Those who seriously love to be out on the water with a paddle, invariably discover that owning just one boat is never enough. In 1984 I bought a Sawyer DY Special solo canoe to paddle on our lake. Then we discovered wilderness tripping and soon had acquired two tandem canoes for family trips to Quetico Provincial Park. An upgrade from fiberglass to Kevlar put another canoe on the rack. Next I had the urge to compete, which led to the purchase of two very lightweight tippy racing canoes. And then we discovered sea kayaking and three more fiberglass craft were added to the fleet.
Now, as an owner of seven canoes and three sea kayaks, when I get asked, "Which do you prefer? Kayaks or canoes?" I have some ready answers.
Easiest to paddle: kayak
What's the easiest to paddle? Without doubt, it's the kayak. Most first-timers quickly adapt to the double-bladed, side-to-side paddle stroke. A short demonstration of the forward and back sweep makes the concept of turning understandable. Canoeing, on the other hand, isn't so simple. They are more difficult to turn. Tandem boats require some level of cooperation and coordination between partners to move the boat in a straight line and handle the challenges of river paddling. Solo paddlers need to master several variations of turning and maneuvering strokes.
Although a kayaker, with a paddle blade dipping into the water with every body rotation, has a faster cadence, the constant motion means there is no resting of muscles. In the canoe when paddling is being done on one side before switching, some muscles are able to recover.
Most comfortable: canoe
When it comes to comfort, the kayak has some liabilities. The term "being one with the boat" is an apt description of a paddler sitting in a sea kayak. Once you've "shoehorned" yourself into one of these, your feet are immobile against the foot pedals, your knees pressed outward to the sides of the kayak and your butt is on a contoured seat almost on the floor of the craft. Those with back problems won't want to spend much time in a kayak. Moving around much is not an option.
Canoeists don't have such a stressful relationship with their boat. It's a more comfortable ride. Sitting in it the paddler has room to stretch his legs. The slight loss of stability caused by sitting higher is offset by being able to better see the water. Getting in and out of a canoe is nowhere as tricky as it is in a kayak. It usually requires doing a little balancing, using the gunnels for support. But entering or exiting is often a matter of just standing and stepping in or out.
However, those who like to paddle at the ends of the open water season may favor kayaks. Tucked into a cockpit and sealed off with a spray skirt, a kayak paddler is less exposed to the wind and therefore more comfortable.
Best as keeping you dry: canoe
After a day trip in a kayak, better have a change of clothes handy because even with the spray rings located on the shaft, as one paddles, water drips down and lands in your lap. Wearing a spray skirt catches the drips, yet when you leave the boat, the wet skirt tends to dampen your clothes.
Sitting close to the water provides more stability, making tipping over less likely in a kayak. The easiest way to exit is to just step into the water beside the boat. However, trying to keep your feet dry as you extract yourself from that fiberglass or Kevlar cocoon can turn you into a contortionist. Pulling myself up onto a dock or reaching for dry land while exiting a kayak usually involves a maneuver not unlike the awkward hunch-like movements a seal makes crawling onto land.
Best for big water: kayak
For touring the Great Lakes, I prefer a sea kayak. In those great expanses of often windswept water, the waves can be intimidating. Though water may wash over the deck, the boat remains watertight. Sealed in a spray skirt, I stay dry and the gear stowed in compartments under the hatch covers is also protected. The low profile of the kayak makes it less of a target for the winds, giving the paddler more control. Steering becomes much less problematic, if the boat is equipped with a skeg or rudder.
Best for inland water: canoe
On inland waters, canoes have the advantage. Unless it is a large lake, waves pouring over the gunnels is unlikely. Paddling in a crosswind may still be a problem, especially in an empty canoe where the open area of the boat catches air like a sail. However, two paddlers working together in a tandem canoe can usually overcome difficulties of a wind from the side.
A watertight kayak, with everything sealed under hatches and spray skirt, may keep stuff dry in rough seas and inclement weather, but it also makes it inaccessible. In the canoe it is all there, stowed under the seat or within reach on the boat bottom.
Best for fishing: canoe
Unless you are in a specially designed fishing model, anglers will have a tougher time working out of a sea kayak. Rods and landing nets must be secured under decking lines and all tackle, as well as bait, will be in the cockpit with you.
And if you land a good-sized salmon, lake trout, walleye or northern pike, these lively game fish will be in your lap flopping around as you try to unhook them and get them on a stringer or released back into the lake. Compared to that scenario, the open area of a canoe seems a much friendlier environment to deal with fresh caught fish.
Easiest to portage: canoe
Though both boat types have been designed for water travel, carrying a loaded sea kayak overland is an arduous task. Even hauling an empty kayak is still troublesome as it doesn't fit easily on shoulders and carrying by hand straps is agony for the arms. If the kayak is emptied, you still have to hand carry all the many items that had been stuffed in the hatches.
Portaging a canoe is much easier. With good portage yokes attached to the gunnels and gear consolidated into Duluth packs, canoe parties can more easily balance the boats on shoulders and carry gear on their backs to the next body of water.
Carries more gear: canoe
Canoes, by virtue of their larger open area have greater carrying capacity, which is an advantage for extended trips. Packing for long kayak tours involves stowing all gear in the narrow confines of the boat's interior. Fitting bulky items may be a challenge and sometimes an impossibility.
Easiest to transport: kayak
When it comes to transporting boats by automobile, the higher profile of canoes catches more wind. Special attention must be given when strapping those on car tops. The thinner kayaks ride easier on the roof top and often two kayaks can be racked on a basic rack, whereas often there is only room for one tandem canoe.
So which is better? It depends on the needs of the paddler. Both canoes and kayaks require little maintenance and they never wear out. My recommendation? Buy both.
Dave Foley thought he had enough canoes and kayaks until he realized he has nothing for paddling whitewater.