Canoe vs Kayak (What’s the Difference?)


Canoe vs Kayak Difference

Often, the words “canoe” and “kayak” are used interchangeably, which can cause confusion. Even if you know that they describe two different types of paddlecraft, you may wonder whether a canoe or a kayak is more stable or it’s right for the type of paddling you want to do.

The main differences between kayaks and canoes include the different types of paddles used, where the paddlers are located, and how much gear a kayak vs a canoe can hold. There are also variations in the hull designs of each one. Canoes are usually wider, longer and heavier, while kayaks are smaller, narrower and built for speed.

Other than the different paddles, seat positions, and shapes that define kayaks vs canoes, there are also differences in how they’re used and other information that can help you decide which one, kayak vs canoe, would be the best fit for you and how and where you’d like to paddle.

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Canoe or Kayak – Which Should You Choose?

Before purchasing a kayak or canoe, here are a few questions to keep in mind:

  • Is comfort an important factor?
  • Is speed or handling more important?
  • Are you okay with getting a little wet?
  • Is stability or maneuvering more important?
  • Does your family like personal gear or do they like to share?

Both kayaks and canoes have several different styles, designs and availability that may influence which one you purchase.

Check out some common types of kayaks and canoes listed below:

Type of Kayaks vs CanoesProsCons
Sit-Inside Kayaks– Keep you dryer
– Protect your lower body from the weather
– Relatively Stable
– Extra compartments
– You may feel confined
– More difficult to get in and out
– Sit lower in the water
Sit-on-Top Kayaks– Stable
– Beginner-friendly
– Easy to get in and out of
-You’ll to get wet
-Easier to fall off
Inflatable Kayaks– Small storage space
– Don’t require cargo rack
– Stable
– Seats are adjustable
– Lighter
– Slower in water
– Take time to inflate
Folding Kayaks– Compact storage
– Lightweight
– Not as durable
– Shorter lifespan
– Less storage
Whitewater Kayaks– Agile
– Resistant to damage
– Easy to navigate
– Unstable
– Slower in open water
– Not built for comfort
Recreational Canoes– Able to carry more
– Stable
– Easy to control
– Can hold more people
– More effort to paddle
– Less maneuverable
Square Stern CanoesCan add a motor
– Lighter
– Harder to maneuver
– Less stable
Racing Canoes– Sleek design
– Faster than other canoes
– Stable
– Prone to getting wet
– Don’t fit as many people
– Specialized design
Whitewater Canoes– Lighter than other canoes
– Sturdy design
– Less stable
– Shorter
– Don’t fit as many people
Tandem Canoes– Designed for multiple people
– Comfortable seating
– May keep you dryer
– Very stable
– Great for longer trips
– Spacious hulls
– Difficult to paddle
– Not easy to maneuver
– Heavier to carry

The Differences Between Kayaks and Canoes

Obviously, there are many differences between kayaks and canoes. But that’s a good thing as it can help you determine which one you prefer and which one’s better for how you plan to use it.

Let’s look at some more features of canoes vs kayaks…

Canoe vs Kayak Storage Space:

  • Canoes are much larger compared to kayaks and thus have more storage space. If you plan on taking multi-day trips, or paddle camping expeditions, canoes offer more space to put camping gear, coolers, and other essential equipment. The one downside would be that your cargo has the chance to get just as wet as you do, so you’ll want good dry bags for all your gear.
  • Compared to the wide-open hull design of canoes, kayaks have a smaller and more separated storage system, depending on the type of kayak you choose. Most kayaks have waterproof cargo holds. But, unlike a canoe, these cargo holds tend to be smaller and are created to hold electronics, small camping gear, or small coolers.

