Canoe Vs Kayak: What’s The Difference & Which One Is Best For You?

The whole kayak vs canoe, canoe vs kayak thing has to be one of the oldest debates in the world of on-the-water sports. You’ll find die-hard fans and enthusiasts on both sides, and they’ll gladly explain why one is better than the other to anyone willing to listen. 

If you’re a first-time boat shopper and are yet to pick a side in the never-ending kayaking vs canoeing battle, now’s your chance! 

Kayaking 101: Getting Up Close & Personal With Kayaks 

Did you know that kayaks can be traced back to over 4000 years ago and were first used by the Inuit people

But rather than using them for on-the-water sports – the way you and I might – the Native people of the Arctic regions primarily used these stealthy boats for hunting and fishing

If you look at things from the historical perspective, the kayak’s construction as we know it today makes perfect sense: 

The narrow and streamlined hull allowed them to be more agile and maneuverable. The enclosed cockpit ensured that the Inuit paddlers stayed as dry and warm as possible in the icy environment. 

Today, we have two main types of kayaks available. Even if you never set foot on one, the chances are that you’ve at least heard about them: 

SIt in Kayak on a Water Taken From Above.
  • Sit-Inside (SIK) Kayaks – Sit-inside kayaks are the more traditional-looking of the two, featuring a closed deck or cockpit. The paddler’s lower body sits underneath the deck, which, paired with a spray skirt, keeps them – and the cockpit – dry. 
Man fishing from a sit-on- kayak
  • Sit-On-Top (SOT) Kayaks – Unlike SIK kayaks, sit-on-top models have a relatively open, molded deck complete with drains, or scupper holes, to remove any excess water. The lack of cockpit leaves your entire body exposed, so SOTs are best suited for warmer climates. 

If only things were that simple, though. 

Both types of kayaks are available as singles or tandems – two-person kayaks – and as hard-shells or inflatables. 

To make matters more complicated, you can split them into several different groups depending on their intended uses:

Family of three in bright yellow recreational kayak
  • Recreational Kayaks – If you paddle on calm or flat water  including; lakes, slow-moving rivers, and sheltered coastal areas, a recreational kayak is your best bet. It’s typically 9 to 12 feet long and relatively wide to ensure initial stability without compromising maneuverability. It’s the most stable, comfortable, easiest to control – and relatively hard to capsize. 
6 Tips for Overcoming Fear while Sea Kayaking - Kayak Hipster
  • Touring Kayaks – The slimmer, longer hull that often measures anywhere from 12 to 18 feet can travel faster and cover more considerable distances. Touring and expedition kayaks also feature exceptional front and rear storage compartments to accommodate extended paddling excursions. And, are the preferred option for those wishing to sea kayak.
Guy in orange pdf paddling Whitewater kayak
  • Whitewater Kayaks – These can be flat-out tiny, with some “playboats“ measuring under 6 feet. The shorter and broader hull allows a whitewater kayak to maintain responsiveness and buoyancy, even when tossed around in the not-so-gentle whitewater rapids
Young athlete in a racing kayak
  • Racing Kayaks – Slender, lightweight, long – and I mean up to 36 feet long – with a pronounced rocker; that would be the definition of a racing kayak. They’re used for flat water marathons and sprints, so the speed is a given, but they lack stability and require a rudder for tracking. 
Paddler pumping up inflatable whitewater kayak
  • Inflatable Kayaks – Yes, inflatables get a special mention, too. They may not look as tough as your standard hard-shell, but that doesn’t mean that they’re less fun. It’s the most lightweight, portable, and affordable type of kayak, usually featuring an open form – similar to SOTs – and a two-person capacity. 

Canoeing 101: Getting Up Close & Personal With Canoes 

aluminum canoes on shore line

If you thought kayaks had a long history, think again: 

The oldest canoe ever discovered – the dugout canoe aka Pesse canoe – is dated to prehistoric times and is around 10.000 years old. 

How’s that for ancient? 

Something you’re likely more familiar with – and that belongs to relatively recent history – are canoes made by Native Americans. 

Either way, my point is: 

Canoes were used for thousands of years as a means of transporting people and goods. 

The transition from the prehistoric dugout-style to today’s modern-looking canoes was a long one. However, the core design remained more or less the same: 

A large hull and open deck with sides – known as gunwales – coming up higher above the waterline, and, more often than not, a bench-like seat on either end. 

It’s starting to sound a lot like your average rowboat, huh? 

Anyway, much like kayaks, canoes are also available in several different styles – but luckily for you, the classification is a lot more straightforward. 

