Canoeing on a river

Canoe vs Kayak: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better For You?

Put a bunch of paddlers in a room together and the canoe vs kayak argument will keep them entertained for hours. But if you’re not familiar with the difference, and trying to find out which you should get into, then it can be super confusing to get your head around.

Many years ago I spent my days floating around on lakes and rivers and sometimes the sea with a paddle in my hand. I coached kids how to canoe and kayak, and despite always having a soggy backside, it was a really fun and enjoyable job. I especially liked making up answers to some incredible and ridiculous questions that kids came out with, daily. But one of the most common questions, that was actually quite sensible, was “Miiiiss? Is this a kayak or a canoe? And what’s the difference anyway?”.

As it turns out, it’s not just kids that get their Canadians mixed up with their sit-ons. So to clear things up, this canoe vs kayak breakdown will leave you never questioning the difference again. It will also help you figure out which is best for you, if you are thinking about investing your time and money into boating.

Canoe vs kayak

Canoe vs kayak: what’s the difference?

There are loads of different types of canoes and kayaks and, to be honest, some are so specialised that it’s not immediately obvious which category they fit into. So to keep things simple, here are the basic differences between canoes and kayaks.

Cockpit

Canoes are often referred to as ‘open’ with sides that come high out of the water. To the discerning learner, this would indicate the lack of cockpit, and that the boats are totally open – like a rowing boat!

Kayaks on the other hand are known as ‘closed’ with a cockpit for the paddler to sit in. They sit much lower in the water than canoes, and so to prevent water coming into the kayak through the cockpit, spray skirts are often worn by the paddler.

Seat

Canoes usually have a bench-like seat to sit on so that the paddler is raised up from the boat floor. Most canoes have two seats, and sometimes three. Some canoeists prefer to kneel on the floor. This position is often adopted in challenging conditions or to generate more power behind their paddle strokes.

Kayakers sit in a seat that is usually molded to the bottom of the kayak, with their legs out in front of them. Kayakers use their knees to brace against the sides of the kayak and advanced paddlers will use this to their advantage when paddling.

Paddles

Canoes are paddled with a single paddle (not an oar!), which can be used on either side of the canoe. Paddlers can adopt what is know as a ‘J’ stroke which allows them to paddle in a straight line without having to swap sides all the time.

Kayakers use a double paddle which has a paddle ‘blade’ on both ends. They will paddle on alternate sides to drive the kayak forwards.

Different types of canoe

In general, the shapes and sizes of canoes tend not to vary a great deal unless you start looking closely at the highly specialised canoes. The main types of canoes are:

  • Recreational canoe

    Recreational canoe

    Usually between 13ft and 17ft long, recreational canoes are designed to be steady, stable and easy to control for one to three paddlers. These are the most common type of canoe and are very at home on slow moving water and lakes.

  • Whitewater canoe

    Whitewater canoe

    These are shorter than recreational canoes and are designed very specifically to be paddled on fast moving water by one or two people. They are much less stable, shorter and more maneuverable than recreational canoes, and often have flotation panels at the front and back of the boat to help deal with excess water entering the canoe.

  • Racing canoe

    Racing canoe

    Racing canoes are much narrower and sit lower in the water than recreational canoes, and are designed specifically for solo or duo racing. Paddlers in racing canoes adopt a half kneeling half sitting stance for optimal power and speed.

Different types of kayak

Many will argue that kayaking is much more versatile than canoeing. Whether this is the case or not, there are certainly more types of kayaks to choose from than canoes. All with very specific purposes. These include:

  • Recreational kayak

    Recreational kayaks

    At around 9-12 feet long, recreational kayaks are best suited to paddling on flat and calm water: lakes, slow moving rivers, canals and sheltered coastal areas. They are stable, relatively comfortable, easy to control and fairly difficult to capsize.

  • Whitewater kayak

    Whitewater kayak

    These are shorter and wider than recreational kayaks making them highly responsive and buoyant when tossed around in whitewater. Their length varies depending on their function, with playboats as short as 5.5 feet and river runners as long as 8 or 9 feet.

  • Sea kayak

    Touring and sea kayaks

    At 12-18 feet long these are much longer and slimmer than recreational kayaks and are designed to go faster and further. They usually have storage holds at the front and back of the kayak and many are also fitted with skegs (or rudders) to help with steering.

  • SOT kayak

    Sit-on-top kayaks 

    Often used in warmer climates, sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks have no cockpit, but instead a molded top for paddlers to sit on, instead of in. They are ideal for exploring flat, calm water, or for fishing and diving from. Only basic skills are needed to paddle SOTs making them great for families and beginners.

  • Inflatable kayak

    Inflatable kayaks 

    Much less durable than other types of kayaks, but no less fun. Inflatable kayaks are used in a similar way to SOTs but are much more transportable and also accommodate two people more often than not. They look more like canoes in their open form but are paddled with a double paddle, and offer comfort and playfulness for families and children.

