After nearly a half-century of paddling Ontario’s wilderness, I’ve come to some conclusions about the good and “not-so-good” canoe brands. The names, brands, and manufacturers change a bit over the years, but some brands have withstood the test of time.
I’ve spent dozens of hours researching and talking to as many authorities as I could in order to come to some pretty solid conclusions. Let me show you what my experience and research have shown to be the absolute best canoes on the market!
What’s the Best Canoe Brand?
For flatwater lake tripping, the brand that is second to none would be Wenonah as well as Swift. It’s a tie between one of the world’s largest canoe makers and perhaps one of the world’s top-quality manufacturers.
For Whitewater canoeing, Esquif canoes are at the top of the industry, and while competition is fierce and quality margins negligible between manufacturers, Esquif takes a back seat to no other company in the world.
When I’m asked about the “best” canoes out there, the answer is really not as simple as I would like it to be. “Best” is a bit vague and doesn’t explain the whole story. Are we talking about the best whitewater canoe? If so, it is NOT the best lake tripping canoe.
Are we talking about the “best” constructed canoe? If so, that’s not likely the “best” canoe to fit your budget. Best is a relative term and goalposts keep changing.
But, for the sake of this overview, I’ll try to define “best” very specifically, so hopefully, there will be no confusion!
Here are 11 of the top canoe companies I’ve had the experience paddling or my research has pointed to as the companies that make canoes on par with the absolute best in the world.
Most of the Brands listed make canoes for different purposes (lake tripping, white water, recreation, etc.) and those models are the best of their kind compared to any other company in the world.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are literally hundreds of other companies that loosely fall into the same top-notch quality and price category, but that don’t have any name recognition and are not actually “better” than the ones I’ve listed. This is just a distilled list of canoes that will give you a high-quality canoe (though not altogether inexpensive).
|Brand||Quality (10 is best)||Price (Higher or Lower?)||Name Recognition (10 is best)||Attention to Detail (10 is best)|
|North Star (formerly Bell)||8||Higher||7||8|
Best Canoe Brands and Why They’re on Top!
Here’s a bit about my top picks for best canoe brands. There’s a reason they’re on top, and I’ll give you a short summary of who they are and why they’re great!
NOTE: While Canada’s population is a mere 10% of its Southern Neighbor, it really comes as no surprise that Canada is home to several of the world’s best canoe manufacturers.
In fact, every province in Canada has many canoe manufacturers whose quality is virtually the same as the biggest and best in the industry!
Swift canoe and kayak company was created in 1984 after the founders ran a canoe outfitting business for many years prior. Swift has sought the very best in canoe designers and leading-edge materials for decades and it shows.
Swift is found in the inventory of just about every single outfitter in the Province of Ontario and beyond. Their materials are forward-thinking and usually several years ahead of industry standards and adoption of their techniques and materials.
Attention to detail is almost unbelievable with all models designed to appeal as much to the eyes as to common sense. Their full carbon models contain no metal (or any material) fasteners and look like something from the future.
Wenonah is arguably America’s best-known brand for extremely high-quality canoes that are also an outfitter favorite. I personally own a Wenonah Escape and the efficiency and light weight are astonishing compared to other canoes I’ve paddled.
Based in Winona, MN near the headwaters of the Mississippi, founder Mike Chicanowski created canoes starting in 1967 and the company grew very quickly to the manufacturing behemoth it is today. Quality has not been compromised and I know from experience this is one canoe you should have for generations.
Old Town is literally the largest canoe maker in the world (though others are on its heels). Old Town was established in Maine over a century ago and has the richest heritage of any company in the world. That’s the main reason it made it to our top 11 list!
Old Town has definitely stood the test of time and they create well-built and tough canoes. However, I would not personally buy one only because their canoes are generally value-priced and built to those standards. While being very sea-worthy, their attention to detail and use of premium construction materials is at a minimum.
Here’s a classic Canadian company that makes canoes for just about every canoe vlogger I see on YouTube. Since 1970, they’ve given us probably the most diverse offering of canoes on the market.
With materials like Basalt/Innegra, Carbon Fiber, Polyethylene, Fiberglass, Kevlar, and a variety of other composites, you won’t find a company with a more varied offering of canoe materials and styles than Nova Craft.
Nova Craft also sponsors what they call “Ambassadors” for their brand, and they are some of the biggest names in the world of blogging as well as YouTube.
