Maybe you want to buy a used canoe instead of new because you are on a budget. Or perhaps you think you won’t use your canoe enough to warrant a brand new one, or you just aren’t sure what to buy.
Whatever your reason, when buying a used canoe you must understand that not all canoes are created equal. Much like buying a used car, you need to figure out where to search, what model to buy and what to specifically look for and avoid.
Here are seven things you need to know to begin your search well-informed and to ensure you purchase the right used canoe for you.
1. The types of used canoes
Before you start shopping, you need to ask yourself what kind of canoeing you will be doing. In our annual Paddling Buyer’s Guide, we group canoes into six general categories: lakewater or touring, expedition, racing or training, recreational, sportsman and whitewater tripping.
There is a common belief that a canoe is a canoe and that one canoe can do it all. Although this is true to some degree, it is also true that for each compromise there is a sacrifice in performance. A narrower canoe will be less stable.
Are you racing or going fishing? Are you going for a few hours or a few weeks? Will you be portaging or slamming down rocky whitewater rivers? Let’s first look a little deeper at the most popular canoe categories, and then we’ll cover a few other important things you need to consider.
Lakewater or touring canoes
Lakewater and touring canoes are designed for lakes and are sturdy and easy to control. They are great for canoe trips that pass through many lakes, especially with materials like ultralight aramids and carbon composites that can make multiple portages more enjoyable. They are often slightly longer and narrower than recreational canoes.
Expedition canoes are 18-20 feet long, typically have more depth in their bows, and are capable of fitting more gear for long trips. They have moderate rocker and are sometimes fitted with spray skirts.
Racing or training
Racing canoes are designed for maximum speed and performance. They are narrow, have straight tracking and very rigid hulls. They are generally 18 to 20 feet in length with very limited room inside for gear and are often made of extremely light materials like carbon.
Similar to lakewater or touring canoes, recreational canoes are stable and easy to maneuver but are often slightly wider and shorter at a length of 13-16 feet. They are a good fit for short day trips and use at the cottage.
The stable sportsman canoes are popular with fishers and hunters, especially those looking for greater access than motorboats provide. They are stable, have medium to high gear capacity and many have square sterns for attaching outboard motors. They range from 16 to 18 feet in length.
Whitewater canoes have a short waterline and lots of rocker, allowing greater maneuverability and quick turning. They are designed for one or two paddlers and some come equipped with whitewater-specific outfitting like spray skirts and flotation bags.
What to consider when choosing a used canoe
If rounding up fellow paddlers is tricky or you just enjoy your own company, buy a solo canoe. Why? Why not. Solo canoes are built specifically to be paddled for one person.
Typically they are shorter in length, around 14 feet. As a solo paddler, you probably have less gear and need less capacity within the canoe. Because they’re usually shorter and lighter, solo canoes are also easier to portage. Learn how to self-rescue from a solo canoe here.
Tandem and solo canoes
If you will be paddling mostly tandem and sometimes solo, look for a symmetrical canoe. This means it is shaped the same at both ends and can be paddled both ways.
Most are set up so that you can paddle solo from the bow seat facing backwards, placing you closer to the center of the canoe. Trust us, it works better this way. Give it a try.
If you’ll only be paddling tandem you will have a great deal more choice when searching for your used canoe. Tandem canoes are commonly 16-feet long.
Some are shorter and some longer, but 16 feet canoes are the length of a hull that two paddlers can comfortably paddle and maximize hull speed. Going longer or shorter will depend on other factors like carrying capacity and weight. More on this below.
Portaging a cheap used canoe
People frequently tell us they are looking for a cheap used canoe. Cheap more often than not ends up meaning heavy.
If you asked the same people 800 yards into their third portage of the day, they would happily spend more money for a canoe that weighs less.
Buy a used canoe for the paddling you most often do
Your used canoe needs to match the kind of paddling you will most frequently be doing. If you are going on lengthy trips in the wilderness, you need something longer with more capacity for gear. Do you plan to take the whole family paddling? You will need something stable.
Want to run rapids? a small whitewater boat with generous rocker is the best bet. In short, buy your used canoe based on how you are going to use it.
