Pontoon Boats: The Ultimate Guide

Combining an ideal platform for swimming, lounging, and partying with enough speed and maneuverability to tow skiers, tubers, and wakeboarders, it’s hard to beat a modern pontoon boat. Yet there are so many different types of pontoon boats for sale in such a wide range of sizes, styles, and price-points, that choosing the best one for your lifestyle may be a tough decision. That’s why we’ve put together this pontoon boats guide – to give you enough of a foundation in pontoon boat basics that you can wisely research, choose, and then find the right pontoon boat for you.

This Bennington pontoon boat, an excellent family boat, keeps it simple with a clean, easy layout.
A family-oriented Bennington pontoon boat with a comfortable layout for easy cruising.

What Is A Pontoon Boat?

First let’s start with the basics. What makes a boat, a pontoon boat? Pontoon boats are built on top of two or three interconnected, buoyant tubes (or pontoons) upon which they rely for flotation. Those with three pontoons are sometimes called “tri-toons”. These pontoons make up the hull of the vessel which is then topped by a large, flat deck. The deck is typically outfitted with furniture and a steering station, plus a fence around the perimeter. As a result of this design, pontoon boats have a very shallow draft (as little as 8 inches) and are able to reach places many other boats cannot. Although they are less suited for big waves in the open ocean.

Elements of Pontoon Boat Design

The pontoons, cross-braces and most structural elements are built with welded aluminum, while decks are often marine plywood, but may also be aluminum or fiberglass. Most of the time the furniture is roto-molded polyethylene, but some pontoons do have fiberglass furniture bases and/or consoles.

Cross-bracing and longitudinal elements attach the tubes to the deck structure. Note the storage space and fuel tank in the center tube.
Structural elements and cross-bracing attach pontoons to the deck with storage and fuel tank often found in the middle tube.

Thanks mainly to advances in pontoon tube design, new boatbuilding materials, innovations in outdoor fabrics, and lighter, more efficient outboard engines, pontoon boats are no longer the relatively slow, somewhat cumbersome “party barges” they once had a reputation for being. Today we see pontoon boats with as much as 900 horsepower strapped to the stern and top speeds in the 60s.

Many pontoon boats also have interiors that look and feel as nice as the inside of a fine luxury automobile. They can carve a turn, too, with performance pontoon “tube” packages that allow them to corner as well as many conventional fiberglass-hulled boats.

Pontoon boats can be customized
Pontoon boat decks can be customized to have interiors as nice as luxury automobiles

One of the variables that has a big impact on the activities a pontoon boat is used for is the engine. Most modern pontoons are powered by outboard engines, which can range anywhere from just a few horsepower to massive V-8 blocks that crank out 300, 350, or even up to 425 horsepower.

Types of Pontoon Boats

The best pontoon boat brands produce a wide variety of makes and models that cater to a huge range of boaters. Manufacturers will start with a basic hull and then add performance and equipment packages to make a model more specific to certain activities, such as fishing, watersports or leisure.

We can break down the vast majority of pontoon boats into two main categories: party barges, and fishing pontoons. Among these, there are also several categories, including:

Fishing Pontoon Boats

Fishing is one of the most popular activities among boaters, so naturally, there’s a slew of fishing pontoon boats on the market. In fact, most manufacturers offer fishing versions of their pontoons, and there are even a few builders focused solely on creating serious fishing machines.

Fishing pontoon boats can commonly be adapted from the other models in a builder’s line-up. Once again, this is thanks to their modular nature. Couches fore and aft can be eliminated in favor of swiveling fishing seats, and fishing-specific modules with things like livewells, rod holders, and tackle storage boxes can be added. It’s also easy to add some serious fish-hunting electronics to a pontoon boat. And storage compartments that might otherwise be used for wakeboards and water skis can be outfitted with fishing rod racks so you can haul loads of gear.

This Sun Tracker Fishin' Barge 20 DLX has rod holder, livewells, fishing chairs, and more. Just add fish.
Sun Tracker Fishin’ Barge 20 DLX with rod holder, livewells and fishing chairs.

One misconception many people have about fishing pontoon boats is that they’re only for freshwater use. While it’s true that pontoons are perfect for fishing on lakes and reservoirs, they also shine in certain saltwater fishing situations. No, pontoon boats aren’t designed to handle the seas found in the open ocean or vast, unprotected waterways. But in many other saltwater environments they can be ideal. On shallow coastal bays full of flounder, for example, pontoon boats are incredibly popular.

