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What’s the Difference between a Kayak or Canoe Expedition, Trip and Adventure?

Kayak camping on Lake Superior

It’s wintertime again, which means that I start to get all philosophical again. It’s probably from the lack of paddling. The only water time I’ve been getting lately is second rate, because it’s on the solid kind with cross country skis instead of the liquid kind with a kayak. Over the years, one topic that has interested me is a question of semantics and the intensity of multi-day paddling trips that we take. Truly, whatever the trip is, is whatever the trip is. But, I like to try and place a trip into some kind of category so that it registers in my mind correctly.

One way of categorizing paddling trips is to try and see if it’s an expedition, trip or adventure. To do that, we need definitions of what each of those categories are. That would seem like a simple task, but it’s surprisingly difficult and the definitions are shifty and often depend on the beholder’s opinion. Defining a trip is easy. Anytime you go out paddling, you’re taking a trip, but the others aren’t as easy to define.

What’s an Expedition?

It seems in the paddling world that an expedition is often called an expedition based on the I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it principle, which I find rather suspect – not only because it’s a lame way to categorize something, but also because I’ve been subject to that kind of judgment before. When I was planning a 3,600-mile kayak expedition, I was interviewed by the editor of Paddler Magazine. In the magazine he mentioned that he didn’t think it was an expedition for petty reasons, despite the fact that it had never been done before and had an uncertain outcome with a specific goal and cause. Unfortunately, under that editor’s leadership the magazine failed a few issues later.

Merriam-Webster defines an expedition as:

a : a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose

By that definition, if you take the trip for a specific purpose, the trip becomes an expedition. That specific purpose seems like it could be anything. Wikipedia notes that it’s often exploratory, scientific, geographic, military or political in nature. But, it could be a simple as completing a route.

One way to refine the choice was voiced by Jon Turk in Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled. He wrote that the difference between an expedition and a vacation is that on an expedition you do everything you can to achieve the goal and on a vacation you do whatever feels right for that day. This seems useful to me, because when you combine it with Merriam-Webster’s definition you get a trip with a specific purpose that is the ultimate driving force of the trip.

For the definition of expedition to be useful in distinguishing itself from “just” a paddling trip, I think we need to add one more leg to it. The outcome should be in question, dangerous and difficult and it should take work to achieve it. For example, a 10-mile day trip down an oft-canoed river probably isn’t an expedition, because its outcome isn’t in question and it isn’t difficult. Do that trip in the heart of winter, and it just may be. I feel almost like I’m falling into the I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it trap, but I think that we can trust the expeditioner to determine what is a difficult-and-in-question purpose.

With this three prong definition we get:

  • a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose.
  • a journey on which you do everything possible to achieve the purpose.
  • where achieving the purpose is in question, dangerous and difficult.

That’s useful enough for me to tell the difference between an expedition and a trip.

What’s an Adventure?

“I just had an adventure,” is a common refrain coming from paddlers returning from a trip. It seems like an adventure can happen all the time, but what exactly is an adventure? Merriam-Webster defines it as:

a : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks
b : the encountering of risks c : an exciting or remarkable experience

That sounds about right to me, although if the experience becomes routine it might no longer be an adventure. For example, a kayaking guide might take the same trip daily. It becomes routine and no longer an adventure for him, but it might be an adventure for his clients.

Adventures can happen every day if something remarkable happens. Once I met a movie stunt man in a fastfood restaurant who was on a journey to find his long-lost father. After listening to his gripping story about how he became a race car driver and then a stunt man to make his father see his name on the screen and about how his journey across the country to find him, I felt like I had just had an adventure.

Here’s the Tricky Part

When is a trip an adventure and when is it an expedition? And are many of the paddling expeditions really just paddling adventures? Let’s plan a trip where we will kayak across the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s going to take us a month, and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to achieve the goal. This paddle isn’t something to take on a whim. The shoreline is remote, rugged and Lake Superior’s water is brutal cold and the weather can change in a second. The risk is real and the route is dangerous. During the fur trade, many canoeists died along this same route. And within the last 10 years, an experienced kayaker died on the route and two had to be rescued via helicopter.

Our trip fits all of the points in both the definition for expedition and adventure, so we really can’t categorize it into a single category. By default, because we have a goal, it becomes an expedition, but this expedition that we just planned also happens to be a guided kayaking trip. It used to be performed by voyagers as a job. Surely a guided trip isn’t an expedition, because its outcome is seldom in question. Can our trip still be called an expedition when someone guides the same route, and it feels routine to him with an outcome that’s not in question? I don’t know for sure, but probably it could for us. But, that seems to make the expedition category somewhat arbitrary. I’m going to go out on a narrow and brittle tree branch here and say that we need to add one more prong to our definition of expedition. To become an expedition, it must also:

  • serve a cause beyond personal enrichment.

