Choosing a family canoe

For young children, stability is typically the main concern. Kids love to wiggle around in excitement and the last thing you want is a dunk overboard.

Our family started out with a flat profile, flat hull canoe with a keel: great initial stability. It worked well for carrying capacity and stability when we were young and squirming, fishing over the side, and learning to paddle. We even had little chairs in the center of the canoe.

As we grew more comfortable and confident and got into backcountry adventures, we later bought more maneuverable canoes that were swifter and better in choppy waters, but with less initial stability.

It’s important to understand the difference between initial stability and secondary stability when making choices.

Initial Stability

Typically flat bottom styles.

Initial stability is what you feel when you first get into the boat. A canoe with great initial stability means it’s easier to get in and out of, and you can stand up or move around (within reason). It takes a lot to flip this style in flatwater.

It resists leaning but will capsize quickly once pushed past the center of gravity (think of everyone leaning to one side at the same time). This is because the secondary stability is given up for the initial stability.

Secondary Stability

Typically more rounded style bottoms.

This refers to how the canoe reacts as it tilts and rocks. Secondary stability offers more stability when being leaned side to side, which is good for rough-water paddling (like choppy water) and whitewater.

This also means that the initial stability is sacrificed, making it less stable getting in and out of the canoe, and less stable when standing or moving around. It feels a little more “tippy” and can feel like it’s going to tip – so it sometimes feels less comfortable and may cause some novices to get a little panicky (that goes away when you get used to the way it moves after all the paddling you will be doing!)

There are numerous canoe designs and options and this article isn’t going to delve into them all – just the basics to target family style preferences.

Canoe Shape

The list below explains more in detail, but a general rule is: flat design is generally better suited for novice paddlers and families. This style is often used in sport and cottage-type canoeing because their stability makes them a good fit for fishing and beginners, though you do give up some speed.

Profile: Flat

PRO: Better tracking, which means it’s easier to keep the canoe moving in a straight line. When you stop paddling it will (more or less) continue in a straight forward motion. Good initial stability.

CON: less maneuverability (a little harder to maneuver easily around narrow spots or rocks).

Profile: Rocker

PRO: more maneuverability (for example, navigating narrow rivers, around rocks, whitewater)

CON: less tracking (harder to keep in a straight line, even while paddling it will require more corrective strokes to keep it going straight. When you stop paddling it swiftly alters course). Less initial stability.

Hull Bottom: Flat

PRO: More initial stability (meaning steady when flat). Typically used in sport, cottage and as family canoes as they are good for fishing and new paddlers. This hull offers more stability when entering and exiting the canoe, and is pretty stable with wiggling kids. It also feels more stable as it doesn’t rock side to side as much as the rounded hull (so there’s less panic thinking you will dump).

CONS: You give up some speed. If rolled beyond the center of gravity, it can rapidly capsize – meaning, if everyone suddenly leans all weight to one side! But, it takes some pretty drastic movement to make this happen.

Hull Bottom: Rounded

PRO: Better secondary stability when rolling (less likely to rapidly capsize), but overall less initial stability (more “tippy”). Moderately rounded bottoms are more maneuverable and capable of more speed, lending to more touring and expedition canoe styles, and for rough waters (to allow more stability rolling side to side without capsizing).

CON: Less stability when entering and exiting the canoe, and less initial stability: it rolls side to side more easily, and can lead to feelings of unease or panic for some who aren’t used to its sensitive movements.

Keels (not a hull shape but worth consideration)

Typically, lake canoes have a deeper keel (V-shaped bottom) to help them track (keep going straight).

River canoes typically do not have a keel or have a very shallow one, to allow for more maneuverability (and to slide over rocks more easily).

Canoe Style

Recreational: entry level, great starting point, less costly

Touring: for longer ventures, flat and river touring, and long day or overnight trips. Costlier, more options for storage, and typically for those who really want to get into canoeing.

Expedition: larger, tough, large capacity, for multi-day adventure and backcountry trips.

Fishing, whitewater and inflatable are also on the market, but we aren’t really targeting these here.

