Why Kayaks are Faster than SUPs (My Personal Experience)


While the SUP and the kayak may both require you to paddle to get across a lake or stream, there are several key differences between these two types of watercraft. The sum of all these differences results in a speed discrepancy between stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. As a result, many water sports enthusiasts that dabble in both water pursuits often wonder, which type of watercraft is faster?

A kayak is faster than a SUP. A kayak is designed to promote speed and stability, making it easier to travel quickly along the water. The top speed of a kayak will vary depending on its size and weight, the fitness of the paddler, and the water conditions present.

Kayak and SUP’s are both solid modes of transportation for any water enthusiast since they’re so satisfying to ride. This article will take a comprehensive look at several advantages that a kayak has over a SUP in the realm of speed, as well as a couple of easy ways that you can make your kayak even faster.

Why Kayaks are Faster than Stand Up Paddle Boards

If your goal is to go as fast as possible on the water, the kayak is the ideal choice compared to the SUP. This is because kayaks are streamlined to move from point A to point B faster than any paddleboard on the market. There are several reasons why this is, which we will analyze in greater detail below.

Reason #1: Kayaks Offer a Higher Stroke Rate Due to the Dual-Bladed Paddle

For one, kayak paddles are dual-bladed, whereas SUP paddles are single-bladed. To the untrained eye, this may appear to be an insignificant difference. But this is actually one of the primary contributing factors to why kayaks are so much faster than SUPs.

The dual-bladed kayak paddle allows riders to paddle on both sides quickly to maintain a straight, direct path. In contrast, SUP riders must constantly switch their single-bladed paddle back and forth between the left and right sides to stay on a straight course.

Stand-up paddleboarders waste precious seconds when the paddle is in the middle of the transition phase between the left and right sides. When the paddle is not actively in the water propelling the board forward, the board is losing speed and momentum.

Kayakers have no such problem. They waste no time having to divvy a single blade between the two sides of the kayak. The dual-bladed kayak paddle eliminates this issue. Thus, kayakers save precious time by not having to go through a transition period. The kayak paddle spends considerably more time in the water relative to the SUP.

In short, kayakers don’t have to expend nearly as much energy trying to achieve the same speed as a stand-up paddleboarder due to the discrepancies in paddle design.

Reason #2: Kayaks are More Stable than SUP’s, Allowing Kayakers to Get More Power Behind Every Stroke

Moreover, kayaks are superior to SUPs in terms of stability, granting kayakers greater paddle stroke efficiency.

When seated comfortably within a kayak, you’re able to absorb the force of the waves far more easily compared to a stand-up paddleboard. The kayak is essentially a small boat, after all. It’s not meant to be a balancing act. It’s designed more as an efficient mode of transportation than anything else.

Stand-up paddleboards, on the other hand, require a certain degree of balance. The balance demanded to ride a SUP isn’t overwhelming, but the difference is palpable when compared to the likes of the kayak. Mind you; any board is accompanied by a bit of instability. Snowboards, skateboards, surfboards—they all call for balance from the rider just like a stand-up paddleboard.

Since paddle boarders don’t have as solid of a foundation to work with, they cannot generate as much power to force the board forward.

Imagine trying to hit a baseball on a slippery patch of ice. Yes, you may be able to hit the ball as far as you normally would, but it’s going to be a lot harder than if you were on solid ground. This is because some of your power is inevitably dissipated into the ice as you slide. The same concept applies to paddling on a SUP, except your power is dissipated into the board as it rocks.

Reason #3: Kayakers Conserve Energy by Sitting, Saving More Power for Paddling

Lastly, kayakers can preserve more of their energy by staying seated, allowing them to expend most of their energy on paddling.

Maintaining an upright posture on a stand-up paddleboard can become tiresome after a long stint on the water. You’re forced to use the stabilizing muscles in your lower legs to keep from toppling over. Bit by bit, this feeds off your energy reserve until it reaches the point where it affects your paddling rate.

This is not to say that kayaking doesn’t work your lower legs. Surprisingly, the lower legs do get activated since they act as synergists to the paddling motion (source). Although kayaking does work out the lower legs somewhat, the amount of stress that they are subjected to doesn’t compare to the perpetual leg muscle rigors of SUP.

Many people overlook this advantage, though it’s an important one to consider. A stand-up paddleboarder may be able to paddle hard at the start, but it’s hard to sustain that rapid pace over long distances. That subtle distinction between sitting and standing gives kayakers that little edge they need to speed along the water faster than stand-up paddleboarders.

