River vs Flatwater Canoe: What’s the Difference?

4-minute read

Our friends at Minnesota-based Midwest Mountaineering offer a helpful walk-through of the differences between river and flatwater canoes. Before buying a canoe, watch this video first so you buy the correct type for your paddling excursions.

two people in a canoe on a northern lake from the distance

(Photo courtesy of Forged from the Wild)

To the canoeing novice, it may seem like a canoe is a canoe. But these boats are designed differently depending on the water where they’ll be paddled.

In this video, Steve explains what to look for when buying a canoe for river paddling compared to flatwater paddling:

Choosing a River Canoe

River canoes are designed with a symmetrical bow and stern. This gives you the ability to paddle it either way, should the river’s current spin you around.

Because they’re likely to encounter rocks, boulders, trees and other river hazards, canoes designed for river paddling are made of more durable and denser materials than flatwater canoes: fiberglass, aluminum, Innegra (using carbon fiber) and basalt (literally crushed up rock combined with Innegra).

These materials are heavier than what’s used in many modern flatwater canoes. But because there’s significantly less portaging on river trips, the weight isn’t as big of a deal as on wilderness trips with many lengthy portages.

River canoes are designed to be very mobile as you paddle. You’ll need to maneuver between boulders, around trees and other hazards so you want a very responsive boat with excellent secondary stability.

Choosing a Flatwater Canoe

Flatwater canoes include those designed for wilderness expedition trips. The higher-end models are generally made with much lighter materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber. The lighter weight makes it much easier for taking those frequent and sometimes long portages.

While some flatwater canoes have the symmetrical bow and stern associated with river canoes, many use an asymmetrical design for greater speed in the water.

Flatwater canoes tend to focus more on initial stability than river canoes, which mainly focus on the secondary stability that makes them so maneuverable. (More detail on comparing these two in this video).

Flatwater boats are designed for straight tracking and more speed across the water. They’re not as maneuverable as river canoes as they’re not designed to be paddled in tight, fast-moving environments.

Steve from the video showing the differences between canoes

The 2 Biggest Factors When Choosing Between the Two

As Steve points out, any canoe will take you where you want to go. While it won’t perform as well on a river, it’s entirely possible to take a flatwater canoe on current. And you’ll make it across a lake just fine in a river canoe.

When it comes to buying one for yourself, there are two main factors to consider:

  • Performance—will you mostly be on rivers or lakes?
  • Weight—how much carrying and portaging will you do?

Some river canoes are built with highly-technical materials that are extremely durable and relatively lightweight. For example, Northstar’s solo Phoenix IXP weighs 40 pounds for a canoe just over 14 feet. You could easily take this model on rivers for great performance and durability.

The same 14-ft-6-inch model built with their StarLite material weighs just 26 pounds. It’s not as durable as IXP, so its use is designed for flatwater or very mild rivers.

What About Your Paddle?

The canoe paddle(s) you choose should also be determined by the paddling environment you’ll spend most of your time in.

If you plan to do mostly flatwater trips—either long days or multi-day wilderness excursions—we have several paddles that are ultra-lightweight for this purpose. Our Black Pearl models, Sunburst and Java paddles—both straight and bent shaft—give you the best strength-to-weight ratio.

two Bending Branches canoe paddles rest against a red canoe on the shoreline

(photo courtesy of Martin Trahan)

River trips demand a more durable paddle that won’t mind bangs and nicks in the rougher conditions. Our Expedition Plus, Viper and Explorer Plus are examples of paddles designed to take more of a beating.

See Bending Branches' lineup of canoe paddles here.

Once you’ve chosen the model to suit you best, be sure you size it properly. Here’s our Sizing Guide for tandem, solo and double-bladed canoe paddles.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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