Kayak VS Canoe – Which Boat is Best For You?

What is the difference between kayaking and canoeing? What’s better a Kayak or a Canoe?

These are 2 questions I get asked all the time and while I would love to give you a simple answer, unfortunately, one does not exist. The answer to this age old question depends on a myriad of factors – all of which I cover in detail below.

By the time you’re done reading you should have all the information you need to decide which one to buy (or rent) for your next waterbound excursion.

If you are short on time you can skip to the bottom of the post and find out my personal favorite.

Differences Between Kayaks And Canoes

If you’re thinking about dropping a few hundred dollars on a kayak or canoe, then you need to understand the basics differences between them. Even though the novice may use these words interchangeably, these watercraft are very different from each other.

Lets start with the basics:

Design Differences

The most straightforward explanation we can give you is this:

  • Canoes sit higher in the water, have an open, wide hull, and you sit on a bench when paddling
  • Kayaks sit closer to the water, have an enclosed, narrow body (cockpit), and you can either sit or kneel while paddling

Or, if you want a quick mental visual on this, it would be that Native Americans would have used canoes whereas Inuits would have used kayaks.

But the history of canoes and kayaks actually dates back several thousand years. The earliest examples of kayaks are around 4,000 years old, with the earliest canoes being almost 10,000 years old.

The first kayaks had frames made of wood or animal bone. Then animal hides were stretched over the frame, and finally waterproofed with whale fat, whatever other animal fat was available. Kayaks have an enclosed body, referred to as a cockpit.

The very first canoes were nothing more than hollowed out logs – or what we now call a dugout canoe – and can be found in ancient civilizations throughout the world.

Kayaks measure anywhere from 6 to 14-feet in length, whereas a canoe is typically physically larger at 13 to 17-feet in length.

The Different Types of Canoes

At first glance most canoes look identical to each other, but there are several different types, each with a specific purpose. Let’s take a quick look at the 3 main types.

Recreational Canoes

Kids in recreational canoe on the river

Fun and easy to paddle, recreational canoes are are the most common of our 4 categories. These are the types of canoes you’ll find in big-box sporting good stores, as rentals at tourist attractions, and in fleets at summer camps.

If you want a versatile canoe that you can paddle around the local lake you’ll want to choose a recreational canoe.

This type of canoe is typically anywhere up to 17-feet in length, and provides a stable, easy to control platform for several people, for fishing, birding, photography or just taking in the sights and sounds with friends and family.

They are generally made of either plastic or aluminum and contain no frills.

But because they are so stable, they aren’t as agile as other canoe styles. If you want to upgrade to the next level you will need to go with am Expedition Canoe…

Expedition Canoes

PROSPECTOR 18’ - Red Expedition canoe

While they may look similar to recreational canoes at first glance, there are some important distinctions. In general expedition canoes offer greater maneuverability and more capacity than recreational boats.

Typically 18′-20′ in length, they are often powered by more than two paddlers and are designed with longer trips in mind.

Because of their advanced design, canoes in this category are built to handle everything from calm lakes to whitewater rivers. And unlike smaller canoes, these actually paddle best when filled with gear to compensate for the high amount of displacement and depth.

Whitewater Canoe

Whitewater canoe running the rapids

Although whitewater sports are usually reserved for kayaks, there are canoes designed for these environments too.

Some key features of a whitewater canoe include higher sides, flotation bags and they have a more curved profile – something referred to as rocker. This is a fancy way of saying that this type of canoe is more maneuverable in rough water.

The Different Types of Kayaks

The variety of kayaks on the market can make the process of buying one seem daunting. It isn’t though, once you understand a few key differences, which we’ll explain here.

The first thing to consider is where you’ll use your kayak: Flat Water or Whitewater.

Flat Water Kayaks

These come in 5 different flavors:

Recreational Kayaks

green touring kayak

These are the workhorse of the kayak family. Expect to see recreation kayaks at tourist attractions and lake rental shops. They have an enclosed cockpit, and are typically shorter than most other kayaks, usually measuring around 10-feet.

This means they don’t track as well as a longer version, but because they’re designed for open water, quick turning and tracking is a secondary consideration for them.

Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks are basically bigger versions of recreational kayaks with some important distinctions.

A sea kayak has strong bow and stern lines which you can hold onto if you capsize. These are essential, especially in rough conditions or when wind picks up.

Usually sea kayaks will have watertight hatches in the front and in the back, and some of them will also have what’s known as a day hatch. A day hatch is a smaller compartment that is easily accessible when you’re in the cockpit.

These are great for storing your gear but they are also designed to keep the kayak afloat in case the cockpit is flooded, which could easily happen in a rough ocean, even with a spray skirt.

You could be completely filled with water where you’re sitting but still remain afloat because the rest of the kayak has enough buoyancy to keep you floating.

Another feature that makes sea kayaks unique is that they often come equipped with a rudder which is controlled by foot pedals. This make it much easier to steer in open water.

Sit-on Top Kayaks

Sea kayaks are great for cold weather ocean kayaking expeditions. But for warmer climates I actually prefer a sit on top.

CM Burns kayaking in Baja California
Author in Baja California – Circa 2006

Sit on tops are slower so you can’t cover as much distance as you can with a sleek-hulled ocean kayak, but for leisurely kayak camping trips they are the perfect solution.

Sit-on kayaks are typically only used in warmer countries or regions. The reason for this is your entire body is exposed because there’s no cockpit.

These kayaks are also typically wider than a standard kayak, so are stable enough to stand up on, even in open water.

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks have a narrower beam than a sit-on, and are longer than most other kayaks, which makes them very fast in the water.

As the name suggests, a touring kayak is designed to be used by a sportsman or experienced kayaker, or anyone planning a long-distance journey across flat water.

Inflatable Kayaks

Intex explorer inflatable kayak

Inflatable kayaks are cheaper and more portable. While they can be used on flat water, they very rarely compare to the performance, stability and durability of a hard shell model, especially on open water.

We’re covering these separately, because they’re a completely different beast, and using the wrong whitewater kayak in the wrong environment could have lethal consequences.

Sport Kayaks

I think we need to add one additional type of Kayak to the list of usual suspects… Sport Kayaks. These are basically any kayak that is built for a specific purpose.

Currently, the 2 most popular purposes are fishing and scuba diving. Due to overwhelming demand, many of the big kayak manufacturers have created purpose-built models for these 2 uses.

Sport Kayaks are almost always built from medium to long hull Sit on top kayaks as the stable design and tough polystyrene materials use to build them can be customized to suit any needs.

Whitewater Kayaks

You have 5 different types of whitewater kayaks to choose from:

Surf Kayak

Surf kayaker riding a wave

Not to be confused with sea kayaks, a surf kayak is purpose built boat used exclusively for surfing ocean waves.

While you can use a surf kayak on a river it is not ideal. The design of a surf kayak works best in ocean surf as opposed to a river or feature wave (moving water).

Surf kayaks are often equipped with up to four fins with a three fin thruster set up being the most common. Speciality surf kayaks typically have flat bottoms, and hard rails, similar to surf boards.

Creek Boats

liquid logic creek boat kayak

Creek boats are shorter than most other types of whitewater kayak, are designed to not become submerged easily, and are also very fast on the water. Their overall design also means they’ll resurface quickly if you do lose control.

Play Boats

green dagger playboat kayak

Play boats have one single purpose: showing off. These kayaks are designed for riding waves and playing around holes, hence the name. A play boat should not be used for a river run, unless you have several years of experience and a very high level of skill.

River Runners

Jackson river runners kayak

River runners are, as the name suggests, ideal for adventurers who want to whitewater downstream in relative comfort. They’re shorter than a touring kayak, but track well enough to use on straight stretches of water.

Inflatables Whitewater Kayaks

blue inflatable kayak set

Inflatables might seem even less at home on whitewater than on flat water…but you’d be wrong. They’re actually a great way to learn how to navigate rapids because they’re stable, comfortable and track well on flat water.

They don’t maneuver nearly as fast as a creek boat or a river runner, but they’re a suitable all-rounder for a whitewater virgin.

Functional Differences Between Kayaks and Canoes

Now that you know that kayaks and canoes both look and are physically different to each other, what else sets them apart?

