Canoe vs Kayak: Which is best for you?

Let’s get ready to rumble! The fight is on, and we will set this, once and for all. In this article you will learn about canoes vs kayaks, how they differ and how they are similar. But most importantly, who wins the contest.

If you allow me a spoiler here, there is no absolute winner. Both Canoes and Kayaks has their pros and cons, very well suited for certain situations and not so much for others. But do not despair, as we will give you everything you need to know to decide, in your specific case, which is the overall champion.

This article will begin providing some context and general information on each of them, kayaks and canoes. Then we will move into the core of the article, tackling the important and key differences between them and helping you make an informed decision on which type of boat you need.

If you want to get some quick fact or information, check the table of contents below. If not, just go through the article and find out which is your champion.


What is a Kayak?

Let’s start from the basics and define what is a kayak. A kayak is a slim boat, commonly with pointy ends, both on the front and the rear. Usually one paddler sits in the middle of it, inside a cockpit with a low seat, and propels the boat paddling at each side of the kayak. The paddle is a double ended with blades at both sides. The paddlers alternates at each side with circular movements of the paddle entering each blade in the water in turn.

As we will learn in a few sections, there are also kayak types where the paddler does not sit low inside a cockpit, but open, on top of the boat’s hull. In any case, the paddler on a kayak faces forward with the legs positioned in front.

Kayaks
Kayaks

Brief history of kayaks

Kayaks can probably be traced back several thousand years ago, used by the Inuit and Eskimo people, native of the northern parts of America and the Arctic regions. The word “kayak” means “man-boat” in Eskimo. The kayak originally was crafted out of driftwood or using whale bones, and used animal skins to seal the boat and make it waterproof. Sealed with animal fat, commonly caribou or whale fat, the kayak was used primarily for hunting.

It was a great transportation method also, that allowed these primitive people to transport belongings in an enclosed and dry environment. Its design made it very convenient for maneuvering across the icy waters, and also to be as stealthy as possible while hunting.

The kayak was introduced far later into Europe, around the 1800s, and slowly gained popularity among sportsmen and explorers. In 1936, on the Berlin Olympic Games, Kayaking was officially introduced as an Olympic Sport.

Design

In a very broad sense, we could say that there are basically two types of kayaks: Sit-In kayaks and Sit-On-Top kayaks. Although we are going to mention these on the “Kayak Types” section later on, this is also part of the kayak design.

The Sit-In Kayaks follow the traditional design, where the paddler sits inside a cockpit, from the waist down sits inside the hull of the boat. Also there is usually a waterproof cover that prevents the cockpit from receiving water while paddling.

In contrasts to these, the Sit-On-Top Kayaks do not have a cockpit that goes inside the hull, but the hull itself is sealed. They have a seat resting on top or molded into the top of the hull itself. The paddler legs and waist are exposed, making it easier to go in and out, but free to get wet more often than on sit-in models.

In relation to their construction materials, we have a broad range of design options. Each has its own advantage in different key areas, like performance, maneuverability, paddling style and stability. Some of the commonly used materials for kayak construction include: metal, wood, plastic, fabrics and inflatable fabrics (like rubber or PVC), light carbon fiber, fiberglass.

Kayaks
Kayaks
Kayak Stability in a Nutshell

The shape of a kayak hull has a direct impact in its stability, tracking performance and speed. Manufacturers are in a constant battle trying to balance these features by using different hull shapes. The terms chine and rocker refer to the kayak hull shape. Chine is a measure of how curved or not the kayak is, from one side to the other. Rocker on the other hand, is a measure of the kayak’s curvature, from stern to bow.

A soft chine means the kayak is more rounded, while a hard chine means a more angular hull at the sides and meeting the water. A yak with more rocker, is curved and there’s less hull in contact with the water. That’s where the “rocker” word comes from, as the kayaks “rocks” back and forth.

