I’ve been canoeing for over 40 years, and I’m itching to tell you what I’ve learned about how to get a hold of the best canoe for your purposes, especially when you’re new to the whole topic of canoeing! So let’s get right into it.
The best all-around beginner canoe is the Nova Craft Prospector 16. Its versatility gives it the advantage of working well on both quiet lakes and class 3 rapids. In terms of weight, length, construction, maneuverability, stability, and capacity, the Prospector 16 outperforms others in the same categories.
There were many tests we used when determining the best canoes for beginner paddlers. Canoes were broken down into three categories – Whitewater, Expedition, and Recreational. In each of those categories, we looked at the best options in terms of weight, length, construction, maneuverability, stability, and capacity, as well as shape, rocker, and price.
Table of Contents
3 Considerations Before We Get Started (Please Don’t Skip This Part!)
Before we dive in, we want you to consider three things:
1 the type of canoeing you’ll be doing
2 your budget
3 the BIGGEST pitfall (statistically) that discourages beginners!
1. What Type of Canoeing Will You Be Doing?
Many beginners don’t even realize that there are very different styles of canoes for very different purposes. Most of us realize that a Ferrari is a fast, good-looking sports car, but it’s useless if you need to transport a family of 6 anywhere at all!
A pickup truck is a great utility vehicle, but it’s the worst vehicle you can have if you need the most fuel-efficient commuter car you can buy. See my point?
Canoes are not so different.
- If you’re looking for a great, stable canoe for the family to use on a quiet lake when you go camping or stay at the cottage, you’ll need a recreational canoe.
- If you’re looking to explore nearly untouched, natural lakes where no motorboats can go, you’ll need a tripping or expedition canoe.
- Are you thinking more along the lines of canoeing down a river with rapids and rushing water? That’s a whitewater canoe.
2. What is your budget?
Like so many things in life, canoes range in price anywhere from around $500 for an inexpensive used one to $5000 or more, for a handcrafted new luxury model.
We’ve written an extensive article covering the average cost of new and used canoes here.
There’s no beating around the bush: a good canoe is expensive. As a new paddler, once you’ve determined the type of canoeing you’ll be doing, your next job will be to decide your level of commitment and what you’re willing to spend.
- An inexpensive, durable, recreational canoe for your kids to use at the cottage might be the best beginner canoe for you.
- A more expensive canoe might be your best choice if you’ll be tripping through backcountry lakes with multiple portages and need a lightweight craft, with extra room, designed for speed.
We’ll explain more with each recommendation!
3. The BIGGEST PITFALL That Discourages Beginner Canoeists!
We did some research recently and found out (by asking friends in our canoeing social media groups) that the single biggest discouragement to them as someone just starting out in canoeing, was NOT buying a high-quality canoe.
The justification for buying a cheap canoe was that “I might not like the sport so I don’t want to be out too much money.”
The result of buying a cheap canoe was that they were in fact discouraged by how cumbersome, slow, heavy, and difficult to control and transport the canoe turned out to be. They were baffled by the idea that ANYONE would like such a horrible sport that hurts their backs and scratches their cars.
Why would anyone want to slug away for hours with a plastic paddle that seems unable to move a large, slow and inefficient canoe that makes one cringe at the very thought of having to lift it out of the water at the end of an arduous paddle session and then have to put it on the roof of a vehicle without damaging the car, fingers, or dozens of other body parts?
This is EXACTLY the type of issue that makes many potential wilderness canoeists give up after one terrible trip with a cheap canoe. Well, we can tell you from experience that having a well-made, efficient (and yes, more expensive) canoe, is the SINGLE BIGGEST factor that makes a canoe trip enjoyable.
Beginners make up the highest percentage of Active Canoeists!
White Water Canoes
Whitewater canoes are boats that are specifically designed for quick maneuvering and ruggedness, featuring the ability to deal with impacts with rocks, capsizing, and hull stress, unlike most expedition canoes. Whitewater canoes have a heavy rocker which allows them to be quickly turned.
They are not ideal for travel on flat water since they do not track well (go in a straight line with minimal corrective strokes) and they are significantly heavier than good quality expedition canoes.
1 – Esquif Pocket Canyon
|HULL DESIGN||Shallow Arch|
|ROCKER||4″ bow and stern|
This canoe’s main purpose is to accommodate whitewater canoeists on short journeys down rivers. It is primarily meant for 2 paddlers on a day-long journey down a river.
It does not have the capacity for lots of cargo. It is very maneuverable and it serves as both a “playboat” (just having fun booting around the rapids) and a technical river runner (get through the river obstacles and keep going).
