One of my favorite family traditions is driving up north, renting a bunch of canoes, and spending a beautiful summer day cruising down a river, the sounds of nature all around, the shrieks of my hydrophobic sister echoing in the distance. Of course, that ends up just being one day a year – but if you’ve done the rental thing and like it, and live (or travel frequently) near a river or other large body of water, it might be smart to think about buying your own canoe or kayak instead of continuing to rent. Owning your own boat gives you the freedom to pick your destination and the duration of your trip, without having to pay for a banged up rental for a day.
A basic canoe, or recreational canoe, like this Pelican Navigator, is more or less what you’d find at a rental place: it can fit one, two, or maybe as many as three people, has the space and buoyancy for some basic gear, a cooler, or a picnic lunch, is designed with a wide base which makes it stable enough even for beginners, and is long enough to be easily navigable. Longer, thinner canoes called touring or tripping canoes are meant for more advanced rowers and move quickly through the water, but are less stable and can be harder to navigate. Canoes meant for fishing tend to have one flat end, so a motor can be attached, and have even wider bases (so you don’t fall in and scare off all the fish!) and mounts for your poles.
Even if you’re new to boating, canoes are really easy to get a hang of. They use single bladed paddles, which you stroke alternately to one side and the other to both propel and steer yourself through the water, and are designed to let you sit comfortably for long periods of time, with lots of leg room. This Explorer Canoe even comes with a built in cooler beneath the front seat, to keep a packed lunch and drinks cool while you’re on the water. Aluminum is the sturdiest material – it can handle both physical abuse (like a big rock you didn’t see in the river or a slipped grip while trying to load it onto your car) and weathering like a champ. They also come in wood, which is equally durable but can be much more expensive, and fiberglass or mixed-material models, which can be much lighter, and somewhat faster (due to the decreased resistance of the material), but require more maintenance than other varieties.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t recommend an inflatable canoe – while both canoes and kayaks come in inflatable models, they are MUCH less durable than their heavier duty (and just plain heavier) counterparts. That said, if you’re going camping anywhere near a river, you might want to consider adding an inflatable canoe like this Advanced Elements Canoe to your supply checklist. That way, you can use your boat to get around and carry your gear when you’re near water (though, mind the weight limit!), then collapse it and carry it with you, which you wouldn’t be able to do with a regular boat.
There are inflatable kayaks, too. Even more than canoes, though, I don’t think the loss of durability is worth the lower price tag. Like canoes, kayaks can be ridden solo or in tandem (though they cap out at two – no room for a third in a kayak!), but kayaks lean more toward the realm of outdoor sports than seasonal recreation. While this K1 Kayak has plenty of storage room for your gear, it’s designed to be long and sleek, with a full body cover to keep water out so it can be used both for white water kayaking as well as in the open ocean.
Like canoes, kayaks with wider bases, like this Sport Patriot, are more stable, and those that are longer are faster and handle choppy water better, but both features are more important for a number of reasons. Firstly, while canoes are used primarily on rivers and in shallower water, kayaks are better for deep water – lakes, large rivers, or the open ocean – which means there’s less room for error if you fall out. As well, kayaks are built much shorter and sit much closer to the water than canoes, which means it takes less tip to put you in the water – and because sit-in kayaks enclose the lower half of your body inside the boat, if you buy a kayak above your skill level, it’s all too easy to find yourself upside down, in your boat, underwater, which is extremely dangerous. Remember, Safety First!
Sit-in kayaks, like this Beach Patriot, as I said, enclose your legs underneath the hull of the boat, and instead of the open tops of canoes, they have closed shells with access ports on the front, back, or both so you can access your stuff in the empty part of the ship. You can also add a spray skirt, a waterproof piece of material designed to fit over the opening in the top of the kayak and hug your body to prevent water from getting in. Unlike canoes, kayaks are usually propelled by dual bladed paddles (the one in the picture is in two pieces that connect at the center), and are paddled alternating sides on each stroke instead of having to shift your body every couple strokes.
Sit-on-top kayaks, like this Shakespeare Angler, on the other hand, are wider (and more stable because of it) but don’t have any top shell to close you in. What this means is that any water that gets into the boat will run off on its own – but it’s much more likely to get in in the first place, and on YOU. That limits use of sit-on-top kayaks to warm weather. Sit-in kayaks are warmer and drier, but only if used properly (i.e. by experienced rowers!), and they have a lower center of gravity, so you can move faster, but you’re more prone to tipping. Basically, for warm, choppy water, or inexperienced kayakers, sit-on-tops are much safer and easier to use, and a better way to learn.
For anyone that might want to use a kayak both solo and in tandem, this Convertible Kayak can be easily turned from a single to a two person boat, with either closed or open air seating. Unlike canoes, most kayaks are very lightweight, and are built from either various types of plastic, fiberglass, or wood, and are made to be very hard and very smooth. The more give or texture a kayak has, the more sluggish it will move, which is another reason not to consider inflatables, they’re too bendy. Ideally, a kayak will slice smoothly along the surface of the water. But remember, if you want to be kayaking around rocks or in whitewater rapids, make sure to get a kayak made of a material that can handle that kind of abuse – most are too lightweight, and you’d ruin them in a single trip.
Like canoes, kayaks can also be used for fishing. This Sport Fisher is a great example – it has an ultra-wide base and sit-on-top construction for maximum stability (supposedly, it’s stable enough that you can even stand up on it!) and lots of places to dock your pole.
For a single fisher (who also happens to be a more experienced kayaker), this Shakespeare Angler 100 is ultra compact, both short for easy maneuvering and wide for stability, but with a sit-in construction better suited to more advanced kayakers or colder weather than the sit-on-top version.
If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m more of a canoe girl – I like to stick close to the shore and count on some good, solid aluminum to protect me from the rocks I inevitably steer myself onto. But what about you? Do you have any favorite summer memories (or plans to make some!)? If you’re inspired to start your own tradition, let me know in the comments!