What is A Canoe? Understanding the Anatomy & Uses of A Canoe


Are you wondering: what is a canoe? Then you’ve stumbled on the perfect in-depth guide! Many people are surprised to learn that the oldest boat ever found on Earth was a canoe. As one of the oldest forms of transportation, canoes have been around for many centuries. The world’s oldest canoe, the Pesse Canoe, dates back to sometime around 8,000-7,500 B.C. This form of transportation was common with many indigenous cultures throughout human history. Although the Pesse Canoe was discovered in the Netherlands, the Native North Americans are credited with popularizing the version of the canoe that remains in use today.

What is a Canoe?

A canoe is a lightweight, open top boat that is often operated on lakes, rivers, beach shores, and whitewater rapids, as well as along other shallow areas of water. Most canoes are powered by humans using single-bladed paddles to propel forward. Some come with a sail.

Canoes are usually around 15-20 feet long and pointed at each end. Early versions of the canoe were dug out from tree logs. These early canoes eventually developed into lightweight, more efficient canoes with frames made from Birchbark. This change in the structure of the canoe widened its potential uses by making the canoe faster and easier to steer.

Modern day canoes can be made of wood, plastic, aluminum, synthetic fiber, or fiberglass. They can also be made of wooden frames covered in canvas. The best choice of material for a canoe depends on what activity the canoe will be used for.

What is Canoeing?

Canoeing is a popular, outdoor activity. Canoeing was originally created for practical uses such as hunting, fishing, and transportation, but, eventually, canoes began to be used recreationally for other activities such as competitive sports. Canoeing made its first appearance as an official Olympic sport at the Berlin games in 1936.

Canoeing is a versatile recreational activity. Canoes are used for travelling in lakes, streams, rivers, and whitewater rapids, as well as along beach shores. Canoeing can be enjoyed year round by individuals of many different skill levels for multiple activities. Canoeing is a vital part of many outdoor activities including fishing, hunting, and camping. Some canoeists prefer the relaxation of canoeing along calm streams, lakes, and beach shores. Others prefer the adventure and excitement of canoeing in whitewater rapids and turbulent rivers.

As a sport, canoeing provides aerobic exercise that can improve a person’s flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular health. Paddling a canoe can increase the strength of muscles in the arms, back, shoulders, and chest. Canoeing can also increase the overall strength of the torso and legs, since these areas of the body are useful in helping to power a canoe.

what is a canoe

What is Canoeing vs. Kayaking

One of the most frequently asked questions by those interested in canoeing is: What is the difference between a canoe and a kayak? 

Kayaks and canoes can be used for similar activities and in similar bodies of water. Kayaks were first developed by the indigenous Inuit people of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. Many people consider kayaks to be a type of canoe and use the word “canoe” as an umbrella term for both activities. However, there are many distinct differences between the two. Although many people believe that canoeing and kayaking are the same, canoes and kayaks have different designs and sizes, and they each have different methods of operation. Different types of gear are also necessary for each recreational activity.

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Design of Canoe Vs. Design of Kayak

While canoes are known for their open top designs, kayaks have closed tops and are almost always intended for solo use. Kayaks have an opening on top for a paddler to sit inside the boat. Canoes have higher sides and sit higher in the water than kayaks. The ability to sit higher in the water makes canoes the better choice for scenic water trips.

Canoes have seats for canoeists to sit or kneel while paddling, while kayakers paddle while sitting on the bottom floor of their boats with their legs straight and facing forward in the boat. The open design of canoes allows for much more variety in seating positions.

Size of Canoe Vs. Size of Kayak

Canoes tend to be larger in size than kayaks. As a result, they are able to carry more supplies and fit more people. In comparison to kayaks, canoes are more stable and are able to accommodate a larger variety of people. Canoes are more likely to be used by families for activities such as leisure paddles and camping near calmer waters.

Kayaks are smaller and are almost always only able to accommodate one person at a time. They are sleek and fast, and they are most often used for high speed activities such as racing and running whitewater rapids.

Canoe Operation vs. Kayak Operation

Another difference between canoeing and kayaking is the method of operation. Canoeing and kayaking each require different paddling methods. Canoes are operated with short, single-bladed paddles, while kayak paddles are longer and double-bladed.  Canoeists paddle while seated on benches within the canoe, and kayakers paddle from a seated position on the kayak’s floor.