Seating

kayak vs canoe seating

The sitting position – or lack of one – is also very different in a canoe vs. a kayak.

Canoes typically have at least one raised bench in the center, allowing you to sit in an upright position while paddling. Added bonuses here are that that your rear end doesn’t get wet, and you have easy access to any items you have onboard.

Traveling by kayak means either sitting or kneeling on the floor, effectively on the hull of the craft. A water skirt can help keep water out, but if any water does get inside (and it can) then you’re looking at several hours of soggy clothing and feeling miserable.

Comfort

kayak vs canoe comfort

Canoes are built to get you where you’re going in relative comfort and safety.

They’re also better suited to family activities based on the fact they can carry more than one person. You also have plenty of space for a picnic, other personal supplies, or even a family pet.

They’re basically the Volvos of the personal watercraft world. Or to quote the innovative advertising execs in the movie “Crazy People” – “Volvos, Yes they are boxy, but they’re safe.”

Kayaks, on the other hand, can cut through even the roughest water like a hot knife through butter. The downside is that they’re built for speed and not for comfort, so they’re sports car of the personal watercraft world.

You’ll get where you’re going fast, but the journey can be cramped and a little bumpy, especially in a sit-in kayak.

How You Paddle

Canoe paddles have a single blade (the flat bit at the end), and the person paddling can either alternate their stroke on either side of the canoe, or use a specific type of stroke on just one side.

Obviously, trying to alternate your stroke in a canoe is difficult, so most canoeists use their bodyweight, combined with a J-stroke, to keep the canoe tracking straight.

Demo of how to do the J-stroke in a canoe

These paddles usually measure from 48-inches to 54-inches in length, depending on your own physical size.

Kayak paddles have two blades, one on each end of the paddle shaft. This design allows the person in the kayak to maintain a straight course (track) with alternate strokes in the water.

The length of the paddles you use will depend on your height, up to a maximum length of 7.5-feet.

kayak and canoe paddle

Control

You sit inside a kayak, so you steer it by paddling but it’s also a “whole body” experience – you almost feel like part of the hull.

This makes them extremely maneuverable, even in treacherous water conditions, which is why they’re so popular with whitewater enthusiasts.

A novice can also learn the basics of kayaking in a few hours, which makes them very popular for corporate team building events.

A canoe, on the other hand, is far more sedate in one way, but also requires more skill to control properly.

Canoes move more slowly, but they also have more mass (they’re big and heavy), so you need to plot your course out and stick to it. Making sudden turns in a canoe isn’t impossible, but it’s extremely difficult and physically demanding even for two people.

One area where kayaks excel over canoes is in serious whitewater. While there are whitewater canoes, they can’t compare to a whitewater kayak for maneuverability and survive-ability.

Check out Tyler Bradt riding this 189ft waterfall and living to brag about it…

Try that in a canoe!

Stability

kayak vs canoe stability

Canoes have a wider beam, so are inherently more stable because of that. But that only applies on flat water. In those situations, a canoe is easier to get in and out of when compared to any kayak.

If a canoe gets into difficulty in rough or white water though, there’s a higher chance of it flipping over. And righting an overturned canoe is almost impossible for one person, unless they’re trained to do that, or are physically stronger than the average person.

Kayaks have a narrow beam, so can be difficult to get in and out of, which makes them look and feel unstable.

But they’re designed for rough and fast water – that’s where they’re really at home. So if you do find yourself in a situation where your kayak capsizes, an “Eskimo Roll” is usually all that’s required to get you right side up again.

Gear Storage

kayak vs canoe gear storage

You can store a variety of equipment and supplies in both kayaks and canoes. But thanks to their sheer sizes, canoes win hands-down in terms of the volume of storage space they have.

The downside is that unless you have your gear covered with a tarp – or the gear is waterproof- there’s a very good chance it will get wet because of the design of a canoe.

That being said, if your canoe adventure is just about you taking your family or four-legged friend on a quick trip, then waterproofing isn’t going to be a big deal.

Kayaks have far less storage space, but the huge advantage they have over canoes is simply that this storage space is waterproof. In fact, unless you capsize your kayak (or get caught in freak weather) your gear will stay bone dry from the start of your journey until your reach your destination.

