Travel by Water With Kayaks or Canoes

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Photo by Dana Benner

People often ask me what I consider my most important tool. I’ve learned that the most important tool is the one you need at that moment. One item that could be useful to many people is a canoe or kayak. When a disaster hits, your life may depend on your ability to move quickly and silently. A canoe or kayak will allow you to do this. Since neither needs fuel, they’re always ready to go.

Historically, waterways were the highways, and canoes the vehicles, long before pavement crisscrossed the landscape. Both canoes and kayaks have been around for thousands of years. These watercrafts were used to haul people and supplies from one place to another, and no home was without a canoe. In the case of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the mode of travel was a kayak.

Our ways of using canoes and kayaks have since changed. Instead of being used for work, they’re mostly operated as recreational crafts. Canoes and kayaks have been designed for everything imaginable, and for every skill level. There are crafts made for whitewater and open-water touring; ocean kayaks; kayaks and canoes designed for racing; and canoes for weekend warriors at lakeside campsites.

Both canoes and kayaks have their place in a survival stockpile, but which one is best for you? Well, that depends on what you want to do. A canoe or kayak is a major purchase, so before you rush out and buy one, you’ll need to know more about the strengths and weaknesses of these vessels.

Some areas of North America aren’t easily accessible by land. “You can’t get there from here” is an old saying in Maine. And in some cases, that may be true. In a backcountry setting, your travel from point A to point B could be blocked by a river, lake, or pond. Anyone who lives in or has visited Alaska, Maine, Montana, or any other remote area can attest to this. Getting supplies to your remote cabin, whether in the Maine woods or the far reaches of Alaska, might require traveling by water. No craft will be perfect for every situation. So, do your homework, and find the one that will best suit your needs.


Canoes are stable and can carry cargo. They’re ideal for hunting and foraging trips. Photo by Adobe Stock/Colin

Capacious Canoes

Canoes are designed to carry both passengers and cargo. They’re long and can be propelled in fairly low water because of their shallow draft. The canoes used by Native Americans and early explorers were made from natural materials. Their upswept fronts and backs made them suitable for traveling across large lakes and able to run some fairly rough water in rivers. Because of their design, canoes are capable of moving quickly and safely, even when fully loaded with cargo, from a deer or bear to supplies to set up camp. The characteristic that makes a standard canoe great for carrying cargo is also its major drawback: its size, which makes it hard to get into some narrow spaces. Plus, when fully loaded, canoes don’t turn on a dime. Some designs are hybrids that offer the best of both a standard canoe and a kayak, such as the Old Town Discovery 119 Solo Sportsman.

Canoes are stable (if weight is distributed properly), light (depending on the material they’re made from), and can carry a great deal of gear. Today, canoes can be made out of aluminum, fiberglass, plastic, or Kevlar. Their size and material will largely determine their weight, which is important, as you’ll have to carry your canoe at times. Even the light ones are heavy after a day of paddling. Generally speaking, the longer the canoe, the more gear it can carry, and the wider it is, the more stable it will be. The depth (the distance between the gunwales and the bottom) will also determine the amount of gear it can carry.

You should consider a few things when buying a canoe. First, figure out what you’re planning to use it for. Since most canoes are used for transporting people or supplies, that limits your choice to recreational canoes, expedition canoes, or wilderness canoes. All of these craft are designed to move different numbers of people and varying amounts of supplies.

Recreational canoes are probably the most common. They’re easy to paddle and are perfect on flat, calm water. They’re stable and hard to flip. Recreational canoes generally run 13 to 16 feet in length, and have a width of more than 36 inches. While they’re capable of transporting smaller loads, they’re not the best for this job.

Expedition canoes are made for long trips and carrying heavy loads. They’re capable of handling open water and rough conditions. These craft are long, measuring 18 to 20 feet in length. While they can handle large loads, their greatest drawback is that they’re difficult to get into tight places or in shallow water, especially when fully loaded.

Wilderness canoes are, in my opinion, the perfect canoe overall. They’re stable, measure 15 to 18 feet long, and are designed to carry big loads. They’re perfect for getting into tight areas, as well as hauling a deer or transporting a woodstove to camp. For specific models, check out the Wenonah Minnesota II, which is a two-person canoe, and the Wenonah Prism, which is a solo canoe. (The Wenonah Minnesota II is 18½ feet long and 35 inches wide. The Prism measures 16½ feet long and 30 inches wide.)


