Scroll through a forum for boating enthusiasts or ask at your local sports shop, and you’re likely to witness a fierce debate: are kayaks or canoes better? This debate has raged for decades — maybe even centuries, as both canoes and kayaks have been used for thousands of years! But while both of these travel methods are excellent for enjoying time on the water, there are distinct advantages to each.
In this article, we’ll outline some of the pros of both kayaks and canoes and talk about some of the best trips you can take in each!
Traveling in Kayaks vs Canoes: What’s the Difference?
Some people claim that one type of boat or another is faster, but that isn’t the crux of the argument between kayaks and canoes. Rather, the debate comes down to other features, such as space, maneuverability, stability, and size. More often than not, one boat will win out based on your specific needs and the trip you want to take!
Both kayaks and canoes are fast, safe, and intuitive; there is a good reason why both boat types have a dedicated fanbase.
The biggest differences in kayaks and canoes come down to aspects like these:
Pros of Kayaks and When to Use One
Kayaks are widely known and loved for their sleekness and maneuverability, making them ideal for navigating narrow passages or swiftly-flowing waters. While they are distinctly more lightweight crafts, kayaks are still sturdy and safe. However, their unique design may take some getting used to if you are a lifelong canoe user.
One of the most distinctive parts of a kayak’s design is the seating. This requires a person to slide into the boat, either situating their legs in front of them or kneeling. The center of gravity is quite low in comparison to a canoe, and you may find yourself getting wet!
This lightweight design makes kayaks perfect for cutting swiftly through water conditions of all kinds and even navigating small waterways with islands, rocks, or other objects.
It is worth noting that not every kayak requires you to slide into the craft. These days, you will also find ones that have a supported seat on top of the boat, which can offer some more lumbar support and freedom of movement.
Because kayaks are designed to be smaller and lighter, they are made for one person. You will use a two-side paddle with a slanted blade to propel yourself quickly. For this reason, kayaks are ideal for quick trips but might not be as well suited to trips that require a lot of gear.
To recap, kayaks are:
- Closed design (though there are some modern versions that feature a seat on top)
- Smaller and lighter
- Made for one person
These aspects make it ideal for:
- Shorter trips that don’t require a lot of gear
- Solo trips
- Rapid water or narrow passageways
- People who can sit in one position for long periods of time, possibly without a lot of back support
Pros of Canoes and When to Use One
The first thing that most people notice about canoes vs. kayaks is the difference in seating. Canoes have an open top, usually with one or two benches inside. This offers the rower more freedom to move as they please, especially if the boat turns over. Some people feel distinctly uncomfortable at the thought of struggling to get out of a capsized kayak and prefer the open design of a canoe.
This also means that, unlike in a kayak, you can sit just like you would on a normal seat, as opposed to kneeling or sitting with your legs stretched out in front of you. Many people also find it easier to get in and out of a canoe since you can simply step in rather than sliding inside.
This open design affects many aspects of traveling in a canoe, from packing for your trip to supporting your back.
Canoes are both heavier and more cumbersome than kayaks. This can offer more stability in certain types of water but can make it more difficult to maneuver in fast-moving water such as whitewater rapids.
To recap, canoes are:
- Open design
- Heavier and larger
- Suited to multiple people
These aspects make it ideal for:
- Long trips (requiring camping gear, etc.)
- Group trips (two paddlers are needed and one person may not be able to lift the boat independently)
- Situations where you need more stability
- Calm waters without many rocks or small passages
- People who need more freedom to move or sit in a specific way
Best Kayak Trips
If you are looking for some of the most challenging and popular kayak trips in the United States, here are our top recommendations!
Colorado River – Colorado/Arizona
The Colorado River is one of the most famous destinations for kayaking in the southwestern United States. While some parts of the river are more challenging and suited only for experienced kayakers, other routes along the river are calm and easy — even suitable for kids! This part goes along the area by Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona.
The most popular (and also the easiest) part of the trip is the 15-mile route from Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry, which is part of the Grand Canyon. The river here is breathtaking, filled with rainbow trout and flanked on either sand by pink sandstone cliffs.
The sometimes narrow passageways are ideal for kayaks, but the trip can be taken in a day and you can pack light. If you want to camp overnight, you may want to tow a dinghy behind one of your kayaks with your supplies.
Why the Colorado River is Perfect for Kayaking
This is an ideal route for kayaking. The water is calm, but there are some passages where you will need to maneuver more. It is also a great route for a day trip or for a single night stay. Meanwhile, the low center of gravity of a kayak lets you experience the animal life of the river up close!