The Pocket Canyon is made of T-Formex (the best material currently for whitewater ruggedness) and we ranked it on our list because it’s one of the best examples of bringing together lightweight (for a whitewater canoe) and the ability to carry 2 paddlers with enough gear for a weekend river trip.
It also happens to be a canoe that requires low maintenance and it will be with you through the years that you become an intermediate and then an expert. It is of the quality that ensures you’ll enjoy the sport right from day one!
About the Pocket Canyon, Paddlingmag.com says, “Hull speed and stability, both loaded and unloaded, are very good for a boat of this length.”
2 – Esquif Raven
|ROCKER||4.5″ – bow 4.5″ – stern|
|STABILITY SCORE||7/10 (decent initial stability)|
This canoe is generally known in the world of white water canoeing to be the single most “beginner-friendly” canoe on the market. It is quite “predictable” which is a quality that most beginners find very assuring.
According to several whitewater veterans, we either spoke to, emailed, or researched, the Raven is the boat that most entry-level paddlers can start out with and yet never grow out of.
It offers the performance of a more advanced whitewater solo canoe (which is why you won’t necessarily grow out of it), but it has a very specific quality that makes it particularly attractive to beginners.
One of the most attractive characteristics of this canoe (specifically for newbies) is that it acts and reacts like a pro-level craft but it’s just a bit slower (which is not a bad thing for beginners).
Finally, one of the most unique qualities in this model is its excellent tracking ability which is something that is not typically very good on whitewater canoes (especially solo models).
It offers an asymmetrical rocker. The rocker is basically the bend or curvature of a canoe’s hull (degree of banana-shape) from back to front if you look at the canoe from the side.
3 – Nova Craft Prospector 16
|HULL DESIGN||Shallow Arch|
This prospector canoe has the shape and design of the single most popular and well-recognized canoe style in the world. Nova Craft has been crafting this style of canoe since 1984 and they do it well. Along with Esquif, Nova Craft is part of an elite handful of canoe companies that make iconic and top-end whitewater canoes.
We like the prospector because it offers the beginner a bit more versatility for the whole family. This canoe is primarily designed for whitewater with 2 paddlers. However, it differs from our other choices in that it offers a bit more cargo room for a trip of a week or more for 2 canoeists. That puts it firmly into the category of wilderness tripping canoe.
It offers a little of all the qualities that make it work for both whitewater and flat water, and for solo or tandem. The rocker is just enough to give it the ability to turn well (the more rocker, the easier it is to turn), but not so much rocker that it won’t track well on flat water.
It offers perfect symmetry for solo paddling, and it offers just enough space for gear that it can be used on a longer river or lake trip. I’d call that a win/win for beginners in particular, and also for more advanced paddlers who don’t want to (or can’t) own multiple canoes.
4 – PakCanoe 150
|CONSTRUCTION||PVC & Aluminum|
|HULL DESIGN||Shallow Arch (not flat) – good for tripping|
I was a little hesitant to add this to the whitewater list given that it’s such a different offering from any of our other recommendations. It’s a unique design that’s been around since 1995 and it’s a portable, collapsible canoe. However, it’s important to note that it’s not a toy. This canoe can take a beating, and weathers that beating much easier than most hard shells.
Because of its inherent ability to flex as it collides with waves, it can usually ride over waves in a way not possible with a rigid canoe. It will most often remain drier than a traditional canoe in the same rough conditions as white cap waves and strong wind.
It also bounces off rocks and behaves like an ABS (tough plastic) whitewater canoe, but it weighs only 45 lbs while a comparable T-Formex canoe would be near twice that weight.
A big factor that brought us to include it on our list is its extreme versatility. It can handle Class 3 Whitewater, while at the same time, hold enough gear for a pair of paddlers to go on a week-long trip. It can track well enough on flat water, and it’s just as easy to handle solo as it is tandem. That’s versatility!
Expedition canoes are very different in nearly every way from whitewater canoes. They are extremely light compared to whitewater canoes and can be carried easily by even a smaller person.
They do not react as quickly as a whitewater canoe to corrective or steering strokes, but that quality allows them to track (stay in a straight line) much easier and more efficiently while paddling lakes.
1 – Wenonah Escape
|CAPACITY||N/A (but made for bigger loads)|
|HULL DESIGN||Shallow Arch|
|ROCKER||0″ bow and stern|
|STABILITY SCORE||8.5/10 (excellent secondary stability)|
I’m starting off with this canoe because, well, I OWN ONE, and it’s simply the best of its kind that I’ve ever tried. If you’re new to canoeing and you’d like to actually have a fun trip that minimizes unnecessary physical stress, you’ll love this canoe for sure!