Langford is one of the first canoes I “almost bought”. I didn’t get one because it was at the very top of the “high price” heap and I couldn’t cough up the dough at the time.
Here’s one of North America’s premium brands and it’s no surprise since they’ve been around since 1940! Like most other premium brands, they’ve evolved their original cedar Canvas models to include the latest Carbon and composite models that rival the world’s best.
Based in the Northern remote town of Atikokan, Ontario, the odds of you ever being able to visit this premium canoe facility is low! Most of its orders are shipped worldwide, and it has a strange resemblance to its cross-border competitor Wenonah.
Both Wenonah and Souris River make similar canoes and are very near either the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) or Quetico Provincial Park (basically the same body of water but it straddles the USA/Canada border).
Though North Star is a high-end brand and is owned and operated by an iconic canoe designer I was lucky enough this past year to stumble across a BETTER version of North Star!
What I mean is that Ted Bell used to own Bell Canoe Works years ago and he made BELL canoes which were, according to many, a slightly amped-up version of the current North Star models. Even so, North Star remains on top of its game offering canoes on par with the best!
We just had to include Mad River because of its iconic name. I would almost go so far as to say it’s a household name … at least in the world of canoeing.
The first Mad River model was designed by founder Jim Henry back in 1971. It was an instant winner both in the minds of canoe enthusiasts as well as in the Downriver National Championships where it was a literal instant winner in the race!
While Mad River has the distinction of building the world’s first Kevlar canoe, most of its current offerings focus more on tough, river-oriented canoes that are not designed for serious flat water adventures.
They now make mostly great recreation canoes and tough polyethylene tripping canoes (though you wouldn’t want one if you portage a lot).
Here’s another Canadian company that services mostly Western Canada. Its claim to fame is a very efficient and light Kevlar design also similar to a typical Wenonah or Souris River model.
Priced at a premium, and offering designs and layups that put them at the top of the quality pile, Clipper is one of those brands that dozens of the largest outfitters in Canada love to carry … for good reason!
While not a household name in the industry, I’ve been privileged to follow some of the growth and evolution of H2O. What I can tell you is that if you buy an H2O, there will be NO buyer’s remorse for issues of quality or value.
H2O offers an enviable line of Carbon Fiber models including racing skulls and innovative construction techniques not offered by larger companies.
The bad news is that H2O is so good, it’s priced as high as any other in the industry (ie. Swift Carbon models).
While I am not an avid river paddler, this name is miles above most of its competitors. Esquif is a Quebec-based company that has offered the world’s best whitewater canoes since 1997.
Most of their models are symmetrical (ie. Prospector design) so they are not super-efficient on flat water, and they are made of Esquif’s proprietary T-Formex, which is a tough river-canoe material made for rough use against rocks and trees in a fast water environment.
Esquif is definitely an industry leader in the white water space!
What is the Best Type of Canoe?
While we’re on the topic of canoe companies and the types of canoes they make, let’s see what might be considered the “best type” of canoe. The best type of canoe I think would be a jack-of-all-trades style of canoe which is a Prospector symmetrical shaped canoe.
While a Prospector is not ideal for flatwater paddling (since it is symmetrical and has rocker – both qualities make it slightly better suited to river tripping), it is the canoe that has the best combination of qualities that allow it to be used for just about any purpose.
It’s not great at anything, but pretty good at everything.
One of the world’s most famous paddlers and die-hard users of a Prospector canoe is Bill Mason. As much as he loved his wood and canvas Prospector, he also loved running rivers.
Referring to a nightmarish trip he took down an unfamiliar river in Quebec (with low water) he lamented:
Bill’s old beat-up Grumman was also a Prospector design and it would have been better for whitewater than Kevlar which I never bring near moving water at all!
For whitewater, an ABS/Royalex/T-Formex or any other material made for abuse is the material of choice, and the Prospector style is the design of choice.
On the other hand, the best canoe for lake tripping would be an asymmetrical design (which allows for a more technically-efficient draft and glide) made of lightweight Kevlar or Carbon Fiber. This is the type of canoe the vast majority of canoeists would want if they could afford it.
The best canoe for recreation on still water (ie. hunting, fishing, photography, relaxation) would be a flat-bottomed canoe with a wide beam (maximum width) for stability. A good example would be a SPORTSPAL canoe.
These are lightweight aluminum canoes first designed by a WWII aircraft body designer in North Bay, Ontario. A defining feature of Sportspal canoes is their flat bottoms, relatively short length, and amazing initial stability.
While not my personal favorite for most types of outings, the one thing I envy about Sportspal is that they are head and shoulders above any other competitors when it comes to the ability to mount a trolling motor for convenience (especially for fishing).
I have stabilizers for my fishing canoe and I use the Minn Kota Endura (30-lb) for my 16 foot Kevlar fishing canoe (though I appreciate the 40-lb model after having tried it!)
The Minn Kota Endura is arguably the best motor for just about any canoe that can fit an electric trolling motor.
Which Shape of Canoe is the Fastest?
The answer to which canoe shape is the fastest is easy! It would be the shape of a racing canoe that is narrow, long and has a very round hull (the opposite of a flat bottom).
The more the body of the canoe connects with the water, the less efficient (fast) it will be. The unfortunate part is that, like with anything, there’s a tradeoff for every feature.
In other words, stable canoes are extremely inefficient and slow. Fast canoes are extremely unstable, and many a racer has ended up capsizing due to this factor.
Most folks are not looking for a racing canoe, but want the most efficient or fastest canoe they can get for “normal” lake canoeing.
In that case, the fastest flatwater canoe for wilderness canoeing would be an asymmetrical canoe (usually designed with speed and efficiency in mind) which has a designated bow and stern and cannot be flipped around as you could do with a symmetrical design like a Prospector.
Best Name Brand Overall for Speed – Wenonah
What is the Most Stable Canoe?
The most stable canoe is one fitted with a set of aftermarket stabilizers like THIS ONE. If you don’t add stabilizers, then the most stable canoe is a Sportspal canoe due to its extreme width and flat bottom.
However, before you get too excited about going and buying a Sportspal, I might suggest that you find a good recreational canoe that’s almost as stable but gives you infinitely more desirable qualities than the Sportspal (which is so bad at everything other than offering amazing stability).
You can read all about stabilizing your canoe in THIS POST.
Best Name Brand Overall for Stability – Sportspal
What is the Most Durable Canoe?
To find the most durable canoe, we’ll have to explore white water models made of composites that are made to bend and buckle without being permanently damaged.
Some great examples of the world’s most durable canoes are Esquif and Mad River. These brands are the top names in whitewater boat manufacturing, and their durable materials are on par with the best on the planet.
Esquif invented the T-Formex composite material layup after Royalex ceased production. Until that point, Royalex was the gold standard of a durable material for river-running canoes.
Now, the two top brands in the whitewater space (Esquif and Mad River) both use T-Formex for their hulls.
While aluminum is fairly durable, it bends and kinks under extreme stress, while T-Formex does not. While there are other composite materials made for canoe durability, those made from T-Formex are inferior to no other material.
Best Name Brand Overall for Durability – Esquif
Best Brands By Material
While this outline will be a bit simplistic (you wouldn’t be able to stand the long, boring, complicated explanation), it will give you a starting point for research, or you may just jump right in and trust me! Imagine that eh?!
Best Kevlar Canoe Brand
Swift Canoe Company wins this because of its use of a proprietary “thin coat” gel system which is thinner than most canoe makers’ gel coats, while at the same time being so tough it won’t crack while being stressed or bent up to 10 times more than a thick gel coat.
Additionally, Swift’s new thin coat gel system has a UV protector built in to prolong your canoe’s color as well as structural integrity.
Best T-Formex Canoe Brand
We’ll give top prize here to the actual inventor of the T-Formex material – Esquif Canoe Company. The Esquif International team of designers invented this tough material as a Royalex replacement. Royalex was developed in the 1970s by the Uniroyal Tire Company.
More recently, production was taken over by an Ohio company named PolyOne who decided to stop making it in 2013. Makers of whitewater canoes were scrambling at that point to find a replacement.
T-Formex was a result of that scramble, and it’s still atop the heap of options for the toughest and best material in its class.
Best Aluminum Canoe Brand
While not the only manufacturer in this space, Grumman gets the nod from me as being the world’s top aluminum canoe maker. Grumman was born of military necessity. Originally it made warplane bodies but transitioned to making canoes after the conclusion of WWII.
While not particularly efficient (they were originally designed to stack onto each other for easy transport rather than individually crafted for ultimate performance), they have by far the most iconic brand name for a steel canoe and one of the most recognizable names of any canoe company on Earth!
I grew up with a 15-foot Grumman in my teens, and after annual use for over 42 years, it still maintains its integrity while bearing only a few scratches on the hull!
