Why Some Canoes are Tippy (+Tips to Maintain Stability)


If you don’t have that much experience with canoes, you may be fearful of accidentally capsizing your canoe and falling into the water. It’s not that big of a deal to capsize in calm waters, but it’s probably still something you want to avoid nonetheless. As a precautionary measure against this fear, many novice paddlers look for extremely stable canoes that won’t tip. This begs the question, “Why are some canoes so tippy anyways?”

Some canoes are prone to tipping because they have a narrow structure or a rounded hull, leading to less primary stability. This “tipping” effect can be exaggerated if the weight of the gear or paddlers is unequally distributed. Though, most canoeing instability issues are due to paddling mistakes.

Below, we will explore why some canoes are slightly more tippy than others. Read until the end to learn how to better keep paddling stability in the water so that you can avoid flipping over your canoe on accident.

Why Some Canoes Can Feel Tippy

As a beginner, every little rock or sway of the canoe can send a shock of anxiety through your system. Since you’re not familiar with the canoe’s limits, it’s easy to automatically assume that your canoe is tippy.

In truth, canoes are very difficult to tip over. While certain canoes may inherently be more likely to tip relative to others, no canoe was ever intentionally designed to tip over and capsize into the water. If that were the case, there would be considerably less enthusiastic canoeists. There would be no point in paddling a canoe that’s made to tip over the moment you get onboard.

You can learn more about why canoes are so difficult to overturn by reading through How Hard Is It to Flip a Canoe? (+Tips to Stay Upright).

Nevertheless, there are canoes that do tend to tip more easily than others. Though, rather than applying the term “tippy” to canoes, experienced paddlers opt to speak in terms of “primary stability” and “secondary stability” instead.

As a quick reference, these terms are defined below (source):

  • Primary Stability: the stability of the canoe when it’s at rest on flat water
  • Secondary Stability: the stability of the canoe when it’s leaned up on its side (typically in response to rougher water conditions)

The structural makeup of the canoe is ultimately what determines primary stability versus secondary stability.

Generally, canoes with high primary stability are best used in flat water conditions, since they can easily ride over the top of the water. In contrast, canoes with a high degree of secondary stability are best used in rough water conditions, since they’re better able to absorb waves, rapids, and currents.

It’s recommended that beginners prioritize primary stability since they’re likely going to spend most of their time in calm, peaceful waters. Experienced paddlers lean more towards secondary stability so that they can retain control as the waves toss the canoe this way and that.

Now that you have some background on primary stability versus secondary stability, let’s delve into the different ways that some canoes are more stable than others.

Narrower Canoes Have Less Primary Stability

Anything that’s narrow is less likely to be stable on any kind of surface. Take a 2×4 piece of plywood for instance. When you try to place it on its narrow side, it’s more likely to tip over and fall. When it’s positioned on its flat side though, it’s far more secure. This is because there’s much more points on the plywood contacting the surface beneath it.

This same basic concept applies to canoes. Even though canoes are meant for use on the water and land, this doesn’t change the fact that narrower canoes are more prone to tipping.

The underlying reason for this phenomenon is that canoes—or anything else for that matter—follow the basic principles of physics in the sense that their structural weight will be distributed over a smaller area when it’s narrow. Consequently, more force is being applied to every square inch contacting the water, which leads to instability.

Narrow canoes are preferred by whitewater paddlers that have to deal with rough water conditions on a regular basis. These canoes simply take more skill and experience to handle properly. They were never meant to completely overturn in the water.

Rounded Hull Designs are More Unstable

The hull of a canoe can also determine how stable or unstable it can be. Think of it this way. An object that’s round—like a wheel—is far more likely to move on a flat surface than an object that’s more blockish in its design—like a brick.

By that logic, a canoe that features a rounder hull is more likely to move sideways than canoe hulls that are semi-rounded or shallowly arched.

Canoes with fully rounded bottoms are more sensitive to any change in weight equilibrium, whether it be from the water’s surface or your shift in weight. This notion holds true regardless of how narrow or how wide the canoe may be.