It weighs 40 lbs – 57 lbs (depending on the material) and it’s 17’6″ long. It offers decent initial stability, and excellent secondary stability (that’s the one that really keeps you from fully tipping over).
My only caveat would be to say that as a beginner canoe, it should be for beginners who are mature adults or otherwise very serious about treating it with respect. My Kevlar layup is durable enough, but it won’t take a beating on submerged rocks or being dropped off a ledge on a portage like a whitewater canoe might.
However, it will give you extreme lightness (that will fill your heart with joy as you approach a 1200-yard portage), and tons of cargo room. It’s one of those canoes that has what beginners like (secondary stability) while offering enough advanced options that you’ll likely never grow out of it. I’ve had mine for nearly 15 years!
2 – Swift Keewaydin 14
|HULL DESIGN||Asymmetrical – shallow arch|
|ROCKER||Bow – 2″ Stern – 1″|
|STABILITY SCORE||7.5/10 (good secondary stability)|
|PRICE||$3,195 (Carbon Fusion material – $3,495)|
In keeping with our greater philosophy of putting “enjoyment” at the top of our list of priorities, we’ve considered weight in this selection. We also highly respect the Swift name, and we know that (arguably) Canada’s largest canoe outfitters rent these canoes (exclusively) to paddlers visiting their region.
The Keewaydin has several layup options but for some options, we’re looking at weights that are into the 20-something pound area. That’s crazy light!!
It’s best for small to mid-sized paddlers and we chose it because it is slightly more responsive (which will give beginners a tiny bit more confidence) than its bigger brother (the Keewaydin 15). While it can hold 400 pounds, the best (optimal) weight range is between 140 pounds and 300 pounds.
3 – Mad River Expedition 176
|HULL DESIGN||Asymmetrical – shallow Vee design|
|ROCKER||Bow – 2″ Stern – 1.25″ (minimal rocker)|
|PRICE||$2,579 (Aluminum Trim) – $2,799 (Wood Trim)|
This canoe is similar to our #1 choice, but the material is Malecite, which is a “hybrid fiberglass” material. That just means it’s …. fiberglass! However, it’s 17’6″ long (like the Wenonah Escape), but it’s only 54 pounds which is only a few pounds more than my Kevlar, AND it has a painted gel coat!
We included this one on the list for “beginners” because it’s likely to be able to take a slightly tougher beating than kevlar while still being light, responsive, good-looking, and expedition-worthy. Depending on your specific situation, a canoe with a bit more resilience than Kevlar may be just what you’re looking for.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention this: one of the best qualities for a beginner that this canoe offers is a moderately lower price tag than other composites like Kevlar or Carbon.
4 – H2O Solo 16-6
|ROCKER||Bow – 2.5″ Stern – 1.5″ (slight rocker)|
|PRICE||$3,495 CDN or $2,775 USD (approx.)|
To me, H2O is an elusive dream! I’ve been in a position to buy a canoe 3 times in my life where an H2O has been in the running, but something always happens to get in the way. The last time I tried, I was just getting into my vehicle to go get one, and I got a text message from the owner telling me it just sold!
H2O is a high-performance canoe company whose product quite literally takes a back seat to no ones. The solo 16-6 is 16.5 feet long with a great combination of stability and efficiency (often those 2 qualities are mutually exclusive … to a degree). I personally love the cool paint jobs on all H2O’s, but that’s a small thing …. or is it?
The reason this canoe makes our list of “beginner” canoes is that while a veteran canoeist won’t let a bad experience with a canoe affect his future ideas about canoeing, a rookie might.
To that end, if your beautiful and light expedition canoe finds a submerged rock that causes a hull breach, as a beginner, you may just get discouraged and decide canoeing is too dangerous and unpredictable.
So, if you go with the beautiful, light H2O, you can opt for the INNEGRA material version which not only looks cool but offers about the same protection as an ABS whitewater canoe in colliding with rocks. That’s a big deal since Innegra is WAY lighter. It’s actually a Polypropylene yarn that is made into a cloth fabric, and boy is it tough!
The H2O with Innegra is the absolute best canoe for both extreme lightness and extreme toughness, and believe me, those two qualities are almost always very much mutually exclusive!
Okay, I need to say something about this name. “Recreation” is an official category put out by canoe makers, but it really doesn’t explain the whole story.
You see, “recreation” in the world of quality canoes means the canoe is not meant for long-distance trips or whitewater. Pretty much everything else you might do with a canoe has been accounted for in a “recreational” canoe.
