Parts of a Canoe: Bow to Stern Basics

Parts of a Canoe

Basic Parts of a Canoe

If you’ve ever wondered what the parts of a canoe are and what each part does, this is the article for you. After a ton of research and some creative Photoshop drawing, I’ve boiled down the important parts of a canoe and why they’re important.

What are the basic parts of a canoe? The basic parts of a canoe include the bow, stern, hull, keel, deck, gunwales, thwarts, yoke, and if equipped, the seats. Each part of a canoe has its own function and purpose and all parts are designed to provide stability, speed, tracking, durability and most of all safety and seaworthiness.

If any of those terms are unfamiliar or confusing to you, don’t worry, we’re going to clear that up right now.

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Bow vs Stern of a Canoe

As simply as I can put it, the bow is the front-most part of a canoe and the stern is the rear-most part of a canoe. The distance between the bow and the stern is a canoe’s overall length.

The bow is the first part of a canoe that makes contact with oncoming water, so its shape helps a canoe cut or glide through the water ahead.

The stern is also important for a similar reason.

Think of the shape of an aircraft wing. Its job is to cut through the air on the front edge and on the back edge reduce turbulence. The stern has a similar function as you are paddling—it reduced turbulence and assists with the canoe’s ability to go forward with the least effort possible.

Both the bow and the stern are where you’d find seats for the paddlers of a 2-person or greater capacity canoe. In addition, the bow and stern would normally have points to anchor the canoe, tie it off to a dock, hang it for storage, and tie it down to be safely transported on top of your car. Finally, most 2-person canoes incorporate a handle in both the bow and the stern to make it easy for two people to lift and carry the canoe cross-country—portage it.

Canoe Bow

What is the front of a canoe called? The front of a canoe is called the bow. The bow shape is important because it’s the part that cuts through the water, giving a canoe it’s speed and ease of paddling. The front of a canoe is typically where you’d find the seat for the front paddler. Also the bow of a canoe would have a place to tie off an anchor line.

Canoe Stern

Which end of a canoe is the stern, front or rear? The stern end of a canoe is the rear-most point and area on a canoe. The stern of a canoe helps reduce turbulence as you paddle, so a canoe can more smoothly glide through the water. Typically it’s where the back paddler sits and/or where you’d mount a trolling motor on a squareback canoe.

Canoe Yoke

What is a canoe yoke? A canoe yoke is specifically designed to help you portage (carry) your canoe over your head. The yoke is positioned on the center line of your canoe for balance. And by turning your canoe upside down and lifting it onto your shoulders with the rounded part of the yoke wrapping the back of your neck, you can comfortably carry your canoe.

TIDBIT: Interestingly enough, the “yoke” is so-named because it looks remarkably similar to the yoke on an oxen cart, meant for harnessing oxen to pull a wagon. Also interesting is that you will feel just like a beast of burden with the yoke of your canoe on your neck, portaging your canoe down a trail or overlanding it.

Canoe Thwart

What is a canoe thwart? A canoe thwart is a strut placed across the width of a canoe to help brace the edges (gunwales) of a canoe from side to side. In a 2-person canoe, you’d typically find 2 thwarts placed roughly 1/3 and 2/3 the way from the stern toward the bow of a canoe. Many times you’ll find a thwart right behind the front paddler’s seat as this is a place where a lot of weight will be put directly on the gunwales (sides of a canoe).

Canoe Hull

What is the bottom of a canoe called? The bottom of a canoe, the part that makes contact with the water is called the hull. Canoe hulls come in many shapes and each one has a specific purpose for increasing stability, improving tracking, and assisting maneuverability. Different hull designs are meant for different types of canoeing and water conditions.

Canoe Keel

What is the keel of a canoe? A canoe keel is a small protruding blade that runs down the center of the bottom of your canoe. Many believe that a canoe keel helps your canoe track and maintain a straight line as you paddle. But a canoe keel’s main function is to protect the hull from scrapes, scratches and punctures. Keels are designed to be sacrificed to protect the hull and they are replaceable.

That being said, canoe keels also provide resistance to wind blowing your canoe sideways, but they do so at the expense of added drag—resistance to paddling forward.

Whitewater canoes, which require a lot of maneuverability and constant side to side moves, generally have no keels.

Canoe Gunwale/Gunnel

What is a gunnel/gunwale on a canoe? The canoe gunwale is the wide edge at the top of the sides of the canoe. The canoe gunwale, also called gunnel, is usually reinforced with vinyl, wood, plastic or aluminum. The gunwale runs from the bow to the stern the entire length of the canoe, protecting the top edge of the canoe’s hull. Secondarily, it provides a place to mount seats, thwarts, the yolk and other accessories like fishing pole holders.

Why is it called a gunwale? The wide edge at the top of a cnoe was originally called a gunwale (gunnel)Originally the structure was the “gun wale” on a sailing warship, a horizontal reinforcing band added at and above the level of a gun deck to offset the stresses created by firing artillery.

Canoe Deck

What is the canoe deck? Typically canoes have a small rectangular area on top of the very ends of both the bow and stern of the canoe. These triangular pieces are called the deck and they can perform several functions. The deck of a canoe helps reinforce the tips of the canoe at the bow and stern and they often have integrated handles to assist in carrying a canoe.

Canoe Spray Deck

What is a canoe spray deck? The canoe deck is not to be confused with a canoe spray deck. A canoe spray deck is a flexible waterproof protective cover with holes for the passengers’ waists. Canoe spray decks are used to prevent water from entering and accumulating in the cockpit of the canoe while still allowing the passengers to paddle.

Canoe Seats

We’ve saved the most important part of a canoe for the last of the main parts of a canoe. Because after all, you’re going to spend most of your time in a canoe, sitting on your butt. It better be comfortable.

There are many types of canoe seats. Canoe seats are mainly made from webbing on a wood frame, molded aluminum in an aluminum canoe, molded plastic in a plastic, polyethylene canoe as well as some specialized aftermarket seats that attach to existing seats to include a backrest and added seat padding.

You can even get canoe seats that have an integrated cooler in them. Now that’s a “cool” part of a canoe. (Oh, I did not just say that…)

Basic Parts of a Canoe in Water
Basic Parts of a Canoe in the Water


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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