Paddle Fiberglass Kayak
A B.N. Morris Canoe Company wood-and-canvas canoe built approximately 1912
Birchbark canoe at Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine
Bark canoe in Australia, Howitt 1904

A canoe is a lightweight narrow vessel, typically pointed at both ends and open on top, propelled by one or more seated or kneeling paddlers facing the direction of travel and using a single-bladed paddle.[1]

In British English, the term "canoe" can also refer to a kayak,[2] while canoes are then called Canadian or open canoes to distinguish them from kayaks.

Canoes are widely used for competition and pleasure, such as racing, whitewater, touring and camping, freestyle and general recreation. Canoeing has been part of the Olympics since 1936. The intended use of the canoe dictates its hull shape, length, and construction material. Historically, canoes were dugouts or made of bark on a wood frame,[3] but construction materials evolved to canvas on a wood frame, then to aluminum. Most modern canoes are made of molded plastic or composites such as fiberglass.

Canoes were developed by cultures all over the world, including some designed for use with sails or outriggers. Until the mid-1800s the canoe was an important means of transport for exploration and trade, and in some places is still used as such, sometimes with the addition of an outboard motor. Where the canoe played a key role in history, such as the northern United States, Canada, and New Zealand, it remains an important theme in popular culture.


Frances Anne Hopkins: Shooting the Rapids (Quebec) (1879), Voyageur canoe.

Constructed between 8200 and 7600 BC, and found in the Netherlands, the Pesse canoe may be the oldest known canoe. Excavations in Denmark reveal the use of dugouts and paddles during the Ertebølle period, (c. 5300–3950 BC).[4]

One of the oldest canoes in the world is the Dufuna canoe in Nigeria. It is the oldest boat to be discovered in Africa, and the third oldest known worldwide.[5] The canoe is currently in Damaturu, the state capital.[5]

Australian Aboriginal people made canoes using a variety of materials, including tree bark and hollowed out tree trunks.[6] Bark canoes required much skill to make, and could only be made from the bark of certain trees at the right time of year. Trees scarred by the removal of bark to make canoes became known as canoe trees by non-Indigenous people in some parts of Australia.[7]

The indigenous people of the Amazon commonly used Hymenaea trees. The Pacific Northwest canoes are a dugouts usually made of red cedar.[citation needed]

Many indigenous peoples of the Americas built bark canoes. They were usually skinned with birch bark over a light wooden frame, but other types could be used if birch was scarce. At a typical length of 4.3 m (14 ft) and weight of 23 kg (50 lb), the canoes were light enough to be portaged, yet could carry a lot of cargo, even in shallow water. Although susceptible to damage from rocks, they are easily repaired.[8] Their performance qualities were soon recognized by early European settler colonials, and canoes played a key role in the exploration of North America,[9] with Samuel de Champlain canoeing as far as the Georgian Bay in 1615. René de Bréhant de Galinée a French missionary who explored the Great Lakes in 1669 declared: "The convenience of these canoes is great in these waters, full of cataracts or waterfalls, and rapids through which it is impossible to take any boat. When you reach them you load canoe and baggage upon your shoulders and go overland until the navigation is good; and then you put your canoe back into the water, and embark again.[10] American painter, author and traveler George Catlin wrote that the bark canoe was "the most beautiful and light model of all the water crafts that ever were invented".[11]

These antique dug out canoes are in the courtyard of the Old Military Hospital in the Historic Center of Quito.

Native American groups of the north Pacific coast made dugout canoes in a number of styles for different purposes, from western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) or yellow-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), depending on availability.[12] Different styles were required for ocean-going vessels versus river boats, and for whale-hunting versus seal-hunting versus salmon-fishing. The Quinault of Washington State built shovel-nose canoes, with double bows, for river travel that could slide over a logjam without portaging. The Kootenai of British Columbia province made sturgeon-nosed canoes from pine bark, designed to be stable in windy conditions on Kootenay Lake.[13]

The first explorer to cross the North American continent, Alexander Mackenzie, used canoes extensively, as did David Thompson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In the North American fur trade the Hudson's Bay Company's voyageurs used three types of canoe:[14]

The birch bark canoe was used in a 6,500-kilometre (4,000 mi) supply route from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean and the Mackenzie River, and continued to be used up to the end of the 19th century.[16]

Also popular for hauling freight on inland waterways in 19th Century North America were the York boat and the batteau.