For example, cottage utility use like frolicking on the water at the end of the dock is included in the definition, as is photography, fishing, day cruising with your family, or any activity where stability and durability is key.
1 – Mad River Adventure 16
|HULL DESIGN||Asymmetrical – shallow arch|
|ROCKER||Bow – 1″ Stern – 0.5″|
This beast has to make it onto our list for a couple of reasons. First of all, Mad River specifically made this canoe for beginners in that it is supremely versatile (so beginners can get a feel for what types of on-water canoeing activities they’d like to pursue, after which they can “tweak” their canoe styles to better fit that purpose).
The Adventure 16 has a look to it that resembles a kayak and it offers features that most high-end canoes don’t, like adjustable seats with back support, storage sections in the seat and even a transom (stern) ready to accept a small motor.
While it is heavier for its length than a tripping canoe, this boat is not really meant to portage. It’s also significantly less expensive than most of our other options, and of course, Mad River is an excellent name brand anyone would be proud to display on the side of their own craft.
At around $1K USD, it sits around ONE-THIRD of the price of a good expedition tripping canoe of the same size!
2 – Old Town Saranac 160
|HULL DESIGN||Flat Bottom|
|STABILITY||9/10 (good secondary stability)|
The Saranac 160 is in nearly every way, the same boat at our #1 choice. At $800 USD, it’s priced a bit less than the Mad River, and in case you weren’t sure, Old Town is another iconic name in the canoe industry.
The difference is in the construction. This canoe is made very much like a traditional canoe with a formed body and then added gunwales while the Mad River is molded like a kayak and has no separate gunwales. The Saranac 160 is 16 feet long and is made of Thermoformed Polyethelyne.
That’s just fancy speak for “PLASTIC”. The hull shape is flat on the bottom which is perfect for all recreation activities, and in case you were thinking you might be able to portage from lake to lake, don’t bother unless you’re the son of Thor! It weighs 89 pounds bone dry … on the moon! (okay, kidding about the moon part).
It can hold 850 pounds and has seating for 3 people and some gear. It’s an all-around good deal for a “non-portaging” canoe, and it suits beginners looking to supply their cottage dock with a utility boat.
3 – Wenonah Fusion
|STABILITY||8/10 (good secondary stability)|
If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a big fan of Wenonah since I own one (yes I have a bias, but who doesn’t?). The fusion is a perfect addition to this list since it comes from one of the top 5 most reputable canoe companies on planet earth.
Not only that, but the Fusion resembles a wide, stable utility canoe, while at the same time, having a rudder and design that looks suspiciously like a competitor to angling kayaks! The padded high-back seat, coupled with a foot-controlled rudder system makes this canoe a fishing machine to rival any other single-person fishing craft on the market. It’s 13 feet long and as per our beginner requirements, it’s assuringly stable. The bad news on this one is that you won’t get it for $800. It’s a couple grand, but you’d have to connect with your Wenonah retailer or with the company directly to discuss material options for final pricing.
4 – Langford Ranger 16
|WEIGHT||42 – 45 lbs|
|HULL DESIGN||Symmetrical – shallow arch|
Langford is another name that is held in high regard throughout the canoeing community in North America and beyond. It’s an Ontario, Canada-based company that provides canoes to outfitters and retailers worldwide, but more to the point, it provides its Ranger 16 to the Canadian and U.S. Parks Services.
It is another one of those “do-it-all” canoes that are rated well for activities that seem at odds with each other. For example, the Ranger 16 is very efficient (good forward momentum for energy output) and can be used as a tripping or expedition canoe.
However, it’s quite wide (38″ beam). It’s 3 inches wider than my Wenonah Escape which is 18 inches longer than this Ranger 16.
Still, this canoe can compete on the portage circuit with its efficiency, payload, and weight (right around 42 lbs for a Kevlar model). This is really a jack of all trades, but it excels at recreational pursuits like fishing, hunting, and family use.
Okay, that was the introduction, now on with the article! KIDDING!
My hope is that you really gained some insight into some significant factors and challenges that a beginner (maybe that’s you) will encounter while searching for a canoe to get started in this beneficially addictive outdoor living and canoeing lifestyle.
My focus was not on giving you the cheapest options on the market, and it was not to direct you somewhere to buy my recommendations in order for me to get a commission.
My recommendations will get me $ZERO commission. My purpose was to direct you to “the best” beginner canoes, rather than “the cheapest canoes that should do the trick, for now,” beginner canoes.
If you remember nothing from this article please remember the 3 important points at the start. They will guide your decision-making more than any other factors I can think of.
Have a blessed day and remember to get out and enjoy God’s creation …. and keep looking up!