Canoes are made from a variety of materials and they all have their separate merits. While one material may excel in whitewater conditions, another may be a better choice for flat water touring. The material used to make a canoe has tremendous impact on the cost. Recently, due to the weak Canadian dollar to the US dollar, American's are enjoying incredible pricing on materials that would be out of reach under less than ideal economic times.
Aluminum and Aluminum Alloy: Once the standard for the middle-of-the-line canoe, aluminum has been taking a back seat to all of the new resin and synthetic materials on the market today. True aluminum is about the heaviest material you can get in a canoe. It is tough, durable, and will take being dragged over the bottom very well. It does not have a gel coat or polyethylene skin that makes it subject to abrasion. The outer hull is not subject to fading or degradation from long term exposure to sunlight, and extremes of hot and cold do not effect the material.
On the other hand aluminum does not have a memory and will dent if it takes a hard hit. Aluminum is "sticky," that is it will tend to grab if it hits an underwater object which can be big trouble when in whitewater. The heavy weight makes the canoe difficult to maneuver for an amateur paddler, and even more difficult to portage (carry on your back). If aluminum is punctured from hitting a rock, it is very difficult to repair and the evidence of the repair will be impossible to hide. Aluminum canoes usual require buoyancy chambers to assist in keeping it afloat.
Aluminum canoes are idea for flat water, especially lake front property where the canoe will be stored outside year round and used for casual paddling and flat water excursions. If you plan to do whitewater or be in a very rocky environment, aluminum is probably not your best choice. If you plan to do any kind of touring, you should probably stay away from aluminum due to it's weight for portage.
Aluminum alloy canoes are thinner, lighter, and stronger than true aluminum. Some alloy constructed canoes can be lighter than their synthetic cousins. If you are evaluating an aluminum alloy boat, make sure to ask a lot of questions. If you plan to use your boat for portage and touring, you will probably want to test out an alloy boat to make sure their claims of lightness are true. Not all alloy boats are created equally and when considering a lightweight aluminum canoe you need to be careful.
Polyethylene: Polyethylene is the same material used to make bleach, milk, and other plastic bottles we use every day. It is very flexible, yet durable, and has a memory, that is, if it is flexed, it will return back to it's original shape. Two of the most popular polyethylene models on the market today are made by Coleman™, branded under the Ram-X™ name, and by Old Town Canoe™ branded under the CrossLink 3™ name and used in their Discovery™ series.
The problem with polyethylene is that is very flexible, imagine walking on a suspended floor made out of bleach bottle material! Coleman™ overcame this problem by creating a frame work of aluminum to form a keel, ribs, gunwales, and cross braces to stiffen the canoe. Factors including a low price point, do-it-yourself assembly, strong brand recognition, and broad distribution has made this the number one selling canoe. Polyethylene is flexible, and takes to smoothed dings very well. However, it is relatively soft, and branches, rocks, and sharp edges tend to cut the material. The material is not naturally buoyant, and most true poly canoes have buoyancy chambers. Abrasion is the number one cause of death for a polyethylene canoe. Polyethylene is relatively easy to repair, but due to it's relatively low cost, most canoes damaged to that point are usual disposed of and replaced.
Old Town Canoe™ came up with a different solution for Polyethylene. By taking two layers of polyethylene and sandwiching a 3/8" thick layer of polyethylene foam they created a material called CrossLink 3™. The resulting material had almost all of the positive qualities of Royalex, it is naturally buoyant due to the foam core, yet is more resistant to abrasion then straight polyethylene. The resulting product line was called Discovery™ and the line still sells today. Due to the stiffness of the foam core, the Old Town Canoe™ does not require a framework of keel, ribs, and supports. Also because it has a foam core, the canoe is naturally buoyant, leaving the bow and stern section of the canoe open for storage.
Polyethylene canoes as a class are lighter than true aluminum (alloy can be lighter than polyethylene), and in some cases even lighter than a poorly designed fiberglass canoe. However long term portage of a polyethylene canoe will test the endurance of any paddler.
Polyethylene canoes made from solid material like Ram-X™ are good for flat water, and Class I and II- rivers that do not have jagged rocks, and numerous strainers that could lance the hull of the canoe. Composite foam core materials like CrossLink3™ are also good for flat water, but will withstand Class I, II-, II+, and III water much better and are more cut and abrasion resistant.
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