Kayak Speed vs. SUP Speed: My Personal Experience

I am fortunate enough to have tried my hand at kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. In my own experience, I can say with confidence that it’s much easier to reach faster speeds on a kayak compared to a SUP.

This is mainly due to the reasons listed above. However, this phenomenon holds especially true in my case because I have flat feet. Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What does that have to do with anything?”

With flat feet, it’s much more challenging to sustain an upright position on the SUP for extended periods. Time and time again, my feet get so sore that I have to resort to paddling from a kneeling position so that my feet could recover. Unfortunately, trying to paddle quickly from a kneeling position is a lot easier said than done.

When I kayak, I never encounter this problem because I am not placing constant pressure on my feet. As a result, I can maintain a steady pace throughout the entire kayaking experience without needing to take nearly as many breaks.

To put it simply, I am convinced that kayaking is the far better option relative to the SUP when strictly looking at speed.

Top Racing Speed: Kayak vs. SUP

I can only do so much with words to prove to you that kayaks are faster than SUP’s, so I compiled the following clips to make a side-by-side comparison between the speeds of these two types of watercraft.

This first clip features some of the best kayakers the world has to offer. It’s a video of the USA Sprint Kayaking Team’s training session in Florida. Here, you can see the full extent of how fast kayakers can move along the water. A few canoe riders are sprinkled in as well, but you could ignore them for this comparison.

In this next clip, we will look at some highlights from the ISA World SUP Championships. These paddleboarders are some of the fastest out there. Watch this clip and make your judgments as to which watercraft is the fastest!

From these clips, the difference is evident. If a kayak racer is pitted against a SUP racer, I would strongly believe that the kayak racer would win 99 times out of 100.

Factors that Impact Kayak and SUP Speed

Several factors will determine how fast your kayak or SUP can go. We will analyze each of these factors on a case-by-case basis and investigate how they affect speed.

Skill Level

Your skill level will significantly impact how much speed you may get out of the kayak. Paddleboarders generally move slightly slower on average, but the top-level paddleboarders can outpace novice kayakers. Their vast experience on the water is what allows them to do this.

The average kayaker, moving on calm waters with an average kayak, will move near 3.5 miles an hour. This will help the kayaker move a mile in about 20 to 30 minutes with calm and clear waters (source). Paddleboarders move at a similar pace, though it is much closer to the higher end of 30 minutes instead of the lower end of 20 minutes.

This is a relatively easy pace, similar to a brisk walk, and can be maintained for a few hours with the right experience. But, of course, someone who is a beginner and who has to build up their endurance may expect to be a little slower.

A beginner kayaker may move closer to 2.5 to 3 miles per hour, while a more experienced kayaker may be closer to 4 miles per hour or faster. Some professional kayakers will reach speeds closer to 5 miles per hour as well.

Strength and Endurance

The rider’s fitness level also has a tremendous impact on the maximum potential speed of a kayak or SUP. This is especially prevalent when paddling longer distances, as stamina plays a much larger role.

Generally, natural athletes have a greater maximum speed capacity than the average person. If you work out regularly, you’re much more likely to go faster on a kayak or SUP since you can generate more force behind every paddle stroke and sustain that tempo for a longer period of time.

The importance of strength and endurance is the main reason that pacing is so key to kayaking and paddleboarding with speed. Starting any long-distance kayaking or paddleboarding session with a big burst of energy is a recipe for disaster. So instead, it’s recommended that you maintain a consistent stroke that you can uphold for an hour or more. This way, you don’t burn through your energy reserve, granting you the strength and endurance to push through the last leg of the expedition.

If you plan to kayak or paddleboard for more than one day, always remember your endurance during the journey. Your energy levels will almost always be lower after the first day. So expect the pace to slow down after that time and be realistic about your personal capabilities.

Water Conditions

The type of water conditions present will make a big difference as well. The harsher the conditions, the more energy you will have to devote to maintaining stability instead of paddling quickly.

For example, a flat, calm stream is often easier to traverse than the rough, open ocean water. The choppy ocean waves will have more than enough power to throw you off course, forcing you to take pains to realign the kayak on the appropriate path. In flat stream waters, this problem is practically nonexistent. You may get a couple of waves on occasion from passing speedboats, but these pale in comparison to the natural waves in the ocean.