In 19th-century North America, the birch-on-frame construction technique evolved into the wood-and-canvas canoes made by fastening an external waterproofed canvas shell to planks and ribs by boat builders such as Old Town Canoe, E. M. White Canoe, Peterborough Canoe Company and at the Chestnut Canoe Company[17] in New Brunswick.

Although canoes were once primarily a means of transport, with industrialization they became popular as recreational or sporting watercraft. John MacGregor popularized canoeing through his books, and in 1866 founded the Royal Canoe Club in London and in 1880 the American Canoe Association. The Canadian Canoe Association was founded in 1900, and the British Canoe Union in 1936.

Sprint canoe was a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris Olympics and became an Olympic discipline at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.[18] The International Canoe Federation was formed in 1946 and is the umbrella organization of all national canoe organizations worldwide.

In recent years First Nations in British Columbia and Washington State have been revitalizing the ocean-going canoe tradition. Beginning in the 1980s, the Heiltsuk and Haida were early leaders in this movement. The paddle to Expo 86 in Vancouver by the Heiltsuk, and the 1989 Paddle to Seattle were early instances of this. In 1993 a large number of canoes paddled from up and down the coast to Bella Bella in its first canoe festival – 'Qatuwas.[19] The revitalization continued – and Tribal Journeys began with trips to various communities held most years.

Hull design

1 Bow, 2 Stern, 3 Hull, 4 Seat, 5 Thwart, 6 Gunwale, 7 Deck, 8 Yoke
Prospector canoe showing rocker at the stern

Hull design must meet different, often conflicting, requirements for speed, carrying capacity, maneuverability, and stability[20] The canoe's hull speed can be calculated using the principles of ship resistance and propulsion.

Materials and construction


Aluminum canoe
Inflatable canoe at a canoe launch on the Charles River


Stretching canvas on a canoe
Dugout canoe of pirogue type in the Solomon Islands

These materials and techniques are used by artisans and produce canoes that some consider more attractive, but which may be more fragile than those made with modern methods.[32]

In culture

Henri Julien:La Chasse-galerie, oil painting 1906

In Canada, the canoe has been a theme in history and folklore, and is a symbol of Canadian identity.[40] From 1935 to 1986 the Canadian silver dollar depicted a canoe with the Northern Lights in the background.

The Chasse-galerie is a French-Canadian tale of voyageurs who, after a night of heavy drinking on New Year's Eve at a remote timber camp want to visit their sweethearts some 100 leagues (about 400 km) away. Since they have to be back in time for work the next morning they make a pact with the devil. Their canoe will fly through the air, on condition that they not mention God's name or touch the cross of any church steeple as they fly by in the canoe. One version of this fable ends with the coup de grâce when, still high in the sky, the voyageurs complete the hazardous journey but the canoe overturns, so the devil can honour the pact to deliver the voyageurs and still claim their souls.

In John Steinbeck's novella The Pearl set in Mexico, the main character's canoe is a means of making a living that has been passed down for generations and represents a link to cultural tradition.[41]

The Māori, indigenous Polynesian people arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyage. Canoe traditions are important to the identity of Māori. Whakapapa (genealogical links) back to the crew of founding canoes served to establish the origins of tribes, and defined tribal boundaries and relationships.[42]


Modern canoe types are usually categorized by the intended use. Many modern canoe designs are hybrids (a combination of two or more designs, meant for multiple uses). The purpose of the canoe will also often determine the materials used. Most canoes are designed for either one person (solo) or two people (tandem), but some are designed for more than two people.

Women's C2


Sprint canoe is also known as flatwater racing. The paddler kneels on one knee, and uses a single-blade paddle.[43] Canoes have no rudder, so the boat must be steered by the athlete's paddle using a j-stroke. Canoes may be entirely open or be partly covered. The minimum length of the opening on a C1 is 280 cm (110 in). Boats are long and streamlined with a narrow beam, which makes them very unstable. A C4 can be up to 9 m (30 ft) long and weigh 30 kg (66 lb).[44] ICF classes include C1 (solo), C2 (crew of two), and C4 (crew of four). Race distances at the 2012 Olympic Games were 200 and 1000 meters.