If we add a cause to our definition of expedition, we now have a useful separation that doesn’t feel arbitrary when the same trip could be done as something routine without a questionable outcome. An expedition must also serve a cause. To be a noble expedition that cause shouldn’t just be tacked on. For example, adding “to bring attention to cause X” by climbing up Denali. Instead it should flow from the expedition. Our Lake Superior expedition might have a cause that could only be done by kayak. Our cause might be to increase scientific knowledge about water quality along the north shore. We would sample water daily. Or it could be to increase paddlesports participation or to increase wilderness protection.

By adding a cause to expeditions we get three distinct categories. Trips encompass both adventures and expeditions, but don’t need to serve a cause or have significant danger and risk, i.e. you can take a trip to the store. Adventures and expeditions are related, but expeditions have a cause and a purpose. That feels like a useful separation to me, and it might also downgrade some major paddling trips called expeditions to adventures.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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  • Brian,

    I realy do not know if the whole story around these definitions would be useful in day by day life , but great for the weather outside :) .
    Here a thought :
    a trip could be for a trained one, just a trip, but for an untrained one , a real expedition.


  • The way the weather can be here in the Dakotas, it can be quite the adventure to get to the grocery store some days..

    • No doubt. I lived in Rapid City for a while. Less snow than northern Minnesota, but crazy weather swings.

  • I agree in principal to your definitions, so in layman’s terms:

    An expedition is a trip that encompasses or is centered on a specific goal (exploration, scientific, documentary, etc..)

    An adventure is a trip that is centered on the pastime itself (completing a specific route, expanding your own boundaries or limits)

    The requirement for danger is not necessary for an expedition, although there should be the possibility of failure at the specific goal, but an adventure at least should be beyond the comfort zone (possibly significantly) of the persons attempting it.


    • Good observations. The danger requirement for calling something an expedition is something I struggle with. Without it an expedition could be something pretty boring. For example, a week-long trip around a calm inland lake to measure water clarity with secchi disks could be called an expedition. It has a goal, that goal could fail due to weather or other factors, but it’s probably not dangerous. That doesn’t seem like an expedition to me. Although, I’m on the fence and could lean that way. Maybe expeditions don’t need to have an adventure element.

      Could you give an example about why you think that danger isn’t required for an expedition?

      • Here are two examples, on with and one without a certain level of danger:

        With danger:
        Caving/cave diving the deepest cave in Mexico (or Wakulla Springs, FL) to find the limits of the system, map the system, record archeological or paleontological information, etc.. This is dangerous based on the hazardous nature of cave diving compounded by extreme remoteness from help. Requires careful planning and execution to mitigate the risks involved.

        Without danger:
        Offshore search and recovery mission for astronaut Gus Grissom’s mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 that sank off the east coast of the US. This had a definite high probability of failure (needle in a haystack) but was a concrete scientific expedition. The element of danger was limited to normal offshore conditions experienced on a 250’ish foot research vessel, so not very dangerous in that sense (cruise ships not withstanding).

        Maybe the definition requires a high probability of failure, rather than danger, to be accurate. Death is certainly failure, but so is not obtaining the stated goals. The above were real expeditions.

        • Good examples. I’m leaning your way on this. Scientific expeditions typically don’t have that much danger, but we still call them expeditions. I like the high probability idea.

  • Roald Amundsen – the Norwegian who nipped down to take first honours for reaching the South Pole – said: “Adventure is just bad planning.”

    I think that there’s an element of that in defining an adventure against a trip against an expedition. Adventure is often caused by things that happen to one, and is only seen, accurately, as ‘an adventure’ retrospectively. It’s arguably a rather abstract concept.

    But if ‘setting off on an adventure’ can smack of trying a bit too hard to get into danger, ‘setting off on an expedition’ seems about right. So, arguably an expedition is about having a concrete goal – however defined – in which one tries to mitigate surprises and dangers the better to achieve that goal.

    In truth a lot of trips are just that, not adventures, not expeditions but ‘trips.’

    Or jaunts.

    I’ve thought a bit about this as i am often asked to define my thousand mile sea-kayak circumnavigation of Ireland’s coastline. I wrote a book – Paddle; A long way around Ireland – about the…, the…the what, exactly? Well, the jaunt, i’d have said. But some media were keen to call it an expedition. Others an adventure. I though have very firmly continued to call it a jaunt.

