Canoe vs Kayak – The BIG Showdown

The biggest difference between kayaking and canoeing?

If you’re looking to get into either sport, you'll probably be asking yourself a few questions, including:

  • How do I know which one will be the best for me?
  • Will using one be easier than the other?
  • Is a kayak more practical than a canoe?

Well, the short answer is: IT DEPENDS! 

But don't worry...

We know how confusing it can be when you’re faced with two very similar vessels, which is why we have decided to put together some information to help with some of the key differences between canoes and kayaks.

So hopefully you’ll be able to figure out which one will be right for you.

Canoe vs KayakPin

Kayaks: The Basics

Kayak Design

There are basically two different types of kayak: a sit inside and a sit on top. Within these types there are then different designs depending on what they are intended to be used for. But all kayaks have one thing in common.

They all have a double-bladed paddle; one blade on each end.

Sit-in Kayak
Man on Sit-In KayakPin

This style of paddle means you’re using less energy when paddling, compared to most canoes, as you’re not having to move the paddle from alternate sides to head in a straight line. However, some canoe paddles are available in a double bladed design.

A sit inside kayak is the more traditional of the two types, featuring an enclosed cockpit where the paddler sits. This design means you sit lower - the single paddler’s legs and lower body are situated within the hull and closed deck of the kayak and are covered to protect from water. A spray skirt can be added for additional protection to prevent water entering the cockpit - something you tend to see on a sea kayak or expedition kayaks.

Many kayaks are portable (especially an inflatable kayak), meaning they are likely to be lighter and smaller in size than a typical canoe.

What Are Kayaks Used For?

From the early kayaks being used for hunting and the transportation of people and goods, modern kayaking has come a long way and has been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years.

A special report, published in 2015, found that kayaking had become the most popular form of paddling in the USA, with 13 million Americans participating in kayaking compared to 10 million Americans taking part in canoeing.

Video: Whitewater Kayaker 

There are many different types of kayaking and each will require a certain type of kayak. Sit inside kayaks are often used for rougher conditions (you could opt for a dedicated sea kayak) and for longer journeys, such as sea kayaking. They are also better equipped to deal with colder conditions, as you won’t get as wet if you have a spray deck attached to your cockpit.

Sit inside kayaks are also used in whitewater kayaking, but for whitewater rapids, kayaks tend to be shorter to allow for better maneuverability over the rapids. A spray skirt is usually worn for this to prevent water getting in the cockpit. As if riding the waves or paddling through the water in your kayak wasn’t enough, snow kayaking now exists!

Video: Snow Kayaking? 

Other sports also use sit inside kayaks, such as canoe polo, which is, in fact, played in a kayak with a double bladed paddle and not, as the name would suggest, in a canoe. Touring kayaks and racing kayaks will generally be long, narrow vessels with a closed design for improved speed, with touring kayaks offering a high level of storage space for as much gear as you need (something that racing kayaks won't have). But they generally have a lower load capacity than canoes.

Sit-on-top recreational kayaks are designed to be easy to use on calm water, with an open deck, and are ideal for beginners, as there are less technical skills to master and good initial stability. Unlike the sit inside touring kayaks that require you to either perform an Eskimo roll or a wet exist if you capsize, with a sit on top kayak you will simply fall off and should be able to climb back on. They tend to let you sit higher on the deck too, for a better view.

Sit on top fishing kayaks have an open deck to allow you to move around a bit more freely without your legs being restricted and they drain water on their own. You can also access gear easily on the decks of fishing kayaks compared to if it’s stored in the hull. You can also often add a trolling motor.

In areas with warmer climates, sit on top kayaks are a good idea if you’re looking to be able to jump into the calm waters for a quick swim and get back on easily. But you will get wet from splashes on a sit on top kayak, which is why it’s often popular in hot weather or warmer countries.

The style of each kayak will affect its speed and stability, as each one is built for performance in a particular area. The longer and narrower a kayak is, the faster but less initially stable it will be. The shorter and wider the kayak, the easier it will be to navigate in a smaller space and the more stable it will be on calm water.