2. Where to find used canoes for sale
Look at the online classifieds like Craigslist or Kijiji to see what used canoes are for sale (and don’t forget the free sections of each site!). Often more canoes show up in the spring or the fall when canoeists are unloading their boats to get ready for the coming season.
Remember, just like buying a car from a private seller, you should ask lots of questions (see next section). Expand your search radius beyond the online classifieds in your immediate area; research nearby communities where paddling is especially popular. The perfect boat is worth traveling for.
Many outfitters sell off a portion of their rental canoes each year. Ted East from Ontario’s Killarney Outfitters says they repair and sell many of their used canoes each fall as they rotate their fleet.
Other outfitters have one-day sales or sell from spring through to the fall. These rental fleet sales may not be advertised so call canoe outfitters in your area to check. Sometimes you can put your name on a list for a particular canoe or model.
You can also find used canoes at garage sales in paddling communities, gear swaps, the local pennysaver (a free community periodical), and local canoe clubs and associations. Keep your eyes open everywhere you go because canoes turn up in the craziest places.
We’ve bought used canoes at the end of farmers’ lanes and from ads posted in grocery stores. Remember, you don’t know it’s for sale unless you ask. And anything is probably for sale for the right price.
3. Questions to ask the used canoe seller
No matter where you find a used canoe, you should be ready with a few important questions. Your goal is to understand the state of the canoe, if it has been properly looked after, if it has been repaired, how old it is and what it’s made of.
How and where has the canoe been stored?
This is a key question because improper storage has the potential to affect the performance and therefore the value of a canoe. Indoor storage is preferable, but outdoor storage isn’t a deal breaker.
A few seasons in the shade is no big deal, but the sun is the enemy. Prolonged sunbathing can bleach gel coats and warp plastic hulls.
Ideally, the used canoe has been stored upside down in a dry place. The weight of a canoe should be spread over racks to prevent hull deformity, something most common in plastic boats but possible for other materials too.
If the canoe has been hung by its deckplates, thwarts or carrying handles, keep in mind this can stress those parts of the boat. Ask if the canoe was stored with a tarp directly on top. If a tarp isn’t suspended above, it can trap moisture, potentially rotting the wooden part of any canoe, most commonly the gunwales.
How old is the canoe?
If the owner has no idea, locate the boat’s model number found in the hull and review it against the company catalogs. While this may not provide an exact date, it can give you a possible production window.
Have you done any repairs?
Ask what was repaired and have the seller point them out to you on the canoe. Also ask who did them and exactly what kind of damage warranted the fix to give you an idea of how the canoe has been treated.
Why are you selling the canoe?
There are a hundred reasons someone may want to sell a canoe. Maybe their partner finds the canoe too tippy. Perhaps they have had a few children since acquiring the canoe and now it’s too small.
Their reasons for not wanting the boat may end up becoming your reasons too. Avoid buying the wrong used canoe by having this chat up front.
What trips have you done in this canoe?
Asking this can give you a sense of how much use the canoe has had and what kind of paddling it is good for.
4. Used canoe red flags
Understanding the wide variety of different materials used to construct canoes and the different issues that can affect each is important in your buying process.
Many of the red flags described below are not the end of the world or even a reason to not purchase. They are simply common attributes of used canoes you should be aware of, and with time and effort can be repaired.
Composite canoes are made with materials like glass fiber, aramid, or carbon fiber being laid in a mold and mixed with resins to produce a canoe hull. Composite canoes tend to be very light and stiff.
Used composite canoes will very likely have scratches on the hull, even if the owner was extremely careful. Most scratches are probably just cosmetic, but be wary of deep scratches or cracking that goes through the gel coat.
This can expose the fabric underneath, compromise the integrity of the canoe and require restorative work. Another concern for composite canoes is oil canning, which is when the hull bends and flexes while paddling instead of remaining rigid.
Aramid composites (Kevlar/Twaron)
Aramid composite canoes are stiff and light canoes composed with layers of fabric, cloth and resin. They are lighter but less strong than fiberglass composites. Their light weight makes them a good fit for canoe trips with lots of portaging.
One thing to watch out for with aramid canoes is float tanks that retain water. If you pick the canoe up and place on your shoulders and notice it feels unbalanced —or you hear water sloshing around inside—this may be the cause. Aramid canoes will also fade to brown in the sun, which can give you an idea of where it was stored and the extent of the boat’s sun exposure.
