Two Red Canoes

Camping and canoeing resources.

Choosing a Canoe


There are so many types of canoes made by many manufacturers. Even canoes based on the same design can be very different between manufacturers. So what canoe should you buy?

That is the question I have been asking myself over the past two years as I journey through the maze of options available to me. What canoe did I finally choose? Answer at the end of this page. (Can't wait? Click here.)

Unfortunately there is no one perfect canoe. Each canoe serves a purpose and has its advantages and disadvantages. The following are some things to consider when making a purchase.

Material

  • Fibreglass

    In general, fibreglass canoes are (a) heavy, (b) durable although not suitable for white water, and (c) relatively inexpensive.

    Fibreglass canoes are relatively heavy although modern manufacturing techniques have minimized the weight. If planning even short flatwater trips with more than one portage more than a few hundred metres I would not recommend a fibreglass canoe. Having used a fibreglass canoe for more than 12 years I am somewhat used to the weight but rarely did I look forward to a portage - but does anyone really? My 16' Scott Tripper served me well and stood up well to the scrapes and bumps typical of the maze of lakes, ponds, and beaver dams on the Canadian Shield. But at a hefty 75 lbs, it meant that single-trip portages - ones where I carried the canoe and pack in one trip - were limited to only the shortest of portages.

    A fibreglass canoe would, however, make a great canoe for someone looking to canoe around a lake occasionally, at the cottage, or only does a couple of short trips a year and doesn't plan on doing trips with many or long portages. Or someone who is young and strong - like I used to be - and can handle the weight.

  • Kevlar

    All Kevlar canoes are made from pretty much the same cloth (Kevlar 49, as opposed to Kevlar 28 used in bulletproof vests) woven from Kevlar "string" from DuPont. The Kevlar fibres are incredibly strong and yet lightweight - the perfect combination for canoe builders. But don't make the mistake of thinking that all Kevlar canoes are the same - see the discussion on Building Processes later on.

    Kevlar canoes are better suited for someone who is planning to do any number of serious flatwater canoe trips. A typical 16' Kevlar canoe weighs in at around 50 lbs. That 25 lb reduction in weight over a similar fibreglass canoe makes a huge difference when portaging it for more than a couple of hundred metres. Many portages in Algonquin Provincial Park, for example, are more than 1 km long! Unfortunately Kevlar canoes are much more expensive.

    Even Kevlar comes in different forms: there is expedition weight, ultra-light, etc. Although it may at first be logical to buy the lightest weight Kevlar canoe -- besides, isn't weight the reason you've decided on a Kevlar canoe in the first place? -- I would caution against it. Canoes made from ultra light Kevlar are indeed lighter but they are, unfortunately, also more delicate. The added expense of making repairs may not be worth the extra weight savings.

  • Composites

    To achieve an even lighter canoe many manufacturers offer canoes made from various combinations of Kevlar and other materials such as carbon fibre and Spectra. Although carbon fibre is extremely light weight - and would be a joy to portage - it is more brittle than Kevlar. Nova Craft Canoes has a combination of Kevlar and Spectra which they claim resists tearing and punctures better than an all-Kevlar canoe. Composite canoes are generally more expensive than Kevlar alone.

  • ABS/Royalex - Note: Production of Royalex was discontinued in 2014.

    ABS (i.e. plastic) canoes come in as many variations as fibreglass and Kelvar canoes. The most popular among white water canoeist is Royalex, a material made by sandwiching a foam core with ABS laminates. The result is a reasonably light-weight canoe that holds up to the most rugged conditions. The Royalex material is amazingly forgiving and can be brought back close to its original shape should it become dented or bent.

    ABS/Royalex canoes are around 75 lbs as well (of course exact weight depends on canoe length, shape, and installed accessories). Again, as with Kevlar, Royalex canoes are relatively more expensive than the polyethelene alternative, a less expensive ABS option. The main disadvatage of polyethelene is the difficulty in securely glueing anchors to the bottom of the canoe (for securing float bags, thigh straps and other items used to outfit a canoe for white water paddling).

Rolyalex Replacements?
When PolyOne Corporation announced that production of Royalex was being stopping in April 2014 there was all sorts of buzz in the industry as to whether someone else would continue to produce Royalex or would canoe manufacturers find a comparable replacement. It appears that the demise of Royalex may ultimately be a good thing for the canoe industry. It has seemingly encouraged or at least accelerated innovation in materials research and development.

For example, two contenders that look promising as strong, resilient, light and reasonably priced materials for white water canoes are TuffStuff and T-Formex.

  • TuffStuff: Is the marketing name used by Nova Craft Canoe of London, Ontario for canoes made with Basalt/Innegra (polypropylene) cloth and a vinylester resin. Canoes made with TuffStuff are incredibly strong yet lighter than Royalex and other thermoformed plastic canoes. Nova Craft's TuffStuff expedition canoe is only 59 lbs.

    Nova Craft, however, is careful not to call their TuffStuff canoes "whitewater" canoes. TuffStuff will break and its gel-coat adds to its structural integrity. A hard enough impact will both crack the gel-coat and perhaps even break the TuffStuff layup. Nova Craft doesn't view TuffStuff as a Royalex replacement for serious whitewater paddling. It instead fills that void (in terms of pricing, weight, and strength) between traditional Kevlar and carbon fibre canoes and the heavier Royalex and poly canoes. An example of a canoe available in "TuffStuff Expedition" and designed for whitewater use is the Nova Craft Moisie.



