How to buy a canoe

How to buy a canoe
Video How to buy a canoe

Buying a used canoe, like buying anything used, can prove to be a challenge and the risk of wasting money on a poor craft is very real. I have been through the process of buying used, and the process has taught me a number of lessons. Here is my list of some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned when buying a used canoe.

As a general rule, when buying a used canoe, a detailed physical inspection is vital. Buyers should complete an on-water test and ask the seller to give a history of the craft. Knowledge of canoes, their original cost, and their depreciated value will also aid in buying confidence.

I’ve spent over 40 years canoeing, buying canoes (both new and used), and I’ve also tapped the brains of some mentors of mine that have even more experience than I do. Along with experience and sound advice, I’ve spent hours researching the ins and outs of buying a used canoe and I’m excited to share what I’ve found!

1 Know the Type of Canoeing You’ll Be Doing

You MUST start with this consideration since it is the foundation upon which all other considerations will be built in your canoe search. Ask yourself questions like, “will I be portaging on long wilderness adventures?”. Or, “will I use the canoe with a trolling motor at the cottage?” We just bought a Minn Kota Endura Max for one of our canoes. There are many types of canoeing outings that will require very different crafts.

Using a canoe outside of the environment for which it was designed can be annoying at best, and disastrous at worst.

Peter Stack

Whitewater trips require a Royalex or T-Formex canoe with lots of rocker for good maneuverability and ruggedness, while expedition lake trips require a long and very light canoe with almost no rocker so it will track well on a lake. Using a canoe outside of the environment for which it was designed can be annoying at best, and disastrous at worst.

Also regarding the type of canoeing you’ll do, it’s wise to give thought to the total payload or cargo room and weight limit for a canoe. We have an extensive article to help you!

Canoe Designs and Materials in BRIEF

As a quick overview, here’s what you should know about canoe materials;

Aluminum is very durable and forgiving of accidents and abuse. It’s great for kids and cottages. It’s also relatively inexpensive.

However, it’s quite heavy, not designed for ergonomic efficiency on the water, and does not give you a feeling of being a part of the natural environment given the clunkiness and noisiness of this material.

Wood is beautiful and classic, but apart from their aesthetic qualities, they are fraught will all types of downside issues. Wood canoes can (and do) rot if not stored indoors. They can warp if not stored in a climate-controlled environment.

They are heavy, which makes them impractical for portaging, and they require maintenance annually to keep them looking and functioning well.

Polyethylene or plastic canoes are wonderfully affordable, and if they’re newer, they can be treated with a little less TLC than an expensive composite canoe, but the material is heavy and not super durable as it ages. Plastic canoe hulls tend to warp and get brittle if not stored indoors.

Composite canoes like kevlar, carbon, fiberglass, etc. each have wonderful benefits, but they are not to be treated harshly as you would an aluminum canoe. They can be damaged more easily, and with the exception of fiberglass, they are usually several times more expensive to buy than aluminum or plastic.

Composites like kevlar and carbon are super-light, but with that advantage comes problems like durability (don’t smash them into rocks on a river!) and the fact that they can become brittle and lose structural integrity if stored for extended periods in direct sunlight.

2 Know What Questions to Ask the Seller

Here’s a list of questions that I would ask the seller, and a short explanation of why I would ask.

a) How old is this canoe?

It’s always ideal to know the age and history of the canoe. It will give you a much better idea of the original and current value of the boat. If they are unsure of the age or history, you may find a year of manufacture or at least a lot number using the hull identification number when contacting the manufacturer.

b) How was this canoe stored?

This is an important question for several reasons. It will give you a good idea of the current condition of the canoe (especially if you can’t see the canoe in the case that you’re speaking on the phone or text before your visit), and it will also give you some insight into the current owner’s general care for his investment.

You know you may be in for some further surprises if the canoe was stored outside, and even worse if the canoe was either left uncovered in the elements or had a tarp laid on it with no spacers. That would indicate potential mold/mildew problems since no air was able to flow freely between the canoe and the tarp.

Was the canoe hung from the handles or a thwart? That might signal some warping to be aware of.

c) Why are you selling this canoe?

The seller may not want to tell you, but if he/she doesn’t want to say, that’s a bit of a red flag. The reasons he wants to sell may be exactly the same reasons you won’t want to buy it!

d) How much has the canoe been used since you bought it?