    It wasn’t an expedition as – apart from getting back to where i started from – the trip (ah, there’s another word i use) had little point, and certainly no scientific value. Bits of it turned into adventure – as seen retrospectively – but it was never my aim to get into trouble and so when challenging stuff happened it was always as much frightening as exhilarating. And indeed i spent long periods of time ashore, mostly in pubs playing music, to avoid bad weather, high winds and rough seas wherever possible. So, it would feel odd to call the circumnavigation anything more than a jaunt.

    Though as well as using the word jaunt i have defined the term ‘slow adventure’ – along the lines of slow food, slow travel, slow sex and the rest of the ‘slow’ movement – to describe a long distance, three month, independent paddle trip. As this is the way i have approached other long trips whether on horses, cycles, skis, foot and, once, on roller skates slow adventure has become my way of tackling self-propelled travel. The defining characteristic being that a jaunt will take as long as it takes. It’s an approach that might get one to the South Pole eventually, but long after a Roald Amundsen character had got there, turned around and reached home again.

    Adventure, expedition or jaunt. Call it what you will, (or let others call it what they will) it’ll still be a trip.

    • Sounds like you have about the same struggle as I do in defining what I do. Last summer I did a 45-day, 800-mile kayaking trip that I’ve called “Expedition” for the slide shows, but really it just felt like a long-distance paddling trip with some adventurous moments.

  • Life is an self sponsored expedition; and the ending aint looking good!

  • Three over used words in the kayak community are:


  • Anytime you go out paddling it is a trip. If you come back a day late you had an adventure, a week late, and it was an adventure, at least that is what I tell my boss!

    • I once told my old boss that I might not make it back on time from my vacation because the route I was doing was difficult. He got a blank stare on his face and then nodded his head. I don’t think he was all that happy about that.

  • Anytime you go out paddling it is a trip. If you come back a day late you had an adventure, a week late, and it was an expedition, at least that is what I tell my boss!

  • I think the problem lies in the fact that an adventure and an expedition are describing two separate values. An expedition, as described in one of Webster’s online dictionaries (as well as a few others e.g and .net), involves an important enterprise, implying a change of place; especially, a warlike enterprise; a march or a voyage with martial intentions; an excursion by a body of persons for a valuable end; as, a military, naval, exploring, or scientific expedition; also, the body of persons making such excursion. [1913 Webster].

    Adventure can happen anywhere. It describes an activity that involves some level of insecurity.
    1. an exciting or very unusual experience.
    2. participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure.
    3. a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.

    1. a risky undertaking of unknown outcome
    2. an exciting or unexpected event or course of events
    3. a hazardous financial operation; commercial speculation
    4. obsolete
    a. danger or misadventure
    b. chance
    — vb (foll by into, on, upon )
    5. to take a risk or put at risk
    6. to dare to go or enter (into a place, dangerous activity, etc)
    7. to dare to say (something): he adventured his opinion
    [C13: aventure (later altered to adventure after the Latin spelling), via Old French ultimately from Latin advenīre to happen to (someone), arrive]
    (2012, World English Dictionary online)

    Take all of that into account and, at least to me, you are talking about two different things. An expedition is a noun (person, place, or thing). But in this case, the term adventure is a noun or verb (describing an experience). Hence, adventures can happen any place within nearly any context (including during an expedition), but an expedition must be some kind of voyage or movement consisting of more than one person with the same goal. That expedition may or may not experience an adventure along the way. As for Paddler Mag., I’m sorry to see them go, but perhaps with their demise, the time spent picking apart such trivia will go away as well…and we can get back to planning our next excursions;-) Happy paddling!

    • Or in other words, the modern usage of expedition within the paddling world is really a combination of the traditional definitions of both expedition and adventure, but it needn’t be. Expeditions can be rather boring and still labeled an expedition. My four prong definition of expedition really combines some parts of what you’d call adventure and some parts of what you’d label expedition. Maybe what we see in the paddling world are adventurous expeditions.

      About picking apart trivia, I don’t know. I enjoy doing it in the winter, hence the tent bound category. :)

      • Your refined definition is close enough for me. Nice to have that settled.
        As for the cabin fever taking over, I fully understand. It’s just I spend my life working on (and with) details. And like it or not, picking apart trivia is ball busting the details (though not an unimportant task). Still, the greatest detail orientated satisfaction I get off season, is when I know it means more and/or better paddle time when launch time arrives.
        I concede your trivia bound expeditions, as I’m sure you will concede my obsessive desire to plan the daylights our of next season’s adventures. We are each dealing with our harsh withdraws in our own ways.

