family canoe advice please!

Howdy all!

I’m looking for some advice on a lightweight family canoe. We have two adults (5’1" and 6’) and 2 kids (40 lbs each but growing). The kids don’t need to paddle (and are probably too short-armed at this point to do so anyway) but a third seat for them to fight over would be nice. There is also a dog (80 lbs) that can be positioned where ever needed to even out the load.

So we have a load of under 500 lbs (that will grow over the years but if it grows too much, the extra load can get their own boat) and don’t plan on tripping–so very little gear. We are looking for stability on lakes, estuaries, easy stuff. We also want it to be really light.

I’m short and my kids will be short for a long time (possibly forever!) so something narrow appeals to me. Is that really better or does it just seems better? I would prefer to not have to stretch to get the paddle in the water like the fiberglass Sears canoe I grew up with. :slight_smile:

We don’t have anywhere local to try out canoes. If I can find something cheap used, I’ll pick it up. But I may have to buy new. And untested. So I appreciate any advice!

-4 people + 80 lb dog (dog and children are trainable)

-fairly stable in flat water, with some wind

-under 60 lbs, preferably less

-nice to paddle for short armed people–not like that WaterQueen we rented!–and one that actually moves. :slight_smile:

I know it’ll be a little squishy, but this is just for day trips around town or on camping trips (but not camping OUT of the canoe).


Maybe the Wenonah Spirit II in
Tuffweave. Light, moderately priced, stable, easy paddling. Kinda narrow in the bow so you can reach the water. You can put in some sort of third seat for the kids once you have the boat.

You might put the state where you live in your profile, so we have an idea of what sort of paddling opportunities you have.

I don’t want to sound negative, but
I think you are asking too much.

Leave the dog at home and out of the equation.

Jack L


I’m in CA, and would be using this mainly on small lakes in the Sierras or coastal estuaries. Mono Lake is on the list of places we really wish we’d had a canoe along. We enjoy birds. :slight_smile:

Is the Spirit II more stable than the longer Wenonah canoes? Do you recommend the Tuf-weave because we’re likely to put a hole in Kevlar?

Okay. What if there’s no dog?

Agree NO on dog! Also material choice?
I also recommend leaving large dogs at home if possible. Another important decision is choice of material. You say you would like to do some coastal stuff, and obviously living in the Sierras, most water you are paddling is going to have rocky, course shorelines and riverbanks so having a very durable material is important. As long as you are not paddling moving water, a light Kevlar or similar material would be great paddling but bad on pocketbook. Royalex would be good paddling and easy on the pocketbook. Don’t even consider aluminum or plain poly!

Do skidplates offer much protection for landing on rough shores? Even without a dog, 4 people seems to demand a pretty large boat. They seem to get awfully heavy in even Royalex at the larger sizes.

Anything we get will at times have to travel on the roof of a truck camper that can’t take a lot of weight. That and my personal aversion to lugging around something heavy that could be lighter if only I’d spent more makes me inclined to go ahead and spend more (but it’s hard to do without test driving).

The Spirit II seems to get the right reviews and descriptions for my use. Would it be worth looking into the larger versions of it (Champlain and Seneca) or are they just ridiculous?

Thanks for the discussion! :slight_smile:

Tuffweave will hold up as well or better
than their Kevlar layups. It won’t fuzz when dragged,and it’s easier to repair. The Spirit II has a flattened arch bottom that provides good stability.

Tuffweave is made of a crosswoven cloth of polyester and glass. Their vinylester resin forms an unusually tenacious bond with the polyester fibers, better than the resin forms with Kevlar.

Champlain would be ok
but heavier. On the dog, you just have to wait and see. Some large dogs adopt a place in the boat and mostly stay there. But I don’t think you should posit your paddling happiness on your dog’s cooperation.

And on skidplates, I advise against
spending to get them on a new boat. Kevlar felt skid plates are mostly thick, stiff, heavy, and hard to repair.

I wait until the stems are worn, and then I put on glass cloth and epoxy skid plates. They wear smooth, slide pretty easily, don’t stick up enough to add resistance, and are easy to repair.

Kevlar skid plates got popular because of the Kevlar name and because Kevlar felt holds together during the application procedure. A convenience product that actually isn’t as good as what one can do with glass.

