Choosing a Canoe for Family Paddling

Choosing a Canoe for Family Paddling

Most people have a fixed idea in their head of a canoe, which is typically a ‘Kayak’ rather than a ‘Canoe’.  Rather than get into the differences now, let’s get straight to the different types available and what’s best for the family when choosing a canoe.

  1. Canadian Canoes
  2. Inflatable Canoes
  3. Sit-on-tops
  4. Whitewater Kayaks
  5. Sea Kayaks and Tourers
  6. Stand-on

1. The ‘Canadian’ Canoe

 A ‘proper’ canoe is actually a long boat, that’s ideal for exploring flat rivers and lakes (and of course, the many miles of Canals in the UK).

These are ideal for family paddling as they are fairly stable, most could easily take a couple of adults and a couple of small kids, plus some other gear (such as coats, picnic, etc.).

Expect to pay anywhere between £400-£600.  Decent second hand ones retain their values well, so it can be hard finding a bargain that hasn’t been damaged and neglected.

There are some beautiful wooden ones available, but most, especially those used by families, are made from strong plastic.

The downsides is that they can be heavy, big and awkward to transport, and need quite a bit of space to store.

However, if I could afford, transport, and store, I would have a Canadian canoe or two as my ideal canoe for family paddling.

2. Inflatable Canoes

An alternative to a big canoe, which is more practical for most families, are inflatable canoes.  There’s now quite a selection on the market, but are inflatable canoes any good?

Yes.  If you get a good one.

There are some quite cheap inflatable canoes, which should be considered as ‘pool’ or kids beach toys (though, would be dangerous to let kids go off on them at sea!).  If you just want something for your kids to muck around on in a safe environment, then a cheap inflatable may be all that’s required.

However, there are some good inflatable canoes out there for more serious paddling.

We have the Sevylor Hudson.  This is easy to transport, easy to store, easy to inflate and deflate, travels through the water quite well, and can take two adults and one child (though I typically have it as one adult and two children). Read our review of the Sevylor Hudson inflatable family canoe. We also have a pair of Intex Challenger K1 inflatable kayaks.

Sevylor Hudson Inflatable Canoe

Inflatable canoes are also very stable, and if they do capsize, are very easy to right again.  They also have lots of air chambers, so if there was an accident and one popped, they wouldn’t sink (remember that if your boat sinks on British waterways and lakes, you are liable to pay for it to be raised).

Inflatable canoes therefore are our recommended choice for family paddling, combing practicality, safety, and usability.

3. Sit On Tops (SOTs)

Children paddling a sit-on-top canoe

Sit on tops are great for kids, especially young kids.

They are essentially a big lump of floating tough plastic.  They can take a lot of abuse, are stable, and if they capsize, they are easy to right again.

There are some downsides to them though:

  • Although there are some models that can take more than one person, there’s not much in the way of paddling together normally.
  • They are best for ‘summer’ paddling.  Legs exposed on the top can become cold quicker.
  • There’s not a lot of space to store gear, especially with out it ending up in the water.
  • Although smaller than a Canadian canoe, they can still present storage and transport issues.

However, if you can store and transport them, SOTs make an ideal boat for kids to learn to paddle on their own.

Boats for more serious paddling

The above boats are ideal for family paddling and getting the kids used to the water.  Now here are the ‘others’.

Note that I used the term ‘boats’ to avoid confusion around Kayak and Canoe.  Well, now let’s sort that out….

The Kayak

Kayaks are what you would have seen Team GB use in the London Olympics, winning medals in the Canoe Slalom and the amazing Canoe Sprint.

You sit in kayaks.  You normally have what is known as a spraydeck, which fits around your waist and connects to the opening that you are sitting in, effectively sealing you into the craft (you learn to fit it right so that you can get out if you need to when capsizing).

Effectively you and the kayak ‘become one’.  You don’t just use your arms, but also twist your body and brace with your legs, to make the kayak extremely manoeuvrable.

Kayaks cut through the water much better than Sit On Tops or Inflatable Canoes.

There are typically two sorts of kayaks.

Whitewater Kayaks

These are normally a bit shorter, making them easier to manoeuvre around rocks, and may have a slightly rounded nose, to avoid getting catching rocks when going over falls and weirs.

Now if you are just starting out, you would not be tackling the water above.  To do so requires a lot of training and practice.  You need to be able to easily right yourself (Eskimo Roll), ideally with a flick an arm and the hips (one handed Eskimo roll), understand how the water flows, know what’s safe and what isn’t, and have a safety team/spotters/rescue standing by!

A white water kayak is still OK for kids to learn in, but when starting you wouldn’t seal them in with a spraydeck, and you would still need to make sure they can get out when it capsizes (yes, when – kayaks are more unstable and you sit much closer to the waterline).

On the subject of capsizing, you should also make sure that there is buoyancy in the kayak.  This may be in the form of foam blocks or inflatable bags.

Not all new kayaks may have buoyancy, and an obvious need to check if buying second hand.

Sea Kayaks and Tourers

These are longer than whitewater kayaks and have more of a boat-style hull, which eases cutting through water for long distances or slicing through waves.

They also have a rudder, operated by your feet, and can typically lift up when using in shallow water.

Another feature of sea kayaks and tourers is the built in storage, though you can take less gear than a Canadian canoe or inflatable.

Although you can get two seat kayaks they are not a good starter for family paddling, as they are much more unstable than the first three suggestions at the top of this page.

Sea Kayaking also brings in other issues, such as tides, strong currents, sea state and weather, distances between safe places to get out, and sea rescue.

Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUPs)

Developed from the Sit On Tops, the idea here is that you stand on the canoe and use an extra long paddle.  This is going to require balance and core body strength.

A lot of fun.  Not exactly family paddling, but could be good fun getting everyone on the water.   Expect to fall in.

If you would like to know more, have a read of our canoe and kayak reviews.

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