If the canoe has been used a lot, it can mean the owner is really into canoeing and so he cares and baby’s his investment, or it could mean he just used it and ground it into the dirt with no care. Just take a look at the boat and go with your gut on this one.

e) Have you done any repairs on it?

Again, this will tell you whether or not the owner cares for his craft, or perhaps that he didn’t use it much, so there was no need to fix it. If there were numerous repairs, you’ll have to consider how often and how roughly the canoe was used or abused.

f) Was the canoe used in salt water?

Often saltwater usage without rinsing can lead to either corrosion, or more likely just a build-up of natural elements/minerals/deposits.

g) Is the price firm?

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it is good to know the answer to this question if you find areas of excessive wear or damage that can aid you in negotiations for lower price or added accessories.

3 Learn About Depreciation and How it Affects Your Purchase

Like anything new that leaves a store, canoes are subject to a loss of resale value once they are tied to your vehicle and driven home.

As a rule, a higher end canoe can easily lose 30% in the first 1-3 years depending on its condition and usage. The less it’s used, the longer it will hold its value, and it may not lose more than that 30% depreciated value for a half decade or more.

Once the canoe ages over a decade, the price will fall again to around a third of the original value, but that resale price should hold indefinitely for decades unless it’s treated poorly and degrades significantly.

Trying to figure out depreciation is not always a simple formula as I’ve outlined above and condition of the canoe along with the name brand and material will go a long way in determining the current resale value. If you’re curious about specific canoes and their new and used prices, see THIS ARTICLE for an excellent overview.

4 Take the Canoe on the Water for a Test Run

Here’s where things can get a little tricky. Before you arrive at the seller’s location, it’s best to determine how this part of your inspection will play out. As part of your pre-visit communications, you’ll want to talk about whether or not it’s possible to put the canoe into some water so you can get a feel for it.

It’s quite possible that you will be buying the canoe from someone privately who lives nowhere near any water. Plus, even if there was a lake nearby, the idea of you taking a stranger’s canoe away from their home without payment is more than most sellers can take. If you’re buying from an outfitter, it’s a totally different story as they probably are based very near to a body of water and expect you to take it out for a test.

This is where you’ll want to use your gut and look at the big picture. If the boat is in excellent condition, has a reputable name, the owner is genuine and the price is reasonable, it may be worthwhile to take it without a water test. This is how I bought my last kevlar Evergreen Prospector canoe.

The owner had treated the canoe like a family member and it was stored inside his fully finished garage. It had no scratches on it and freshly oiled gunwales. He said he only used it 3 times on a local lake but when his son expressed no interest in going with him on canoe trips, he bought a larger fishing boat and didn’t need this one. It’s kind of a sad story, but I was the beneficiary.

5 Know what to do if you can’t take it on the water

There are times when you absolutely will not be able to water test the canoe, so your decision will have to be made while examining the canoe at the home of the seller or in a shop. If you’re in such a position, here’s my best advice on what to do before (or at the same time as) you do your inspection (see item #9);

  • Portage the canoe around the yard or parking lot to get an idea of yoke comfort and balance
  • Ask the owner if you can gently sit in the bow and stern seats to get a basic feel for it and check for sturdiness
  • Bring a set of tripping bags (barrels, dry bags, etc.) to see how well they sit in the canoe

6 Learn About Repair and Maintenance Considerations

This is one area that will make some potential canoe owners uncomfortable. Some canoeists are very handy in the workshop while others have no interest in hands-on repairs or maintenance. You can always have someone do the work for you, but it’s often far more convenient and way less expensive to do it yourself.

In either case, it’s best to know what materials require what types of repairs (so you can assess whether or not you can do it yourself), and to know what the likelihood of damage will or can be for certain materials in certain conditions.

For example, a Royalex (or T-Formex) whitewater canoe is not likely to get seriously damaged during usage that most canoeists would experience. Royalex canoes are meant to encounter obstacles and they are designed to buckle and then spring back in shape. On rare occasions, there may be a collision with a sharp object near one of the ends where it’s less flexible and a puncture or tear may happen.

You just might need a repair kit handy if you like to run rapids with a plastic canoe!

