Kayaking vs Rafting: What’s the Best Choice for You?

Kayaking and rafting are two of the more popular water sports activities. So, if you’re deciding which one is the better option for you, we’re going to be pitting kayaking vs rafting so you can measure the pros and cons of each. 

While they’re both fun activities, popular with those seeking an adrenaline rush and outdoor enthusiasts alike, the surface similarities fade once you dig a little deeper. 

What Is Kayaking? 

Kayaking is also an activity that’s based around traversing across the water, however, kayaking is very old and has most likely been used as a form of transportation for thousands of years. The boats are much smaller and generally fit fewer people (usually no more than 3). 

Kayaks were originally used for fishing, but now it’s considered a popular leisure activity. There are more competitive and intense forms of kayaking available, such as whitewater kayaking. 

What Is Rafting?

Rafting is an activity that involves moving over water on inflatable rafts, these rafts move fairly slowly on their own and can fit larger groups of people (usually around 5-7). Rafting has been popular since the 1960s. 

Whitewater rafting is also a popular sport and has its own competitive following. 

The Differences Between Kayaking and Rafting

There are a number of differences between kayaking vs rafting, and each of them merits further explanation. While kayaking and rafting are both similar in numerous ways, it is their distinctions that make each activity uniquely appealing.

Let’s take a closer look

Equipment

The clothing and equipment needed for both kayaking and rafting are similar. The most important thing is to make sure you’re insulated against the cold water. You might want to opt for a waterproof rain suit if you don’t want your clothing to get wet (though this won’t do much against the cold). 

Kayaks have a double-bladed paddle and rafts have a blade on only one end. 

Aside from that, the gear is very similar in both kayaking and rafting – both require safety equipment while out on the water. A PFD is a must for any activity where you might end up overboard and submerged in anything deeper than waist-high waters (though we recommend getting into the habit of always wearing a PFD, just to be on the safe side). 

Boat Type 

The standard for rafting is the inflatable raft, but you can also get inflatable kayaks, there’s a huge variety of kayaks available – including fishing kayaks, racing kayaks, and whitewater kayaks among many others. 

Kayaks are thinner than rafts because they hold fewer people and are designed to be used by a single person, often navigating through changing waterways. 

Rafts, on the other hand, are heavy and will usually require a group of people to carry it to the launch point. 

rafting vs kayak

Skills Required

Both kayaking and rafting are quite scalable depending on the individual’s skill. For example, both whitewater kayaking and whitewater rafting require more skills to complete successfully. There are more gentle options for both, for example, easy kayaking tours around lagoons are more relaxing than man vs nature. 

Rafting has different “classes” that show how difficult a particular river is, ranging from class I to class VI (or 1 to 6):

  • Classes 1 through 3 are easy for even inexperienced rafters and are a good recreational activity for any group of friends or family. 
  • Class 4 and up generally takes place on more challenging rivers and require more skill, the higher difficulty classes are not for the faint of heart and can be dangerous. 

Paddling Style

The smaller and more nimble kayak has a different paddling style compared to the bulkier raft. A kayaker can use its double-bladed paddle to rotate from side to side easily. Rafters don’t have the same luxury, and their single-bladed paddles only allow them to row from one side. 

Danger and Chances of Injury

At the easier ends of the spectrum, both kayaking and rowing have lower chances of injury. However, this changes when you get to more difficult whitewater kayaking and rafting. 

Whitewater kayaking can cause a lot of impacts, there’s a higher risk of being knocked off balance or capsized and this all ups the chances of injury. 

Whitewater rafting is the same, especially on class 4 and above rivers. There’s a risk of capsizing and the larger vessels are much more unwieldy and need more coordination to recover from. 

Also, because there are more people in a single raft, it’s easy for them to get in each other’s way in the event of a capsize. Being struck in the head by an errant paddle or knee is much more likely when rafting than kayaking, not to mention crashing into rocks

rafting

Kayaking vs Rafting: Pros and Cons

As with any comparison, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of kayaking vs rafting, to gain a deeper picture of how these two water activities shape up against one another. Let’s take a closer look at the positives as well as the potential downsides. 

Kayaking

ProsCons
Scales to skill levelHard to gauge progress
Can be done alone or in a groupHard to get experienced guides
Much easier to get into than other types of boatingBigger learning curve for harder forms of kayaking.

