Get a bunch of kayakers and canoeists in a room together, and you are in for a lively debate on which is better: canoe vs kayak. For beginner paddlers, the question can be confusing. Although not all boats fit neatly into the canoe or kayak category, there are a few key differences between the two, and they have totally different origin stories. Canoes have been used by various populations around the world for thousands of years, but the term comes from the old Caribbean word “kenu”. In contrast, kayaks were invented by Greenlandic Inuit. Today, there are several types of both used across the globe. So what is the difference, and which is better? We’ll let you make up your own mind after reading the rest of this article…
If you’ve seen a kayak and a canoe, you’ll notice that they look different. But what are the actual differences between these two types of boat?
Canoes are larger and heavier, with an open top and high sides designed to fit more gear and people. Generally, in a canoe you sit on a bench type seat like sitting on a chair, or kneel on slats. This makes you pretty high off the water.
In contrast, kayaks tend to be smaller and lighter, and are traditionally designed for one. Some kayaks are ‘sit inside kayaks’ while others are ‘sit on top kayaks’, but in both cases, your legs are stretched out in front of you as you lean back in the seat. Kayakers are much closer to the water, and there is not as much space within the vessel. You could say that you ‘wear’ a kayak, but you ‘ride’ a canoe.
Another difference between a kayak vs canoe is the paddle. Traditionally, a canoe paddle is one-bladed, while kayak paddles are double-bladed. This is because kayaks were initially designed to be paddled by one person, while canoes are designed for two or more. In a kayak, you hold the paddle across you and alternate strokes on each side. In a canoe, you hold the paddle handle with one hand and its shaft with the other, and you paddle in tandem with another person. Paddling a canoe solo is tricky due to the paddle design, as well as the fact that canoes are quite large and heavy. Read our best kayak paddle reviews to find out more!
Both kayaks and canoes can be used for anything from racing to touring to fishing. However, because canoes are more stable and have more space inside, they may be more suited for a relaxing paddle down the river with a picnic, or a day out fishing with friends. Kayaks, with their maneuverability and small size, are usually better for adventure type activities like whitewater rafting and ocean paddling.
Types Of Canoe
Recreational canoes don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but they are stable and easy to paddle. They are usually between 13 and 17 feet long (4-5 meters). If you want to enjoy a nice day out canoeing on the lake or a calm river with friends or family, a recreational canoe is a great option. Recreational canoes mostly have a flat bottom, which makes for easy turning but not the highest speeds. You can get them in solid and inflatable form. Read our reviews of the best inflatable canoes next!
Advanced / Touring Canoes
Touring canoes are similar to recreational canoes, but are designed for long-distance touring, so are a little more expensive. They tend to have rounded bottoms which allows for greater speed and efficiency. They are both more lightweight and can handle more gear than your average recreational canoe. If you want to go on day trips or even multi-day expeditions, you might consider investing in an advanced canoe.
A whitewater canoe is designed for paddling in whitewater rapids. These are shorter than traditional canoes, and more maneuverable. They often have flotation panels to safeguard against water entering the vessel. If you prefer canoes to kayaks but still want some adventure, this may be the choice for you.
They tend to be longer and thinner than traditional canoes, and are optimized for speed. You sit lower in the boat in order to make up for the stability lost due to the narrow shape. Instead of sitting on benches, paddlers usually kneel in the bilge or adopt a half kneeling, half sitting stance for enhanced power.
Types Of Kayak
Just like canoes, there are also many types of kayaks available. It’s important to do some research before deciding which type of kayak to buy.
Sit Inside Kayaks
Sit inside kayaks have a closed design, with a cockpit and bow seat that the paddler sits inside with their legs stretched out inside the kayak body. This is the traditional kayak design and allows for some protection from the water.
Sit On Top Kayaks
Sit on top kayaks have no cockpit, but rather a molded top that creates a seat. These work well as fishing kayaks because you can attach all your gear with bungee cords. However, getting wet is pretty much inevitable.
Recreational kayaks are around 9-12 feet long, and are best for paddling in relatively calm and sheltered waters. They are fairly wide to provide stability, and short to allow for easy maneuvering.
Touring / Sea Kayaks
These kayaks are much longer and slimmer than recreational kayaks, in order to cover more distance in less time. The narrow bow of a sea kayak cuts through the waves, but it is a learning curve to get the hang of them. They are fitted with skegs to help with steering, as well as extra storage holds.
Whitewater kayaks are shorter and wider to help with maneuverability. They are highly buoyant and tend to have a spray skirt to offer protection. They are similar to recreational kayaks, but their hulls have more rocker to enhance responsiveness.
Racing kayaks come in two types – racing kayaks and surf skis. Both are sit on top kayaks, but much longer and thinner than the touring or recreational type. They are designed for speed, so lack a little in stability, and usually require a rudder to keep them going straight in the water.
Inflatable kayaks are becoming more popular due to their portability and ease of storage. They aren’t as durable as hard-shell kayaks but the top-end ones can rival them in performance and quality. They often look similar to canoes, but they are lightweight and use double-bladed paddles. Check out our inflatable kayak reviews next!
How Do I Choose Between A Kayak And A Canoe?
Now you know some of the differences between a kayak vs canoe. But how do you choose which one is right for you?
Where Will You Be Paddling?
