Kayak vs Canoe vs Paddleboard: What’s the Best?

11-minute read

By Sharon Brodin

So, you’re trying to decide between a kayak, canoe or paddleboard. How do you know which one is best for you?

 a group of people getting on a river in canoes, kayaks and SUPs

Recreational paddling on any of these watercraft is lots of fun, great exercise and an ideal way to enjoy the lakes, rivers or oceans around you. And they each have their own set of pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at these three types of boats. First, we’ll look at how they’re alike:

How Kayaking, Canoeing and Paddleboarding are Similar

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

They All Take Advantage of Our Beautiful Waterways

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

All three of these paddlesports get you out on the water without a motor. You can see the shoreline from a new perspective—whether urban or natural. And you can do that either alone or with others.

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. Maneuvering, the strokes, holding the paddle—it all comes pretty naturally to me.

Even though there are differences in technique with each of these three types of boats, the essential paddling skills cross over. Your confidence in your paddling skills crosses over, too. So once you’re proficient in one, the next is easier to learn.

They’re All Super Healthy

When you paddle with the right technique—using your core to rotate your entire torso with 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 joints.

Along with all outdoor activity, they offer a myriad of health benefits. Decreased depression and stress, a stronger immune system, increased creativity and problem-solving are all proven benefits of paddling.

kayaker looks at a fawn at the water's edge

Wildlife encounters are unexpected…and special (photo courtesy of Kirsten Voorhees)

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, too.

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 need 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 depend on 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 it—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. Even better, find a local class and sign up to learn the skills and get beginner tips.

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 are very stable, and handle wind and waves the best of these three types of watercraft.

If it’s windy, or if there are whitecaps or wake from motorboats, go for the kayak. Your center of balance is much lower on the water and you won’t get tossed around by the wind.

I remember when I first started kayaking after being in canoes so much. Handling the wind coming across the lake was a cakewalk compared with canoeing in the wind!

kayaker watches a sea lion on a small island

Kayaks handle wind and waves the best of the three types of watercraft

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.

Kayaks are also the easiest of the three to steer. We’ve had children as young as 6 in our kayak (a 10-foot sit-inside) and they could handle it with ease on a small lake.

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 recreational 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.

a little boy cannonballs off his dad's sit on top kayak, while little brother looks on

A large sit-on-top kayak can be a family-friendly boat

THEY’RE THE HARDEST TO GET IN AND OUT OF. Of these three types of watercraft, (sit-inside) kayaks are the most challenging to enter, and especially to exit.
There are types of kayak that make it easier, though. A large cockpit is one option, and a sit-on-top style is another option.

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 your weight centered and balanced at all times, both people and gear.

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.

 4 kids in a canoe on a mountain lake

Canoes are the best for carrying several people (photo courtesy of Nick Wittman)

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 five in our canoe for day trips, and we did—often.

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.

THEY’RE BIG, CAN BE HEAVY & EXPENSIVE. There are solo canoes that are shorter, 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 a decade or two ago, 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, and even lower. That’s great…but they’re pricey. Expect to pay $3,000 and up for an ultra-light model.

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

 woman in canoe bow with big dog behind, on a mountain lake canoe trip

Canoes are designed for multi-day wilderness excursions with loads of gear and bodies (photo courtesy of Sean Beale)

CANOEING TAKES PADDLING SKILLS. Of course, you can switch sides with every other stroke if you want to wear yourself out quickly. 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

PADDLEBOARDING (SUP) WORKS THE WHOLE BODY. Besides getting a great upper body workout, you get a great lower body workout. Every major muscle group is engaged: your lower body to keep you stable on an unstable surface, and your upper body propelling you.

close-up of a man on a SUP, paddling in a harbor

Paddleboarding offers the best whole-body workout opportunity (photo courtesy of @jallestjernberg)

This is one of the reasons SUP fitness and SUP yoga are so popular. Being on a board on the 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.

That’s also a disadvantage, though, especially in windy conditions. I like being on a SUP the least of the three types of boats when it’s windy. Having that high center of balance and your own body fighting the wind can be a chore.

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.

On a SUP, 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. It offers some nice variety.

YOU CAN SWIM ON A HOT DAY. This might be my favorite personal reason for paddleboarding. 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.

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

IT TAKES A WHILE TO GET THE HANG OF BALANCE. Of the three, paddleboarding has the highest learning curve. Most instructors will say, be ready to get wet when you’re learning.

I wouldn’t SUP in very cold water without a wet suit. And I wouldn’t SUP in any body of water I wouldn’t want to swim in—like weedy and yucky—in case I fell in! Which I’ve done, even after boarding for a couple seasons now.

Just this October I was with a friend on her small lake at the cabin. We were heading into a stiff headwind, starting our second time around the lake. I still don’t know if I had leaned just a bit too far back and the wind caught my tip or what exactly happened, but the next thing I knew I was in the water. Glad I had my wetsuit on—the water was cold!

 woman paddleboarding on a lake with trees along the shore

SUPs give a different perspective because you’re up off the water more (photo courtesy of Emily Hendricks)

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.

Another Option: A Hybrid

Manufacturers are coming up with an ever-increasing number of hybrid models. There are many types of canoe/kayak hybrids and many types of kayak/SUP hybrids available nowadays.

This means we can enjoy two types of paddling with one boat. For us recreational paddlers, that’s a huge benefit in both space for storage and transporting, and cost.

When I decided to add a SUP to our family’s boat collection (we already had a canoe and kayak) I chose an inflatable SUP that included an attachable kayak seat and foot rest. I mainly use it to paddleboard—and as a kayak it’s definitely sluggish compared to an actual kayak. But it servers my purposes perfectly. I love having both options in one boat. You may prefer that alternative, too.

 woman on SUP/kayak hybrid, kayaking on a river

My new inflatable SUP-Yak hybrid (photo courtesy of Katy Lesiak)

If you have the storage space and budget for all three, that’s the best of all worlds. That’s what we were able to do over time, and I enjoy being able to all these types of boats every season.

Whichever one you decide on, enjoy the water!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

More for you...

A Folding Canoe? Yes! Here are Your Options
Kayak Paddle Sizing Guide
Our Readers’ Favorite Content of 2022