"This is the top general-touring boat we tested," said one paddler, who gave the fiberglass Yukon his ultimate stamp of approval: He went out and bought one. The Yukon has plenty of cargo capacity for weeklong trips, yet it's fast and easy to maneuver, and it's quieter than most other boats because the sharply tapered bow and rounded bottom minimize friction and reduce the noise of bow splash. With a slight rocker (see "Canoes, Deconstructed"), this canoe is beginner-friendly, slipping gracefully in and out of eddies and proving stable even with a light load. Flotation chambers in both the bow and stern add buoyancy to ensure the Yukon rides high when fully loaded (900-pound capacity). The tractor-style seats are positioned low for good stability, but aren't suited to kneeling (a necessity in rough conditions). Foam padding on the forward gunwales protects the bow paddler's knees. In the stern, an adjustable foot brace increases stability for maneuvering from the sitting position. The Yukon is a tad heavy, but the price-to-performance is hard to beat. $1,225; 16' 8"; 70 lbs. (866) 644-8111; westerncanoekayak.com.
MAD RIVER FREEDOM SOLO
During a five-day trip down the Smith River Canyon in Montana, the Freedom was the boat every tester wanted to test again–and again, and again. It offers the thrill of solo paddling with versatile, high-performance handling. The shallow vee-shaped hull performed equally well whether we were cruising glassy lakes or running Class II rapids with tricky corners and strong eddy lines. The Freedom comes with deluxe features, including adjustable seat height and cup holders, and the innovative IQ gunwale system lets you easily attach–and detach–optional accessories like hanging storage bags and a spray deck. The 750-pound capacity is more than enough for an XXL paddler and a week's worth of gear. And the Royalex material, a sandwich of foam and vinyl, is rugged enough for a lifetime of abuse. Multiple seat options are available, from classic cane (pictured) to a low-slung tractor seat that's stable and comfortable, but requires frequent readjustments. $1,150 to $1,400 (depending on seat and gunwale system); 14' 6"; 55 lbs. (800) 445-3763; madrivercanoe.com.
Got a month to spend in the Boundary Waters? The Champlain is your vessel; its 1,200-pound load capacity swallows coolers, camp chairs, and jumbo tents. The hull depth (22 inches at the bow) keeps gear dry even in chop. And thanks to the 18-foot length, sharp bow, and tapered shape, it was the fastest boat among all the models we tested. The adjustable bow seat allows paddlers to fine-tune weight distribution. And stability is unmatched: "You could paddle two toddlers and a nervous Lab in this boat!" gushed one tester. The tradeoff? Limited agility, especially in windy conditions, when the boat's high sides catch the breeze. The Kevlar version (tested) is light and tough, but pricey ($2,499). The Champlain is also available in Royalex ($1,399) and fiberglass ($1,679). 18'; 45 lbs. (507) 454-5430; wenonah.com.
OLD TOWN KORU
Meet the canoe equivalent of a 1966 Shelby GT: fast and sexy. The Koru is a head-turner with traditional, pleasing lines, a hull made with a lightweight Kevlar/carbon composite, and a performance that's totally modern. "This boat slices through the miles," said one tester. On Yellowstone Lake, the sleek boat cut easily through the water, held a straight line, shed choppy waves, and seemed immune to crosswinds. A shallow vee-shaped hull provides solid tracking, and an ergonomic hull shape makes for easier reach and more efficient strokes. Flotation chambers add buoyancy, and the sliding bow seat allows easy weight adjustment (though it shifted a bit when we paddled hard). Caution: A flat keel line reduces agility in swift currents. Capacity is 1,000 pounds. $2,999; 17' 5"; 50 lbs. (800) 343-1555; oldtowncanoe.com.
One problem with canoes: They don't fit in a bushplane's luggage compartment–or in condos. The solution: A boat that packs into a suitcase, making it perfect for far-flung paddling trips and New York walk-ups. Made of a canvas and PVC skin that stretches over a tubular aluminum frame, the PakCanoe downsizes into a 35-by-17-by-13-inch bag, and two people can assemble it in 30 minutes. Better yet, it gives up nothing in speed, maneuverability, or durability. During testing, it survived five weeks in the Canadian Arctic and a two-week trip down Alaska's Yukon River unblemished. In both moving and flat water the PakCanoe performed on par with the Yukon Clipper, and paddlers stayed drier because the boat flexes a bit from bow to stern, allowing it to coast over waves rather than slamming into them. Air-filled chambers (a small hand pump is included) add rigidity and flotation. Tip: Load heavy gear in the center to enhance rocker and maneuverability, or distribute weight evenly for easier cruising (760-pound capacity). A foam-reinforced floor increases insulation and durability. Gripe: The seats are hard and flat; don't forget a butt pad. $1,695; 16'; 50 lbs. (888) 863-9500; pakboats.com.
SOAR 14' CANOE
This hybrid inflatable craft is neither canoe nor kayak nor raft, but takes a little DNA from all three. With a self-bailing hull–drainage holes make it impervious to swamping–the boat boffs through waves and rapids like a whitewater raft. The 12-inch side tubes create a very stable ride; testers cruised through Class IV rapids on Idaho's Main Salmon River. Cargo space and load capacity (875 pounds) are adequate for shorter expeditions, like our test crew's week in Utah's Canyon of Lodore, and the 14-foot model works for both solo and tandem paddlers. Like the PakCanoe, the SOAR stows conveniently for travel or storage (packed, it's 15 by 10 by 40 inches). We found the canvas/Hypalon material durable enough for low-water bashing. Caution: This is a river-running boat only; on flat water, it's slow and cumbersome. The price includes pump, repair kit, and thigh straps. $1,795; 14'; 62 lbs. Also available in 12' ($1,625) and 16' ($1,975) versions. (800) 280-7627; soar1.com.
Well-cared-for boats will last a lifetime, which means you can often score a deal on a used canoe. Here's what to watch out for.
UV damage Long-term storage in direct sunlight can cause canoe hulls (especially plastics) to warp or become sway-backed. To check, lay the boat flat. Don't buy it if the center of the hull doesn't touch the ground or the end-to-end profile looks corkscrewed. Also, look for deep scratches, cracks, or gouges that expose interior layers to UV degradation.
Cracks Canoes that live in cold climates (winter temps of -20°F or colder) can develop "cold cracks" in the hull. Plastic hulls with wood gunwales are particularly prone to this syndrome because wood and plastic freeze and thaw at different rates. Check all gunwales carefully for damage.
Wear spots Inspect the bottom for signs of excessive abrasion. Some boats might have fiberglass/Kevlar patching at the bow and stern, which is not a deal breaker as long as the patch is in good condition–smooth and intact around the edges. Inspect attachment points at the seats and thwarts (a canoe's cross pieces); they should fit snugly, with no cracks.
To get the right craft, bone up on how boat design affects performance.
Flotation chamber Air-filled bladders in the bow and stern increase general buoyancy. A definite plus for whitewater paddling.
Freeboard The amount of hull above water when the boat is loaded. Too little, and you're prone to swamping.
Gunwale The solid rim–usually wood, vinyl, or aluminum–that caps the top edge of the hull and adds structural support.
Rockered hull A slight "banana-shaped" curve from bow to stern. The more radical the curve, the more easily a canoe will pivot–but it also decreases stability.
Shallow vee hull This hull shape has a pronounced mid line down the center. Much like a traditional keel, it improves a boat's ability to track straight and resist getting blown off course.
Tumblehome An inward bend in the upper section of the hull. This increases comfort by minimizing the distance you have to reach to plant a paddle vertically in the water.