Kayaks can come in both single person and tandem in both sit on top and sit inside kayaks, so it’s possible to go on joint paddling trips no matter which type you prefer.

Canoes 101

Canoe Style

So what is a canoe? Canoes are designed with a completely open top, unlike a sit-inside kayak. The tall sides of the canoe, although relatively short compared to other boats, come up out of the water, creating more of a traditional boat appearance.

The upper edge of the sides or gunwales can vary by hull design. They have a flat bottom and can be great for a calm lake, slow moving rivers and other calm waters, such as sheltered coastal areas.

Couple in CanoePin

A canoe/canoes will often have bench seats at either end, offering two seats, with one close to the bow and the other close to the stern, so when there are two people paddling they are positioned one in front of the other. 

Canoes tend to be larger and heavier than kayaks and can be more difficult to transport, unless of course you’re paddling it. On the other hand, it can be easier to portage a canoe than a kayak (great if you're traveling between linked lakes by passing sections of land).

You can also get inflatable canoes (and inflatable kayaks), which can make transportation easier. But even traditional canoes can be carried somewhat easily on your back using the thwart, but you might have such a great time doing this if your boat's loaded with camping gear.

The most obvious difference between a canoe and a kayak is that the paddle on a canoe tends to have just one blade. The single-bladed paddle can be one of the key differences. So in order to move forward in a straight line you usually need to remove your paddle from the water and re-enter it in the water on the opposite side of your canoe if you're on your own.

This can be more time consuming and can take more effort compared to kayak paddles and can be a key difference between canoeing and kayaking.

However, you can get a double bladed paddle for canoes to allow you to paddle with less effort, similar to kayak paddles. Alternatively, you can also use the J-Stroke to help with canoe tracking and paddle in a straight line without moving your paddle from one side to the other. This can take a little practice with a single-bladed paddle but can take a lot less effort once you get the hang of it. 

With most recreational canoes, you can fit a large amount of gear inside, making them useful for taking on multi-day adventures or family picnics as they have a higher load capacity. With a canoe, getting in and out is a lot easier, compared to a sit-inside kayak.

Sitting in a canoe is different from sitting in a kayak. While in a kayak your legs are usually straight out in front of you, in a canoe, your knees are bent, as you’re sitting elevated on a bench-like seat, in a higher seating position away the bottom of the canoe, giving a better view. Or some paddlers prefer to kneel.

The design of the seating in a canoe means there is more space for camping gear, as the space is not taken up by your legs. And there’s usually even space underneath your bench. However, not all canoes are the same, as there are different types of canoes for different activities, including a basic dugout canoe.

What Are Canoes Used For?

Traditionally, canoes (often a dugout canoe like the oldest canoe) were used as a mode of transportation, whether it was carrying gear or people. But now they are not only used as a means of travel but they’re also used in a range of sports and activities.

Although reports suggest that between 2010 and 2014, there was a slight decline in the number of people canoeing, there were still 10 million people in the USA participating in canoeing in 2014.

Canoes are popular in slower moving water, such as rivers and lakes and are good for exploring with your family since they have good initial stability. They’re ideal for family camping trips and they are stable enough that capsizing is quite difficult. Even kids can very comfortably help paddle!

They aren't so good in open conditions. Wind resistance isn't an asset for canoes, unfortunately and they tend to move at a slower pace. 

Video: Family Canoe Trip

However, not all types of canoes have an open top, with some having the option of adding a spray deck. There are whitewater canoes that are designed specifically for rapids and therefore have additional coverage with a closed cockpit and spray deck or closed deck and buoyancy devices (such as flotation panels) at either end. Whitewater canoes can often look more similar to whitewater kayaks than a typical canoe.

There are also racing canoes that are narrower, generally longer, and more streamlined for faster performance (similar to racing kayaks) and are often used by professional and amateur canoeists. Canoeing also features as an Olympic sport, with both slalom and sprint, just like kayaking.

