Kayak vs. Canoe: which is better for you?
These days, it seems that kayaks are everywhere, and kayaks outnumber canoes everywhere except for rivers.
Why are kayaks suddenly so popular? Are they really much better than canoes, and why? Explore the reasons which watercraft is better for you.
Speed: not really a factor
Many people prefer to kayak because it feels easier to paddle and faster. But it’s not really that you go faster in a kayak, per se, it’s really just a function of hull length. Kayaks and canoes both generate speed via displacement of water. Speed is just a function of length, so boats of the same length will go the same speed.
Kayaks feel easier to paddle because of the double paddle minimizes switching from side to side, minimizing time required per stroke cycle. However, the up going paddle is more prone to drag from the wind, which requires the paddler to ‘feather’ the paddle to cut the drag. Over time, this causes wrist fatigue and tendonitis. So the speed isn’t really a real reason, since a canoe of similar length can go the same speed as a kayak, and even faster with two paddlers.
This changes once wind comes into play. Because kayaks are lower profile they are less affected by the wind than canoes. They are more streamlined and less of the hull is above water, meaning they are blown around a bit less than a canoe, where more of the hull is above water.
Why you may prefer to kayak
Ease of paddling
Kayaks feel easier to paddle because the double paddle makes the motion simpler to grasp than on a canoe, where you have to move from side to side. Of course this has disadvantages as well, as outlined above. The strokes are less technical as you have a rudder which will help you in a turn, unlike in a canoe, where paddling strokes control turns.
Better for solo paddling
People who like to paddle alone will find kayaks easier to control. It takes more skill to paddle a canoe in a straight line with no partner. If you like to do trips by yourself, you will definitely prefer a kayak. I know of a friend who ventures out on Vancouver Island alone regularly when he can’t find any partners to do trips with. If you don’t mind doing trips alone, and if you can’t find someone to join you, not having a partner doesn’t have to stop you from heading out.
Easy on calm water
There is also the myth that kayaks are easier to paddle than canoes. But this is really only true in calm water. A kayak in rough seas, swell, wind, or other technical condition will require considerable skill which isn’t mastered quickly. Evasive maneuvers like Eskimo rolls take some time to learn. A kayak has a shallow learning curve which steepens later, while a canoe has a higher initial learning curve, then becomes a bit easier once basic strokes and maneuvers are grasped. However, both take considerable amount of time to master. If you’ve ever been in 1 meter swell in an ocean channel in a canoe, you’ll know it requires much skill.
A canoe however, has a steeper learning curve to start and is hard to initially pick up, particularly if you’re paddling alone.
Better in inclement weather
If you manage to get caught in some drizzle or if you have to paddle in rain, it’s much easier in a kayak where everything is stored in the waterproof hull of the boat. It’s not pleasant to get caught in the rain in a canoe, it will quickly start to fill with water, and trying to put a tarp over your gear and to keep water out is awkward at best.
The common conception is that kayaks are easier to control than canoes. It takes new skill to paddle a canoe in a straight line, particularly if you don’t have a partner, but of course this is only true in calm water. If you’re paddling on calm water, either a kayak or canoe is great, but kayaks are easier to maneuver for a single person.
Better for ocean travel
Kayaks are generally much preferred for ocean travel than canoes. Kayaks perform better and are safer on oceans, unless the water is very protected and fairly flat, for example, many places on the Broken Group Islands on Vancouver Island, BC. With a lower profile, the kayak glides more evenly with swell. You’ll stay drier in a kayak than in an open canoe, and a canoe will take on water when waves splash over, which can be a little more than a bit frustrating.
We used a canoe to paddle in Gwaii Haanas park off the coast of BC. The waters there, particularly in certain places were technical, and taking a canoe was not common. You’ll have to be experienced to take your canoe out on the ocean, as conditions can change quickly and open channels can be very choppy.
Why you may prefer to canoe
Better for portages
A kayak is not something you would ever really want to portage. They are awkward to drag and awkward to carry long distances. If you’re on rivers and there are some narrow sections to navigate, you won’t enjoy doing them in a kayak. Getting in and out is tedious and want to do it as little as possible during a trip. A canoe can be carried by two people over a short distance or by one person over the shoulders (and the gear carried by the other paddler) over longer distances. If you’re alone, you’ll have to make two trips.
You don’t ‘wear’ your canoe like you wear your kayak, and this makes it a lot easier to get in and out, take your gear in and out, and handle the boat.
Canoes are generally more social because you’re usually paddling with a partner.
Again, because you don’t wear a canoe like you wear your kayak, you’re free to move around and switch up your sitting position. You’re free to stretch your legs if they feel cramped, or move around and grab food. It’s harder to eat while kayaking because everything has to be very handy, stowed in your life jacket for easy access.
For a multi-day trip, it’s much easier to pack a canoe than a kayak. You can take larger bags or containers on a canoe (of course, you’ll want everything to be secured to the boat and waterproofed) and it’s not as much of a puzzle strapping them into a canoe as it is stuffing them in the gear storage of a kayak. In a kayak, you have to pack everything in several small (10-30 L) dry bags, which is a little more complicated and takes a bit more thought and planning.
You also have more space for gear in a canoe so you can take more stuff with you. You definitely want to be careful with this though, because if you want to portage you’ll have to carry it on your back.
Better for wildlife viewing and photography
Because of the higher sitting position, it’s much easier to spot and observe wildlife. It’s easier to take photos because canoes aren’t as squirmy to movement like kayaks are, so you can position yourself easier to get the desired shot. It’s also easier to keep your camera dry in a canoe.
Easier to take breaks
It’s easier to take breaks in a canoe because of the ease in getting in and out, and because it’s easier to move around in canoe and you can access your gear, unlike in a kayak, where you have to pull over if you want to take any gear out of storage.
Better for rivers
Canoes are preferred for travel on rivers because they are much easier to get in and out of, move around, and portage. River travel can be narrow, confined and may require some walking, all which is easier done in a canoe. Like kayaks are better in oceans, canoes are better on rivers.
Which should I chose?
Ultimately, both kayaks and canoes require considerable skill and practice to master, so choose the one you enjoy most. Also consider if you’ll be spending more time on rivers or oceans, and if it’s lakes, either will work well.
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