Kayak vs Canoe Stability:

  • With their heavier, wider, and longer design, canoes are usually more stable than your average kayak. They’re also built with deeper and wider hulls. But this is by design because they’re meant to carry large loads of gear and people over long distances. But canoes can be harder to maneuver than kayaks because of their larger average size and wider hull design.
  • That being said, kayak stability is much better now than even a few years ago. And with their smaller and lighter design, kayaks tend to glide through the water better and they’re easier to maneuver. However, if you shift your body weight in the kayak while trying to paddle, you may not track in a straight line. Don’t worry, this is by design as leaning is meant to help you steer more aggressively. It doesn’t feel natural at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

Staying Dry in a Kayak vs a Canoe:

How wet you get in a canoe vs a kayak depends on which type of kayak or canoe you decide to purchase. 

  • Generally, canoes are larger and don’t require you to lift the paddle from side to side, so you’ll get less wet when paddling them. Also, you sit higher above the waterline in a canoe, away from splashing water.
  • While you can stay dry in a sit-inside kayak, you can still get wet while paddling. Since you must tip the paddle back and forth when you paddle from side to side, water tends to want to trickle down the paddle shaft toward your hands. Luckily most kayak paddles have little cups around the shaft on both ends to prevent that water from sliding down the shaft and up your sleeve.

Kayak vs Canoe Paddling:

Here’s an article on the different parts of a canoe paddle to give you some context.

  • Canoes are designed to track water and travel straight ahead. With shorter paddles that have a single blade on one end, canoes are best paddled by more than one person. One person can paddle a canoe, but in order to paddle straight they’ll either have to continually switch which side of the canoe they paddle on or learn a special canoe stroke to stay paddling on one side. (J-stroke)

  • The majority of kayaks are designed so that one person can paddle and maneuver them with as little effort as possible. Kayak paddles have two paddle blades (one blade on each end of the paddle). And kayak paddles are longer vs shorter canoe paddles. This kayak paddle design allows for a single person to easily stroke water on both sides of the kayak.

Kayak vs Canoe Seats/Comfort:

  • Since the top of a canoe is wide open, you can easily step in and out of it from a dock, the beach or standing in shallow water.
  • The downside is that canoe seats are simpler and more basic vs many kayak seats. Kayak seats tend to have a little extra support and often lower back support built in.
  • On the upside, you can get out of a canoe more quickly vs having to do a lot of shifting around and a little wiggling to get out of a sit-inside kayak.
  • But if you like feeling securely inside your boat, then sit-inside kayaks are the way to go. Kayaks cover your lower body and give you more protection from the water vs canoes where you sit out in the open and more exposed to the elements. Remember, you can still get wet, depending on how you paddle.

Kayak vs Canoe Design Differences:

  • Typically, canoes have a more open design than kayaks. Canoes are created with wide, open frames  and internal hulls that make them larger and heavier than kayaks.
  • Canoes are designed to carry more people and supplies than kayaks are. 
  • Kayaks have a few more design variations in that they have both open and closed designs. In addition, kayaks are usually smaller and lighter than canoes.
  • Since they tend to be smaller, it may be more difficult to slide into a kayak, whereas you can step into most canoes pretty easily.

Canoe vs. Kayak – Fishing

Both canoes and kayaks can be used for fishing, but there are slight variations in how you fish out of a kayak versus a canoe.

  • Fishing Canoes: Canoes are great fishing vessels. They’re designed to hold more people and gear and their hulls are designed to ride and track better in the water. Since they are larger, canoes are more comfortable to fish for longer periods of time than kayaks. Put a trolling motor on a canoe and it’s great for fishing.
  • Fishing Kayaks: Typically, fishing kayaks are wider than recreational kayaks. They sit lower in the water, which allows you to sit or stand without flipping over. With this design, fishing kayaks can also handle rough water better than many fishing canoes. But since kayaks tend to be smaller than canoes, they can get uncomfortable on longer fishing trips. You also have less space to store gear in a kayak versus a canoe. And finally, most fishing kayaks are designed to accommodate solo fishermen.

So, choosing a fishing canoe vs a fishing kayak will likely depend on how many people are fishing with you and how much equipment you plan to bring. For one person and a light amount of gear, a kayak might be the way to go. But if you plan to fish for longer periods of time with more than one person a canoe is probably the better option.  If you want to fish with a buddy, get a canoe or they’ll need another kayak.