It all comes down to the following three types of canoes

Family canoeing on sunny Lake
  • Recreational Canoes – These are the perfect choice for family recreation and leisure paddling on lakes and slow-moving rivers, praised for their stability, steadiness, and ease of use. If you ever saw a canoe before, the chances are that it was a recreational one. 
Water water canoe race
  • Whitewater Canoes – Whitewater sports are typically kayaking territory, but some canoes can handle rough, choppy waters. If it looks like a canoe but shorter, with higher sides, a more curved profile, and front and back flotation panels, the chances are that it’s a whitewater-style canoe. 
Men paddling in Race Canoe
  • Racing Canoes – If you ever needed proof that canoes can pick up speed, too, here it is. Racing canoes feature a narrower body, sit lower in the water, and generally don’t feature bench seats, which all contribute toward optimal speed and initial stability. 

Canoe Vs Kayak: 8 Key Differences Every Paddler Should Know 

What is the difference between a kayak and a canoe?

If a canoe is this family-friendly, all-purpose SUV, then a kayak is the sleek-looking, two-seater sports car. 

If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what will. 

Okay, that might’ve been an oversimplification – hopefully, a funny one – but let’s get real for a second: 

Kayaks are a complex topic – and so are canoes. However, in most cases, it boils down to the following eight canoe vs kayak differences

#1 Hull Design & Appearance

Close up to two kayak hulls

The most notable difference between a kayak and canoe – as I’m sure I’ve made clear by now – is the hull’s design and overall appearance. 

For starters, canoes are physically bigger and heavier than kayaks due to the broader frame and taller sides and have an open deck that’s relatively similar to your standard rowboat. The average length of a canoe is around 13 to 17 feet

Then you have the more narrow, sleeker kayaks designed primarily for speed and maneuverability. 

Sure, you can split both types into several different categories, but kayaks are available in a more extensive range of sizes and hull designs, according to intended uses. Seriously, you can find kayaks that are as short as 6 and as long as 36 feet

The hull design differences are evident from afar, but it’s the versatility that stems from it that sets the two apart. 

#2 Weight & Load Capacity 

group of young people on kayak outing rafting down the river

Canoes have a lot more space onboard – and the load capacity to match. While a kayak may hold 200 to 450 pounds on average, canoes can carry at least twice as much, with the capacity of a standard recreational canoe going up to 900 or so pounds – which makes them idea for trips away with lots of camping gear

Kayaks are typically intended to carry a single paddler. Yes, tandem kayaks are a thing, but the kayak’s design and weight capacity are generally best suited for solo trips. 

If you don’t mind traveling at a slower pace as long as you get to fill your boat with gear and a passenger or two, then a canoe is the way to go. Keep in mind that canoes are massive and much harder to transport to and from the water.

#3 Onboard Storage

Canoe loaded with equipment

Load capacity aside, carrying gear will look a bit different when you compare a kayak and a canoe: 

Kayaks, being the more compact and narrow of the two, tend to have limited onboard storage space. 

With their wide, open decks, canoes can fit more gear, equipment, supplies – and people – without getting cramped. Plus, everything’s a lot more accessible – the perfect mode of transport for a camping trip.

Kayaks do have one considerable advantage here – the built-in dry storage compartments located below the deck. 

Your electronics and valuables have a much better chance of surviving a capsize or high waves, merely because kayaks offer waterproof storage options – and canoes don’t. Well, not unless you buy those waterproof dry-storage bags.

#4 Seating Position & Overall Comfort 

Two red Kayak with black seats

Kayakers sit closer to the bottom of the hull, with their legs extended in front of them. On the other hand, canoeing requires the paddler to kneel – on either one or both knees – or sit on top a raised, bench-like seat. 

So, which one’s more comfortable – a kayak or a canoe? 

Kayaks have a slight advantage of featuring padded seats and accompanying backrests, which does wonders for alleviating lower back pain and discomfort during prolonged paddling sessions. Best of all, upgrading your kayak seat is always an option. 

3 Steps to Stop Back Pain After Using Kayak or Canoe.

Canoeing enthusiasts might argue that the freedom of movement one has on an open deck beats the most comfortable kayak seats. Switching from one seating position to another is all it takes sometimes – and you can’t do that in a kayak. 

#5 Intended Uses & Paddling Environments 

Canoeing in the ice

As explained a kayak is a two-seat sports car, and a canoe is a family-friendly SUV

The canoe’s design promises fun with family and friends. It’s the go-to choice for spending a relaxing afternoon out on a calm lake. You’re not there to compete or win any races; you’re there to unwind and enjoy a sunny day.

