As a kid my dad took us on what felt like an all-day canoe trip down the Skagit River. We put in above Sedro Woolley before Lyman. A distance on the river, I later found out, of about 10 miles, give or take. But I can remember thinking, “How long is this going to take?” And with plenty of stops along the way it almost took an entire day.
How long should it have taken?
So, how long does it take to canoe 10 miles? The time it takes to canoe 10 miles is 3.5 hours. Because taking no breaks and paddling straight through on calm, still water, the average canoer can paddle around 2.6 knots or 3 mph. Of course wind and weather, physical condition of the canoer, and an individual canoe’s speed can increase or decrease that time.
But 3.5 hours to paddle a canoe 10 miles is just a guideline. There are many variables that affect the actual speed of a canoe. So, by the end of this article we’ll show you the affects of the various things that increase or decrease canoe speed.
Average Canoe Speed
Remember that 2.6 knots/3 mph paddle speed number we talked about? This is about the average speed that any given canoer can comfortably paddle at a sustained rate. Meaning, someone could actually paddle that fast for a couple hours at a time if they needed to.
Any faster, the average canoer will probably wear out well before that 10 mile canoe trip is over. Any slower and our 3.5 hours to paddle 10 miles statistic’s going to turn into a lot longer trip.
Here are some other factor that will affect average canoe speed—make that 10 mile canoe trip longer or shorter:
- The type of canoe itself
- The fitness of the canoer(s)
- The length and width dimensions of the canoe
- What materials your canoe’s made out of
- If you’re paddling alone or with another person
- Wind and temperature
- And the river current, ocean tide, or stillness of the water
Influences on Canoe Speed
Canoe Type’s Effect on Canoe Speed
Depending on the type of canoe you’re paddling on your 10 mile trip, you can expect at least a little gain or loss in paddle speed due to your canoe type.
Recreational canoes are generally designed to be as stable as possible. Because of this, they tend to have really flat bottoms—hulls. Flat-hulled canoes have much more drag in the water and lose a little hull speed because of it.
Touring canoes have slightly more rounded hulls, so they can go a little faster than purely recreational canoes. But to do that they give up a little stability, just so you know.
And river canoes are designed with high sides to keep splashing water out. They also have a lot of end-to-end curve in their hulls (called rocker) and this makes them fast and maneuverable in a river, but a little slower on a flat lake.
Fitness Effect on Canoe Speed
This seems almost too obvious, but strong and fit canoe paddlers are capable of paddling faster than less fit, recreational paddlers. Once again, a nuance and factor that will definitely skew that 3.5 hours to canoe 10 miles mark.
Because paddling 10 miles is not an easy thing. It’ll take a lot of upper body strength and stamina to maintain a 3 mph pace for 3.5 hours … straight.
A good fitness program that includes lots of paddling before heading out on a 10 mile canoe trip is definitely a must.
Canoe Length/Width Effects on Canoe Speed
In general long and narrow canoes are faster than short and wide canoes. So all conditions and paddler fitness and skill being equal, the same canoers will be able to paddle a long and narrow canoe at least slightly faster and probably much quicker than a short and wide canoe.
For all-around use, speed, capacity, and transport, 16′ to 17′ long canoes are very popular. They can hold more gear and track better (glide straighter) than shorter canoes.
Shorter canoes are more maneuverable, weigh less, and are affected less by wind and weather. But they are definitely slower than longer canoes.
Wider canoes are more stable and narrower canoes are easier to paddle quickly. So the width to speed trade–off is that those longer boats are slightly “tippy” (side-to-side unstable).
So, length and width taken into consideration and for our long touring trip, slightly narrower canoes in that 16′ to 17′ length range are ideal to maintain a 3.5 hours to paddle 10 miles pace.
Build Material’s Effect on Canoe Speed
What a canoe’s made of is just as important as its dimensions. Building materials for canoes offer a trade-off between, cost, weight, strength, durability and speed.
Inexpensive canoes are most likely not going to be durable or fast. Super durable canoes will be heavy and slow. And super-fast, lightweight and durable canoes will be expensive.
A mid-range compromise between cost, durability, building materials and speed can be found, however.
There are several mainstream materials that are used in the production of modern canoes.
- Aluminum – These canoes are durable, relatively light, cheap to build, and they get the job done. Not as fast as a smooth plastic or fiberglass canoe, but they can take abuse and still float well.
- Wood – Heavy and expensive, but relatively quick depending on the outer finish.
- CrossLink3™ – Strong, resilient, and great flotation. Made exclusively for Old Town Discovery ™ canoes. Its resistance to denting makes it flexible and less fast in the water.
- PolyLink™ – This foam-core material is durable and stiff. Which makes it faster in the water. Another Old Town exclusive material.
- Fiberglass – These canoes are stiff, scratch resistant and have smooth hulls. This makes them faster in the water but they cost more.
- Kevlar® – These canoes are stronger than fiberglass and lighter. This gives them great speed, but you’re going to pay for that in canoe price.