Canoe Gear vs. Kayak Gear

Canoeists and kayakers are also known to use different gear. Kayakers are more likely to wear helmets and nose plugs. Helmets protect the head from injuries that can be caused by collisions and high water pressure. Nose plugs assist with keeping the nose free of water and debris. It is also common for kayakers to wear buoyancy aids rather than the life jackets that are popular among canoeists. Buoyancy aids are lighter than life jackets and allow for less restricted movement. Another piece of gear that is common for kayakers are spray decks. Spray decks are used to keep water from overflowing the cockpit.

What is a Canoe: The Anatomy of a Canoe

Understanding the anatomy of a canoe is essential for all canoeists of every skill level. It is essential for canoeists to understand a canoe’s basic layout, and the functions of each part.

The Basic Parts of a Canoe

The full body of the body of a canoe is referred to as the hull. A canoe’s hull is divided into the freeboard and the draft by the waterline. The waterline is an invisible line along the body of a canoe that marks how far the water comes up on the body. The area above the waterline is referred to as the freeboard, and the area below this line is referred to as the draft. The top edge of the canoe’s body is called the gunnel.

The Bow and Stern

The bow and stern are the front and back areas of the canoe. The bow and stern contain each of the canoe’s signature pointed ends. Beneath each of the pointed ends is a keel. A canoe’s keel is a ribbed protrusion that keeps the canoe on a straight path as it travels through water.

The Starboard Side and the Aft Side

The starboard side and the aft side are the right and left sides of a canoe. These sides are connected by the yoke and two thwarts. The yoke is the cross beam that is located in the center of the canoe,  connecting the starboard side to the aft side. Yokes, usually made of wood, are often designed with a curve that fits around the neck that makes it easier to transport the canoe by holding it upside down and over the shoulders. Canoes have two thwarts, or crossbars connecting the starboard and aft sides. They are found in the stern and the bow. Thwarts can be made of wood, aluminum, or plastic. They are helpful for providing support to leaning canoeists.

Related: What is a Kayak

what is canoeingWhat are the Different Types of Canoes?

Canoes are versatile boats that can be used for many purposes. The versatility of the canoe is evident by the many different types of canoes that are available. Due to the variety of uses for the canoe, there are many different types of canoes. Canoes are available in multiple different sizes and designs, depending on their intended use. Larger canoes are ideal for activities such as family camping trips and fishing. Smaller canoes are the better choice for fast paced activities such as racing and running rapids.

Canoes are available with alternative features to fit a variety of recreational activities and sports such as camping, fishing, racing, and more. For example, a canoe made for the purpose of fishing may have a space for a fishing rod holder. The ability to specialize canoes by activity are a major part of the reason that canoes are popular for use in so many recreational activities.

Solo and Tandem Canoes

The first major differentiation among canoe types is determined by the number of people who may paddle a canoe at once. Each type of canoe, regardless of its purpose or design, is available as either a solo canoe or a tandem canoe.

Solo canoes are meant to be paddled by only one person at a time. Solo canoes are slimmer in size, making it easier to alternate paddling positions. Having the ability to switch sides while paddling allows solo canoeists to steer the canoe from both sides. Although solo canoes are smaller and are often used with more rigorous bodies of water, they are not the same as kayaks. Solo canoes still feature the larger size, open top, and single-bladed paddle that separates canoes from kayaks.

When embarking on a canoe adventure with a partner, a tandem canoe is the best option. Tandem canoes are made to be paddled by two people, with one person paddling from the canoe’s bow, while the other partner paddles from the stern. This is the most common type of canoe for beginners. This type of canoe is great for canoe lessons between a beginner and an experienced canoeist.

What is Canoeing? The Different Types of Canoes by Activity

Recreational Canoes

The most common type of canoes are recreational. Recreational canoes are durable, sturdy boats made of either aluminum or plastic. The design of a recreational canoe is usually simple and basic. Recreational canoes are more commonly tandem canoes than solo canoes, although both versions are available. They require minimal maintenance and can be left outside for extended periods of time without damage. Recreational canoes can be purchased at most popular sporting goods stores.

