Pretty much even par on this one, as with the Trent, there isn't a real need for detailed water maps, you can literally get away with following the waterway by sight and/or using the little pullout map at any lock station which also includes distances, there are some bonuses with the detailed maps though as they will show many alternative paddling routes, either as shortcuts or to get out of the wind, my GPS was literally used for tracking distances travelled and not for navigation. There are many instances on the lakes where the boat channel sweeps off to one direction across a lake and then turns back in at the bottom, clearly visible on the pull-out maps so pay attention if the wind is up, would hate to fight the wind across only to realize you have to paddle back across it to get into the channel.
Rideau Canal wins hands down on this one, they say there is a slight current but you would never know it, the Trent in certain spots has strong enough current to tip over the buoys and paddling against it can be extremely tiring, for instance, if you leave from Georgian Bay to Trenton they you fight the current for the first 150 odd km to Balsam Lake (almost the length of the Rideau) and lucky to hit 5km/hour, after that the current definitely pushes you along, with the Rideau we consistently paddled at 7-8km/hour in either direction, does make a difference.
Going to be pretty much consistent in either case at least for the last two weeks of July, we had incredible weather on both trips, the only factor would be the wind, all trip reports I read say go from Kingston to Ottawa to take advantage of the prevailing winds, we may have hit an odd time as there was no difference for us in either direction, on the way up we hit wind behind, on the bow, dead in the face and on the way back we hit the same thing, I would still suggest doing from Kingston to Ottawa as there has to be some truth to the statement otherwise people wouldn't be posting it. We just didn't notice it.
During my planning it was fairly consistent, 6-10 days to do the 202km route one way, I picked the middle for a little contingency, however, I would suggest planning for 10 days and enjoy it, 6 days requires an average of 33km/day, you would spend all day in the Kayak and be exhausted every-day, not the best experience in my opinion, also requires that you have pristine conditions the entire way. 8 days will bring the average down to about 25km/day which isn't bad and what I planned on but still, if looking for a nice leisure trip then go with the 10 day trip which gives an average of 20km/day and a much more relaxed time with some contingency for weather and relaxation. I wouldn't do the return trip again personally. With the Trent being double the distance well, a lot may factor in based on how much time you have available so Rideau wins if you are looking for a shorter paddle.
Rideau wins in this category if you are looking for an easier paddle, for a number of factors, first there are no seriously long gaps between locks, for instance 60k from Peterborough to Hastings, 60k from Washago to Gamebridge, and the various 25-30km stretches in between, definitely in for some longer paddles days and/or creative campsites if you are doing the Trent, on the Rideau there is a 30km section across the Rideau Lakes with 2 provincial parks right on the water and the 40k from Burritt's Rapids to Long Island, also parks/conservation areas along the way, finding a camping spot in those sections is not an issue. Second is there are no truly massive lakes to cross, The Rideau Lake section would be about the biggest you have to cross but even that, the lakes are narrow with many shelter spots and the canal basically follows the shore the entire way, you just have to cross out of Orillia Narrows and look across Simcoe and go, damn, I have to cross that? I can't even see the other side, which is also a plus for the Rideau, the entire trip can be broken up in 5k sections like a target point so you always feel like you are making progress, after 7 hours on Lake Simcoe or going down Rice Lake you are like, argghh, will this lake ever end, mentally it makes a difference, you are like, ok just have to get to that point, ok now that one, etc..
I would say as a general statement the two canals are equivalent but the Trent wins by a landslide, there is a lot of boat traffic and probably more on the Trent which seems to be busier, each has their share of idiots who think they own the waterway and will pay little/no attention to how big a wake they throw regardless of how close you may be but what you notice most is that on the Rideau you are in canals and narrow sections more of the time and because the lakes are fairly narrow the boats pay a much bigger role, can't count the number of times we were swamped or sprayed by boats including from the Police.
Now this may sound offensive to some but avoid the Canal the last week of July first week of August as this is when Montreal construction shutdown happens and they all seem to hit the Rideau, I have nothing against French culture (I am French) and have many friends from Montreal but the boating people from Quebec, with very few exceptions were the rudest most inconsiderate boaters I have ever encountered. EVER and I have lived on water my entire life. It seems to be a consistent joke with the lock staff and other boaters, "Welcome to Montreal Week". The first week was the most tranquil paddling ever, was almost eerie and so quiet, we hit that last week though, was like hell opened up and was one speeding boat after another just trying to race each other to the next lock and to hell with anything or anybody who got in their way. Find it funny that pretty much the only two boats the entire trip which made a conscious effort to slow down for us was a 12 foot aluminum boat with a fisherman and a Zodiac dingy with two teenagers, both who throw a 1 inch wake. We thanked them.