Canoe vs Kayak: Which One Is Better?

Canoe or kayak, kayak or canoe: what's the difference? Well, one of the key differences between canoes and kayaks is the appearance. Canoes tend to be larger than recreational kayaks, which may make them more difficult to transport. But you could always get an inflatable canoe or lightweight canoe if that was an issue between canoeing or kayaking.

Kayaks are designed to be portable (especially inflatable kayaks)and there are many different styles of kayak, compared to a canoe. If you’re looking to get involved in different sports, there is a lot more choice available for kayakers, as long as you have the right type of kayak.

Whether you opt for a kayak or a canoe is really up to your personal preference. Each one has its own benefits, depending on what you’re planning to use it for.

Canoe enthusiasts love the fact that they are great for loading them up with lots of gear and heading out exploring or camping. You can carry more people, kids and dogs in your canoe than you can with most kayaks.

You also don’t need to learn as many technical skills to paddle a canoe as you would to paddle a kayak. Once you’ve got the hang of paddling a canoe, you’re pretty much set.

However, kayaks are a good choice if you’re planning on paddling in coastal waters or rough waters, as they can be easier to maneuver and control. Recreational kayaks can also be less likely to capsize or sink than a canoe and easier to recover, with a sit-inside kayak usually offering dry storage to keep your gear safe. However, you may get wet with excess water from your paddle, particularly on a sit-on-top.

Canoes and kayaks can come in various sizes and weights, with lightweight, compact options on both sides of the coin and both inflatable kayaks and inflatable canoes available. 

And that's the kayak vs canoe debate conclusion in a  nutshell. Or is it? What do you prefer? Canoeing or kayaking?


Don’t forget that if you have any questions or comments, feel free to let us know and we’ll do our best to get back to you.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 13 comments
Anonymous

I am not sure this is one hundred % accurate. A good canoe paddler using J strokes and draw strokes doesn’t need to reach across their canoe but can paddle mainly on one side. You can also get inflatable canoes e.g. gumotech for one or two people.

Reply
Jonas

Wow, this is definitely not written by a canoe paddler.
As mentioned by Anonymous you don’t need to switch sides with the paddle.
And transporting a canoe on land is way easier than a kayak, despite being bigger. Because it has a thwart in the middle you can just throw it up on your back and carry it like a backpack for miles. Whereas a kayak has no comfortable way to be carried longer distances.
In my opinion the strength of a canoe is you can get through anywhere. I’ve even done a 6 weeks trip where the first week was crossing barren mountains and the week after was pushing them through very shallow and narrow streams before coming out on deep enough waters.
I just can’t imagine doing that with a kayak.
Also, sitting correctly in a canoe your knees are resting on the bottom with your legs under the seat, this makes it much more stable.

I paddle both kayaks and canoes so I’m quite familiar with both. A canoe is definitely slower than a kayak, but I can’t say you use more energy paddling a canoe. In a kayak you need to lift the opposite blade each stroke, in a canoe the blade is always near the water. I find canoeing to be a dryer activity than kayaking for this reason, no water dripping from the paddle.

IMO the big difference between kayaks and canoes, from someone who paddles both:
Canoes:
Great for lakes, rivers and tough terrain.
Not so great for windy seas.
Very maneuverable (depending on the model of course)
Easy to get in and out
Lots of packing room and very easy to pack
Possibility to trim the canoe on the go by moving backwards of forward.
Harder to recover from a capsize, especially alone.

Sea kayaks:
Great on the sea, going long distances on flat water or very windy waters.
Fun to play with, things like rolling is fun to practice.
Less maneuverable than a canoe.
Bit bulky to get in and out
Less packing room, but your gear stays in and stays dryish if you capsize.
No possibility to move around in the kayak, but many have skegs to compensate for this.

As for river kayaks I don’t have any experience.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Hi Jonas,

    Thanks for reading and we appreciate your detailed response. It’s great to hear differing opinions!

