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Canoe vs. Kayak – Main Differences & Which One To Choose

Canoe vs kayak. Canoeing vs kayaking. This argument seems to have no end. Paddling enthusiasts debate this among themselves in real life, on social media, and in different forums. But which one do you prefer? There’s no middle ground as you can’t like both equally.

Undecided about whether you like kayaking or canoeing more? This article will provide you with all the information you need to know about canoes and kayaks. By the time you finish reading this article, you should already have your champion.

You’d agree with me that you have to know the differences between a canoe and a kayak before you can say you prefer one over the other. And that’s exactly what I’d be doing now.

Canoe vs. Kayak: What’s The Difference?

Canoe and kayak are sometimes used interchangeably by many people but the two words couldn’t be any more different. To make things simpler for you, you can think of a canoe as an all-purpose SUV/Minivan and a kayak as a cool two-seater sports car. Okay, let’s continue.

The most significant difference between a canoe and a kayak is in the design of the vessel themselves.

Canoes are usually bigger and heavier than kayaks while also having an open-top i.e they lack a cockpit. Kayaks on the other hand sport a closed design with a cockpit for the paddler to sit in. Some kayaks, the sit-on-top types, also have an open top, but traditional kayaks have a closed design.

The bigger size of canoes means they are more stable and can hold more gear and passengers while kayaks are smaller, sleeker, faster, and easier to maneuver (remember SUV vs sports car?). Other differences between kayaks and canoes include:

Seating and Comfort

The open-top design of canoes means paddlers can easily enter (as simple as stepping on board) and exit while also having freedom of movement while on the vessel. This generally makes a canoe more comfortable than a yak.

For a kayak, it’s a bit trickier to get in as you first have to slide your legs into the cockpit and then maintain balance so you don’t tip the kayak.

But there is this snug feeling you get when after entering a kayak that makes it easier to paddle and control your yak than a canoe. You can also brace your knees against the inside of the cockpit when paddling for more efficient and powerful strokes.

Canoes also feature a bench-like seat while kayaks have seats molded to the bottom of the vessel. There are several kayak seats with high back supports that improve the comfort of the paddler on long kayaking expeditions.

Paddles and Paddling Style

Canoes utilize a single-bladed paddle which can be alternated on either side of the vessel. You can propel a canoe forward by just paddling on either side. For kayaks, the paddles are double-sided. To propel a kayak forward, you’ll have to paddle on alternate sides i.e paddle left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on.

Remember I mentioned that canoes are generally more comfortable than kayaks? The extra comfort comes at the expense of the ease of paddling. Since canoes are bigger and heavier than kayaks, they are a lot more difficult to paddle. It often requires two people to paddle a canoe.

The paddlers on a canoe will have to grip their paddle with one hand in the middle for power. The other will be placed at the knob end of the paddle for control. And both paddlers will have to alternate strokes to drive the canoe straight ahead. Easier said than done.

Kayak paddles are designed to be used by a paddler who will put both hands on the middle of the paddle and then dip each end alternately in the water. It’s a lot more convenient than paddling a canoe.

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What Are The Different Types of Canoes?

While canoes do not generally vary much in design and size, there are specialized canoes that are designed for a particular situation/use. Below are the different types of canoes.

Recreational canoe

One of the most common types of canoes, recreational canoes are usually between 13 ft and 17ft long. They are usually very stable (they have a high degree of initial stability) and see ideal for use on calm waters like slow-moving rivers, lakes, ponds, and so on. Recreational canoes are also easier to paddle.

Whitewater canoe

Designed for use on whitewater (fast-moving water), whitewater canoes see significantly shorter than their recreational counterparts. They are also less stable but more maneuverable. It’s common to add floatation panels incorporated at the front and back of whitewater canoes. And the reason for this is to prevent the excess water from getting into the vessel and filling the cockpit and sinking it.

Racing canoe

This type of canoe is even much narrower than whitewater and recreational canoes. Speed is prioritized here since these canoes are used for solo or duo racing. The narrower design also means less wetted surfaces and racing canoes tend to sit lower in the water than other types of canoes.

You won’t find seats in racing canoes as paddlers usually adopt a half kneeling stance which increases their initial stability and also provides optimal power and speed as they paddle.

Square Stern Canoes

The distinguishing feature of square stern canoes is the incorporation of a flat rear where a motor can be installed if the paddler so desires. Having a motor installed on square stern canoes means you can take a break from padding which will come in handy on long expeditions.

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Advantages & Disadvantages of a Canoe


  • Open top design coupled with bigger size makes canoes more comfortable than kayaks.
  • Built for tandem purposes, they are great vessels for paddling with a friend.
  • Canoes feature high walls which will keep out water on slow-moving waters.
  • A bigger size means more room for storing gear.
  • Increased stability due to wider beam and hull.
  • Easier to enter and exit.
  • A higher sitting position means you get a good view of your surroundings.
  • Easier for portage (by passing sections of water via land) situations because of the ease of unloading and reloading gear.


