Paddleboards vs. kayaks … which is better? You’ll hear paddlers fighting adamantly for one side or the other in this ongoing debate. Paddleboarding activates your whole body, but kayaking works your arms and your core … is one really better than the other? Or are they just completely separate sports? Maybe you should do them both! We’ll let you decide for yourself after reading this guide. But first: the basics.
Kayaks and Paddleboards: What are the Differences?
While there are many different styles of kayaks, they all follow the same basic shape. They are small boats with usually pointed or rounded ends. The size and shape will vary depending on what you’re using the kayak for. Whitewater boats are usually short and wide, while sea kayaks are long and narrow. They can be either sit-inside or sit-on-top style, but in both cases you sit down on the kayak and use both arms to paddle. The type of paddle used with a kayak has two blades on either end of a single shaft. (Check out our favorite paddles here!)
A stand up paddleboard looks a lot more like a wide surfboard. You stand on top of it and paddle using a single-bladed paddle (similar to a canoe paddle, but longer). Though it is also possible to sit and paddle on a paddleboard, it’s much easier to do it standing. Though keeping your balance can still be tough! Stand up paddleboards come in a variety of sizes and widths, with the widest ones being the easiest to balance. Beginners will want to opt for wide and sturdy boards.
So between the two, which one’s better? Let’s look closely at the differences.
The Case for Kayaks
Kayaking has been popular for a lot longer than paddleboarding. Though the sport has evolved since the days of rough wooden kayaks, it’s still much the same. They’re perfect for skating along the surface of the water without getting wet. Whether you want to play in river rapids or go fishing on a lake, kayaks are the perfect choice. They have a lot of features and uses that continue to make them so popular.
Ease of Use
Learning to do somersaults in fast moving rapids takes a lot of skill and expertise. But learning to paddle a recreational kayak around a lake really isn’t difficult. The boats are easy to maneuver, stable, and even the most rookie of beginners can usually figure out the basics on their own. Once you have the basics down, it’s easy to take your kayak out on longer trips and more exciting waters.
Now, to be clear, if you want to paddle on the open ocean or try your luck in class IV rapids, you’re going to want to take some classes first. But basic kayaking is pretty intuitive and most people find it easy to do. The wide bottoms of most beginner kayaks make them very well balanced and hard to capsize. Stand-up paddleboards usually offer a lot less stability to beginners.
For the more advanced paddler, kayaking opens a lot of doors. Quick trips floating down river rapids, quiet lake paddles, or even open ocean surfing are all possible in a kayak. And while they’re certainly possible in paddleboards, it can be a lot harder to do those while standing and maintaining your balance. One major benefit that kayaking offers is that the seated position makes longer trips a breeze. A five-mile kayak is easy for an experienced kayaker. But standing upright and holding your balance for five miles on a paddleboard might be a different story.
Kayaks are ideally suited for longer expeditions, not just because you sit while paddling them, but because they also offer plenty of storage space. If you’ll be on the water for a couple of hours you’ll want to be sure you have all the supplies you’ll need like water, sunscreen, and extra layers. Most kayaks offer ample space to keep all the items you’ll need. Sea kayaks even have dry hatches, special compartments designed to keep your belongings safe and dry while you paddle. A paddleboard doesn’t really have room for any extra supplies and you might find yourself struggling on longer trips.
There are a lot of winter paddlers who will kayak even in the frosty dead of winter. While it might seem insane, their gear keeps them warm and dry while they paddle across icy waters. Inside a kayak with a spray skirt it’s possible to stay almost completely dry. Water may splash onto the deck of your kayak, but you’re not likely to get too wet or cold if you’re dressed properly. But while winter kayaking might be popular, I guarantee you won’t see many winter paddleboarders. Standing so close to the surface of the water you are much more exposed to the elements. And balancing can be difficult on a paddleboard … would you want to lose your balance on icy waters? Kayaking offers a distinct advantage when it comes to inclement weather.
But What About Stand Up Paddleboards?
Lest you think we’re letting kayaks win this debate, let me tell you a little about paddleboards. Relatively new to the paddlesports scene, stand up paddleboarding really didn’t gain popularity in the U.S. until the last 10-15 years. Since then, its momentum has soared. From flatwater SUP yoga to surfing on the coast, paddleboarding has gained a huge following. And with good reason!
Check out this video of SUP yoga. Do you think you could do it?
It’s a Full-Body Workout
Stand up paddleboarding differs from kayaking in a lot of ways, but primarily in that you’re standing while paddling. If you’ve ever tried it, you know how tough it can be to balance and stay on top of your board while paddling. Trying to stay on your feet while paddling means your whole body is activated and working hard. A lot of paddlers enjoy this because they feel like they can get a good workout in without having to paddle for hours. This is especially true if you’re paddling on rough or moving water. Like kayaking, it’s a pretty low-impact workout so you don’t have to worry so much about injured knees and aching joints. Without even trying too hard many SUP users find they’re able to exercise most parts of their body while paddling.
It’s Ideal for the Beach
Paddleboarding is definitely not great for ice cold water, but if you live somewhere warm it can be the perfect sunny afternoon activity. Because you don’t have a lot of gear or a restricting cockpit to climb out of, paddleboarding gives you easy access to the water. It’s also great for trying your hand at a little coastal surfing, since you won’t have to worry about capsizing. Bring it to the beach to try out, but be prepared to get wet!
It’s Easier to Transport
Kayaks, especially big stable recreational boats, can be super heavy. Transporting them can definitely be a two-man job. But paddleboards have the benefit of being lightweight and relatively easy to carry. You can also buy a case for your paddleboard to make it even easier. Cases also protect your paddleboard from damage while you’re transporting it. The fact that they’re not quite as bulky as most kayaks means that smaller people will have an easier time carrying them. I’m only 5’3” and I have no problem carrying my paddleboard on my own (I do have a carrying case for it, too). It’s much easier than hauling a large kayak by yourself!
It Takes Time to Master
Any sport or skill will take a ton of practice and work to become proficient at. They say it takes 10,000 hours of work to truly become a master at something. And while the same is true for kayaking, I think there’s an extra level of skill needed to truly excel at paddleboarding. Why? Because as a kayaker, once you learn how to do an eskimo roll, you can combat any water feature with relative ease. You capsize, you just roll back up. With a paddleboard, it’s not so easy. If you fall off of your board while surfing or paddling in rapids, you can’t just roll and keep going. To become comfortable in those environments on a paddleboard it’ll take a lot of work. One of the things that makes stand up paddle boarding so great is that you can continually be improving your skills on it while having fun.
See how an eskimo roll is done in this clip:
The Conclusion: Who Wins?
As someone who has done both kayaking and stand up paddleboarding, I feel confident saying this: it’s a tie. And before you go thinking that’s a cop-out response, hear me out! I definitely think all paddlers should at least try doing both. They are both ideally suited for very different environments and purposes and there’s really not one that does better in both areas. If you want a strong workout or want to do yoga on the water, you’re definitely going to want to opt for a paddleboard. But if you’re planning a 20-mile excursion, your legs will thank you when you choose a kayak. They’re vastly different but both a ton of fun. Are you a die-hard paddleboarder or kayaker? Let us know!