As you look for a new (or new to you) canoe, you’ll be faced with many choices, not the least of which is canoe material. For many new paddlers, materials matter less than price, but I’ll show you how materials are arguably THE MOST important factor in deciding which canoe to buy.
The best canoe material for whitewater paddling is Royalex or TuffStuff, while the best material for wilderness trips is carbon fiber or kevlar. The best material for looks and authenticity is wood, while plastic is the best for light use and recreation.
As you might expect, the “best” material has more to do with your type of canoeing and your intended usage context.
However, there is a bit of a crossover of materials that are fine for multiple uses, and if you read on, I’ll set you up with some options for every style of paddling and rank them in order of how they stack up to other materials for your paddling conditions.
Table of Contents
RANKING SYSTEM EXPLANATION
Out of a score of 3.0, we’ll show you how each material ranks for what quality. 3 canoes mean you’ll appreciate this quality, and the perfect canoe material would have a score of 3 in all categories.
If you see only 1 canoe, you’ll know that for the end-user (that would be YOU), this canoe material does not rank well, and you will not appreciate it for this quality.
For example, if the category WEIGHT ranks with only 1 canoe, that means it’s heavy and you won’t want to carry this over a portage trail.
Definitions of Categories:
Toughness – refers to the overall durability of the material. The higher the toughness ranking, the more abuse it can take before sustaining damage that will need repair.
Efficiency – refers to the ease with which the canoe will move through the water after each stroke. The higher the efficiency rank, the faster and easier the canoe will move through the water with each output of forward thrust energy.
Price – refers to the initial purchase price or the used purchase price. The more canoes you see in this ranking, the cheaper the canoe is to buy.
Weight – refers to how heavy the canoe is. The more canoes you see in this rank, the lighter it is and will be easier to carry.
Aluminum canoes have long been a staple in the canoe building industry, especially after the second world war. Aluminum canoes (specifically Grumman Canoes) were originally made in factories that created aircraft for military use. After the war, much of the machinery was re-tooled to create canoes.
However, the canoes were designed as much for their ability to be stacked one on top (or inside) of the other as they were for their function ability. That meant that efficiency was not at the top of the priority list.
Additionally, because aluminum is very difficult to mold into an efficient design, the aluminum canoe never became anything better than a tough, symmetrical workhorse.
They are not exceptionally light (though there are heavier materials) and they are certainly not efficient or quiet.
I grew up through my pre-teen and teen years paddling only an aluminum canoe. I can still hear the (loud) sound of water smacking off the sides of the bow even as the nose of the canoe cut through quiet water in early morning.
I knew even then this was not the mark of a good canoe with reasonable efficiency.
When I had to portage, it was almost always a 2-man job unless my dad was up to showing off his strength. In that case, a 300-yard portage was about his limit!
Because of the metal exterior, aluminum canoes are tough enough to be used in white water, and they can handle banging against rocks and scraping along the top of them. The hull will buckle before anything serious happens.
However, if they are sufficiently impacted, they can buckle permanently to the point they need to be manually “un-bent”.
Because they are mass-produced with mostly machines, the price can be a bit lower than a hand made canoe, and that’s why Dad bought the thing in the first place.
I’d suggest using an aluminum canoe for recreational purposes where carrying will not happen often, and stability is important. Every aluminum canoe I’ve sat in has great initial stability (because they have a flat bottom) but not-so-great secondary stability (though, thankfully, I’ve never been dumped in the drink because of conditions that made me test the secondary stability beyond its capabilities).
Plastic is just a cheap-sounding way of saying “POLYETHYLENE”. Polyethylene canoes are a very inexpensive material when compared to any other material.
These canoes are made by pouring plastic beads into a mold where they are heated and shaped as desired. There are limitations as to the shape and design of the hull of Polyethylene canoes.
This means they are usually not shaped with the ultimate efficiency of design of a high-end Kevlar canoe (we’ll get there in a minute).
These canoes are most often less rigid than other canoes, yet they are typically the heaviest canoes on the market. They usually have aluminum poles along the inside bottom (keel line) of the canoe to help with rigidity.
Common brands are Coleman (no longer made) and Pelican. Nova Craft, Old Town and Mad River also make plastic canoes for the thrifty paddler.
Polyethylene canoes are the most inexpensive canoes available, but they are also the heaviest (for their length) and they are not very tough compared to aluminum or Royalex or TuffStuff, though they would compare or even beat the durability of Kevlar or Carbon.
Because they are neither light nor efficient, they are not recommended for expeditions. Because they are not really that durable, they are not recommended for serious whitewater. They are best used for recreation (much like aluminum canoes).
WOOD or CANVAS
While wood and canvas are different, I’ll place them in the same category as they are both older designs used more often 50 years ago and well before that!
Wood canoes are most often defined by cedar strip exteriors or hulls, while canvas canoes are wood-framed canoes with a tough canvas exterior that is reinforced with a variety of composite epoxy, fibers, etc.
Wood canoes have a following (sometimes elitist) of folks who say they are undoubtedly “the best” craft to have. While this is debatable, what is not debatable is that wood canoes personify the history, romance and aesthetic of canoeing.
If you enter a log cabin or rustic store and see a hanging canoe (that’s not for sale), there’s about a 100% chance it’s a wood canoe. That’s because it looks awesome and is a historical classic that really cannot be matched by any other material.
However, they are usually made custom and by hand these days, which means they are expensive, and no matter how you make them, they are certainly significantly heavier than any Carbon or Kevlar composite.