Deeper scratches like this one on a plastic hull should be fixed and may need to be repaired annually if you use your canoe in white water

On the other hand, aluminum is not likely to get punctured by any natural object in a river or lake, but it could buckle to the point that it will not return to it’s original shape. Rivets may also need to be sealed, but it’s extremely unlikely that the canoe will receive damage that makes it unfit to put in the water.

Kevlar canoes are much more fragile than Royalex or aluminum, but they are also easier to repair with a gel coat kit or a kevlar repair kit.

If your canoe has wood trim (seats, gunwales, thwarts, deck plates, and yoke), you should do yearly maintenance that includes light sanding and a fresh coat of oil (I used Tung oil since multiple coats act like a thick, shiny lacquer, but you can use walnut oil or hemp oil for a more mat finish).

7 Know What Brands to Trust

It’s important to understand that just because a particular brand has been around a long time and is popular and even has a great track record for quality, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be damaged to the point that it may need a complete overhaul which could cost you $2000 – $3000!

Having said that, there are canoe brands that I would be drawn to over other brands given their reputation and their quality. Here’s a quick (short) list of very good brands, but beyond this list, there are many other good canoes made by small companies run out of a home or shop and only a few custom crafts are made annually.

8 Know What You Should Avoid

Like anyone, I’ve learned from my experiences, and experience has taught me a few things that I would avoid in a used canoe. Please note that these observations are MY OPINION and not necessarily hard and fast rules. My goal is to tell you my own view and why I believe it. Then, you go ahead and make your own decisions!

Avoid COLEMAN or PELICAN if you like to Portage

The first thing I would avoid is a super cheap, ultra-heavy beast that was never meant to be anything other than inexpensive. I’m talking about a canoe like a Coleman (which is not made anymore). While a new Coleman’s claim to fame was a rock the size of a volleyball being dropped on the hull without damaging it, I’d hardly say that would be a good enough reason to buy one.

I would never drop a rock on the hull from 10 feet up, but I will portage, solo, tandem, fish, run rapids, etc. The Coleman was just simply too heavy to be of much practical use unless you don’t mind trailering it and never portaging, or trying to travel distances even on one lake.

Since Coleman is not made anymore, the brand to fill the gap is PELICAN. It’s in the same category as the Coleman. Cheap, inexpensive and insanely heavy for just 15.5 feet. It weighs almost 82 pounds. I personally have no use for a canoe like this since I’m not getting any younger and I like to carry my canoe by myself …. over rough terrain …. for a few kilometers. See my point?

Avoid Old Fiberglass

Okay, what else would I avoid? I would avoid old fiberglass canoes. Why? Well, in addition to the fact that old fiberglass canoes were not meant to be terribly light (I’m a BIG proponent of light canoes!), old fiberglass tends to be brittle and can often be punctured by little more pressure than a solid punch!

Gordon Grant, author and former head of the whitewater skill instruction program at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, says this about old fiberglass and wood canoes:

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Stay away from old fiberglass boats: They get brittle with age. Old wooden canoes may require restoration – for some folks, a satisfying end in itself – but do you want to start paddling this year?

Gordon Grant – Author – Canoeing, A Trailside Guide

Avoid Canoes Stored Outdoors With No Cover or No Spacer with Tarp

Canoes stored outdoors (other than perhaps an aluminum canoe) will almost undoubtedly be more brittle and frail due to sun damage. Aside from a healthy evergreen tree, there’s nothing on earth that doesn’t eventually weaken in its integrity due to constant exposure to the sun. Canoe hulls are really vulnerable to this type of passive abuse.

This old Coleman was stored in the sun for 20 years. The hull is permanently warped and faded.

Some well-intentioned owners store their canoe on a set of saw horses behind the shed and then throw a plastic tarp over it and tie it down. This might seem like a good idea at the time, but such a scenario only breeds mold and mildew or worse.

Any tarp will eventually allow water to seep underneath from wind or a tear or small hole. Once water gets between the tarp and the canoe’s hull, it can fester for months or even years without getting fully dry. This is why some canoes have a mold-speckled pattern on their gunwales or hull.

If you know this is how your potential purchase was stored for years, I’d look elsewhere for fear of degenerated hull integrity.

9 Beware! Cheap means Heavy!

I decided to give this topic a heading of its own because I cannot stress to you the importance of a light canoe if you’ll be doing any wilderness trips. Most people I talk to in my travels regarding the topic of canoe brands and styles, etc. don’t give as much thought as they should to weight.

