BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki paddles on manmade Graham Lake on Sept. 9, 2018, near Ellsworth. Credit: Courtesy of Derek Runnells

Canoes and kayaks are two of the most popular watercraft for recreational paddlers. Often both types of boats are offered by rental companies and sports stores. But how do you know which one is best for you?

There are numerous styles of canoes and kayaks, all designed for different purposes. But before you dive into all of that, first thing’s first: kayak or canoe. Here are things to consider to help you decide.

What do you plan to carry?

The amount of items you plan to carry with you on a boating trip may influence whether you choose a canoe or kayak. Usually, a canoe is much roomier than a kayak, allowing you to carry more.

“If you want to go on a camping trip, you can put your tent, your sleeping bag and your cooking gear, your kids and your dog in a canoe really easily,” said Jeff Owen, youth outreach chair for the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization. “So the capacity to take stuff with you really sets canoes apart from kayaks.”

Many models of kayaks have closed compartments called hatches where you can store gear, but they aren’t big enough to carry items like large coolers or bundles of firewood — and they certainly aren’t designed to carry pets or children. Some people do paddle kayaks and camp, but they need to be more mindful than canoists are about what they pack and how much because they have less storage room in their boats.

Where will you be paddling?

The type of water you plan to explore may influence what boat you choose. However, all beginner paddlers should start their adventures on calm water, such as ponds, and stick close to shore unless they’re with a registered Maine guide, said Karen Francoeur, a registered Master Maine Guide and owner of Castine Kayak Adventures.

“Canoes are not good craft on the ocean,” Francoeur said. “A canoe is wide open. If it capsizes it fills with water. My number one thing is always, what if it capsizes? Is it safe?”

Kayaks — if they have sealed bulkheads in the bow and stern — are easier to re-enter, but you should practice re-entry techniques before taking the boat far from shore. Paddling on large lakes, whitewater and tidal water all requires special knowledge and practice.

Kayaks also tend to be less influenced by strong winds (since they don’t sit up as high off the water as canoes) and many models of kayaks are more stable than canoes, so less likely to tip.

Are you worried about steering?

It’s usually easier to learn how to steer and control a kayak than a canoe. A traditional canoe paddle only has one blade, which means you have to switch it from one side of the boat to the other to steer and go straight.

“Kayaks are easier to steer because you have a blade on both sides of you,” Owen said. “It takes a bit more time to learn how to keep a canoe going straight and make it turn when you want to, but it’s a pretty quick learning curve.”

Steering with another paddler in your boat can add to the challenge. Both canoes and kayaks come in one-person and two-person models — though one-person kayaks are more common, and two-person canoes are more common. Canoes also come in larger models. Three-person models are common, and some war canoes fit 10 people.

“[When paddling with someone else], a significant part of the learning curve is associated with teamwork and learning how to communicate what you’re trying to do,” Owen said.

What will be comfortable for you?

Some people simply aren’t comfortable sitting in a kayak because the seat is so low or because the cockpit can feel restricting. (However sit-on-top kayaks are entirely open, without walls enclosing your legs.)

“Canoes are generally more comfortable because you’re seated up higher, so your legs are actually in a more comfortable position and it’s easier to sit up straight,” Owen said.

However many people feel perfectly comfortable in a kayak, especially if it has a high-quality seat. Kayaks come in all sorts of designs, so you can try a few out to see if there’s one you could feel comfortable in.

“I think about knees in particular,” said Cheryl Levin, manager of the boat shop at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport. “For some people with bad knees, getting in and out of something really low like a kayak is challenging.”

How will you transport the boat?

In this July 24, 2020, file photo, Ski Rack employee Chris Hopper secures a newly purchased kayak atop a customer’s car. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Your ability to transport a boat from one location to another may be a factor in your decision.

“Not all vehicles are set up to have roof racks, and not everyone wants to drive a trailer,” Levin said.

Large boats, such as tandem kayaks and expedition-style canoes, may not fit on vehicles safely. In addition, people may not be able to load a heavy boat on top of their vehicle or carry the boat to the water. However, if you have the help of a fellow paddler, this may not be an issue.

What are your plans for the future?

When purchasing a boat, it may be important for you to think about what you intend to do with the boat in the future. Is your goal to cross big lakes or paddle in the ocean? Or do you want to stick to calm ponds and lazy streams?

“Some people tend to want to buy something that’s going to serve all their purposes for the next 10 years,” Owen said. “And other people want to buy something that meets their purposes now, with the understanding they might get rid of that [boat] and buy something else later when their interests and skills evolve.”

Test out boats before purchasing

The best way to select the perfect boat for you is to test multiple watercrafts out before you purchase or rent.

You could ask friends and family to let you borrow their boats or accompany them on an outing, or you could contact a local paddling organization, outfitter, park or other outdoor destination that rents or loans out canoes or kayaks.

“There are a lot of opportunities to borrow boats,” Owen said. “Almost every garage in Maine has a canoe or kayak in it.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...