Maintenance is quite high on wood canoes, so most owners store them indoors and only take them out on the water anywhere from twice a season to NOT AT ALL – EVER!
Having said that, repairs are not as difficult as with some other materials.
Fiberglass canoes are made with either a fiber cloth that is infused with a resin that hardens, or just chopped up fiberglass fibers mixed with resin. The latter is a cheap and brittle product, while the former is a tough and durable (and fairly light) canoe.
Also, Fiberglass along with Kevlar and other materials are formed by combining a type of fiber (preferably a cloth material rather than loose dust or chopped fibers) with a hardening resin, and this is called “composite”. Kevlar and Carbon are other composites we’ll talk about later in this overview.
Every Fiberglass canoe I’ve ever seen has an exterior paint job (called “gel-coat” in the canoe industry) which both protects the hull from abrasions and impacts (to an extent) and adds to the weight noticeably.
Fiberglass canoes have been around for many decades and I would call them a good, solid “average” canoe. They are not great for anything, but are pretty decent on several fronts.
They offer a decent price (where Carbon is extremely expensive), as well as decent weight (though Carbon is FAR lighter and more enjoyable to carry). They are often pretty efficient since they can be laid by hand and formed to whatever shape the maker can imagine.
They are also more rigid than plastic canoes.
These canoes can be taken on both whitewater and expedition trips over portages, but you’ll be taking your chances with whitewater (stick to category 1 or 2) and after a total of about 5 km of portage carries, you’ll probably make the decision to ditch the Fiberglass canoe for next season and replace it with Kevlar.
Carbon fiber is a composite material that involves epoxy resin and carbon fibers or carbon cloth.
While it may technically be a few percentage points less durable than Kevlar (though some manufacturers say theirs is not), it’s really about the same as Kevlar when it comes to abrasion resistance and durability.
Carbon canoes do, however, decrease weight significantly, with some shorter canoes weighing in around TEN POUNDS! Carbon fiber canoes are stiffer than Kevlar, and offer an unmistakably black, rich look.
Canoes made of Carbon fibers are the most expensive on the market, but offer the very best in light weight and durability.
It’s important to note that many canoe makers who offer Carbon fiber canoes, will combine Carbon with Kevlar for added toughness.
They are best for expedition trips or for those who would like to head to the water without excuses to prevent them from a day on the water!
Kevlar is arguably the most popular and commonly-used composite on the market given its durability (compared to Carbon fiber) and its price, which is noticeably lower than Carbon.
Kevlar fibers are preferable to Fiberglass since they are more durable (stiffer) and significantly lighter (about 20 – 30%).
Kevlar is often combined with other composite materials like Fiberglass or Carbon to create a whole variety of composite materials with varying degrees of durability and prices.
Kevlar canoes often have no paint or gel-coat because the look of kevlar cloth with an epoxy resin is quite attractive. However, many canoes do have a gel-coat but that adds several pounds of weight to the craft so it’s often not the first choice of serious canoeists who want a long-term expedition craft.
Some manufacturers even inject color into the epoxy for a different look.
Kevlar composite canoes are ideal for lake expeditions where portaging is involved. They are most often designed with a very efficient hull for speed and ease of travel.
They are not, however, ideal for whitewater. Kevlar is durable enough to sustain impacts that may occur from paddling on lakes, but it’s not tough enough to withstand the types of impacts that come with the help of fast-moving water through sharp rocks and mid-river obstacles like fallen trees.
Royalex is a proprietary material made by Uniroyal Tire Company and has been the gold standard for canoe makers whose focus is whitewater.
This material is exceptionally durable and can withstand multiple severe impacts that may dent the hull. But the hull will return to its original shape and be ready for the next impact.
It’s also fairly light though not as light as the composites.
Royalex will expand and contract and so wood trim may be damaged (split or cracked). Most Royalex canoes do not have wood trim for this reason.
Royalex canoes are among the heaviest canoes on the market, but nothing is more durable, including aluminum or polyethylene.
The bad news is that Uniroyal was bought out by another company that felt it wiser to stop manufacturing Royalex (since it was really only used for canoes at the time of the buyout).
TUFFSTUFF / T-FORMEX
TuffStuff and T-Formex are different … but the same as well. TuffStuff is a material invented by Canadian canoe maker NovaCraft. It was specifically made to replace Royalex.
It’s manufactured with Basalt/Innegra cloth with a vinyl resin. This material can withstand being dropped from a multi-story building with relatively minor damage.
T-Formex is a material invented by Canadian canoe maker Esquif. It was specifically made to replace Royalex. It’s an ABS plastic laminate and it excels in structural memory and resistance to abrasion and impacts.
Both products are well-suited for whitewater canoeing, but they’ve both made inroads into other canoe markets like expedition trips on flat water, but in very remote areas where you can’t take chances with a broken canoe.
Hunters and anglers are also being marketed to by both Nova-Craft and Esquif.
The Magic of T-Formex
Scary video to watch, but with a happy ending!
Here at Rugged Outdoors Guide, I will strive to give you the most up-to-date and helpful information that will assist you in your buying decisions on all the outdoor gear I can get a hold of, and especially as it relates to canoeing and camping as well as other paddle sports.
I trust this overview of canoe materials has given you something to think about, and I appreciate your trust and for taking the time to check out what I’ve been able to offer.
With over 40 years of wilderness paddling experience, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned and I’m eager to learn more as I look to the future!
Esquif Canoe Company