Canoe vs Kayak: The 6 Important Differences and Advantages

Paddlesports—canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding—continue to grow in popularity every year. If you’re ready to explore the water on your own but don’t know where to start, we’ll walk you through the canoe vs kayak debate and explain the important differences and advantages of each.

Before deciding whether a canoe or kayak is right for you, consider:

  • Where do you plan to paddle? “Flat water” like lakes and slow-moving rivers, open water like the ocean, or whitewater like river rapids?
  • How long will your paddling trips be?
  • Who will be with you?
  • How will you transport your boat?

What is a Canoe?

A canoe is narrow, pointed boat—usually non-motorized—that has a completely open hull on top and has small bench-style seats. Canoes look similar to rowboats—they sit high in the water and have high sides that (usually!) prevent water from getting in the boat.

Canoes are available in a range of lengths and widths. Longer and narrower canoes have less drag so they’re faster in the water, while shorter and wider canoes tend to be more stable. The average length of a recreational canoe is about 16 feet long.

Another factor that affects a canoe’s performance and portability is the material it’s made from. Most canoes today are made from plastic, aluminum, wood, or fiberglass.

The lightest canoes are made using composites like Kevlar, a woven composite fabric that’s five times stronger than steel. Kevlar canoes are especially popular with paddlers who plan long-distance trips where they must portage (carry) their canoe.

Parts of a Canoe

There are many parts to a canoe, but these are the terms you’ll hear most often:

Bow: Front end

Stern: Back end

Hull: Body of the canoe

Gunwales: Upper edges of the canoe’s sides

Deck: Flat upper part of the bow and stern

Types of Canoes

There are many types of canoes, more than we can list here. That’s because in its long history, the basic canoe design has been adapted for a variety of needs and specializations like racing and whitewater canoeing. Here are the three most common types:

  • Recreational: This is the canoe design that most people are familiar with. Stable and sturdy, it’s great for beginners and day trips. These canoes are typically made from plastic or aluminum.
  • Expedition: These are extra-long canoes that are specially designed to haul a lot of weight for multi-day trips. Sometimes they even come equipped with spray skirts because they sit low in the water.
  • Fishing: Technically, any canoe can be used for fishing, but canoes with a square stern (rather than pointed) are especially popular with anglers. It gives you the option of easily adding a small outboard or trolling motor.

Canoe Paddles

One major difference between canoes and kayaks are the paddles. Canoe paddles have a blade on just one end and can be made from plastic, wood, fiberglass, or aluminum. A canoe can be steered (and paddled) with a single paddle but it’s common to have two people paddling, one seated in the stern and one in the bow. Because of their design, canoe paddles also use a different motion than kayak paddles.

What is a Kayak?

A kayak is a narrow, non-motorized boat with pointed ends that sits low in the water. Some kayaks, such as touring kayaks, have closed hulls with a small opening (a cockpit) where the paddler sits. The cockpit can be completely sealed by using a spray skirt. Other kayaks have an open cockpit design. Kayaks can be singles or doubles (tandem).

Like canoes, kayaks are also available in a range of lengths and widths, and the same rules about speed and stability apply. Longer, narrower kayaks are faster (and easier to keep on course), while shorter, wider kayaks are more stable (but easier to maneuver). Recreational kayaks—the most common type—are usually 12 feet long or less. Touring kayaks, on the other hand, can be up to 23 feet long.

Kayaks can be made from plastic, wood, or fiberglass. There are even inflatable kayaks. These kayaks are made with a nylon, rubber, or neoprene shell that can be filled with air.

Parts of a Kayak

Bow: Front end

Stern: Back end

Hull: Body of the kayak

Cockpit: Place where the seat is located

Hatch: Enclosed storage compartment

Skeg: Rudder that steers the kayak (not all kayaks have skegs/rudders)

Spray skirt: Waterproof cover that’s worn around the kayaker’s waist and covers the cockpit

Types of Kayaks

When choosing a kayak, it’s necessary to consider whether you’d prefer a sit-in style or sit-on-top style. In a sit-in style kayak, the paddler sits lower in the water and you have the option of using a spray skirt to keep out water. At the same time, for safety’s sake, you’ll need to practice getting out of a sit-in kayak if it capsizes. In a sit-on-top style kayak, you sit higher in the water and aren’t confined to a cockpit. This style is harder to maneuver but it’s also more stable and it’s easier to get in and out.

  • Recreational: Available in sit-in and sit-on-top styles, recreational kayaks tend to be shorter and wider. They’re great for beginners and best on flat water like lakes. (Inflatable kayaks tend to be in this category.)
  • Day touring: This type of kayak tends to be longer and slimmer than recreational kayaks and also has a moderate amount of storage space, which makes it ideal for day trips.
  • Touring: Touring kayaks are the longest (and most expensive) kayaks. (Sea kayaks are a type of touring kayak.) They’re designed for long-distance or overnight trips and for traveling through rougher water like the ocean or large lakes.

Kayak Paddles

Unlike canoe paddles, kayak paddles have a blade on each end so that with each stroke the kayaker is paddling on opposite sides. It requires a different motion than a canoe paddle. Kayak paddles can be made from various materials including plastic, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and wood.

Canoe vs Kayaks – The Pros and Cons of Canoes and Kayaks

Canoes: Pros

  • Cargo room: Canoes have a lot of cargo room for gear and other necessities.
  • Carrying capacity: The average canoe can easily hold three adults or two adults and two children.
  • Stability: Canoes tend to be more stable than kayaks.

Canoes: Cons

  • Speed and maneuverability: Most canoes are slower in the water and harder to steer than kayaks.
  • Size and weight: Canoes can be quite large and heavy, making them difficult to transport and store.
  • Less versatility: They’re best on flat or calm water and not especially suited to large waves or rapids.

Kayaks: Pros

  • Speed and maneuverability: Their design makes them faster and easier to steer than canoes.
  • Solo travel: Most kayaks are designed for solo paddlers, unlike canoes which can be difficult to steer and paddle alone.
  • Transportation and storage: Kayaks tend to be easier to transport, especially inflatable kayaks.

Kayaks: Cons

  • Physical limitations: Kayakers often have to stay in one body position the entire time they’re paddling which can be difficult for people with back or joint issues.
  • Learning curve: It takes longer to learn advanced kayaking skills.
  • Carrying capacity: With kayaks you’re limited to one or two people in a boat.

The bottom line is that when it comes to the canoe vs kayak debate, one isn’t a clear winner. It all depends on where and how you plan to paddle.

If you do your research and are still unsure, rent a canoe and a kayak at a park and see which one you like better. Then, when you’re ready to hit the water for a longer trip, check out our post on how to plan a canoe or kayak camping trip!