Family All-Arounder Choice?

I am looking to purchase a new or used canoe for family usage on rivers and lakes in WI. I have a large family (5 kids under 14) so being able to handle 2 adults and 2 kids is a must, but 2+3 would be nice. All of us are average sized height/weight. Ideally it would be able to handle moderately faster waters with class I/II rapids, but nothing super technical. Examples would be the Kickapoo, Eau Claire and Boise Brule rivers. Big water won’t be a priority, but we will use it on Lake Wissota a fair amount which can get a bit rough at times and probably Lake Superior and the Mississippi at some point. Mostly would be used on small lakes and slower moving/bigger rivers though for day trips. Hopefully a couple of weekend over-nighters, but probably not week-long expeditions.

Another consideration is that ideally it would be available at REI since I have a large amount of gift cards to use there. The three boats at REI that seem to fit what I am looking for are the Mad River Explorer 16 T-Formex, the Old Town Penobscot 164 or Discovery 169. Out of the three, the Mad River Explorer is what I would lean toward since it is lighter, sounds like it is a bit more maneuverable and has good initial and secondary stability. Also I have read you have to be careful how you store the poly boats. I do have garage space for it, but would need to get a hanger if I wanted to keep it top up.

However, another option would be use the gift cards to get accessories (paddles, car carriers, PFD’s) and get something else that fits the bill. If I go that route, I’d prefer used to keep the total cost down. A local outfitter has a Wenonah Champlain Tuf-weave used as well as some Spirit II’s, possibly some other options. I have been checking Craigslist and local eBay, but haven’t seen much at this point.

The Champlain is intriguing to be able to fit a lot of people and gear, but I am not sure if would would be maneuverable enough on the smaller, faster rivers. I also am concerned about its handling if it is just me and one of the kids or my wife in it since it is such a big boat. The Mad River Explorer sounds like it would be better for those considerations, but being 2’ shorter I think getting 3 kids and 2 adults would be difficult.

Out of the Champlain and Explorer options, which would you recommend? Would a Spirit II split the difference or should I consider one of the new OT’s at REI? Other recommendations welcome too, but as I said I haven’t seen much else available at this point.

Thanks for the help!

Honestly, with five people you need (at least) two boats. The odds of the kids being happy for any time sitting in the middle is rather low in my experience. I’m not sure if I would want to be running class I/II rapids with a couple of kids in the middle as well. That said, all of the canoes that you list are pretty decent. The Discos are probably the best of the inexpensive poly boats. The MR Explorers are (or at least were in Royalex) outstanding WW tripping canoes. I started out tandem in one running up to Class III+ IV- water but that we with it fully air bagged and full expectation of some rather “entertaining” swims.

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You are right, rival. When we all go, I will definitely have at least two boats (plan to borrow my brother’s) but there are still 7 of us, so if we have 3 in one we need 4 in the other. For tooling around flat water, I plan to have a few on our paddle boards, but would like the option to get a lot of us in the canoe. For any rapids I agree I wouldn’t want more than 1 in the middle, if that. Long excursions or over-nighters I am thinking we’d do no more than 3 to a boat.

Can you fit 2 adults/2 kids in an Explorer? Any experience with Explorer T-Formex? Is it close to the Royalex version?

Don’t worry much about the hull material in the OT canoes; I had a solo made by them and it was fine; I never even covered it. Flip it over behind the garage and throw a tarp over it if it makes you feel better.

I’d say get the biggest one on your list. When I was a kid my dad had a 17’ Grumman and it worked okay for our family of four, but my brother and I were little then.

No experience with T-Formex - just following Esquif as they developed it as a replacement for Royalex. Given Esquif’s focus & that both Wenonah & Mad River are using the material I’d expect that it does the job.

On two kids & two adults in an Explorer: How big is everybody and how active are the two in the middle? An Explorer has a large capacity. I’d say that my brother-in-law & I had maybe a 550lb load for 10 - 15 days (two trips) on the Missinaibi. If you have two large adults and two active mid-size kids it might get interesting depending on the adults skills.

Our kids got tired of the middle seat rather early in life. The older at 8 and the younger at 6.

Adults about 320 combined, kids about 180 combined depending on combinations, so probably around 500lb of people. Add another 50 pounds of gear (jackets, paddles, drinks, etc) and we’d be just about your 550.

I did go look at the Champlain this afternoon and I am very tempted. It is a 2015 and looks to be in very good shape. Interior is flawless and bottom has a few minor scratches in the gel coat, but doesn’t look to be anything to be concerned about. They want $1500 for it, which seams reasonable. Price is firm. Thoughts?

I would like the Champlain for what you are doing. Will you, I don’t know. What are you and your canoe partner’s skill levels and experience? For quick water you will want to be reading the water well ahead & have a number different paddle strokes in your quiver. The price does look pretty reasonable.