And then you have the kayak – a lean, mean, adventure-seeking machine. If you’re the type to take risks and aren’t afraid of getting wet while exploring the wilderness, do yourself a favor and pick a kayak. 

The whole canoe vs kayak debate comes down to competitive on-the-water sports vs leisure paddling. One isn’t better than the other – but everyone has a preference, nonetheless. 

#6 Paddle Design & How You Use It 

carbon fiber canoe paddles

A common misconception is kayaks use paddles and Canoes use oars – this is not the case, both use paddles.

The key differences between paddles and oars is that oars are used single handed for rowing – the ‘rower’ sits facing the opposite direction of travel – and the water is pushed rather than pulled, as with a paddling.

Up until now Canoes probably sounded like the more relaxing option – but that’s about to change: 

All else being equal, a kayak will always travel twice as fast as a canoe because it’s designed to be agile and maneuverable. 

The double-bladed paddle used with kayaking, have 90-degree offset blades on each end, and are made to boost every stroke’s efficiency

Canoe paddles differ in design from kayak paddles, they have a single-blade design with a T-shaped knob on the other end – and you have to move it from one side to the other every time. 

There’s also a definite learning curve to maintaining control and direction in a canoe, with a single bladed paddle; you’ll likely need an extra set of hands. 

3 Golden Rules of Canoeing Technique

On the flip side, I’ve seen total novices paddling a kayak – well, decently enough – within an hour after taking a paddle into their hands. 

#7 Stability & Manoeuvrability 

Picture of different type of kayaks and canoes

Stability of any vessel – be it a kayak or a canoe – can be broken down into two categories: 

  • Primary stability, or the boat’s initial steadiness on calm waters, which is where canoes shine. 
  • Secondary stability, or how far you could lean to the side without it flipping over, is often regarded as the more critical factor for a kayak, especially recreational kayaks. 

The kayak’s bow and stern curve out of the water to ensure maneuverability. But as useful as this rocker profile is for quick turns, it also makes kayaks easier to flip.  

Canoes, however, don’t have much of a rocker. Most of the hull’s surface sits below the waterline, making it more resistant to capsizing.

I’m not saying that you won’t find various hull shapes in both types of vessels, though: 

Flat, V-shaped, and round hulls are still a thing in both kayaks and canoes – although a flat bottom still reigns supreme stability-wise. 

#8 Cost 

Money ;coins falling out of a glass jar

Price is a variable thing. There’s a lot that plays into how much a boat – any boat, be it a kayak, canoe, or rowboat – will cost you: 

Design, materials, additional features, accessories, brand name – it all has a say in the price tag. 

Generally speaking, though, kayak prices are typical lower – an entry-level sit-on-top kayak will be a much more affordable option than a canoe. If you go with an inflatable kayak, you can expect to pay even less. 

Aluminium canoes are excellent value for money, especially when you consider they are big enough for a family, 2 adults and 2 kids, and a boat load of gear.

And fully rigged out sea kayaks or fishing kayaks can set you back an eye watering amount, especially once you add on on the extras such as; anchoring systems, GPS, fish finders, trolling motor and pedal drive systems.

So I guess my point is, when it comes to canoeing and kayaking, price tags can vary – and quite drastically, might I add – so, ask yourself: 

“How much am I willing to spend?“ 

Get your answer and go from there. 

A Word About Safety: Which One’s Easier To Flip – A Kayak Or A Canoe? 

Kayak sculling technique

Well, a canoe will undoubtedly be harder to capsize compared to a kayak. Then again, kayaks have the advantage of being easier to “right“ if they do overturn. 

If you manage to capsize a canoe – and you’re alone or far from shore when it happens – let’s just say that you’re up the creek. 

Again, don’t assume that one is inherently more stable than the other. The answer is never as simple as that; you’re looking at many different factors here. 

With kayaks, the hull’s design isn’t necessarily about avoiding capsizing; they’re made to be as fast and agile as possible – even if it makes them a tad bit more tippy. Canoes, on the other hand, emphasize stability over on-water speed and maneuverability.

I don’t think that focusing on the potential of flipping would do you much – if any – good in the long run, anyway. 

It’s going to happen, either way. How you act when it does is what matters. 

Self-Rescue Tips In Case Of Capsizing: What If Your Kayak Or Canoe Flips? 

Kayaking | How to Self-Rescue || REI

The first time it happens is going to be scary as heck. 

