How To Buy A Canoe

by John Winters

Today's canoe buyer is the victim of sensory overload. Eight hundred canoes ranging from expensive and highly specialized to inexpensive, and pedestrian glut the market. Of them, fewer than half-dozen will fit your specific needs and reducing the 800 to half dozen is a formidable task. Seeking the help of "experts" or knowledgeable sales people is wise but experts don't always agree and sales people want to sell their canoes and can't be blamed for being unenthusiastic about their competitor's products.

My own canoe search years ago led me to create a systematic method of evaluating my needs and applying them to the compromises inherent in every canoe. Ultimately I designed and built my own canoe but the same method has guided me in designing canoes for my customers and I pass it on to you to help you in your search.

How to Fill Out Your Personal Buying Guide

First, be brutally honest with yourself. If a trip to the Coppermine River is just a dream, admit it. An expedition canoe is impressive on your roof racks but an unnecessary burden on portage trails and a slug on day trips. And, if you are a casual paddler with no intention of learning advanced skills, the last thing you need is a high performance canoe that keeps you glued to the edge of your seat. On the other hand, a beginner who genuinely expects to expand his skills will rapidly become disappointed with an "entry level" canoe. Therefore, consider carefully your plans and abilities both now and for the future.

Second, do this self examination before you look at canoes! Organizing your priorities in advance will save time and confusion when you talk to sales people.

Third, do not show your form to the salesperson! Few salespeople are dishonest but they are opportunistic and the temptation to "fit" the canoe to your perceived needs is strong. After all, selling canoes is their business. Ask the salesperson to tell you what the boat will do and then, if it doesn't match what you want move on .

Your Personal Priority List

1. Tandem or a solo canoe? _____________

2. What is the typical weight you expect our canoe to carry? Total Weight ______

3. How much white water will you paddle? (1 if never, 10 if you consider every rapid a personal challenge)?____________

4. What is your current skill level? (1 if you have never paddled, 10 if you have forgotten more about paddling than most people will ever know). ____________

5. What do you expect your skill level to be two years from now? (See above) ____________

6. Arrange the following in the order of greatest importance to you. Aesthetics __________ Controllability ___________ Durability __________ Maintenance _______________ Seaworthiness _______ Price _____________________ Speed ______________ Stability ________________ Weight _____________ Whitewater Ability _______ Other requirements: ______________________________________________________________ Comments: ______________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________


Question #1: No matter what you may have heard, solo canoes do not make good tandem canoes and vice versa. Each can be used both ways but performance always suffers relative to a dedicated canoe. If you must have both in the same canoe, opt for a small tandem.

Question #2: Be sure to add everything. If you don't know what your gear weighs, the following is typical for most paddlers.

- Personal gear - 29 pounds per person

- Group gear - 35 pounds for two, 30 pounds for one

- Food - 2.2 pounds per day per person

There is one problem with this weight business. Few dealers and most manufacturers know what the ideal loading is for their canoes. If the designer's figures aren't available, load it and paddle it. If it feels sluggish it isn't big enough. Ignore so called "capacity" figures which are how much load a canoe will carry and still have 6" of freeboard. Canoes so loaded are usually sluggish and frequently dangerous.

Question #3: Remember that whitewater is qualitative and quantitative. Almost any canoe can run easy Grade 2's but it takes a more dedicated boat to handle wilderness rapids and heavy stuff where one mistake could be terminal. Unsure about whitewater? Delay your purchase until you are certain. Not everyone is cut out for nor looks good in a crash helmet and wet suit and only a river cretin would make fun of a paddler who walks around a rapid.

Questions #4 & 5: This is a good time to tell your ego to leave the room. Modern canoes are sexy and reward good skills but many are use specific and can be demanding. If you lack confidence in your abilities, a user friendly canoe will be best.

Question #6:

Aesthetics - If nothing will please you but a traditional wood canvas canoe - buy it. It's an emotional issue. However, there is no law that says a canoe must be ugly to perform well. Canoeing is an aesthetic experience and you should never have to explain that the canoe on your BMW is not a bathroom fixture.

Controllability - This includes both tracking and maneuverability. The balance between the two depends upon how and where you paddle. What is good for one may be lousy for another. Only a test paddle will tell you if a canoe is suitable but be sure to test it fully loaded. How a boat feels changes dramatically with increasing load.

Durability - Any well built canoe will provide many years of trouble free service but if rock crushing is an integral part of your paddling, Royalex, aluminum or polyethylene are called for. Keep in mind that, in competent hands, cedar strip and wood/canvas canoes have traversed the far north. Your ability and how you use the canoe must be your guide.

Maintenance - Oiling and varnishing the trim on plastic or reinforced plastic canoes requires only a few hours each year but must be done religiously. Of course, if your canoe will be left outdoors over the winter, aluminum or vinyl trim are best.

Price - Set a range but be flexible. A few extra dollars might buy a significantly better canoe. Adhering slavishly to a price limit is often false economy since well built and well cared for canoes depreciate little.

Seaworthiness - Of minor importance to the cottager but a high priority for travelling on large lakes or challenging rivers. Unfortunately there is no way to determine seaworthiness by looking at a canoe or testing it on a mill pond.

Speed - Do not confuse speed with efficiency. Racing canoes are fast but are efficient only when paddled hard. They are designed to be paddled at high stroke rates (50-60+ strokes per minute). Don't expect to cruise at 8 mph unless you have the muscles and skills. Your search is for the fastest canoe at your normal stroke rate.

Stability - In a better world, canoe dealers would provide stability figures for quantitative comparison. The better world having not arrived you must rely upon your own subjective appraisal. Never take a salesperson's word that canoe "X" is stable. It might be for him or her but not for you. Test it and test it loaded. Stability varies significantly with changes in loading and the change in feel dramatic.

Weight - This is a case of getting less for your money since the lighter the canoe, the more expensive it is. Do not underestimate the importance of a few pounds. Every extra pound feels like two once you pass middle age.

Whitewater Ability - If you need it, nothing else will do. There have been significant advances in whitewater canoe design and what was good a few years ago may be outdated to-day. Increased specialization of whitewater boats has made test paddling more important than ever.

Other Requirements - If it's important to you, then put it down. Now, examine your list. Adjust it if needed and you are ready to look at canoes.

Looking At Canoes

Ask the salesperson how each canoe fits the questions on your list. Is it best for skilled paddlers or beginners? Does it rate a 5 for whitewater or a 2? To what skill level is it best suited? Carrying capacity is another non-compromise issue. Underloaded canoes aren't a serious problem but overloaded canoes are dangerous. Compare the salesperson's evaluation of the canoe with your personal evaluation and tolerate no compromise on the items at the top of your list. You will always regret giving up something you value for a passing whim. For items at the bottom of the list can be ignored if all other requirements are met.

Finally, the canoe that "does everything well" doesn't exist yet--so be skeptical of anyone who suggests it does. Happy Canoe Hunting!

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