Canoeing or kayaking is an excellent way of exploring natural or cultural landscapes along a suitable waterway. A canoe or kayak can navigate very shallow and narrow passages, where any boat would not fit, and brings the environment very close to the traveller. It is often a less arduous way to travel in the wilderness and gives a very different perspective on cultural landscapes. It is often also a reasonably cheap way of travelling.
While whitewater sports is one of the main uses of canoes and kayaks, this article concentrates on more quiet voyages. The odd rapids require some whitewater skills, but those who are not confident in taking their vessel down the rapids can instead portage (carry) it past it. Also experts do portaging, as some rapids may be unnavigable at low or high waters, and there may be overland passages (such as from a road to the waterway or between waterways).
Also sea kayaking has its own article, about voyages along coasts and across big lakes, where wind and large waves are major concerns.
Before going on a voyage, you should know enough about handling the vessel to estimate what distances can be pleasantly covered and what passages may be too difficult, have a basic understanding of possible risks, and have enough skill to recover from the worst case scenarios of your chosen voyage. This may involve going on a course before setting out. If the intended voyage is much beyond your experience, you should probably join a guided tour instead of going independently – which may be good also for the experienced, to get guiding for the local environment, culture and sights. Advice can usually be had also from firms renting equipment – some have tour planning and related arrangements as a major part of their business.
Unless you have somebody else responsible for navigating you will want to have a suitable map, ideally one with information about campsites etc. and about rapids. You might also want a route description, and at least if any archipelagos or overland passages are involved, also a compass. You should know where to expect rapids, so that you can land before them, for scouting them or for portage. Especially if there are open areas or risk of flash floods, check weather forecasts.
Often canoe and kayak voyages involve sleeping in a tent and making food outdoors. You will not have much shelter against the elements en route, so dress accordingly, have dry spare clothes and pack your belongings in watertight packages (there are special sacks for this, but other solutions may suffice). There is a risk of the vessel capsizing, so the bags should probably be fastened to hinder them from floating away. Water reflects sunlight, so have sunscreen and sunglasses.
Depending on the route you may or may not have shops, restaurants and hotels available. In undeveloped areas you will have to carry everything you need. If you are going to sleep in a tent and make food outdoors, check the relevant regulations. Some of the advice for wilderness backpacking may apply. Check that you do not have too much packing, especially if you have whitewater kayaks (little capacity) or if you are going to do any portaging.
A pair of canoes or kayaks will fit on the roof of a normal car and several can be taken on a trailer. If using other forms of transport a foldable or inflatable one can be the only practical solution. If you are renting your vessels, the business can usually arrange transport at least to the usual launching sites. Many businesses arranging tours or renting canoes will have life vests, watertight sacks and other necessary equipment.
Canoes have been common on most rivers since prehistoric times, often with many paddlers. The most common types of modern canoes and kayaks are based on the canoes of North American Indians and the kayaks of Greenland Inuits, respectively.
Both kayaks and canoes can be used for maneuvering down rapids, with whitewater kayaks probably the best at the more difficult ones, and both can also be used on large large lakes and along coasts, although sea kayaks may be best suited. The main strength of the canoe over the kayak is that it has more open space and can carry more passengers/luggage/cargo.
Both canoes and kayaks are usually built as solo or tandem, for one or two persons, but the typical kayak is solo and the typical canoe tandem, and most canoes can carry additional people (more or less comfortably), while a kayak cannot, except perhaps a child in the knee in quiet waters.
There are different compromises between fastness, maneuverability, wind resistance, stability, capacity, weight and so on. For kayaks the extremes are sea kayaks (suitable also for most lakes and for many larger rivers) and those for playing in whitewater (with extreme maneuverability). There are even foldable and inflatable ones, which may be practical if you need to bring your own. Get a vessel that suites your skills and plans.