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.

> Ultimate Guide To Kayaking

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

Canoe vs KayakPin

Kayaks: The Basics

Brief History Of Kayaks

Kayaks can be traced back over 4,000 years when they were first built by the Native people in the Arctic regions of North America. Crafted using either carved driftwood or whalebone, the kayaks then had animal skins stretched over the shell and were made waterproof by sealing them with whale or caribou fat.

Inuit people primarily used the kayaks for hunting but they also built larger kayaks in order to transport families as well as goods. The enclosed design of the kayak is likely to have been because of the icy environment in which the Inuits lived.

The closed design of the kayaks meant the paddlers and their belongings would have stayed dry, and therefore warm, while they were out on the water hunting for food, clothing and fuel.

The design of the kayak also made it more convenient for maneuvering through the icy water and it meant the kayaks made very little disturbance as they moved, which allowed for a more successful hunting trip.

Here you can see how challenging it is to build a traditional Inuit kayak with today’s materials.

In the 1800s, kayaking was being introduced in Europe, which led to it gaining in popularity with Arctic explorers and sportsmen alike. In 1936 it featured as an official Olympic sport at the Berlin Olympic Games.

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 a closed cockpit where the paddler sits. This design means you sit lower - the 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.

Most kayaks are designed to be portable, meaning they are likely to be lighter and smaller in size than a typical canoe.


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. 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 this sport the kayaks tend to be shorter to allow for better maneuverability over the rapids by kayak pros. 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 cockpit for improved speed, with touring kayaks offering a high level of storage space for more gear (something that racing kayaks won't have).

Sit on top recreational kayaks are designed to be easy to use on calm water, with an open cockpit, and are ideal for beginners, as there are less technical skills to master. 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.

Sit on top fishing kayaks have an open cockpit 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 deck compared to if it’s stored in the hull.

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

In The Beginning

Canoes have been used for thousands of years, with the oldest boat ever discovered being a wooden dugout canoe that was found in Pesse, in the Netherlands in 1955 and has been dated to be 10,000 years old.

However, it’s not just in Europe that evidence of canoes has been found. The oldest boat ever discovered in Africa was also a canoe, the Dunfana Canoe, which was found in Nigeria in 1987 and is said to be 8,000 years old. Not only that, there has also been an 8,000 year old canoe discovered in Kuahuqiao, in China.

All of these ancient canoes were dugout canoes with an open top; trees and logs were hollowed out with axes in order to create a buoyant vessel. By the time the Europeans encountered the Native Americans, the design had changed.

Native Americans were building their canoes using wooden frames and birch bark, sealed together with tree resin.

Similar to kayaks, canoes were used to transport goods and people. It is thought that the first canoes in North America were used by the native people of the Caribbean in order to get from island to island.

Nowadays, along with wood, you can opt for a fiberglass or canoe aluminum canoe. There are many different types of canoes, including extra lightweight ones that can be easy for one person to carry.


So what is a canoe? A canoe is 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 lake, slow moving rivers and other calm waters.

Couple in CanoePin

A canoe will often have a bench 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 style of paddling 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. 

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 but can require 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. 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, away the bottom of the canoe. 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.

What Are Canoes Used For?

Traditionally, canoes were used as a mode of transportation, whether it was goods 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. 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. 

> Canoes for the family

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 for rapids and therefore have additional coverage with a closed cockpit and spray deck or closed deck and buoyancy devices 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 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 Should I Choose?

Canoe or kayak: what's the difference? Well, one of the key differences between canoes and kayaks that you might notice at first glance is the appearance. Canoes tend to be larger than recreational kayaks, which may make them more difficult to transport if you don’t live near the water. But you could always get an inflatable canoe or lightweight canoe if that was an issue.

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.

If you’re trying to choose between the two, 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.

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?

But wait, what about fishing?

Fishing: Kayak Or Canoe

You want to head out on a fishing trip but you can’t decide which type of vessel will best suit your needs. Which is better for fishing: a canoe or a kayak?

While both vessels can let you paddle, you might find that one is easier for you than the other. So let’s take a look at their pros and cons.

Let's Start With Canoes

While canoes can have a lot of space and capacity for all your fishing gear, they might be more difficult to paddle if you’re by yourself.  However, you could add a trolling motor to help with this.

Canoes can often be larger and generally longer than recreational kayaks, meaning they may be more tricky for transporting to and from the water. The longer lengths can also be more difficult to maneuver on the water if you’re on your own. But this is not always the case, as there are many maneuverable, lightweight canoes out there, including inflatable ones. 

While there may not be a large range of canoes that are designed specifically for fishing, you could kit it out yourself. You may also find you have more seating positions in a canoe than a kayak, and might be able to move around a bit more, such a kneeling, sitting or possibly standing, if your craft is stable enough.

Because of the mostly larger size of canoes, you could potentially bring along an extra person or two to join your trip, or bring your dog along. You’ll probably find that you also tend to sit higher in a canoe than a yak, which could give you better visibility for fishing.

Video: Pimped Fishing Canoe

Ok, So What's The Deal With Fishing Kayaks?

There are many kayaks that are built specifically for fishing, meaning they can come fully rigged with features designed to make your fishing trip more comfortable. With many of them it’s also possible to stand to fish because of the extra wide, stable hull designs.

Some of them are designed with dry storage or options for keeping live bait. They can be easy to paddle, with some even come equipped with pedals for easier fishing.

Kayaks tend to be easy to maneuver and can often handle a wide range of conditions, including open oceans and even whitewater, so could be more versatile than a canoe. With a sit-inside you can also stay warm and dry in wet weather. They can also come with more compact hull lengths, which could make them easier to transport. 

Video: Stand Up Fishing

So What's Better For Fishing?

Which one is better will probably come down to personal preference. There will be people who prefer one over the other, likely because of what they’ve been used to. A fishing kayak can offer you a tool for fishing that’s fully equipped with all the features you could think of to aid your trip.

A canoe could be rigged to your specifications, simply by adding the features you’ll need. However, you might find that a canoe lacks the versatility that you might get with a kayak, such as the range of water conditions and the general stability. 

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

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.


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:
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.

    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.


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.


    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

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.


    it is spelled kayak oscar not kajak cmon mannnnnnn.

    Kayak Guru

    Thanks Oscar


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

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.


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:

    Kayak Guru

    Glad you enjoyed it, Amie!

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.


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