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The Parts Of A Canoe, Explained

A canoe on the shore of a lake

Do you know your bow from your stern? Is the hull just another word for the deck? And what on earth is a thwart? Canoeing is a recreational sport that, like most, comes with a dictionary-worth of terminology. If you’re new to canoeing or you’re planning to buy a canoe, an explanation of the basic parts of a canoe and their uses will come in handy.

At first glance, all canoes look similar, but specific features make some canoes better equipped for certain waters or recreational activities. Knowing your yoke from your gunwale, and other parts of a canoe will help you find the best canoe for your adventure.

What is a canoe?

In short, a canoe is an open-top, floating vessel that’s long and narrow, with a pointed bow and stern. Canoes are non-motorised vessels designed to be paddled in a seated or kneeling position by one or two people with a single-ended paddle. They can carry up to five people and offer some storage space. This makes canoes ideal for family days out, camping trips, or recreation adventures. One thing to bear in mind is that, although canoes are suitable for use on many types of waters, they perform best on flat or sheltered waters.

Some of the earliest canoes developed in North America, Africa, and Polynesia were made from hollowed-out tree trunks or tree bark. Meanwhile, in the Arctic regions, Indigenous people built canoes by stretching animal skins, waterproofed with tree resin, over frames made from driftwood or whale bones. A similar style was adopted in North America but animal skins and bones were replaced with canvas and lightweight wooden frames. In the 20th century, aluminium became a popular material for canoes due to its durability and rust and corrosion-resistant qualities.

Modern canoes are usually made from moulded plastics that are durable and lightweight, or fibreglass, which is the lightest option and often preferred for fast or long-distance paddling. You can even find modern recreational canoes that are foldable or inflatable.

Fun fact…
The oldest known canoe is the Pesse Canoe, a wooden dugout style canoe. It was found in the Netherlands and is thought to date back to the Mesolithic period.

The anatomy of a canoe

If you’re thinking about buying a canoe, this article and the anatomy of a canoe diagram shown below should give you a clearer idea of what features will be the most useful for paddling canoe races, recreational trips, or whitewater. Once you know the anatomy of a canoe, you’ll know what to look for when choosing your first canoe or upgrading your current one.

Canoe parts diagram


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Why is it important to know the different parts of a canoe?

Even as a beginner paddler, you’ll soon learn that there is no universal canoe design. Although many canoes are suitable for various activities and perform fine on different bodies of water, some are specifically designed for speed or long distances. In contrast, others are designed to be extra stable or easily manoeuvrable. Knowing the different parts of the canoe and their uses will help you pick the right canoe for your purpose. It will also help you better understand the difference between a canoe and kayak. Read more about that in our canoe vs kayak article.

What are the parts of a canoe?

The basic parts that all canoes have include:

  • Bow
  • Stern
  • Stems
  • Seats
  • Deck
  • Keel
  • Hull
  • Rocker
  • Sides
  • Thwart
  • Yoke
  • Gunwales
  • Handles

Canoes on lake with mountains

Basic parts of a canoe explained

Bow vs stern

Which end is the front of a canoe? The bow is the front end of a canoe and it’s the part that needs to cut through the water. For this reason, a canoe bow is pointed. Additionally, the bow often has an attachment point for mooring the canoe or tying off an anchor line.

The length of the canoe is measured by the distance between the canoe bow and canoe stern. The back of a canoe is called the stern; this is often pointed too. However, asymmetric canoes sometimes have a square-stern. It’s possible to mount a rudder or an outboard on some square-stern canoes. In a tandem canoe, the canoe is steered by the paddler who sits at the stern.


Stems are the vertical shape of the stern and bow. There are two main types of stems; square stems and rounded stems. A rounded stem improves steering and makes it easier to turn a canoe while a square stem offers better tracking and keeps the canoe moving in a straight line.

Seats: bow vs stern

In tandem canoes there are two seats, one at the bow and one at the stern. It’s easy to tell the bow seat from the stern seat because the bow seat has plenty of space in front and behind. Comparatively the stern seat has almost no space behind it. In solo canoes there is one seat that is closer to the centre of the canoe but set back slightly to the stern.