Mad River Kevlar Explorer
The first of my 18 or so canoes and kayaks was a 16’ Mad River Royalex Explorer I bought 33 years ago in San Jose. I paddled everything in NorCal with that canoe: Sierra lakes, Sierra and coastal whitewater, local reservoirs, San Francisco bay, and northern California whitewater.

I paddled it solo, tandem and with my three kids. I installed a wide cane seat about 8" aft of center for a kid’s seat and my solo seat. I poled it and put a 2hp motor on it.

I still think that model is a great first family canoe. The kids will grow big fast and will want their own boats if they like the hobby.

You are right to want a light canoe unless you are planning on running whitewater. You will especially thank yourself 33 years later when you are no longer young and strong. Thus, if you can afford it, I recommend this lightweight kevlar version of the Explorer, which you can have delivered to your nearest REI store:

Sometimes REI will have 15% or 20% discount sales for the general public or more often for their members.

The only birds I ever saw when paddling Mono Lake were seagulls. But it’s great – paddling through those tufa towers is like paddling on the moon. Don’t miss Saddlebag Lake about 20 miles up the Yosemite pass road. It is the highest lake in California accessible by road – a little over 10,000 feet. I hold the altitude record for outrigger canoes on that lake. You can paddle to the end of the lake and portage your lightweight kevlar canoe up into a chain of even higher lakes. Then claim the record.

If you get a different model than the Explorer and want to stay with a 16’ length, you will need a deep canoe (15") like the Explorer, in order to have enough displacement volume for a family. With a shallower canoe (say 13") to be used for a family, I would recommend 17-17.6’ in length, at least 34" in width, but no more than 36". Look for one with a flattish bottom for initial stability for a family and dogs. You want an SUV not a sports car canoe. You can get narrower, tippier, faster and sportier models when you become more experienced as a paddler or want a more specialized hull.

We started off with 5 in a Spirit II

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 8:22 AM EST –

... but one was only 2 years old. Like yours, the two oldest kids were aabout 40 pounds. The Spirit II was wonderfully adaptable and versitile. In a couple of years we added a Wenonah Solo Plus for the older boys to paddle, or me solo. Lots of versitility in those two boats. But for now you won't regret the Spirit II, especially in a non-royalex layup of your choice and price point.

I agree that the dog may be too much. But like someone else said, it kind of depends on the dog. If it's a water dog it probably won't be content to sit in the middle and stay. It will want to lean out over and interact with the water.

Good luck and have fun. It sounds like your family is in a good place.

a few others

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 7:42 AM EST –

I have tripped in both a Spirit II and my Kevlar MRC Explorer. Just my wife and I but we had a load exceeding the weight of your kids, and I concur that they can both handle that just fine. They are both quite nice jack-of-all-trades type of boats. I agree that the dog is an unknown factor. Putting him in the boat might work, or might not depending on his disposition.

The Kevlar Explorer is a few inches over 16' in length. That is about as short as I think you could go and still get a boat that has adequate capacity for your whole family, yet does not paddle like a complete slug. There are doubtlessly many other boats of similar size that might suit. One such boat in the 16 1/2' range that you might consider is the Swift Kipawa.

Certainly you can buy a bigger boat still but unless you buy an ultralight layup you are looking at something over 50 lbs (but maybe not too much). Also, once your kids are too big for the canoe, or decide they don't like canoeing, you and your wife might be "stuck" with a boat quite a bit bigger than your needs.

One bigger boat that is still very efficient and fun for a couple to paddle unloaded is the Wenonah Minnesota II. It is 18 1/2' long and again, it is going to come in at over 50 lbs unless you spring for an ultralight layup, but even the Tuff-Weave version weighs "only" 58 lbs.

I don't know how far north in California you live, but you might consider looking at Clipper Canoes if you are willing to drive north across Oregon and Washington State to pick it up. Clippers are made at Western Canoeing and Kayaking in Abbotsford BC just a few miles north of the Washington State border. You can bring one back into the states without paying any duties or taxes as a result of NAFTA. Clipper makes a variety of very nice composite family tandems like the Tripper and Ranger in a variety of layups at prices that are quite competitive with other makers:

Clipper's Jensen WWII is essentially a somewhat deeper version of the Wenonah Minnesota II:

The Minnesota II and Jensen WWII are a couple of inches narrower in maximum beam than the other boats mentioned, and quite a bit narrower at the paddling stations, which makes reaching out over the gunwales quite easy.

