Why Your Canoe is so Tippy and Ways to Add Stability

If you’re new to canoeing, you’ll probably be interested in knowing the real reason your canoe (or one you’ve paddled recently) feels so tippy. If you’ve experienced a few different canoes, you might realize that one felt more stable than the other.

I’ve been paddling for over 40 years and I have a pretty good idea of all the factors that affect a canoe’s stability. I’ll give you a detailed overview of the reasons why some canoes feel tippy and others don’t, and I’ll let you know what you can do about helping to stabilize your canoe!


Why Are Some Canoes More Tippy Than Others?

It’s true that some canoes feel unstable while others are quite stable. Why are some canoes so tippy? There are a variety of factors that determine how “tippy” a canoe feels and how easy it is to roll over. Here’s a quick overview;

The Tippiest

If your canoe has a rounded hull shape (cross-section view), then it will be VERY tippy. The only canoes that really use this design are racing canoes. The reason they are designed this way is to minimize the surface area that is in contact with water, thereby minimizing water-to-hull friction, thereby increasing speed.

The problem is that nothing about this design offers stability.

Consider a perfectly round, long wood log in the water. If you placed a rock on the upper dry area of the log, would you trust it to stay on the log and not fall off after an hour adrift? Of course, you wouldn’t. Why?

Because logs can easily rotate or turn in the water. So too with a round hull of a racing shell. I know that’s an exaggerated, extreme example and while racing canoes are not that “unstable”, it’s a reasonable analogy.

Slightly Less Tippy

Canoe makers are very interested in maximizing a canoe’s forward “efficiency” in the water. In fact, their profits depend on their being “better” than their competition in making a tripping canoe faster and easier to paddle long distances than their competitors’ canoes.

Racing canoes are VERY efficient (efficient is defined by a canoe’s ability to move through the water as fast as possible with as little effort as possible), but they are unstable. If a canoe is unstable, the paddler(s) will be thinking about their own safety constantly, and the enjoyment of paddling in nature is almost eliminated by the fear of capsizing, losing gear, losing time, and in extreme cases, losing a life!

So, to minimize the fear factor associated with paddling efficient canoes, makers of good lake tripping canoes (and whitewater canoes), make what is called a “shallow arch” design. This basically means the shape of the canoe is a bit less round and has a slightly wider profile.

It also has a slightly flatter bottom than a racing shell. This design is more stable and shouldn’t ever tip over if being paddled by someone with experience, but for that stability, there’s a tradeoff.

The hull surface that touches the water is greater than the racing canoe, so there is more water moving against the hull, increasing friction and reducing “efficiency”.

Super Stable

Many paddlers are not interested in long-distance trips or “efficiency” because they simply want to go fishing in a small lake for the afternoon or sit in the canoe for hours while photographing wildlife or hunting.

These canoeists don’t need speed or efficiency. They need stability. So, manufacturers make canoes that are very wide (relative to the other designs I’ve mentioned) and their hull profile includes a wide and flat bottom.

This type of canoe can be very fun to paddle in a recreational context, but for that added feeling of stability and “safety”, there is a tradeoff (as with anything).

This type of canoe is harder to paddle over long distances, and at the end of a multi-day canoe trip, you (or you and your partner) will have used significantly more energy and effort to paddle that canoe than you would have if you had a semi-stable lake tripping canoe covering the same distance (though you probably wouldn’t notice the difference in your energy consumption).

I’ve proven this idea many times as I and my strong, adult partner have paddled my flat-bottom Grumman aluminum beast alongside a group of weaker, less-experienced young paddlers in an 18-foot Wenonah tripping canoe, only to find ourselves at the back of the group (not on purpose)!


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Tripping and recreation canoes are common, while you will likely never see a racing canoe anywhere but an actual race. Most trip outfitters offer only hulls designed for tripping and not racing or recreation.


Primary vs. Secondary Stability

One of the things you’d learn if you took a course called “introduction to canoeing”, would be the concept of Primary Stability and Secondary Stability. Much can be said of these two opposing qualities in a canoe, but let me boil it down to a simple, beginner-style explanation.

Primary Stability

When you first step into a canoe, does it feel relatively stable for a small, narrow craft? Can you sit in it without feeling like you could roll over into the water any second? If so, your canoe has initial stability.

