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How efficient is travel in a canoe, in terms of effort/time required to cover distance?

Or kayak, pirogue, any kind of small boat that is moved by paddling instead of sail or motor - is there a significant difference between the different kinds of such small boats in this context?

Assuming the current is neither with nor against you, say on a lake, swamp, the sea (staying near the coast, going parallel to the coast, on a calm day, with intent to land if the weather turns rough, of course such craft are not suitable for going out to sea), or crossing a wide river?

Say as a baseline, a person in good shape can walk something like twenty miles a day. Now paddling a small boat, you are using your arms instead of your legs for propulsion, but on the other hand the water is supporting your weight; do these factors cancel each other out? Which factor wins? What other factors are there that I'm not taking into account?

In terms of miles per day that can be covered, how does it compare to walking?

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    I guess it's more an advantage in terms of possibility than speed. If you're travelling north-south in a landscape like this, you might as well go over water in the first place instead of trying to walk around all the lakes. – phipsgabler Feb 15 at 10:12
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    "Going parallel to the coast" does not mean "no tidal currents". For example along the entire east coast of the UK, there are tidal currents of 2 to 3 mph parallel to the coast which are the same order as the speed of a canoe (and they don't cancel out in the long term - there is an "average" current flowing from north to south along the coast) – alephzero Feb 15 at 18:33
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    You say that you use "your arms instead of your legs for propulsion", suggesting your arms will get tired before your legs will. However, that is only true if you use poor technique. See my answer to outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/20372/… which suggests that you should be using your core muscles the most. It's specifically about kayaking but the same principle also applies to canoeing, SUPing and rowing. – Martin F Feb 15 at 19:03
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    It also depends if there is water under the canoe. Once I was at a place, we took a break somewhere further from the canoe and when we came back the tied was low and we had to carry or canoe. That certainly takes longer than walking (without a canoe). – Michel Keijzers Feb 15 at 20:47
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    It all depends on whether you are going upstream or downstream. ;) – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Feb 15 at 20:53
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The canoe has three huge advantages:

  • it works in the absence of paths or trails
  • it can carry enormous loads
  • adding paddlers to it makes it go faster

The first is probably the most important. I've paddled a distance while someone else walks (for various reasons) and if the person is walking across lawn, it's about the same, and if I'm into the wind I'm probably slower. But if the person is trying to get through a forest with no trail, or is going up a ridge and back down it even on a trail, I am faster. Most of the places I take canoes to are not reachable any other way.

When I canoe camp, we double-trip our portages, meaning each person does the portage twice. One of these four person-trips is for the boat (and accessories like lifejackets, paddles, bailer etc) but the other three are for stuff. And a portage pack can be HEAVY - 90 pounds isn't unusual - since you only need to stagger 500m with it. One person walking alone might need to take 5 or 10 trips to carry that amount of stuff.

Walking, since it's a parallel activity, is as slow as the slowest person. But a canoe can accommodate someone who isn't even paddling, and even a weak paddler will help the canoe go faster than if they weren't there. (They don't need to be particularly skilled on non-moving water, as long as they don't actively paddle backwards as some small children like to do.)

So, if you're all alone, and considering strolling down a grassy UK riverbank with no load vs taking a boat for that trip, it is possibly the same "efficiency". But if you have any cargo or passengers, or even other participants, and especially if the walking path has elevation changes or there is no path: the boat wins.

Some numbers: in Quetico and the BWCA folks average 3 miles an hour, keeping in mind that time is lost to portaging, checking out a cool waterfall, stopping to take pictures, eating lunch etc, suggesting that the times when the canoe moves forward it is more than 3 mph. Another article about kayaking says 3-4 miles per hour and compares it to hiking in both speed and how much of it you can do in a day. Just remember that you can't walk 3 mph carrying 90 pounds through trackless bush :-)

