Canoeing vs Kayaking: Which Is Best For You? (2022)

People kayaking in the sea.
Table of Contents

    The differences between a canoe and a kayak can elude even the most learned of outdoorsmen, so today we’re going to set the record straight. There are variations in seating, in the method of paddling, and a huge difference in the origins of these two crafts. These, in turn, give the two types of boat different ideal uses. You can use both canoes and kayaks for transportation, for racing, sport, fishing, and more. 

    There are also many different types of canoe and kayak within the divisions of these boats. From beginner craft that anyone can paddle to expert equipment specially made for certain purposes, we’ll guide you through each step of your choice. Both canoe and kayak camping are very popular recreational activities, and in this area, the two boats offer different amounts of storage space, stability, and a host of other things to consider. Now let’s jump in and find out everything you need to know about canoeing and kayaking. 


    A person canoeing.

    Canoes and kayaks both offer a lot of on-the-water fun.


    The origins of the canoe

    The oldest boat ever discovered was a 10,000-year-old canoe, found in the Netherlands made out of a dugout tree trunk. The canoe is not solely a European invention, however, as an 8000-year-old Dunfana canoe was discovered in Nigeria, and another of the same age in China. Canoes made in this traditional manner were all hollowed-out logs, entire tree trunks that were shaped with axes and other tools to create a vessel that would float on water. 

    Much later than the times of these oldest discoveries, the Native Americans had employed a new design of canoe. They built wooden frames and then lined them with birch bark, and sealed them to be watertight using tree resin. Both styles of the canoe, whether framed and barked or dugout, featured a thin point at both ends. This shape and general design remained unchanged for hundreds of years, as it was very effective. 

    Originally, canoes were used for the transportation of both goods and people. They could even be used for the purposes of war, with canoes as long as 130 feet used to transport many soldiers. Nowadays, they’ve evolved to become a popular recreational activity, as well as a sport. In 1936, canoeing became a part of the international Olympic Games. Canoes have been used all over the world for thousands of years because of their convenience for travel across water. 


    The origins of the kayak

    The kayak has a much narrower provenance than canoes, limited to Arctic regions. These crafts can be traced back to the Inuit and Eskimo people of Northern America around 4000 years ago. Kayaks were originally constructed from a frame of driftwood and whalebone, covered by animal skins. Whale fat and seal bladders may also have been added by the Inuits to improve buoyancy and waterproofing. These boats were made firstly for use in hunting upon the water, and later larger kayaks were made to transport people and goods. 

    Kayaks feature a similar shape to canoes, with a point at both ends. However, a number of key differences set the two boats apart. For example, Inuits designed the craft to be closed on top for additional protection against cold weather, a problem Native Americans further south did not face. This is why kayaks are traced solely to the northernmost reaches of the planet, whereas canoes can be found practically everywhere. 


    How to tell the difference between a kayak and a canoe

    To the untrained eye, kayaks and canoes look incredibly similar. They are both long, slim, watercraft with a point at both ends. The easiest difference you can rely on is seating. Canoes generally sit a little higher in the water than kayaks, and often feature a bench for the paddler to sit on. Kayaks, on the other hand, have their seats almost directly on the hull. Whereas canoeists sit above the water, kayakers are almost level with it. Both canoes and kayaks can be open or closed, however, canoes are traditionally open, and kayaks are mostly covered with just a small opening to sit in. 


    Kayaks are crafted for adventure and usually set one to two people.


    Different types of canoes

    The design and construction of both kayaks and canoes have varied considerably over the years. You’re highly unlikely to spot a dugout canoe out on the river nowadays, as new materials and technologies have changed how these boats are constructed. In addition, the multiple uses of these watercraft in sport and leisure mean several different types of each are available. You can buy a canoe or kayak which is geared towards a specific purpose, specially designed to work best for your uses. 

    Recreational canoes are the most commonly seen in rental stores and on lakes and rivers. They’re usually from 13-17 feet long and are made from plastic, although some are constructed using aluminum. Recreational canoes are popular because they can seat multiple people, making them ideal for a family outing or a trip with friends. They’re stable, easy to paddle, and require no training or prior experience. 

    Whitewater canoes are made for faster moving rivers and streams. They are shorter than a standard canoe and are easier to maneuver, however, this makes them less stable in the water. Expedition canoes are longer in comparison to others and made for group paddling over long distances. They’re optimized for efficiency, as well as designed to fit more gear for your trip. The last type of canoe is racing canoes, which are narrower and sit lower in the water. Racing canoes have no seats, as the paddlers kneel in the boat for optimum speed and power. 


