Standup paddleboarding has blown up in the recent years while kayaking has been around for a really long time and is again gaining popularity among people that love spending time on the water. But which one is better? Which one should you get? Kayak or standup paddle board? I was an avid standup paddler in the past and recently I have turned more towards sea kayaking so I can give you my first hand experience with both.
There is no definite answer to the question which one is better, kayaking or paddle boarding. It really depends on what do you want to do and how. But when we come to specific uses, things become much clearer. Here you will find pretty much all the things to consider when deciding if you want to start kayaking or standup paddling and after reading this article it should be clear what to choose.
In Short: Main Differences Between Kayaking and Standup Paddling
Yes, it depends on what kind of kayak and what kind of paddleboard do you use but in general, if you compare an average paddleboard and an average kayak, this is what the differences are.
Kayaks are faster and therefore better for longer distances, they are safer in bad conditions, have more storage that is more secure, are more comfortable and are better in cold weather.
Standup paddleboards are more versatile, they are really easy to get off and back on (good for warm weather if you want to quickly cool off and good for exploring the coast), they are more widely accessible (and cheaper), they offer a better workout and give you greater freedom of movement.
Now lets get more into details. I think the most important question here is where do you want to paddle and how, this will pretty much determine whether you need a paddleboard or a kayak.
Paddling location and purpose – where do you want to paddle and how?
Playing around at the beach (winner: SUP)
For playing around at the beach a paddleboard is way better. You can sunbathe on it, jump from it, swim around it, take your friend, kids or your dog for a paddle, you can use it as a floatie etc… the fun factor with a sup board is way higher than with a kayak.
Rivers and whitewater (winner: kayak)
Kayaks all the way. There are paddleboards specially designed for whitewater but faster moving water is way more dangerous if you are on a paddleboard than in the kayak. I’m not joking here, even in a kayak whitewater rafting is a very dangerous activity. People get killed every year paddling difficult rapids. If you are not an expert just don’t do it on a standup paddle board and even in a kayak, take lessons, hire a guide and practice on easy rivers.
Shorter coast exploration (tie)
Here for me it’s a tie. A shorter exploration is one that doesn’t require you to paddle a long distance and does not take more than a day. These can be safely done on a paddleboard so you can take advantage of all the benefits of the paddleboard. You can easily climb off and back on whenever you want and stop anywhere, explore the coast, climb a few rocks and get back on your paddleboard. This is impossible or at least really hard with a kayak. Kayak usually needs a nice beach to land on, so you can not just get out and back in anywhere you wish. On the other hand, with a kayak you don’t have to worry as much about the weather and sea conditions changing and you can cover a greater distance with more confidence. An unexpected afternoon breeze won’t leave you stranded on a beach an hour paddle away from your car. Yes, you can also do a multiday standup paddle trip, but you have to be careful, watch the weather closely and plan ahead.
Longer expeditions and open sea (winner: kayak)
It is safer, faster and more comfortable to do these in a kayak. Kayaks are less affected by the wind and bad weather and on longer trips there will be some of that for sure. It’s almost impossible to have a forecast that would be ideal for a whole week or more. Kayaks also have more storage space for those longer trips where you need to bring everything from camping gear to food and water. It is also more fun to cover greater distances and see more, than to paddle for ages just to get around the corner.
Weather and conditions (winner: kayak)
I already mentioned these together with longer expeditions but no matter where you go and for how long, kayak will perform better in wind and waves compared to a paddleboard. When you do standup paddle boarding your body acts like a sail on a sailboat and stronger headwind will make it impossible to get anywhere. On the other hand, some wind from the back and you will be flying. With some knowledge and planning you can do downwind paddles where you will feel like a super human paddler. This is true both for paddleboards and kayaks but it is more noticeable with paddleboards. This goes hand in hand with the next question:
Which one is faster SUP or kayak? (winner: kayak)
Yes, there are paddleboards and there are paddleboards. But in general when it comes to straight-line speed the kayak is faster than a paddleboard. This means you can go further or reach your goal faster.
Both standup paddling and kayaking are pretty easy to learn. Here I would say that standup paddling is a bit more difficult as I have seen people fall off when learning how to sup and I have never seen anyone fall out of the kayak on their first try. On the other hand, if you do manage to capsize a kayak, this presents a way bigger problem that falling of a paddleboard. The eskimo roll (maneuver for turning the kayak back around) is something that needs quite a bit of practice while climbing back on the paddleboard is easy.
In general, kayaks are more stable. This means you will fall off the paddleboard faster than from a kayak. But on the other hand, standing, siting, lying, turning around, mowing forward and backward is easy on a paddleboard. Try these things on a kayak and you will be very close to capsizing.
Ease of paddling and comfort (winner: SUP)
Both are easy to paddle in windless conditions and on calm sea. Standup paddle boarding, if you paddle hard, will give you a more wholesome body workout and you will burn more calories. In not so ideal conditions paddling a kayak can still be easy if you have a rudder or a skeg while paddling a paddleboard will be harder no matter what.
