You’ve decided it’s time for a canoe. Great decision! Carefully chosen canoes result in years of good clean fun. Carelessly chosen canoes result in incriminating looks from spouses who wonder why you spent $2000 on a garage ornament instead of something useful like tuition. I’ve often said that boat purchases are more like rentals, and I stand by that, especially when buying used. When I acquire a boat and decide it’s not right for me I can usually find a chump, I mean fellow boater, to take it off my hands. Just kidding about the chump part. I’d never pass on a dog of a canoe without full disclosure. That said, when I find a boat isn’t right for me it’s because it didn’t turn out to be quite what I thought it would, not because I didn’t perform my research first. When choosing a canoe, especially your first canoe, it’s essential that you do your homework. The only thing worse than being stuck with a canoe that doesn’t meet your needs is being stuck with a canoe that doesn’t meet your needs because you didn’t consider your needs to begin with. It happens a lot. Don’t do that. There are all sorts of canoes for all sorts of paddling and there’s certainly one that will work for you, so let’s demystify the process of finding it.
First, decide what you want out of a canoe. Ready to tackle white water? Sweet! Careful though, it’s addictive. Float camping? Oh yeah! Also addictive. White water float camping? Sure! They make canoes for that. Or maybe you just need something to take fishing on lazy rivers or small lakes. Whatever your need there’s a canoe that will meet it, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to score one that’ll do a little bit of everything if that’s what you’re after. We call those types of canoes Swiss Army Knives. They’re not particularly great at anything but they’re pretty good at a whole lot of stuff. Prioritize your needs then find the kind of canoe that best meets them. If you find its capabilities too restrictive consider where you’re willing to compromise. Remember, every boat’s a compromise.
Second, educate yourself. What are the hull designs and what are each one’s strengths and weaknesses? How do those strengths and weaknesses add up to make a given hull design a good choice for you?
Study up on stability. There are two types, initial and secondary. Some have one, some have both and some seem to have neither! Which is important to you depends on where you’ll float your boat. For example, initial stability is good for paddlers who can’t stand that “tippy” feeling those with no knowledge of canoes use to describe them. The problem with initial stability is it often (not always) comes at the expense of secondary stability. That’s not a problem if your canoe will never see anything but flat water. On the other hand, if you plan to be on water that requires maneuverability and leaning, like, oh, I don’t know, a river, you’ll need that secondary, fellow boater! Most new paddlers will be best served by a canoe that offers a mix of initial and secondary stability.
What about length? Well, what about it? Do you mostly plan to paddle tandem, or solo? There are tandem and solo canoes, but if you envision both tandem and solo trips and can only swing one canoe strongly consider a symmetrical tandem in the fifteen to sixteen foot range. With proper technique you’ll be able to turn the boat around and handle it from the bow station, and when it’s time for your partner to hop in you won’t have to look around for a boat stretcher.
Answering those questions will help you narrow the field of suitors considerably. You will then be ready to consider hull design and rocker. These two considerations deserve their own discussion, but let’s just assume you’ve decided you do not want to limit your paddling to flat water. In that case you’ll probably want a boat with a shallow V or shallow arch hull and moderate rocker. What is rocker? I’m glad you asked. Rocker is the degree to which the canoe ends rise from the center. Imagine a canoe sitting on level ground. How much daylight can you see under the bow and stern? That’s rocker. It’s very important in determining how maneuverable a canoe will be. Generally speaking the more the rocker the more maneuverable the canoe. There are other design features that impact maneuverability, but for our purposes rocker takes prominence. Moderate rocker is a subjective term, but that’s what you’ll want. I think most paddlers would agree that means two to three inches. This is good news because lots of slow and fast (and even white) water suitable symmetrical tandem canoes come with that amount of rocker.
Finally, let’s talk about layup. What’s layup? You can read more about it in The Anatomy of a Canoe https://aradventuregram.com/gear/thwarted-the-anatomy-of-a-canoe/, but simply put it’s the material the manufacturer uses for canoe construction. There are several layups to choose from, in some cases even when it comes to a single canoe model. The one that works for you depends on several questions. What can you afford? Some layups cost more than others. What can you handle? Some layups weigh more than others. Where do you plan to paddle? Deep rivers and lakes or rocky streams? Some layups are more durable than others…..but not so fast! Many layups are plenty tough and can take hits just fine, but constant abrasion from rocky conditions in mountain streams like the ones found in the Ozarks and Ouachitas are a different matter. So, you’ve probably guessed this by now, but which layup is right for you depends on how and where you’ll paddle most.
Third, look in the right place. It’s been said that the best canoe is the one you’ll use. That’s true, but if you buy a canoe that’s not good for much guess what? You won’t use it. I don’t know of a gentle way to say this. Most any canoe you find at a big box store will not be good for much. Like any other rule this one has exceptions, but generally speaking it’s best to stick with outfitters if you’re considering a new canoe. Not only do they have better canoes, they have better advice too. That kid behind the big box store gun counter is exactly where his boss wants him to be. He’ll unlock the canoes for you, but guess what’ll happen if you ask him about layup or hull design. Then, just for giggles ask him what he can do for you on price. If you’re bored maybe do this before going to a real boat shop, but if your time and blood pressure are important to you start with someone who has something worth your hard earned Yankee dollars and is capable of helping you make a good decision. The kid at the big box store is doing his best, but let him spend his time the way his boss intended, selling guns and ammo.
Perhaps like me you’re not made of money. I’ve bought exactly two brand new boats in my paddling life. This was because I wanted to thank the outfitter who spent hours patiently fielding dumb and exhausting questions with a smile and genuinely helpful attitude and I felt compelled to honor his efforts. He still gave me a great deal both times. Every other boat acquisition I’ve made has been courtesy of message board gear swaps and Craigslist. Yep, Craigslist! Incidentally, the outfitter who sold me those two boats? He takes trade ins. So do most other outfitters. Try that at a big box store. My point is this. If you buy a boat; a good quality boat, a well-considered boat, and it turns out it just doesn’t quite meet your needs the way you thought it would? That’s okay! You just rented it, remember?
At that point you have several options. If finances, storage space and marital harmony allow you could buy another boat but keep that one handy in case your needs change. For example, maybe you have a little one who will soon be ready to join you on the water, or maybe you have a not so little one who will soon be able to try out that boat and see if it meets her needs. If keeping it isn’t an option you could post it on gear swaps and work out a sale or swap. Or, you could throw it on good old Craigslist. You might be surprised who looks there when it’s time for a new to them boat. I sure do! And, if your potential buyer or seller is six hours away don’t sweat it. There’s a constant parade of boaters travelling east and west and any of them will be happy to help you out with delivery (if they have rack space) for gas money, tasty beverages or a hug.
So, if it helps I think your decision to buy that first canoe is a great one. Drop me a line when you’re ready to splash her and maybe I’ll join you.
See you out there!