Canoe vs. Kayak – Stability

There are a few different characteristics that determine how stable a kayak is vs canoe stability: how easy it is to flip over, how it feels while on calm water, and how stable it is when you lean towards the sides. 

Stability of a water vessel is usually broken up into two different categories: its primary stability, how well it does when you are upright on calm water, and its secondary stability, how far you can lean toward the side before flipping over.

But which is more stable, a canoe or a kayak? 

  • Canoes: In the beginning, most people are more concerned about primary stability and rarely think about the secondary stability of a canoe or kayak.

Though secondary stability is very important, canoes are used to relax and enjoy the surroundings (most of the time).

While looking at the plethora of canoe options, you may have noticed that there were several different hull designs:

  • Flat Bottom – Very stable, great tracking, maneuverability is more difficult, requires more paddle effort
  • Semi-Rounded Bottom – Decent maneuverability, tracking, not as much  effort to paddle, and great stability
  • V-Bottom – Made for tracking, very stable, easier to maneuver than flat bottom
  • Rounded Bottom – Great secondary stability, greatest maneuverability
  • Kayak: In kayaks, secondary stability tends to be more important than primary when it comes to handling rough water. If you plan on traveling through calm rivers, then it may be better to buy a kayak with better primary stability.

Different hull designs offer different stability and support:

  • Rounded Bottoms – Have better secondary stability, you can lean farther to the side in them, and they’re faster
  • Flat Bottoms – Best for recreational use, tend to have good primary stability, and they ride on top of the water rather than cutting through the water
  • Pontoons – This includes most sit-on-top kayaks. They’re  more stable than they appear, great for beginners, primary stability is better than secondary stability
  • V-Bottoms – Secondary stability tends to be better than primary stability, most classic kayaks use a combination of the v-bottom with the rounded hull. V-bottom kayaks are very maneuverable.

Canoe vs. Kayak – Speed

Whether it’s taking your family to  the lake or you want to compete against other kayakers or canoeists in competition, kayak vs canoe speed may be a determining factor in which paddlecraft you purchase. Most often, kayaks have better speed characteristics due to their lightweight, low profile, and sleek design, but do they actually go faster?

Since canoes are usually heavier than kayaks, it takes more energy to get them up to the same speeds. On average, canoes travel around 3mph or 4-5 kilometers per hour. At this speed, you are able to relax and enjoy the scenery. Sustaining this speed in a canoe is more difficult than in a kayak.

Though your average canoe may only travel around 3-4 mph, Eirik Veras Larsen holds the record for traveling 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) in a little over 18 minutes. It’s okay if you’re not making 5,000 meters in Olympic times, the everyday canoer is probably not trying to rush somewhere; they’re there to enjoy the ride.

Since canoeing requires more paddle effort, speed is more difficult to achieve because it will require more endurance and strength while trying to get your canoe to go faster.

How fast are kayaks? Depending on how much experience you have kayaking, you may be able to average speeds around 6 kilometers per hour (3.7 mph). This speed also depends on paddle technique, wind speed and direction, load capacity, endurance, and water conditions. While you can go faster or slower, training, better paddling technique, and building up your endurance will help you achieve higher speeds in your kayak. 

As far as record-breaking kayaking speeds go, Guinness World Records reported that Peter Bray holds the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic in a sea kayak. He traveled from Newfoundland, Canada, to Belderrig, Ireland, in a total of 76 days. Most of us will never even attempt that, but imagine the endurance it took to continue paddling for 76 days straight!

Canoe vs. Kayak for Beginners – Which is Easier?

Remember, when deciding whether you want a canoe or a kayak, there’s a certain learning curve required for each one.

While it tends to be simpler for beginners to go out on a canoe, put a paddle in the water, and have fun, there’s still more involved than pulling a paddle back and forth through the water. Many times, beginners struggle with pushing and pulling the water in the right direction and end up turning their canoe in circles.

A big step that helps with all paddlecraft is mastering proper paddling technique. Since kayaks and canoes require different paddles, the techniques to paddle them call for slight modifications depending on the type of paddle you use.

