When it comes to inland waterway boating there are no more iconic boats than the drift boat and the Jon boat. Both boats are excellent for rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes. From fishing to hunting these boats are second to none. But, when you can only have one it can be difficult to know which one is the better choice for you. In this article we compare the drift boat to the Jon boat pointing out each boats strengths and weaknesses so you can better decide which one is right for you.
There are some key things to consider when it comes to making a decision between buying a drift boat or buying a Jon boat. Both boats are excellent inland waterway craft but each performs best in specific environments and for specific activities.
So let’s take a look at the main things you should consider before making a buying decision.
Key questions to ask before making a purchase:
- What will you use the boat for?
- Where will you use the boat?
- What size of boat do you need?
- What is your budget?
When it comes to using a drift boat or a Jon boat on inland waters both vessels can be pretty much used for the same activities from fishing and transportation to utility work and hunting.
Both boats have a flat bottom and shallow draft. This means they are perfect vessels for navigating shallow inland waters.
A drift boat is a very popular fishing vessel, as is a Jon boat.
A drift boat has traditionally always been a fishing vessel and a Jon boat can be adapted very easily for any type of fishing from fly-fishing to bowfishing.
Either boat is a good choice for the inland angler though the raised seats in a drift boat give it a slight advantage.
If you are a bowfishing enthusiast then you will probably want to opt for a Jon boat as you can add a shooting platform or buy a new Jon with one already fitted.
As each boat type has a flat bottom and a shallow draft they lend themselves well to ducking hunting.
Either boat will offer enough space for gear and catch.
If we had to choose between the two we would probably opt for a Jon boat simply because it is such a good boat for accessing extremely shallow banks and looks kick-ass when painted camo. I suppose we should also add that we don’t boat in white water rapids so we don’t need the unique qualities of a drift boat (more on that later).
Both boats are fairly wide and can carry good loads.
The weight capacity will vary with each model. If you know the boat that you are interested in then you can easily work out its weight capacity yourself using the formula we provided here (works for any boat).
Either boat works well as a utility vessel though a Jon boat will take a lot more punishment.
If you only intend to use your boat for utility work, and the marine environment allows for it (covered below), then a Jon boat will offer better value for money.
We should also note here that a Jon boat is extremely customizable, much more so than a drift boat, and be kitted out for just about any type of inland water use you can think of.
Size really does matter
Obviously the size of the boat will determine the type of load you can carry and the number of passengers you can have onboard. Unless you intend to only boat solo with limited gear then either boat will provide you with sufficient weight capacity and room.
Jon boats however come in a range of different sizes from small 8 foot craft to large 21 foot monsters.
Although small drift boats do exist they are certainly not as abundant as small Jon boats (nor as cheap). The most common drift boats on the water will be between 16 foot and 21 foot. If you want a smaller drift boat you may have to shop around a bit or build it yourself.
As you can see both boats are very evenly matched when it comes to water activities.
Although there are some differences that make one boat slightly better than the other for certain activities, such as the raised seats in drift boat being better for casting off vs the bench seats in a Jon boat, or the ability of a Jon boat to access very shallow banks for ducking, these differences should never be a deal breaker.
Rather than considering what you will use the boat for, a much more important question to ask yourself is “where will I use my boat?”. As you will see when it comes to location there are very striking differences between a drift boat and a Jon boat.
Similarities of a drift boat and a Jon boat
Like a drift boat a Jon boat has a flat bottom and shallow draft. A flat bottom on a boat allows it to be used in areas that have rocky or debris-filled bottoms. The flat bottom son a Jon boat and a drift boat allow them to easily slide over underwater obstacles without sustaining any damage.
Both boats have a shallow draft but a Jon boat wins out in this regard. The flat bottom hull design in conjunction with the low freeboard on a Jon boat means that the boat has an extremely shallow draft. So, a Jon boat under manual power can easily navigate waters that are just a few inches deep.
Both a Jon boat and a drift boat have a flat bottom and shallow draft but a Jon boat can access extremely shallow waters that other boats its size would ground in.
Like a Jon boat, a drift boat also has a flat bottom but its freeboard is not as low. So although a drift boat has a shallow draft which means it can also be used in shallow inland waters safely and effectively, its draft is not as shallow as the draft of a Jon boat.
If you need a more in-depth explanation of draft and why it is important read our article deep raft vs shallow draft.
This is where the similarities in hull design between the two boats end.
The huge differences between a drift boat and a Jon boat
Knowing exactly where you will use your boat is probably the most important consideration when it comes to choosing between a drift boat and a Jon boat.
As you will see, although both these boats are designed for use on inland waters they are not deigned for the same type of inland waters.
Although a Jon boat and a drift boat share some characteristics, such as a flat bottom and shallow draft, they look very different and have very different hull designs because they are designed to be used in different marine environments.
The most obvious difference between the boats can be seen in how they interact with rough water.
Jon boats cannot handle rough water well and will almost certainly sink in the type of white water rapids that a drift boat excels in.
A Jon boat is designed for calm water use. When used on inland calm waters a Jon boat is exceptionally stable. A Jon boat is so stable that the boat operator can easily stand on the deck and move about freely on it with no loss of stability.
This calm water stability is so good calm water that even under motor power and travelling at speed a Jon boat is incredibly comfortable to ride in.
However, put a Jon boat in troubled waters and you get a different story!
A Jon boat is unsafe in very rough water whereas a drift boat is actually designed to be used in very rough water.
A drift boat, with its flat bottom and shallow draft can navigate similar waters to a Jon boat (though it may not be able to access the same extreme shallows) but it can also handle the type of rapids that you would usually only see rafts and kayaks riding.
