canoe vs kayak

Canoe vs Kayak – What Are The Key Differences?

canoe vs kayak

Kayaks and canoes were created by indigenous people across what is currently USA and Canada. They are both boats with no engines, which makes them extremely environmentally friendly and quiet, so they can be perfect for spotting wildlife whilst on the water. Kayaking is slightly more popular in America: in 2018 there were 16.38 million kayakers compared to 9.13 million canoers.

Let's take a closer look at the differences - Canoe vs Kayak

Kayak Paddles vs Canoe Paddles

Kayaks use a double ended paddle. The kayaker moves the blade in a figure of eight shape to propel the boat. Kayak paddles can be collapsible so they fold in half and are easier to transport. 

The paddles are more likely to splash, so people kayaking in cold water usually wear some kind of waterproof clothing.

Canoeists use a single paddle. When the paddler stands upright (on land, unless you’re feeling really confident!) the paddle should come to around shoulder height.

There is usually more than one person in a canoe, and they paddle on one side. Another person will sit in the rear of the boat, paddle on the opposing side and steer, using their paddle as a kind of rudder. If someone is using a canoe alone they can either switch the side they paddle on as required, or use a ‘J’ stroke which prevents the boat from going around in a circle. 

Canoeists use a single paddle. When the paddler stands upright (on land, unless you’re feeling really confident!) the paddle should come to around shoulder height.

There is usually more than one person in a canoe, and they paddle on one side. Another person will sit in the rear of the boat, paddle on the opposing side and steer, using their paddle as a kind of rudder. If someone is using a canoe alone they can either switch the side they paddle on as required, or use a ‘J’ stroke which prevents the boat from going around in a circle. 

Canoeists use a single paddle. When the paddler stands upright (on land, unless you’re feeling really confident!) the paddle should come to around shoulder height.

There is usually more than one person in a canoe, and they paddle on one side. Another person will sit in the rear of the boat, paddle on the opposing side and steer, using their paddle as a kind of rudder. If someone is using a canoe alone they can either switch the side they paddle on as required, or use a ‘J’ stroke which prevents the boat from going around in a circle. 

Boat Design

Canoes are shaped like flattened ovals with ‘open’ tops, like rowing boats. The sides come well out of the water. As more weight is added to the boat it sinks lower into the water. They have benches at the front and back, and poles that go horizontally across the boat for support.

kayak vs canoe

Kayaks are much more closed off. They look a little like a kazoo, with a small hole for the kayaker’s torso. This is called a cockpit. They also sit much lower in the water, although on still water the top part should be completely above water level. Some kayaks, called ‘sit-on-top kayaks’, do not have a cockpit at all and look more like surfboards with seats, but these are much less common.

Seats

Canoes have two benches at the front and back. They are wide enough for one person on each. Some canoers prefer to kneel on the floor for additional strength, but this can become uncomfortable and exhausting so is not recommended for long stretches.

Kayaks have seats in the bottom, moulded to the base of the boat and directly inside the cockpit. The kayakers legs are then stretched out straight in front of them. Some boats will have foot rests which the kayaker can brace against, supplying additional power and speed for their strokes.

History of canoeing

ancient canoe

Canoes were developed by southern tribes. They tend to be open topped, with room for some storage. Typically two people will sit in a canoe: one to paddle on the right hand side and one to paddle on the left hand side and steer. The paddles only have one blade that goes in the water, and is held on the top and at the side. They were traditionally made of birch wood, but are now usually plastic or fiberglass.

They were made with wood, often birch. Some canoes, called ‘dugouts’ are made from carving half-logs of wood and creating an indent in the middle for the paddler or paddlers to sit.

These were made of pine or black walnut wood. Dugouts were usually used by women hunting in marshes, because they are so quiet. They’re also light and easy for one person to carry.

Elm canoes were made to travel over rapids because they were quicker and easier to make, so it didn’t matter as much if they were destroyed. Because of their simple design, canoe-like boats have been found all over the world. The earliest, called the Pesse canoe, was found in the Netherlands and was invented in 8200BC. This makes it the oldest known boat.

Canoes were used to help colonisers get around what is now the USA and Canada. Following this they became popular in Europe with Scandinavians, who used them for recreation. Canoeing was introduced in the Olympics in 1936.