Slalom and wildwater

Whitewater slalom canoe

In ICF whitewater slalom paddlers negotiate their way down a 300 m (980 ft) of whitewater rapids, through a series of up to 25 gates (pairs of hanging poles). The colour of the poles indicates the direction in which the paddlers must pass through; time penalties are assessed for striking poles or missing gates. Categories are C1 (solo) and C2 (tandem), the latter for two men, and C2M (mixed) for one woman and one man.[45] C1 boats must have a minimum weight and width of 10 kg (22 lb) and 0.65 m (2 ft 2 in) and be not more than 3.5 m (11 ft) long. C2s must have a minimum weight and width of 15 kg (33 lb) and 0.75 m (2 ft 6 in), and be not more that 4.1 m (13 ft). Rudders are prohibited. Canoes are decked and propelled by single-bladed paddles, and the competitor must kneel.[46]

In ICF wildwater canoeing athletes paddle a course of class III to IV whitewater (using the international scale of river difficulty), passing over waves, holes and rocks of a natural riverbed in events lasting either 20–30 minutes ("Classic" races) or 2–3 minutes ("Sprint" races). Categories are C1 and C2, for both women and men. C1s must have a minimum weight and width of 12 kg (26 lb) and 0.7 m (2 ft 4 in), and a maximum length of 4.3 m (14 ft). C2s must have a minimum weight and width of 18 kg (40 lb) and 0.8 metres (2 ft 7 in), and a maximum length of 5 metres (16 ft). Rudders are prohibited. The canoes are decked boats which must be propelled by single bladed paddles and inside which the paddler kneels.[47]


Marathons are long-distance races which may include portages. Under ICF rules minimum canoe weight is 10 and 14 kg (22 and 31 lb) for C1 and C2 respectively. Other rules can vary by race, for example in the Classique Internationale de Canots de la Mauricie athletes race in C2s, with a maximum length of 5.6 m (18 ft 6 in), minimum width of 69 cm (27 in) at 8 cm (3 in) from the bottom of the centre of the craft, minimum height of 38 cm (15 in) at the bow and 25 cm (10 in) at the centre and stern.[48] The Texas Water Safari, at 422 km (262 mi), includes an open class, the only rule being the vessel must be human-powered, and although novel setups have been tried, the fastest so far has been the six-man canoe.[49]


A "touring" or "tripping" canoe is a boat for traveling on lakes and or rivers with capacity for camping gear. Tripping canoes such as the Chestnut Prospector and Old Town Tripper derivates are touring canoes for wilderness trips. They are typically made of heavier and tougher materials and designed with the ability to carry large amounts of gear while being maneuverable enough for rivers with some whitewater. Prospector is now a generic name for derivates of the Chestnut model, a popular type of wilderness tripping canoe marked by a shallow arch hull with a relatively large amount of rocker, giving a nice balance for wilderness tripping over lakes and rivers with some rapids.

A touring canoe is sometimes covered with a greatly extended deck, forming a "cockpit" for the paddlers. A cockpit has the advantage that the gunwales can be made lower and narrower so the paddler can reach the water more easily.


Playboating decked canoe

A canoe specialized for whitewater play and tricks. Most are identical to short, flat-bottomed kayak playboats except for internal outfitting. The paddler kneels and uses a single-blade canoe paddle. Playboating is a discipline of whitewater canoeing where the paddler performs various technical moves in one place (a playspot), as opposed to downriver where the objective is to travel the length of a section of river (although whitewater canoeists will often stop and play en route). Specialized canoes known as playboats can be used.

General recreation

A square-stern canoe is an asymmetrical canoe with a squared-off stern for the mounting of an outboard motor, and is meant for lake travel or fishing. (In practice, use of a side bracket on a double-ended canoe often is more comfortable for the operator, with little or no loss of performance.) Since mounting a rudder on the square stern is very easy, such canoes often are adapted for sailing.

