How to Choose the Best Family Canoe in 2024

Best Family Canoe - Kids hunkered down in old Grumman aluminum canoe in the BWCAW in Northern Minnesota

Finding the best family canoe can be an exciting yet challenging task. In our opinion, the best family canoe is the Northstar Northwind 18 composite canoe. It is large enough to hold a family of four and its gear, is extremely stable and durable, and will last a lifetime.

We have been canoe camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness since our youngest was three. In those early days, we borrowed an old Grumman aluminum canoe. It was bulky, heavy, and really only designed for two adults.

We’ve gone through the same process you’re going through and remember feeling completely overwhelmed. There were just too many choices!

This article should be all you need to find the best family canoe for your situation. So read on and let us know what you think!

Choosing the Best Family Canoe

Best Family Canoe - Kid fishing from an old Grumman aluminum canoe

Choosing the best family canoe can be an adventure in its own right, albeit not always an enjoyable one! There are a myriad of options on the market, from solo canoes aimed at solo paddlers to canoes with four seats that look almost like a powerboat! Finding a good family canoe for your situation can be daunting. 

Hopefully we can help ease your pain! There are a couple of homework items that will go a long ways in narrowing down the options. Take care of these first and finding the best family canoe for your situation will be much easier. 

Determining Your Needs

Your first to-do is to pin down your future canoe’s primary use

Are you looking for serene day trips on flat water? Would you like those trips to turn into longer canoe camping expeditions

Or are you more of a river paddler? If so, are you focused on gently flowing down a local river or an adrenaline-filled ride through rapids?

Deciding how you will use your canoe will be the easiest way to narrow down your search. A recreational or touring model works well with calm flat-water paddling, while whitewater and inflatable models cater to those seeking high-energy excursions.

Another important variable to consider is who will be in the canoe. If you have young kids and are looking for one canoe for everyone, then you will want to look at larger canoes with a third or even fourth seat.

If your kids are older and you will be splitting up into pairs of two, with one adult and one kid in each canoe, then you can take the “family” out of your google search term and just look at tandem canoes. Or, better yet, take a look at the canoes below and just pick a shorter version

For example, our beloved Northstar Northwind 18 three-seater also comes in a 17-foot version that is perfect for two paddlers. It is the canoe we will upgrade to as our kids get older. 

What is the Right Size

A canoe’s dimensions can significantly impact its performance and suitability. A smaller boat may be nimble but offers less space for you, your kids, and your gear. Conversely, larger models provide ample room but are harder to handle, especially in windy conditions or swift currents.

Like everything in life, finding the best family canoe is all about balance. The canoe must be large enough to hold you and your gear but small enough to be easy to handle.

Pay Attention to Weight Capacity

Your chosen craft needs to be able to hold both you and your gear. Overloading your canoe compromises buoyancy, decreasing stability and limiting maneuverability. An overloaded canoe is also prone to capsizing, which is something we are all trying to avoid! 

I know it goes without saying, but please adhere to manufacturer specifications regarding maximum permissible loads. They are put there for a reason! The best family canoe is definitely one that stays afloat!

Focus on Stability 

Another important factor is stability. Some canoes are shaped primarily for speed and others for stability.

Wenonah is an excellent canoe manufacturer whose history is rooted in canoe racing. I would not recommend them though if you have a four year old with shaky balance. Finding a canoe with a flatter bottom and less of a racing design will ensure a more enjoyable and safe experience. 

Primary stability refers to the steadiness when initially entering or sitting still, whereas secondary stability refers the ability to resist tipping over during motion or external stimuli like rough waves. Both are equally important.

The best way to get a feel for a canoe’s stability is to take one for a test drive. Most outdoor retailers are more than happy to do so.  You’ll know immediately if the model you are looking at has the right level of stability for your family.

Key Takeaway: 
Choosing the best family canoe must balance, size, weight capacity, and stability. A larger boat offers more space but may be difficult to handle, while a smaller one is nimble, but might lack room for everyone and their gear. 

Types of Canoes

Best Family Canoe - Kids and father unloading Northstar Northwind 18 canoe in the Boundary Waters

Honestly, there are just too many options out there and far too much canoe jargon. It can seem impossible to pick out the best family canoe. That being said, the perfect one for your family is out there and we’ll help you find it!

Recreational Canoes

If leisurely paddling around calm lakes or slow-moving rivers sounds like your ideal outing, then recreational canoes are a solid choice. Think of these as the old canoes sitting around your friend’s cabin.

They prioritize stability with their wider design – an essential feature with young children or beginners. Plus, they come equipped with ample storage space for gear.

