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How to Choose a Multi-Purpose Cruising Canoe

A multipurpose cruising canoe should be capable in intermediate (Class II) rapids, athletic enough to twist down a beaver stream, fast enough to beat upwind, able to accommodate a week's load of camping gear, light enough to portage… and fun to paddle!

GOOD DESIGN Good design is everything. What a canoe is made from should be the last of your concerns. Ease-of-paddling, seaworthiness, cruising speed, ability to turn, and carrying capacity, are determined solely by hull design. Hull material becomes important only after you've blue-printed the specs and are confident the canoe meets your needs.

SPECS • Length: Generally, the longer the canoe the faster it will run and the more difficult it will turn. Canoes are displacement hulls, so their top speed is directly proportional to their length. You can compute the relationship mathematically by applying the over simplified formula:

Speed = 1.55 times the Square Root of the Waterline Length, measured in feet

Thus, an 18-1/2 footer will peak out at around 6.7 miles per hour while a 16- footer will run about 6.2 miles an hour. However, speed and ease-of-paddling are not the same. The formula tells you only the maximum hull speed, not the amount of effort required to get it there. It's quite possible for a sophisticated 16 footer to paddle more easily than a workhorse 18-footer. But the longer canoe will, if pushed hard enough, always run faster.

You can't beat a skinny 18-1/2 footer for making time on open water. But watch out if you have to turn! Those long, deep ends act like rudders which restrict maneuverability. One solution is to curve the keel-line of the canoe upwards, like the rails on a rocking chair. "Rocker" frees the ends of the canoe from the grip of the water and allows quicker turns. It also enables the craft to rise more easily to waves (it runs drier). However, when you add rocker, you essentially shorten the water-line length which decreases the canoe's running speed.

It follows that 16 to 17-1/2 feet is the ideal length for an all-round, multipurpose cruising canoe. Add an inch or two (no more) of rocker to each end, and you'll have a good compromise between straight tracking on open water and the quick turns you need in rapids. Use a tape measure to determine the amount of rocker in a canoe before you buy it, or spin the canoe around on the ground. If the canoe spins easily and is a keel-less model (more on this later), it probably has enough rocker.

• Keels: 

A keel will make any canoe hold its course better. But it will also hang up on rocks. A craft that requires a piece of one by two tacked on below to make it paddle straight belongs back on the drawing board. Indian and voyageur canoes did not have keels and neither should yours. Straight line tracking is achieved by combining a round or vee bottom, deep, narrow stems below the water line, and a straight keel-line. The real reason for keels is to stiffen the flat, floppy bottoms of low performance hulls. Good canoes don't have keels. Period!

• Hull shape: 

Lean a flat bottomed canoe a few inches off center and it will turn turtle without warning. Do the same with a shallow arch (slightly rounded) hull, and it will become more stable as it is leaned. Consequently, all the best canoes have a curved bottom. Flat bottoms are for rafts and John boats, not for canoes which rely on leans and braces to stay upright in waves and currents.

• Width: 

A high performance cruising canoe will have a beam measurement of around 32 inches at the 4 inch water line. A fast freight-hauler might be an inch or two wider.

• Center Depth: A 13-inch center depth is adequate for a canoe that won't be heavily loaded and run on windy lakes or rapids above class II. Deeper (14-15 inches) hulls run drier in big waves but they are more difficult to control in wind.

• End height: 

Seaworthiness is a function of hull design, not end height. High bows and sterns turn the canoe into a kite. Generally, ends should be no higher than the center depth of the canoe plus 10 inches.

• Tumblehome is the inward curve of the sides of a canoe above the water-line. Tumblehome is used for two reasons:

  1. The canoe can be made wide at the water-line for stability and narrow at the rails for ease-of-paddling.
  2. Curved side-walls are stronger than broad flat areas, which may need to be reinforced with cross-braces. Nonetheless, the most seaworthy configuration consists of sides which flare boldly to the gunnels, as exemplified by a wild river dory. But for the reasons stated, canoes must have some tumblehome.

To roughly determine the seaworthiness of a canoe, pretend your hands are water and run them up one side of the canoe at different places. If your hands flare outward, water will too. If they flow inward into the hull, water will follow.

• Shear-line: 

The curve of the gunnels from stem to stern is called the "shear-line". Canoes usually take on water near the bow seat, not over the front deck. It follows that a uniformly rising shear is more seaworthy than ends that rise abruptly.

• Asymmetry:

A long narrow bow makes the canoe easier to paddle, especially in water that is less than three feet deep. For this reason, the fastest canoes are often slightly asymmetric (the stern is wider than the bow) below the water-line. However, too much asymmetry can cause problems in tricky currents and when paddling backwards. But some judiciously applied asymmetry, improves shallow water performance.

• Weight: 

The lighter the canoe, the more fun it is to paddle, so frequent maintenance is rewarded with every paddle stroke you take!

• Aesthetics: 

Pretty enough to please you. A canoe should never be ugly or boring!

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. Visit his website at:

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