Is Paddle Boarding Harder than Kayaking? We Compare

Paddle sports are among the most popular outdoor activities for people of all ages.  In recent years, recreational kayaking and stand up paddle boarding have been the two paddle sports with the steadiest increases in popularity.  (Source:  The Outdoor Foundation)  At first glance, stand up paddle boarding seems the more difficult of the two because you stand rather than sit, but looks can be deceiving.

In general, stand up paddle boarding is easier than kayaking.  For the average person with ordinary athletic skills and a decent fitness level, paddle boarding requires less effort than kayaking.  Paddle boards are also easier to carry, transport, and store at home.

All forms of paddle sports allow participants to get outdoors and enjoy the beautiful scenery while getting a great workout.  Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are two disciplines that have loyal enthusiasts, and both attract newcomers.  Read on to find out why paddle boarding is easier than kayaking.

What Makes Paddle Boarding Easier than Kayaking?

In several key ways, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is easier to do than kayaking.  This is particularly true for beginners, as the learning curve for picking up the early basics, such as getting on and off the two types of paddling equipment, is considerably steeper for kayaking.  Even aspects such as carrying the paddle board over land and getting it into the water, are less stressful compared to a kayak.

Here are a few categories comparing the difficulty levels of paddle boarding and kayaking:

Boarding and Disembarking

Because paddle boards and kayaks float and move on the surface of the water, boarding and disembarking are among the fundamental skills that must be learned by participants of these paddle sports.  When it comes to getting on and off of them, the process is more easily done on paddle boards than kayaks.

Boarding Stand Up Paddle Boards: 

To get on your stand up paddle board, follow these steps:

  • The easiest way to get on a paddle board is by starting in knee-deep water and sitting on the center of the board.  
  • From the sitting position, work one knee on to the board, followed by the other knee.  
  • Then, it is a matter of transitioning from knee to foot on one leg and then the other, all the while using your hands and arms to provide balance points.
  • From the kneeling position, slowly stand upright and be sure to maintain shoulder width between your feet.  

Note: Paddling from the kneeling position is sometimes recommended for beginners as it is more stable; kneeling is also a safe position for when conditions on the water get dangerous or when fatigue is starting to set in, and you need a position in which to rest and catch your breath.

Disembarking from a Stand Up Paddle Board:

Disembarking from a stand up paddle board can be as simple as stepping off when in shallow water, jumping off to the side in deeper water, or performing the on-boarding steps in reverse order.  Since the only encumbrance between rider and board is the safety leash, getting yourself off of a paddle board is almost intuitive. (Source:  Dick’s Sporting Goods – Pro Tips)

Boarding and Disembarking from Kayaks:

Getting in and out of kayaks can be tricky, particularly for beginners.  Most kayaks are the sit-in type, where the rider’s legs slide inside a snug cockpit.  Because kayaks are so often paddled in open water, kayakers should be able to board and disembark from different situations, such as from a dock, a sandy beach, and a rocky shoreline.

  • From a shoreline or beach where it is safe for the kayak to rest on the ground (e.g., no sharp rocks or gravel), the rider can simply board the kayak with relative ease. 
  • From shallow water (lower than waist to knee-deep), the kayaker can straddle the kayak and get in by bringing one leg at a time into the cockpit.
  • The most difficult entries are made from a dock above the water, mainly if the height is substantial.  In such cases, getting into the kayak is a series of carefully orchestrated moves, to lower yourself one leg at a time on to the kayak, then get inside the cockpit, all the while transferring your body weight from the dock onto the kayak.  It is easier said than done, but this is a skill that should eventually be learned by all serious kayakers. (Source:  NRS)

Although for experienced kayaker entries and exits are probably second nature and done without much thought, the processes of getting in and out of the vessel are undeniably more complex than boarding and disembarking a stand up paddle board.  For beginners and those with physical limitations, the scales tip in favor of SUP as far as this vital aspect of ridership is concerned.

Getting Back Onboard after Falling into the Water

Perhaps no scenario highlights the differences between getting on to a stand up paddle board and a kayak more than onboarding from the water.  This is a real-life situation that can occur at any time, often without warning (such as after spilling into the water) and getting out of this predicament is far easier done with a paddle board than a kayak.