Cost

Canoes can be expensive. Ask yourself, are you just starting out and don’t want to spend a lot, or do you want to make an investment?

Our first canoe was used and very heavy. It worked well, but once our parents discovered how much we loved it, we bought a second one which was more expensive but lasted until now and still goes on the water.

Used

If buying used, check for visual damage. Ask if there have been any patches. If so, test if for water leakage. Properly cared for, canoes can last a very long time.

Rental

Not sure what to get? Rent! Many parks have rentals. Just reserve one and see how this activity fits your family. This also means you don’t have to strap one to your car!

Manufacturers

There are so many canoe manufacturers out there. Personally, we favor Scott and Swift canoes. Do a little research, and ask for suggestions. A good canoe company won’t sell you something that doesn’t suit just because they want to make a big sale. We still have our 30 year old Swift canoe that’s going strong. We recently did some surface restoration to buff it up – their costumer service is fantastic.

Canoe Material

OUR PICK: Kevlar Composite

More expensive than fiberglass but very strong, come in a wide variety of shapes, and are extremely lightweight. They are stiffer and lighter than fiberglass with higher tensile strength, meaning they are stronger than fiberglass and lighter. They also come with a gel coat. This has been our canoe for two decades and is still going. We prefer it as it’s so light to load on a vehicle, carry, and portage. Plus, they look fantastic.

Wood canoes

Wood canoes are heavier, require regular maintenance, and typically are custom made or very old. But they can be absolutely stunning.

Aluminum canoes

Aluminum canoes require little maintenance, and are not affected by the sun’s UV rays. Durable, but any holes need expert welding, and they can be heavy, noisy, hot to touch in summer and really cold in cool weather. They aren’t recommended for river paddling as they tend to stick to rocks rather than slipping over them.

Plastic canoes

Plastic canoes are low cost, durable, high impact resistance, glide over rocks without sticking, and need little maintenance. But they are often heavy, with limited shapes available, and offer poor speed and efficiency. Without reinforcement, the plastic (typically polyethylene) lacks stiffness which affects speed. If reinforced with metal – this adds weight. UV will also eventually damage the plastic (store out of the sun).

Royalex canoes

Many casual canoers opt for these as they are lighter than the above polyethylene plastic/aluminum style canoe, are tough, durable, and quiet in the water. But they aren’t being made anymore, so only used are available.

Fiberglass composite canoes

Fiberglass composites makes for a lighter, stronger canoe. They come in a variety of shapes, and are speedy and efficient in the water. The outer gel coat provides an extra level of abrasion resistance, but will require some maintenance over the years (store out of the sun as the UV rays will damage it over time). These canoes can be repaired with fiberglass patches if damaged (I’ve done my own DIY maintenance).

carrying capacity and length

  • Lengths vary from 15′ and longer. The most popular is 15′-17′, the average choice being 16.’
    • Longer canoes: heavier (think about loading it onto your vehicle and carrying it around)
    • Home storage (if you intend to store in your garage – will it fit?)
  • Are you buying a starter canoe and intend to upgrade as your kids grow?
    • As they grow, kids will want to paddle from a seat (rather than sitting in the middle). We started with one really stable canoe when we were little, then upgraded to two smaller and faster canoes as we got older.
  • Are you day tripping or overnighting?
    • Packing your gear for an overnight trip, a canoe that is less than 16 feet might not provide enough gear storage (and may be too heavy, creating a lot of displacement/riding too low in the water). Longer length allows for more room while paddling, and more gear storage.

Try it first

We suggest getting in a canoe with all parties, along with your gear and see how much room you have. The best is to try it on the water.

Maybe consider renting a few different sizes and hull shapes before buying, as noted above

Other Canoe Articles

Apprehensive about securing a canoe on your vehicle?

See the the article: Transporting Your Canoe

Want to ensure your canoe lasts for generations? With a little forethought your grandkids can enjoy the same canoe as your kids did.

See: Do You Love Your Canoe? Maintenance and Storage

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