Almost every canoe manufacturer sells a recreational model, which run the gamut from inflatable and foldable models to high-end fiberglass and kevlar versions. If flat water or calm streams are your go-to, then look no further than family-friendly recreational canoes. 

Touring Canoes

Does the idea of embarking on a long canoe trip across big lakes excite you? Then take a look at touring canoes. Also known as tripping canoes, these boats focus more on speed and efficiency while still ensuring a reasonable level of stability.

Like recreational canoes, these are manufactured by pretty much every major brand in the market. One major difference is that you will not see inflatable or foldable models. They just can’t stand up to the rigors of backcountry trips.

We recommend sticking with lightweight composite materials, like fiberglass and Kevlar.

We personally paddle a Northstar Northwind 18. It is lighweight, very stable, and maneuvers well. Our six and nine year olds can sit comfortable on the third seat and the canoe can fit up to two weeks worth of gear and food!

Spoiler alert: We strongly believe that these canoes make for the best family canoes.

Whitewater Canoes

Running rapids or fast-flowing streams may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it’s yours, whitewater canoes are a great option. Their shorter, rounded hull designs that allow quick turns amidst turbulent conditions.

That being said, it is rare that we see families with young children looking at whitewater canoes. Unless your kids are old enough to paddle, they are just too small to fit more than two people and do not have much room for gear. They are very specialized and do not make for the best family canoes.

Inflatable Canoes

If you are new to canoeing, or just looking for something simple to bring to your neighborhood lake, then inflatable and folding canoes are worth looking at. As you’d expect, they lack the durability, speed, and stability of a rigid-hull design, however they make up for it in convenience and compact storage

The technology has come a long ways over the years, so far that they now make three seater versions. If a quick trip to the lake is all you need, then they are perfect. If you need more, then in our opinion they are not the best family canoe options.

Key Takeaway: 
Canoes come in a variety of different styles. For most families, recreational and touring canoes are the best. Whitewater canoes can work, but are not great for little kids. Inflatable canoes are another option if storage space is an issue.

Materials Used in Canoe Construction

Best Family Canoe - Kids and father paddling kevlar canoe across lake in northern Minnesota

Materials matter. Each material type has its own pros and cons. If you are buying new, you likely will be looking at fiberglass/kevlar/composite or plastic.

Wooden Canoes

Look. We love wooden canoes. The traditional wood and canvas canoes are beautiful, but they are not the best family canoes. They are heavy, require specialized maintenance, and are not great with small children.

Take our advise and leave the wood for your paddles. You can buy a wood canoe once you have retired to your lake place! They are not the best family canoes.

Composite Canoes

Composite canoes basically mean they are not plastic. They can be fiberglass, kevlar, carbon fiber, or any combination of these materials. They are incredibly light, strong, and require little maintenance

They are the best family canoes for both flat water paddling and long canoe camping expeditions. Our Northstar Northwind 18, with its third seat and flat bottomed hull, is made with a composite fiber cloth called Aramid. It is beautiful and incredibly strong.

The only downside to composite canoes is the cost. They tend to be more expensive, but in our opinion they are well worth it

Canoe outfitters often sell their used rental canoes to the general public after a season or two at a significant discount. That is how we were able to afford ours!

Aluminum Canoes

An aluminum canoe takes top marks in terms of longevity thanks to its resistance to UV damage and corrosion. They are the true zero maintenance canoe. However, they are heavy, loud, and can feel very cold in cold water!

We still have our hand-me-down 1950s Grumman canoe! It has been stored outside, uncovered, for decades and still works perfectly.

If you are on a budget, a Grumman or Alumna-craft really can be the best family canoe. Ask any die-hard canoist and I guarantee they started with an aluminum canoe. They are easy to find used online.

Plastic Canoes

Polyethylene plastic offers a budget-friendly option without compromising significantly on durability and performance. These boats resist impact effectively but tend to wear more over time, especially with constant exposure to sunlight due to ultraviolet degradation

They’re typically heavier compared to fiberglass or aluminum counterparts, which can prove challenging during transportation and portaging.

Polyethylene canoes come in a variety of styles. You will see High-Density Polyethylene HDPE, Medium-Density Polyethylene HDPE, and Low-Density Polyethylene LDPE, the latter used mostly for kayak and low-end models. 

Higher quality plastic canoes are made from Royalex (older product) and T-Formex. They both are basically a plastic sandwich made with layers of vinyl, plastic, and rigid foam. 