History of kayaking

Inuit Kayak

Kayaks were developed by tribes in northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, by people who are sometimes referred to as Inuits. These are usually only paddled by one person at a time.

The kayaker will sit with their legs straight or slightly bent and covered by the top of the kayak, so only their torso comes out. This is useful in colder areas as it provides additional protection and keeps the legs dry. Kayak paddles are double bladed and the kayaker rotates the paddle in a figure of eight pattern to propel the boat. Kayaks have been around for about 4000 years.

Inuits didn’t have access to as much wood, so they made kayaks from whale bones and grey seal skin. The whale bones formed the ‘skeleton’ of the boat and then the seal skin was stretched around it with a small hole to allow the kayaker to get in or out.

The Inuits also used the same type of double-bladed paddle found in modern kayaks, but made from different materials. This meant they were ideal for hunting, and Inuits would carry spears on top of the boats to catch prey.

Kayak vs Canoe - So, which is right for me?

There are advantages to both types of boat, and your preference will probably depend on your requirements. People who would rather paddle alone are likely to prefer kayaks, whereas canoes are more suitable for families and groups. Please see below for more details.

Canoes are usually better for longer trips. If you have an additional person who is not paddling you can switch around (crouch to minimize capsizing) much more easily, which gives everyone a break and allows canoeists to keep going for longer.

Kayaks are better for fast, short trips. It’s much harder to get another person on a kayak (unless it’s a tandem kayak, specifically designed for two people) and therefore it’s lighter, more compact and perfect for spending a little time in. Kayaks can be shorter and more nippy and maneuverable, or longer and faster.

Storage

Canoes can carry more equipment. If the idea of paddling for a few hours and then camping appeals to you, canoes will be the way to go. You can easily put a tent and some food in the bottom and then paddle to a campsite. Alternatively, you could pack a picnic, dog or even small child who cannot use their own boat. Traditional canoes could be 36 feet long and carry 14 paddlers, but most modern ones are much smaller.

Kayakers can wear backpacks or attach bags to behind the seat. This is more limited than canoes, but you’re much freer in the water. You don’t have additional weight. This means that if there is any gear you need to leave at your landing spot you can return to it much faster. Dry bags are also an awesome storage option for kayakers. You can store all of your valuables in a dry bag without the concern of getting them wet.

Additionally, if you’re only going out for a few hours you’re not likely to need much more than a bottle of water. It is also possible to get ‘expedition/touring kayaks’ with extra water-proof storage hatches if required or if you are kayaking with more gear.

Stability

Canoes are much more stable. Provided that everyone stays in their seats and any weight is spread evenly, it’s almost impossible to capsize a canoe on calm water.

With all sports, be cautious in strong winds/storms as this can create currents and make things more dangerous, but it’s much easier to stay safe and dry in a canoe. It’s also important that anyone on canoes or kayaks who isn’t a strong swimmer wears a buoyancy aid.

FAQ: Do kayaks flip over easily?

Kayaks do capsize more easily… but you can ‘right’ them easily too, without even having to leave your seat. You’ll need proper training for this, and you’ll need to be wearing a splash guard (a kind of skirt that fits tightly around your waist and to the top of the kayak), but you can push against the water and turn yourself the correct way up.

You don’t need to keep hold of the paddle, either: it’ll float. Speak to an instructor about how to do this properly, as it’s easy to find a beginners’ course that will talk you through what you need to do.

Comfort

Canoes allow you to switch positions, which makes you more comfortable. If you’re a beginner or a novice canoer, you’re likely to feel a bit stiff after an hour or so. If there’s another person in the boat, speak to them about switching sides, ends of the boat or even taking a break.

As discussed above, canoes allow you to sit on a bench and paddle or kneel. You can even try standing up! You’re much more likely to fall in the water by doing this, though, so don’t load all your stuff.

The benches in a canoe aren't typically the comfiest as they are usually produced from hard wood, however some are made from stretchy materials, to allow some movement in the seat. 

It’s much more difficult to shift positions in a kayak and most kayakers need to take a break every now and then when they get tired.

However, as you’re in a boat by yourself it doesn’t matter if you pull to the shore and walk around for a minute: you’re in control. You can also unclip your splash guard and stretch forwards and backwards when there’s a calm spot of water.

