BACKPACKING BASICS

Kayak vs Canoe: Which Watercraft is Right for You?

Kayak in Norway
Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

You may recently have decided to purchase a vessel to increase your enjoyment- and expand your horizons- in the outdoors. If this is your first time shopping for such an item, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the incredible number of options available to you.

So which one is best for you? The kayak vs canoe debate has always been a popular topic amongst outdoor enthusiasts.To help you out, following the tips below might help you decide.

Should Price Matter?

Both crafts can cost as little as several hundred dollars or as much as several thousand dollars, and on the surface, there may not seem to be that many differences between them. Basically, the price is reflecting these characteristics:

  • How much it weighs
  • The material it is made out of
  • The size, specifically the length
  • Additional features, beyond that of the base model

While you can likely walk into the nearest superstore and purchase a basic boat for a relatively low cost, there are several reasons why this may not be the best option.

Canoe painted with flowers

First, there will be very little selection, so any preference you may have will go unfulfilled. Second, the quality can be poor, directly impacting the control and comfort you will have on the water. And third, should you ever choose to upgrade, there will be practically no re-sale value.

A mid-range to high-end model, on the other hand, can be regarded as more of an investment, as a well a maintained and cared for craft will hold as much as 70% of its original value, and in some cases, will actually increase in value.

What do you expect to get out of your purchase?

Choosing between a canoe or a kayak ultimately comes down to the purpose you intend to use it for. Do you plan to use it on large, open bodies of water? Perhaps you enjoy fishing and want to choose the option that would best suit this purpose. Or maybe you intend to take it deep into the wilderness, on multi-day camping excursions.

Kayak vs canoe

Before making your decision, it is important to know exactly what you hope to use it for. The following is a list of possible uses, which may help you in your selection.

Whitewater adventure

When considering what you would use to traverse the rapids, you may have automatically thought of a kayak. Certainly there are advantages to a kayak over a canoe in this case.

A kayak designed to be used for this purpose will enable you to maneuver with ease through what can be a treacherous route. With practice and training from a professional, you can actually roll right over and continue along as if nothing happened.

It may interest you to know, however, that there are several canoes that have also been specially designed for white water excursions. Incredibly tough materials and high impact keels will enable you to navigate through rapids with speed and stability.

Whitewater kayak

Sports

Hunting and fishing have become increasingly popular in the last couple of years. If you are a fishing enthusiast, you are looking for a stable, reliable boat that is comfortable enough to spend many hours in. A canoe offers all of these things but there are some disadvantages.

Unless you are with a partner who is good-natured enough to paddle for you all day, you may find yourself drifting aimlessly out of range of where you want to be. Also, most canoes are not designed for you to stand upright in them, which is at times necessary for fishing.

Certain kayaks, on the other hand, are specifically designed for the purpose of sport and competitive fishing. Depending on how much you are prepared to spend on it, a kayak can have an anchor, depth finder, pole holder, and standing stability. However, if price is a factor in your selection, a base model kayak is hardly suited for lengthy fishing excursions, while a base model canoe will, more or less, suit the purpose.

Recreation

Oftentimes, especially if you have a family, you are looking for an all-around solid water craft to enjoy an afternoon in. Speed and maneuverability take the back seat to comfort, stability, and safety. Here is where personal preference really comes in, as both canoes and kayaks have much to offer in this category.

Family in a canoe

Something to consider, therefore, is how many people want to be on the water at the same time. A canoe can be sturdy enough to carry two adults, two children, and the family dog, while a kayak can at the most carry two people.

It will likely be more cost effective to purchase one canoe than several kayaks. Again, however, it really boils down to what best suits you and your family.

Wilderness Excursion

Here is where a canoe has a tremendous advantage over a kayak: river tripping. If you are particularly interested in traveling far beyond the boundaries of civilization, it will likely take you many hours and several portages to get there.

Some canoes have been specifically designed exactly for this purpose. They are sleek and fast, cutting through rivers and streams effortlessly, and also lightweight and balanced, making the carry from one body of water to another as comfortable as possible.

Canoe in wilderness

Often, such canoes come with either a fixed or removable yolk, which is positioned in such a way that experts can carry it without using their hands, thereby freeing them up to carry whatever gear is required for their trip.

A kayak, while light and fast in traversing through the water, becomes a cumbersome burden when it comes to carrying over land. To rest it on one’s shoulders, you would essentially be sinking your head into the seating compartment, cutting off your vision beyond a few inches past your feet.

Almost definitely, you would have to take multiple trips over a portage. That may not be a big deal if you are only walking a few meters, but on routes that are a kilometer or more, this is simply not plausible. Add to that the limitations when it comes to waterproof storage, and the canoe becomes the easy choice for this category.

“Big Water”

It only takes one bad experience on a choppy, deep body of water, to appreciate how important it is to be in the proper vessel. It can be frightening and downright dangerous to set out across a large body of water in an unstable, lightweight kayak or canoe.

Kayak in big water

The very characteristics that make your craft desirable for long excursions or camping trips, becomes a hazard in big water. Too light, and you’ll find yourself at the wind’s mercy. Too low of a keel, and the big, rolling wave coming towards you can swamp you in an instant.