  • Racing kayak

    Racing kayaks

    Racing kayaks are long, slender and light, and can be raced with one, two or four people per boat. They range from 17-36 feet long (depending on how many paddlers are in them), sit very low in the water, and have a rudder to help with direction. They are mostly paddled on flat water for sprints or marathons.

Canoe vs kayak: which is better?

So now you know the difference between the two, the question of which is better is next on the agenda. Now this isn’t a question to ask an avid kayaker, as to them it is a simple answer; kayaking is hands down the better of the two. And, you guessed it, ask a canoe fan the same question and of course they will most likely say that canoeing is without question better than kayaking. But at some point, they must have asked the same question, and they can’t both be right. Or can they?! Well let’s take a closer look at the canoe vs kayak argument by highlighting their pros and cons.

Canoe vs kayak pros and cons

Pros for canoeing

  • You can carry lots of gear easily in a canoe
  • They are ideal for longer expeditions due to comfort and carrying capacity
  • Canoes are more stable than kayaks and more difficult to capsize
  • You can vary your sitting position making it more comfortable than kayaking – especially for long distances
  • You can stand up
  • Once you’ve learned the basics, mastering canoeing skills is quicker and easier than kayaking
  • Unless paddling on whitewater, you won’t get very wet in a canoe
  • You get a better view of your surroundings than in a kayak
  • Portaging (by-passing sections of the river on land) regularly on a trip is much easier than in a kayak – especially if you are carrying lots of gear
  • You can easily bring young kids and dogs out on the water
  • Canoes are easy to get in and out of

Cons for canoeing

  • Heavy, big and can be difficult to transport
  • It is initially difficult to master basic paddling skills – especially as a solo paddler
  • Canoes take on more water than kayaks when paddling on whitewater
  • Single paddles are less efficient than double paddles
  • It takes more effort to paddle a canoe at top speed than to paddle a kayak at top speed

Pros for kayaking

  • It is easy and quick to pick up the basics of kayaking
  • Kayaks go faster, with less effort exerted by the paddler, than canoes do
  • There is much more variety in kayaking disciplines than there is in canoeing
  • Your gear will be kept drier in a kayak than in a canoe (providing you don’t capsize!)
  • They are lighter and easier to transport than canoes
  • Kayaks are more maneuverable than canoes
  • Kayaks handle whitewater better than canoes
  • You are close to the water in a kayak which can make you feel much more connected with the water than in a canoe
  • Double kayak paddles are more efficient than single canoe paddles

Cons for kayaking

  • It is unlikely you’ll come away from a kayaking session totally dry
  • It can take a long time to master more advanced kayaking skills
  • It can be scary transitioning from kayaking on flat water to fast moving water
  • Using a spray skirt can be a little scary for learners and improvers
  • Double paddles are heavier than single paddles

Canoe vs kayak: the verdict

Well as you may have gathered, there are loads of merits to both canoeing and kayaking and the route you choose to take largely depends on your situation and preferences. You should definitely try both before you commit all your time and money to one or the other. Then if you’re still not sure, here are a few more things to consider:

  • Where will you be paddling the most?

    Does cruising along flat lakes and slow rivers with a cooler full of food and beers float your boat? Or would you be more suited to charging down some gnarly grade 4 rapids swallowing as much water as air?

  • Who will you be paddling with?

    Do you envisage time alone on the water, or will it be a family affair? If you have kids, how old are they? Will your doggie be paddling along with you?

  • What sort of paddling trips would you like to be going on?

    Will you be travelling for days at a time deep into the wilderness? Or would you rather a quick hour here and there flexing your paddling muscles?

  • What car do you have?!

    Is it a tiny Mini with no roof rack? Or have you got a huge truck?

If you’ve gotten this far, some of you might be wondering what I think on the matter of which is better. And having spent a fair amount of time teaching and enjoying both canoeing and kayaking on flat lakes and whitewater rivers alike, I should be able to give a decisive answer. But unfortunately my answer is that it very much depends on you as a person, your setup in terms of practicality and convenience, and what you want to get out of your time on the water.

My personal preference is canoeing. I LOVE being able to take as much stuff as I need on multi-day canoeing trips. I love sharing my canoe with other people, but I equally enjoy the serenity of time on the water on my own. I like how paddling a canoe is more of an art than the science of paddling a kayak, and I feel much safer in a canoe on moving water than I do in a kayak wearing a spray deck. I like to be able to adjust my position in the boat frequently; to stand up and stretch if I need to, to lay back and enjoy the sun – if it’s out. And having everything I need within convenient and easy reach is really appealing.

So whatever you choose to float around on in your spare time, may you wholeheartedly embrace all that drew you to the water in the first place. Enjoy it safely, freely and with respect. And remember, only enter into the canoe vs kayak argument once you’ve tried and tested both.

Float on drifting paddler friends!

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