The drift boat evolved from the ocean dory but over time it’s rocker became much more pronounced so the boat could better ride the rapids that frequent the McKenzie River in Oregon – the birth place of the drift boat.
The rocker of a drift boat refers to the curved shape of the boat. You can read why this is important in our article why are drift boats curved. Suffice it to say, a drift boat is designed to ride rapids without taking on water.
The unique curved shape of a drift boat also makes it extremely responsive to the oarsman. The slightest touch of an oar can maneuver a drift boat easily and fast – something that is essential when trying to avoid boulders an obstacles.
The curved nature of the boat and its pointed transom also allow a drift boat to plunge into holes in the rapids easily and come up quick without taking on water. If a Jon boat were to attempt the same maneuver it would almost certainly sink.
So, knowing that a drift boat can navigate the same type of waters as a Jon boat but that it also has the additional ability to be easily maneuvered in extremely rough water you might be thinking that there is no contest between the two boats with the drift boat being obviously superior. But, you should think again because that superior maneuverability and ability to ride rapids comes at a price both monetarily and in speed.
Do you feel the need for speed?
Both a Jon boat and a drift boat can be manually propelled. A drift is a rowboat by design and a Jon boat can be easily fitted with oarlocks for rowing.
Both boats can also be propelled by pole when in very shallow waters.
When it comes to using motorized power though there is a big difference between the two boats.
The good news is that each boat can be fitted with an outboard motor. However, unlike a Jon boat, which can take quite a powerful motor, a drift boat is severely restricted when it comes to engine power.
Motorized drift boats
As we covered in this article, a drift boat can be fitted with an outboard motor but the boat is really not deigned to use one.
A drift boat is restricted to motor size because large HP motors generate too much thrust for the boat to handle. The thrust generated from a powerful motor tends to force the transom of a drift boat down into the water and makes steering almost impossible.
Many drift boat owners will fit a small 3 HP trolling motor to allow them easier movement downstream. Although a 3 HP motor is the safest option for a drift boat, unfortunately this motor is not powerful enough to move the boat upstream against the current.
If you want a motor that can propel your drift boat upstream you need something that has more power than a 3 HP engine. But, this obviously comes with problems, as the more power a motor provides the more difficult to handle and control a drift boat becomes.
A good compromise is a 6 HP motor for drift boats that are under 16 foot. This will usually be enough to power the boat upstream but be prepared to spend time learning how to control the boat under the increased motorized power – it is a learned skill.
You can push the power limit a little further with larger drift boats that are over 16 foot but you should never get a motor that exceeds 10 HP or you will not be able to control your boat.
Using any motor over 10 HP on a drift boat is a very bad idea.
Don’t expect any extra speed from attaching a motor to a drift boat either. Due to the low power output from suitable engines, a drift fitted with an outboard motor will be no faster than one that is travelling under oar power. The only reason people fit trolling motors to their drifts boats is to save them from having to row.
Motorized Jon boats
Jon boats handle powerful outboard motors much more easily. In fact, a Jon boat can have an outboard motor that makes it very fast over calm water. Even at high speed on calm water a Jon boat will remain incredibly stable and very comfortable to ride in.
As you can see from this chart a large Jon boat can handle any motor up to 100 HP without difficulty.
Durability & storage
The durability of each boat largely depends on its construction material and how the boat is stored.
As the vast majority of store-bought Jon boats are made from aluminum they require very little maintenance and can be stored outdoors without a cover even in extreme weather conditions.
Jon boats can also take some considerable knocks. They are hardy boats.
The only drawback to an aluminum Jon boat is that it does not play well in saltwater. If you intend to use a Jon boat in the ocean or other saltwater bodies you need to take precautions to protect your boat. Of course the same goes for aluminum drift boats.
As long as you perform so basic maintenance tasks, such as washing the boat after use and fixing any small minor problems as they arise, a Jon boat should last you a lifetime.
Storing a drift boat requires a little more effort because there are just as many drift boats made from alternative materials as there are aluminum ones. Read our guide to storing a drift boat for more information.
The aforementioned guide will also give you an indication of how well-wearing and durable drift boats made from each of the different construction materials are.
Jon boats range from the super cheap to the super expensive. As we pointed out in our Jon boat buyer’s guide the range in costs for a new Jon boat vary greatly depending on the specs of the particular model.
You can expect to pay anything from a few hundred dollars for basic small non-motorized Jon boat to tens of thousands of dollars for a tricked-out hunting or bowfishing motorized Jon.
As we pointed out in our guide to buying a drift boat there is no such thing as budget drift boat buying. You can always build your own of course and this will greatly reduce costs buying one is always going to be expensive.
Don’t expect to be able to buy a drift boat for anything less than $3000 and you can expect more sophisticated vessels to be considerably more expensive with extras really adding to the cost.
Here is a quick bullet list of the main points in this article.
- Both a Jon boat and a drift boat have a shallow draft so can navigate shallow inland waters easily though a Jon boat can access waters only a few inches deep.
- Both boats can be manually powered by oars and pushed by pole in the shallows.
- A drift boat can only take a small HP motor and handling the boat under motorized power is challenging.
- A drift boat under motorized power will never be faster than it is when rowing.
- A Jon boat can take a powerful outboard motor and responds well at speed.
- Even at high speed a Jon boat will remain stable and comfortable on calm water.
- If you regularly navigate rocky rivers and know you will need to ride rapids then you should avoid a Jon boat.
- A drift boat is very responsive and can literally turn on a dime.
- A drift will easily ride extreme rapids.
- A Jon boat is more customizable.
- A Jon boat is considerably cheaper than a drift boat.