I’m first of all going to go over the types of materials which canoes are made of.
- ABS Plastic (Royalex®) — This is a 7 layer plastic canoe. It has hard outsides and a foam core. Most whitewater canoes are made out of this stuff and it is a good all around material for a canoe, flat water, whitewater, no water. This is my favorite, but will become more difficult to find as time goes on, as they no longer manufacture this type of material anymore. Here is an example of a ABS/Royalex Plastic boat.
- Polyethylene Plastic -There is a big difference between a canoe made of polyethylene plastic and ABS/Royalex plastic. Polyethylene is one layer and thinner and has to have extra plastic or aluminum to make the boat stiff. OK, these are probably OK to buy. I don’t like them and think you can get a better boat made of ABS plastic for just a little more money and it will hold up better and last longer, but this is a much cheaper canoe to buy both new and used. If you end up buying this type of boat, do not pay ABS plastic prices or expect the boat to be as durable as ABS. Here is an example of a canoe made of polyethylene plastic.
- Three Layer Polyethylene – Old Town Discovery is a canoe made out of this 3 layer polyethylene. This is cheaper than Royalex and not as cheap as one layer polyethylene. It looks like Royalex, but is more economical. I mention this canoe especially because I see this is a canoe that is used by canoe liveries and they sell them at the end of the season. This is a fine boat for family canoeing. (2016) I see that Old Town is mostly selling boats (new) that are made of the three-layer polyethylene.
- Fiberglass – a fiberglass canoe would be perfectly acceptable to buy new, but I would never buy a fiberglass canoe used unless you want to learn how to repair fiberglass. These are lightweight, don’t withstand much and go crunch on rocks. Best avoided used and probably even new unless you are a DIY person and like working with resin and fiberglass. (Been there and done it, and sold the kayak.) I check craigslist for canoes and accessories and all the fiberglass boats I’ve seen for sale are really old and have been sitting in someone’s backyard for half a lifetime. That is the main reason I do not recommend buying a used fiberglass canoe.
- Aluminum – Actually an aluminum canoe which is in good shape is a perfectly reasonable choice for a used canoe. Here is the thing, I don’t think anyone has manufactured an aluminum canoe in 25 years, so anything you buy is going to be over 25 years old. I have seen people selling these on craigslist and they usually sell for the same price as an ABS plastic canoe, which is so much nicer to paddle. If you haven’t paddled in an aluminum canoe, it is not silent in the water, the paddle against the hull goes ker-plunk with every stroke. The bottom will stick on rocks and if you do get in a little whitewater and you turn over, if your canoe gets crunched, it doesn’t pop back like an ABS canoe. (2016) Mad River making new aluminum boats this year, probably for the first time.
- Kevlar – ooooo Kevlar is a very sturdy fiberglass. There is nothing wrong with a Kevlar canoe, in fact people consider this a premium canoe. It is much much better than a simple fiberglass canoe. It will cost a lot of money, new and used, but it is very light weight. This would be a great choice if you can’t pick up an ABS canoe due to its weight. Kevlar is the stuff they make bullet proof vests out of, so pretty sturdy, but not as sturdy as ABS plastic.
- Wood and Wood and Canvas – avoid these. Looks nice, but do you really want to avoid all rocks and patch that wood or canvas all the time. Do not consider this.
Brands of Canoes: There are really not that many manufacturers of canoes. Here are some brands that make good canoes. Old Town, Mad River, Mohawk, Wenonah and Esquif. Northstar (formerly Bell Canoes) makes good canoes. I have mainly seen them in the midwest. I think they are mostly kevlar. Blue Hole made some good canoes many years ago (they are out of business). What I don’t know is if they ever made any canoes which were not whitewater canoes. I have seen Blue Hole canoes on craigslist and eBay. Of course there are other brands, but these are the main brands of canoes. Dagger makes good canoes, but they are mainly hardcore whitewater canoes, not the kind you use for a family, yet I did see that at one time they sold at least one type of recreational canoe.
Old Town has this excellent video on canoe materials. It only include materials that Old Town uses to make canoes from.
REI has advice on How to Choose a Canoe (But remember they only give advice on things they sell.)
Whitewater boats have lots of rocker. See how both ends of the canoe go up, that is a whitewater canoe. It does not track but is great for whitewater.
Flat water boats have no rocker. See how this Mad River Adventure has a flat bottom, and no rocker.
I would choose a boat which has a little rocker, for more versatility, but a flat bottomed boat is very stable.
Presumable you will need a canoe for 2 – 4 persons and I am assuming that 2 of those persons are small kids. Ideally you want a boat 15’8″ – 17′ long. Sixteen feet is a good size for 2 adults and 1 or 2 small kids. Even if you are a single person with one kid and think you need the smallest canoe, your kid is going to want to take a friend with him, so plan ahead.
More Advice on Choosing a Canoe
Even More Advice on Selecting a Canoe
(This is from Paddling Light, so this is going to highlight light canoes for longer paddles.)
Check out my post on “Buying a Used Canoe”