In addition, you should also pay attention to current speeds. Kayakers and paddleboarders always focus their attention on the choppiness of the waves and neglect the importance of what sort of current the present winds and tide are creating.

If you paddle slower than the current, you will inevitably go backward. If you paddle at the same speed as the current, you won’t move anywhere. In short, you need to paddle faster than the current to make any distance at all.

Strong currents can make reaching fast speeds hard if you choose to go against them. If it’s safe to do so, paddle with the current to avoid this problem altogether. This way, you’ll actually have a chance at attaining your maximum paddling speed.

Design of Watercraft

In addition, the construction of the kayak and SUP plays a crucial role in speed since a more streamlined design can allow you to slice through the water at higher speeds.

There’s a vast assortment of kayak designs. The fastest kayaks are typically constructed with a beam of 22 inches (56 cm) or less, with a rounded hull shape because this minimizes resistance. Generally, longer kayaks are often faster as well. The long, sleek touring kayaks are the most conducive to speed.

While lighter kayaks may reach top speeds faster, they’re not as strong and will ultimately lose speed in the presence of windy conditions. Kayaks composed of diolene, carbon fiber, and fiberglass are largely considered faster than other models made of polyethylene.

There’s also a huge selection of stand-up paddleboards. In fact, there’s a whole section of stand-up paddleboards that are specially designed for racing. In contrast to surf or cruise SUP’s, racing SUP’s are the longest, narrowest boards available. This minimizes resistance, granting these SUPs the ability to glide along the water effortlessly at a steady pace (source).

Although these paddleboards are definitely made for speed, they’re not recommended to beginners because they have a reduced surface area. This makes it difficult for novice paddlers to control. To get the most speed out of the racing SUP, you need to have some paddling experience under your belt.

Paddling Technique

Mastering the fundamentals of paddling technique has the capacity to make or break your speed. By paddling properly, you can propel yourself farther with every stroke and save yourself a boatload of energy for the latter portion of your kayak or paddleboarding trip.

For example, one aspect of paddling that kayakers struggle with is hand placement on the paddle. Many novice kayakers don’t get enough leverage behind their paddle strokes because of improper hand placement. They waste energy unnecessarily by not getting the most propulsion out of every stroke.

To figure out the best hand placement for you, place the paddle on top of your head and adjust your hands so that your elbows make right angles.

With SUP, novice paddleboarders are unaware of which direction the paddle blade should face. It seems backward, but the bend of the paddle blade should angle away from you, not towards you. When I was first trying my hand at paddleboarding, I struggled with this concept, and my speed definitely paid a hefty price for it.

If Paddle Boards are Slower than Kayaks, Why Would I Ever SUP?

With all of this newfound speed knowledge fresh in your mind, I may have unintentionally biased you against SUPs. Trust me, that was not my intention. SUP is actually one of my most favorite forms of water sport out there. It’s important to realize that although paddleboards are slightly slower than kayaks, they do supersede kayaks in other areas.

Ease of Transport

For one, the paddleboards are far more convenient to transport. A standard paddleboard is much lighter than a standard kayak. In fact, it’s feasible for one person to carry around a SUP on land. When transferring the paddleboard from your car to the water, for example, this is extremely advantageous.

Attempting to carry a kayak across the land by yourself is much more of a hassle. Plus, there is a greater risk that you may end up actually hurting yourself.

Unique Bird’s Eye View Perspective

Furthermore, SUP offers an unconventional view of the watery depths below.

This is one of the most alluring features of SUP, in my opinion. Whenever I want to go sightseeing in clear water, I gravitate towards SUP because I’m able to look down into the water and easily observe the aquatic life below.

With a kayak, such a thing is possible but not optimal. Craning my neck to look over the kayak’s side into the water never really appealed to me. I’d rather take the easy route and eliminate the problem by choosing to paddleboard instead.

You can find more information on why SUP is a great pastime by clicking over to my article 14 Reasons Why Stand Up Paddle Boarding Is So Appealing.

Conclusion

Both paddle boarding and kayaking can be enjoyable experiences to do on the water. No matter the speed you go, it’s a delight to move around a body of water on your own and see what nature has to offer. 

While a kayak can go faster than the paddleboard, many different factors could affect your speed. Even though paddleboards are slower, this doesn’t mean they’re an inferior alternative to kayaks. They’re just a different way to move about the water.

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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