Intermediate and Advanced Canoes

Many people who begin canoeing recreationally, eventually find themselves upgrading from the common recreational canoe to an intermediate or advanced canoe. These upgraded canoes are ideal for activities such as bird watching, fishing, and traveling longer distances by canoe. Intermediate and advanced canoes feature more intricate designs and are often made of lighter materials such as aluminum or fiberglass. Intermediate and advanced canoes are usually faster and more comfortable than the basic recreational canoe.

Whitewater Canoes

Whitewater canoes are designed for paddling through rivers and whitewater rapids. Although whitewater canoes serve a similar function, they are not the same as kayaks. This type of canoe is recognizable by its high sides and the high curvature between the canoe’s bow and stern, which is also known as the “rocker.” These canoes are also noticeably flat at the bottom. These features make whitewater canoes easier to control and operate in rougher bodies of water. The high sides and rocker of a whitewater canoe help to keep the rapids’ raging water from flooding the inside of the canoe. The flat bottoms of whitewater canoes allow for faster steering and turning. This is necessary when navigating rivers and whitewater rapids in order to avoid collisions with rocks, wildlife, and tree branches and other debris.

Another distinguishing feature of whitewater canoes is the designated area for storing flotation devices. In a whitewater canoe, flotation bags are tied to the canoe’s stern and bow. This device prevents sinking when the canoe is overcome by large waves or flipped over by rough rapids.

Whitewater canoe seats are specifically designed for canoeists to take on a kneeling position while padding. These canoes are operated while kneeling, in order to keep the canoeist’s center of gravity within the lower portion of the boat, allowing for a more assertive paddling position.

Racing Canoes

This type of canoe is usually reserved for professional canoeists. The racing canoe is rare and is most often used in competition by Olympic athletes.

There are two main categories of racing canoes–flatwater canoes and slalom canoes, which are used in whitewater. Racing canoes are designed for speed and are made of lightweight materials such as Kevlar and fiberglass.

Staying Safe While Canoeing

Safety is a main concern for canoeists at any level. Staying safe while canoeing involves learning more about the anatomy and uses of a canoe, receiving the proper training, and wearing the appropriate attire and gear.

Taking an on-water course for skill development and safety is highly recommended for beginning canoeists. These courses teach the basics of canoeing through both skills courses and written assessments. When searching for an on-water course, it is recommended to find an instructor that has been certified by the American Canoe Association (ACA). The ACA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education for all paddling sports.

what is a canoe reviewDressing appropriately is also important when canoeing. A life jacket or a personal flotation device is the most important piece of clothing that any canoeist can wear. These items are necessary in the event of a capsize. Capsizing is extremely common when participating in more rigorous forms of canoeing such as whitewater canoeing.

Since canoeing can be enjoyed during any season, there are different suggestions for appropriate attire, depending on the location and time of year.

During the warmer weather, it is recommended that canoeists wear breathable, light fabrics. Canoeists may also want to wear a swimsuit underneath their clothes. It is important to wear safe footwear such as sneakers or water shoes instead of flip flops or sandals.

Protection from the sun is also a concern. Wear a large-brimmed hat and sunscreen to protect your skin from damage. There may also be instances while canoeing when the water is cold even if the air temperature is warm. For these occasions, it is advised to take an extra set of dry clothes in order to change out of cold, wet clothing. For canoeing in whitewater rapids it may be necessary to wear a wetsuit for protection against cold water temperatures.

Canoeing in colder air temperatures requires multiple layers of clothing. It is recommended that canoeists wear a base layer of clothing along with another layer to insulate the body’s naturally produced heat. A waterproof layer is also needed to keep the body dry and prevent hypothermia from the cold water. Bringing along an extra set of clothing is also advised when canoeing in colder weather.


Canoes are one of the oldest forms of transportation in the world, canoeing is a very popular outdoor recreational activity. The canoe is a lightweight boat that can be used for a variety of versatile recreational activities such as camping, fishing, hunting, running whitewater rapids, and competitive sports such as racing.

Unlike its similar counterpart, the kayak, the canoe has an open design that can accommodate a variety of different people. Canoeing is the perfect hobby for anyone looking for a healthy, versatile, and fun outdoor activity. Now that you know what a canoe is, as well as what canoeing is, you’re ready to hit the water and have some fun!