Kayaks are small, lightweight, and easy to maneuver. They’re ideal for fishing and scouting new waterways or hunting areas. Photo by Adobe Stock/Tomasz Zaida

Quick Kayaks

Kayaks were built for speed and quick maneuvering. Kayaks allowed seal and walrus hunters to get into areas near constantly moving ice floes. These craft are generally designed for a single person, but tandem versions do exist. Unlike canoes, kayaks aren’t designed to carry a lot of supplies. While capable of carrying limited supplies, perhaps enough for a day or two, kayaks are great vehicles for scouting new areas, exploring new waterways, or gaining access to areas where a standard canoe can’t fit.

Today’s kayaks, while made of modern materials, haven’t changed much from traditional designs. They’re still light, fast, and stable. Their shallow draft makes them perfect for entering areas where canoes may have issues.

You can choose from many different styles of kayaks, each with its own specialty. I’ll focus here on a few types that work best in flat water: sit-on, recreational, and inflatable.

Sit-on kayaks are my preference above all other types. They’re easy to get into and out of, and they’re generally wider and more stable (which is why they’re used for fishing). Their decks are mostly exposed because of their design, and this creates a lot of space for transporting loads, such as gear, or that deer you harvested. These kayaks have several drawbacks, however. First, because of the relatively large width and short length (around 12 feet long), they don’t move as fast or handle as well as longer kayaks. Second, because of the exposed deck, items tend to get wet, meaning you’ll have to use dry bags to prevent this.

Two good examples of the sit-on kayak are the Hobie Quest 13 and the Hobie Mirage Compass. The Quest measures 13 feet long and 281⁄2 inches wide, and has a carrying capacity of 350 pounds. The Mirage Compass measures 12 feet long and 34 inches wide, and has a carrying capacity of 400 pounds. The Compass also has foot pedals for hands-free propulsion.

I own an Ascend D10T sit-on model. This kayak is stable, easy to maneuver, and tracks well, despite only being 10 feet long. The open deck allows ample room for gear. (Just make sure you store your gear in dry bags and strap it down.)

Recreational kayaks are generally “sit-in,” meaning they have a cockpit. As for size, they fall somewhere between the average sit-on and the much longer touring kayaks. Recreational kayaks have enclosed compartments for storage. This can be both an advantage and a drawback. The compartments keep gear dry, but they also make loading and unloading a chore.

Inflatable kayaks have come a long way over the years. They’re easy to pack, and they’re much more resistant to damage than they used to be, though they’re still susceptible to sharp rocks, sticks, and the errant fishhook. An example of a quality inflatable is the Hobie Mirage i12s. When fully inflated, it measures 12 feet long and 36 inches wide, and it has a carrying capacity of 500 pounds.

Final Thoughts

Canoes and kayaks are both great, but each has a distinct purpose. You’ll need to determine your intended use before choosing between them. While I really enjoy kayaks, a canoe is the best choice for me as a hunter, fisher, and forager. If you’re hauling a deer home after a hunt, or hauling supplies to a wilderness camp, I’d recommend a canoe. If you need a vessel for fishing, or you plan on scouting new waterways or hunting areas, then a kayak may be the right choice. Whichever you choose, be sure to invest in a good paddle that’s the right style for your craft, and that fits your body well. 

Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors and rural life for more than 30 years, and believes preparation is the key to success as an outdoorsperson.

Brad Anderson Illustration

Gritty’s Tips: Safety Supplies

Whether you pilot a canoe or a kayak, you’ll need some safety supplies. First, you must have—and wear—a personal flotation device. It does you no good when it’s strapped to the back of the boat. Second, you’ll need a good first-aid kit. Last but not least, bring some good dry bags. Even on calm water, items will get wet. Cellphones, cameras, extra clothes, and survival gear should all be put into dry bags and strapped to the craft.

Emergency Water Collection Kit

Having the Emergency Water Collection Kit close at hand will help ensure you have the ability to safely gather raw water from almost any source. This kit includes a 5-gallon water collection pail with a lid pitcher scoop for collecting and transferring water; a washable 1-micron pre-filter bag to clarify collected water prior to filtering; a water pre-treatment sterilizer with a micro-scoop, a mixing spoon, and test strips; two sets of gloves; polycarbonate safety glasses; and face masks with charcoal filters.

This product is available here or by calling 866-803-7096. Mention promo code MGRPALZ5. Item #10489

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