  • Kayak Paddling: After gripping the paddle with two hands, you’ll hold it a little more than shoulder distance apart. If you look closely at the paddle, you’ll see that the blades are slightly concave (similar to the shape of a spoon). With the paddle held horizontally in front of your body, the concave side should be facing you. Then, you’ll rotate your arms, submerging a blade on one side of the paddle first and then pull back in a sweeping motion, keeping the blade fully submerged until it’s slightly behind you. Repeat this on the other side.

It’s a little long, but here’s a Kayak Paddling Technique Video from one of my favorite kayak gurus at Headwaters Kayak in Lodi, CA. You’ll learn a ton about kayak strokes from it.

  • Canoe Paddling: Canoes have single bladed paddles. To paddle a canoe, put your hand on top of the handle where there’s usually a small knob to grip (not the blade end). Your other hand, the hand closest to the water, will hold the paddle closer to the blade. Then, similar to a kayak, submerge the blade into the water and sweep the water back toward you.

Canoe Paddling Technique Video:

Now that you know the basics of proper paddle technique, which one is easier to learn? Kayaks have been a favorite for many beginners because they’re easy to maneuver, and the recreational ones are pretty stable.

That being said, canoes are the way to go if you want to start paddling with family or friends. They’re easier to master, more stable, and more forgiving for new paddlers.

Before going out on a kayak for the first time, here are some other helpful tips for a beginner:

  • Don’t dress for the weather; dress for the water.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are beginner friendly and don’t require advanced skills like sit-inside kayaks.
  • Wear a life jacket or kayaking buoyancy aid.
  • Make sure that you are seated properly in your kayak. You want to have a full range of motion without adjusting your weight. This will help decrease rolling and flipping.
  • Make sure to use proper paddling techniques.
  • Have spare clothing for after your kayak adventure.
  • As a beginner, it’s always best to kayak with others. By doing so, you stay safe in case anything happens.

The beginner friendliness of a canoe depends on the type of canoe you’re using. For example, fishing canoes are usually less stable and can flip easier than recreational canoes. So, if you decide to start with a canoe, make sure that you rent or purchase a good recreational canoe to start with. 

Here are some extra tips for canoe beginners:

  • Make sure that you and your partner paddle on opposite sides of the boat. This will keep you from going in circles.
  • Find the rhythm with your partner. This is important when tracking and sweeping water because if you paddle inconsistently with your partner, there may be issues with direction and movement.
  • Keep your paddle in front of you and perpendicular to the water.
  • Make sure to wear a life jacket.
  • Dress for the water, not the weather.
  • Before going into deep water, practice getting in and out of your canoe.
  • Don’t try to take risks when it comes to flat river wide horizon lines. These may look safe but can be anywhere from 2-4-foot drops. While two feet of water doesn’t seem dangerous, the undercurrents can trap you and your canoe.
  • Bring extra clothes in case you get wet.

Kayaking and canoeing are great for beginners as long as you take the time to learn how to paddle and sit. The paddle-style you are more comfortable with will be a determining factor in which paddlecraft you decide to try.

Canoe vs. Kayak – For Families

Depending on how old your children are and if they have any experience on boats, a canoe may be better for you versus a kayak. 

Here are the similarities between kayaking and canoeing with kids:

  • You Need Life Jackets – Most United States have PFD age laws for kayaks and canoes and requirements for children wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) while kayaking. Make sure your children are wearing the right size PFD. The easiest way to make sure your child will wear a PFD is also to wear one yourself.
  • Snacks and Water – Snacks make any trip more fun for kids, and out on the water all day, it’s important to stay hydrated.
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen – Always lather up your children in sunscreen. Between a screaming toddler and a cherry red tomato screaming toddler, the first option is better.
  • Stay Calm – Have a talk with your child about staying calm if they get wet or the boat happens to capsize.
  • Get Kids Their Own Equipment – When kids are ready to help out paddling, get them their own paddles. Children love having important responsibilities and will be more likely to help when they know they can contribute.
  • Take Short Trips First – Start with shorter trips to make sure that canoeing or kayaking are something you and your family want to continue to do.
  • Practice First – If your children don’t have experience in the water, try going to a pool or investing in swimming lessons first.