Even the most experienced of riders will spill into the water at some point, perhaps far from shore or in deep water.  Getting back on a paddle board is almost intuitive, with the built-in handle making the task as simple as:

  • Grabbing hold of the center of the board
  • Allowing the legs to float up
  • Kicking while pulling the board toward you
  • Sliding yourself back onto the board

Getting back into a kayak after capsizing is a more complicated series of maneuvers:  

  • While in the water, the kayaker must right the kayak if it flipped over.  
  • Then, not only must the rider grab hold of the cockpit rim while kicking their legs, but upon scrambling onto the stern (rear) side of the kayak, they must slide their legs into the cockpit and simultaneously corkscrew the rest of their body into the seat. 
  • If the kayak took on water during the spill (e.g., flipped upside down), a bilge pump must then be used to evacuate water from inside the cockpit after all is said and done.

Launching and Landing Stand Up Paddle Boards and Kayaks

Similar to boarding and disembarking, launching and landing to and from water are easier done on paddle boards than kayaks:

  • Because of their width, stand up paddle boards provide a stable platform on which to stand.
  • Launching from a beach or shoreline is simply a matter of boarding from at least ankle-deep water and pushing off with the paddle and paddling toward deeper water. 
  • Kneeling at the beginning of launch provides added stability.

On the other hand, as far as kayaks are concerned:

  • Launching a kayak is made challenging by the fact that you must first get into the cockpit.
  • Then, you must either start paddling if entry is made from the open water or push off using your paddle if entry is made from a beach or shoreline.  
  • In either scenario, the kayaker is entirely reliant upon upper body strength to get the kayak from a beached position into deep enough water that paddling can begin.

As far as landings go, SUPs are stable and light enough that waist-deep waters are safe zones for disembarking and bringing the paddle board on to dry land.  Once your footing is secure, and you can walk, the SUP can be simply carried the rest of the way back to shore.  In this sense, stand up paddle boarding may be the most convenient and portable of all paddle sports.

Landing kayaks, on the other hand, requires a bit of planning as far as locating a suitable landing spot from the water.  Then, it is a matter of safely exiting from the cockpit and bringing your kayak on to the shore.  If the beach is sandy, you may get away with dragging your kayak inland; if it is rocky, dragging is not an option as you may damage the hull.  The kayak will either have to be carried or towed using a kayak cart.

It is at this point I would like to call attention to Carlo’s post about paddle board-kayak hybrids. They may offer the sweet spot you’re looking for in your first paddling adventure.

Paddling, Maneuverability, and Stability on the Water

Common sense would suggest that with its rider seated inside the cockpit just above the surface of the water, the center of gravity of an occupied kayak is far lower than a stand up paddle board with a paddler on board.  As a general rule, a lower center of gravity is more stable as far as maintaining an upright position when traveling on water.

While it is true that the higher the center of gravity, the less stable a paddle board becomes, SUP instructors will tell you, even first-timers pick up stand up paddling quickly and are soon on their way.  One of the first techniques taught to beginners is paddling while kneeling to acclimatize to the board.  (Source:  Travel Channel)

One advantage to stand up paddling from a navigation perspective is its vantage point.  Because the rider is standing, as opposed to sitting, not only is the field of vision far wider (practically 360°), but forward visibility is much greater. Any obstacles or conditions can be seen much further in advance than when seated inside the cockpit of a kayak.

From a maneuverability perspective, the most agile of open-water stand up paddle boards will give any sea kayaks a good run for their money.  With an experienced rider holding the paddle, a stand up paddle board will go anywhere you want it to, much the same way as a kayak.  SUP is very popular with surfers who find it to be excellent cross-training and a great way to pass the time when the waves are not cooperating. I’ve written these tips on paddle board surfing.

Transport

Unless you happen to live directly along a shoreline, at the end of a dock, or at the water’s edge, every paddle boarding or kayaking excursion will require you to transport your equipment to the water.  There are two aspects to this to keep in mind:  there is the transport of the paddle board or kayak from your home to the destination, and then there is the manual carrying of the gear from your vehicle to the water.

In both respects, transporting a paddle board is the far more manageable task, and here is why:

  • Paddle boards are significantly lighter (from one-half to one-quarter the weight of a kayak).
  • Paddle boards are up to two feet shorter than kayaks and thus less cumbersome.
  • Paddle boards have a handle in the center of the board that can be used to carry them.
  • Most paddle boards can be tucked under your arm and carried.
  • Paddle boards can be easily lifted over your head to mount on a car roof rack.
  • Even with a kayak cart, there may be times when a 100+ pound kayak must be carried (such as when going over sand or rocky paths).
  • Inflatable boards are even more convenient.

