Canoe vs Kayak

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

  • How do I know which one will be the best for me?
  • Will one be easier than the other?
  • Will a canoe suit my lifestyle best or will a kayak be more practical?

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 that will give you a better idea of what the difference is.

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

Canoe vs Kayak

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 paddle with two blades; one on each end.

Sit-in Kayak
Man on Sit-In Kayak

This style of paddle means you’re using less energy when paddling, compared to a canoe, as you’re not having to move the paddle from side to side to head straight, as there is already a blade there, so you just alternate your hands to paddle you forward or backwards.

A sit inside kayak is the more traditional of the two types, featuring a cockpit where the paddler sits. This design means the paddler’s legs and lower body are situated within the hull of the kayak and are covered to protect from water.

Sit inside kayaks come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the types of water they are used in.

Sit on top kayaks are a more modern design of kayak, with the paddler sitting on top of the deck as opposed to being enclosed within the hull. This means the paddler’s legs and lower body are exposed, making it easier to jump in and out.

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

Uses

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.

There are many different types of kayaking and each will require a certain type of kayak. Sit inside kayaks are often used for sea kayaking and for multi-day trips. They are also better equipped to deal with colder conditions, as you won’t get as wet if you have a skirt 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. As if riding the waves or paddling through the water in your kayak wasn’t enough, snow kayaking now exists!

Other sports also use sit inside kayaks, such as canoe polo, which is, in fact, played in a kayak with a single two blade paddle and not, as the name would suggest, in a canoe.

Sit on top kayaks are designed to be easy to use and are ideal for beginners, as there are less technical skills to master. Unlike the sit insides 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.

SOT kayaks are usually favored for fishing, as they 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 more of your gear 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 water 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 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.

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; 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.

Style

So what is a canoe? A canoe is designed to be completely open on the top, unlike a kayak. The sides of the canoe, although relatively short, come up out of the water, creating more of a traditional boat appearance.

Couple In A Canoe
Couple in Canoe

A canoe will often have a bench at either end, 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 are much more difficult to transport, unless of course you’re paddling it.

The most obvious difference between a canoe and a kayak is that the paddle on a canoe just has one blade. So in order to move forward you would need to remove your paddle from the water and re-enter it in the water on the opposite side of your canoe.

This can be more time consuming and will take more effort than a kayak paddle. However, if there are two of you in the canoe, it’s a little easier to move forward or backwards; one person could keep paddling on one side while the other paddles on the opposite side.

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.

The design of the seating in a canoe means there is more space for extra 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 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!

However, not all canoes are completely open on the top. There are canoes that are designed for whitewater rapids and therefore have additional coverage and buoyancy devices at either end.

There are also racing canoes that are narrower and more streamlined for faster performance 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?

So the main difference between a kayak and a canoe that you will notice is the appearance. Canoes tend to be larger than kayaks, which may make them more difficult to transport if you don’t live near the water.

Kayaks are designed to be portable (there's even inflatable)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.

Canoes 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.

While there may not be one better than the other, the one that will be better for you will be the one that suits your lifestyle the best. Now you know the differences between the two, you’ll be able to make the right choice for you.


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.

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