Canoe Camping: Your Quick Guide to Choosing the Best Canoe

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“I’ve always thought that you should concentrate on paddling your own canoe.”

-John Dos Passos

We only wish that John had gone one step further and specified what kind of canoe since that’s one of the most common questions we get here at Wild Iowa Outfitters. 

Whether you’re a beginner or experienced paddler planning your next (or first) canoe camping trip, it’s essential to know what your canoe options are, so we’ve put together this quick and comprehensive guide to the best types of canoes for canoe camping trips. 

How to choose a canoe for canoe camping

Because of the wide variety of padding conditions that exist, no one canoe will perform well in all of them. In selecting a canoe that will suit your purposes, it’s essential to ask yourself some questions:

  • What type of padding do I want to do (recreational, flatwater, whitewater, etc.)?
  • How long is my typical paddling trip—an afternoon, a weekend, or longer?
  • Do I plan to paddle alone or with others? 
  • Am I bringing gear with me? If so, how much? 

Your answers to these questions will narrow down your options and help you make your selection. 

What exactly are your options? Read on to find out.

Types of canoes

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Recreational canoes

Recreational canoes are as close as it comes to a one-size-fits-all option. They feature hull designs specifically crafted to perform well in a range of conditions and typically have a center seat that allows for solo paddling. In terms of size, they are from 13 to 15 feet in length and 33 to 40 inches in width.

Pros:  Cons:
Good stability, easy to paddle and control, don’t flip over easily Less agile than other canoe styles

Best for: General paddling, flatwater paddling, family paddling, birding, photography, fishing

Whitewater canoes

These canoes are designed with a singular purpose in mind: navigating rivers and negotiating rapids. They are built with durability and nimbleness at the forefront. They are from 9 to 15 feet in length and often feature high sides to keep water from splashing in. 

Pros:  Cons:
Good maneuverability, built for durability, resistant to impact Lack versatility 

Best for: Rivers and running rapids

Multipurpose canoes

Like recreational canoes, multipurpose canoes can handle multiple conditions with relative ease, from still lakes to whitewater rivers. They are also built to handle more people and more gear without sacrificing maneuverability. Multipurpose or versatile canoes come in a range of specifications from length and width to hull shape, and their drawbacks are relative to those specifications. However, in general, the longer a canoe is, the faster it goes, and the more effort is required to turn it. 

Pros:  Cons:
Good maneuverability, more capacity than recreational canoes, can handle big loads, suitable for long trips Variable depending on size and shape

Best for: River paddling, rapids, camping, portage

Racing canoes/Expedition canoes

These canoes are designed to move easily and swiftly over longer distances. Their shape helps reduce wind drag so that you can steer in a straight line with greater ease. In general, they are 18 to 20 feet and length and are built to carry heavy loads, so they actually perform better, and are more stable, when they are weighted down. The drawback is that they take a little more elbow grease to turn. 

Pros:  Cons:
Good durability, ample storage space, built for long distances Requires more effort to turn

Best for: Intermediate paddlers, long trips, hauling gear, pets

Best canoes for canoe camping

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So you’ve decided you want to hit the water for a canoe camping trip. What type of canoe is going to be ideal for a few days of paddling and camping? 

Once again, there’s no right answer. It all depends on your skill level, the type of water you’ll primarily be navigating, the amount of gear you’ll need, the number of people in your party, and more. However, a few general guidelines can help point the way to the canoe that will best fit your needs. 

If you are canoeing down flat water, such as lakes, then recreational canoes are your best bet because of their stability and versatility. For rivers that have rapids, you’re better off considering a multipurpose or whitewater canoe since you’ll need a vessel that is durable and can withstand the impact of faster-moving water. 

Our honest opinion is that there’s no better way to become acquainted with canoes and canoe camping than just getting out there and taking a tour. The hands-on experience of even just one trip on the water will take you from novice to knowledgeable in no time.

Booking a guided tour with an outfitter is an even better option for getting to know the different canoe types and the local area you’ll be paddling. 

Plus, with a guided tour, you have the option of renting a canoe, and your guides will be able to explain all the different types in detail and help you select one that works for you, including the nitty-gritty details such as: 

  • Size
  • Hull shape
  • Weight
  • Price
  • Seats
  • Materials 

Now that you know how to choose a canoe that’s suited to your needs and plans, it’s time to start planning your next trip out on the water!