Physical Requirements

In terms of required athletic ability and overall fitness, stand up paddle boarding is less demanding than kayaking.  Kayak cockpits are snug and confined, so getting in and out of them requires some whole-body physical dexterity.  When this process is attempted in open water, the physical demands are even greater.  In contrast, if you can slowly stand up from a kneeling position and can balance with your feet shoulder-width apart, getting on a stand up paddle board is just a matter of a little practice.

As far as paddling, it is essential to note the critical differences between stand up paddle boarding and kayaking:

  • A kayak paddle is double-bladed, meaning it paddles from both ends.  In contrast, the paddle for SUPs has one blade at the end, and a handle at the other (the handle and the paddle shaft form a T).  
  • Because the rider is standing, SUP paddles are longer than kayak paddles.
  • SUP paddling is considered a whole-body workout that utilizes the rider’s back muscles and core muscle groups, in addition to the arms and shoulders.  
  • Even the legs contribute to SUP paddling, as the proper form requires that the legs be slightly bent at the knees.  
  • Kayak paddling, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on the arms and shoulders, and stamina and fatigue are particular concerns for beginners.
  • Because the same muscle groups are used for extended periods, there is a higher risk of repetitive motion injuries among kayakers, particularly in the arms and shoulders.

(Source:  GILI Sports – Blog)

What are Other Key Differences between Paddle Boarding and Kayaking?

One need only look at a paddle board and kayak to recognize that there are significant differences between these two types of paddling equipment, both in their appearance and how they are ridden.  Recreational kayaking is more popular than paddle boarding (in fact, it is the most popular of all paddle sports). However, paddle boarding is the only other form of paddling that is trending upward in terms of new participants.

Here are a few key differences between them:

Tale of the Tape – Comparing Size & Weight

Although their sizes pale in comparison to boats, paddle boards and kayaks are much larger than most people expect, particularly in terms of length.  Because a single rider so often uses them, their handling and transport are designed to be manageable by one person.  Nevertheless, because of their length, paddle boards and kayaks can be cumbersome to transport and carry and troublesome to store.

Paddle Boards – Typical Lengths and Weights

Paddle board shapes and sizes can vary depending on the particular SUP discipline you are pursuing.  For instance, a paddle board that will be taken on a leisurely tour of a shoreline with calm waters will be shaped differently than a model that is designed for SUP racing (yes, it is a thing).  All stand up paddle boards resemble a cross between a surfboard and a boogie board with a distinctly oblong shape.

There are three basic categories of stand up paddle boards:

  • Short (under 10 feet in length) – These are ideal for more active forms of stand up paddle boarding, such as riding waves.  Because of their shorter length, paddle boards in this category are usually more maneuverable and easier to steer.  Smaller boards designed for children are typically around eight feet in length.
  • Medium (between 10 to 12 feet in length) – Paddle boards in this category are considered great all-around boards, well-suited for different types of SUP activities, such as touring, long-distance paddling, and even stand up paddle board yoga.
  • Long (between 12 ½ to 14 feet in length – With increased length comes greater ability to travel in a straight line (known as tracking in SUP circles), at higher sustained speeds for longer distances.  Long-distance touring and racing models fall into this category.

Stand up paddle board widths typically range from 25 inches to 36 inches (roughly two to three feet), and they usually correlate to the board length and the paddling discipline.  For instance, boards that will be used frequently for yoga tend to be at least 30 inches wide, while narrower boards (less than 30 inches) are popular with SUP racers and surfers. (Source:  REI- Coop)

As far as weight is concerned, most rigid stand up paddle boards feature foam cores with epoxy coatings and are therefore surprisingly light.  The average rigid board weighs around 30 pounds, with some weighing as little as 15 pounds on the low end of the scale and as heavy as 40 pounds on the high end.  Generally speaking, lighter boards are more maneuverable but also more fragile, while heavier boards are more stable on the water and more durable.