We personally have had our eyes on an Esquif Prospector 17 which is made form T-Formex and would open up our expeditions to rivers with moderate whitewater.

Key Takeaway: 
Canoe materials technology has come a long ways over they years. Focus on new canoes made from composite materials or plastics like T-Formex. Aluminum is a great budget option, especially if you are looking at used canoes.

Best Family Canoes for any Budget

Best Family Canoe - Family paddling fully loaded Northstar Northwind 18 canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Ok. Enough talk. Let’s get down to options. Below is a list of the best family canoes on the market. We’ve ranked them in order of how likely we would be to purchase one.

1. Northstar Northwind 18

The BEST family canoe is the Northstar Northwind 18. It is lightweight, extremely stable, and durable. We take ours on everything from day trips fishing close to home to 10-day backcountry canoeing trips. 

Our 6- and 9- year old both fit comfortably on the center seat and they even make a 20 ft version with a fourth seat if you need even more space! We bought ours used from an outfitter in Ely, MN and we recommend you do the same. They will ship.

Pros:

  • Very versatile canoe.
  • Durable.
  • Lightweight at 44 lbs.

Cons:

  • Expensive (starts at $2,230).
  • Harder to turn on narrow rivers.

2. Souris River Quetico 18.5

The Souris River Quetico 18.5 is the second best family canoe in our mind. It has a full-width bench seat, can handle a load, and is extremely stable. This canoe is great for rivers, lakes, and long canoe camping trips. 

This is a beautiful canoe, is reasonably priced, and is very versatile. Used versions can often be found at canoe outfitters at a discount.

Pros:

  • Extremely stable.
  • Removable middle seat.
  • Lightweight at 49 lbs.

Cons:

  • Expensive (starting at $2,845).
  • Limited number of US-based retailers.

3. Grumman 17′ Canoe

The Grumman 17′ aluminum canoe is a classic and is the third best family canoe in our minds. It can easily be found used on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. If I personally was to buy a canoe and did not want to spend $2,000+ on a composite canoe, this would be it (used of course).

This canoe is stable, indestructable, and literally will last you two lifetimes. 

Pros:

  • Extremely durable.
  • Cheap (often under $500 used).
  • Verstaile for all around paddling.

Cons:

  • Loud (aluminum reverberates when hit).
  • Heavy at 75 lbs.
  • Seats are not comfortable.

4. Esquif Prospector Sport

The Esquif Prospector Sport is the best family canoe for river paddling. The unique design, based on the original canoe used by the First Nations People, makes it as agile on rivers as it is on lakes. We also love the T-Formex construction and beautiful green or red color options.

Pros:

  • Very versitile.
  • Durable.
  • Can handle white water.

Cons:

  • Expensive (starts at $3,395).
  • Heavy at 65 lbs.

5. Wenonah Minnesota III Canoe

The Wenonah Minnesota III is the fifth best family canoe. At 20 ft. long it is the longest canoe in our list. It is also the most efficient!

This is a great canoe for long Boundary Waters Canoe Area trips and you can easily fit two adults, two children, and plenty of gear. Compared to the Souris River or our favorite Northstar, it is a little less stable, especially when unloaded. 

We personally would consider the Wenonah Minnesota line once our kids are a bit older and less prone to moving around in the canoe. They area beautiful boats made in MN. You can often get a used one from an outfitter. 

Pros:

  • Extremely efficient.
  • Removable middle seat.
  • Lightweight at 55 lbs.

Cons:

  • Expensive (about $4,099).
  • Slightly less stable when loaded.
  • Bow is narrow and not great for long legs.

6. Old Town Discovery 169

At almost 17 feet, the Old Town Discovery 169 is the longest in the Discovery series and is the sixth best family canoe. It is designed to go long distances efficiently, even while loaded with gear. The three-layer polyethylene construction is designed to take a beating.

Pros:

  •  Affordable (around $1,449).
  • Storage Space.
  • Durable.

Cons:

  • Heavy at 91 lbs.
  • No third seat.

7. Mad River Adventure 16

A top pick among beginners or parents with young children, this recreational canoe boasts a multi-chine hull design providing excellent stability during paddling excursions. It is the seventh best family canoe in our list. The middle bench seat is great with young ones. 

This is not an expedition or touring canoe and would not be a good option for canoe camping or longer trips. It is perfect for a quick paddle around the lake or down a short river.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable (around $999).
  • Middle bench seat.
  • Low maintenance with limited removable parts.

Cons:

  • Heavy at 84 lbs.
  • Short at 16 feet.