Once of the nicest things about the Rideau though is you will run into many other paddlers, I think we ran into 10 or so other groups doing the paddle, 3 on the last day. Always nice because you feel a sense of camaraderie as you have a common interest and can share stories and experiences. I think I saw 2 random kayakers during the 2 Trent River trips.
Trent wins on all accounts, there were definitely some beautiful sections along the Rideau, the Rideau Lakes are comparable to anything the Kawartha's has to offer and the landscapes are breathtaking, the downside is the rest is like a swamp, literally, admittedly we only made it up to Burritt's Rapids but from everything we've been told by other boaters/paddlers, it is pretty much the same swampy view until you get into Ottawa which I hear is incredible. There seemed to be a million little finger lakes off the beaten path and could probably spend a couple of weeks just exploring those and I am sure they are worth every second of the paddle to get there and might be worth a second trip just to paddle around the Rideau Lake area. The Trent also has some sketchy sections, Like the stretch from Peterborough to Rice Lake but as a whole there is so much more to see and the landscape varies dramatically along the way.
No denying that the historical element of the Rideau Canal is amazing, Engineering that went into these old locks, the history and surrounding buildings and architecture are incredible, you sometimes feel transported back in time and it's really cool. There are a couple of drawbacks though, every lock is exactly the same so there is no variation in the experience, get in, go up/down and get out and they are also brutally slow, Kinston Mills, Jones Falls and Ottawa as an example can take anywhere from 2-5 hours to lock through the multiple step locks. On the Trent you get a mixture of everything, Manual, Hydrolytic, Marine Railway, etc., does make it more enjoyable, after the 3rd or 4th lock on the Rideau you are like ok, I've seen it, next is just the same thing and oh wait, 47 more of these things? Wasn't a complaint, just an observation.
This one goes to the Rideau Canal all the way, this is the way a Lock station should be setup for paddlers, the grounds are by far more spacious than the Trent and there are many options for camping on both the lower and upper sides with plenty of picnic tables to go around. Not once did we feel like we had to struggle to find a landing spot to unload as there are low docks everywhere, such a pleasure over the Trent which is always a pain with 4 foot docks at 99% of every lock. They did start putting in new Kayak/Canoe docks at each lock station, was hit or miss whether they were installed when we got there as they were in the process of doing it, by the time we hit the return route, they were in most lock stations, in some cases they were just put in as we pulled up, shook the installer's hand. They make the trip so much more enjoyable when you stop after a long day's paddle, even without the new Kayak/Canoe docks it was a breeze. Trent could take a lesson from the Rideau on that front. Bathrooms were generally very clean except for some of the very old lock stations in which case the bush was a better alternative and all but 1 (Kinston Mills) had drinkable water. The only downside is that all the Locks seem to be in swampy sections so mosquitoes get extra bad at dusk and trying to find a clean swimming spot is crazy, get used to swimming in weedy, swampy, brownish water, Trent has the nicest swimming at the locks going.
Cost is same as the Trent, 4.90 per person per night if you arrive by water or bicycle, great deal on all accounts and worth every penny, I did notice that they are more strict on the camping fee payment on the Rideau, with the Trent, on both trips combined I paid for camping 3 times, the rest of the nights the lockmaster just said, ah don't worry about it, I don't have an issue paying the cost it was more the approach from the lock staff, was weird, it was like that pesky salesman when you go into a store, can I show you something, 5 seconds later, can you show you something now. Just get out of kayak, ok will be 4.90 per person for camping, come up and pay, sure just let us unpack, half unpacked, ok are you going to pay now, yes absolutely, we aren't going anywhere just trying to get setup before the rain, 10 minutes later, walk over with change purse and form, ok time to pay, that was consistent in almost every lock we stayed at, both Julie and I were like WTF. The Trent and Rideau should offer Camping Season's pass, they offer Transit and Mooring, why not camping, would make things easier.
