Types of Canoes


Types of Canoes

Most people probably think of all canoes as being essentially the same. Many people might think about a canoe they paddled in summer camp or a family vacation and assume there’s only one kind of canoe. In reality, there are many types of canoes that exist for various purposes and needs. 

What types of canoes are there? Canoes vary in their types, materials and styles to fit with their intended use. Common materials for canoe construction are aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar, or even inflatable. There are also many types of canoes that have different seating capacities, from solo canoes to those designed for four people.

Canoes come in a variety of styles to serve different purposes. As you’ll see, canoes are also made from different materials, and this influences what they are best for. You will also see how canoes have different features, like the seating capacity. 

Aluminum Canoes

Types of Canoes - Kevlar

Aluminum is traditionally one of the most common materials for canoes. Following the end of World War II, fighter jet manufacturers began to use the same stretching process of aluminum to make canoes. Aluminum itself is too soft to be the only material used to make a canoe, so other metals are mixed with aluminum to create a stronger material.

Aluminum canoes often are popular choices for family trips or other recreational paddling outings. These canoes are highly durable and low maintenance, which makes them a favorite for novice canoeists who are developing their skills.

Pros of Aluminum Canoes

While there are more modern options for canoe materials, aluminum remains a popular choice for many reasons. The aluminum canoe has certainly earned its nickname of the “Boy Scout or family boat.”

Some of the benefits of aluminum canoes include:

  • Durability – Aluminum canoes are strong and hold up for a long time. Because the aluminum is so durable, they can be left out in the elements for long periods without much damage. Extreme temperatures rarely have any effect on aluminum canoes.
  • Low Maintenance – Aluminum canoes don’t need much maintenance to ensure their durability. These canoes can survive a lot of bumps without needing repairs because most impacts will only leave a dent. Such dents typically don’t affect the canoe’s performance.
  • Inexpensive – If you’re looking for an inexpensive canoe, you’ll likely find that aluminum choices are relatively economical. Since aluminum canoes were produced in massive numbers in the 20th century, used ones aren’t too expensive. This especially became true after the 1970s because canoes became accessible to middle class families looking for recreation. Careful though, as paddling popularity increases, quality aluminum canoe prices have actually risen in recent years.

Aluminum canoes are best for flatwater trips, family paddling excursions, or beginners.

Cons of Aluminum Canoes

Aluminum canoes have many great attributes, but there are also drawbacks to using this kind of canoe. The downsides are also more visible now that there are more modern materials used in building canoes. 

Aluminum canoes do have some flaws, including:

  • Weight – Aluminum canoes can be quite heavy. They typically still weigh less than a wooden canoe, but aluminum canoes are not the easiest to portage (moving a canoe across dry land).
  • Design Issues – Because aluminum canoes consist of two metal pieces welded or riveted together, they’re not usually the most attractive. Aluminum canoes also catch on rocks easily; severe hull damage doesn’t usually occur, but it is a hassle to repeatedly get stuck on rocks.
  • Material – Aluminum canoes are often very noisy, which can be a nuisance when you want to have a relaxing time on the water. The aluminum also absorbs heat, so the canoe’s surface can get too hot to touch comfortably in heat of summer.

Despite their less-appealing issues, many people still prefer aluminum canoes over other types because they know they will have a durable boat for a long time. 

Lightweight Canoes

Modern advancements have made it much easier for manufacturers to offer a variety of canoe types. Since earlier canoe materials often made the vessels heavy and difficult to move, the market expanded to offer lightweight canoes as well.

Lightweight canoes are often used for racing or for trips that require a lot of portaging. For flatwater trips, many people prefer to use lightweight canoes because they travel through the water quickly. Depending on the materials and weight, some lightweight canoes can also be suitable for whitewater trips. 

Most lightweight canoes are constructed out of some sort of composite, which generally means that the canoes are built using layers of fabric cloth infused with resin such as epoxy.

Kevlar Canoes

Types of Canoes - Kevlar

One type of composite that is frequently used in building canoes is Kevlar. This material is often used in bulletproof vests, but it’s also a popular material for canoes. Kevlar by itself can be far too flexible to withstand any impact, so there is usually a composite blend with Kevlar to bolster the strength.

It is important to note that the weight of a Kevlar canoe is related to the strength of the canoe. The lighter the canoe, the less strength it will have. This is a good thing for trips involving a lot of portage but can be a detriment for fast currents with rocky riverbeds. 

Pros of Kevlar Canoes

If you’re looking for a good lightweight canoe, you may find that Kevlar canoes offer you everything you need. 

Kevlar canoes have many benefits, including:

  • Extremely Lightweight – Kevlar canoes are some of the lightest options on the market. They are easy to portage, which makes them a great choice for trips that involve a lot of movement across land. 
  • Design Options – Because Kevlar canoes are built in layers over a mold, there are nearly endless options for design. Kevlar canoes are often built with performance in mind, so they will be shaped in a way that maximizes their in-water performance. 
  • Speed – Since Kevlar canoes are so light, they can be paddled fast. Even with the speed though, these canoes are still easy to maneuver, which is key for a lot of people. 

Based on these benefits, it’s easy to see why Kevlar canoes are a popular choice for canoers looking for a fast, lightweight vessel. 

Cons of Kevlar Canoes

Every canoe will have its advantages and its disadvantages, and Kevlar canoes are no exception. In fact, many of the attributes that make Kevlar canoes appealing to some people are actually unappealing to others. 

Kevlar canoes are not always preferable because:

  • Higher Cost – The materials used in constructing Kevlar canoes are more expensive than traditional materials like wood or aluminum. While Kevlar canoes are starting to come in a wider variety of prices, they still are some of the most expensive canoes. 
  • Durability – Kevlar canoes are not always consistently durable. The lighter the canoe is, the more prone to damage it is. Thus, Kevlar canoes have limits to what kinds of waters can be handled easily or safely.
  • Maintenance – Because Kevlar canoes are not as durable, they can require more maintenance. Generally, these canoes need protection from UV exposure when they are not in use. Repairs are also costly to make. 

Carbon Fiber Canoes

Another composite material commonly used to construct lightweight canoes is carbon fiber. Similar to Kevlar canoes, carbon fiber canoes are extremely light. Carbon fiber composites are also often combined with other materials to create the right amount of flexibility. 

These canoes are often used for racing because their rigid structure allows for fast speeds. To build a carbon fiber canoe, a liquid resin is combined with the material over a mold before a vacuuming process removes the excess resin. A gel coat then finishes the surface. 

Pros of Carbon Fiber Canoes 

Because they are very stiff, carbon fiber canoes are best used for trips with few impacts. The design of carbon fiber canoes enhances their performance.

  • Lightweight – Carbon fiber canoes are another option that is incredibly lightweight. This makes the canoes ideal for racing. 
  • Customization – The process of using a carbon fiber composite makes it possible for canoers to have a unique design for their boats. This This unique feature allows canoe builders to create distinctive racing canoes.

Like Kevlar canoes, carbon fiber canoes offer speed and easy portaging.

Cons of Carbon Fiber Canoes

Carbon fiber canoes do have downsides.

  • Price – Carbon fiber canoes can be very expensive. They often exceed the cost of Kevlar canoes, and repairs are also costly due to their difficulty. 
  • Stiffness – One of the biggest concerns people have with carbon fiber canoes is that they can be overly stiff to the point of being brittle. This makes the canoes more susceptible to damage from harsher waters, which is why these canoes are best suited for flatwater. 

Ultimately, carbon fiber canoes can be a good choice for specific types of canoeing, but they’re not the best all-around choice, especially for recreational use.

Fiberglass Canoes

Types of Canoes - Fiberglass

The earliest type of composite used to make canoes was fiberglass. As with Kevlar and carbon fiber canoes, fiberglass canoes are made of a mixture of fibers and resin that harden over a mold. This process allows for many different shapes and designs.

Fiberglass canoes are often distinguished from other canoes because they have sharp entry and exit lines. These design aspects help make fiberglass canoes efficient, fast, and maneuverable in the water. Most fiberglass canoes are meant for flatwater, but other designs can suit whitewater as well.

Fiberglass canoes can be hand laid or sprayed. Typically, sprayed fiberglass canoes will be heavier than hand laid options, although the latter will usually be more expensive. Fiberglass is currently one of the most common materials for building canoes. 

Pros of Fiberglass Canoes

The popularity of using fiberglass to construct canoes stems from its many benefits. You can think of fiberglass canoes as fitting somewhere between the heavy durability of aluminum canoes and the light efficiency of Kevlar or carbon fiber canoes.

Fiberglass canoes offer a good blend of features to people looking for a canoe:

  • Low Maintenance – Most fiberglass canoes have a top layer of a gel coating, usually polyester resin, and this layer protects the more internal layers of the canoe. This outer coat is typically the only part of a fiberglass canoe that needs repairs, and that can usually be done with just a repair patch kit. 
  • Decent Durability – Although they’re not as durable as aluminum canoes, fiberglass canoes can handle a decent amount of wear and tear. Their longevity increases if fiberglass canoes are stored out of the sun–protected from UV rays when not in use. 
  • Generally Lightweight – The weight of a fiberglass canoe can vary based on how it’s constructed. But you’ll typically find that fiberglass canoes are much lighter than aluminum canoes, although not quite as light as Kevlar or carbon fiber canoes. 
  • Reasonable Price – Fiberglass canoes are fairly affordable. Hand laid fiberglass canoes can be more expensive, but they are typically a reasonable choice within the canoe industry. 

