Around the Base – BWCA Canoe or Kayak

Around the Base – BWCA Canoe or Kayak


Over the years, perhaps the most asked question, next to how are the bugs, is the canoe vs kayak question.  Often it takes shape as, can I bring my kayak on a trip in the Boundary Waters? Sometimes we see kayaks show up as the substitute for a solo canoe, accompanied by all the justifications, e.g. it’s faster. It’s easier to paddle on big water, etc..  Perhaps, I can flesh out some of the reasoning on both sides of the issue.

Kayaks Are Great, But…

A kayak is a great watercraft. It has the ability to handle bigger water because you have a lower center of gravity, and the lower profile will reduce wind effects and make the watercraft easier to handle. Also, the propulsion is usually provided by a double-bladed paddle which allows more blade to water contact time, thus more efficient and more powerful propulsion.  If your trip takes you on a few big lakes, with very little portaging, you may find the kayak to be spot on.

The kayak must be loaded through hatches.  The hatches have covers that must be opened and closed every time you want something from your gear bags.  You cannot use canoe packs because they are too big for the hatches, you must use dry bags which must fit into the kayak’s storage compartments.  These bags are much smaller and therefore more difficult to portage without switching them to a larger canoe pack.  This is quite a hassle, especially if your trip has many portages.  If you are on a trip with only a few portages, this inconvenience may be minimal.


The kayak must also be portaged.  I have personally seen a lot of paddlers in the BWCA that have “figured” this problem out.  Inevitably, they return conceding defeat.  They have had slings, wheels, yokes, and all manner of clever contraptions and they all fail in one way or another.  First a tandem kayak is much heavier that a tandem canoe.  A WeNoNah MNII (two person) canoe weighs about 42lbs.  Alternatively, a Current Designs tandem kayak (LibraXT) weighs 89lbs, using Aramid material.  That is a difference of 47 lbs. To make matters worse, the kayak must be portaged by two people.  This makes a bad logistical paradigm even worse.

The Lowdown on Canoes

The canoe is also a great watercraft.  It is lighter weight (in its composite incarnations) as just explained.  The exact weight is, of course, determined by model of canoe, type of material used for the layup, and accessories on board.  Your manufacturer will have those details on their websites.  However, a canoe is less stable on rough water.  You may find yourself benched on shore while a kayak could perhaps muscle through.

Because of the canoe’s open nature ingress and egress is much easier. Also, there is no need for a redundant bag system.  Load up your canoe packs, toss them in the canoe and shove off.  Perhaps the biggest upside to a canoe is its ease of portaging.  Most canoes can be purchased with a portage yoke, which allows the paddler to simply flip the canoe over on his shoulders and head on down the trail. It only takes one person to portage a canoe,  a very big deal to those desiring to single portage on their trip.

Comparison of Canoe and Kayak

Here is a quick comparison of two popular models

wenonah minnesota ii

Canoe:   MN  II  (Kevlar Ultralight layup)

Length 18’6”   Weight  42 lbs

Current Designs Libra kayak

Kayak:   Libra XT  (Aramid layup)

Length 21’8”     Weight  89 lbs

Now we could go on and on with different manufacturers and models and these stats would certainly vary.  However, the relativity of the correlation would remain.   What then can we conclude?

The Canoe is Best for the BWCA and Quetico

Well, first we can conclude that both types of watercraft are great for certain types of trips.  However, for a Boundary Waters canoe trip, the canoe gets the nod.  Now, I personally love to sea kayak, but the canoe logistics are compelling.  I often ask my questioner this.   If kayaks were the best choice, don’t you think the early travelers (natives, fur trappers, pioneers, miners, explorers would have gone with the kayak?  They were smart folks and they figured it out as we hope our guests will.


Paddle On. Be Free.

For more information on BWCA Family Canoe Trips, click here, or call us at 218-365-5837