That means that if you “initially” lean over to one side, you won’t feel like the canoe is going over with you. It keeps upright nicely. This design allows you to stand or relax, recline or actively fish, shoot or do things in a stable vessel.

It works best on quiet water with minimal waves.

Secondary Stability

Canoes with secondary stability tend to feel a little “tippy” when you first get into them. If you’re new to canoeing, you may even feel a tiny bit panicked and want to exit the canoe as quickly as you got in. Remember, that this style of canoe exists for 2 main reasons:

1 – It’s very efficient and maximizes the paddler’s energy output to give maximum forward thrust through the resistance of the water.

2 – It offers a level of difficulty in tipping the canoe further, once the canoe is already tipped noticeably to one side.

Secondary stability maximizes the likelihood of a canoe staying upright in the water even while leaning (heavily) to the side.

White water canoes are almost always designed with secondary stability which allows paddlers to maneuver the craft while being rocked and tossed by the water, without capsizing.

NOTE: A flat-bottomed canoe with great initial stability will not usually have great secondary stability because once it’s leaned over, the entire flat bottom (or most of it) has left contact with the water’s surface. Now, only a tiny bit of the canoe’s side is in the water, and this offers no stability at all.

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You can see that flat bottom canoes can be dangerous to paddle in waves where balance may be compromised. It takes great balance and effort to keep a tilted flat bottom canoe from capsizing.

But Racing Shells Don’t Have a Flat Bottom! Why Aren’t They Stable?

Here’s a great question. If a slightly rounded bottom on a canoe offers more secondary stability than a flat-bottomed canoe, why don’t racing canoes (with their VERY round bottoms) offer the best stability?

The answer is found in the shape of the hull. While a flat bottomed canoe loses its ability to be stable by separating its biggest flat surface from the water, a rounded racing canoe loses its ability to be stable by being so nearly perfectly round, which offers no resistance to rotation.

Because of the tubular or round shape of the racing hull, it has neither initial nor secondary stability.


Can I Get Accustomed to Operating a Tippy Canoe?

I love this question. You certainly can get very used to, and proficient in operating a tippy canoe (as many racers are), but many have protested:

I shouldn’t have to “get used” to the poor stability of a canoe any more than I should have to “get used” to the poor braking ability on my new car!

That seems illogical and even stupid!

Shouldn’t that problem be addressed by engineers who can find an adequate solution?

Every Honest Canoeist at Some Point in Life

The reality is that making a canoe with excellent primary stability and excellent secondary stability is challenging at best and impossible in the truest sense.

It’s almost like asking to have the fastest racing car in the world but also a good vehicle for cargo transportation … in the SAME VEHICLE. It’s just not possible since the ability to do one task well often eliminates the possibility of doing another task altogether.

Until someone invents a miracle canoe that does everything perfectly, you’ll have to get used to the idea of flat-bottomed stability convenience or shallow arch rounded bottom long-distance tripping efficiency.

Some canoes offer a bit of a hybrid of those two desirable qualities, but in doing so, they compromise and sacrifice one of the qualities to the same extent they accommodate the other quality.

A great example of this is a canoe called the Wenonah Solo Plus. This canoe does a pretty good job at giving you some good solo qualities like a bit of tumblehome and a narrower gunwale width (which good solo canoes have).

However, because it needs to also accommodate 2 paddlers, the gunwale width is about 5″-6″ wider than a good solo canoe and there’s not nearly enough tumblehome to be considered a good, efficient solo canoe.

By the same token, its narrower gunwale makes it a tiny bit less stable for 2 paddlers, and an extra seat in the middle (for the solo paddler) often gets in the way of efficient packing.

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The Wenonah Solo Plus offers the ability to have a decent solo canoe and a decent tandem tripper. However, it does neither of those tasks as well as a dedicated solo canoe or a dedicated lake tripping canoe.

What Other Factors Determine Stability Other Than Cross-Section Hull Shape?

HULL SHAPE END TO END

Another big factor in determining stability is the shape of the hull when viewed from the side. If the ROCKER (the amount of curve in a keel line from bow to stern) is great, a canoe will feel tippy.

If the ROCKER is minimal or small from bow to stern, the more stable the canoe will be.