Kayak seats are usually customisable, and can be removed. So if your seat isn't comfy enough, you can buy an after market kayak seat with more padding and better back support.

Agreeing when to stop a canoe might take more discussion, but it’s also much easier to get in and out of them. Simply pull the boat level with the bank and climb in or out. This means that some people with mobility issues may find canoes better, although it’s always a good idea to carry out an assessment and discuss this with a qualified instructor first.

Canoe - protection from the elements

Canoeing is much drier than kayaking. As discussed above, you’re less likely to capsize a canoe, and you’re also much less likely to get dripped on. This prevents your suncream from washing off (and remember that you’re more likely to get sunburn on a boat, because the rays reflect on the water) and protects any items you have in your canoe. Also, you’ll have quicker access to towels if you do get splashed.

The sides of a canoe are higher than a kayak, so if it is windy out you will have more protection from the wind and a decreased chance of the waves entering the canoe. 

Kayak - protection from the elements 

Kayaker’s legs are much more protected from both water and sun if using a sit inside kayak. The issue is that kayak paddles tend to drip a lot more, so your arms and torso are likely to get wet. It’s usually not a big deal.

Also- you’re in a boat! On the water! It’s not unreasonable to expect that you might get slightly splashed, and a good water fight between friends is one of the most fun things to do in a kayak (safely). If this is something that bothers you, it might be worth investing in drip guards for your paddle. These look a little like cuffs and sit on the pole part of the paddle to stop the drips from sliding onto your hands.

If you are using a sit on top kayak you are more open to the elements; sun, wind, water. So be prepared for that. 

Sound & exploring your surroundings

Canoes can offer a much better view than kayaks. You can rotate your body and look at things from any angle without having to move the boat.

Canoes and kayaks can take you to some truly gorgeous places and it’s wonderfully calming to be able to take a moment and take in the natural beauty. Because they don’t have engines (unless they’re square stern canoes) they’re less likely to be restricted, and provided that you take any litter with you or put it in bins there’s no damage to the environment or risk of bank erosion.

Kayaks are typically much quieter than canoes. By the time you’ve loaded your family, dog, and a hitchhiker with a particularly crunchy packet of crisps into a canoe most wildlife has fled to somewhere more peaceful. With nobody else in your kayak you can sneak up on animals and see all kinds of things. This is especially good if you’re a wild-life photographer, as you can get incredible close-up pictures.

FAQ: Which is better for fishing kayak or canoe?

Sit on top kayaks and canoes are better than a sit inside kayak for fishing. Kayaks disturb the water less, so fish are less likely to get scared away.

Both give the fisherman room to move around, adjust and carry any equipment, which is extremely useful. Both boats allow you to get into deeper water and catch different fish.

Transport

canoe or kayak

Canoes can carry more people and equipment, but they are also larger and more difficult to transport to and from bodies of water. Kayaks and canoes can be strapped to the top of a car with the proper equipment, but it often takes two relatively strong and able-bodied people to lift a canoe up. Kayaks, especially playboats (smaller and more compact) can easily be carried by one person.

FAQ: What is easier a kayak or canoe?

Ease of use really comes down to personal preference and experience. Some people find canoes more difficult to use, especially if they’re on their own. As a first timer, expect to go around in circles a few times whilst you practice your ‘j’ stroke. You’ll get the hang of it. The person who sits in the rear of the boat is also in control of steering, which can be difficult.

Kayaks take much less effort than canoes and it is easier to go faster. Canoes are less efficient and canoeists often feel more tired for travelling the same distance - and that’s not even including all the extra weight you may have packed into the boat! Canoes can be operated by one person alone, but it’s often better to have a pair or team in a canoe.  

However, to some people the thought of being sat inside of a kayak is daunting. Some beginners feel 'trapped' and would much rather be sat inside a canoe which is spacious. 

Canoe vs Kayak - Conclusion 

Ultimately, it’s your choice. As laid out above, there’s lots of advantages to both canoes and kayaks, so which you would rather use depends on your situation and preferences.

Reading about the differenes, is not the same as experiencing them, so it is worth trying both out and seeing which you prefer to use. Many watersports centres will allow you to rent both out, so find a sunny afternoon and try them!

Some places offer courses in school holidays, evenings and weekends so you can learn basic maneuvers and safety, and we would recommend that you do this before committing fully to either.  

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