Canoe vs Kayak Hull Design

Canoes have an open hull design on top that allows children the ability to sit closer to parents, whereas kayaks often only have enough space for one person.

While there are two-seat kayaks, typically, there’s still a legs length distance between a parent and child. Not only can you fit more people in a canoe, but you’ll also have more room to store gear, snacks, lunches, coolers, and other equipment. Just remember that the more you bring, the less space there’ll be.

As far as space is concerned, most kayaks are 1-2 seaters, while canoes can fit up to 4 people and even more depending on the size and model. So, if you’re planning on going out for a day trip with one parent and one child, a kayak could work. But, if you have more than two people in your family, then canoes will hold more people.

For younger children, canoes offer more space to move around and give parents the mobility to get to children in case there’s an emergency.

Kayaks are great for children over six years old, but you may not be able to travel as far depending on paddling ability.

Canoe vs. Kayak – Pros and Cons

Now that you know the similarities and differences between the many types of kayaks and canoes, what exactly is it that makes a kayak or canoe the better choice? While most of your decision can be made by personal preference, it’s not always that simple.

The following chart sums up the pros and cons of canoes and kayaks:

CanoesKayaks
Stability– Generally, more stable because of their width– Stability can be on par with canoes
Entering and Exiting– Between weight, stability, and size, getting in and out doesn’t is easier– Sit-inside kayaks require more effort to get in and out of
Load Capacity– Capable of carrying large coolers, camping equipment, and small backpacks
-Not waterproof
– Ability to carry a small amount of camping gear, a small pouch of electronics
– May be waterproof from the waist down
People Capacity– Up to 4 people depending on the model– Up to 2 people depending on model
Mobility– Seated higher above the waterline
– More room to turn around
– Usually less space to move around
– Seated lower in the water
Transportation– Tend to be heavier to lift and transport
– Equipment is easier to put in and take out of a canoe
– Usually lighter and easier to transport
– Folding and inflatable kayaks take up less space
Exposure to Elements– Open cockpit means more direct exposure to sun, wind, and water– Sit-inside kayaks give some paddler protection from sun, wind, and water
Paddle Effort– Requires more effort and better paddled by 2 people– Better hull design means less paddling effort
Maneuverability– Great at going forward
-Difficult to turn
– Easier to turn and maneuver
What if it’s capsized?– Difficult to flip back over due to weight– Certain kayaks can easily roll upright if flipped over

Both canoes and kayaks are great ways to enjoy the outdoors, but it really depends on your needs and will ultimately boil down to personal preference. Here are a few questions and answers to think about while making your decision:

  • Do you enjoy feeling safe and secure in the boat? Then, a sit-inside kayak will provide added security.
  • Do you have young children coming along? A canoe allows for some extra space for younger paddlers.
  • Are you going to be turning different directions often? Canoes are great when you go straight forward, but kayaks have the upper hand when it comes to turning.
  • Will you be traveling to a certain destination to camp? While you can carry camping supplies in a kayak, you have more room in a canoe for camping equipment.
  • Do you get tired after arm day at the gym? While learning proper paddling technique will help you engage your core muscles to paddle, canoeing and kayaking will use your arms quite a bit. There’s just no way around that. (Well, unless you learn how to put a trolling motor on a canoe)

Kayak vs Canoe Summary

Whether a canoe or kayak is better for you can only be determined by your particular needs and preferences. When choosing between a kayak vs a canoe, remember to consider the activity you’ll be using it for, the number of people you need to accommodate, and the supplies that you want to bring along on your trips.

I found that there were just so many benefits to paddling both kayaks and canoes, and the unique versatility that kayaks have vs canoes and vice versa, that I just ended getting both for my family and our paddling adventures.

Steve W

I'm Steve, the research and technology donkey behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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