Canoe vs Kayak – Which is Better?

Last Updated on April 25, 2021 by KayakPro

Summer vacation isn’t complete without recreational boating on the itinerary. Nothing beats a tranquil, yet exhilarating, boat rides onboard a canoe or kayak while communing with nature.

If you are new to this type of outdoor activity and want to try it, there are several things you should know first. The most important of which is choosing whether you want to ride a canoe or a kayak.

Ask a hundred paddlers and you will likely get a hundred answers as to why one of these types of boat is better than the other. Because each of their argument is valid at some point, it can be quite confusing which one will suit your needs.

In this post, we will try to make some sense whether canoeing or a kayaking is for you. Aside from choosing which discipline you should choose, this article can also serve as your guide when you have decided to purchase a boat of your own.

Before we get into the knit and grit of things, here is a very short history lesson.

1. Short History of Canoe and Kayak

girl going canoeing

Canoes and kayaks have been around a long time. They are two of the oldest types of boat that served humanity and is a crucial part of the daily lives of many early civilizations.

The oldest canoe to ever been found in Pesse, Holland is believed to have been built between 8,000 and 7,500 B.C. It is also the oldest boat of any type in the world. Canoes have also been found in many parts of the world such as in Australia and even in the Amazon rainforest.

When the European settlers came to North America in the 14th and 15th century, they recorded that the locals were already using canoes. The locals used birch bark which is sturdy and lightweight. Today, the modern canoes had their wooden components replaced with are replaced with other materials such as fiberglass, metal, and plastic.

Kayaks came in much later and the first boat of its kind is believed to be built around 5,000 B.C. They were used by North American aborigines to cross the Arctic Ocean during their migration eastward. The Inuits are credited to be the first people to use the kayak. In the 1800s kayaking was brought to Europe by Arctic explorers.

Canoeing and kayaking became a trendy outdoor activity and in 1936 was officially declared as an Olympic sport during the Berlin Olympic Sports games.

2. Main Differences Between a Canoe and Kayak


Paddle sports is fast becoming one of the most popular pastimes in the world, especially in places with access to rivers and other bodies of water. According to a 2015 study by the Outdoor Foundation, close to 11.7 million Americans participated in kayaking and 10.2 million went canoeing in that year.

The canoe and kayak are narrow and lightweight boats that are designed to move fast in water. However, they have a lot of difference including structural design.

  1.    Design of the Boat

Most canoes have an open on top design, which allows easier entry or exit of the passenger of the boat. However, this also means that its open hull can easily catch water especially when it’s raining. The boat is usually pointed at both ends allowing it to move faster in water. It can carry one to four people, depending on its size and design.

While it’s usually propelled by paddling, there are also canoes that are powered by sails or small gas or electric motor. There are also canoes that have been decked over or covered similar to a kayak.

In contrast, kayaks have an enclosed deck. While this makes it harder to enter or exit the watercraft, it also ensures that the boat doesn’t catch too much water. Moreover, a spray deck covers the cockpit which keeps the passenger’s lower body and the inside of the boat dry.

  1.    Seating Position

Another difference between a canoe and a kayak is how their passengers are seated.

Canoers have the option of sitting regularly, like one does on a chair, or sit with his legs stretched depending on the design of the boat. This raised seat position is common among river canoes. There are also instances that the paddler kneels in the canoe, such as in some canoeing competitions.

Kayakers usually sit on a low seating position with their legs extended into the front of the boat. This posture best utilizes the enclosed design of the kayak and provides stability when paddling.  This stance also promotes better control of the boat, especially when navigating rapids.

  1.    Paddle Design

Aside from the boat’s structure, canoes and kayaks also use different types of paddles.

Canoes usually use a single blade paddle to propel the craft forward. This type of paddle has a long shaft attached to a paddle and a T-piece on the other end. The T-piece allows a better grip for the paddler and is quite useful especially when you need to switch hands while rowing the boat.

Kayaks, on the other hand, use a double blade paddle. This type of paddle has a longer shaft and has a blade on each end. Each blade is angled differently and is rowed alternately from each side.  This seamless rowing motion uses less energy compared to switching hands while rowing.

  1.    Paddling Techniques

Consequently, because these two types of both have different paddle design they also employ different paddling techniques.

For a canoe to propel forward, you need to stroke the water on one side of the both at a time. You also need to place one hand on the paddle’s T-piece and the other on the shaft. If you need to move the boat a straight line, you have to alternately stroke at each side of the boat.

Meanwhile, a kayak rider has to stroke the water alternately on each side of the both for the boat to move forward. If you want to stir the kayak to your desired direction, you need to vary the length and angle of your paddle strokes.

3. Pros and Cons of Canoes vs Kayaks

The canoe and kayak have several advantages and disadvantages which you should know before buying one. You should consider each factor before deciding which of the two you should choose to own. Although ultimately it all boils down to the lifestyle and experience you will get from either of them.

Canoe Pros

  •         Canoes are generally ideal for long expeditions because it’s more stable and comfortable compared to kayak. Because of their wider design, canoes are also more difficult to capsize.
  •         Passengers of canoes are also not conformed to just sitting, you can even stand up while riding one. Thus, giving you a better view of the surrounding without having to constantly stir the boat.
  •         Mastering the basic canoeing skills is much easier than the technical aspects of kayaking.
  •         You can carry more stuff on board. It’s also easier to get passengers and their belongings in and out of the canoe.

Canoe Cons

  •         Canoes are bulky and heavy. It is difficult to transport and isn’t as portable as a kayak.
  •         When paddling on whitewater, canoes take on more water compared to kayaks.
  •         Single blade paddles are less efficient than double blade paddles.
  •         Canoes are generally slower than a kayak and require more effort to maintain its top speed.

You can use canoes when boating with your family, provided that it’s big enough for everyone. If your aim is solely to stroll in a river or lake, then a canoe will do the job just fine. Thus, canoes are geared to those who value recreation over sportiness.

Kayak Pros

  •         On a head-on race, a kayak will likely win against a canoe. Kayaks are also more maneuverable and can handle whitewater better than a canoe.
  •         Kayaks are lighter and thus much easier to transport. There are also kayaks that can be folded or self-assembled on the spot.
  •         Because of its enclosed design, your gear will be kept drier provided that you don’t capsize.
  •         You will spend less energy paddling a kayak compared to a canoe.

Kayak Cons

  •         Mastering kayak skills require a lot of time especially if you want to tackle rapids or fast moving waters.
  •         Most kayaking sessions will make your whole body wet.
  •         It’s harder to get in and out of the kayak, which is quite a hassle when you suddenly want to go for a quick dip in the water and get back to your boat.

The true potential of a kayak can only be unlocked on challenging river routes. If you are the sporty kind of person, then you will likely prefer the kayak over the canoe. Overall, kayaks are meant for solo or couple paddlers who want to go fast in the water.

4. Different Uses of Canoes vs Kayaks

Early forms of canoes and kayaks were crucial to the livelihood and daily lives of their owners. Many civilizations have used them for several purposes such as transporting people, carrying goods across rivers and other forms of water and even in fishing and hunting. There are also historical records that suggest that these types of boats were also used in warfare before the advent of larger boats.

Today, both canoe and kayak is used in different ways to fit into different activities not only in outdoor recreation and sport. Below are the typical uses of these boats:

Typical Uses of a Canoe

  •         Canoes are primarily used in cruising along rivers, lakes and even the seas. There are also communities that rely on canoes to transport products and people.
  •         Sportsman canoes are used fishing along deeper parts of the river and is excellent at storing the day’s catch. They are also better in navigating narrower parts of the river compared to motorboats.
  •         Racing and training canoes are designed to provide speed and performance. They are used in canoe races and other sporting events.
  •         Whitewater canoes, which have lots of rocker and a short waterline, are used in navigating fast-moving waters.
  •         Canoes can also be used in specific rescue missions, especially if the rescue area is accessible through a body of water.

Typical Uses of a Kayak

  •         Recreational kayaks are used in exploring the nearby body of water mostly found near typical local parks, on the shore of lake homes and rental fleets. They are easy to use and ideal for beginners.
  •         Touring kayaks are designed for more experienced paddlers and is ideally used in protected bodies of water.
  •         Whitewater kayaks are used in sporting activities which have extreme water conditions. They have a harder and stiffer shell than your average kayaks which makes them scratch resistant.
  •         Sea kayaks are ideal ocean usage as they are designed for speed and stability. This type of kayak also has hard chines and flat hull which helps in dealing with the waves.

Questions You Need to Ask Before Buying a Canoe or Kayak

  •         What is your price range?

Simply put, do you have the budget to spare to buy the canoe or kayak that you want. If you don’t have enough for a brand new unit, you can consider buying a used boat. However, always consider quality above low price.

  •         What’s the best length for you?

Canoe and kayaks come in different lengths and sizes. The rule of thumb is narrow and longer kayaks are faster, but wider kayaks are more stable and easier to maneuver. For best fit, you can consult online sizing chart or consult an expert.

  •         How will you transport the boat?

Longer models may require larger vehicles to transport it such as a pickup truck. Shorter ones can be crammed in the roof rack of sedans and other small cars. Kayaks also have more portable options such as inflatable or collapsible units.

  •         Will you need additional gears?

Aside from the usual paddle and lifejacket, your boat may also require additional accessories. Waterproof boxes, for example, are good for keeping valuables such as phones and first aid kits safe and dry. Additional straps can also help secure your gear, while kayak skirts can help prevent water entering in the boat.

5. The Sport of Canoeing vs Kayaking

Canoeing and kayaking are mainstay events in the Summer Olympics. However, as a sport both fall under the same event name as a “canoe.” Currently, there are two main categories- the canoe slalom and canoe sprint.

Canoe Slalom

The canoe slalom event requires athletes to navigate a series of gates which are strategically placed along a 250-meter long whitewater course. Each gate has two poles, where the boats have to pass directly through in the middle.

When the athlete touches the pole with their body or any piece of equipment including the paddle, they are given a two-second penalty. Missing or going in the wrong order of the pole will result to a 50-second penalty. The one with the fastest time, after penalties are awarded, wins the race.

Canoe Sprint

Canoe sprint is very straightforward; it’s a race on flat water with different distances such as 200 meters, 500 meters, and 1,000 meters event. The first boat whose front or bow crosses the finish line wins the race.

Aside from the distance, the events are also divided based on the number of athletes in each boat- it can be 1, 2 or 4. Sprint kayaks used in competitions are sit on top models which have an open cockpit instead of a closed one.


Canoeing and kayaking are both enjoyable and is a great way to reconnect with nature. Now that we have covered many of the factors that can help you decide whether to choose a canoe or kayak, we hope you make the best decision for yourselves.

Let us know your thoughts about this article and whether you are likely to choose a canoe or a kayak in the future. Write us your comment below.

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Ryan Stoltz

Ryan Stoltz

Avid kayaker and lover of the outdoors. Having been kayaking for over 7 years, I love sharing my experiences and learnings along the way. Currently kayaking in upstate New York and always open to new adventures!

1 thought on “Canoe vs Kayak – Which is Better?”

  1. Thank you for sharing this great article. I was undecided whether I should choose a canoe or kayak, but reading the article gave me lots of insight. Keep up the good work!

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