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  • Radford Bean

Canoe vs. Kayak - And the Winner Is?

It’s time to set the record straight. Which is the clear winner? A canoe or a kayak. It’s a question I am frequently asked, and my answer is very simple. What type of paddling interests you and will you be doing it by yourself or with family members? Let’s break down each of these two questions, and hopefully we’ll arrive at a clear winner.

Type of Paddling

Do you paddle to get to a location where you can cast a line out and hook a big one? Time was that the canoe was a clear winner here. However, with the advent of sit-on-top (SOT) fishing kayaks, canoes for fishing has some stiff competition, especially from fishing kayaks that come with trolling motors and oodles of rod holders. Fishing kayaks, because of their relatively wide shape and flat bottom, are extremely stable, allowing you to stand in them and land some rather large fish—fishermen have caught sharks from these boats.

Forget fishing from a regular kayak, however. The limited room to store your gear and fish make regular kayaks greatly unsuited for fishing. Having said that, there are those out there who will say they fish from their recreational kayak all the time. Sure, and I could take a Smart car onto dirt and gravel roads, but would I really want to?

I should mention that you can stand in some canoes as well. I used to stand in my 17’ Old Town Discovery to fish, and flat-bottomed canoes are extremely stable to stand in. The benefit the canoe has is that you can bring a fishing buddy along, and you typically, depending on the size of the canoe, have more carrying capacity.

Score: Tie.

Handling in Winds

While my aunt and I used to take her Old Town Penobscot canoe off the coast of Bailey Island, Maine, where she and my uncle lived, paddling in the ocean is better suited to a sea kayak. The lower profile of a sea kayak means you’ll be less hampered by winds. Should you encounter winds and currents, kayaks with either a skeg or rudder will track straighter than a canoe under similar conditions. You can also play around in rock gardens in a sea kayak. I wouldn’t try it in a canoe. And here in my opinion is where a sea kayak really shines on the ocean: it gets you closer to the water and, therefore, closer to the sea life.

Score: Kayak +1.


Running rivers can be a blast. I would run Class II rivers in an aluminum canoe back when I lived in Virginia. Canoes properly fitted with flotation bags can handle Class IV white water , equally keeping up with their kayak counterparts. Small kayaks, what are often referred to as “play boats,” are ideally suited for playing in the standing waves and, for those adrenaline junkies, plunging off of waterfalls. Not recommended for canoes. But seriously, how many of us plan on dropping off a 50-foot or higher ledge?

Score: Tie.

Expedition Camping

Let’s face it, there is nothing more satisfying and restful than putting paddle to the water and stopping at various points along a water trail to camp for the night. Anyone who has done the Bowron Lakes or Boundary Waters Canoe Area knows what I am talking about. Sure, you can do an overnight camping trip using kayak with several dry hatches. But can you pack a cooler full of your favorite ale or a cabin tent into the dry hatch of a kayak? Can you pack pretty much the entire kitchen, including the sink, into a kayak? For an overnighter, a kayak may work just fine, but nothing beats a canoe when it comes to wilderness camping along the water. You’re very limited in the amount of gear and food you can pack into the narrow recesses of the kayak hatches. You may be able to fit a three-person tent and a single-burner stove in one. But wouldn’t you prefer to bring along that two- or three-burner stove that will allow you to do more than just heat up water for your freeze dried Mountain House meals? Or how about being able to bring along a four-person tent that gives you plenty of room to stretch out, especially if it is raining (because we all know how little it rains in the Pacific Northwest)?

Score: Canoe +1.

Paddling Solo or with Family

If you’re single or can afford to shell out thousands to equip you and your significant other, than a kayak may be better suited for you. But what if you’re a family of four? Can you really afford to buy four recreational kayaks or two tandems? A canoe will allow you, depending on the size of the canoe and the material it’s made from, to carry a family of four and enough gear to sustain everyone in the backcountry for several days.

And what about bringing Fido along? I’ve seen some creative ways people have rigged up mats on the decks of their kayaks for their small dogs to to sit on. However, what if your dog is a lab, poodle, spaniel, beagle, or other medium to very large dog? Some dogs can weigh 50 to 100 pounds, and most kayaks have a very limited load capacity (under 350 pounds). Also, active dogs don’t do very well sitting on a kayak deck or even inside a recreation or tandem kayak. Here, again, canoes have the advantage. Sixteen-foot canoes made of Royalex or polyethylene can carry around 1,100 pounds.

Young, single paddlers will undoubtedly favor a kayak or a small solo canoe, but for families, nothing is better than a good tandem canoe.

Score: Canoe +1.


Paddler for paddler, a kayak will go twice as fast as a canoe all things being equal. That’s because a kayak paddle has two blades as opposed to the canoe paddle with only one. Put two people in a canoe, then the speed of a canoe is comparable to the speed of a single kayak. Add wind to the equation and the kayak will lose less speed.

Score: Kayak +1.


Sit in a kayak for a long period of time with your feet on the foot pegs and you’re bound to feel your feet begin to fall asleep. However, the back rest in a kayak will help ease any back strain you might have over the course of a long paddle, if your back rest is properly adjusted.

Just the opposite is true in a canoe. Many paddlers in a canoe tend to hunch their backs, especially over a lengthy paddle. This can strain the lower back. Some canoe manufacturers have taken to installing backrests, but these are a joke. They don’t allow you to paddle a tandem canoe solo while sitting in the bow seat. In addition, they tend to hang down and rattle against the roof of a vehicle. And they can get in the way when you are trying to sit down.

Score: Tie.

Looks like we have a tie, and why not. Each boat has it’s strong points and weaknesses. You can’t go wrong no matter which boat you choose to paddle. Just get out and paddle. Your body will thank you; your mind will thank you; and you might just meet some really fine people. I have.

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