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 go straight to the different types of canoe 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 Canadian Canoe

One of our older children padding a Canadian canoe on a small lake.

A proper ‘Canadian’ 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.).

my ideal canoe for family paddling

Expect to pay from £400-£600 for one though.  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

Our Sevylor Hudson ready for another trip on the river.

recommended choice for family paddling, combing practicality, safety, and usability

Inflatable canoes are also very stable, and if they do capsize, are very easy to right again.  Decent ones have multiple 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

Two of our kids paddling a double Sit-On-Top on a large lake in Devon.

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:

  • 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 without 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 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 whitewater 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.

An Alternative: Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUPs)


Our family Paddleboarding off the Pembrokeshire Coast

These aren’t a canoe, but something else that you might want to consider for paddling.

They are more like a large surfboard that you stand on, and paddle with an extra long paddle.

We found them to be great fun.

Click here to read more about SUPs.

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

Be in the know!

Join thousands of other parents and receive our regular newsletter containing a round up of the latest articles, days out, campsites, and reviews for helping you get your family outside and active.

Powered by ConvertKit
Get Out With The Kids
Compare items
  • Total (0)