We used to think that our 16-foot fibreglass Prospector was the best canoe for a camping trip. And it was… until it wasn’t.
There are a lot of different types of canoes out there—all of which are designed for different purposes. As our canoe tripping style changed and we advanced our skills, we realized we needed a longer, sturdier canoe.
Instead of asking yourself what the best canoe for a camping trip is, you need to clarify what you want to get out of your trip. Only then can you choose the best canoe that will match your needs.
Questions to ask yourself when searching for the best canoe
What style of trip are you planning? Is this a river/lake travel trip where you’ll be paddling to a new campsite every day, or a basecamp trip with minimal travel where you’ll mostly stay put?
Who are you going with? Are you going solo, with a partner, or with a group?
What’s your experience level? Have you ever paddled before? Do you know paddle your strokes? If you plan on being in a tandem (two-person) canoe, do you know what roles each person has in the bow and the stern? Have you paddled out on open water? In wavy or rough conditions? On rivers with strong currents? In whitewater?
Will you have to portage? If yes, how long are the portages? Will the terrain be difficult? Are the portages maintained by park staff or volunteers? Do you plan on doing a single carry or double carry?
How much gear are you bringing? Are you planning an ultralight trip, or are you bringing 200+ pounds of stuff?
What’s your fitness level like? Can you flip a canoe over your head and successfully portage it along uneven, steep, muddy, and slick terrain? Can you consistently paddle for long periods without giving into aches and pains? Do you have any health conditions that might limit your ability to paddle or portage?
What will the water conditions be like? Will you be paddling on flat water, or is there a possibility of waves and currents? Are you comfortable paddling in windy conditions? If you’re river tripping, will there be swifts or whitewater?
These are the most important questions to ask yourself when researching different canoes. There may not be one “perfect” canoe for you—especially if you plan on purchasing (as opposed to renting) and are interested in planning several different types of trips—but at least you’ll be able to make an informed decision and get as close as possible to settling on the best canoe for your needs.
Different types of canoes
Here’s a rundown of some of the different types of canoes you might encounter while researching your options. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of what’s out there and what to look for.
Recreational canoes are designed for calm lakes and rivers—mainly for day use. They’re usually shorter and lighter than other types of canoes, which makes them easier to handle on your own. They’re also more affordable, which makes them a good option if you’re new to canoeing or only plan on going out on easy trips.
That being said, recreational canoes have their limitations. They’re not as stable as other types of canoes, so they’re not ideal for windy conditions or rough waters. And because they’re shorter, they’re not as efficient on long trips or in strong currents.
If you only plan on going out on calm lakes and easy rivers—and you don’t mind getting wet if the waves get too big—a recreational canoe might be a good option for you.
Recreational canoes are best for:
- Day use
- Calm lakes and easy rivers
Touring or expedition canoes are designed for long trips on rivers, lakes, and flat-water streams. They’re usually longer and narrower than other types of canoes, but they also have a higher weight capacity, which makes them ideal for carrying gear—like a big old canoe camping food barrel. They’re also more stable than recreational canoes, so they’re better able to handle windy conditions and waves.
They track better than other types of canoes—meaning they’re easier to keep in a straight line. This is especially helpful on long trips. However, because touring canoes are longer and narrower, they’re not as maneuverable as other types of canoes.
This type of canoe is great for long trips on calm waters, but not so much for whitewater, windy rivers, or portaging through difficult terrain.
Touring/Expedition canoes are best for:
- Longer, multi-day trips
- Bringing more gear (higher weight capacity)
- Tracking (moving forward in a straight line)
Wilderness tripping canoes
Wilderness tripping canoes are designed for multi-day trips in remote areas. They’re usually long and narrow like touring canoes, which makes them more efficient on long trips. But they’re also more maneuverable and have a lower profile, which makes them better able to handle wind and waves. They also have a higher weight capacity, so you can bring more gear.
This type of canoe is a good option if you’re interested in long-distance river or lake paddling, but you may also want to consider a whitewater canoe if you’re interested in any kind of whitewater paddling. Overall, it’s a great option if you want a versatile canoe that can handle a variety of conditions.
Wilderness tripping canoes are best for:
- Longer, multi-day trips in remote areas
- Maneuvering in difficult conditions
- Bringing more gear (higher weight capacity)
Whitewater canoes are designed for, you guessed it, whitewater paddling. They’re usually shorter and more maneuverable than other types of canoes, which makes them better able to navigate through rapids and around obstacles. They also have a lower profile, which helps them stay upright in rough waters.
However, because they’re shorter and have a lower weight capacity, they’re not as good for long trips or carrying gear. And because they’re designed for whitewater paddling, they’re not ideal for calm waters.
If you want to paddle through tons of rapids and obstacles, a whitewater canoe is a good option. Just be aware that it might not be the best choice for long-distance trips or carrying gear.
