Looking for that perfect canoe? To find your match, look at the elements of canoe design—your canoe’s dimensions and hull shape determine how it paddles and whether it’s the right boat for you.

Dimensions of the canoe

Length, width, and depth are rough indicators of a canoe’s speed, stability, capacity and seaworthiness.

Length = Speed
Length is the primary factor in determining speed. When comparing two canoes of different lengths, everything else being equal, the longer canoe will be faster. Shorter canoes generally turn easier, making them more maneuverable.

Width = Stability
The canoe’s width and cross-sectional shape determine stability. A wider canoe has more initial stability. Narrow canoes are generally faster and more efficient in the water.

Depth = Capacity and Dryness
Depth is the distance measured from the bottom of the hull to the top of the gunwales. Greater depth allows for increased carrying capacity and protects against swamping, making the canoe more seaworthy. Deeper canoes have more freeboard, but they are harder to handle in windy conditions.

Carrying Capacity
Measured by how much weight a canoe is
 able to displace while maintaining at least six inches of freeboard. Making the canoe longer or deeper extends carrying capacity; the canoe’s width is generally not increased since it results in drag.

The shape of the canoe

A cross-section will illustrate how the shape 
of the bottom and sides of the canoe will determine its primary and secondary stability and performance characteristics. A canoe 
with primary stability is initially very stable, however, if leaned too far, it quickly upsets. Canoes with secondary stability offer better performance and stability while on edge, useful for whitewater and rough-water paddling.

It offers great primary stability but sacrifices speed and rough-water performance, ideal for recreation and sport canoeists.

Shallow Arch

Designed for all-around performance. Maintains a good balance between primary and secondary stability.

Round bottom

Found in specialized racing designs. Great speed and efficiency but very little primary stability.


Flared hull sides help to deflect water, keeping the canoe dry.


A balance between the paddling efficiency of tumblehome and the dryness of flare.


Sides that curve inward toward the gunwales, allowing closer placement of the paddle to the hull.

Describes the upward
 curve of the bow and stern. Rocker determines the maneuverability of the canoe. For instance, a canoe with more rocker turns easily and is ideal for whitewater, whereas a canoe with less rocker tracks well and is suitable for racing and long-distance lakewater travel.

The canoe’s hull symmetry


Canoes that have identical bow and sterns ends. This design offers versatility because it can be paddled solo or tandem.

Typically has the widest section behind the center of the canoe creating a longer bow. This shape increases forward speed and tracking, ideal for touring and performance canoes.

Now that you’ve got the basics, view all canoes in our Paddling Buyer’s Guide and choose the best one for you.

This article first appeared in the 2009 Early Summer issue of Canoeroots and Family Camping magazine. 


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