But I need you to remember that it doesn’t have to turn into a disaster

The following tips, although simple, could make a difference between a setback and a catastrophe: 

  • DO Dress For Water, Not Weather – Cold water sucks heat away from your body faster than you think; that’s when hypothermia strikes. Don’t dress for success. Dress for submersion.
  • DO Wear A Life Jacket – A staggering 86% of all drowning fatalities in boating accidents weren’t wearing a PFD, as reported by USCG. Wear a life vest and encourage fellow paddlers to do the same. We’re all on the same theoretical boat here. 
  • DO Tie Your Gear Down – Securing gear and valuables in regular stuff sacks or dry bags is an essential – but often overlooked – precaution. You can’t exactly afford to buy new equipment every time you capsize, now, can you? 
  • DO Stay Calm – Do not let the shock overwhelm you to a point where you freeze up and don’t know what to do. You can’t think straight – or make potentially life-saving decisions – when your head is clouded by fear. 
  • DO Practice Self-Rescue Techniques – You must know how to recover from a capsize before setting out on a paddling excursion. Assuming that your gear is secured and you have a PFD on, turn your boat right side up and remove any water trapped in the hull – enough to paddle to shore. 

Canoes And Kayaks: Weighing The Pros & Cons 

Kayak vs canoe - weighting up the pros and cons

I know that this was a long read, but let’s go over the most notable advantages and disadvantages of kayaks and canoes. If you’re still on the fence, summarizing everything could help you make that final jump. 

I’ll keep it as short as possible! 

Kayaks 

Advantages 

  • Most beginners find kayaks more natural and comfortable to paddle 
  • A double-bladed paddle is more efficient and improves the kayak’s tracking 
  • Kayaks are more versatile and suitable for a broader range of paddling environments, even waves, and open or less calm water.
  • Usually shorter in length than a canoe, with a more efficient hull design makes kayaks easier to maneuver, requires less effort to paddle, and cut through the water faster 
  • Kayaks, especially folding and inflatable models, are lighter and more portable than canoes 
  • Paddlers can apply the more advanced self-rescue techniques, like the Eskimo roll, on a kayak
  • Typically come with a paddle and adjustable seat with supporting backrest
  • Sit-In kayak models protect paddlers from the elements and keep them as dry as possible, especially with a spray skirt. 
  • Kayaks typically have dry storage compartments for gear and valuables built into the hull 
  • Suitable for individuals and paddling duos 

Disadvantages 

  • Kayaks are generally less stable and more likely to capsize than canoes 
  • Entering and exiting is more complicated, especially with sit-inside kayaks
  • Enclosed cockpits of Sit-In kayaks tend to restrict movement 
  • Sit-On-Top kayaks have an open and more exposed cockpit
  • Better suited to a single paddler although do come in 2 and 3 person variations
  • They have a lower load capacity and can’t carry as much gear as canoes – better suited to day trips

Canoes 

Advantages 

  • The spacious, longer in length, open-top design makes canoes more comfortable, especially during longer journeys 
  • The broad beam adds to the canoe’s stability, reducing the risk of capsizing significantly 
  • Canoes provide a higher seating position than a kayak, providing a better view of the surroundings 
  • Entering and exiting is much easier compared to a kayak 
  • The high walls of a canoe help keep water out 
  • The higher load capacity combined with ample on-deck space means that a canoe can carry more equipment, ideal for a long trip away with lots of camping gear 
  • Loading and unloading gear is much easier on a canoe 
  • Canoes are family-friendly, functioning best with two people or more. 
  • Recreational Canoes are ideal for relaxing afternoons out on flat water, such as; a lake and river. 
  • They’re suitable for paddlers with mobility or back issues, as well as senior paddlers 

Disadvantages 

  • The open deck exposes the paddler to the elements 
  • The less efficient hull design requires more effort to paddle and is generally less maneuverable.  
  • Although specialist models exist.  A typically canoe wouldn’t be an optimal choice for faster moving water or open water, such as whitewater rapids or the sea
  • A canoe often weighs more and is longer in length than an average kayak, making transportation an issue 
  • It’s more likely to sink if capsized 
  • Although can be operated by a single paddler, they are suited to two or more people
  • Canoes don’t feature dry storage compartments

Kayak vs Canoe Final Verdict: Which One’s Better & Why?  

I wish I could wrap up this whole canoe vs kayak debate by declaring a clear winner, but I’m afraid that things aren’t as simple as that. 

Getting both would be ideal – but we all know that’s not a realistic scenario.  

So, which one will it be, then? 

You might call me biased for saying this – after all, I’m a kayaker myself – but I think that kayaks have the versatility that canoes, as comfortable as they are, could never offer. 

That’s not to say that getting a canoe is a bad idea – and 1000s of canoe enthusiasts would agree. If you’re sure that you’ll never need your boat for more than a relaxing afternoon on the water with family or friends, by all means, get a canoe. 

But in any other scenario, a kayak is the way to go.