Canoe launches

A canoe launch is a place for launching canoes, similar to a boat launch which is often for launching larger watercraft. Canoe launches are frequently on river banks or beaches. Canoe launches may be designated on maps of places such as parks or nature reserves.[50][51][52][53][54]


See also


  1. ^ "Canoe". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
  2. ^ "Buying a canoe or kayak". Archived from the original on 8 September 2014. Retrieved 8 September 2014.
  3. ^ "Dugout Canoe". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  4. ^ "Dugouts and paddles". Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  5. ^ a b Richard Trillo (16 June 2008). "Nigeria Part 3:14.5 the north and northeast Maiduguri". The Rough Guide to West Africa. Rough Guides. pp. (pages are unnumbered). ISBN 978-1-4053-8070-6.
  6. ^ "Carved wooden canoe, National Museum of Australia". Retrieved 2013-04-25.
  7. ^ a b c "Aboriginal canoe trees around found along the Murray River". Discover Murray River. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  8. ^ "Bark canoes". Canadian Museum of Civilization. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  9. ^ "Our Canoeing Heritage". The Canadian Canoe Museum. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  10. ^ Kellogg, Louise Phelps (1917). Early Narratives of the Northwest. 1634–1699. New York. pp. 172–173.
  11. ^ Catlin, George (1989). Letters and Notes on the Manners. Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (reprint ed.). New York. p. 415.
  12. ^ a b Pojar and MacKinnon (1994). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver, British Columbia: Lone Pine Publishing. ISBN 1-55105-040-4.
  13. ^ Nisbet, Jack (1994). Sources of the River. Seattle, Washington: Sasquatch Books. ISBN 1-57061-522-5.
  14. ^ "The Canoe". The Hudson's Bay Company. Retrieved 6 October 2012.
  15. ^ a b "Portage Trails in Minnesota, 1630s-1870s". United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
  16. ^ "Canoeing". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  17. ^ "A Venerable Chestnut". Canada Science and Technology Museum. Archived from the original on 2 October 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  18. ^ "Canoe / kayak sprint equipment and history". Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  19. ^ Neel, David The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. Douglas & McIntyre. 1995. ISBN 1-55054-185-4
  20. ^ Canoeing : outdoor adventures. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2008. ISBN 978-0-7360-6715-7.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h Davidson, James & John Rugge (1985). The Complete Wilderness Paddler. Vintage. pp. 38–39. ISBN 0-394-71153-X.
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  23. ^ Competition Rules Canoe and Kayak Specifications Sanctioned Race Sponsor Requirements (PDF). United States Canoe Association. 13 January 2019. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  24. ^ 38th Annual Run of the Charles (PDF). Charles River Watershed Association. 2020. p. 5. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
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  26. ^ "Canoe Design". Archived from the original on 28 September 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  27. ^ a b "The Hull Truth". Mad River Canoe. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  28. ^ a b "Royalex (RX)". Archived from the original on 2011-02-25. Retrieved 20 November 2010.
  29. ^ "Canoe Materials". Frontenac Outfittesr. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  30. ^ "Buying The Right Canoe". Retrieved 6 October 2012.
  31. ^ James Weir, Discover Canoeing: A Complete Introduction to Open Canoeing, p.17, Pesda Press, 2010, ISBN 1906095124
  32. ^ "Buying The Right Canoe - Materials". Retrieved 6 October 2012.
  33. ^ Margry, Pierre (1876–1886). Decouvertes et etablissements des francais dans I'ouest et dans le sud de I'Amerique Septentrionale (1614–1754). 6 vols. Paris.
  34. ^ Tom Vennum, Charles Weber, Earl Nyholm (Director) (1999). Earl's Canoe: A Traditional Ojibwe Craft. Smithsonian Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. Archived from the original on 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2012-12-03.
  35. ^ "Carved wooden canoe, National Museum of Australia". Retrieved 2013-04-25.
  36. ^ "Did you know?: Canoe trees". SA Memory. 26 November 2009. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  37. ^ Couper Black, E. (December 1947). "Canoes and Canoe Trees of Australia". The Australian Journal of Anthropology. Australian Anthropological Society. 3 (12): 351–361. doi:10.1111/j.1835-9310.1947.tb00139.x. This paper was read before Section F of the Biennial Meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Adelaide in August, 1946.
  38. ^ Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee (2002). Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3552-2.
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