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming
Snake River in Grand Teton National Park boasts some of the most breathtaking and pristine scenery you can find anywhere in the United States. It offers a fun combination of peaceful waters perfect for admiring the scenery to challenging waterways that give the river its “snakelike” reputation.
Whenever you can, stop to admire the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Many visitors enjoy sea kayaking on Lake Jackson, which feeds into the river. If you keep a sharp eye out, you may have the luck of spotting a moose, bald eagle, or river otters playing in the shallows!
Why Snake River is Perfect for Kayaking
Snake River gets its name from its many twisting passageways, which include tricky-to-maneuver turns and even some challenging rapids. You will want a boat that is light and easy to navigate, even with a single rider!
Juniper Run, Ocala National Forest – Florida
Juniper Run in Florida’s Ocala National Forest might leave you feeling like you’re exploring a tropical jungle. This stunning waterway winds through seven miles of low-hanging trees and vines, which provide a pleasant shelter over the water and offer the chance to spot rare and unique wildlife, including albino squirrels, river otters, and American eels. The end of the route broadens into open wetlands that provide an environment for waterfowl and other animals.
Why Juniper Run is Perfect for Kayaking
Juniper Run varies significantly in both width and depth. Particularly at the start of the route, the passageways are often narrow and challenging to navigate, with many low-hanging trees and other plant life. Though canoes are welcome, the river almost seems made just for kayaks, which are lightweight and perfect for navigating the sharp twists and turns of Ocala National Forest.
Best Canoe Trips
The best canoe trips in the United States are some of the most famous in the world, drawing outdoor enthusiasts from all over the globe. Some of these cross mountain ranges and even international borders and offer the chance to glimpse rare wildlife.
Northern Forest Canoe Trail – New York to Maine
Northern Forest Canoe Trail is one of the most famous and challenging waterways in New England. An astounding 740 miles, the trail, which winds from the Adirondacks in New York to Fort Kent, Maine, is the Mecca of canoe enthusiasts everywhere. Along the way are more than 70 waterways of different kinds, from small streams to rivers and lakes. It also crosses the border into Quebec, offering breathtaking views of the wilderness along the international border.
Why the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is Perfect for Canoeing
At more than 700 miles, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is almost always a long-term commitment. Though there are shorter stretches for less experienced travelers, most people travel the trail for many weeks. For this reason, they need to bring along plenty of supplies to stay safe while camping, especially in the isolated wilderness. A canoe is the perfect way to travel along this trail, with enough room to tote supplies and navigate in a group.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – Georgia
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland preserve in Georgia. This amazing swamp area is a beautiful and unique ecosystem with some of the most amazing plant and animal life you can find in the US! There are more than 600 unique types of plants that grow along the peaceful waterways, and visitors can also spot salamanders, snakes, rare amphibians, alligators, endangered birds, and much more. This quiet swamp is the perfect place to get up close with nature in a beautiful setting.
Why Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is Perfect for Canoeing
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge contains an astounding 120 miles of waterways for boating. The depth, width, and other conditions of these trails can vary significantly throughout the year, swelling after rainfall and dwindling during dry periods. Though kayaks and small motorboats are permitted, canoes are the perfect way to observe this area. The wildlife refuge can become difficult to navigate in small boats, as the vegetation is sometimes dense and disorienting. There are also alligators in the water, so canoes provide a bit more distance!
Boundary Waters, Superior National Forest – Minnesota
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of the top destinations in the country for canoeing, so much so that it’s in the name! The breathtaking part of Superior National Forest is an enormous expanse of waterways that include more than 1,100 lakes and rivers. The area houses a one-of-a-kind natural ecosystem and is one of the most popular wilderness areas in North America.
With some of the purest water in the country, the area is fed by snow and rain between northern Minnesota and southern Canada. The national forest almost seems untouched by humankind, with the clearest skies, cleanest water, and most pristine forests and lakes you can find in the US.
Why the Boundary Waters are Perfect for Canoeing
With 1,100 distinct waterways, the Boundary Waters feature every kind of boating experience. However, they are characterized by slow, placid lakes that are deeply peaceful, making them perfect for a canoe trip. You will want to take your time here, stopping to admire the scenery, watch for wildlife, or explore untouched stretches of the shore and forest. There is much to see here, and you will want to take a multi-day trip to see as much as possible. A canoe offers the space you need for camping gear and outdoor supplies.