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  • You mentioned "adding people to it makes it go faster". I think you might have meant "adding more skilled paddlers to it makes it go faster". Non-paddlers will slow it down, as can poorly skilled paddlers, depending on how poorly they paddle. – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Feb 15 at 20:56
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    a poorly skilled paddler will only slow it down by things like actively paddling backwards or extended ruddering -- and luckily the only people who do that consistently are small children who don't have the strength to slow it down a lot. However you are right that adding a passenger won't help (oddly it doesn't particularly slow it) so I'll edit that. – Kate Gregory Feb 15 at 21:01
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    I've been propelling canoes for over 40 years, and I've had lots of nonskilled folks in my boat of many different ages. Perhaps you would dismiss me as nonskilled, but I've never been held back by beginner passengers other than the ruddering. Maybe they work out they need to be in rhythm; maybe I could be even more amazingly efficient if only I was "creating a flow"; but I happily get where I need to be and so do my companions and that's what matters to me. – Kate Gregory Feb 15 at 21:22
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    @KateGregory drag on displacement-hulled vessels is mostly determined by the length of the waterline. Because canoes typically have very steep, or even vertical sides at the waterline, this doesn't change substantially as the canoe is loaded up and sits lower in the water. Instead you only increase the weaker components of drag depending on some sort of effective cross-section. This is probably why taking on passengers doesn't seem to slow the canoe much, and a second paddler doesn't need to be especially competent to speed it up – Tristan Feb 16 at 16:07
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    As a frequent visitor to the BWCA, I want to validate Kate Gregory's claims about hauling a lot of stuff, she isn't remotely unique in this respect. BWCA travelers like to camp like kings and often haul heavy cast iron cookware, camping chairs, coolers full of meat under ice, and other stuff that would be unheard of on backpacking trips, because the effort required to haul it is so low. One year shortly after ice-out a group hauled a half-keg of beer with them in the canoe. Even with all that stuff, you can still cover a lot of distance. – whatsisname Feb 16 at 19:23
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The most efficient boat design is fairly straightforward. Rowing is more efficient than paddling, because anchoring the oar to the hull allows oars to be longer than paddles and longer levers are more efficient. Facing backwards allows you to use the muscles in your legs, which is also more efficient. None of the gains are likely to convince white water rafters to give up their forward vision and the ability to quickly remove paddles from danger.

As far as the hull goes speed is proportional to the length of the waterline; a displacement hull generally has a top speed of 1.34 times the square root of its waterline. So the narrow, long boat wins! It's also pretty unsuitable for standing on because it's less stable. You won't see life canoes replacing life boats any time soon.

All of this should bear out what you'll see in racing events, long thin hulls rowed with moving seats and long oars. But how much more efficient is it than walking? That's a trick question.

If we compared the classic walking and paddling speed estimates of 3 and 3.5 mph it looks like a close call. But that's hugely misleading because the person paddling is also moving a boat! Unless you're willing to entertain the idea that most people wouldn't walk any slower while carrying or dragging a canoe or kayak then it should be clear that boating is way more efficient since it moves more mass faster at the same level of effort.

It's even more lopsided if you have multiple people because the boat allows you to pool power. Maybe five marathoners can travel further in day than five guys in canoes. They almost certainly can't beat five guys in a single hull. (Guys who can switch off and rest if they've got a lead.) Rowing/paddling is ludicrously more efficient if you have multiple people or cargo.

Even if you have a single person consider the case of Frank Rothwell, the oldest man to row solo across the Atlantic. He covered 3,000 miles in just under 57 days, or roughly 52 miles per day. He was 70 years old at the time. Obviously that's quite a bit better than 20 miles per day, and it's in the open ocean.

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The typical speed of a canoe on calm water is at least the same as a person walking along a smooth path, about 3 mph.

If you are walking along a road, then a bicycle or a car would be the most efficient means.

A more meaningful comparison would be between a canoe on a river and hiking through the bush.

For the Voyageurs, the canoe was by far the best choice. Without an established path to follow, walking in thick woods could achieve as little as one or two miles a day, and they would be very exhausting and potentially injurious miles.

When there's a choice, comparing a canoe to walking isn't a reasonable comparison.

If you are comparing a canoe to a row-boat though, the canoe is far more streamlined and efficient, better able to handle shallow water and rapids, and much easier to portage around falls. You can also see where you're going.

A dozen or more voyageurs in a large canoe.

