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The Art of Selecting a Canoe or Kayak

Posted by Scott Hamstra on 5/11/2013 to Canoe
At Rutabaga (and at Canoecopia), we don’t sell boats … we sell time on the water. The boat is simply a vessel by which you will enjoy that time. When you purchase a boat, paddle, PFD, or any paddling gear from us, you are entering into a partnership with Rutabaga, helping to create a community of paddling enthusiasts.

Partnership is a word that we don’t bandy around lightly…we really believe in long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial. Your task is relatively simple—have fun, be safe, and spread the word. Our work is to provide a fun, safe and informative environment for you to get into whatever sort of paddling you’d like to get into. We do this by offering classes and symposiums, and unmatched selection of boats, a safe and controlled test paddle location, and a very fun and knowledgeable sales staff.

If you’re a first time kayaker or canoeist looking to just get your feet wet, here are some questions you might consider.

Canoe or kayak?

A lot of folks answer this question somewhat impulsively. After reflection, we find that some folks who first wanted a canoe are better off with a kayak, and vice versa. It’s not a huge number but it does happen regularly.

Kayaking is initially more appealing to first time paddlers…the ease of going straight, the stability of having a lower center of gravity, etc. The truth is that some of you who are looking at a solo kayak may be better suited with a solo canoe. “Why is that?” you may ask. There are several reasons to consider a solo canoe.

Canoes are generally easier to get in and out of, especially on muddy stream banks or unimproved put-ins. Canoes are usually lighter length-for-length, so they’re easier to load onto your car. A canoe seat position is higher, giving you a better view into the water, and they can carry more gear (again, keeping length equal). You can also move around and adjust your seating position easier in a canoe, and for a lot of people, that variety is helpful if you have back issues.

On the other hand, kayaks are much easier and get to a skill level quickly if you’re staying in sheltered conditions. They are easier to control in wind, especially solo, and your center of gravity is lower making them more stable in rough water.

If you’re looking to get the entire family into paddling, a canoe can be much more affordable than four or five kayaks. When your family grows (in number or size) and you can add some kayaks down the road.

Where do you want to paddle?

You have a lot of choices here in the Midwest. From tiny pothole lakes to the Great Lakes, from tiny streams to wide, expansive rivers, you have a lot of choices to make. Moving water, quiet water, absolute glass or big waves off Escanaba are all easy to reach within a few hours drive. From the north woods to the sandy beaches of the Wisconsin River, we have to acknowledge we live in a paddling paradise.

Our experience is that most recreational paddlers are interested in inland lakes and rivers, maybe a little moving water like the Brule or the Namekagon. While you may have dreams about kayaking the Apostle Islands or Door County, or taking a week long trip to the Boundary Waters most folks paddle closer to home, and we believe it’s best to buy for what you’re going to do most of the time. Most likely it’s your local lake or river.

How do you plan on transporting your boat, and how often?

All too often this is an afterthought, when it should be one of your first considerations as it will determine what kind of budget you need to set, how often you are going to be getting out to paddle and how enjoyable the experience is going to be overall.

First, we need to differentiate between price and value. A canoe or kayak can be a great price, but if it too heavy for your to load yourself, or too long for you to store easily, you may find that your boat sits around a lot, dressing up a pair of sawhorses. Then what was a good price becomes a pretty poor value. We like to think of value as a function of price and usage, or more correctly, price per usage.

What does this have to do with transportation? Plenty. A boat you can’t move easily becomes less likely to be used, and therefore ends up being a poor value. In other words, a $300 used canoe that weighs 85 pounds may end up costing you $300 per use if you use it once, decide your back doesn’t like to lift that much weight, and park the canoe on the woodpile. We want you to use your boats! Looking at different rack options may also help you in moving your boat.

What’s in the budget?

Many of us may have to compromise on our choice of gear due to budgetary restrictions. That’s fine, we just need to remember that compromise isn’t always a bad thing. Personally, I don’t like seeing people overspend as much as I don’t like seeing people underspend. It’s all about the right tools for the job.

One tip we often give new paddlers is not to spend so much on the boat that you are forced to economize on the rest of the gear. Just like buying a Ferrari and putting $25.00 retreads on it will resort in poor performance, expecting a Kevlar ultra light canoe to perform with a pair of fifteen dollar paddles is not realistic.