Fiberglass composites are stiff, strong and efficient canoes. They can be good for whitewater, have sharp entry and exit lines and stand up well to abrasion.
Fiberglass composite canoe quality greatly varies. For every good fiberglass canoe on the market, there are dozens of very poor quality counterparts. There is a range of construction processes—be particularly wary of home-built fiberglass.
Gordon Baker of Algonquin Outfitters says a good weight for a 16-foot fiberglass canoe is around 60 pounds. If it is closer to 80 or 90 pounds, this could reflect its lesser quality.
Carbon fiber canoes
Canoes with carbon fiber are extremely light, but also extremely expensive. Carbon fiber can be added in small sections on a canoe to strengthen without increasing the weight too significantly or can be applied as full layers mixed with other fabrics. Pure carbon canoes are designed for racing and can be slightly less durable than aramid.
Major cracks or scratches that expose fabric are not a good sign, but similar to other kinds of composites, surface scratches are almost unavoidable.
Royalex canoe material
This has long been the canoe material of choice for whitewater paddling and long canoe trips. Royalex canoes are tough, durable and can stand up to heavy impact.
Royalex manufacturer PolyOne ceased production of the popular material in 2013, but Esquif Canoes began producing a similar material called T-Formex. You can still find used Royalex canoes for sale, but it is becoming more difficult as owners are holding onto them.
When examining a Royalex canoe, look for creases or wrinkles running up and down the hull, which can indicate if it has been wrapped and then punched out.
If there are new-looking skid plates, take a look at the boat from the inside to determine if they may be hiding damage. Also look for big dents, which can affect efficiency in the water. Scratches or scrapes become a bigger problem if they are worn through the color layer to the underlying ABS.
Royalex canoes can also become brittle and develop soft chines from the sun over time. If you can take a look under the deck plates, it is possible to determine the true color of the canoe and if it has spent considerable time fading outside in the sun. They are also susceptible to oil canning.
Wooden canoes are beautiful, glide quietly on the water and many have a rich history behind them. They are often heavy, and despite their past use as expedition canoes, are not generally the choice of modern trippers.
Many people who buy wooden canoes like the connection to nature through natural materials and enjoy the process of increased maintenance they require.
When looking at a used wooden canoe, look for signs of water damage and rot, typically found under deck plates and where the gunwales come together at the bow and stern.
Anyone can put in the time and effort to learn how to repair these parts of a wooden canoe, but the process is more involved and specialized than repairs on some other kinds of boats.
Mike Elliott of Kettle River Canoes has restored 200 wood-canvas canoes in the last 13 years and can count on one hand the number without rot. He says rot often occurs in parts of the canoes where water collects and fungus beings to grow, like the ends of the canoes and the undersides of outwales.
Rotting wood will be soft and show signs of crumbling away. Many wood-canvas canoes you will find for sale are around 40 years old, and the canvas may be in less than ideal condition.
A canvas that needs to be replaced will show cracks or paint flaking when the waterproof filler dries out over time. You may also see the canvas pulling away and rotting around the canoe’s brass stem bands.
The majority of plastic canoes are made of some form of polyethylene. Plastic canoes can be strong, heavy and are often less rigid and expensive than a composite or wooden canoe. Plastic canoes are very low maintenance and can handle being dragged to the shore and sliding over rocks.
A common problem with plastic canoes is oil canning, especially with less expensive plastics or from being left out in the sun. It is more common with used plastic canoes, but they can even show oil canning when new.
Plastic has a tendency to get brittle, especially from sun exposure so make sure to find out how it has been stored. Another thing to look for is the surface of the plastic peeling or appearing fuzzy from use, a feature that can lead to drag in the water.
Compared to wooden canoes, aluminum canoes are extremely low maintenance. First produced after WWII by the Grumman Aircraft Company, aluminum canoes are very durable, but also heavy, noisy and downright frigid on cold days.
They are often on the less expensive side and a good fit for casual day trips on flatwater or as a boat to have at the cottage. Their weight makes them challenging to portage.