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You’ll notice in this photo, nearly 50% of my entire hull is sitting in mid-air. It’s not in contact with the water, and that makes the canoe less stable. The reason it’s not touching the water (other than the fact that I don’t have a bow paddler) is that the shape of the hull from bow to stern has a heavy rocker.

PADDLER’S CENTER OF GRAVITY

If you are sitting high in the canoe as you would while sitting on a seat that is designed at gunwale height, you’ll find the canoe will be less stable.

Also, if you are kneeling, but your knees are only bent to 90⁰, then your torso is positioned way above the gunwales and that will decrease stability as well.

PACKED GEAR

It’s a universal truth known to every experienced canoe tripper that a canoe that is loaded with gear (below gunwale height) will be far more stable than an empty canoe.

This is great to know, but the more you pack on a long trip, the more hassle and effort it’ll take to portage and pack/unpack it.

Also, you’ll likely want to paddle quite a bit without gear at all, like an early morning trip around your lake or bay before breakfast at the cottage. So, I wouldn’t rely on gear as the only factor to help stabilize your canoe.


Do Canoes Tip Over Easily?

While I’ve attempted to answer this question in this post, here’s the quickest answer for reference; *Canoes usually are not that easy to tip over if you use common sense and have a healthy respect for the water.

However, if your canoe is empty and you’re having fun at a beach with a canoe and your family, you won’t have a hard time tipping it over if you’re doing it on purpose.

However, if you’re on a canoe trip with a normal tripping canoe, you’d have to be in 6-foot breaking waves out on Lake Superior or drinking and dancing in your canoe, in order to capsize it.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly, if you remain attentive, have some balancing ability, and use common sense, you should never be in danger of tipping a canoe even after a lifetime of canoe trips.

Canoes are meticulously engineered and designed to minimize the risk of tipping, and many paddlers before you have paddled your style of canoe for thousands of miles with great success. I’m confident you can do the same.

*Also check out the article “Why is My Canoe So Tippy?”


Does Adding Weight to a Canoe Make it More Stable?

Adding weight to your canoe will almost always make it more stable, but this principle is only true if you follow some important rules.

Firstly, the weight should come in the form of packed gear. Dry bags and food barrels are the best since they are impervious to water and they are big enough to distribute (not concentrate) weight.

Secondly, when you pack your canoe, it’s crucial that you minimize the amount of heavy gear that protrudes upward beyond the level of your gunwales. The taller the load sits, the less stable your canoe will be.

In fact, if the load goes too high (like 2-3 feet above the gunwales) you will actually enhance the canoe’s tipping ability and the likelihood of capsizing.

On the other hand, if your canoe is a shallow arch tripper, you have 2 decent paddlers and your gear is all distributed evenly from bow to stern and packed below the gunwales, the odds of tipping the canoe under “normal” tripping conditions are lower than your odds of winning a lottery!

Of all paddlers who are trained by someone, here’s where they received their training!

36%

from a friend

31%

from a local paddle club

30%

from an American canoe association instructor


How Do I Make My Canoe Less Tippy?

Through most of this post I’ve given you tips on how to minimize instability, but here are a few more important (and maybe revolutionary to you!) ways to stabilize your canoe:

1 – Keep Your Paddle in the Water

If your stability is threatened by a sudden change in conditions (ie. large boat wake, unexpected waves from wind, etc.) an experienced canoeist will do one of several things.

One of those things is that he/she will brace the paddle shaft against the gunwale while keeping the blade (flat sides facing the sky and the bottom of the lake) in the water.

The reason for this is that if your canoe is being rocked side to from waves, the paddle blade will keep it from rocking since the paddle (and the water surrounding the paddle blade) will fight against the rocking side-to-side action of the canoe.

If 2 paddlers use this stabilizing technique (one on each side of the canoe), rocking can be greatly reduced and stabilization maximized.

2 – Keep Paddling Briskly

I mentioned there were several things an experienced paddler will do to help stabilize a canoe, and here’s another one.

Once any initial emergency is dealt with, the best action that paddlers can take in threatening conditions (other than to immediately get off the water) is to paddle, and do it with gusto!

The idea is that 2 people briskly paddling a canoe offer far more stability than no one paddling. Some have likened this principle to that of bicycling where a bike that is standing still can’t even balance while the faster it goes, the easier it is to maintain equilibrium.