Of course, if you can afford to make no compromises, that’s great. Sometimes price and value can come together in a used boat. If you must make some compromises, we recommend you consider buying a less expensive boat and putting your resources into paddling gear. Paddles are the worst place to try to economize, as it is the primary tool for the paddler. Violinists often spend almost as much on a bow as they do on a violin, and there’s a reason for that. No one I know ever was sorry for buying a lighter, stronger paddle. PFDs or lifejackets are also not the place to economize. Get a comfortable one, which means you’ll wear it more, which means you’ll be safer.

How hard are you on your equipment?

How and where you use your boat will often determine the best material. In general we recommend choosing the lightest boat you choose to afford, as this means you’ll use it more (see above note on value vs. price). Flatwater paddlers who find themselves in sandy bottomed rivers will be fine with lighter equipment. Those who look for shallow rocky rivers or like to paddle moving water will want beefier gear to withstand those impacts. In general, the lighter the boat, the more careful you’ll want to be with it. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good place to start.

That said, I have taken Royalex boats to the Boundary Waters and I have run whitewater rivers in a Kevlar canoe. Anything is possible, it depends on your skill level and your comfort with seeing a few “love bites” on the bottom of your boat.

Your body speaks to you…please listen to it.

That’s not a question, obviously. But we believe it’s really important to be comfortable. In fact, the comfort of the seat is the single most important feature for most paddlers. This is obvious, but you’d be surprised at the seats that feel perfect to me that you’d think were designed by someone who had never seen a human posterior.

Canoe seating is a little less complex than kayak seating, but there are things that can be changed in a canoe. Padding, seat angle, even back rests can make a canoe a lot more comfortable if you find a boat that’s perfect but the seat needs a little work. We can help you with that.

One other advantage to a canoe is that by its very nature, you can change your seating position while under way. This is important to those of us with more paddling seasons under our belts. I stay comfortable by varying my seating position from sitting to kneeling periodically. I also can stretch my legs and move around just a little bit if my ankles or knees are sore. The disadvantage of a canoe is that you are not as connected with the boat, so power transfer may not be as efficient as it is in a kayak.

Kayak seating is more complex by nature, but kayak manufacturers now understand the importance of a comfortable seat above all else. You can tell a lot by just sitting in a boat…and let’s face the fact that eighty percent of us aren’t as concerned about the hydrodynamics of a kayak as we are with the comfort of the seat.

Kayaks come with radically different sized cockpits, depending on their use. Some people who are larger require a larger cockpit for more comfort, or so they can get to their binoculars, camera or fishing gear easily. Others may want a very snug, tight cockpit so that they can learn to Eskimo roll or simply have more control and optimal energy transfer from your body to the kayak.

What’s Your Style?

This is a totally random, non-quantifiable question, but it is a helpful one

Do you paddle for the sake of paddling, or is paddling a mechanism for getting to another place (camping, fishing, birding, whatever)? Is paddling the end or a means to another end? A boat is simply a tool. There is no right or wrong here, just a difference of how that tool is used.

For instance, when someone asks me about which is better, a solo canoe or a kayak, I often ask them if they’d rather run a 10K or ballroom dance for an hour for their exercise. Kayaks tend to be more meditative, and by nature of the symmetry of the stroke, you can find yourself in a sort of transcendental zone – sort of like doing yoga, where your muscles and breathing and mind all begin to work on their own. It’s a blissful feeling, and those who have experienced it know it well.

Canoes, especially solo canoes, are asymmetric by design. You paddle on one side for the most part, and use a different part of your brain to control the nuances necessary to make a canoe go straight. You may find yourself playing around with the control surfaces of the paddle, edging or heeling your boat to make it skid or dance on the water. Also a blissful experience, this canoe dance.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get into the zone in a canoe or experience playfulness in a kayak. It’s just a general guideline, and it might be completely wrong.


We just want to give you some things to think about. There are no hard and fast rules here, it is indeed more of an art than a science. We look forward to answering your questions and helping you find the perfect boat for your needs. If you have special circumstances, please ask, we love to help and we will commit to finding the solution to any of your paddling problems.

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