White Water Canoe

How a White Water Canoe Differs from a Standard Canoe

Thinking about canoeing on adrenaline-inducing white water rapids? Stay safe and use a white water canoe. While it’s not essential for all rapid classes, more advanced (read dangerous) white water conditions call for a white water canoe designed for powerful currents and turbulent waves. I always use a white water canoe when I’m heading out in class 3 or higher. But how is a white water canoe different from a standard canoe?

Key Elements of a Canoe

To understand how normal canoes and white water canoes differ, it’s useful to understand different design elements that impact performance and suitability for white waters.

Let’s explore the basic elements of a canoe.


Canoe length has a big effect on performance. Measure canoe length from the tip of the stern right up to the tip of the bow.

Canoe Length

Generally speaking, a longer canoe is faster, moves forward in a straighter line, and has more spatial capacity for carrying the paddler’s belongings. It’s perfect for casual lake paddling.

However, greater length comes at the cost of maneuverability. A shorter canoe can make rapid, tight turns so the paddler can rapidly respond to emerging obstacles.

This more efficient mobility means shorter canoes are better suited to white waters.


Beam is another word for the canoe’s width.

Canoe Width

You measure beam (or width) at the two widest points of the boat. A narrow canoe travels faster but is less stable.

A wider canoe will be more stable but is less quick and efficient. In general, a wider canoe is recommended for white water canoeing.


The depth is usually measured in three places:

  • The bow
  • The stern
  • Along the center

Greater depth allows for more onboard capacity and freeboard, which allows the canoe to paddle through large waves more easily. However, it can make the canoe heavier.

Interested in white water paddling? You’ll need a canoe with more freeboard, as it helps stop water entering the canoe.


There are four different kinds of hull.

Flat Bottom

The aptly named flat bottom has very little curvature, making it more stable on still waters.

Flat Bottom Canoe

However, flat bottomed canoes are more susceptible to wind and waves and can easily capsize in rougher conditions. That means it’s a bad choice for white water.

Round Bottom

Round bottomed canoes have very curved hulls. They are designed for speed and efficiency, but they are less stable and can be tricky to balance.

Shallow Arch

The shallow arch is increasing in popularity as it combines the stability of flat bottom hulls with the efficiency of round hulls.

Shallow Vee

This design is another flat-bottom and round hull blend, typified by the v-shape beneath the arch.


Keels were initially incorporated in canoe design as a structural element to help keep the boat together.

Canoe Keels

They can help canoes to track better, but they may make paddling less efficient.

There are two kinds of keels: tee and shoe.

Tee Keels

These tend to be better for use in deep water or lake paddling.

Shoe Keels

These have a lower profile to skim over rocks found in shallow and white water.

Canoe Profile

The shape of a canoe’s sides also impacts performance. Here are the three most popular side designs and shapes.

Canoe Profile


If the sides seem to flare out over the waterline, they will help stop the canoe tipping and will work to keep water out.


In this design, the gunwale (upper edge of the side) width is smaller than the waterline width. Tumblehomes are popular for racing.

Straight side

As the name suggests, these designs have completely straight sides, suitable for paddling on calm waters.

Other Features

Basics aside, there are other design features worth you should know about.

Canoe Features


Rocker refers to the curvature from the bow to the stern. If a canoe has a high degree of rocker, less of the bottom of the canoe will be in the water. This means the canoe will act as a shorter-length canoe, making it easier to maneuver (but it won’t track well).

Canoes with moderate rockers will still be highly maneuverable and will track well, too. Straight-line canoes do not have a rocker. They will track very well but will be difficult to maneuver.

White water canoes tend to have a high degree of rocker.

Entry Line

Canoes with particularly sharp entry lines will be efficient and speedy.

Canoe Sharp Entry Line

Conversely, canoes with blunter entry lines will be a bit slower and less efficient. However, they’ll be more buoyant when confronted with waves.


Stems contribute to a canoe’s bow and stern shapes. Sterns can either be squared or rounded. Squared stems allow for good tracking, whereas rounded stems make steering and maneuvering easier.

The Difference Between Standard Canoes and White Water Canoes

Whew! That was quite a bit to learn. But now you know about canoe design variations, you can understand the differences between regular canoes and white water canoes.

Difference Between Standard Canoes and White Water Canoes

Let’s explore the key differences below!

Standard Recreational CanoeWhite Water Canoe
Made of plastic or aluminum. Highly durable and versatileTough plastic or molded from Royalex (a plastic laminate). Flexible and very durable
Flat bottom or shallow archFlat bottom, round bottom, or shallow arch (depending on water conditions)
Tend to be longer from tip of the stern to the tip of the bowTend to be shorter in length from tip of the stern to tip of the bow
Beam (width) is widerBeam (width) is narrower
Seats for upright seated positionSeating for kneeling position
May have sharp entry linesBlunt entry lines
Conservative amount of rockerFully rockered (curvature from bow to stern)
Low sidesHigh sides to keep out water

Standard Canoes

Standard recreational canoes are usually made of either plastic or aluminum, and they tend to be highly durable and versatile.  You’ll find these models at lake rental sights and in sports shops, and they’re usually a great option for beginners or casual paddlers.

Standard Canoes

Enthusiasts might opt for more expensive models, with better craftsmanship and attention to detail. These are often more lightweight and ergonomic, but the basic design will at minimum be consistent with a standard recreational canoe.

Canoeing on White Water

Standard canoes aren’t suitable for white water conditions.

White Water Canoes

White water canoes are specifically designed for safety on white water rapids. They feature high sides to stop water from entering, and they’re fully rockered for efficient maneuvering.

White Water Canoes

They usually have flatter bottoms to make quick turns while remaining stable on the water. However, some designs do have round bottoms or shallow arches.

White water canoes also come with space to attach flotation packs to the stern and bow. These floatation devices will prevent the canoe from sinking should water somehow seep into the craft.

Often, these canoes come with padded kneel seating. Why? Well, a kneeling position makes it easier for you to make powerful paddle strokes and maneuver quickly.

A White Water Canoe is Essential for White Water

Don’t take chances with your safety! If you’re venturing out onto white water rapids, you should upgrade to a white water canoe with all the tailored design features for optimal safety and ease of use.

You need a white water canoe for white water conditions because:

  • The high sides stop water from getting into your canoe, preventing sinking.
  • Its full rocker makes maneuvering easier in challenging conditions.
  • There is space in the stern and bow where you can install floatation packs.
  • Your kneeling position is facilitated by the padded area often provided.

No matter what kind of canoe you use, always know its weight limit. Learn more about that here.