  • Open cockpit exposes you to the elements.
  • Difficult to paddle by one person.
  • More difficult to maneuver.
  • Bigger size means canoes are more difficult to transport.
  • Paddling in a straight line i.e tracking, is more difficult.

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What Are The Different Types of Kayaks?

Kayaks come in different types as there are several specialized yaks designed to take on a particular situation.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

The classic/traditional kayaks with a closed design (they have a cockpit).

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

They have the open-top design of a canoe and the benefits that come with that design – ease of entry and exit, increased stability, and more storage space. Sit-on-top kayaks are more commonly used in warmer climates and are ideal for use on calm waters as well as fishing.

Inflatable Kayaks

This classification is based on the material used to manufacture the kayak. Inflatable kayaks are made from polyethylene and other similar materials and they need to be inflated before use. They are becoming more popular due to the unparalleled ease of convenience and transportation they offer.

Recreational Kayaks

Usually refers to Sit-on-top and inflatable kayaks that are about 9ft to 12ft long and also wider than other types of kayaks to make them more comfortable, stable, easy to control, and difficult to capsize. Ideal for use on calm and slow-moving waters.

Whitewater Kayaks

They are usually shorter than recreational kayaks and are designed for use on fast-moving waters. While not as stable as recreational kayaks, they are far more responsive and easier to maneuver.

Touring and Sea Kayaks

This type of kayak is designed much longer and narrower than recreational kayaks. The aim is to make these kayaks travel faster and longer. Touring kayaks usually feature the sit-inside design and have more storage space for longer kayaking expeditions.

Surf Kayaks

Very similar to whitewater kayaks in shape and design but have hulls for surfing waves.

Racing Kayaks

These are the fastest, longest, and narrowest of all types of kayaks and are designed for racing purposes. Usually sitting very low in the water, they can be raced with one, two, or four people per boat.

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Advantages & Disadvantages of a Kayak


  • Faster and a lot easier to maneuver than canoes.
  • Tracking is easier with a kayak thanks to the double-bladed paddle.
  • Kayaks are easier to handle and more stable in fast-moving and open waters.
  • More versatile thanks to the manufacture of several specialized kayaks.
  • There is a dry storage area for your gear.
  • Basics are easy to learn. More maneuverable.
  • Transport is easier and even more so for the inflatable types.


  • Not as stable as a canoe on slow-moving and calm waters.
  • Lesser storage space.
  • Less comfortable.
  • While the basics are easy to master, advanced skills are more difficult.
  • Increased chance of getting wet.

Choosing Between a Canoe and a Kayak: Things to Consider

There are a number of factors you must put into consideration when making a choice between a canoe and a kayak. And they are:

Paddling Technique

As I already established in this article, it’s more difficult to paddle a canoe than a kayak due to the bulky side and the technique of paddling. You have a single-bladed paddle to use with a canoe and it’s going to take some time for you to master the art of paddling a canoe.

Paddling a kayak on the other hand is a lot easier. You grip the middle of the paddle with both hands and then dip each end of the paddle alternately in the water. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. The ability of kayak paddles to resist air resistance also contributes to the ease of paddling.


Canoes are more stable than kayaks thanks to their bigger size and wider hull. You can paddle to your heart’s content on a canoe, especially on calm waters without fear of tipping. Modern kayaks have come a long way to become quite stable and difficult to capsize. But a canoe is just more stable.

Maneuverability and Speed

This is where kayaks shine thanks to their narrower profile and their slightly upward curved design of the bow and stern (also referred to as ‘rocker’). The design of the rocket means less of the hull is actually in the water which translates to means less resistance when paddling. This combined with the lower center of gravity of kayaks and sometimes features like skegs and built-in rudders make kayaks far more maneuverable than canoes.

It’s also easier to track (move in a straight line) with a kayak. Overall, you have more control over a kayak than a canoe. The reasons I discussed above are also why kayaks are faster than canoes.

Storage Space

Canoes have more storage space than kayaks and allow you to carry larger coolers, crates, camping gear, and more accessories in general. Touring kayaks also have large storage areas (still not as large as those of canoes) that are more than adequate for most people.

While kayaks don’t match canoes in storage capacity, they offer waterproof storage areas which keep your gear dry. You may not have to worry about the absence of waterproof storage areas on a canoe if you are on calm waters. But having waterproof storage space can only be a good thing.

Type of Water

If you’ll be cruising on calm waters more often, then a canoe can be the better choice for you. But if you’ll be spending time on large lakes where winds can make the water rough or charging down on fast-moving rapids, a kayak will make more sense.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there is no definite answer as if a canoe is better than a kayak, or the opposite. Both have solid advantages as well as disadvantages. It all depends on goals and priorities, where you want to paddle, and maybe how wet you went to get!

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