One caveat: many pontoon boat models are built for use in freshwater, not briny conditions. Manufacturers often offer saltwater versions of their fishing models, with upgrades like 316-grade stainless-steel fittings and ruggedized parts. When shopping for a pontoon boat that you expect to use in saltwater, it’s important to verify that the specific model you’re looking at is intended for that environment.

Party Barges

Most people would agree that the best party boats in the world are pontoon boats, which is why they are often referred to as simply party barges. Their large open decks, copious seating, and varied accessory options make them ideal for large numbers of people of all ages and persuasions. Many pontoon boat builders offer integrated wet-bars, booming stereo systems, built-in refrigerators and/or ice makers, electric grills, enclosed head compartments, and all the things you need to make a great party into an epic one.

Pontoon Boats and Party Barges
A group of people enjoying a casual day onboard a pontoon boat on a lake

One of the beautiful things about a pontoon boat is that modular aspect we mentioned earlier. When shopping for your own personal ideal party boat, you can go to the websites of most major manufacturers and look at dozens of different seating arrangements, options for cocktail tables, bars with swiveling stools, and more. You can opt for a pontoon boat layout that maximizes how many people you can squeeze aboard, or you can look for one that has fewer individual seats but dedicates lots of space to a couple uber-luxurious loungers or maybe a big sunpad. Essentially, the sky’s the limit – whatever sort of partying you’re into, there’s bound to be an arrangement that’s ideal for your needs.

Fast Pontoon Boats For Watersports And Wakeboarding

Obviously, boats designed for entertaining do just fine with a moderately-sized powerplant that allows for mellow cruises across the lake, while sport pontoon boats intended to provide high-speed thrill-rides tend to be rigged with much larger powerplants. Some even carry twin engines, and in a few rare cases you’ll see pontoon boats rigged with three outboards slung across the transom. Just how sporty can a sport pontoon boat get? In this day and age, fast pontoon boats that can exceed 60-mph are not all that unusual. And thanks to tricked-out water sports pontoon designs, many modern tri-toons handle and bank very much like a V-hull.

Pontoon boats intended for watersports also need to have aft-facing observation seats along with things like large stowage compartments for wakeboards and water skis, rear-view mirrors, and ski tow-bars.

The Manitou Xplode 23 SRS SHP is rigged with beefy towing support and easy access to the stern for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.
The Manitou Xplode 23 SRS SHP is ideal for waterskiing, wakeboarding and tubing.

Luxury Pontoon Boats

Luxury pontoon boats are designed for a truly relaxing day on the water, more than anything. They often dedicate a large amount of deck space to big loungers, recliners and even beds. Many even have barbecue grills, high-end sound systems and even TV’s. Furniture arrangements can differ quite a bit from one model to another, but the focus is on enjoying time with fellow passengers rather than engaging in water sports or fishing. These boats are great for sight-seeing, sandbar parties and family gatherings on the water.

This Premier Dodici 31 carries triple 300-hp Evinrude outboards, which can push the boat over 60 mph.
A Premier Dodici 31 pontoon boat with 300-hp Evinrude outboards

Affordable Pontoon Boats

When it comes to affordable pontoon boats, many of the above features may be minimized to save some cash. Buying used pontoon boats is another way to keep costs low, but just like buying a used car there’s some risk involved and some sacrifices may need to be made. If you’ve read our boat buying guide, then you already know most of the ins and outs of buying a pre-owned boat and understand the importance of doing your due-diligence before making any decisions.

Sun Tracker Bass Buggy is a great value pontoon boat
Sun Tracker Bass Buggy is a great value pontoon boat

Pontoon Boat Equipment

Much of the equipment you’ll want on your pontoon, be it a party machine, a fishing platform, or a high-performance sport boat, can be integrated by the manufacturer. When you’re looking at used pontoon boats, however, someone else made those rigging choices for you ahead of time. Not to worry – there’s plenty of aftermarket equipment out there which you can use to personalize your boat and make it perfect for your specific wants and needs.

Here’s a partial list of some of the most popular equipment and accessories you might want to add, all of which is readily available:

  • Stereo systems and speakers.
  • Ski tow-bars and pylons along with water skis, wakeboards, kneeboards, and other towable watertoys.
  • Bimini tops to provide shade and protection from rain.
  • Electronics including fishfinders to help you locate fish, and chartplotters to assist with navigation.
  • Rail- or surface-mount fishing rod holders.
  • Courtesy and/or underwater lights.

