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Gear Explained: Parts of a Canoe

Don't know your keel from your yoke? Even a seemingly simple canoe can have a confusing number of parts, features, and terms. Here are the basic parts of a typical canoe, from bow to stern:

Aft: Direction toward the back of the canoe.

Asymmetrical canoe: A canoe in which the widest part of the canoe is aft (behind). Asymmetrical canoes are often slighter faster than symmetrical canoes, but cannot be paddled stern first as easily.

Bailer: What you use to bail out the canoe, such as a milk jug.

Beam: The width of the canoe at its widest point. The beam, or width, may be measured at the gunnels or at the waterline. Some canoe manufacturers provide specific measurement points for beam at the gunnels, maximum beam, beam at the 4-inch waterline, and so on.

Bilge: The inside bottom of the canoe below the waterline.

Bow: The front of the canoe. (Also, the thing that usually hits the rocks first.)

Center line: Center line, more correctly called the keel line, is a straight line running from one end of the canoe to the other end.

Deck: The small triangular pieces of wood or other materials that are attached to the gunnels at the bow and stern of the canoe. (Or the thing you sit on with a beer at the end of a canoe trip.)

Depth: The distance from the inside bottom of the canoe to the top of the gunnels.

Draft: The distance from the waterline of the canoe to the part of the canoe that is deepest in the water. (Also what you have a pint of at the end of the trip.)

Flotation: Inflatable float bags or foam blocks that take up space inside the canoe to prevent the canoe from sinking if capsized or swamped with water. Come in different shapes and sizes for bow, stern, and midship.

Freeboard: The distance from the waterline of the canoe to the top of the gunnels.

Grab loops: Loops of nylon rope or webbing attached to bow and stern to help carry the canoe.

Gunnel: Originally gunwale. The wooden, metal, or other material that runs along the top of the canoe hull and provides stiffness.

Handle: Usually one at bow and one at stern to help carry canoe.

Hull: The watertight body of the canoe.

Inwale: The inner part of the gunwale, which gives rigidity and strength to the hull.

Keel: A raised ridge running from bow to stern on the outside bottom of the canoe along the center line. Should be avoided for river canoes.

Keel line: The center line on the outside bottom of the canoe running from bow to stern. A flat keel line will have less rocker, or curve.

Knee pads: Placed on inside bottom of canoe to cushion knees during paddling.

Kneeling thwart: A thwart, or bar, that's been angled to allow for more comfortable solo paddling. Not as strong as a regular thwart.

Offside: The side of canoe that you are not paddling on.

Onside: The side of the canoe that you are paddling on.

Outwale: The outer part of the gunnel, which gives rigidity and strength to the hull.

Painters: Short lines attached to the bow and stern of a canoe to secure it to shore or assist in loading and launching. Should be made from floating line and be no more than the length of the boat.

Seat: Where you sit in the canoe. In a tandem canoe there's a bow seat and stern seat. In a solo canoe there's one seat aft of the center.

Skid plate: Applied on bottom of canoe by a professional or at home to protect outer skin of canoe. Often made of Kevlar.

Solo canoe: A canoe designed to be paddled by one person.

Spray deck: Attaches to top of canoe to protect from wind and water, with openings for cockpits and cargo.

Stern: The back of the canoe. Opposite the bow.

Symmetrical canoe: A canoe with bow and stern sections that are mirror images. A tandem symmetrical canoe can be paddled solo by sitting in the bow seat facing the stern. The stern then becomes the bow.

Tandem canoe: A canoe designed to be paddled by two people.

Throw rope: Packed in a throw bag, this is used to retrieve swimming canoeists.

Thwart: Wood, fiberglass, or metal bar that attaches to the gunnels and stiffens the canoe from side to side.

Yoke: Similar to a thwart, but shaped to allow the canoe to be more easily carried on the shoulders.

Waterline: The level of the water on the side of the canoe hull.


See Canoe Reviews and Information»

(Illustrations by Sarah Lampe.)


nice job

Very well done.  Often missing is the front thwart, sometimes omitted to save weight and cost.  For a true wilderness canoe this should be added for strength.

Yes, great article. I have been thinking of getting a canoe.


Thanks all. Let me know if you have questions. Alan, you may have missed that the front thwart is shown. Smaller canoes(Bob's Special, etc.) including original w/c canoes may only have a center thwart. Many traditionally did not have yokes.

Thanks Erich!

I knew a few terms and some slang for a few more, but the correct terms for all the canoe parts is nice to know.

I have a canoe I can use, and wish it got used more often, but the alligators where I go are bigger than the canoe and to be honest I've felt safer in my jon boat, haha.

That being said, I really enjoy the serenity of paddling a canoe out on the water at sunrise, it's very peaceful without all the noise of an outboard motor.


Erich, I must not have been clear.  The canoe above does indeed show the front thwart which is something you want in a wilderness tripping canoe.  Many production canoes geared more toward recreational paddling omit a front thwart.

Alan, thanks for the response. Companies eliminate the front thwart often to save a little weight, as well as some cost. All of my bigger tripping boats have the front thwart installed. Some of my smaller boats do not, as it gives me the ability to paddle solo from the bow seat facing backwards. For those of you who do want a front thwart, it is quite easy to install one. Buy the thwart from the relevant canoe company, cut to size and bolt in under the gunnels. Typical placement is two to four inches aft of the bow seat frame. Many companies have a particular pattern for thwarts, however, there are after market suppliers as well. Nearly all thwarts will be ash, either varnished or oiled. Exceptions on material would be the aluminum thwarts some builders use, or exotic woods like black cherry that some small builders use. 

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