July 25, 2022 9 min read

Canoeing vs Kayaking

Kayaks on the beach shore

If you aren’t knowledgeable in the personal watercraft world, then confusing canoeing and kayaking is a common mistake. They’re both small boats that are man-powered by a paddle, after all. 

Although the two seem fairly similar, there are a lot of differences between a canoe and a kayak, and in this article today, we’re going to highlight those differences, so you’re never confused on the subject again. 

If you’ve ever wondered what is the difference between kayaking and canoeing, then keep on reading!

What are Canoes?

Green canoes

First, let’s get into canoes. Canoes, most often than not, are open-top vessels and have benches inside for rowers to sit on. 

The history of canoes dates back around 10,000 years ago, with some of the oldest dugout canoes ever discovered being linked to indigenous people all throughout the world. A dugout canoe was traditionally made from a hollowed-out tree, and the indigenous people would use them to transport people or goods throughout their local waterways. 

Canoes have developed over time, but their core design has remained the same. Canoes tend to have a large hull with relatively high sides and can transport two or more paddlers at any given time. 

Nowadays, people have adapted the canoe to serve a range of different purposes such as racing, recreational use, and whitewater paddling. 

Canoe Groups

Red racing canoes

Canoes were once used as a reliable mode of transport, but now, they’re generally used for water sports and leisure activities. 

Racing Canoes

Traditional canoes were bulky and relatively slow, but companies have modernized them and turned them into ideal racing boats. A racing canoe has a narrower body than a typical canoe that also sits lower in the water. The racing canoe doesn’t feature bench seats and instead the paddler would kneel inside the cockpit. 

These characteristics allow the canoe to travel at faster speeds and also help improve the boat's overall stability.

Recreational Canoes

The canoes most commonly seen out on waterways today are recreational canoes. Recreational canoes are designed in a way to enhance their stability, ease of use, and steadiness. 

Many families enjoy leisure paddling in recreational canoes because most can comfortably fit two adults and two small children. 

Whitewater Canoes

Although whitewater paddling is usually left to kayaks, canoes can also take on the rough, choppy rapid waters. 

Whitewater canoes, however, look slightly different from recreational paddling canoes. They’re shorter, have higher sides, and their profiles are more curved to prevent water from entering the cockpit.

What are Kayaks?

Colorful kayaks

The history of kayaks is slightly shorter than that of a canoe, but we can date them back to over 4000 years ago. Inuit people in the Arctic regions once used personal watercraft for fishing and hunting purposes.

Although many people still use kayaks for fishing today, kayak paddlers often take their kayaks out for entertainment and exercise. As kayaks can be purchased in a solo kayak or tandem kayak option, it makes the perfect small craft for days out on the lake or river.

Unlike a canoe, however, the kayak has a narrower and more streamlined hull. This hull shape allows the kayak to cut through the water at faster speeds and also improves its overall maneuverability.

Similar to the canoe, the kayak is used for different purposes like racing, recreational activities, and whitewater, but they come in two different variations. 

Sit-In Kayaks

The first variation is the sit-in kayak. Sit inside kayaks are what the Inuit people would have used to prevent themselves from getting wet in the icy and cold environments they paddled in.

A sit-in kayak has a closed deck that covers the paddler's lower body and is usually accompanied by a spray skirt which helps to eliminate any water from getting inside the cockpit. 

Sit-On Kayaks

Sit-on kayaks are slightly different and have an open deck that exposes the paddler's entire body. These kayaks have drains throughout the cockpit to remove any water that may have entered the boat. Because of their open-top design, sit-on kayaks are better suited for warm waters and warmer climates. 

Kayak Groups

Blue and cream kayak

We mentioned before that kayaks can also be used for a range of different activities, but in some ways, they’re more versatile than their canoe cousins. 

Inflatable Kayaks

Over recent years inflatable kayaks have been developed to be as sturdy, durable, and robust as a traditional hard shell kayak. 

Their ease of portability is what has made them an incredibly popular kayak choice, as paddlers can now transport their boats to waterways all over the world. As well as being easy to transport, they’re also easier to store and usually have a lower price point than most traditional kayaks. 

An inflatable kayak shares the same characteristics as a hard shell kayak and can have both an enclosed cockpit or an open one. They’re also available in a tandem and solo option. 

Racing Kayaks

Racing kayaks have been developed to be even faster than racing canoes. A racing kayak would feature a long, narrow hull with a pronounced rocker to help it slice through flat water for marathons or sprints. 

Although racing kayaks lack stability and have poor tracking without the use of a rudder, they sure make up for it in speed.

Recreational Kayaks

Just like recreational canoes, many people enjoy heading out for a leisurely paddle on the water in their kayak. 

Recreational kayaks come in at around 9 to 12 feet long and have wider hulls to improve their overall stability. Kayaks of this type are also easy to maneuver, easy to control, and relatively comfortable.

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are used for long days on the water and, because of this, are designed to cover considerable distances. As you’re bound to spend the majority of the day on the water, touring kayaks are kitted out with ample amounts of storage to hold water, food, and other personal belongings you may need on your day paddling trip.

Many paddlers prefer the touring kayak for sea kayaking as they can withstand challenging water and weather conditions. 

Whitewater Kayaks

The final kayak group is the whitewater kayak. Whitewater kayaks are often single-person kayaks and measure under the 6 feet mark. As well as being somewhat short, they also feature wider hulls to improve their buoyancy and to make it easier to maneuver them in harsh whitewater rapids.