        Maybe see you breaking the surface one day, till then stay on task so you may survive to break that surface,


  • Nice effort. For me an expedition definition should include a certain degree of self-containment in excess of what’s normally comfortable. Having made very few sea kayak trips of any kind but having done other “adventures”, expeditions have to pass the “heavy” test: more than one load, generally, to move everything.

    A young couple I know walked and packrafted from Seattle to the Aleutians, taking more than a year; however, they never carried more than say 10 days’ food, resupplying in towns and villages they passed through. So to my way of categorizing, they had a long adventure but not an expedition.

    In contrast, the Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises adventure races of the 1990s required so much gear and logistics that they really did feel like an expedition.

    An expedition has a second layer of logistical hassle and weight overlain on it.

    My point is that time is not an axis in the definition and that adventure is a perpendicular axis to the jaunt to expedition continuum.

    • So, something like this:

      I’m not sure that routine is the right word for the adventure axis. Point “A” would be something like a walk to the store and point “B” something like climbing K2.

      I have friends out on a three-year kayak, canoe and dog sled trip across North America, and they’ve had interesting logistical challenges getting the right gear to the right places at the right times. For one leg they had 60 days worth of food. They’re calling it an odyssey and not an expedition. Would that would pass the “heavy” test?

    • I still think that an expedition needs to have a purpose or goal outside of completing the trip (i.e., first circumnavigation, putting up new routes in Patagonia, first descent of the Mississippi in a packraft, etc…) coupled with difficulty in logistics and/or getting there.

      How would this be categorized: Walking across the country with only what you have on you right now, or say, just a wallet.

  • Lewis and Clark went on an expedition, hence the Lewis and Clark Expedition. You would never call that ‘the Lewis and Clark Trip’. And from what I’ve read, it was very adventurous at times. Explorers go on expeditions (or explorations), like Scott and Byrd, etc. The only time it seems strange to call something an expedition is if it is in space. Space exploration is a widely accepted term. But I’ve never heard that the astronauts went on an ‘expedition’ to the Moon. Apollo 11 made a ‘trip’ to the Moon and back. The space shuttle made ‘trips’ to the space station. It seems that an expedition’s final goal must be based on land. You can take a boat (watercraft) or an aircraft for some of travel portions of the journey but and expedition’s goal seems to need to be landbased and most of the time the final leg must be done manually or by human power. Taking a kayak into the middle of Lake Superior and back may not be an expedition because the destination wasn’t land. If you cross Lake Superior and land at some point on a distant shore I’d think that that could be an expedition.

    • I wouldn’t agree with the land-based criteria. Lewis and Clark used boats for instance. The Drake-Norris Expedition used ships and their mission was to destroy other ships. Above William Latham cited the expedition to recover the Liberty Bell 7 by ship.

      As for space, I believe that each of NASA’s trips are officially known as “missions.”

      I do agree that taking a kayak to Lake Superior’s center may not be an expedition, but I’d say it wasn’t because it’s only purpose is self-serving. Crossing Superior wouldn’t be an expedition either. If you said that the goal is to reach the exact center point of Lake Superior by kayak to raise money for the Lake Superior Binational Forum, some might consider that an expedition.

  • Your graphic is indeed what I had in mind. The Alaskan climber/kayaker Andy Embick suggested that whitewater and climbing also need two axes: difficulty and danger.

    Good points Flats. I think those are voyages, i.e. non (extra?)-terrestrial expeditions may be voyages?

    As far as hitching cross-country with just your wallet, Mr. Latham, that sounds the teens and twenties for a bunch of us in the old days: a jaunty adventure?

    • That is quite possible for those of us how were without cell phones for way more time that we have had them to date. Jaunty adventure has a nice ring to it. It is always surprising how the latest generation uses the word Hobo to describe anyone who is poor/homeless rather than its real definition.

  • […] « What’s the Difference between a Kayak or Canoe Expedition, Trip and Adventure? The Adventure Matrix: Ranking Trips on a Graph By Bryan Hansel | Published: January 24, […]

  • It is definitely an honest mistake when people can’t tell between a kayak and a canoe. They are similar in a lot of ways so it’s easy to get them confused. Surely before becoming paddlers, we couldn’t tell the difference too right? It’s a nice analogy you made in comparing it with telling the difference between an adventure and an expedition!

  • […] What’s the Difference between a Kayak or Canoe Expedition, Trip and Adventure?: It truly doesn’t matter as long as you’re satisfied with the trip, right? But for some reason, classifying trips seems to get people, including myself, all opinionated. The comments are really fun on the article. […]

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