Kayak Bootom and Keels
Kayak Botoms and Keels

Different models of kayaks use these concepts to excel in certain aspects, at the expense of others. Kayaks with a hard chine will track better, but when the water conditions are bad, they are more prone to tipping. On the other hand, soft chines are better at being stable on rough waters and provide more speed. Kayaks with more rocker provides better maneuverability, as stern and bow gets less contact with water. But, at the same time, these yaks are not very effective at tracking.

Chine and rocker have a direct impact in stability, which is is classified by yak expert into primary and secondary stability. The primary stability is related to how stable a yak can be be in flat, calm waters. And secondary stability is refers to how stable the kayak is when tipping from side to side, usual in rough water conditions.

Hull Shapes

Now let’s briefly touch about hull shapes and designs. Depending on the hull shape, the kayak will favor a certain features more than others.

  • V-Shaped Hulls: with a V shape at the bottom for “cutting” through the water, these are good at tracking
  • Flat Hulls: These offer great primary stability, that is good for a multitude of uses, but primarily recreation and fishing.
  • Round Hulls: these are more maneuverable, and also have better performance on secondary stability than primary, as less hull surface is in contact with the water.
  • Pontoon Hulls: Not the fastest kayaks of the market, but they combine very well the best you can get from primary and secondary stability, balancing what a rounded and a flat hull offer.
Courtesy of Austin Kayak

Uses

There are a lot of different uses that people give to kayaks, but among the most popular and related to the recreation aspect, we have the following ones.

Kayak Eco-Tourism

This activity involves varied length trips on kayaks, solo or on groups with or without guides. Traveling through touristic locations and observing the place from the kayak gives a unique and totally different experience than visiting the place from ground access. This is an activity that is gaining a lot of popularity in the last years.

Kayak Fishing

As the name implies, is fishing from a kayak. This is a great alternative to reach fish that are not very accessible from the shore. Is a cheaper alternative to owning or renting a motorized boat, and is more eco-friendly and at the same time a healthier option.

Kayak Diving

Kayak diving is basically using a kayak to reach a specific spot to dive, that would be difficult to do without a boat. The same as fishing, this is a cost-effective and healthier alternative than using a motorized boat. Usually kayak diving is done in places somewhat sheltered and not in open sea, so the kayak can remain safely anchored.

Types

There also a lot of different types of kayaks, even more than types of canoes for that matter. Each have a specific purpose, and among these types we can find the following ones.

Recreational Kayaks

These are the best type of kayaks for having a fun time on calm waters like lakes, slow moving rivers, sheltered coast lines, canals, etc. They are usually stable and comfortable, easy to maneuver and very safe when capsizing is a concern.

Sundolphin Kayaks
Whitewater Kayaks

Compared to the recreational types, the whitewater yaks are shorter and wider. This gives the kayak more buoyancy and more maneuverability, very welcomed when passing through river rapids.

Touring and Sea Kayaks

These are long and thin kayaks, designed with the purpose of going faster and further. They have several storage compartments to carry gear and usually come with skegs or keels to aid in maneuverability.

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

One of the better choices for beginners, the sit-on-top kayaks have no cockpit to “sit in”, but rather a molded top and seat for the paddler. Great for warmer climates, as they are open to the water and wind. This type is also great for fishing and recreation, due to its stability and how easy it is to paddle in them.

Sundolphin Journey 10 ss
Sit-on-Top Sundolphin Journey 10 ss
Inflatable Kayaks

The king of transportation, inflatable kayaks are mostly used for recreation. Although fishing and other activities can be performed as well. Not as durable as their rigid hull brothers and sisters, they tend to be really fun as a recreational boat, and usually fit several people more commonly than rigid kayaks. These are the ones that look more similar to a canoe than any other type, but they are still paddled with a double edged paddle.

Sevylor Colorado Fishing Kayak
Sevylor Colorado Inflatable Kayak
Racing Kayaks

These are a special type of yaks, used in competitions. Very long and slender, the paddler sits in very low close the water. They usually have a rudder to aid in directing the boat. Also there are variants for 1, 2, or even 4 paddlers in a boat.

What is a Canoe?