Fiberglass canoes are extremely versatile, but they are generally best for flatwater. Some fiberglass canoes are suitable for whitewater, but this usually requires extra caution. 

Cons of Fiberglass Canoes

Since fiberglass canoes are composite based, many of its flaws are due to weaknesses of the materials. 

Some downsides of fiberglass canoes include:

  • Limitations – By design, most fiberglass canoes are not suited for whitewater trips as they lack some stability. Fiberglass canoes are usually sharply shaped and pointed, which offers less stability over waves than blunt lines.
  • Possibility of Cracking – Fiberglass canoes are very stiff, which is great for speed but not great for handling impacts. The coating can crack on impacts, so more caution has to be used if you take a fiberglass canoe out on more than flatwater. 

Solo Canoes

Moving on from materials that compose canoes, there are also many varieties of canoe styles. Canoes designed to fit a certain number of passengers comfortably and safely. The first type of canoe style that we will look at is the solo canoe.

Solo canoes are often called one-person canoes or one-man canoes because they are designed to hold one person. Solo canoes are very similar to kayaks, but they are still distinct from each other. 

Most canoes are meant to be paddled in tandem, meaning that two people use paddles to steer and propel the boat forward. In a one-person canoe, you have to do the steering and powering all by yourself. Because of this, some people paddle solo canoes with a kayak paddle instead of having to switch sides while paddling in order to keep the canoe straight.

Characteristics of a One-Person Canoe

Solo canoes are usually much shorter in length than other canoes because it is much more difficult to handle a long canoe when you’re by yourself. A longer one-man canoe can be suitable if the seat is positioned at the correct place–usually 1/3 to 1/2 way from the stern to the bow.

One-person canoes also are lightweight and stable. Solo canoes often have a central seating position that optimizes stability and agility to make paddling more manageable. If you are canoeing on your own, you will be especially appreciative of a one-man canoe’s low weight when you have to portage the canoe. 

It’s also common to find solo canoes that are extremely versatile. Many one-person canoes are designed to be adaptable. They often have extra room to place clip-in seats or to change the position of the seat. This is helpful if you don’t want to always canoe by yourself. 

Why Use a One-Man Canoe?

It may seem silly to use a solo canoe when you could just use a kayak or other type of boat, but one-man canoes do serve a purpose. Obviously, they make it much easier for a single person to paddle than in a tandem canoe. 

One-man canoes also allow paddlers to partake in different activities on the water. If you like to fish or hunt ducks, solo canoes allow you to take short outings without needing another person to paddle with you. 

Solo canoes allow paddlers to advance their skillset. It can certainly be daunting at first to handle a canoe by yourself, but the experience can greatly improve your steering and powering skills. Plus, you can learn different strokes and practice paddling from your knees. 

Two-Person Canoes

Types of Canoes - Two Person

The vast majority or canoes are designed to hold two people. This is because the act of paddling a canoe is traditionally considered to be a two-person job. Each person has an important role in handling the canoe.

Two-person canoes are usually around 16 to 17 feet long, whereas one-person canoes might only be 13 feet long. Two-person canoes are longer to accommodate another person and to leave room for cargo.

For more information on this, you can read How Long are Canoes?

How Does a Two-Person Canoe Work?

When you have a two-person canoe, teamwork is crucial. Figuring out the paddling rhythm can actually be quite the test of a partnership as both people must be tuned into each other. If done correctly, paddling a two-person canoe becomes easy as the work does not fall on one person alone.

The person in the back, or stern, of the canoe is typically in charge of steering while the bow paddler in the front does most of the powering. Since steering is harder to develop as a skill, this job is usually left for the more experienced person in the canoe.

The bow paddler has to establish a cadence to help the two paddlers work most efficiently. It’s very important for the paddlers to have the same rhythm, and the bowman sets this pace since he or she cannot see behind them. The stern paddler follows that pace. 

Each person also paddles on the opposite side of a two-person canoe. This helps keep the canoe straight. The bow paddler decides on the sides for paddling and will indicate when the sides should be switched to avoid fatigue.

Why Use a Two-Person Canoe?

When you have the right partnership and enough practice, paddling a two-person canoe is much easier than paddling solo. Each person has only one role, which simplifies what requires focus. This also makes the job less physically taxing.

Two-person canoes have more room to carry gear for longer trips. If you are taking a long canoe trip, you’ll want extra room for the things you need along the way. A long canoe trip is more relaxing and fun with the correct amount of room for each paddler and their gear. 