The deck is the two triangular pieces at the top of the bow and stern covering the gunwales. The deck may double as a handle if a canoe doesn’t have a designated handle for portage.


The canoe keel is the external ridge that runs lengthwise (bow to stern) along the center of a canoe’s hull. This ridge is often made from metal and protects the hull from underwater rocks. The keel also helps the canoe move straight in winds or rough water. Because canoes with keels are slower to turn, whitewater canoes don’t usually have keels.


The outer part of the canoe that sits in the water is called the hull. There are various types of canoe hulls but the most common include:

  • Flat hulls – the most stable type of hull for flat water but are more likely to capsize in rough water or strong winds. Canoes with flat bottoms sit higher in the water and therefore turn easier.
  • Rounded hulls – the opposite of a flat hull, rounded hulls feel more tippy on flat water but are more stable in rough conditions. Canoes with rounded hulls also move faster and more efficiently than flat hulls.
  • Shallow arch hulls – a compromise between flat and rounded hulls. Shallow arch hulls offer a balance of stability, both in rough and flat waters, and efficiency.
  • V-shaped hulls – a v-bottomed hull is similar to a shallow-arch but offers better tracking due a more pronounced keel.


What is the rocker on a canoe? The rocker means how much of a curve there is to the canoe’s hull from bow to stern. A higher rocker has more of an upward curve which allows a canoe to turn easier and faster because less of the hull is in the water. A rocker will less curvature can move faster and track better but takes more effort to turn.


There are three main types of canoe sides:

  • Tumblehome sides – when the hull is wider at the waterline (the point at which the canoe hull sits in the water) than it is at the top. This shape makes it easier to paddle as the water is closer but can also allow more water in.
  • Flare sides – where the sides flare out and the hull is wider at the top than it is at the waterline. Flare sides are better at keeping waves out but you might find them less comfortable to paddle as you need to reach out further.
  • Straight sides – a compromise between tumblehome and flare sides, these are straight from the waterline to the top of the hull.


Canoe thwarts are wooden, aluminium, or plastic struts that stretch horizontally from one side of a canoe to another. Thwarts brace the edges of the canoe (gunwales). There are usually two thwarts in tandem canoes, one behind the bow seat and about halfway between the yoke and the stern seat.


What is the yoke on a canoe? A canoe yoke works similarly to a thwart but will have a semi-circle cut out. The shape makes it easier to carry a canoe upside down on your shoulders while you portage overland.

Fun fact…
A yoke is the name of a long piece of wood that was used in farming. The yoke was put across two farm animals, typically oxen, and fastened around the neck so that they would walk close together to pull a plough.


Also known as rails or gunnels, gunwales are the wide top-edge of a hull that runs from the bow to the stern on either side of a canoe. Gunwales are typically reinforced to bear the weight of the seats, thwarts, and yoke. Gunwales are also more exposed to scrapes and scratches.

Fun fact…
The term gunwale comes from the 15th-century word ‘gonne-wale’ meaning gun walls. It referred to the plank of wood that reinforced the top of a ship’s hull against the stress of firing artillery.


Some canoes have designated handles at the bow and stern for easier portage and lifting canoes in and out of the water or onto a roof rack.

Knowing the basic canoe terminology is highly beneficial when you’re searching for the best canoe for you. It’s also helpful to understand how the anatomy of a canoe impacts its efficiency in the water. Whether you’re buying your first canoe, upgrading, or going paddling for the first time, learning canoe parts will help you get the most out of the sport.

Beth Carter

Beth Carter
Originally from the UK and currently based in Turkey, Beth Carter is a full-time adventurer, former scout, and vegan traveller. When she’s not hiking long-distance trails with an oversized pack on her shoulders, you’ll probably find her peddling up and down scenic roads, or pitching a tent in a far-off mountain range. On the odd occasion, you might even see her sitting at a keyboard, coffee at the ready, typing about her latest outdoor pursuit.

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