  • T-Formex™: A foam core sheet similar to Royalex; developed in-house by Esquif Canoes. Esquif claims that T-Formex costs the same as Royalex and performs the same, yet is 10 percent lighter, 20 times more abrasion resistant, and has improved UV and impact resistance. Esquif is planning on producing canoes with T-Formex, as are other manufacturers, including Nova Craft Canoes. A 16' 6" Nova Craft Moisie made from T-Formex is expected to weigh in at 67 lbs (or 77 lbs for the even more durable T-Formex Plus version).

    There's a catch though. On Mar 18, 2015 Esquif announced that they were discontinuing business (read their statement on Facebook), which left the industry again wondering what they would use for manufacturing whitewater canoes. Although Esquif, after going through a process that allowed it to clean up its books, announced that they were back in business on May 4, 2015, canoe manufacturers and the paddling community are now somewhat cautious about hailing the arrival of T-Formex. Until canoes made from T-Formex actually start showing up in retailer showrooms and on the water, the future of T-Formex remains unknown at this time.

    Sep 2017: Canoes made from T-Formex having been hitting the market and early reviews are in. Some examples:


Building Processes / Resins

So you've decided that a Kevlar canoe is for you. That was easy! Or was it? You must now consider how the Kevlar cloth is turned into the shape of a canoe.

In Kevlar and composite canoe construction a resin is used to infuse (i.e. soak) the cloth (Kevlar or other). When the resin cures it hardens into the desired shape. The following resins are generally used in the making of a canoe:

  • Epoxy Resin - superior to other resins, it is however the most expensive and hardest resin to work with. The use of epoxy resins produces the most durable and resilient canoes. Epoxy also has superior bonding qualities that reduces the chances of delamination (i.e. the separation of the cloth and resin).
  • Epoxy/Vinylester Blend - a blend of the epoxy and vinylester resins that at least one manufacturer of high performance racing hulls claims is an improvement over epoxy resin alone. It is not clear to me whether that improvement includes durabality and resilience or really just means less expensive and easier to work with. More research is required!
  • Vinylester Resin - the most common resin used in high-volume canoe production.
  • Polyester Resin - the least expensive resin. Generally, used in very inexpensive "cottage-grade" canoes. Stay away from canoes made from this type of resin if you are considering any sort of wilderness tripping.

Shape

The shape of the canoe's hull is what determines the characteristics of the canoe on the water. Some of the characteristics that you will want to consider are speed, tracking (tendency to go in a straight line - or not), stability, load capacity, and turning. Unfortunately a design that improves one of these characteristics usually negatively affects one or more of the others. There is no perfect design. You need to decide what characteristic is most important to you and choose a design that maximizes that characteristic.

Some characteristics to consider are:

  • Rocker - the fore and aft upward curve of the keel-line (think rocking chair). More rocker means easier turning and manoeuvrability (important for white water). Less or no rocker generally allows for easier tracking (important for flatwater).
  • Symmetry (Symmetrical or Asymmetrical)
  • Beam - width of the canoe at its widest point
  • Tumblehome/Straight/Flare - how the sides curve (curve in, no curve, curve out)
  • Keel - An external keel (sometimes as many as 3) is generally used in recreational canoes to help maintain a straight line and to reduce side slippage in a wind. They are generally not recommended for a performance tripping canoe.
  • Length - a longer canoe may track (i.e. maintain a straight line) better and a shorter canoe will be easier to manoeuvre through a winding stream. A typical tripping canoe will be 16-17 feet in length.
  • Depth - partially determines load capacity
  • Flat-Bottomed versus Round Bottom (or compromise with a shallow arch or V hull) - affects speed (round bottom fastest) and stability (flat bottomed most stable)

Final Decision

So? What did I finally choose?

Two canoes actually.

  1. Evergreen Starburst - For running white water, I chose this canoe because of its combination of material (Royalex), rocker (pronounced but not excessive), high sides, competitive price, and praise from other paddlers. Recent use of this canoe has validated my decision. It handles well, plows through and over big waves without taking on much water, spins when commanded to, and holds a reasonably straight line if necessary (although skilled sternsmanship is likely the most important contributing factor in maintaining a straight line). The Esquif Canyon, which has a very similar shape, almost identical, was a close second - it really came down to price.

    Evergreen Starburst Canoe

    Fast forward to 2015, many years later, and the Evergreen Starburst is no longer in production. The Esquif Canyon remains a good choice, however, it would be a toss-up between it and Nova Craft Canoe Moisie.

  2. Alchemist Myth - I was originally relunctant to make this choice because the Alchemist line of canoes are new to the market and therefore don't have an established history. However, I was convinced to give it a try after learning more about the guys behind the new design and construction. Even with the addition of external skid plates and additional structural reinforcements (not present in the demo model) the Alchemist Myth weighed in at a respectable 50 lbs. The finish on the outside of the high quality resin-infused kevlar hull looks superb. The Myth has a fairly significant rocker which may not make it suitable for less experienced canoeists (who could consider the Alchemist Saga as a good alternative).

    Having now paddled the Alchemist Myth on a number of weekend canoe trips during this past summer and having portaged it over several 1500+ metre portages, I can now happily report that the Myth has lived up to my high expectations. See my full review here. Other fine canoes that were on my short list and popular choices among local canoeists in Ontario were the Swift Kipawa and the Langford Nahanni.

    Alchemist Canoe Company, Alchemist Myth