I just read your narrative. I highly recommend the Buffalo Canoe 16’ Tandem/solo made with T-Formex, a commercial grade plastic.
You can visit
and see for yourself😊

I have a similar craft the Wenonah Odyssey. With a big load it is a superlative lake boat ( used on Superior for multi week trips). With just two of us empty on a day trip it is a bucking bronco if waves come up. Seems it really benefits from a center load… I have not paddled the Champlain which may have a slightly different hull shape.

We have used our Odyssey for almost 30 years. On a calm day with the two of us it is fine. We have used it on the Allagash RIver in high water ( it is kevlar…and kevlar does not take kindly to wraps around rocks) and it is surprisingly maneuverable in class 1 and low class two

I’m going to go way out for this reply. We all love to paddle (kayaks). I may get some flack for this, but canoes are big and cumbersome. They don’t do well in weather. I’ve owned a lot of boats (power, sail, paddle). But, one of my favorite rigs is my 17’ aluminum canoe. What I like about it is that I put a motor mount on it and bought a 2.5 horse motor. It feels super cool cruising it at 10-12 mph. Trust me your kids will love it. I like the canoe, Smoker Craft, because it has what the seller called ‘bubble’ sides. Just above the waterline the sides flare out to increase stability. I have used it to troll for walleye on big rivers and it’s perfect for smaller lakes. Of course, you can still paddle it as much as you want. Now you can cruise up river and paddle down.

I have been weighing my options still and haven’t purchased anything yet. I have been watching Craigslist and a few nice options have come and some have gone. There was a fiberglass explorer with wood gunwales that I was really tempted by, but it sold in day and a half while I was considering it. Probably just as well as I am not entirely sold on a shallow V for my situation after doing more research. There is also a nice kevlar version not too far away, but in addition to the V, the Kevlar is keeping me away.

Another option that has popped up recently is a Northstar Polaris in IXP. I assume that is their “proprietary” version of fiberglass? The Polaris clearly wouldn’t be as big a people/stuff mover, but sounds like it is more fun to paddle and I would probably enjoy it more when we don’t have 2 or 3 kids in the middle. Just trying to weigh how often that would be for near future? 10 years from now I would probably go for the Polaris vs the Champlain, but that is a lot of years away. If anyone has some thoughts on the stability of the Polaris (or old Bell Northstar) and IXP durability I’d still like to hear them.

Thanks again for all your suggestions and help. It’s fun looking and researching while locked down anyway.

IXP is a mix of some newer high-tech fabrics. I’d expect it to be their toughest layup but also by far the heaviest. In my experience, MR Explorers are extremely stable. The shallow v isn’t something in that hull that you would likely to notice.

That Champlain is a good looking boat. I’ve found that with boat purchases you rarely regret it. Regardless you are going to get some use out of it. And with Internet boats are pretty easy to sell when are ready for a change.

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Wenonah makes some big canoes which is what you need. The Champlain is a big, dry boat with a lot of capacity and would suit your needs. I would look for boats at least 17 feet. I have had several boats 18 feet and over for week long trips. The capacity of canoes can be greatly exaggerated. If you want to paddle rivers and bigger lakes you need freeboard. Big boats have more capacity, more freeboard and more speed than smaller one.

We tried the Champlain last weekend and it was probably a bit of an unfair test, but we didn’t love it. It was just my wife and I in it with no gear (which won’t be an uncommon usage) and it felt huge. It was a very windy day when we tested it. Going down wind or sheltered it tracked well and was responsive and didn’t feel as big as it is. When we got out into the wind though, it was a sail boat. We were getting hit with a cross wind and we really struggled getting it pointed upwind as we were getting blown across the lake. I know any canoe would have struggled with the conditions, but the Champlain didn’t help. The stability was excellent though.

Since we didn’t love it, I decided to go with the Polaris. It won’t be as big of a tripper for all of us of course, but I think we’ll enjoy it better for a lot of conditions we’ll use it in. We’ll secure other boats to use when we need the whole family out. I picked it up and brought it home yesterday 100 miles in a wind storm. Luckily the seller was great in helping me getting it properly secured so it arrived home safely. Looking forward to getting in the water soon. It was a show boat so hasn’t been paddled yet. Has a fair number of scratches on the bottom from handling, but I won’t need to worry about the ones we add now. Hopefully it will provide us a lot of enjoyment for a long time. I’ll provide an update after our first paddle.


Few canoes are easy to handle in the wind.
I liked all the boats you mentioned, especially the MR Explorer and the OT 169. You have 500 pounds of people to move around. Most canoes over estimate their capacity. Few handle with a damn with more than about 650. The Champlain is one of them.

I know nothing about the Polaris.
Kayamedic, I paddled the Odyssey for many years. I like the length, the speed and the depth. It is a fast dry boat, but it has a straight keel line, which makes turns in moving water a challenge especially when heavily loaded. I sold it.