A canoe, or “Canadian canoe” as it also called, is a small point ended boat on both extremes. Is propelled by paddlers who sit or kneel on a raised seat and use singled bladed paddles. Although it’s not impossible to paddle a canoe with double bladed paddles, this is very rare and uncomfortable on most canoes. Because of the canoe design and the boat being wider than a regular kayak, is not comfortable or effective to use double bladed paddles, as it is on kayaks.

Canoes are usually open on top, but can also be covered, similar to a kayak. And usually the canoe is powered by one or several persons paddling, but it is not uncommon to see them powered by a small electric or gas motor, or even by sails on some designs.

Brief history of canoes

Canoeing is a very ancient mode of transportation, and used all over the world. Another difference, now history-wise for the canoe vs kayak battle. In contrast with Kayaks, that were mainly used used by the Arctic and North American dwellers in its beginnings, the canoe was used in a much wider scale, all over the planet. From American natives to tribes in the Polynesia. It was used primarily as a transport medium, for trade and war too.

Wherever there was water, a canoe was close at hand. Primitive, yet well constructed these early days canoes were made from logs, animal skins and tree bark. There are records of canoes reaching as long as 130ft for transporting soldiers and waging war.

What we currently know as modern day recreational canoeing originated around the last part of the 19th century. During 1924 several countries including Germany, Denmark, Austria and Sweden founded The International Representation for Canoe Sport, and what soon would be called the International Canoe Federation. During 1936, Canoeing became part of the Olympic Games.

At present day canoeing is a widespread sport, consisting of different types of disciplines like canoe sprints, canoe marathons, canoe polo, whitewater canoeing among others. There are national associations in several parts of the world, including USA, Canada, England, Scotland and many more.

Design

Canoes are usually designed to be completely open on top. The sides come out of the water, creating a traditional boat appearance. Usually they have a sitting bench at either end, one close to the stern and the other one close to the bow. When there are two people paddling the canoe, they are usually positioned in front of each other, facing both the same side.

Due to the wide design of the hull, canoes are very often propelled using a single bladed paddle. The most common and basic technique for propelling the canoe is to paddle one or a few times on one side, then switch to the other side and paddle there. This allows to keep the canoe tracking well. Although there are more advanced techniques that experiences canoe paddlers use, like J stroke, Goon stroke, Pitch stroke and some more do not necessarily require the paddler to switch sides as often. For a complete description of all the different strokes you can try in a canoe, read this article.

Due to the usual size of the canoes, they can carry a lot of gear in its open space, making them a great boat for camping trips of several days.

However not all canoe designs are open at the top. When canoes are made for whitewater rapids, they are covered and sometimes have additional buoyancy devices. Also the racing canoes are slimmer than recreational ones, for faster performance.

Uses

Traditionally the canoe was used as a transportation medium, for goods and people. But in our modern days that use is fairly minimum, and we use them mostly for recreation and sport endeavors. Canoes are very well suited for slow moving waters, like rivers, lakes and ponds and ideal for several day camping trips.

As a sport, there are several competitions involving canoes. Canoe slalom, for example, is a competitive activity that involves navigating the canoe through a course of gates on river rapids. This was formerly known as Whitewater Slalom, and is a Summer Olympics discipline. Another Olympic discipline is the Canoe Sprint.

Types

Among the different types of canoes, we mention the following ones.

Recreational Canoe

These are designed to be easy to control, stable and steady. Recreational canoes usually vary from 13ft to 17ft long and can accommodate several people and lot of gear. And they can be paddler by 1 to 4 people.

Whitewater Canoe

The whitewater cones are typically shorter, designed to move through rapids for one or two people. They are much shorter, less stable and more maneuverable than recreational ones. Very often they have flotation panels at the end and front to help cope with the water that enters the boat.

Racing Canoe

These are narrower than the recreational or whitewater variants, and can be longer too. The design also makes them sit lower on the water and not as high as the other ones. All this makes the canoe faster that its sibling types.

