have. However, if you’re thinking about a 4 day trip with 2 people in the wilderness, a 16-foot tripper with a 32-inch beam and a 12-inch depth is certainly adequate.


With a new canoe comes the task of equipping it with proper gear. Here’s a link to the best way to get you started on Amazon

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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