How Wide is a Canoe? (Beam Basics)


How Wide is a Canoe

Knowing how wide a canoe is and what affect that width has on a canoe’s performance will help you choose the right canoe for your needs. After more research than a sane person should spend on the width of canoes, I’ve boiled down the basics for you in this article.

So, how wide is a canoe? A standard canoe is 34-37 inches wide at its widest point on the gunwales—the outer edges of the upper sides of the canoe. A narrow canoe is 33 inches wide or less. And a wide canoe is 38 inches wide or more.

So, the maximum width of a canoe is between 33 inches for a narrow canoe to about 40 inches for a 2 person canoe. In this article we’ll get to the nitty gritty details of why that’s important.

Let’s start with how canoe width is measured.

Canoe Width

Canoe width, know technically as its “beam”, is measured across the widest point of the gunwales. This length is also known as beam overall, or BOA.

Canoe Width at the Gunwales

But there are two main ways to measure a canoe’s width.

BOA – Beam Overall

Beam overall is the standard way to measure canoe width. (see image above) It’s the measurement at a canoe’s widest point at the top of the gunwales (side rails).

BWL – Beam at the Waterline

Beam at the Waterline is the width measurement at the widest point where the sides of a canoe meet the waterline.

As it turns out, the second measurement, width at the waterline, is a more important measurement. Because that measurement tells you how much of your canoe is in the water. And that’s important because the surface area of your canoe that’s interacting with the water will determine how hard it is to paddle your canoe and move it through the water.

How Wide is a Canoe - Beam at the Waterline

Canoe Width at the 4″ Waterline

In case you missed it, there was a nuance in the Beam (width) at the waterline—BWL. Manufacturers have standardized on a way to help you understand the true widths and practical widths of any given canoe. And that’s the Maximum Capacity rating.

Maximum Capacity is simply how much weight a given canoe can safely carry and still float well and paddle relatively easily. And at Maximum Capacity the width of a canoe is measured as – “@ the 4″ Waterline.

When researching canoes to buy, you’ll see both canoe width measurements—canoe width when it’s empty and width @ the 4″ Waterline when that canoe is loaded to its maximum capacity rating.

Why Canoe Width Matters

How wide a canoe is directly affects its:

  • Carrying capacity – the total weight of passenger, gear, paddles, etc. that a canoe will support and still be able to safely float and paddle.
  • Stability – The ability of your canoe to resist side to side tipping, rolling or capsizing.
  • Paddling speed – How quickly a canoe can be paddled through the water.
  • Best Use – The type of water that a given canoe excels at handling—calm lake, river, rapids, or rough waves.

Standard Canoe Width Example

Let’s compare the widths of two standard canoes as an example. Remember, a standard canoe is roughly 34-37 inches wide, and these 2 canoes fall right into that measurement.

Old Town Canoe’s Saranac 146 Width

  • Width (BOA) – 36 inches / 91.4 cm
  • Width at 4″ Waterline (BWL) – 36 inches / 91.4 cm
  • Weight Capacity – 750 lbs / 340.2 kg
  • Length – 14’6″ / 442 cm

Those two width measurements, combined with this canoe’s length give it a weight capacity of 750 lbs / 340.2 kg. Notice how the overall canoe width and the width at the waterline are the same. This suggests that the sides are very straight up and down, providing great stability and superior resistance to tipping.

Mad River Canoe Journey 156 Width

  • Width (BOA) – 37 inches / 91.4 cm (Mad River actually describes this measurement as “@Gunwale”)
  • Width at 4″ Waterline (BWL) – 35.25 inches / 91.4 cm
  • Weight Capacity – 1100 lbs / 499 kg
  • Length – 15’6″ / 472 cm

Notice how wide this canoe is at the waterline vs how wide it is at the 4″ waterline. As you move from the gunwales to the 4″ waterline measurements, the measurement goes down. This suggests that the canoe shape is more rounded and thus may not be as side to side stable as the Old Town.

Also, the length of the Mad River canoe is only 1 foot longer and yet that added 350 pounds to its max weight capacity. This is due not only to length, but also to hull shape, build materials and other measurements not related to how wide these two canoes are, because they are almost identical in width.

Narrow Canoe Width

Narrow width canoes—canoes less than 33″ wide— are designed to move quickly and paddle easier that wider canoe widths. The tradeoff is that they have less primary stability.

Primary stability is a canoe’s initial, at rest, ability to resist tipping and capsizing. if you lean a little to the side, primary stability in a canoe stops it from “wanting” to tip over.

Narrow canoes are used for racing and going fast.

Standard Canoe Width

If you’re just getting into canoeing, a standard width canoe is probably what you’ll be looking for. A standard canoe is about 34″ to 37″ wide at the gunwales.

Standard width canoes have great primary stability and pretty good secondary stability. Secondary stability is your canoe’s ability to resist capsizing once it is tipped past its primary stability level. Lean a canoe with good to great secondary stability far over toward on its edge and it will still resist rolling further and fully tipping over.

Standard width canoes are mostly used for recreational canoeing and some longer canoeing trips and camping. But for the most part they’re 2-person, medium-width canoes designed to be fairly stable on flat, calm water. They can also handle lazy, slow-flowing rivers and a small amount of lake wave chop.

Wide Canoes

Wide canoes are the most stable of the three types of canoes. How wide is a wide canoe? Remember, a wide canoe is any canoe that’s over 38″ wide at the gunwales.

Wide canoes are great for loading tons of gear, carrying more people, and remaining stable in a variety of waters. Some people use wide canoes as platforms to fish from, even standing up and fly-fishing which requires a lot of body motion in the canoe.

Wide canoes make great platforms to hunt from as the stability needed t0 shoulder and shoot a shotgun or rifle is of paramount importance to safety.

3 Person Canoe Width

Obviously, in order to carry more people, gear, and weight, canoes that can accommodate more than 1 or 2 passengers will have to be wider than a standard 2-person canoe.

Old Town’s Discovery 133 canoe is a 3 person canoe that though it’s over a foot shorter than their standard 2-person canoe, it’s a full 4″ wider at 40.5″ / 102.9 cm wide. This allows it to not only carry more passengers, but also increases its maximum capacity by 50 lbs to 800 lbs / 363 kg fully loaded, despite its shorter length.

4 Person Canoe Width

Ironically, something happens when you design a canoe that has the capacity to seat and support 4 people. While there are very few specific 4-person canoes on the market, of the ones that are manufacturers have tackled the capacity problem a different way.

Instead of chasing width in a canoe to hold 4 people, they’ve increased the length significantly and actually reduced the width to make it easier for 4 people to paddle.

The Wenonah Minnesota IV is a 23′ long, 4-person canoe with a maximum capacity rating of 4 people. The MN IV’s canoe is 35.5″ wide at the gunwales and 33.5″ wide at the waterline.

The MN IV seems to be discontinued at Wenonah, but the MN III is still produced and sold.

Canoe Width Wrap-up

How wide a canoe is determines, at least in part, how stable it is, how much capacity it can hold, and how fast it can be paddled through the water. Pay particular attention to this measurement when you’re looking for your first or that “last canoe you’ll ever need.”

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