Best Foldable Canoe Brand
There are some excellent boats in this category like the Ally foldable canoe, but very few are easily accessible if you wanted to buy one next week or even today!
Bucking this trend is the MyCanoe 3.0 folding canoe. It makes the grade in this category because it is easily accessible, it’s wide and stable enough to be sailed, it’s not hard to stand (even without stabilizers which can easily be added) and it’s incredibly light and convenient to transport.
We like the Prospector symmetrical design which gives it versatility in being able to be paddled in either direction and of course, it’s made in Canada! We love those crazy Canuck canoe designs!
The MyCanoe 3.0 Origami Folding Pack Canoe – versatile light and super convenient …oh, and did I mention somewhat affordable at under $1,900 USD!
Best Carbon Fiber Canoe Brand
Here’s a tough decision but I had to make a call. I’ll give this category to Swift Canoe Company. Swift makes the most meticulously-designed carbon canoes with no metal hardware and exquisite design. While I have not paddled one of these I know people who have and I’ve seen them up close.
They’re almost too nice to paddle but the carbon is just daring you to try!
Best Plastic (Polyethylene) Canoe Brand
To win this category, you’re going to have to beat a huge pool of competitors. While the margin was razor-thin, I’ve given the victory to the Penobscot by Old Town Canoes.
I was influenced in part by the classic and iconic brand name of Old Town and fame of the Penobscot model. It’s made of 3 layers of Polyethylene.
We like that Old Town actually tried to make this an “efficient” canoe (meaning the canoe will move forward the fastest and farthest with each unit of energy you apply). It’s a whopping 17’4″ long which makes it more efficient than most.
Best Wood Canoe Brand
While the prize here could go to any one of dozens of worthy competitors, I’m going with Canada’s oldest canoe maker – Langford Canoes. You can see its dazzling array of eye-popping and performance-oriented canoes right HERE!
These works of art are made from BC Red Cedar and trimmed with Mahogany. The 8 models offered by Langford are very highly regarded by collectors and are sought worldwide by those who appreciate the history and quality of classic wooden paddle craft.
Best Fiberglass Canoe Brand
Once again, the difference between my top choice and my #10 pick would be negligible, but I’ll go with the Holy Cow Canoe Company of Ontario, Canada. Why? Because I know from experience that their fiberglass canoes are about as good as a fiberglass canoe can possibly be.
The 16’6″ Algonquin Prospector weighs in at 74 lbs, but that’s kind of to be expected from a fiberglass hull. While fiberglass is more affordable and more durable than Kevlar, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll ever see me paddle a fiberglass canoe given its weight.
Annual Canoeing Participants in North America By Group
(Hey, is this a good way to meet singles?)
Best Whitewater Canoe Under $2000
The BlackFly Canoe Company – Octane 92 is hands down the most unique tandem canoe I’ve ever seen. While it is designed for 2 paddlers, its 8’10” length is shorter than any solo canoe made for flat water.
The hull of the Octane 92 is super wide for stability and volume. Keep in mind this is a rough water river boat only and does not serve as a versatile boat as might a Prospector design.
Oh, and one other thing; The $2K price point in this title is actually more like $2075 right now – sorry!
Best Flat Water Canoe Under $2000
Wenonah Aurora makes the grade for this category, not because it’s the absolute best touring canoe for flat water, but because it slides in around the $2000 price point (depending on options).
It has a bit of a rocker in the gunwales (which is usually not great for touring canoes) but the bottom of the hull has almost no rocker since it does not follow the same lines as the gunwale rocker lines.
The efficiency rating is only a 6 out of 10, but it offers lots of stability, cargo space, predictable performance, excellent performance in waves (upswept bow and stern), and of course – IT’S A WENONAH.
The Aurora is in the top 3 of Wenonah’s best-selling canoes and that speaks volumes!
Most of you are likely looking primarily for flatwater canoes, and if that describes you, I’d strongly suggest looking at an asymmetrical canoe design from SWIFT or WENONAH.
If you’re thinking of doing some very light river paddling in addition to flat water, I would direct you to the same companies but suggest you peruse their whitewater designs which will inevitably include Prospector designs.
If you’re a hard-core whitewater enthusiast, Esquif has not only the best selection but the best quality boats around. Other companies that even offer a whitewater design don’t have the brand recognition, reputation of quality or selection of designs (while price points are still similar).
My best regards and blessings as you consider which brand you’ll choose! I wish I knew what you ended up with and hope you enjoy a lifetime of adventure!