8. Sun Dolphin Mackinaw SS

This particular model from Sun Dolphin caters directly to family needs by featuring built-in coolers and storage compartments – perfect for day trips. It is the eighth best family canoe. The square stern allows for the addition of a small electric motor.

Like the Mad River Adventure 16, this is not a touring canoe. It is great for a short river paddle, fishing, or a trip around the lake. It is not an option for canoe camping or longer expeditions.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable (around $699).
  • Middle bench seat with coolers.
  • Low maintenance with limited removable parts.

Cons:

  • Very heavy at 104 lbs.
  • Limited use beyond paddling on calm water.

9. Pelican Explorer DLX Canoe

Similar to the Sun Dolphin, The Pelican Explorer DLX Canoe is an entry level canoe designed primarily for shorter trips on flat water. It is the ninth best family canoe on our list. Pelican adds vertical rod holders, which makes it a great fishing canoe.

Agian, this isn’t a great expedition canoe, but is good for short trips or to store at the cabin.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable (around $664).
  • Middle cooler/seat.
  • Low maintenance with limited removable parts.

Cons:

  • Heavy at 90 lbs.
  • Limited use beyond fishing/short paddles.
  • Not much space for gear.

10. Sea Eagle Travel Canoe 16

This is the only foldable/inflatable canoe on our list and comes as the tenth best family canoe. Living in canoe country, we struggle to see the value in an inflatable boat, however we are probably a bit biased!

The Sea Eagle Travel Canoe is worth looking at if you do not have room to store a rigid canoe (i.e. live in an apartment) or are using it sparingly. While it packs down well, it is not light and is not a great option for long trips or canoe camping.

Pros:

  • Packable.
  • Quick to inflate.
  • Reasonably priced (starting at $1,799).

Cons:

  • Limited uses and risk of a puncture.
  • Heavy at 65 lbs.
  • Less efficient to paddle.

11. Old Town Canoes & Kayaks Saranac 160

Coming in as the eleventh best family canoe, the Old Town Saranac 160 features two contoured seats, a center bench seat, rod holders, cup holders, and storage trays. It is a comfortable option for slow paddles around the lake, calm rivers, or back bay fishing. 

Like many of the other budget-level canoes, it is not a good option for overnight trips or longer expeditions.

Pros:

  • Affordable (around $999).
  • Durable.
  • Third bench seat.

Cons:

  • Limited room for gear.
  • Heavy at 89 lbs.
  • Limited use beyond calm water.

12. Lifetime Kodiak Canoe 13′

Finally, the Lifetime Kodiak 13′ Canoe is a no frills option and comes in as the twelfth best family canoe on our list. It is OK for short trips on calm water. Beyond that it’s short length limits its versatility. It is a good starter canoe for those 10-14 year olds looking for independence.

Pros:

  • Affordable (around $999 with paddles).
  • Durable.
  • Third bench seat.

Cons:

  • Very short.
  • Heavy at 96 lbs.
  • Very limited use.

Key Takeaway: 
The best family canoe is the Northstar Northwind 18, followed by the Souris River Quetico 18.5. While they are not cheap, they hold their value and are sure to last a lifetime.

Best Family Canoes Conclusion

Best Family Canoe - Northstar Northwind 18 canoe parked at shore with islands and the sunset in the background

There you have it. The top 12 BEST family canoes for all budgets. 

Our needs are going to be very different from yours. As we mentioned, we have a Northstart Northwind 18 and a Grumman 17 aluminum canoe. If we were to buy a third, it would be the Esquif Prospector Sport to give us more river paddling options. 

While we see the value in some of the cheaper plastic canoes, we would strongly urge you to upgrade to a composite canoe if you plan on using it often. 

Remember: The best family canoe is the one you are paddling now. Happy Canoeing!

Key Takeaway: 
There is a seemingly unlimited list of canoes that work for families. The list above is a great start. Unless you are looking for true budget models, we would focus on models like the Northstar Northwind, Souris River and Esquif Prospector model lines.

FAQs Related to Family Canoeing

What is the most stable type of canoe?

Recreational canoes are typically the most stable canoes due to their wide, flat bottom hull that’ll give balance and stability.

What is the best size of canoe for 2 people?

A 16-foot long canoe generally works well for two adults. It offers ample space and good maneuverability without compromising on speed or stability.

What are some fun facts about canoe?

Canoes have been around for over 5,000 years. They were initially used by Native Americans and were made from hollowed-out tree trunks or birch bark.

What is a canoe explanation for kids?

A canoe is a lightweight boat that you paddle through water. It’s usually pointed at both ends and open on top, big enough to fit one or more people inside.

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