You get what you see with aluminum canoes. Doug Chapman from Canadian Quetico Outfitters says having a good look at the amount of dents on the canoe can give you a general idea if it has been well taken care of.
Leaks are easiest to identify with some pressure in the boat, so make sure you not only test paddle an aluminum canoe but bring along some gear. Sit in the seats and use your hands to check that the thwarts are secure.
5. Test-paddling a used canoe
Since you are buying a used canoe as opposed to a brand new boat, you need to take it for a test paddle to really understand its condition. The most important thing about test paddling a canoe is to treat it the way you will once it is yours.
If you are testing a tripping canoe to take on long expeditions, bring all the gear you expect to travel with and place it in the canoe. A canoe for whitewater should be tested in rapids and a canoe that will take you on portage heavy trips needs to go for a walk.
Keep an eye out for any leaks. Sit in the seats and test the yoke to ensure stability. Hold the gunwales to see if they are secure. Look for oil canning. Paddle straight into waves and see if water flares off the sides of the bow or lands in the lap of the paddler in front.
Ted East has a reliable technique for testing canoe stability. He places the canoe in shallow water with his paddle blade in the water touching the ground for support while he leans to the sides to see how much weight it takes to move water over the gunwales.
6. Used canoe damage that is not a big deal
Many signs of wear and tear on a used canoe can be fixed with some TLC and a willingness to learn. Remember—you aren’t buying a brand new product, so don’t write off a used canoe because of some imperfections.
You can paint, re-canvas, add new skid plates, redo gunwales, tighten or replace seats, yokes and thwarts, repair broken ribs and rivets and patch holes. Many replacement parts are not expensive; new canoe seats and yokes can be bought for under $100 each.
Superficial scratches on a canoe aren’t always a cause for concern. Many boats, especially whitewater and tripping canoes and those made of composites, can have surface scratches but still be in great shape. Even small holes are pretty straightforward to patch.
A wealth of resources exist online and in print for repairing each kind of canoe, and by taking advantage of these you can potentially get a lower price on a used canoe.
Many canoe manufacturers and outdoor stores will sell repair kits tailored for specific canoe materials. Significant damage like large holes that compromise the seaworthiness of the used canoe or major structural damage may mean a much more expensive undertaking for a home repair or professional restoration.
7. What to pay for a used canoe
There isn’t a set price range for a used canoe. It depends on the age, model, materials, how well it has been taken care of over its lifetime and what kind of canoeing you plan to do. The first thing you should do is find out how much the used canoe you are considering sells for brand new.
Canoes hold their value well if taken care of and don’t depreciate at the rapid rate cars do. With the new price in hand, factor in how the used canoe has been stored, how old it is, what kind of red flags you have identified and how many are on the market.
Algonquin Outfitters explains on their website that they often hear from people searching for a light Kevlar canoe for $300. Considering the $3,000-$4,000 price tag for a brand new Kevlar canoe, a $300 one would likely be in rough shape. They advise that the lower the price of a used canoe, the more attention it will require from you.
At Trailhead Paddle Shack, canoes sold off from the rental and demo fleet after one season of use are generally marked down 35 percent from their new price depending on condition.
The decrease in value when buying a new canoe
East says that a brand new canoe costing $3,500 could decrease in value about $1,000 during the first few years.
If a canoe isn’t damaged, the value can remain around $2,000-$2,500 for the next five to six years, and after 15 to 20 years can have a forever price of $700 to $1,000 if it is still in decent shape.
Jeremy Ward at the Canadian Canoe Museum says that you may be able to pick up an old wooden canoe for around $100—or even for free—and pay between $2,000 to $2,500 to have it completely restored by a professional.
However, once restored you may not be able to sell the canoe for the same amount you put into it. But for many buying wooden canoes, the pull isn’t about the resale value but instead the special quality of these boats and the sentiment they acquire over the years.
At the other end of the spectrum, an old beater canoe can be bought for $100, and used aluminum canoes can fall anywhere between $150 to $700 depending on the condition.
While all the above information is important when making a used canoe purchase, try to avoid making price the determining factor. When many people hold onto their canoes for 15 to 20 years, making sure it is the best fit for you is the top priority.
There is nothing better than getting on the water and pursuing your adventures in a canoe. Feature Photo: Flickr user Guy Mayer