The Comparison: Kayaks vs Canoes

What differs a kayak vs canoe when transporting it?

In this section we are going to touch briefly about what is involved when you have to transport a kayak or a canoe. In this regard we have two types of “transportation” to consider.

First and foremost, from your home to the water. For the vast majority of people this is a road trip of varied length, but that it involves a trunk or a car. In this aspect, even though canoes are usually a bit bigger and maybe heavier than kayaks, both will require a roof rack or a cart attached behind your vehicle. Both canoes and kayaks require the same safety measures when placing the boat on the rack or the cart. They need to be properly placed according to the manufacturer instructions, and also properly tied up and attached to the rack and car, or the cart.

One thing we can mention here for car roof racks, is that canoes might stick a little bit farther back and front. This makes the attachment to require a bit more attention. I urge you to always attach also the bow and stern to the car or truck also. This is especially important with longer boats, as the straps that keep them attached to the roof rack alone might not be enough. The longer the boat is, that higher chances you have of it rocking on the roof. I would urge you to do this for kayaks too, but please apply common sense in this area.

Also keep in mind if your car is able to carry the amount of weight you are putting on the roof. There is usually no problems, even small cars can transport big canoes on the roof provided they are properly attached. But the weight limits set by the car manufacturer must be addressed too. And for small cars, is usually quite low. Check your car manual!

The other type of transportation is when you are already close to the paddling area, the lake, river, or your water place of choice. From the car or truck, to water and vice-versa.

Several options in this regard. If you are paddling solo, and don’t have any help, you have to evaluate if the weight of the boat can be something you can manage or not. Almost all kayaks, have carrying handles and can be picked up by a single person. But heavier models might require a small cart, that definitely aids in the process and makes this a quick and easy job.

Canoes, even though they are bulkier, heavier, have a technique that is quite useful for this. Is quite easy for one person to pick the canoe over her/his back and just walk with it. Provided the canoe is not extremely long nor heavy, the design of canoes allows this form of transportation. This is very common on portaging moments, when you have to bypass a section of a lake or river by land. Kayaks on the other hand don’t have this technique available, as its design makes this very uncomfortable.

When paddling with more people, both kayaks and canoes can be carried by two people, from the bow and stern, and just carried to the water.

Also consider all your gear. Usually this requires a few more trips back and forth the car/truck. If you are alone, and have a cart, you can put all your gear on top of the boat. In this scenario canoes rule, as you can bring huge amounts of things inside the canoe this way. Kayaks might not provide that much space, but it would usually be enough. The same applies when carrying the boat by two people.

Obviously inflatable boats are totally different breed in this aspect, and can travel with you in the back seat with no problem.

How comfortable is a canoe vs kayak?

Let’s talk first about seat comfort. At first glance, canoes benches are pretty simple and humble compared to some of the middle to high tier kayak seats. But do not overlook freedom of movement as a key aspect in seat comfort. While kayaks might have, on average, good and better seats in themselves, they confine you to being seated all the time with little to no movement possible.

You should not judge your boat seat by how it feels in a 30 to 60 second try. The real test is a several hour paddling session. Here things start to change quite a bit. Unless the kayak seat is exceptional, you will definitely feel uncomfortable, no matter what. And that is normal, as you shouldn’t be all the time in the same seated position. And here is where canoes excel and win this battle, in my opinion. Even if they offer a simple wood plank bench, in the canoe you can move freely and change positions a lot. You can paddle on your knees using the bench as back support, or go back to seated. You can easily get up and move on a canoe, while on kayaks, this is only possible on very specific models (usually on very stable sit on tops, and only for standing and not moving to much).

But on the other hand, some kayak seats are awesome are specially designed to make you comfortable for long paddling or fishing sessions, on more expensive models.

Aside from the seat itself, the bigger space that canoes offer is a huge plus for the overall comfort experience on longer trips. On kayaks, there is no “space” to consider in terms of free movement, as you are confined to your seat.