3 – Consider Purchasing a Set of Canoe Stabilizers (or DIY)

I’ve written extensively about canoe stabilizers and I think if you’re serious about all your stabilizing options, you might want to read this article!

Though stabilizers are an added cost as well as added weight and inconvenience, they can be life-savers (metaphorically and literally). My set of stabilizers allow me to fish with confidence (even with an empty canoe) and I can even stand up and walk around in my 16-foot canoe!

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Here’s my 16-foot prospector fitted with a set of Spring Creek Stabilizers. These stabilizers allow me to stand up and walk in my canoe as I would on the bow deck of a bass boat.


Here’s a brief outline in point form, of the actions you can take to maximize stability in a variety of situations;

  • Be sure that your canoe is not a racing design (I’m pretty sure you won’t accidentally stumble accross a racing shell and use it for tripping)

  • If you’re a recreational canoeist, I’d suggest buying or borrowing a flat-bottomed canoe for ultimate stability

  • If you’re a canoe tripper/camper, you may want to get a tandem canoe (solo canoes are less stable because of their minimal width).

  • Pack your gear low and even throughout the canoe

  • Keep your attention on what’s going around and look ahead (if you look down into your canoe it’s easier to lose your balance)

  • As a stern paddler, try to keep paddle strokes in sync with the bow paddler (helps for stability)

  • Be sure that once you begin your trip, the canoe is balanced well both front-to-back and side-to-side (slide your butt one way or another to help) rather than paddling for long distances with the canoe listing slightly to one side.

  • Add a set of stabilizers if you feel more comfortable. A set of stabilizers will literally allow you to dance in your canoe (if you’re into that) without tipping!

  • Keep paddling (briskly) if you find yourself in a challenging situation where capsizing is possible. The action of 2 paddlers pushing forward (as opposed to just sitting in the water doing nothing) in addition to the speed will maximize stability.


Is There a Canoe With Good Stability and Also Good Efficiency (for tripping)?

In most cases, when canoe makers try to combine stability with efficiency, they cannot get the best of both worlds. They usually have to find a medium ground by compromising both of those qualities.

However, the good news is that manufacturers are getting better at tweaking designs and using engineering magic to keep the compromising to a minimum.

There are dozens of good models from a variety of canoe manufacturers that offer very good stability and very good efficiency.

I love this statement from Souris River Canoes :

A canoe without stability is a like a hotdog without ketchup. It tastes OK, and you could get used to it, but that ketchup makes it all complete.

It may not be the greatest analogy but I do know that tippy canoes and tippy-feeling canoes are no fun.

You really need a canoe that has good combination of primary (flat bottom) and secondary (shallow arched) of the two.

Personally, I think the Souris River Queticos where designed by Keith Robinson using a little science, a touch of art and a smattering of luck.  

These are outstanding canoes and their stability will serve 99% of all paddlers very well.

Souris River Canoe Company

Here is a short list of some excellent canoes from reputable companies that offer a very good combination of stability (initial) and efficiency (usually shallow arch canoes with secondary stability);

SOURIS RIVER CANOES – Quetico Series

SWIFT CANOES – Keewaydin Series

LANGFORD CANOES – Muskoka

WENONAH – Boundary Waters


Key Takeaways

I hope you’ve learned a lot about canoe stability and tippy-ness! I’ve spent countless hours in canoes from both extremes (super-tippy and ultra-stable) so I know of what I speak!

Remember the qualities of Primary vs. Secondary stability and note that you can do a lot to maximize stability in your canoe.

Flat-bottom boats are the most stable canoes (without stabilizers) but are not the best for whitewater or tripping.

Hull shape is a big factor that affects stability, and remember that canoes are generally pretty tough to tip over if you DON’T want to tip it on purpose.

Adding weight, using your paddle (as a stabilizer or just for paddling) and adding an external stabilizer are some of the best ways to stabilize your canoe.

If you have the luxury of buying a canoe that is specifically stable (and this suits your recreational purposes), then remember that the MOST STABLE canoe you can possibly have is a very wide one (like a Sportspal canoe) with an additional set of Stabilizers.

Happy paddling and please stop by Rugged Outdoors Guide every month or so to get your CANOE FIX 🙂


Sources: 1, 2

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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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