Key Differences Between Canoes and Kayaks

Transferring kayaks on a roof rack

Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of canoes and kayaks, let's get into their key differences so you can easily identify one from the other. 

Appearance

First up is their appearance. Canoes are heavier and bigger than most kayaks and feature taller sides and an open deck. In some ways, they resemble a rowboat and have an average length of 13 to 17 feet.

Kayaks, on the other hand, are narrower and were built with maneuverability and speed in mind. The kayak comes in a larger selection of sizes and can also be used for more water-based activities than a canoe. 

Comfort

When you sit in a kayak, you’re close to the bottom of the hull, and your legs are extended out in front of you. Most kayaks come with padded seats and backrests that can be adjusted to suit each individual paddler. 

Canoes, however, feature bench seats, but many canoe paddlers kneel on one or both of their knees. Although to us, the kayak seems like the more comfortable option, many canoe enthusiasts would claim otherwise. 

As a canoe has a large open deck, this gives the paddler a vast range of movement and allows them to switch into different seating positions, which you obviously can’t do in a kayak. We guess overall comfort comes down to each individual paddler, so that choice is up to you.

Cost

Pricing is another factor that differentiates the two. When it comes to cost, a lot of things will play into the total price. These things include the materials used in the creation of the boat, any accessories that come with it, the brand it comes from, and any additional features.

Although both a kayak and canoe have cheaper and more expensive options, kayaks are typically on the lower end of the price scale. Inflatable kayaks especially will be considerably less than many canoes on the market. 

Intended Use

Another of their main differences is their intended uses. Canoes, for example, are great choices for families who want to spend a relaxing day out on the water. Their large cockpits mean you can pack yourself and the kids up, throw onboard a picnic, and maybe even your pooch, and head out for a leisurely paddle down your favorite waterway.

Kayaks, on the other hand, are better used for adventures, racing, fishing, and single or tandem paddlers. 

If you look at a kayak and a canoe as if they were cars, the kayak would be a sports car and the canoe an SUV perfect for the entire family. 

Of course, which is better is another personal preference. 

Paddle Design

Wooden paddle for canoe

Quite possibly, the easiest way to tell the difference between a kayak and a canoe is the paddle. 

Kayak paddles are double-bladed paddles and have a 90-degree offset blade on each of the paddles’ ends. A double-bladed paddle makes paddling more efficient as you don’t need to continuously switch sides to propel yourself or turn in the water. 

Canoe paddles, however, are single-bladed paddles. A single-bladed paddle has a blade on only one of its ends and a T-shaped handle on the other. When you’re paddling in a canoe, you need to take the single-blade paddle out of the water and switch sides to ensure your boat doesn’t go around in circles. 

In a tandem canoe, there are usually two paddlers.  One paddler then usually paddles on one side of the boat, and the other paddles on the opposite side. 

Stability

Stability comes down to the type of kayak or canoe you purchase. Canoes, in general, are extremely stable thanks to their wide bodies and larger surface area. 

A kayak’s stability, though, will come down to its intended use. Fishing kayaks, for example, are extremely stable, so anglers can reel in their catch without falling in. They usually have a wider body and are more buoyant on the water to support this.

Racing kayaks, which are very thin and streamlined, will be much less stable on the water because of their smaller surface area and narrower body.

Storage

The amount of storage in a canoe is massive. The wide-open decks of a canoe can carry pretty much anything meaning you aren’t limited to what you can and cannot take on board. 

In contrast, kayaks have a much smaller storage area, with some only being able to hold a backpack. If you’re a singular paddler, this isn’t too much of an issue, but for those needing more storage space, the canoe comes out on top. 

Boat Weight and Weight Capacity

Canoes are quite obviously the heavier of the two and are harder to transport than kayaks. But, although they’re heavier, they can actually carry a considerable amount of weight inside their cockpit. 

Some canoes can carry up to 900 pounds worth of passengers and gear, making them an excellent choice for camping trips, fishing, or simply just taking your family out for the day. 

Kayaks, even the tandem variations, can hold between 200 to 450 pounds which is still reasonable but not anything near the amount of the much larger canoe. 

FAQ’S

🏆 Is it easier to kayak or canoe?

Paddle sports such as kayaking and canoeing can be difficult at first for any new paddler. Canoeing tends to be the more challenging of the two because of the need to continuously switch sides and alternate your paddle strokes.

Along with this, when paddling in a canoe, you’re more often than not joined by an additional paddler. Trying to find your balance and rhythm while another paddler is finding theirs can cause an unsteady and uncoordinated ride.


👍 Which Is better, canoe or kayak?

Whether a canoe or kayak is better will come down to your personal preferences. If you’re looking for a vessel that is versatile and favors speed, maneuverability, and ease, then the kayak wins tenfold. 

If you’re after a vessel that the whole family can enjoy, then a canoe will come out on top. Before purchasing either a canoe or kayak, it’s best to highlight what you’ll be using it for and base your decision on your findings.


🏝️ Is kayaking harder than canoeing?

Many people think kayaking is easier than canoeing as you don’t need to continuously switch sides or change up your paddle strokes throughout your adventure. It is also easier to find your own personal balance and rhythm in a kayak, as unless you have a tandem kayak, you don’t have to worry about any other passengers moving and rocking the boat.

Megan Bryant
Megan Bryant

Based in Bali, her favorite SUP spot is the GILI Islands themselves. Travel is another passion of hers - she dreams to see the entire world one day.


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