Skid plates aren’t so much for landings

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 8:23 AM EST –

In most cases, the best way to land the boat is to execute a turn as you approach so that you pull in parallel to shore. On rivers, the easiest way to do this is to turn the boat so it faces upstream. Then one person steps out and holds that boat while the next person steps out. Ramming the bow up onto shore doesn't just cause more wear and tear than necessary, it puts the boat in an unstable position for getting in and out, with all the weight supported by the narrow bow on land and the narrow stern in water, and the wide midsection doing little or nothing. On gently sloping beaches you can approach head-on and push the boat partly up onto land, but it sounds like you won't be seeing a lot of that situation.

Skid plates are mostly for protection during unintentional collisions with rocks, and sliding over shallow spots. When sliding over shallow spots, the midsection has a large area in which contact may occur, but on the bow and stern, the abrasion will be concentrated in a small area, making skid plates effective. The usual procedure is to not install skid plates until it's obvious you need them. And skid plates home-built of fiberglass are better than the thick felt ones (come back and ask about them when the time comes).

A 20 footer is in order

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 11:26 AM EST –

During the years when our guys were small we used a 20 foot wood and canvas White canoe. Our camping gear and the kids fit quite comfortably in in it. We never worried about stability or freeboard. It was not a thrill to portage but it got the job done for us and gave some great memories. As they grew we shifted to two canes and put one of them in the bow of each. That lasted until they were old enough to share their own canoe. They were about 12 at that point. We would split them up when we had any rough conditions or rapids.
For your situation I would go for a 20 foot Old Town Guide made from Royalflex. These are a real working boat that will serve the same role as our White holds lots of gear, gives the kids some legitimate room and is very stable in all conditions. They are unbreakable and very tough (albeit a bit ugly). An advantage (the only one IMHO) over the wood and canvas that I carried...they do not gain weight on a trip. That 20 foot White nearly killed me after a mile or two of portage.
You will have room for the dog but I would leave him home anyway.

Just do it …
I was in the same position as you about 20 years ago and bought a used 16.5 ft Smokercraft Aluminum canoe used, I got paddles, lifejackets and roof rack for $300. The boat was very heavy but I was young and strong and knew how to carry a canoe. We had years of fun with the canoe, two kids and a dog. As the kids got older one got into kayaking, waveskis surfing etc. Dog, wife and one son not so enuthusiastic. Don’t spend a ton of money when you have small ones and a dog.

Thanks all!
This discussion is helpful. :slight_smile:

-We don’t need to plan on the dog. We’ll just see how he is. He’s been in a canoe before and thought it was boring so he slept (it was one of those impossible to tip rentals though). He’s not a bird dog or a water dog but I would not want him in a canoe if there were squirrels on shore.

-a low weight is really important, mostly because of how it would have to be transported on road trips. It needs to go on the roof of a truck camper and the mechanism of the camper roof can’t take much more than 60 lbs. That’s one reason I can’t get two smaller ones.

-We might have to take a road trip to BC–headed that way this summer and if we haven’t found anything yet, we can check out Clipper.

-I’ll look into all these suggestions (maybe not the 20 ft Old Town or aluminum–I can’t do the weight!). Is the MNII reasonably stable (I know, depends!). Compared to, say, the SpiritII? And how does that compare to Itasca? Has anyone paddled a Wenona Kingfisher? It looks untippable, but possible too wide for us short people to paddle comfortably. I realize I’m all over the place. The Mad River Explorer looks good, although it might be too small? Hard to say. And it’s not like we’re planning on spending DAYS in the canoe. Just a few hours here and there.

Has the west coast always been light on canoe dealers? Seems like I’ll have to go to MN if I want to try everything!