If you will mostly be paddling in calm lakes and rivers, particularly if you want to be able to get in and out of your boat frequently, a canoe may be the way to go. However, if you want to take your boat out to sea or along more turbulent rivers, a kayak could be better for you. A kayak is also better if you want to carry your boat across bodies of land, as they are much lighter. In general, canoes are better suited for relaxing and kicking back with a cooler of drinks, while kayaks are ideal for more intense water sports. It’s a crude simplification, but a kayak is a bit like the sports car of the paddling world, while a canoe is like a family van.
Who Will You Be Paddling With?
If you want to be a solo paddler, you may find that a kayak suits their needs better. But if you want to paddle with kids, a woman, man or a furry friend, a canoe is probably better for you. However, you do get solo canoes and two-person kayaks, so if you prefer kayaks but want to go tandem, or like canoeing but want to hit the water alone, there is an option for you.
What Is The Importance Of…
Both canoes and kayaks can be very fast if you put in enough energy, and indeed canoe and kayak racing are both popular sports. However, kayaks are on average a little faster due to their lightweight construction. This is particularly relevant if you are paddling alone, as it is difficult to attain high speeds as the solo paddler on a canoe. But on the whole, the difference in speed is pretty minor.
What canoes lack in speed, they make up for in stability. Again, both canoes and kayaks can be stable, but canoes can generally hold more people and gear without losing stability. Capsizing is much less likely when canoeing than kayaking. Plus, you can stand up in a canoe and get in and out more easily – they generally offer more freedom of movement within the vessel.
While canoes offer freedom of movement inside the boat, kayaks allow more control of the movement of the boat in the water. Due to their smaller size and double-bladed paddle, kayaks tend to be more maneuverable than canoes. This is why they are recommended over canoes for paddling in winding creeks, convoluted coastlines or turbulent water. You do get whitewater canoes, but these are quite different to traditional canoes and aren’t necessarily as effective as whitewater kayaks.
If you are willing to sacrifice some speed and maneuverability so that you can bring along kids, camping gear, a picnic or anything else, you are probably better off canoeing than kayaking. If you would rather it was just you and the water, and all you need is your life jacket, whistle and a water bottle, you should probably become a kayaker.
Durability depends more on which kayak or canoe you choose, rather than whether you choose a kayak or canoe. That said, aluminum canoes can last for decades, while you will be hard pressed to find a kayak that will last more than 10 years. But in the end, it’s mostly about the quality of the product and how well you take care of it – remember to rinse your boat regularly. Unless you have an aluminum canoe, store your boat in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight.
Kayaks are much smaller and lighter than canoes, so when it comes to portage and storage, they come out on top. If you are going to be carrying your boat around, you might want to choose a kayak. Also, while you can transport a canoe or a kayak on a roof rack, kayaks are much easier to do this with and you can even stack them on top of each other to bring along multiple boats. If portage is a real concern for you, perhaps consider an inflatable kayak.
Whether you end up siding with the canoe enthusiasts or the kayakers, remember to choose your vessel carefully. It’s a good idea to read several reviews before making a purchase. Beyond the canoe vs kayak decision, there are a few more things to keep in mind before heading out onto the water.
Whether you are a member of team kayak or a canoe paddler, you need to take the question of safety seriously. Follow these tips to be a responsible paddler.
- Always go canoeing or kayaking with a buddy, especially if you are a beginner. Even then, tell someone else where you are going.
- Always check the weather conditions before you go, and the tidal conditions if you’re going into the sea. Don’t paddle in strong winds and or rivers after heavy rain.
- Be particularly cautious when paddling in open water such as the sea. Research the currents and safety levels of an area before jumping in the cockpit.
- Do not paddle too far from shore, particularly if you are a novice paddler.
Make sure you follow guidance when venturing out for the first time, and ideally go with a more experienced paddler.
What To Bring
Here’s what to bring with you on a canoeing or kayaking trip.
- Personal flotation device (PFD): you need one of these to comply with US Coastguard regulations
- Safety whistle and phone: in case of emergencies
- Water bottle: it is vital to stay hydrated
- Hat and sun protection: particularly if you will be out for some time
- Something warm in case of an unplanned dip
Frequently Asked Questions
It is easier to kayak in some ways, and easier to canoe in others. Kayaks are easier to maneuver around obstacles, and most people are quick to pick up the basics. On the flipside, canoes are harder to tip over and canoeing skills may be easier to master once you’ve got the basics. Who knows – you might become such a good paddler that you want to become a canoe or kayak instructor, or a member of a local club!
It is quite hard to flip a canoe. They are designed for stability and are unlikely to capsize, but if they do capsize, they are a lot harder than kayaks to flip over again. This is why most types of canoes are not recommended for riding in turbulent waters. Kayaks are more likely to capsize, but can easily be righted through the Eskimo roll technique.
The dangers of kayaking are similar to any sport that takes place in open water. However, it really depends on where you kayak and what the conditions are like. For sea kayaking, there is always the danger of being swept out to sea. Whitewater kayaking involves some danger in terms of injuries. When kayaking, remember to follow all safety tips and do not attempt advanced activities as a beginner.
A kayak is better for paddling than a canoe in the sense that kayak paddles are slightly more intuitive to use. However, a canoe is probably better if you want two paddlers on board. Canoeing requires a little more cooperation than kayaking for the most part. But it all depends on your perspective!
So there you have it. There is no definitive right answer to the canoe vs kayak debate! However, by considering what type of activity you want to use it for, how much gear you want to bring along and what type of paddling experience you would like, you can find the right vessel for you. But whether you decide on canoeing, kayaking, or both, remember to stay safe on the water and have fun!