Pros of Kayaking

Kayaking is a fantastic activity for all kinds of people – you can gently cruise down an easy river or brave rough waters and vast seas. It is one of the few activities that can make you feel free. 

Kayaking has something to offer everyone, leisurely river cruises or heart-pounding  whitewater kayaking trips. There’s much more scope and flexibility in kayaking than there is in other water sports. 

Kayaking can be a reflective solo experience or a fun group adventure and anything in between. Once you learn the basics (which doesn’t take long) and you stick to an easier river or water body you can go it alone quite successfully. 

Kayaking is easy to pick up for beginners, the basic paddling technique can be learned in 30 minutes. There are plenty of places offering courses for beginners, and you’ll have tons of support along the way. 

Cons of Kayaking

While kayaking is a great activity and can offer an incredible experience to anyone willing to master its intricacies, there are also some negatives to consider. 

It’s very difficult to gauge your improvement in kayaking, there are so many different types to do that it’s difficult to see if your overall technique and skill are improving once you’re out of the beginner stages. In fact, intermediate kayakers sometimes have to unlearn bad habits they pick up. 

If you want to engage in more intense whitewater paddling or go on more difficult ocean cruises, then you’re going to need an experienced guide or mentor to show you the ropes. These more challenging forms of kayaking aren’t something that you should just throw yourself into and hope for the best.

Once you get more advanced there are more skills to pick up, for example, if you want to embark on a solo ocean trip your kayaking skills have got to be top-notch, it should be second nature to do solo recoveries and you’ll need some decent navigation skills. This presents quite a learning curve for the unprepared. 

Rafting

ProsCons
Easy and fun family activityNeeds a group (can’t enjoy solo)
Clear progressionProgression depends on your team
Great way to exerciseGets a lot more dangerous as you advance

Pros of Rafting

Rafting is some of the most fun you can have on an inflatable boat and the lower class rivers are great fun for the whole family or a group of friends. It’s a great way to teach kids in real-time the advantages of teamwork and the adults are guaranteed to have a good time (unless you’re averse to getting wet). 

The river classification system offers a clear progression path, although the difficulty jump between a class 3 and class 4 river can be a big surprise to unprepared teams. 

Finally, rafting is a fantastic way to exercise, it works your body, and coordinating with your team also works your brain to an equal degree. Rafting is great exercise, but also so much fun that you won’t even notice. 

Cons of Rafting

Now, before you pack up and go rafting, there are also some disadvantages to consider. 

Firstly, rafting isn’t a solo sport. This is a deal breaker for some people, and you’re probably going to want 5 (maybe up to 9) people who are willing to raft with you. In some friendship groups and families this might not be a problem but in others, this might not be possible.

How quickly you advance depends not just on your own performance but on your team. So, if you’re eager to take on the hardest challenges rafting has to offer but your family or friends aren’t so keen, you’re going to have to look to make your own team. 

Finally, rafting gets significantly more dangerous as you go up the river classes. This is no joke, you can capsize into rushing water, and be crushed against rocks. While these injuries aren’t incredibly common, the risk is there. 

rafting 1

Kayaking vs Rafting: Which Is More Expensive?

Most rafting is usually organized by companies that charge for day trips and these can cost between $70 to over $150. This adds up if you plan to go rafting frequently. 

Kayaks can also be rented for time slots or for a period of time and can cost between $50 to over $200. Kayaks can cost between hundreds to thousands of dollars. It’s well worth making an investment to buy your own kayak if you plan to do it frequently. 

Kayaking vs Rafting: Safety

Safety depends entirely on the individual and what kind of experience they’re looking for. Both a leisurely kayak trip and an easy class I river raft aren’t going to impose any serious safety concerns

However, once you get more advanced things start to change, for example – challenging whitewater boating (both kayaking and rafting) ups the chances of injury. Going on a solo ocean kayak trip presents a certain risk and class IV and above rafting rivers are no joke. 

Conclusion

Both kayaking and rafting have their strengths and weaknesses, however, they are both well worth the time and investment. While we obviously have a kayaking bias (it’s our specialty, after all), we can definitely see the merits of both. Hopefully, the information presented here can help you decide which is more suitable for you. 

We hope you enjoyed reading the article and please comment if you have your own insights to add about kayaking vs rafting. 

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