Carts, vape, dabs: what’s the diff?

a cart with rainbow light

In the modern marijuana market, there are seemingly endless choices. It can be overwhelming, especially for new consumers. Walking into a dispensary and seeing walls of flower, carts, vape products, extracts, and edibles—it’s all a bit much.

The variety of concentrates is especially mind-boggling. Live rosin dabs, pre-filled disposable vapes, Rick Simpson oil—even experts can get lost in the aisles.

Thanks to the sheer amount of products on the shelves, many people are curious about the differences between carts, vape pens, and dabs. While they are all variations of the same product category, each modality has its own unique set of pros and cons. Whether seeking convenience or potency, there’s likely something for most consumers in the mix.

cannabis cartridges and nugs carts vape
Carts are an increasingly popular way to consume cannabis oil. Photo: HighGradeRoots / Getty

Carts, vape, and dabs: breaking it down

There is no shortage of cannabis jargon. Trying to learn the language of weed can often be a challenge. When it comes to concentrates, there are some commonalities.

Any time someone uses carts, vape pens, or dabs, they’re consuming a type of cannabis oil. The oil is extracted from a cannabis or hemp plant, which can be done in a number of ways. The type of extraction and tools used to consume it help further discern between carts, vapes, or dabs.

Dabs: potent and powerful

The word “dabs” is slang for any type of cannabis extract that is vaporized. They’re known as such because you only need a tiny “dab” of oil to feel the effects.

There are many types of dabs, typically categorized by the extraction method used and the consistency or appearance of the final product. Dabs are far more potent than cannabis flower, so it’s crucial newcomers tread lightly.

Some are made using solvent-based extractions, such as butane hash oil (BHO) or CO2. The solvents strip cannabinoids, terpenes, and other active ingredients from the cannabis plant. Residual solvents are removed, resulting in an amber-colored oil.

Other types of dabs, such as live rosin, are made using ice water and/or heat and pressure. These craft products are marketed as solventless, and typically command a higher price point.

Dabs are usually consumed using a special device called a rig. Similar to a bong, a rig has a special bowl that is heated to high temperatures (often using a blow torch). Electronic rigs (aka e-rigs) are also popular since they don’t require a torch. Portable dab pens that can be filled with concentrate are a slick option for people on the go.


mound of cannabis dabs carts vape
Dabs refer to extracted cannabis oil, such as sugar, wax, or rosin. Photo: rgbspace / Getty

What is a weed cart?

Vape cartridges (aka carts) are small tanks filled with cannabis extract. They contain THC oils or other cannabinoids. The carts use something called a 510 battery to vaporize the concentrates within. This is technically a form of dabbing.

The technology is pretty simple: the cart is attached to the battery using a built-in screw (this is where the term 510 comes in). On the other end of the cartridge is a mouthpiece. A button on the battery controls a heating element called an atomizer. 

When pressed, the oil heats up and can be inhaled through the mouthpiece. Some batteries are “breath activated,” meaning they do not use a button and automatically power on when an inhale is detected. When a cart is empty, it’s thrown away and replaced.

Demand for carts has exploded over the last several years since they’re a discreet and simple way to consume cannabis. CBD vape cartridges have become especially popular for those seeking the potential benefits of the cannabinoid in a convenient and cost-effective package.

Cannabis vape 101

Vape pen is another phrase that is interchangeable. People may refer to their cart as a vape pen. The term can also describe a pre-filled, disposable vaporizer device.

There are many types of vape pens on the market using various shapes and sizes of hardware. They work in a similar way to carts, except the tank containing the oil and battery is housed in one device. 

Typically, disposable vapes are breath-activated and may or may not be rechargeable. Most people simply discard them once the oil has been depleted.

While not exactly environmentally friendly, consumers gravitate toward these types of vapes because of their ease of use.

a shopping cart of cart vapes
There are dozens of types of disposable vapes on the market today. Photo: inside-studio / Getty

Choosing carts, vape, or dabs

For people exploring the wide world of cannabis concentrates, it may be difficult to decide which product to start with. It’s hard enough trying to choose strains and flavors of cannabis—extracts add a whole new level of confusion.

THC vape pens and carts are a great entry point for people curious about concentrates. They don’t require any additional hardware, and dispensaries will often have promotions that include a battery with the purchase of a cart.

When shopping for carts, vape pens, and the like, you want to be sure you’re getting something high quality. For example, if contaminated flower is put through a heat press, the pathogens within may transfer to the final product. Solvent-based extraction methods virtually eliminate contaminants, leading many people to trust them more than so-called solventless methods.

Live resin is a popular choice since it is made with freshly harvested buds. This makes for a delicious full-spectrum oil that is as close to the plant as you can get.

The downside to carts and vape pens is the lack of consistency across brands. Some perform really well, while others may leak or break down. There are ways to get the most from your cart, so always follow recommended tips. 

The other issue is the sustainability factor—tossing a metal cart and battery into the garbage isn’t the best thing for the planet.

Dabs are nice because they offer more of a “choose your own adventure” experience. You can spread them on a joint or bowl or consume them in a rig or dab pen. Many people prefer them over pens because the flavor of the oil is often more pronounced in a rig versus a vape pen. Dabs are also a great choice for medical patients who may need a more potent hit.

The downside of dabs is they can be cumbersome. Traditional rigs have inherent safety risks, and maintaining a rig takes scrupulous cleaning. This is why many people opt for a cart vape set-up, as it removes the guesswork and dangers associated with dabbing.

Carts, vape, and dabs: similar tech with unique features

Navigating the cannabis scene of today is quite a feat, but as states continue to legalize, consumers are becoming far more discerning. 

As the number of products on dispensary shelves grows, it’s vital that people are empowered in their purchasing decisions. Carts, vape, and dabs may all be similar, but each method has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks. 

Just like all things cannabis, it’s important to take it slow with concentrates. Start with a small hit (try counting to two when inhaling), and then wait a few minutes before taking another rip. Carts and vapes can be especially sneaky, and it can be hard to tell just how big of a hit you’re getting.

You may find that carts, vapes, and dabs aren’t for you. On the flip side, you may decide they’re just what you’ve been looking for. The personal journey of finding the right cannabis consumption method is all about cautious trial and error, but discovering your own personal weed Goldilocks is worth the work along the way.

rachelle gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist, Emerald Cup judge, Budist critic, and editor of She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter