Difference between a kayak and canoe made simple: Full guide

Illustration of kayak and canoe
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Have you been asking yourself the question, “what is the difference between a kayak and a canoe?” 

Some of you might feel like it’s a stupid question, but here’s the thing:

A lot of people get confused and struggle to tell the difference. So if you’re one of these people, don’t worry… You’re not alone.

In this article, I want to explain the key differences between canoeing and kayaking so you never struggle with this question again.

But to make things better:

I’m going to be dissecting kayaks and canoes and discussing which one’s better. If this sounds like the content, you’ve been looking for… Don’t go anywhere!

What is Canoeing And Kayaking?

Canoeing and kayaking is a mode of transport that you can use to travel across open water, rivers, lakes, or the sea.

People can use them for leisure activities like fishing, outdoor recreation, and aerobic exercise. But you can take kayaking and canoeing a step further with the introduction of extreme sports.

Although you can use both styles of boats for the same things, a few key differences set them apart.

The Difference Between Kayaking And Canoeing?

For most people, they were distinguishing the difference between a kayak and canoe by a kayak being closed-decked and a canoe being open-decked.

The thing is:

This isn’t always the case.

The easiest ways to tell the difference are with the sitting position and the paddling style. 

But to help understand all of these differences as efficiently as possible, let me quickly discuss kayaks vs canoes with their pros and cons so you’ll be able to pick out which is best!

Difference between kayak and canoe: The Kayak

Illustration of Sit inside kayak

A kayak is traditionally a smaller, sleeker, and lighter boat when compared to a canoe. They were built for speed and recreational tours across whitewater, fishing, and sea kayaking.

Origin

The kayak was initially used as hunting boats by the Eskimo tribes that populated the areas now known as Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.

Because of the freezing waters, an Eskimo needed a boat that could keep them as dry as possible while hunting seals in the sea. 

To help them stay dry, they used seal skin to stretch over the top of the kayak to prevent water from coming into the boat. Kayaks are designed with wood and made to move quickly with stealth to help them approach their prey.

Paddler Position

2 people kayaking


As I mentioned earlier, one of the most noticeable differences between kayaks and canoes is the paddler’s position.

The Kayaker will sit inside the hull (the bottom of the boat) with their legs stretched out to the front of the boat. Their knees will be slightly bent and push against the sides of the kayaks, which limits the range of movement.

A kayaker has to paddle with their back straight, which helps increase power and efficiency and reduce the strain on their back. The ideal posture is a straight back with relaxed shoulders and a puffed-out chest.

For many people, this is hard to get the grip of due to most humans slouching by nature. If you are looking to avoid injury and have a pleasant experience, consider learning how to kayak before heading out.

Deck

Anatomy of sit on top kayaks


Many people think kayaks are solely closed deck, and in many cases, they’d be right. River kayaks and sea kayaks are closed decked to ensure water doesn’t start flooding the boat.

They use a spray deck (a cover for the deck) to enclose the paddler inside the kayak. 

However, for beginners, being enclosed in the kayak can be a scary experience, which is why you can get sit-on-top kayaks. These kayaks resemble the open deck style of canoes and allow beginners to feel safer in the boat.

Paddle

kayak paddles

Another big difference between the two disciplines is the paddles you use. Kayak paddles are long and have blades on either side of the shaft at a 30-60° angle (some are 90°). This enables you to paddle on either side of the boat without having to switch sides. 

You should hold the shaft with your hands at shoulder-width apart. Some kayak paddles even have markers where you should keep your hands on the paddle.

Because of the different angles of the double-bladed blades, you’ll have to move your dominant hand like you’re revving a motorbike to get a clean stroke.

If you’re looking for some useful and interesting information on how to pick and use a kayak paddle, we’ve got it right here!

The importance of using the proper equipment cannot be overstated. Those who are interested in more details should read this guide which provides an excellent overview on choosing and properly using a kayak paddle.

Classification 

Kayaks get classified with a letter and a number; for example, K1 would mean it’s a closed kayak that can hold one person. As the number increases, so does the amount of people it can hold inside. 

An open deck kayak works the same way but OK2. Typically, it’s a tandem sit-on-top kayak.

Pros and Cons of a kayak

Advantages
  • Speed – Kayaks were designed to be quick moving forward through the water; this is down to the efficiency of the shape.
  • Easier To Pick-up – It can be easier to pick up kayaking; most people can get the basics locked down within an hour.
  • They Handle Better – Kayaks are great for maneuvering around waves and fast following waters.
  • Has A Double Bladed Paddle – Because you’re using a double-bladed paddle, it’s easier to gain speed and track.
  • Easier To Transport – The smaller and lighter nature of kayaks makes it easier to transport them, especially if it’s an inflatable kayak.
  • Dry Storage For Gear – Having a closed deck means you have a place to store your gear without it getting wet from waves in the sea or whitewater.
Disadvantages
  • Tighter Space – There’s a lot less range of movement due to being a closed cockpit. This can make it quite uncomfortable over long distances.
  • Hard to Learn Advanced Techniques – Although it’s easier to learn the basics, beyond that, a kayak can be pretty tricky and requires lots of practice.
  • Less Room For Gear – Kayaks are a lot smaller, making it harder to transport a large volume of equipment.
  • More Likely To Get Wet – Because you’re sat lower down, you’re closer to the water, making it more likely to get wet.

Difference between kayak and canoe: The Canoe

canoe vector illustration

A canoe is traditionally a lot larger than kayaks giving you more room to store equipment. If you’re planning recreational trips down a lake or river while camping at stop-offs, canoes are great.

But this isn’t the only difference between a canoe; let’s take a closer look at some more:

Origin

Canoes are among the oldest boats in history, with some being found from as early as 8,000 BC. There’s evidence that shows Australian and American natives using canoes in the prehistoric period. Originally these boats were just hollowed-out wood.

But canoes really came into North America with the modern Canadian canoe, which was traditionally open top.

Paddler Position

The paddler’s position in canoes is very different from kayaks. Instead of sitting with your legs stretched out in the hull, canoers will kneel in the cockpit. 

There are a few options with your position in canoes, so let’s take a look at them:

  • One Knee Bent – Some canoe paddlers will find it more comfortable to have one knee bent to paddle. This can make the boat a little less stable, but you can generate more power with each stroke.
  • Both Knees Bent – This is the most common style, and I recommend anyone learning to use it. Having both knees bent in the boat provides more stability. The problem is it can get uncomfortable over long journeys. 
  • Sitting With Bent Legs – If you need to take some pressure off when kneeling, you can sit down in the seat provided at the rear of the boat. Sit down with your knees bent under the seat.

Any of these paddling positions will serve you well, but my personal choice is kneeling in the hull. You can then direct your weight to one side of the canoe to counter-out the curve from paddling.

Deck

Source: sierra.com

Canoes are traditional open-deck but can also be closed-deck with the right equipment. You’ll only use a closed cockpit kayak if you plan to go down whitewater or if you’re on a long trip where the possibility of rain is high. 

The deck in a canoe is larger than a kayak mainly because the paddler has to kneel in the boat.

The benefit of having a bigger hull is you can fit more people and more equipment in the canoe. If you’re planning a camping trip or fishing trip, a canoe provides the best storage options.

Canoes also have a higher seat inside the cockpit, which allows the paddler to take the weight off their kneecaps.

Paddle

Canoe Paddles

The paddle for a canoe is wildly different from a kayak. The main difference is canoes have a single-blade paddle to propel them through the calm water. 

At the end of the shaft, the paddle features a T-grip handle. The paddler will wrap their thumb under the grip with their four fingers over the top.

Some people like to use the single-bladed paddle on both sides of the canoe to keep the boat going straight. 

But here’s the thing:

You don’t have to. With the correct strokes, you can paddle in a straight line without switching sides. You can take a look at this video to learn how to use the proper strokes.

Classification

Just like a kayak, canoes are also classified with letters and numbers. A traditional one-person open-decked canoe will be classified as OC1. To take this further, a four-person canoe will be classified as C4. 

Pros And Cons Of A Canoe

There are a few advantages of using a canoe over a kayak that I think are important to understand. So let’s take a look at them:

Advantages
  • Lots Of Space – Because of the amount of space, canoes are very popular for camping trips. The extra space also gives you room to take your kids or dog with you on your canoe trip.
  • Can Carry More Weight – The way canoes are designed means they can carry a lot more weight than kayaks. More importantly, they can take more weight without compromising on stability or maneuverability.
  • Super Relaxing – There’s nothing more relaxing than paddling the day are in a canoe and chilling in calm water.
  • High Walled – Canoes have high walls, making it easier to keep the water out of the boat in a lake and rivers.
  • Perfect For Friends And Family – There’s ample room in the canoe for your friends or family. If you want to have an adventure, there’s nothing better than doing it with people care about.
  • Harder to Capsize – A canoe has a broader beam and hull, making them more stable than a kayak. If you’re nervous about capsizing, you should try out a canoe.
  • More comfortable – Again, it’s a lot more comfortable than being cramped in a kayak because of the extra space.
Disadvantages
  • Harder To Paddle Solo – It can be a lot harder to paddle a canoe unless you know the proper single-bladed paddle techniques.
  • Might Sink – If you capsize your canoe, there’s a lot more significant risk of it sinking. If you do capsize, never try and tip the boat back over; it’s guaranteed to sink.
  • Gear Can Get wet – There’s less protection from water due to most kayaks being open deck. It’s suggested to take dry bags with you to help protect your stuff.
  • Harder To Maneuver – Canoes are heavier and longer than kayaks, making them harder to turn quickly.
  • Harder To Transport – Again, the large size of the canoe and heavyweight makes them a lot harder to transport than kayaks. If you need to transport them, you’ll need a trailer or a heavy-duty roof rack.
  • Moving Forward In a Staightline – Because you only have a single blade paddle, it can be tough to keep on course.

How much weight the canoe can take depends on the design, but you can expect the canoe to hold up to 620 lbs on average.

The Five Main Takeaways Between Kayaks And Canoes

Okay, we’ve taken an in-depth look at what makes a kayak vs canoe different. But, to make sure you understand, I want to give you the five main differences in one place.

Take a look:

  1. Paddles – Kayak paddles have a blade at whether side of the shaft so you can perform strokes on both sides of the boat more efficiently. A canoe uses a single blade and has a T-grip at the top of the shaft to hold on to.
  2. Seating – The kayaker will sit inside a seat with their legs stretched out in front of them. Their thighs will be wedged against the thigh brace of the kayak, and their back will be straight. Canoers bend the knee in the canoe or sit on the seat with their legs folded underneath.
  3. Classification – Kayaks and canoes use different classes to tell them apart. Kayaks use the letter K, followed by the number of people they can hold. For example, a tandem kayak will have a K2. Canoes work in the same way but use the letter C. With an open canoe that holds three people, the class will be OC3.
  4. Purpose – Both boat styles are used for leisure activities, but kayaks are used more when water becomes challenging. Canoes are better when you’re with the family or want a more relaxing journey down the river. 
  5. Design – A canoe is usually open decked and can fit more equipment and carry more weight. Kayaks’ design tends to be a closed deck, which means you can’t see the lower half of the paddler. 

If you keep these five factors in mind, you’ll have no problems telling the difference between canoes and kayaks.

Kayak Vs Canoe: Which One’s Better?

whitewater kayak, tandem canoe and paddles

There’s no definitive answer to which one’s better. It comes down to personal preferences and what activity you’re doing.

Kayaks are definitely easier to get the basics nailed down, so if you’re looking to learn new skills, you should have an easier time with kayak.

That being said, if you’re looking for a challenge with an extreme aspect to it, kayaks will definitely provide that.

Canoeing can be hard to get the grips of at first. Many people spend their time paddling the canoe around in cycles. This is down to a canoe being hard to paddle on course without plenty of practice.

Once you get the hang of it, canoeing can be a great leisurely activity for you and your family. You can enjoy extended trips down rivers while fishing along the way.

Key Insights & Takeaways

Smiling man paddling a kayak on lake


I hope this article has helped to explain the differences between canoeing and kayaking. As you can see, there are quite a few differences between the two, which makes life easier.

Which one you decided to use is entirely up to you. But by following the pros and cons of the kayak vs canoe, there’s no doubt you’ll find the right boat for you.

To recap, kayaks are better for people that want to get straight into the boat and be able to paddle around. But they’re also great for people that love playing around in the surf.

Kayaks are fast and easily maneuverable, which makes them excellent for whitewater.

On the other hand, canoes are a little bit hard to get the hang of at first, but once you get the strokes down, they’re excellent.

The best thing about canoes is that you get a few people in there and have ample room for camping gear, fishing gear,  and much more in a canoe.

A canoe is also more stable, which gives them less chance of capsizing. When they do tip, there’s a chance of the canoe sinking to the bottom of the lakes.

Frequently Asked Questions

You might still have some questions about kayaking and canoeing, which is why I’m dying to answer some of the most commonly asked questions:

Is It Easier To Kayak Or Canoe?


In general, a canoe is a lot harder to tip over because they are broader and more stable. But kayaks are a lot easier to maneuver and faster than a canoe. The other advantage of kayaks is you can perform a roll if it tips over.

What Happens If Your Kayak Flips?


If your kayak flips while you’re inside, you have a few options. If your skills are good enough, you can perform the kayak roll. Performing a roll pushes you back upright so you can continue kayaking. 

The next option is to escape the kayak by pulling off the spay-deck and pushing yourself out. Once you’re out, you’ll have to swim back to the side or perform a self-rescue.

Do Canoes Tip Easily?


Usually, a canoe does not tip easily as long as everyone is following the proper procedures. This means making sure all the weight is disrupted correctly and your equipment is tied down. That being said, anyone can tip a canoe if they lean too much to one side.

How Difficult Is It To Kayak?


Kayaking isn’t as challenging as some people may think. To get started, you only have to learn the very basics; you should be able to learn the basics in one hour. The trick is not to rely on your arms’ strength and instead focus on your paddling technique. 

Jason
Jason
Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.

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