Paddle Primer

Missouri River: Clay County Park. Photo credit Paul Lepisto.

Canoe Choices

Pick the correct watercraft

Not all canoes are created equal. Some are wider. Some are longer. Some are tippier. Some are lighter. Picking the canoe best suited to your needs can mean the difference between a pleasurable experience and a struggle on the water.

“Most people ask a boat to do too much. Select a canoe based on your top two to three needs,” says David Hadden, brand director of watercraft for Johnson Outdoors, which makes canoes for Old Town Canoes & Kayaks. A lifelong paddler, Hadden has designed boats for more than 40 years — not only for Old Town but also for Mad River Canoe, Dagger, and Wenonah Canoe.

According to Hadden, canoes fall into three categories: sport, recreation, and performance. Sport canoes are the shortest (12-13 feet) and widest (40+ inches). Performance canoes are the longest (16+ feet) and narrowest (about 34 inches). Recreation canoes fall somewhere in between. Longer boats tend to be faster in the water, and wider ones are more stable.

“There are two types of stability: initial (or primary) stability and secondary stability,” explains Hadden. “Initial stability refers to how the canoe feels when you first get in. A canoe with good initial stability probably has a flat bottom and is anywhere from 36 to over 40 inches wide. Secondary stability refers to how it feels when it’s moving.”

Photographers who need the boat steady while shooting, anglers casting to the side of their canoe, duck hunters shooting a gun with recoil, and entry-level paddlers — especially families with kids — generally prefer canoes with good primary stability, so a wider, flat-bottomed canoe in the sport or recreation categories is the best choice. More advanced paddlers who recreate on moving rivers or open lakes where it’s wavy and windy should look for boats with better secondary stability — a canoe with some rocker at its bow and stern (which means the ends are curved up) — in the recreation or performance categories.

“If it’s not flat water, secondary stability is important,” explains Hadden. “Canoes with good secondary stability have an arch in their hulls or a V-hull design. The curvature helps the boat behave better when it goes up and over a wave. It’s more maneuverable.”

The construction of the canoe — which affects weight, durability, and cost — is another consideration. Canoes constructed from linear polyethylene plastics, such as Old Town canoes, are made from layers of plastic. They weigh around 70 pounds and are durable but not indestructible, though they can usually be repaired. Thermal-formed canoes (made in a mold), such as Coleman canoes, are durable but heavy (100+ pounds). Aluminum boats, such as Grumman canoes, are the toughest and a mainstay of the rental market. Composite canoes, typically made of Kevlar, carbon, or fiberglass, are super lightweight (under 40 pounds) and stiffer, which makes them more responsive. They can also be shaped with sharper ends, which allow them to slice through the water more efficiently. If you plan to do a lot of portages, a composite canoe is the best choice. If your canoe is going to lie on your dock when it’s not in use, a plastic layered or molded one will give you durability for years of paddling pleasure.

“Canoes may not be as cool as kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, but they’re a workhorse on the water,” says Hadden. “No need to cut the ends off your forks. You can carry lots of gear, as well as pets and kids, and they’re more comfortable to paddle because the seats are up higher...Get a canoe for what you do most on the water. If you’re finally taking that canoe trip-of-a-lifetime and your boat isn’t right for it, don’t worry. You can always rent.”

Upside Down!

Right a capsized canoe

It can happen to even the most experienced paddler. One moment you’re sitting comfortably on the seat of your canoe. The next, you’re swimming.

"The main reasons people capsize in a canoe are big waves and getting out of sync with their partner," says Paul Anderson, a canoe instructor with the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina, one of the premier paddling centers in the United States. Prior to joining the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Anderson, a lifelong paddler, spent four years as a canoe guide in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and in northern Canada, leading 8- to 50-day canoe trips.

If you suddenly find yourself upside down in the water, Anderson recommends using a technique called a "T-Rescue" to get right side up again. Performing a T-Rescue assumes you are in a tandem canoe (with another person) and there’s another canoe to assist you.

1. Retrieve your stuff. Grab your paddles and other floating items and hand them to the other canoe. "The biggest mistake people make is not holding onto their gear," says Anderson. "Your instinct is to abandon everything and get to safety, especially if there are waves, which usually means it’s windy. It’s amazing how quickly important items, such as your paddles, can move away from you."

2. Have the rescuers face each other. The person in the bow (front end) of the rescue canoe should turn around (turn to face the middle of the canoe) while the swimmers stabilize the rescue canoe by holding the bow and stern from the water.

3. Touch the bow of the capsized canoe to the middle of the rescue canoe. The swamped boat should be completely upside down.

4. Release the suction. One swimmer should push down on the stern of the capsized canoe while the rescue canoeists lift its bow onto the upright boat. The other swimmer should stabilize the rescue canoe by holding its gunnel (top rail) on the opposite side.

5. Pull the capsized canoe onto the rescue canoe. The two boats will form a "T" at their middles. The rescuing paddlers can then flip the other canoe upright and slide it back into the water.

6. Place the canoes side by side. The rescuing paddlers should hold onto the empty canoe by grasping its gunnels where the two boats touch. One of the swimmers should continue to stabilize the rescue boat on the opposite side.

7. Climb into the canoe. "This is the hard part," says Anderson. "You need to muscle your way back into the canoe. There’s no easy way. One of the rescuers might be able to pull a swimmer up using the shoulder straps of his PFD. You can also try tying a loop in the anchor line to use it as a step. Don’t get too tired! If one strategy doesn’t work, try another."

If you can’t get into the canoe from the water, Anderson recommends swimming the canoe to shore to get in. "It’s easier to swim an empty upright boat to shore than one full of 2,000 pounds of water," he says. It also helps to practice a T-Rescue before you really need it. "Pick a sunny day and see what you can and can’t do. It’s part of the canoeing experience," says Anderson.

If a T-Rescue isn’t an option, such as when you’re paddling alone, Anderson urges paddlers to choose a route close to shore, even if it means a much longer trip.

A League member from Red Lodge, Montana, Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer and photographer who covers a range of outdoor recreation and conservation topics. She has paddled canoes since childhood and uses them extensively to access watery wild places for her work and for fun. (