Here, in the beautiful, wide open water, you want weight, stability, and balance. While there are canoes that have been especially made for this purpose, they are no match for the sleek, long design of the kayak.

Far from feeling ill at ease as wave after wave passes beneath you, the kayak seems almost to encourage it. Add to that a pair of stabilizers, and you can easily traverse, and even fish, out on the open sea.

To sum it up

Although the above list is in no way conclusive, it should give you a general idea of what kind of environment or activity may cause you to lean one way or the other when choosing between a canoe or a kayak. At this point, then, it might be a good idea to discuss what materials are available, and which one might be best for you.

Canoe trip

Endless options?

At first glance, the variety of materials to choose from is staggering. While individual manufacturers have developed certain materials that are unique to their company, here is a list of some of the materials you might come across:

  • Fiberglass
  • SP3 (Plastic)
  • Aluminum
  • Kevlar
  • Wood
  • Carbon
  • A composition of several of the above materials

Fiberglass is sturdy, durable, and easily repairable. It offers a nice balance between affordability and quality. It won’t be the lightest craft, but it compensates by being solid and relatively maneuverable on the water. A good pick for beginners.

SP3, or plastic, will give you a buoyancy and security that other materials can’t compete with. It is incredibly strong, and can be the most affordable choice. It will make for a heavy boat, but a virtually unsinkable one. As long as you don’t have to carry it too far, and you aren’t in a hurry to get somewhere, this bulky, reliable material might be a good option for you.

Plastic kayak

Aluminum is often a favorite material among the fishing community. A well-made craft will show off its superior speed, agility, and stability. Lighter then plastic, but heavy enough that you won’t want to heave it on and off the roof of your car too often.
Falling squarely in the mid-range for budget-conscious buyers, it is a solid choice for an all-around good material. One word of caution: it can become incredibly hot if it’s in direct sunlight for any amount of time.

Kevlar, the same material bullet-proof vests are made out of, is as strong as is it light. This material will land you in the high-end range as to cost, but if you have the money, it is a solid investment. You’ll often see Kevlar mixed with another material such as fiberglass or carbon, to add to it’s strength and durability.
You’ll fly effortlessly through the water with this material, and just as easily swing it over your shoulders for a portage. Depending on the material it’s mixed with, any damage may require a professional to repair it, so maintenance can be expensive.

Wood will easily be the most attractive choice, aesthetically speaking. Light, quick, and flawlessly maneuverable, this material will almost certainly be the most expensive choice. If damaged, it will be very costly to repair, unless you have the skill to do it yourself.

Carbon material is unbelievably strong and resistant to damage. Generally it is coated in gel, which may have to be replaced from time to time. So light, you can pick up the entire vessel with one hand and barely feel it! You will pay extra for this material, but the return will be more then worth it.
As a caution, it would not be advisable to invest in this material for big water excursions. Its lack of weight would blow you wherever the wind wills it!

Carbon fiber canoe

A composition of the above materials is a fantastic way to get quality for affordability. A Kevlar/Carbon canoe would be lightweight and strong. A Kevlar/Fiberglass would be sturdy and agile. As mentioned, every manufacturer will have taken advantage of various compositions differently, so it would be a good idea to shop around to find the best fit for you.

Anything else?

Here are a few last little features to help you make up your mind about whether a canoe or a kayak is the right choice for you:

A Canoe offers:

  • Higher seating for a better view
  • More gear capacity
  • The versatility to travel solo or with multiple companions

A Kayak offers:

  • High tech gadgets and option for motor
  • Multiple powering options (eg foot peddle)
  • Back support

Kayak and canoe

The point of it all

When you contemplated investing in your very first kayak or canoe, you probably had no idea there were so many options to consider! Hopefully this article has given you some helpful tips, and you can move on to more important things: getting out and enjoying nature!

The point of it is, no matter what choice you end up going with, you are guaranteed to have fantastic, unforgettable experiences outdoors on our beautiful, green planet, whether you’re at the cottage, the seaside, or up a creek! Regardless of what vessel you decide to paddle around in, get out there and explore! Have adventures, discover new things! The wild world is waiting for you!

Kayak adventure

We’d love to know which you would choose: Canoe or Kayak? Which material is right for you? Let us know in the comment section!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russell McCarty
Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.

  • Nick Sarocco

    I’m a fan of kayaks and canoes but I’ve probably owned more kayaks in my life. I just recently purchased the Sun Dolphin Bali SS Sit-on Top Kayak. I like how light it is and there is enough room for storage. It’s also an incredibly stable kayak. I don’t think anyone would be disappointed with this one!

  • Russell McCarty

    I say, kayaks or canoes – it really doesn’t matter as long as you get to do the things you love. I adore the water so any means of traveling on it is fine with me. That being said, I think I’m more of the canoe person. I’ve realized I was greatly influenced by my parents who own a canoe. 🙂

  • April Bevan

    Our family uses the Old Town Canoes & Kayaks Saranac 160 Recreational Family Canoe. What we like about it is that it is big enough for our entire family, yet all it takes is one person to paddle. It slips right through the water, and it looks great, as well.

  • Russell McCarty

    Hi April! Yes, that’s quite a large canoe and thanks for sharing with us your experience. Don’t you just love riding on a canoe or a kayak? With so many people using their gadgets nowadays, we all need a healthy diversion. And this is it!

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