They are mostly unaware that 2 canoes that look the same and are the same length with the same weight load capacity can vary so much in weight. One can weigh 35 pounds while the other weighs 85 pounds. Yet, the novice paddler will think it’s normal to portage an 85 pound canoe unless they are counselled otherwise.

In fact, a good friend of mine was once talked into going on a canoe expedition for a week and had to portage 4 times for a total of about 3 km. He carried a Coleman (the one in the photo above) and since that trip, he decided that wilderness canoeing was a horrible way to spend a vacation. It was all based on the terrible experience of carrying a canoe that weighed 2.5 times more than it should and had no yoke!

But yes, a cheapo canoe will be easier on the wallet. Of course, everyone wants an excellent kevlar tripping canoe for $300 right? Here’s a great quote from Algonquin Outfitters who are one of Ontario’s leading outfitters and used canoe sellers. They have so many requests for used canoes, that they’ve come up with a fun and unique educational section on their used canoe website. Here’s a summary that says it all!

ABOUT THE ELUSIVE $300 USED CANOE…

We do get calls from customers looking for the elusive $300 ultralight Kevlar canoe. Since most new Kevlar canoes cost $3,000-$4,000, perhaps you can imagine what a used one valued at only $300 would look like! One thing to consider is that, usually, the lower the price, the more TLC will be needed (and the heavier it will be).

Algonquin Outfitters

Did you catch that part about “…the heavier it will be”? Once again, that most excellent educator known as experience has taught me that cheap is heavy! My dad was talked into buying an aluminum Grumman since he was terrified of putting a big hole in his canoe 50 miles away from civilization in the era before cell or satellite phones.

Thus, he was pleasantly surprised to find a new 15 foot Grumman symmetrical canoe back in 1985 for around $500. Boy, did I ever pay the price trying to haul that beast from lake to lake.

My Wenonah is a full 2.5 feet longer than that old Grumman and it has a molded wood yoke. It weighs a full 35 pounds less than the Grumman even though the Grumman was called a “15 Lightweight”.

Once you get into the light canoe category, each pound lighter is around $100 more! When you move from kevlar to ultra-lite or carbon, that’s when the exact same canoe with the same accessories and options will cost you several hundred dollars more just because it’s about 3 pounds lighter. Crazy world we live in eh?

10 Do a Detailed Inspection of the Canoe!

I can’t stress the importance of this step! It may seem like a given that anyone would do this, and while that may be true, most buyers don’t consider all the items I’ll suggest for you.

a) Check for hull damage

Spider cracks are not a problem here and there and surface scratches can be removed virtually 100%. But, if you see cracks or patches with some sort of epoxy or sealer that looks like someone squirted a caulking gun at the hull, you may want to ask more questions, or leave the deal right there.

It’s also possible you’ll see or feel softer, mushy spots (with your palm) on a hull which signal major issues ahead!

b) Do the Grab Test

Grab the thwarts, carry handles, yoke and gunwales to see if there’s any looseness, creaking sounds, excessive flexing or cracking noises when you lift it. The sturdier the canoe is and the fewer noises it makes when you pick it up, the better it is.

It’s smart to check the fasteners on an old canoe – like the deck plate attachment screws on this old canoe. You can then assess whether or not it will be easy to fix any potential issues.

c) Look for Mold and rot

Fiberglass, Royalex, plastic, and even aluminum can get spots of mold or even rust! This can give you a great idea of how they were treated and stored and perhaps give you at least a bit of insight into the future potential integrity (or lack thereof) of the area of mold or mildew.

A plastic canoe hull with lots of scratches, warping, mold, and even rust

d) Listen for Water

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When you pick up the canoe, listen for sloshing water. Hearing anything that sounds like moving water can signal a crack or other breach of a surface that could be cause of concern down the road.

This deep scratch looked to be the reason this plastic seat contained enough water to make a noise when I picked up the canoe for my grab test.

e) Overall Assessment

Finally, assess the overall condition of the canoe and see if it’s worth the asking price, a reduced price, or if it’s not worth purchasing at all. Remember, if there are some items that will take some time and especially money to repair, you may be able to get a discount from the asking price.

If you’re one to get queasy about causing a potentially awkward situation that involves squabbling back and forth with someone you just met and were just now acting very nice with, you may want to just pay the asking price, or leave the deal.

