Difference between a river and lake canoe

I was recently told that the Sawyer canoe I have was a lake canoe and not as much a river canoe. How does one identify the differences other than rocker, or should I ignore this comment and hit the river anyway?

River as in white water, or a slow, meandering river? If the latter, just send it.

Otherwise, I expect it would come down to maneuverability

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Canoes that are better adapted for river use tend to be less efficient than flat water lake canoes because you generally have some help from current. They are often a bit shorter and almost always have some degree of rocker to improve maneuverability. Canoes intended for whitewater are deeper to make them drier and more seaworthy running through big waves.

Flat water lake boats are often longer with straight keels for improved efficiency and are often less deep so as to present less windage.

It is possible to paddle long, straight-keeled canoes on rivers although sometimes different techniques are used to maneuver. Flat water boats in general do not spin as easily and quickly as river canoes so side slips and back ferries are often used to maneuver laterally to avoid obstacles.


Good writing by pblanc.
You need better strokes to use a lake boat on a river.
I had a Wenonah Odyssey once which was an odd duck. It was a fast down river boat 18 1/2 feet with almost zero rocker. It carried a lot, was a deep dry hull, but turning her was challenging at times.

100% what pblanc said. I have a 17’ Prospector from Novacraft and it is a pain to paddle on open water with the wind and high sides but great in rough flowing water. My 14’ Kanuck Kanoe is great on the lake with a decent keel and low sides but doesn’t like the waves so much so the sponge in the bottom of the canoe is always on duty lol.

Is there such a thing as one that is half way between? If so what model would that be like?

I was on a creek yesterday that is more of a small river until George Washington decided to call it a creek and it stuck or so the legend goes. There was a strong wind and the water was mostly flat. Other lakes are really sheltered around here some not.

So if you rule out whitewater is a lake canoe best all around? :canoe:

Once you learn you skills, a river boat can be used on lakes without much problem. The old Prospectors went everywhere.

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There are lots of canoes that do well on both lakes and rivers. I have a Swift Keewaydin 15 solo that’s leans towards lakes (cruises efficiently and shrugs off wind) but does fine on rivers with moderate current and I also have a Swift Osprey (also 15 feet) that’s very maneuverable and at home on faster current and tight creeks but still cruises quite well…but gets pushed around a little more on windy days. My Northstar Polaris tandem does very well on both rivers and lakes.

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You’ll be fine on anything but whitewater…if you can’t hear the water you’re good.

That’s how I look at the difference…and this relates to wind and paddle thrust also.

It all boils down to how much enjoyment one wants. Sure, you can paddle a banana boat 8 miles across a breezy lake, but how much fun is that? You’re pretty wiped after that. Some can paddle a -0- rocker long fair hull on a class 1-2 river, but how much fun is that, considering high probability that you will take 1 or 2 swims. Even if you don’t you every waking moment is spent trying to maneuver such a canoe through rapids. There exist several compromise hulls that will do both somewhat well, if you are a practiced paddler. So, it’s not a matter of if you can, but do you want to? Fact is 99.9% of us are recreational paddlers, not out to prove anything, just want to enjoy ourselves. I wish there was one canoe out there that will do it all, but the physics of the matter says there isn’t.

I more skill you have the less important a specialized canoe becomes.
The Prospectors were a good example of canoes that went everywhere. People did not worry too much about how much rocker they had or anything else.

Just hit the river, if you are going to do rapids start small and work up slowly to get a feel for what the boat can do. You can do most things with either type, and it depends more on the paddlers ability than the boat.

Lake canoes have a more defined keel and little rocker to give them a tendency to go in a straight line. Some are also designed in such a way that they punch through waves, rather than riding up and over them. They also have low sides to catch less wind, and assume you won’t encounter much in the way of large waves.

River canoes have more rocker to help them turn quickly, and this also helpes them to ride up and over waves rather than punching straight through. They have a more rounded bottom and less defined keel to assist with turning and to sit more level when encountering waves from the side. They also have high sides to keep waves from pooring over the gunnels, and assume wind won’t be as much of an issue.


in addition to the handling characteristics, the material also makes a difference. Old town popularized the idea of making indestructable boats with marketing ads that included tossing them off the factory roof (late 70s) . While abs (royalex) was an improvement, the boats were not indestructable. I would think twice before I ran a nice sawyer canoe over a bunch of rocks. That’s why I don’t own any “nice” boats. I like rocks too much.

We used to take aluminum canoes in ww without flotation. Nobody said we were smart be we had fun. We turned a few boats into pretzels.