When it comes to comfort it depends on how you look at it. It is definitely more comfortable to sit inside a kayak on a paddling seat that has a backrest than in any position that you can have on a paddleboard. But, this is the only position you can have in a kayak. On a paddleboard you can stretch your legs, lie down, sit, stand, move around… and make yourself comfortable. And in the end, you can also purchase a paddling chair for a paddleboard and paddle it like you would in a kayak.
Accessing nooks and crannies (winner: SUP)
A huge plus for both kayak and paddleboard is how they can get into every nook and cranny on the coast so you can explore and see everything from up close. It’s almost a tie here, but if I had to pick a winner it would be the paddleboard because it gives you a bit of a better view if you are standing up and since it is generally shorter than a kayak, getting somewhere narrow (and turning around) is a little bit easier.
Gear storage options (winner: kayak)
You can put a lot of gear on top of your paddleboard and tie it down using some rope and D hooks that are attached to most paddleboards. Just make sure you use waterproof bags and backpacks because the top of the paddleboard will get wet! With a sea kayak, you will have internal storage that will rival or even surpass anything that you can put on top of your paddle board. At the same time kayak storage compartments are protected from the water (although waterproof bags are still a good idea). To top that, you can also tie dry bags or waterproof backpacks to the top of your kayak and carry even more gear. This is why longer expeditions are always done in kayaks (check out our sea kayaking guide).
Fun factor (winner: SUP)
When it comes to fun factor paddleboard is definitely more fun. I mean, it depends on what do you do for fun, but with a paddleboard you can use it for sunbathing, transporting your friends, family, dog around the water, you can use it as a floatie, you can lie down on it and snorkel, you can sit on it and chat, you can use it as a jumping platform… etc. Only a few of these things can be done with a kayak.
Fishing/Yoga (winner: SUP)
Both are great for fishing, I would give a slight advantage here to kayak, but since it is impossible to do yoga on a kayak, I give the win here to the paddleboard. Btw, check out our kayak fishing video for some sea kayaking fishing tips.
Ease of transport, storage and handling (winner: SUP)
There are hard-shell paddleboards and kayaks and there are inflatable paddleboards and kayaks. However, if I say an average paddleboard is inflatable and an average kayak is hard-shell I won’t be way off. So obviously an inflatable option is way easier to transport, carry and store. And even with hard-shell options, paddleboards tend to be lighter and easier to carry around (although this also depends on the construction). Hard paddleboards and kayaks are a pain to store, you really need a big garage or shed to store them. A typical paddleboard is somewhere between 3 and 4 meters (10-13ft) long and typical sea kayaks are even longer, 5 meters (16ft) and more.
Warm weather (winner: SUP)
Again, I have to come back to one of the biggest paddleboard pros (imho) the ability to just jump off the paddleboard into the sea, swim for a while, cool off and climb back on. In the middle of a hot summer this is just amazing. It can be also done on a kayak, but it’s such a hassle, gets water into your kayak, you need a little help from your friend etc… that you never really do it.
Cold weather (winner: kayak)
Some people say that there are more chances of being sprayed by the water in a kayak than on a sup board and they might be right. Although in my experience all it takes is a small wave from a passing boat and your paddleboard deck gets wet. And you are way more exposed on a paddleboard than in a kayak. You can close the kayaks cockpit with a spray skirt and close your legs and lower body into a warm(er) closed compartment. Apart from stepping in and out of a kayak you will never touch water.
Landing (winner: SUP)
You can step off your paddleboard just about anywhere you want. You can start climbing a rocky cliff right from the deck if you want. On the other hand the best way to get out of a kayak is on a nice sandy or pebble beach where you can land your kayak without damaging it and then pull it on to the beach. Yes, it is possible to climb out elsewhere and even pull your kayak onto some rock but it’s not ideal. Landing and going out with a kayak becomes even more challenging if there are waves on the beach.
Durability (winner: kayak)
In previous chapter I mentioned that kayaks don’t like rocks. No matter the construction, dragging your kayak over rocks or smashing it into the rocks will scratch the bottom (PE material) or even crack/break the kayak (fiberglass, carbon, Kevlar etc…). Of course all kayaks can take some beating, but this is something to keep in mind. On the other hand, if you don’t throw them against the rocks kayaks will last virtually forever. Paddleboards, especially inflatable ones, will however last a couple of years before the glue and stitches start letting go from all the pressure, sun and salt water. A really good inflatable paddleboard will last 5-10 years, a good kayak will last forever.
Price (winner: SUP)
It is way easier to buy a paddleboard these days than a kayak. Inflatable paddle boards are everywhere and can be really really cheap. You won’t get top quality if you get a cheap one but still, it’s a start. High quality paddleboards, especially hard ones, can be as expensive as kayaks or even more. The “weakness” of kayaks is that even cheaper ones are not really dirt cheap and that kayaks are not that widely available as paddleboards.
Paddleboard vs. Kayak
If you would count all the wins the standup paddleboard would come out on top with 12 points versus 10 points for the kayak. But after reading this article you should have a good idea what is better for you, these points don’t matter in the end as they are not all equally important. For me personally, kayak is the way to go. The ability to go on longer multiday expeditions while camping on the deserted beaches along the way, hopping from island to island, it’s just such an amazing experience that I would never dare to do on a standup paddleboard.