Whitewater canoes are best for:
- Whitewater paddling
- Maneuvering and staying upright in rough waters
- Shorter trips (due to lower weight capacity)
Unless you plan on being in whitewater most of the time, a river canoes is probably the better choice for its ability to handle both calm and rough waters. It’s a good compromise between the stability of a touring canoe and the maneuverability of a whitewater canoe.
River canoes are usually shorter than touring canoes, but longer and wider than whitewater canoes. Their design typically include a lot of rocker, which means they have a curved bottom that makes them more maneuverable. They also have a higher weight capacity than whitewater canoes, so you can bring more gear.
River canoes are best for:
- Rivers with both calm and rough waters
- Compromising between stability and maneuverability
- Longer trips (higher weight capacity)
Fishing canoes are designed for anglers who want to fish in remote areas. They’re usually shorter and wider than other types of canoes, which makes them more stable. They also have a higher weight capacity so you can bring more gear.
Some fishing canoes come with features like built-in coolers and rod holders, which can be handy if you want to keep your hands free while you’re paddling. And because of their design, they’re better suited for moving around, standing up, and reeling in fish.
Fishing canoes are best for:
- Paddling to and fishing in remote areas
- Stability (wide and short)
- Bringing more gear (higher weight capacity)
Inflatable canoes are a good option if you want a canoe that’s easy to transport and store. They’re usually made of PVC, Hypalon, or Nitrylon. Obviously, however, they’re not as durable as traditional canoes. But they’re still great for calm waters and short trips.
Inflatable canoes are best for:
- Day use or very short trips
- Calm, flat water
- Beginners and casual paddlers
- People who are short on storage space
Canoe design details
Now that you have a basic understanding of the different types of canoes, let’s take a closer look at some of the design details that can impact your experience on the water.
The length of a canoe has a big impact on its performance. Longer canoes are faster and track better in a straight line, but they’re also more difficult to maneuver. Shorter canoes are easier to turn, but they’re not as fast or efficient.
For most people, a canoe between 16 and 18 feet long is a good compromise. But if you’re tall or have a lot of gear, you might want a longer canoe. And if you’ll be doing mostly river paddling, a shorter canoe might be a better option.
The width of a canoe also has an impact on its performance. Wider canoes are more stable, but they’re also slower and harder to paddle in a straight line. Narrower canoes are faster and easier to paddle, but they’re less stable.
Most canoes are between 33 and 37 inches wide at the gunwales. But if you’re shorter or lighter, you might want a narrower canoe. And if you’ll be paddling in whitewater or with a lot of gear, a wider canoe will be more stable.
The depth of a canoe affects both its stability and capacity. Shallow canoes are more stable, but they have less capacity. Deep canoes are less stable, but they have more capacity.
Most canoes have an average of 13 to 14 inches of depth at the center. But if you’re taller or want a higher weight capacity, you might want a deeper canoe. And if you’ll be paddling in shallow waters, a shallower canoe will be better.
The weight of a canoe is important because it affects how easy it is to carry and portage, and it’s mostly affected by the length and type of material it’s made out of. Lighter canoes are easier to carry, but they’re also more expensive and less durable. Heavier canoes are more durable, but they’re also more difficult to carry.
The weight of a canoe also has an impact on its performance. Heavier canoes track better in the water and are less affected by wind and waves. But they’re also more difficult to paddle and maneuver.
Canoes with flared sides are more stable, however, they’re also wider and harder to paddle in a straight line. Canoes with straight sides are narrower and easier to paddle, but they’re less stable.
A tumblehome hull is a type of side shape that’s becoming more popular. It has flared sides that taper in at the gunwales, which makes the canoe more stable and easier to paddle than a traditional flared-side canoe.
The side shape of a canoe also affects its capacity. For instance, canoes with flared sides have more capacity because they’re wider. But they’re also more difficult to load because of their width.
Flat-bottomed canoes are more stable, but they’re also slower and harder to turn. Round-bottomed canoes are faster and easier to turn, but they’re less stable.
Most canoes have a slight V-shape to their hull, which is a good compromise between stability and speed. But if you’ll be paddling in calm waters or want a more stable canoe, a flat-bottomed canoe might be a better option. And if you’ll be paddling in whitewater or want a faster canoe, a round-bottomed canoe might be a better option.
The rocker of a canoe is the amount of curve from the bow to the stern. Canoes with more rocker are easier to turn, but they’re also slower and harder to paddle in a straight line. Canoes with less rocker are faster and easier to paddle, but they’re less maneuverable.
For most people, a canoe with a moderate amount of rocker is a good compromise. But if you’ll be paddling in whitewater or want a more maneuverable canoe, a canoe with more rocker might be a better option. And if you’ll be paddling in calm waters or want a faster canoe, a canoe with less rocker might be a better option.
Some canoes have a keel, which is a long, narrow strip of wood or metal that runs along the bottom of the canoe. Keels help canoes track better in the water and resist tipping. But they also make canoes more difficult to turn.