Thanks all. Lots of things to think about and research. :slight_smile:

Boat weight and transport

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 1:09 PM EST –

It's not likely that any boat will be too heavy for the roof of your truck camper. Even a super-heavy boat won't load the roof with more than 20 to 25 pounds per point of contact (usually there will be four points of contact, whether using a rack with cross bars or simple gunwale blocks). Rest assured that your camper roof is strong enough to carry the weight. A more typical problem would be whether the camper has good places on which to anchor the cross bars of a boat rack, but surely there's a way, even if in some cases it may be more difficult to figure out than others. If you plan to use the canoe enough that weight is an issue (and with luck, you will), you WILL want a roof rack, not just foam pads or gunwale blocks.

One other thing about a "delicate" camper roof. If your roof has a low load rating, it's probably based on a load that's centered on the roof, and a good rack will, at the very least, transfer the load to four points which are much closer to the edges, where the roof is much stronger. Also, a professional welder, or in many cases just a good do-it-yourselfer, could make special reinforcements for the roof-rack mounts. Spreading the points of contact for the roof rack either lengthwise or cross-wise for a few feet (the best option will depend on the nature of the roof's aluminum framework) will reduce the stress to a negligible amount. Also, a custom-made attachment point that transfers the load to the vertical (or nearly vertical) portions of the framework in the sides of the camper will greatly increase the load you can carry.

There are a number of tricks for making roof-top loading easier. If your camper roof is quite tall, there may be no method that's truly "easy", but most likely there will be something you can do to make it easier than simply manhandling and lifting the boat every step of the way. Figuring out a good loading method can be done later, but you are correct that the lighter the boat, the easier it will be. Too often, a boat that's uncomfortably heavy ends up sitting unused much more than would be the case if it were lighter.

A couple comments

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 1:44 PM EST –

I think most of the advice has been pretty good. Regarding stability, any of these general-purpose canoes will be "good enough", as far as stability goes. All of them will require you to be mindful of how you move around when in the boat, or when you climb in and out, but it's not something you will need to be especially careful with. Any of the longer models will be more comfortable for the whole family, but will be heavier, and will leave you in the situation of having more boat than you need when just the two of you go paddling (and until your kids get older and you see how their tastes develop, you won't know what the future holds).

The Wenonah Kingfisher looks too wide for its length, if you want something that paddles in a reasonably efficient manner. I'd hate to call it an "inefficient" boat, not having paddled one, but I'm pretty sure it won't reward good paddling technique nearly as much as a boat with a more typical width relative to its length. Also, that very rapid taper toward the extremely wide center will not be conducive to paddling comfortably or with proper technique.

Speaking of typical width and what's traditional, the Wenonah "17" looks like another nice option. Unlike all, or nearly all of Wenonah's other boats, it has a "traditional canoe shape", so instead of having a very small amount of the boat's center portion having maximum width and a straight-line taper from there to each end, it has a much longer area of the center having maximum width, which is the result of a "curving taper" toward each end. The end result is a lot more internal volume for a given length and width than you get with Wenonah's typical style. I don't think the "17" sells very well, since I've never seen one in my life, but there's a lot to be said for its traditional shape, especially if you need a little more room and stability for a given length, but don't want to resort to what's often billed as a "sportsman's" canoe (a boat that's disproportionately wide, like the Kingfisher). It's worth mentioning that any good brand of canoe OTHER than Wenonah will have the same general "traditional" shape as the Wenonah "17", so this is not a boat shape that is inefficient or "old-fashioned".

Wenonah MN II, MRC Kx Explorer

– Last Updated: Feb-27-13 1:39 PM EST –

The Mad River Kevlar Explorer has a lot of capacity for its length. It is at least as roomy as the Wenonah Spirit II.

I have never owned a Wenonah Minnesota II. I have paddled one a number of times (always with fairly experienced partners and not with kids or dogs in the boat) and it felt quite stable to me, but I have sometimes considered boats to be stable that others considered not so.

There are quite a few reviews for the Minnesota II on this site which you could check out if you are interested. The Minnesota II is a hard-tracking canoe. Many have noted that the bow paddling station is a bit cramped for larger paddlers. It is generally not possible for the bow paddler to have his or her feet side by side (too narrow) which is fine with some but annoys others. The MN II is quite fast and often wins races in the stock C2 class.

If you think you might be interested in what Clipper has to offer, give a call. Marlin Bayes and his wife Mary like to talk about their boats and might be able to offer you advice. They have a toll-free number. They also sell rental boats, blems, and used boats of their make and those of other makers so you might check out the listing on their site.