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    A practical boat on still water should be a little quicker than you say. My old white-water kayak (Eskimo Diablo, so long by modern WW standards) could maintain 6km/h for a couple of hours (3.75mph) on a canal with moderate effort. The occupants of an open canoe (2 people, but don't know the length) and a touring kayak on the same trip hardly had to put any effort in. – Chris H Feb 15 at 9:33
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    @ChrisH, right. I simply got the speed from a quick how fast is a canoe search. (My own limited experience is that canoes can be quite fast, but until one becomes accustomed to it, a lot of effort is wasted continually readjusting one's body from one uncomfortable position to another.) – Ray Butterworth Feb 15 at 14:31
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Your question mixes two things together which are actually very different:

How efficient ... in terms of effort/time required to cover distance

Boats of all kinds are really efficient in terms of what you call "effort". You can move a lot of weight with them, while expending little energy. Speed actually reduces that efficiency, that's why the big transport ships are so slow. Human-powered boats are also slow, but they are still very efficient.

Others already gave a baseline speed for a kayak or one-seater canoe, which is around 5-7 km/h under perfect conditions (but no flow). The problem: this gives you very little information on the actual time and effort you need to get somewhere under realistic circumstances. So here a few scenarios:

Comfortable body of water. A good example for a long tour would be the TID. This is the yearly kayak tour on the Danube, from Ingolstadt and ends at the Black sea. This is 2516 km, and the time schedule for 2021 foresees 74 days for it. That's around 40 km per day, 6 days a week. This is considered a leisurely pace for a large group - a determined experienced paddler does the Rhine (Iffezheim-Rotterdam, 698 km) in 4 days of 16 to 18 hours of steady paddling, and the Unkel marathon (111 km) gets done in 8-10 hours (note that people who go on that marathon can sustain high speeds for a long time).

These times are specific to rivers similar to the Danube and Rhine - huge rivers flowing through a plain, some flow speed helping you, the beds straightened for commercial boat transports, with few sluices to carry your boat around. They are also specific to 1-seater touring kayaks. Competition kayaks, multi-seater canoes and regatta rowboats can go at higher speeds, but can only negotiate large calm rivers, small lakes and artificial channels (small ones, not the Suez!).

If you are trying to cross this type of river, you will still end up downstream from where you started, because stretches without noticeable flow are not so common. It is up to you to decide whether the effort to run back to the place where your hypothetical hiker ends up (let's say they are using a bridge) counts towards your efficiency calculation or not.

Mountains If you change the conditions, the speed will change, both in absolute terms and relative to somebody trying to cover the same ground on foot. You have a steep river like the Glenner? If you have whitewater experience and know the river, you will go down pretty quickly, and without even trying to paddle forward a lot - but you will suddenly lose a lot of time if somebody in your group swims, and you will still be beat from all the maneuvering in the whitewater. If you are doing expedition paddling though, you will spend more time scouting if the next rapid is navigable, than actually paddling. If there are places where you have to take out the boat to go around deadly rapids, you will be much slower than a hiker on a path - but if the hiker has to go around a mountain peak while you drive a shortcut through a gorge, you will still be much quicker.

If you are in a heavily populated mountain, chances are the stream won't be whitewater, but engineered to death. This will make you slower than you think, not only because of having to get out, inspect and possibly carry around at a large number of weirs, but also because of the slow backed-up water before these weirs. And hopefully, you will have bought a river guide to know the sections in which the river is guided in underwater tunnels.

Wilderness If you are on a large river system in plains outside of civilization, think something like the Okawango delta or the Amazonas, you will try to get your 4-5 km/h - but you will constantly have trouble running into thick vegetation, and if you can't go around it, you may need to backtrack a lot. Also there is unfriendly wildlife - the native people know where the hippo pools are, you might not. The hiker will be in a much worse situation than you, though.

Sea When hugging a coastline, or making small to mid-sized crossings on some archipelago, your speed will be affected by currents, tides, winds, and wave size. Unlike on a stream, you can have all of it go your way one moment and impeding you the next. I know you tried to restrict the conditions to being as benign as possible, but even on inner seas, the water is never completely calm and current-free, and tons of water, even when moving slowly, have much more strength than a tiny human in a tiny boat on top of them. You will get a bit of the same problems, especially wind, on any lake large enough to use the word "travel" with a straight face.

Note that small rowing craft is not all that unsuitable for large crossings. There are modern one-person ocean crossings (e.g. Sarah Outen), and the Vikings reached America in their ships that are about 15-30 meters long. While they did have a sail, the technology was so primitive that they had to be rowed unless the wind was coming from the perfect direction.

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    "that's why the big transport ships are so slow" - Big container ships nowadays cruise upwards of 20-25 knots, which is fast enough to water-ski behind if you were being pulled by one. – whatsisname Feb 17 at 19:44

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