If you’ll be paddling in calm waters or want a faster and more efficient canoe, a keeled canoe might be a good option. But if you’ll be paddling in whitewater or want a more maneuverable canoe, a keeless canoe might be a better option.
You can get canoes in a variety of different materials, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at the different types.
Aluminum canoes are the least expensive option, but they’re also some of the heaviest. They’re durable and resistant to UV light, but they’re not as efficient in the water or comfortable to paddle in because of their weight.
Wood canoes, such as the classic cedar-strip canoe, are more expensive than aluminum canoes and are also quite heavy. They’re absolutely beautiful and have a very traditional look, but they’re not as easy to fix and require more maintenance.
Fibreglass canoes are more expensive than aluminum canoes, but they’re typically lighter and more comfortable to paddle. They’re durable enough for most uses, but they’re not as tough as some other materials. The good news is that fibreglass canoes are relatively easy to repair.
Polyethylene canoes are an inexpensive option, but they’re also some of the heaviest. They’re quite durable and can take a lot of abuse, but they’re not ideal for trips with lots of portaging or liftovers.
Royalex (discontinued) and T-Formex canoes are some of the best you can get for serious canoe tripping. They’re relatively lightweight, tough, and have a very comfortable ride. But they’re also quite expensive.
Nova Craft Canoes developed its very own “TuffStuff” material, made from a high-density polyethylene/aluminum laminate. They’re very tough and have a good weight-to-strength ratio, but they’re also quite expensive.
Carbon fibre canoes
Carbon fibre canoes are some of the lightest on the market—but they’re very expensive and not very durable. But if you want a lightweight canoe that’s easy to carry, a carbon fibre canoe might be a good option.
Kevlar canoes are the best you can get, but they’re also the most expensive. They’re lightweight making them ideal for portaging, and have an exceptionally comfortable ride—especially in flat water. But they’re also quite fragile and require more care than some other materials.
So, what’s the best canoe for a camping trip?
You could spend hours upon hours researching canoes, but there’s no right answer for everyone. No canoe is perfect, and you need to understand that whatever features or design details you’re prioritizing might come at the expense of other important factors.
Now, if we could pick any specific canoe as the “best” canoe for a camping trip, we’d say that a 16-foot Prospector in your material of choice would be a great all-around tripping canoe. Kevlar is great if you can afford it, but fibreglass will also do just fine as long as you’re not putting it through the wringer too often (a lesson we learned the hard way).
The Prospector is a classic design that’s been around for over 100 years and is ideal for tripping in both flat water and fast water, carrying lots of gear, and portaging. Its shape includes a fairly sharp bow and stern, which helps it track well in windy conditions and punch through waves. It also has good initial and final stability, so you won’t feel tippy when paddling solo or loaded down with gear.
A 16-footer is also a good length for most solo and tandem paddlers. It’s long enough to provide good tracking and carrying capacity, but not so long that it becomes too heavy or difficult to handle.
You can get Prospector canoes from a variety of different manufacturers, but we recommend checking out the Swift Prospector 16 and the Nova Craft Prospector 16—two of the leading makers and most popular options on the market.
Other great canoes for camping trips
If you’re interested in shopping around, we’ve put together a list of a few other suggestions. They’re all great options, but make sure you read through the descriptions carefully to find the best one for your needs.
The Nova Craft Bob Special is a great all-around canoe that’s perfect for casual paddling and weekend canoe tripping—especially for solo paddlers. It comes in fibreglass and TuffStuff.
The Swift Keewaydin 15 is a great choice for longer trips. It’s made from Kevlar, so it’s lightweight and has a very comfortable ride. It also has a lot of space for gear.
The Old Town Saranac 146 is ideal for casual paddlers and anglers who are looking for a ton of great features—including rod holders, comfortable seats with seat backs, and a center bench for an extra passenger. It’s on the shorter side at just 14 feet, and made from polyethylene.
The Esquif Prospector 17 is the new boat we just upgraded to—perfect for river tripping, whitewater, and flat water paddling. Get the extra foot on the 16-footer if you’re serious about stability and space for gear. It’s made from T-Formex—Royalex’s successor—which means it’s extremely tough and durable.
The Inflatable Travel Canoe 16 from Sea Eagle is a great option if you’re looking for a good quality canoe that’s stable and has a decent weight capacity—without the need for a large space to store it.
Consider buying a used canoe
Want a good quality canoe, but not prepared to fork over $2,000+ for a new one? You may be able to cut your price point in half (or more) just by searching online marketplaces for used canoes. Just make sure you inspect it thoroughly before you buy, and be prepared to do some minor repairs.
We hope this article has helped you narrow down your search for the best canoe for your next camping trip. No matter what type of canoe you choose, make sure you take the time to learn proper paddling techniques and safety procedures before heading out.
Happy canoe tripping!
Ross is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. He loves looking at maps, planning new routes, sport fishing, and developing his nature photography skills. He’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).