If you want to increase the steadiness of your canoe in calm waters, look for ones that have flatter bottoms. The more curved the hull is, the more likely you are to tip the canoe unintentionally.

Weight of Gear May Be Unequally Distributed

Another factor that may increase how tippy your canoe feels is the distribution of your gear.

Imagine yourself wearing a backpack packed with heavy contents. In a rush, you unknowingly packed everything into the backpack so that most of its contents are concentrated more toward the left side than the right side. As you carry around your backpack, you notice that your left shoulder is bearing the brunt of the load, while your right shoulder is completely fine.

This goes to show that the manner in which you store items has a direct impact on weight distribution. Just like the backpack analogy, the more gear you store on one side of the canoe, the more likely it will be to tip over on that side. Ideally, your gear should be stored in such a way that the weight distribution is fairly equivalent.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It can be difficult to judge exactly whether your gear is packed correctly until you’re already on the water. So long as you make an effort to keep all your gear relatively proportionate, you should be fine on the water.

Weight of Paddler(s) May Be Unequally Distributed

In relation to the previous section, the same concept applies when the weight of the paddler(s) on the canoe is not properly centered. This applies to both single canoes and multi-paddler canoes. However, there’s a stronger likelihood for an unequal weight distribution to happen in canoes with more people.

For those who are paddling solo, it’s in your best interest to center yourself in the canoe. This is especially applicable to beginners that don’t yet know the limits of their canoe’s balance.

Surprisingly, once you’ve perfected canoeing balance, you may even be capable of solo paddling a two-person canoe. This just goes to show that the so-called “tippiness” of canoes is mainly due to the paddler, not the actual canoe.

In the event that you’re paddling with an extra partner or two, an unequal weight distribution is practically unavoidable, especially if one of the paddlers is much lighter or heavier than the others. More often than not, the canoe will favor the side where the heaviest paddler is positioned.

To learn how to best position you and your fellow peers in a multi-paddler canoe, click over to Where Should the Stronger Paddler Sit in the Canoe?

Tips on How to Stabilize a Tippy Canoe

As we have said multiple times throughout this article, the canoe itself should not be blamed for any instability you experience. Instead, the paddler is usually the one at fault for not implementing the appropriate paddling techniques.

To help you become proficient at keeping your canoe steady in the water, here are a couple of useful tips that you can use next time you hit the water.

Assume a Kneeling Position for Superior Control

The very first thing you should do when you feel like your canoe is “tippy” is to kneel down, not sit. With the kneeling position, your center of gravity is much lower in the canoe. A lower center of gravity lends itself to better control. When you’re in the seated position, your center of gravity rests much higher, so you’re more prone to losing control and swaying the canoe on accident.

Plus, kneeling also allows you to activate the core muscles, which are important in stabilizing the body. If you’re able to keep your body steady and firm, this will ultimately translate to the canoe as well.

From a seated position, it’s more difficult to properly engage your core. For this reason, any lapse in body stability ultimately trickles down into tipping the canoe one way or the other.

Keep Paddling When the Canoe Feels Unsteady

Whenever a novice paddler feels the canoe tipping, their first instinct is stop paddling. Unfortunately, this instinct does more harm than good.

As an analogy, think of the last time you rode a bike. When you keep the bike stationary, its natural inclination is to topple over onto the ground. As you mount the bike and pedal, however, it’s considerably easier to keep the bike upright. The more that you pedal, the easier it is to maintain the bike’s stability.

This same general idea holds true for canoeing. The best way to combat instability is to keep your paddle moving underwater (source).

As soon as you stop paddling, you leave yourself to the mercy of the canoe. That’s obviously not what you’re looking to do. Maintain that extra point of contact with the water and make the necessary adjustments to keep yourself afloat.

Put simply, fight that instinct to stop paddling! Just keep moving and you will see for yourself that the canoe is much less likely to tip over.

Sources: 1 2

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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