Another benefit of a two-person canoe is that it can often be modified to work for a solo canoer. This can require a bit of adjustment, but it is manageable with a bit of practice, which is good when you do not want to invest in both a two-person canoe and a solo canoe.

A shorter, 15 foot-ish, canoe is perfect for both solo and tandem paddling.

Three-Person Canoes

While one or two-person canoes are very popular, three-person canoes are also quite common. In fact, because of the center seat, three-person canoes can actually function like a one-person canoe in some ways and like a two-person canoe in others.

Using a Three-Person Canoe to Paddle Solo

In many ways, you can treat a three-person canoe like you would treat a one-person canoe. By one person sitting in the middle of the three-person canoe, the rest of the boat can serve as storage for additional cargo.

This of course means that the single paddler likely has a much longer canoe to handle by themselves, but it is a great option for long trips when other canoes lack storage. 

Paddling a Three-Person Canoe With Two People

Additionally, three-person canoes function the same way as two-person canoes. Paddling is done by one person at the bow and one person at the stern, each with a specific role in handling the canoe.

When used by just two people, a three-person canoe leaves extra space for cargo or to stretch your legs out. This makes three-person canoes common choices for two people when embarking on a notably longer canoe trip.

Three person canoes have the flexibility to handle more gear for two paddlers or to add a third person to the canoe.

Other Purposes of Three-Person Canoes

Three-person canoes are also a popular choice for family canoe trips because children can ride in between the two paddlers. Some three-person canoes have a third seat installed, but others have the option for a third or even fourth seat.

Children, especially those who are young, likely don’t have the strength or endurance to paddle in a canoe for very long. Three-person canoes allow the activity to involve the whole family without the need for the kids to help paddle.

Three-person canoes are also used for three adults. The third person can sit in the middle and rest from paddling. Ideally, the person in the middle should be the heaviest, but the positions can be switched periodically to give each person a break. 

Four-Person Canoes

Like three-person canoes, there are canoes that seat four people. These canoes are the optimal choice for families with two smaller children or trips that need a lot of cargo. Most canoes today are not designed specifically with four seats, but many three-person canoes have enough room to add a fourth person in the middle.

There are still four-person canoes that are specifically produced today, but they can be costly. Most four-person canoes used to be large aluminum vessels, so they had limited mobility and speed. 

Using a Four-Person Canoe

As with canoes made for two or three people, four-person canoes are paddled by one person in the front and one person in the back. With two people in the middle, this means that the paddlers have to put more effort into moving the canoe.

Four-person canoes are also naturally longer, so you have to take the canoe’s size into consideration when you are in the water. The length of the canoe also has to be taken into account when transporting the canoe from place to place.

Besides the length, the process of paddling the canoe is the same as for canoes with less capacity. Speed, agility, and maneuverability are definitely limited in four-person canoes, so you should expect trips to take longer than they would in other types of canoes

Square Back Canoes 

Another type of canoe is a square back canoe, which is also called a square stern canoe. As their name implies, square back canoes have a square stern instead of a rounded, longer end. The purpose of the squared-off back is to mount a motor to the canoe.

Square back canoes are popular for fishing and duck hunting, but other solo canoers might use this style because of the motor option. Essentially, a canoer can attach a small outboard or trolling motor to the stern (back) of the canoe.

The motor allows the canoer to move through the water faster than just paddling while still having the agility and small size of the canoe. This is especially helpful for fishing and hunting in narrow waterways. 

Steering can be a little more difficult in a square back canoe, but the motor is usually worth the extra steering effort because of the increased speed and range of the engine. 

Folding Canoes

A less common type of canoe is one that folds. This design involves a removable “skin” that covers a frame. The frame can then be folded or broken down into smaller pieces. It probably seems strange that a foldable canoe could even work, but they are a popular choice for situations where the lightest materials are needed.

Folding canoes are extremely lightweight, so they are popular among expedition canoeists who need a canoe that can be easily carried aboard a small bush plane.

Even though they are lightweight, folding canoes can handle a moderate amount of whitewater. However, they are often slower and can be expensive. 

Inflatable Canoes

The final type of canoe that we will cover is the inflatable canoe. These canoes are similar to rafts but are designed to be look like and paddle like a canoe. Typically, inflatable canoes have straps to stabilize the canoer’s thighs as he or she kneels.

These canoes are very easy to store because they deflate, and they are extremely lightweight. Inflatable canoes can handle whitewater very well, but it is recommended to use wet or dry suits to protect the canoer from cold water.

Canoe type Conclusions

There are many different types of canoes to choose from, each having its own benefits for a particular use. From plastic to Kevlar to aluminum, canoes can be built from varying materials.

In addition to building materials, two-person canoes are the most popular with one and three-person canoes next in popularity. Larger canoes are made but they can get expensive.

Steve W

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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