Differences between kayaks vs canoes when storing and carrying gear

The first thing to consider when evaluating these boats regarding their storage and gear carrying capacity, is plain storage space. And as you might already know, canoes offer the bigger space of the two. Canoes have lots of open space to bring anything imaginable to a paddling trip. They are especially useful for several day camping or fishing trips, where there’s not only personal gear, but also tents, cookware and supplies for several days. Although some kayaks have a lot of storage space available, in no way this can reach the amount of space a canoe offers.

Another thing to consider is how safe your gear will be. As canoes provide an open space, usually they are just placed inside the boat, without any attachment. And this is ok if the canoe trip is going to be on calm waters. Canoe are very stable and due to their design, gear is well protected inside the boat without any other special attention. But on rough waters, it can be a problem as you gear can get wet and start moving in the canoe. This can easily be addressed with some tarps and bungee cord, but is worth mentioning.

Although a capsizing event in a canoe is very rare, if this occurs, it could be a real problem. On one side, all our gear can be lost if not tied. On the other hand, a capsize on a canoe, might be a sinking event too for the boat. If for some reason you expect rough waters with a canoe and lots of gear, be prepared and equip your canoe with additional flotation aid, to keep the boat and your gear afloat.

Kayak with Fishing accessories
Kayak with Fishing accessories

Kayaks on the other hand, offer a more limited storage space. But this space is usually very specific and offers several secure options. Kayaks have inside-hull storage space, and in some models this is even waterproof. This space is excellent to keep belongings safe and secure. Also some kayaks models offer more storage space on the deck, as open space, usually with bungee cords and additional attachment inserts to secure your gear. Aside from this, they also provide special inserts molded into the hull itself, for very specific gear, like boxes, fishing rods and electronics among other things.

To end up this area of comparison, both kayaks and canoes have the option of customizing and extending the accessories and specialized gear attachments with mounting systems. These are systems that can be added to the canoe or kayak hull (by drilling or gluing), and provide universal attachment slots to fit a lot of specialized additions.

How stable are kayaks vs canoes?

Both, kayaks and canoes are very stable on clam to moderate waters.

It would be a very rare event to capsize in either a canoe or a kayak these days, while paddling on calm waters and in normal conditions.

Canoes have the additional benefit of allowing you to even move and stand freely on the deck, keeping a relatively stable level, provided you don’t start jumping side to side! While some models of kayaks allow you to stand and move a bit, this movement is far less than on a typical canoe. Usually the types of kayaks that allow to be standing are specialized fishing sit-on-top, with a hull design oriented for anglers that like to spend some time fishing from a standing position.

Paddling on rough waters is a different story, and stability is obviously reduced in this scenario for both kayaks and canoes. But if the correct type of canoe and kayak are used, with proper training and expertise, this can also be fun. Both, canoes and kayaks have special models for whitewater paddling.

Canoe vs Kayak Performance: Tracking, Speed and Maneuverability

Paddling on kayaks will be easier for beginners that paddling on a canoe. Kayaks are narrower and are propelled using a double bladed paddle, alternating one side and the other with circular movements. This is an easy movement to perform, even for beginners to the activity.

On a canoe, the story is different. We briefly mentioned earlier (on the Canoe Design section) how paddling goes, and briefly mentioned the different types of paddle strokes. As canoes are propelled from only one side at a time, with a single bladed paddle, it will be harder for newcomers to maintain proper course in a canoe.

This means that for beginners and maybe even intermediate experience paddlers, kayaks will offer better tracking than canoes, due to the learning curve on how to properly maneuver and handle the boat. But once the proper technique is mastered, the tracking can be very good on both kayaks and canoes.

To aid tracking, both on kayaks and canoes you have the option of choosing a model with a keel or with the option to attach one. While this is a fairly common practice on kayaks, on canoes is really looked down at by experienced canoeist. Maneuverability is drastically impaired on a canoe if you choose to use a keel, and you won’t need it anyways if you learn and practice proper canoe paddling techniques.

In terms of speed, kayaks are usually faster than canoes. Their slim design in comparison to canoes make them win the speed race. Also kayaks tend to be more maneuverable than canoes for the same reason and general design.