- Royalex® – This material is durable, well-insulated, and cheaper to produce. The reduction is cost and its durable design come at the expense of relative speed compared to other canoes.
- Royalex® Lightweight – This is a variation of the Royalex ® material above that makes a canoe lighter, with the same durability. Both of which give these canoes a slight speed edge.
That’s a lot to take in. I’d sum up canoe materials and speed this way. As long as you’re looking at the right length, width, and capacity canoe the better, lighter and more streamlined materials will be faster. The downside is that they’ll probably cost you more.
Number of Paddlers Effect on Canoe Speed
Paddling a single canoe by yourself is not only much more difficult than paddling a canoe with another person, it’s slower. Because even though you’ll need a bigger canoe to accommodate one extra paddler, the efficiencies you’ll gain in tracking and paddle power far outweigh the increased drag of a bigger canoe.
Regardless, a 3.5 hour 10 mile paddle by yourself is mentally taxing to say the least. Better to have another canoer to share the workload and the weight. Just J-stroking or switching your paddle from side to side in order to keep you canoe straight will cause you to lose speed on a long paddle.
You’ll be faster with 2 people paddling, trust me.
That being said, there’s a law of diminishing returns that you can get by simply adding more people. 3 person canoe paddling is not the prettiest thing to watch. The coordination it takes to get everyone stroking at the same speed and pace is one thing, but you’ll probably need an even bigger boat.
And 4 people paddling in the same canoe for 3.5 hours straight? That’s just not going to happen. And if it does, it’s unlikely that you’ll beat 2 well-paced and coordinated paddlers in a shorter and lighter boat.
My experience and opinion is that you’ll get maximum efficiency and speed out of a well-equipped 2 person crew and canoe than any 3 person or 4 person configuration you can come up with.
UPDATE: Yes, of course, if you have a really motivated and coordinated crew you could alternate paddlers and thus have half your crew resting while the other paddles at a faster rate. But keep in mind those teams of 2 will have to paddle twice the weight on their alternating shifts…
Weather and Wind’s Effect on Canoe Speed
When I was in boot camp in Kentucky, we had 2 major physical fitness tests. One at the beginning of the three months was in nice sunny 70 degree weather and no wind. The second was at the end of three months of rigorous training, but the weather was 30 degrees and blowing wind.
Which one do you think had the higher scores?
If you guessed number 2, after 3 months of physical training, you’d be wrong. The Army found that weather, wind and temperature have as much effect on physical ability and efficiency as overall physical fitness does.
This is to say nothing of paddling a canoe against a 10-20 mph headwind in the biting cold vs a nice clam sunny and warm day. Which will slow your 10 mile canoe trip speed to well below what it will take to finish it in 3.5 hours.
Current and Tide’s Effect on Canoe Speed
Let’s get back to my trip down the Skagit river with my dad and cousins. Now, we’re not going to get into CFM ( Cubic Feet per Minute – the true measure of the flow of a river) because it’s dry and boring and outside the point of this post.
So let’s just say that the Skagit flows at the equivalent of 3 mph and you and your canoing buddy are paddling at also 3 mph … downstream. You’ll be going a combined speed of 6 mph which will make your 10 mile canoe trip take only one hour and forty minutes.
Pretty good, right? Well, not if you planned to have a pickup vehicle waiting for you in our standard time of 3.5 hours to canoe 10 miles. Why? Because you’ll be waiting around for them for almost 2 hours.
I talked about this in another article, but tide flow, direction and speed will speed up or slow down your ability to paddle your canoe. So know the tides if you plan to canoe waters that are affected by it.
An Average Speed Canoe
As long as we’re talking about canoe speed vs other factors, the Old Town Discovery 169 is an excellent 2-person canoe that combines all of the above factors and won’t break the bank.
The 169 is 16’9″ / 5.1 m long, 37″ wide, and has a weight capacity of 1400 lbs.
Depending on where you get it, it’s roughly an $1100 canoe, and as far as quality and quick canoes go, that’s not shabby.
If I was going on a 3.5 hour 10 mile canoe tour with one other canoer, the Old Town 169 is the canoe I’d take.
How Far Can You Canoe in a Day?
Okay, we’ve just about beat our 10 mile 3.5 hour canoe tour example to death. But what if we want to go on a really long canoe adventure? Lake Chelan, Washington (55 miles long) and Lake Tahoe, California (21.75 miles) are examples of very long lakes.
So how long do you think each one would take you to paddle? How far, how many miles, do you think you could canoe in a day?
Here’s the answer:
How many miles can you canoe in a day? You could canoe 20 miles in a day, taking into account our example speed and mileage of 3.5 hours to paddle 10 miles. That would account for 7 hours of straight paddling plus a few breaks in between, about an entire day. But how far can you canoe in a day is definitely dependent on your desire, your determination, your fitness, and your canoe.
So you could probably paddle Tahoe in a day, but it would take you over 2 days to paddle Lake Chelan.
Regardless, we’re now in the territory of relative time, because one person’s “all day” canoe trip is another person’s lazy float down a long river … like the Skagit.