11 Be sure to do a price comparison for used vs. new in the model you’re considering

It should go without saying, but I’ll mention it here anyways. It’s very smart (and I’d argue NECESSARY) to know what a new canoe of a similar or identical make and model would cost.

It’s helpful to also research the price of an average used model of the same canoe you might be purchasing. That will give you a very good idea if you’re paying way too much or not.

If you’re not sure where to start, we have a chart that can help (it’s not just Google who has all the information on earth you know!)

12 Find the best place to buy a used canoe

Some of the obvious places are Craigslist or another local online marketplace. However, there are other places that you may not have thought of. One unique place would be to join some Facebook groups that are meant for canoeing enthusiasts in your area.

I know there’s a group called “kayaking and canoeing Ontario” for those in the province of Ontario, Canada. There’s another group called “BWCA Group” which is for all canoeing enthusiasts in the Minnesota area and another group called “Solo Canoeist” for a more specialized type of canoeing. You can always ask if anyone has a canoe for sale. You’ll surely get some great replies!

Another great way to find a used canoe is to contact outfitters in your region. I know Northern Minnesota and all of Ontario have quite a number of outfitters who regularly sell canoes they’ve had for several years in their fleet. All of them are overhauled and made to look as close to new as possible.

We like this option because outfitters have a name to uphold and they’re not interested in selling junk just to make a fast buck. Their canoes have to stand the test of time even after leaving their fleet – if they want to continue to grow their company and grow their public trust.

Outdoorsman and author Gordon Grant Suggests the following in his book, Canoeing – A Trailside Guide:

You can find what you want, advertised in the local paper, paddling club newsletters, or at your local canoeing outfitter, who has accepted used boats as trade-ins from customers buying newer models. Or inquire at a local livery; whenever one upgrades its fleet, it sells off old canoes.

Gordon Grant

Finally, we would suggest specialty sites like canoeing.com for their classifieds section. You might get lucky and find a gem near you!

13 Be sure to check canoeing Facebook groups for questions about your specific canoe

You should already be a member of at least one Facebook canoeing group (there are many) and I would strongly suggest that you tap into them and ask members their opinion of the canoe you are considering buying. Usually answers come as quickly as a minute or two, but for sure within a day.

I recently asked a question about how members of a particular canoeing group secured their canoe if it needed to be left alone on a car for 2-3 days. I got over 25 answers in the first 10 hours!

14 Know the Basic Anatomy of a Canoe

This is important not only for your general knowledge and confidence level when speaking to other canoeists, but it helps very much to know which parts are prone to needing repair or maintenance, and it will save frustrating moments (or even hours) as you research how to fix problems.

Can you imagine Googling “how to fix the long, wood or aluminum pole thingy that attaches one side of a canoe to the other?” It’s much more efficient to ask “how to fix wood canoe thwarts“.

In other words – BE EDUCATED about canoes in general, and eventually, your canoe in particular. Knowing what can easily be repaired and what cannot is invaluable information. Knowing what materials offer what benefits and what their weakness is, would also be one of the more important bits of knowledge for any canoeist.

To find out more information about a canoe’s anatomy, you’ll need to go no further than our exhaustive overview right HERE!

15 Be aware of the need for mandatory accessories and get them right away

It can be easy to get caught up in finding and buying just the right canoe, and neglect thinking about accessories you’ll need. However, if you don’t already have your accessories, I would suggest waiting until you buy your canoe to determine what you’ll need when it comes to the type of PFD, paddles, automotive mounting hardware, dry bags, bailer/bilge pump, trailer, etc.

If you’re unsure of the mandatory safety gear you’ll need, you’ll find this article helpful. And if you’re a beginner check out this article as well.

I own 2 canoes and because of the difference between the two canoes’ seating configurations, the paddle lengths I use for each canoe are different by at least 6 inches. One of my canoes has seats that are only about 1 inch below the gunwales. I feel like I’m sitting very high on the water without a low center of gravity. Because I’m so tall in the canoe, my paddle needs to be a bit longer to reach into the water to the right depth.

On the other hand, my other canoe has bucket or tractor seats which are designed to fit much lower in the canoe, and as a result, my paddle is much shorter since my body is closer to the water level.

And that’s a wrap! Everything you need to know to buy a used canoe! All the best, my paddling friends!

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