Kayak vs. Canoe vs. Paddleboard

Kayak or canoe or stand-up paddleboard—which is best? It depends!

Paddlesports, especially kayaking, have been growing exponentially here in the US during this COVID-19 season.

There are several reasons for that:

  • It’s summer, and people want to get outside since there are so much other life activities they can’t do right now…
  • Paddlesports are accessible for a wide range of ages, fitness levels and abilities…
  • Paddling is a great family activity…
  • It’s easy to social distance when you paddle.

If you’re new to paddling, we compare kayaking to canoeing to paddleboarding so you can see how they’re similar and how they’re different.

Which one is for you? It depends—maybe all three! (That’s my personal vote!)

I’m going to give you my perspective as someone who’s paddled for many years, but is definitely a recreational paddler. I’m no expert! But I love it and go often.

canoe on glassy lake
Paddling on a lake of glass is a pleasure no matter what type of boat you’re in!

Let’s take a look at these three wonderful water activities…

How Kayaking, Canoeing and Paddleboarding are Similar

Other than the obvious—they’re all on the water—how are these three paddlesports alike? What’s the cross-over?

They All Take Advantage of Our Beautiful Waterways

I grew up in the Upper Midwest, and have lived in Minnesota since 1978. So I’ve been surrounded by water my whole life. Swimming was a given in our family and with all my friends.

For others like me, you know there’s something about being in or on the water—lakes, rivers, oceans.

Paddling is a wonderful reason to get on the water to enjoy its beauty, its variety, its movement—whether calming or invigorating.

All three of these paddlesports get you out on the water without a motor.

stand up paddleboarder
Paddleboarding is the newest of the top three paddlesports

They Use Similar Padding Skills

One of the reasons it didn’t take me long to learn to kayak or paddleboard is because I’d been canoeing for so many years. I know how to hold a paddle and I know what strokes to use when.

Even though there are differences in technique with each of these three watercraft types, the essential paddling skills cross over.

They’re All a Super Upper-Body Workout

When you paddle properly—using your core to rotate your torso as well as using your arms and shoulders—you get a super upper-body workout.

Not only that, all three of these paddlesports are low-impact and easy on your hips and knees.

They All Get You Outside in Nature

Even if you paddle in the middle of a city, you’re in nature. And nature gives us so many benefits. Many of the best places to paddle are at parks and on designated waterways that have been set aside as green spaces.

And of course there are many wonderful paddling spots in wilderness areas.

kayaker with fawn
One advantage of paddling? It’s quiet! It’s common to get in touch with the local wildlife when paddling.

Not only does paddling get you outside, but being on the lake, river or ocean gives us a different perspective than standing on shore and looking out at it.

One of the coolest experiences is seeing nature’s beauty the way it can only be seen from the water!

They’re All an Investment in Gear

If you decide to get into one or more of these paddlesports, you’ll have to invest in some gear. Thankfully, while you can spend several thousand dollars on paddle gear, you don’t have to spend that much to have fun!

How much you spend will be determined by how you want to use your gear, where you want to paddle, how often you’ll go, what storage space you have and how you’ll transport your gear—especially the watercraft themselves.

Plenty of places rent gear. So if it’s just an occasional activity for you, renting may be your answer.

If you’ve never paddled before, or never tried one of these paddlesports, definitely rent first to try it. Better yet, find a local class and sign up to learn tips and skills.

How Kayaking, Canoeing and Paddleboarding are Different

Other than the obvious—the shape and size of the boats—there are some pretty big differences between these three paddling types.

Kayaking: Pros and Cons

THEY’RE STABLE & HANDLE WIND AND WAVES WELL. Kayaks were developed by the indigenous peoples of the far north to hunt whales and seals on the oceans. They’re very stable, and handle wind and waves the best of these three types of watercraft.

My son and I kayaking on the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

If it’s windy, or if there are whitecaps or wake from motorboats, go for the kayak. You sit much lower on the water and aren’t caught by the wind.

SOLO KAYAKING IS EASY. While there are tandem kayaks (built for two), most kayaks are designed for one person. So if you love to paddle alone or if you simply are alone a lot when you paddle, kayaks are easy and very manageable alone.

One thing I’ve discovered this year—I love having two kayaks, because I can invite a friend along with me!

Kayaks are also the easiest of the three to steer. We’ve had children as young as 6 in our kayak and they could handle it with ease on a small lake.

kayaking glacier national park
Solo kayak adventure on Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park

THERE’S A KAYAK FOR EVERY BUDGET. There are probably more different sizes and types of kayaks than any other watercraft. And those different sizes and shapes are meant for different styles of paddling and different types of water.

New kayaks start at around $200 and go up to several thousand for elite sea kayaks. But you can get a decent kayak for under $1,000 that’ll last you many decades.

If you love fishing, there are kayaks made specifically for anglers. There are sit-inside styles—the original style, and there are sit-on-top styles, which are even more stable and easy to use.

THEY’RE THE HARDEST TO GET IN AND OUT OF. Of these three types of watercraft, kayaks are the most challenging to get in, and especially to get out! Especially as we get older, we tend to get tighter and lose some strength, or have knee and hip problems.

If this is you, it doesn’t mean you can’t kayak. But look around for a style that’ll make it easier for you—one with a large cockpit or a sit-on-top style.