There’s also some basic gear all boats need, which you should be prepared to outfit your pontoon boat with. Safety gear, of course, is the number-one concern. There are some minimal requirements established by law. The US Coast Guard sets federal requirements, https://www.uscgboating.org/images/420.PDF
but you should also check the laws pertaining to the specific state you go boating in, as some have their own regulations. Aside from that, you should also plan on outfitting with this basic pontoon boat equipment list:

  • An anchor and anchor line.
  • Extra lines and ropes for docking at places like waterfront restaurants, or rafting up with friends.
  • Fenders, to protect your pontoon boat when mooring or rafting.
  • A boathook for grabbing lines.
  • Communications devices such as a VHF radio or satellite messenger (in addition to a cell phone; many boating destinations have poor or no coverage).
  • A basic tool kit.

What Are The Best Pontoon Boat Brands?

As one might expect, there’s a lot of disagreement over who builds the best pontoon boat. However, we have some good news for you in this regard: the vast majority of the pontoons built by today’s major manufacturers are arguably the “best” for one reason or another. Questionable boat builders were, for the most part, culled from the marketplace during the Great Recession – while reliable brands weathered the storm.

Who are the major players in this game? Harris FloteBote, Cypress Cay, and Lowe are all owned by the marine manufacturing powerhouse, Brunswick Corporation. Harris and Cypress Cay operate out of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Lowe out of Lebanon, Missouri — all in the heart of pontoon boat territory. Other makers include Bennington and Aqua Patio/Godfrey of Elkhart, Indiana, Sun Tracker, of Springfield, Missouri, Princecraft, of Princeville, Quebec, and Premier, of Wyoming, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, all boats built in the US must meet minimum safety requirements set by the United States Coast Guard. Sure, some brands are built lighter and rigged more sparsely than others, but these generally offer a significant cost savings. Others are fine-tuned to place you squarely in the lap of luxury, but these naturally cost more and may not be appropriate for activities like fishing.

As you consider which are the best pontoon boats for you and your family, you’ll have to answer a lot of questions that can’t be addressed by anyone but you. What activities do you most enjoy on the water? What are your budgetary constraints? Will you usually take out a crowd, or just a couple people? The answers to these questions should play a role in your decision-making.

The Bennington 2575 QCW is equipped to the nines, including a custom mahogany fencing scheme.
The Bennington 2575 QCW is equipped to the nines, including a custom mahogany fencing scheme.

When you’ve settled on the right size and style, be sure to take a look at Buying a Boat: The Ultimate Guide. This will take you through the boat-buying process, help you decide whether buying a new or a used pontoon boat is the best move, and give you a heads-up about things you may not have thought about like the hidden costs of boat ownership, and boat storage issues.

As you shop for a pontoon boat, there are a few key features aside from the boat’s overall design which you’ll want to check out. No matter what type of pontoon perks your interest, look for these 10 key features:

  1. Sufficient power to meet your expectations. Consider cruising speeds in the 3500 to 4500 rpm range, as well as top-end speed.
  2. Sufficient fuel capacity to go as far afield as you’d like.
  3. Quality vinyls and fabrics. Both are measured in ounces per square yard, and more is always better. Give bonus points to those that come pre-treated with anti-microbial coatings to fight mold and mildew.
  4. Good ventilation and drainage in stowage compartments is critical, particularly under seat bases and inside consoles.
  5. Well-loomed and supported wiring. Give bonus points to wiring that’s protected and contained by rigging tubes.
  6. Make sure the boat can accommodate the maximum number of people you plan on taking out. Check the capacity plate (it’s a yellow and black sticker or plate required by the Coast Guard) to see just how many people a boat is capable of holding.
  7. Consider pontoon diameter. As a general rule of thumb, pontoons with a larger diameter have more buoyancy and tend to handle better.
  8. Sun protection is a key consideration on the water. Most pontoon boats come with a Bimini top, so make sure it’s large and sturdy enough to meet expectations.
  9. Flooring is another big variable. You may be fine with basic outdoor carpet, but many people consider vinyl flooring or “sea grass” weaves a significant upgrade.
  10. Seakeeping abilities; obviously, this is a critical feature which may be more or less important to you, personally, depending on where and when you go boating. But no matter what, you should take a sea trial prior to purchase to make sure the boat handles waves in a manner that’s up to your expectations.

The bottom line? In this day and age, it’s tough to find a brand that doesn’t have something worthwhile to offer. The important thing is that you find the best boat for you, personally, and your needs.

Okay – are you ready to check out some boat listings? There are thousands of new and used pontoon boats for sale on Boat Trader, so you’ll have plenty to choose from. Make a wise pick, and there’s one thing you can count on: you’re in for a ton of fun, on your new pontoon boat.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.


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