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Choosing a Canoe: How Long?

by Erich Volkstorf
June 25, 2011

What length canoe to get? It depends on how and where you'll use your canoe.

8-12 Feet

Canoes in this length will nearly always be solo whitewater playboats. Trapper or pack canoes may be seen at the longer end of this range.

Pros: Highly maneuverable, lightweight, compact.

Cons: Limited capacity, slow, whitewater playboats will seem unstable to novice paddlers.

13-14 Feet

Most common in this range are solo and tandem whitewater playboats. Trapping, solo flatwater, and pack canoes also fall in this length.

Pros: Reasonably maneuverable depending on hull design, lightweight, compact.

Cons: Limited capacity, slower compared to longer canoes.

15-16 Feet

This is the length that encompasses most canoes on the market, from large capacity solo canoes to medium capacity recreational tandems like the Bob’s Special. The latter canoe can be paddled as a solo, or take two people on a weekend adventure.

Pros: Many models to choose from, light to moderate weight depending on material. Depending on model could be a flatwater solo, a small recreational tandem, or a whitewater tripping boat.

Cons: Tandem canoe may be difficult to paddle solo without some skill.

17-19 Feet

These are the big boats. Although the 17-foot canoe can be reasonably paddled solo, these are primarily large volume tandem canoes. Expedition canoes fall into this category as do flatwater tripping/touring canoes. These are the canoes to use for extended trips on remote Arctic rivers or weeklong trips into the Boundary Waters.

Pros: Large capacity, capable of a variety of conditions depending on design.

Cons: Because of volume, less suitable for day or recreational paddling, depending on material, weight may be high, difficult to paddle solo.

20 Feet and longer

What can I say? These are really big canoes. Some modern designs are here, as well as replica voyageur canoes in composite materials. These canoes are made for hauling large loads, usually multiple paddlers on lakes and big rivers.

Pros: Large capacity, seaworthy in capable hands.

Cons: Needs at least two or three highly skilled paddlers, very heavy, doesn’t maneuver easily.


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(Illustration by Sarah Lampe.)