yellow canoe with fishing rod by a lake

Family Canoe: How to Choose the Right One?

Are you looking for a family canoe? What should you look for in choosing a family canoe for young children? Safety and stability is typically the main concern. Kids love to wiggle around in excitement; the last thing you want is a dunk overboard. Read on for basic tips about shape, length, style, capacity, etc.

We have been in canoes since before we could walk! We feel at home in a canoe. Our family is avid canoers, and we have had different styles as we grew up.

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, squirming, fishing over the side, and learning to paddle. We even had little chairs in the center of the canoe. The yellow canoe in the main photo was one of our first – super heavy but stable!

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 choosing a family canoe.

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 flat water.

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.

The Best Design For A Family Canoe

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 give up some speed.

Profile: Flat

PRO: Better tracking means keeping the canoe moving in a straight line is easier. When you stop paddling, it will (more or less) continue in a straightforward 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 capsize rapidly), but overall less initial stability (more “tippy”). Moderately rounded bottoms are more maneuverable and capable of 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 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).

drawing of canoe hull styles comparison

Family Canoe StyleS

Recreational: entry level, great starting point, less costly

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

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

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

The Bottom Dollar: Canoe 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.


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


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!


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 you 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 customer service is fantastic.

Canoe Material

OUR PICK: Kevlar Composite

More expensive than fiberglass but very strong, comes in a wide variety of shapes, and is 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 unaffected by the sun’s UV rays. They are durable, but any holes need expert welding, and they can be heavy, noisy, hot to the touch in summer, and cold in cool weather. They aren’t recommended for river paddling as they tend to stick to rocks rather than slip over them.

Plastic canoes

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

Royalex canoes

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

Fiberglass composite canoes

Fiberglass composites make for a lighter, stronger canoe. They come in various shapes and are speedy and efficient in the water. The outer gel coat provides extra abrasion resistance but will require maintenance over the years (keep it stored out of the sun as the UV rays will damage it over time). If damaged, these canoes can be repaired with fiberglass patches (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 it in your garage – will it fit?)
  • Are you buying a starter family canoe and intend to upgrade as your kids grow?
    • Kids will want to paddle from a seat (rather than sitting in the middle) as they grow. We started with one 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 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 and your gear and seeing how much room you have. The best is to try it on the water.

Consider renting a few sizes and hull shapes before buying, as noted above.

Other Family Canoeing Articles

Are you apprehensive about securing a canoe on your vehicle?

See 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

What about safety gear, trip planning, and choosing a lifejacket or paddle for kids?

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