How wet would you get in a kayak vs canoe?

Due to their design, canoes will keep you drier than kayaks. Paddling in a canoe keeps you higher above the water than in a kayak. Once you learn the paddling techniques of canoes, you might even paddle on one side most of the time, avoid even the few drops you get from the dripping blade when changing sides.

On kayaks, even if the blades have drip blockers, is unavoidable to get some drops eventually, and you are constantly moving each blade above water and hull level. For sit-in kayaks where you are protected with a cover, this is no problem. But for open, sit-on-tops, you are exposed. Also when the conditions of water and weather worsen a bit, canoes are better protected, again because their are higher above water than kakays. But for truly rough waters and whitewater rapids, there’s no better design that the closed cockpit kayaks. On a canoe you will get really wet and catch a lot of water in these.

Kayak Waterfall
Kayak Waterfall

Differences when fishing from a canoe vs kayak

Kayaks shine in this aspect, with lots of specialized models for angling from the boat. They provide special storage and inserts molded in the kayak hull for bringing everything a fisherman needs, and much more. These are great for solo anglers, but there are a few great kayak models for two persons.

While there are no specialized fishing canoes, a great advantage is the storage space available. Canoes are also good for fishing, as you can carry all your fishing gear and more. Even there are no specialized insert on canoes, you can easily attach a mounting system to them and outshine any fishing kayak for sure, at the expense of some bucks. Canoes will also allow you to bring one or more buddies to the fishing trip, depending on how much space left you have on the canoe 😉 . And how about your catch? Yes, with canoes you will have plenty of space for your catch tank if you have it.

In essence, the big difference here is that with kayaks you can have a greatly specialized boat for angling out of the box, usually for one person. While with canoes, you have all the advantages of the big storage space, without the bells and whistles of special fishing accessories.

Canoe vs Kayak: Comparison chart

KayaksCanoes
Fast and easy to maneuverSlow speed but good maneuverability once you master the proper paddling technique
Double bladed paddles are easier for beginners to keep the boat trackingSingle blade paddles are not so easy for beginners, but great tracking for intermediate to experienced level paddlers
Dry storage available on almost every model, but smaller than canoesBig open storage space, bigger than kayaks. No dry storage, you will need to improvise one yourself with tarps and dry bags.
Less freedom of movementGreat freedom of movement makes it comfortable by allowing constant change in body positions
Quicker to learn the basics of paddlingLearning curve of proper technique is a bit longer than on kayaks
Portage situations are not as easy as with canoesGreat for portage situations
Great for paddling soloAwesome to paddle with one or more friends. Mastering of the paddling technique required if you go solo.

Final words and some advice

I hope this article has helped in shedding some light over the key differences and similarities between kayaks and canoes. As you can see is not a black and white, “winner takes all” battle between these two types of boats. Either Kayaks and Canoes have their pros and cons in a wide spectrum of activity, and is you, the user that have to decide which of these boats suits you best.

And as a personal advice, this isn’t either a matter of choosing one over the other. In my personal experience, I enjoy the kayaks for certain trips and activities, and canoes for others. I love canoes for those several days camping trips moving from one place to the other among lake shores, and full of gear including tents and cookware. And I tend to use kayaks for shorter session, maybe several hours with family. Although “travesias” of several kayaks together with just the right amount of gear are also awesome.

What can I say, as a water lover, I do enjoy both, a good kayak and and awesome canoe… for me, both are winners. If you need to decide for one over the other at this moment, I would suggest that you pay close attention to what is the activity that you will be performing the most initially. Focus on that and choose either a kayak or a canoe depending on which will give you the most benefits. Now go out and enjoy nature paddling in your boat of choice. Thanks for reading!

About the author

    Martin Tripodi

    Software Engineer, husband, father, and avid enthusiast of outdoor activities! Total fan of great quality and functional gear, spends part of his free time researching and compiling loads of information in the form of guides, product recommendations and reviews.

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