Hard to pin-point but there is a difference in the lock staff on the Rideau and the Trent, on the Trent almost every lock master/lock attendant seems to be there to help or offer assistance, just generally enjoy their job and realize that they only have the job due to the tourism industry. On the Rideau the staff just seem more businesslike, it's almost like you feel in the way or that you are putting them out for every question you ask, it's very noticeable. Here are some examples, Jones Falls Lock is a joke, we arrive and politely ask how long the lock will be and he gives some smartass comment about just take a seat and will be there in 3 hours, on the way back the same lock staff person didn't mention that there is no camping at the bottom and let us lock all the way down which requires a portage back up, then gave us flack for wanting to come back up, hello, we have a season's pass which allows us to use as often or as many times as we need to, also didn't mention that they have kayak/canoe wheels to assist in portaging, found that out after, he was generally rude to everybody, not just us.
Then there is the lockmaster at Kilmarnock, we show up on the hottest day on record (138 degrees) baked by the sun and dying for a cold drink, ask if we can put in his fridge he says, sorry no fridge here, uhm hello we know that every lock station because the others let us use them, why would this be any different? Didn't say anything, after he left for the day, one of the other lock people came over and let us use the fridge that "wasn't there" and apologized. This is the same lockmaster that on the way back after we were almost tipped by a speeder, barely said squat to the boater and replied "Welcome to Montreal Week"
There are some very nice staff though so don't want to paint them all with the same brush. Narrows Lock has the best ever on the Trent or the Rideau, this guy made lock staff look good, the rest can definitely take a lesson or two from this gentleman, this was our favorite lock to stay at and it was 100% due to him. Let's not forget the lock attendant in Smith's Falls who risked his life to save another person. Hat's off.
Another one that is hard to pin down and maybe it was just this year's crowd but people on the Trent just seem to be nicer, very few people on the Rideau ever took the time to say hello or even a thank you, many cases of me getting up from my dinner to assist a boater coming into the dock and not even a thank you, even had one take the rope back and re-tie his boat, really? Whether it was swamping us, having generators going all night, you name it seemed to happen on this trip, best way I can describe it is that the Trent almost felt like you were family everywhere you went, didn't get that feeling on the Rideau from start to finish. We did meet some really nice people along the way and not everyone was the way I describe, again, just too many instances of the negative side to be isolated or coincidental, I hope others have a different experience. It was a good thing I had Julie around.
Not really an issue in either case, on the Rideau there are a few spots where you can top up the supplies but for the most part the Locks are isolated from towns. Smith's Falls is probably the best option as the little town has everything you would need Walmart, Canadian Tire , laundry, grocery store etc... There are a few other spots to be aware of along the way which may help as some aren't overly obvious.
There is an Esso Station with lots of goodies at Kinston Mills but it's quite the hike so only if you really need to fill that sugar high or up for a walk would I say go for it, Seeley's Bay, is probably the first stop after Kingston Mills, little fish shop/gas docs, limited food stuff but if you paddle into the actual town which is less than a km up then you have LCBO, Foodland, convenience store etc. parking at the Government Doc is not an issue and it's a 3 minute walk up Main Street to the stores. At Newboro lock there is the little town of Newboro a short walk away, and Westport a little further, at Jones Falls there is a tiny little store, chips, Ice-Cream etc. and does have hamburgers/sausages, At Chaffey's Lock there is a combo convenience store/LCBO and another convenience store at the Opinicon Lodge. As you pass under the bridge at Rideau Ferry (if coming from Kingston) there is a restaurant on the water, just behind that is a comb convenience store/LCBO/Food counter. Next stop is Smiths Falls, there is also a laundry-mart on Main Street just past the Rideau Museum at the Combined Lock (2nd lock in Smith's Falls). Merrickville is a good re-supply stop as well as they have everything you would need and many great restaurants, LCBO is one street west of the main drag kind of hidden away. Park across from lock has showers for 4 bucks and not a bad camping spot at the point but more expensive. At Burritt's Rapids there is Lock 17 which is a restaurant, showers, laundry and small convenience store all built into one, right across from the lock and Fri/Sat has live bands. There are very few Marina's along the way that aren't completely out of the way and not sure what's on the Ottawa side of Burritt's Rapids.
Hope the info helps and don't let anything I have said stop you from getting out there on the Rideau and enjoying the trip, it really is worth it.