It will come as no surprise to anyone who sees all of the kayaks strapped to vehicle roofs that kayak sales have exploded over the past decade. Once niche boats, used by serious whitewater enthusiasts and some fishermen and hunters, kayaks have become the predominant human powered boat in the United States in recent years. There are now five kayaks sold for every canoe sold in the US and in some regions the ratio is closer to 20 to 1. Even in Canada, where the canoe is a national symbol practically on par with the Maple leaf, kayak sales surpassed canoe sales for the first time in 2011.
The venerable canoe has become an afterthought for most paddlesports enthusiasts. Kayaks win the image war. They are sleek, modern and sexy, while canoes conjure images of summer camp. On most Internet outdoors related forums the question is no longer whether one should buy a canoe or kayak, but which kayak to buy.
Yet the canoe is a time tested design and arguably the most versatile small watercraft ever created by man. They can carry loads topping a thousand pounds, cross lakes, run whitewater, navigate narrow streams and some even accept small outboard motors. Camping, hunting, fishing, wilderness tripping, birding; canoes can do nearly everything and do it well. Modern materials make them light and durable.
So why no love for the canoe these days? Besides the aforementioned image problem, there are also myths that surround the capabilities of canoes and kayaks.
Kayaks are faster than canoes. Speed is a function of hull design, especially length. A longer and narrower boat will be faster than a shorter one. The most popular selling kayaks are recreational models, which are usually short, stable and wide, hence fairly slow boats. The most popular canoes are long, narrow boats that can easily outrun a kayaker in a lumbering recreational kayak. Of course an 18 ft. long touring kayak will leave most canoes in their wake, but not all kayaks are fast and not all canoes are slow.
Kayaks are more stable than canoes. Canoes and kayaks have something called “primary” (or initial) and “secondary” stability. Primary stability is how "tippy" the boat feels when you get into it. Secondary stability is how difficult it is to actually tip the boat over. Many canoes feel tippy at first because they are designed with minimal primary stability, but actually flipping the boat over isn't easy because there is plenty of secondary stability. In reality there are highly stable canoes and kayaks and there are very tippy canoes and kayaks. It usually comes down to whether the boat was designed for stability, speed or somewhere in between.
Kayaks are lighter than canoes. Some ocean touring kayaks or sit on tops (SOT), fully outfitted for fishing can top off near 100 lbs., while some types of canoes come in under 20 lbs. The canoe manufacturer, Hornbeck, makes a model of canoe that weighs a paltry eight (yes 8) lbs. The truth is that canoes and kayaks come in a variety of weights, so for anybody who is concerned about weight a canoe is a viable option.
Kayaks are easier to transport. Anybody who has tried to portage a kayak can tell you this isn't necessarily true. Canoes are designed for easy portaging and most have built in yokes for this purpose. Carrying a kayak on your shoulders requires that you stick your head in the cockpit making seeing an issue. Lighter kayaks can be tucked under an arm or carried over a shoulder for short distances but this can become very uncomfortable for anything beyond a few minutes. Kayaks have a slight advantage in that you can easily car top two or three because they can be carried on their side. To carry multiple canoes on your vehicle you’ll need rack with an extended bar, or a trailer.
Kayaks are more maneuverable. If you haven’t watched the sport of freestyle canoeing you will be amazed by the maneuverability of canoes in the hands of a skilled paddler. Even paddled by an intermediate, canoes can be quite nimble.
Canoe or kayak?
Canoes and kayaks have their strengths and weaknesses. If you enjoy back-country, paddle camping and use a kayak, you have limited space for equipment and need to think like a backpacker and pay close attention to the size and weight of everything you pack. Getting bulkier equipment through the small hatches can be a chore. Canoe campers have no such limitation. A canoe can be loaded lightly if there are portages on the route, or stuffed to the gunwales with items like beach chairs, coolers and large tents and dining canopies. If you’re the sort of camper who likes a little luxury in camp and would rather have a burger or steak for dinner, instead of freeze dried chili, a canoe is the better choice.
Fishing from kayaks is very popular and most kayak manufacturers make models specifically suited for fishing, with built in rod holders, live wells, fishfinder mounts and tackle storage. Fishing from kayaks also presents some difficulties. You’re stuck in essentially the same position all day and only have about a 180 degree casting range. You have a whole casting “blind spot” behind you that you need to adjust the entire boat to access. A canoeist can simply turn around face the other direction if they need to cast behind them. With a canoe, all of your tackle and rods are readily accessible and you won’t have to unhook your catch in your lap. Kayaks are nice if you are going solo, but if you want to go fishing with a friend he’s going to need his own kayak. With most canoes there is room in the boat for your friend to join you.
If you have a family a canoe may be the most cost effective choice. With a canoe you and your spouse can bring two small kids and the family dog rather than buying multiple boats. If you’ll be alternately paddling with the family and solo, a canoe is the ideal choice because most tandem canoes can easily be paddled solo. All you need to do is turn the canoe around and paddle from the "front” seat, which will put you in a better position to control the boat. Paddling a tandem kayak solo can be difficult because you can’t adjust the location of your seat in the boat for optimum control.
If you are a larger person or have some mobility issues, a canoe is much easier to get in and out of than a kayak. The ease of entry and exit is also an advantage if you are paddling streams where you need to get out frequently to negotiate beaver dams, gravel bars and down trees.
Of course kayaks also have some distinct advantages. Thanks to their closed deck, kayaks shine in rough water, so are ideal for use in the ocean or on large, inland lakes. Their low profile also makes them easier to handle in high winds. The learning curve for using a kayak paddle isn't as steep as using a single blade, where there are a number of specialized strokes to be learned before a canoe can be skilfully controlled.
The bottom line is that there are fast canoes and kayaks and slow canoes and kayaks. There are stable canoes and kayaks and tippy canoes and kayaks. There are canoes and kayaks that are perfect for fishing and hunting, and others built for speed. When purchasing a boat you will need to consider your planned uses, including the type of water will you be paddling and whether you will mostly be solo, or with family. Is camping on the agenda? How about birding, hunting or fishing? Taking everything into consideration it just might be that the best kayak for you is really a canoe.