    Perhaps we need to do some kind of power test with a canoe vs kayak to see how much energy is expelled over the same distance/current. Hmmm.

    Reply
Kelly

I want to begin paddling on the Mississippi (we live near the river in Minneapolis). I’m much more interested in a kayak, but the one person I have talked with tried to talk me out of the kayak because I have an 85# dog who will be traveling with me. On the other hand, I am a single 53 year old woman, traveling alone – except with my dog. I’m afraid I won’t be able to carry the canoe and transport it alone. I am looking to do day trips and overnights. Not fishing, just exploring.

Reply
    Martin

    Hi Kelly,

    There are kayaks that will allow you to bring your dog. Certainly you should aim at bigger and stable models, but there are plenty of yak paddlers that go out with the dog.
    The canoe will offer a lot more open space for sure, but it could be a challenge in the early phase for you to paddle alone. You will get it done and learn it, but depending on how comfortable you are with the process, it might not be what you want.
    Canoes are usually bigger than kayaks but when you learn how to manipulate them, carrying them on your back won’t be difficult.
    Also think on how your dog will move around the boat and how unstable it can make it. If you capsize, with a canoe and all your gear, could be a nightmare. With a kayak will be easier, and your gear, aside from moving inside deck, will be more or less protected and stay in place (provided you use dry bags)
    I say it would be great for you to go to some Test Paddle day from some manufacturer or retailer, test it out, kayak and canoes… see it for yourself. then, Online you will certainly find out all about the best models for both.
    Hope this helps

    Reply
Oscar Viera

I think if you have a partner to paddle get the canoe.but if you prefer adventure yourself get the kayak. But canoes are more heavy than regular kajak.

Reply
    jeff

    it is spelled kayak oscar not kajak cmon mannnnnnn.

    Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Thanks Oscar

    Reply
Barb

If you don’t know how to roll a kayak best to learn.

Reply
Jeff F

Good article and one topic people are very passionate about. I feel you did a great job representing the kayak side of the coin but often mentioned Canoes as being larger, heavier and harder to Car top. Canoes have come a long way from traditional aluminum Grumman’s. Nowadays many Solo Canoes are 10-13ft and weigh less than 25 pounds and some ADK Adirondack Canoes are 17 pounds. You set low like a kayak and these styles of Canoes traditionally (over 100 years) are propelled with a double blade paddle.
The Kevlar solo canoe offerings under 14ft by Northstar, Swift, Wenonah, ADK and a few others make lightweight Canoes that are lighter and easier to car top than most kayaks.
With an easily attainable proper J stroke most anyone can paddle these Canoes almost effortlessly and I seldom ever switch sides.
Just some info here that you may not have been aware of at the time you wrote the article.

Reply
Amie

Interesting article, I wasn’t aware that kayaks were used for so many things other than kayaking, such as snow kayaking! It does make them a fascinating watercraft, and I especially like how some are designed to be so capable for fishing! It definitely makes for a difficult decision when deciding between kayaks and canoes for fishing. I actually also have a very in-depth article specifically on kayaks vs canoes for fishing that I thought you may find interesting. You can check it out here:http://www.bestoutdooradventure.com/category/home/2019/07/05/canoe-vs-kayak-fishing/

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Glad you enjoyed it, Amie!

    Reply
Anthony Smith

I would recommend either getting a “sea eagle travel canoe” or a kayak that is also drop-stitch. These boats have the advantages of being fast like rigid kayaks but like canoes have a large payload and can still fit in the trunk of any car. One of the biggest advantages with boats like this is the ability to get you and your dog back into the boat in open water so safety is big with and he dropped stitch boat. I have inflatable canoes and kayaks as well as Rigid kayaks and canoes and they all have an advantage and a purpose. I would trade them all for a drop stitch Canoe. What I would do is have a kayak paddle available in case I had to paddle into the wind otherwise 90% of the time I would probably use a single blade canoe paddle.

Reply

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