With the heaviest model weighing the same as a young child or even a medium-sized dog, paddle boards are far more comfortable than kayaks to transport and carry.  They are easier to lift and mount to car roof racks when driving to a SUP location. They are easier to carry from the vehicle to the water as well, even over relatively long distances. (Source:  Standup Journal Magazine)

Kayaks – Typical Lengths and Weights

Like stand up paddle boards, kayaks come in different shapes and sizes, depending on their intended purpose.  There are even kayaks where the rider sits on top of the kayak much like a SUP, but the overwhelming majority of kayaks are the sit-in type, where the rider is seated in a semi-enclosed opening known as a cockpit.

These are the most common types of kayaks:

  • Recreational – This category is perhaps the broadest as it can include everything from beginner-friendly kayaks to all-purpose kayaks for experienced riders.  Recreational kayaks typically range from 9 feet to 14 feet in length.
  • Touring – This type of kayak is longer and sleeker than recreational models, with lengths that typically exceed 14 feet in length, and widths that are 24” (two feet) or less.  Where recreational kayaks are ideal for an afternoon on the water, touring kayaks are more suitable for longer excursions as their longer dimensions mean better tracking and speed in the water.
  • Sea – With lengths that exceed 16 feet, sea kayaks are specially designed for sustained speed and gliding across large bodies of water.  With widths that max out at 22” (less than two feet), sea kayaks are less stable than recreational and touring kayaks and therefore require a more experienced rider.

Other types of kayaks include those specifically designed for fishing, racing, riding the surf, and going down whitewater rapids. (Source:  Paddling Magazine)

As far as weight, the numbers for kayaks can vary widely depending on the particular type of material used in its construction.  Generally speaking, kayaks are significantly heavier than stand up paddle boards due to the molded plastic, composite, and sometimes fiberglass materials from which they are fabricated.  For instance, touring kayaks (which are intermediate in terms of length) can weigh up to 105 pounds without any gear or accessories attached. (Source:  Paddling.com)

With lengths up to two feet longer than the longest stand up paddle board and weights up to two-and-a-half times as much, kayaks are undeniably more challenging to carry (especially alone), let alone to lift and mount to the roof of a vehicle.  From a logistics perspective, stand up paddle board ownership is the far easier option.

Portage

It is not uncommon during a paddling excursion, mainly where freshwater waterways are concerned, that a rider must carry their gear over land.  This can occur when there is an obstacle that cannot be circumnavigated (e.g., large debris blocking a river or stream or unsurpassable rapids) or if a particular waterway simply cannot be safely navigated.  There can even be instances when a river or stream no longer exists due to drought conditions.

Known as portage, the difference between carrying a 40-lb stand up paddle board under your arm and lifting a kayak weighing twice that amount over your head and trudging from one waterway to another is significant.  Although kayak carts are useful on smooth surfaces, they are useless on sand and dirt.  In the world of kayaking rivers, streams, and lakes, portaging is a reality of the sport that participants know all too well.  (Source:  Kayak Help)

Home Storage

With lengths ranging from 10 to 14 feet, getting into paddle boarding for the first time does require some planning as far as where to store boards when not in use.  Fortunately, because they are so light and relatively flat, they are easily stored in garages or even tucked away under beds or behind furniture.  (Inflatable SUPs can be stored in a customized case the size of a large backpack.)

For those of you with two paddle boards to store, the Suspenz Double Up SUP Stand from Amazon will do a great job.

On the other hand, measuring up to 16 feet in length and sometimes longer while weighing up to 105 pounds, kayaks pose a significant challenge when storing.  Many owners resort to elaborate pulley systems that elevate their kayaks high above the ground or installing specialized racks in their garages to stow kayaks out of the way.

Even the amount of time required to prepare for a day’s paddling adventure differs between SUP and kayaking.  

  • A paddle board can be mounted on a roof rack in a matter of minutes without breaking a sweat. 
  • A kayak must be taken down from its storage location and laboriously transferred to the vehicle and securely fastened before you can even hit the road.

Final Thoughts

If finding a new form of exercise and getting outdoors more often are on your list of things to do, then giving paddle sports a shot may be the thing for you.  Kayaking is enjoyed by millions and is the most popular form of paddling (for many good reasons).  

But if you are looking for an accessible entry point into the paddling arena, with a gentle learning curve and scalable goals, then stand up paddle boarding may be just the right thing for you. With minimal effort, you could be an excellent SUP paddler in no time!


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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