What’s Better for Fishing – A Canoe or a Kayak?

Either one can be used for fishing, but there are diehard fans of both.

A canoe offers far more space to arrange your rod, bait, beer and whatever else you need. You can cast out, sit back and relax until you get a bite. If you’re looking for a relaxing experience where socializing and comfort are at the top of your list then a canoe is a great choice.

If on the other hand, the fishing is the thing, you really can’t beat a purpose built fishing kayak. Some of the new models have so many bells and whistles that the fish don’t stand a chance.

If you want to see some seriously pimped-out fishing kayaks check out the Discover Channel reality show Pacific Warriors. It documents various pro kayak fishermen as they ply their trade in Hawaii.

Getting To The Water

man carrying a kayak

In an ideal world, your destination lake, river or beach would be easily accessible by road.

But that’s rarely the case. In fact, if you want to stay off the beaten track, you’ll have to travel out of your way to find those special kayaking and canoeing spots you only share with friends.

You know by now that a canoe is the physically larger and heavier of the two. In most cases carrying a canoe even a short distance will require two people.

old man carrying a canoe

A smaller canoe can be carried by a single person by using the thwart (bench) to spread the weight across their shoulders, but again the extra weight can make this physically challenging.

Kayaks, by their very design, are lighter and easier to get from point A to B by hand. Most of them have built-in carry handles, making it easy enough for one person to carry their kayak to wherever they need it to be.

Inflatables

The obvious benefit of an inflatable is that you can simply carry it to the lake, river or beach, inflate it for use, and then deflate it when done.

The major downside to these is they can be pierced by sharp objects, or simply spring an air leak when you least expect it.

If that happens onshore, then it’s not a big deal. But a leak while you’re on the water could be quite dangerous, especially if the people on board are not prepared for an emergency.

Durability

Although this is probably something you’re not concerned about right now, it’s important to consider how much punishment your canoe or kayak is going to be exposed to.

Have you thought about where you’ll be launching from? Will it be a pier, or a stone-covered beach? Or will you have to carry your kayak or canoe over rough terrain from time to time?

If so, durability should be an important consideration for you.

And durability is where kayaks come out as clear winners. Remember, kayaks were originally designed for hunting. They needed to be tough, light and easy to carry.

Canoes won’t fall apart at the first bump or scrape, but kayaks are designed for rough and white water. They’re built to be dragged over rocks and shale beaches without missing a beat.

Most of the kayaks you see today are made of rotomolded polyethylene which is practically indestructible.

This means you can throw it on the top of your 4×4 and not worry about bending it in half while pounding down those particularly rough dirt roads.

Bumpy Roads? No Problem for Sit on top Kayak.

I once had my sit on top fly off my roof rack while going 65 mph down a Utah back-road… and it barely left a scratch.

Which Do You Choose?

If you want a water craft that’s suited to taking your family or friends on an outing to a lake, then a canoe makes more sense.

The reasoning behind this is canoes can accommodate several people at once, plus their gear, and are more stable on flat or calm water. Canoes are more “social” than kayaks because people travel together.

Kayaks are a better choice for solo adventurers who are more concerned with visceral experiences than with comfort. These types of water craft are also the only sensible choice for certain types of water, especially rapids and open ocean.

Personal preference will still come into play in the end, so we only ask that you be realistic about the types of environments your future watercraft will be used in.

My Personal Favorite

The age old question; Kayak or Canoe… There really is no RIGHT choice. It depends on the purpose, location and which one you feel most comfortable with. Some of my fondest childhood memories are Canoeing on the Russian River in Northern California.

We went 2 or 3 to a Canoe and half the fun was just letting the river take us while we talked, ate and tried to avoid being ambushed and capsized by our friends in the other canoes.

This experience would not have been half as fun if we were all in say, creek boats.

However, later in life my boat of choice was a sit on top kayak. To me sit on tops are the ultimate adventure platform. You can do anything from a sit on top; camp, fish, scuba dive… even hunt for sunken treasure.

Do you think I left anything out of our guide? If so, hit me up with a comment below.

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