Canoeing: Pros and Cons

THEY HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING TIPPY. And it’s not an unfair reputation—I’ve seen plenty of people dump a canoe over and take an unintentional swim! It’s important to keep the weight centered and balanced at all times, both people and gear.

little boys canoeing
Our boys canoeing when they were little

It takes some expertise to paddle safely in a lot of wind and especially larger waves. It can be done, but I wouldn’t call it fun.

CANOES ARE MADE FOR COMMUNITY & TRAVEL. Our canoe is 17 feet long, a pretty average size. When our kids were young we could fit our whole family of 5 in our canoe for day trips. That’s 5 people, 2 paddles and 1 boat. Love it!

CANOE TRIPS—YES! Being here in Minnesota with the Boundary Waters, canoe tripping has almost a cult following. I’ve been on plenty myself, and there’s nothing like it.

Taking enough gear and food out in the wilderness of lakes, forest and rivers for 3-10 or more days at a time? You can easily do this with up to 9 people in just 3-4 canoes.

They’re made to travel fast over the water, be carried by one person over the portages and haul several hundred pounds of people and gear. Truly a work horse.

bwca canoe trip
Loaded up for a Boundary Waters canoe trip

THEY’RE BIG, CAN BE HEAVY & EXPENSIVE. There are solo canoes that are about 14 feet long. But for tandems, you’re starting at 16 feet. That’s a pretty big boat to move and store. Bigger than the other types, except for the longer sea kayaks.

Up until recently, canoes were 65 pounds and up. Nowadays with the lightweight Kevlar and carbon models, they’ve been able to bring the weight down to 40-55 pounds. That’s great…but they’re pricey. Expect to pay $3,500ish for a Kevlar model.

Even the heavier aluminum and other materials will start at well over $1,000 for a new canoe.

CANOEING TAKES PADDLING SKILLS. Of course, you can do the side-swapping every other stroke. But there are several strokes you can learn that will make your canoeing experience much more efficient and productive.

I see this as both a pro and con—until you learn your strokes you may do a lot of zig-zagging over the lake. But when you have them down, it’s pure joy to steer your canoe exactly where you want to take it. It gives a real sense of accomplishment.

Paddleboarding: Pros and Cons

This is the one that’s newest for me, but I’ll give it my best shot:

PADDLEBOARDING WORKS THE WHOLE BODY. Besides getting a great upper body workout, you get a great lower body workout! All the while you’re paddling, your muscles are working to keep you stable on an unstable surface.

Paddleboards are super for a fun day on the water

This is one of the reasons SUP (stand-up paddleboard) fitness and SUP yoga are so popular. Being on a board on unstable water adds a whole new dimension to these fitness methods!

YOU’RE HIGHER ON THE WATER and so can see from a different perspective than either canoeing or kayaking. Anglers especially like this, so I’m told.

YOU CAN CHANGE POSITION. To me, this is a major advantage. If you get tired of standing, you can kneel or sit for awhile, and still paddle. I’ve found with both kayaking and canoeing, I get really stiff when I sit for too long.

If you want to take a break, you can simply sit down on your board and either paddle or not paddle. Then after sitting for awhile, you can stand back up. Nice variety.

YOU CAN JUMP OFF AND CLIMB BACK ON EASILY. On a hot summer day it feels amazing to jump in the water for a swim. And with a paddleboard, climbing back on is relatively easy.

If you’re in a canoe or kayak, you’ll have to find somewhere along the shore to pull off, get out, swim, then get back in and paddle back out.

IT TAKES A FEW TIMES TO GET THE HANG OF BALANCE. Of the three, paddleboarding has a learning curve for staying on your board and not falling in! In fact, most instructors will say, be ready to get wet when you’re learning.

For that reason, I personally refused to paddleboard for my first time on the ocean—even when the nice Mexican man assured me I’d be fine 🙂 And I wouldn’t SUP in very cold water (i.e., Lake Superior) without a wet suit or right near shore until my skills are down a lot more.

paddleboard in lily pads
Paddleboarding among American lotus leaves

I also wouldn’t SUP in any body of water I wouldn’t want to swim in—like weedy and yucky—in case I fell in!

BOARD PRICES ARE IN-BETWEEN KAYAKS & CANOES. You can find cheap boards at big box stores or pay upwards of a few thousand dollars for really nice ones. Inflatable boards are extremely popular, and fit this watercraft style very well.

Most of us will look for an all-around board that’s meant for recreational flatwater use. There are also boards designed for whitewater, yoga, racing and surfing.

Other Types of Paddling

There are a few other types of paddlesports that may or may not interest you:

  • Whitewater rafting—super popular in both the western and eastern mountains here in the US. Rafting is for a group of people in the same boat, and can range from lazy floats to blood-pumping rapids.
  • Whitewater kayaking—the adrenaline sport of kayaking. These people do crazy things, like kayak down waterfalls!
  • Packrafting—modern packrafting is the newest, up-and-coming paddlesport. It’s taken the larger whitewater raft and reduced it down for one person and their gear. Packable enough to toss in a backpack, durable enough to handle mountain rivers loaded down with gear.
A day canoe trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness

To Sum It Up

I hope this has helped you get an understanding of how kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding are both similar and different.

The best thing to do is to get out there and try them!

Here’s more…