    Different types of kayak 

    While canoes are mostly limited to these four different types, the options presented regarding kayaks are numerous. They differ both in design and in purpose, which may seem overwhelming at first. There are three primary types of kayaks from which you’ll need to choose your preferred design. Then, within each category, there are kayaks for all manner of sports and purposes. 

    • Sit-inside kayaks: Feature a traditional design. They feature a covered hull with a hole (or two) for the paddlers to place their lower body inside. This keeps your legs and torso dry, which is a necessity in colder waters. Sit-inside kayaks are popular for sea kayaking as well as whitewater kayaking, where you’ll benefit from the increased waterproofing. 


    • Sit-on-top kayaks: Are the same as others but with an open cockpit, they feature a molded top for one or two paddlers to rest on. You’re much more likely to find sit-on-top kayaks at boat rental stores because they can be used by beginners, whereas sit-inside kayakers will need some training. If you’re out on the lake or river in hotter weather, sit-on-top kayaks are ideal! They allow you to hop in and out of the water with ease, as well as move around freely in the boat. That’s why sit-on-top kayaks are the preferred choice for fishing and other calm-water activities. You can even stand up on this craft! 


    • Inflatable kayaks: Are the third type of boat, featuring the same sit-on-top design. As the name suggests, these kayaks are much more portable and far easier to transport. These kayaks are less durable because they are made of softer materials, but that’s the compromise for a lighter and easier mode of transport. All kayaks, be they sit-inside, sit-on-top, or inflatable, may feature a slightly different design depending on their intended use. 


    • Recreational kayaks: Are rarely sit-inside but can be both sit-on-top or inflatable. This is because these designs can be easily enjoyed by complete beginners, they’re perfect for families and kids. Recreational kayaks are generally between 9 and 11 feet and are slightly wider to offer more stability. They’re easy to maneuver and can be used on any lake or slow-moving river. 


    • Sea kayaks: Are slightly longer and slimmer, with a reinforced design to handle the surf. These boats often feature a foot-controlled rudder for even more maneuverability. They also have watertight hatches for safe gear storage. Sea kayaks have an excellent level of buoyancy, so much so that they’ll continue to float even when flooded with water, a likely possibility when sailing on the sea. 


    • Touring kayaks: Like expedition canoes, are designed for covering long distances. They also have foot pedals and watertight storage, with a long and sleek shape for a speedy experience. Touring kayaks can be found sit-inside or sit-on-top, but they require more experience to navigate. They also have a special shape which helps to keep the boat straight in the water, which is great for speed, but not so much for maneuverability. Expedition kayaks are broader and longer than touring kayaks and are generally sit-inside. They have increased storage space for camping gear and other supplies. 


    • Surf kayaks: Are much closer to surfboards than sea kayaks, although the name may lead you to believe otherwise. While they’re both built to withstand the ocean waves, surf kayaks are made especially for riding them! They have fins, thrusters, and hard rails on their flat bottom, making them completely inappropriate for any calmer water. However, if you’re a surfing fan and want to extend your experience, surf kayaks can be a lot of fun! 


    • Racing kayaks: Are long, light, narrow, and quite unstable. They require a good amount of experience to paddle in a straight line and are unsurprisingly built for top speeds. Fishing kayaks and scuba diving kayaks are also highly specialized craft, designed for optimum use in sport. Fishing kayaks are sit-on-top, similar to recreational kayaks. Scuba diving kayaks are also sit-on, with a design similar to surf kayaks for use on the coast. 


    • Whitewater kayaks: Themselves are broken down into many further categories. In general, whitewater kayaks are a little shorter and wider than their recreational cousins, with a sit-inside design. They’re exceptionally easy to maneuver, as well as highly buoyant, meaning they respond well when tossed around in fast-moving water. It’s important to choose the right kind of whitewater kayak depending on your activity and experience level. 


    • Inflatable whitewater kayaks: Are the best choice for beginners because they’re very stable, comfortable, and lightweight. Creek boats are for intermediate kayakers, they will resurface when submerged meaning you can navigate even rougher waters. Play boats and river runners are yet more advanced kayak designs, made for the most daring and adventurous whitewater riders. Kayaks are generally preferred over canoes for most whitewater activities, but we’ll explore your decision next. 


    A man on an orange kayak on a river.

    Kayaks are always the most popular choice for rough waters.


    Canoe vs kayak: which is best? 

    The better choice for each person depends on many different aspects, including your activity, experience level, and of course, personal preference. We’ll now explore the individual factors and characteristics of the canoe vs kayak. 

    • Size and transport: Canoes, on average, are larger than kayaks. They generally measure from 13 to 18 feet, while the standard length of a kayak is 6 to 15 feet. Canoes are also taller than kayaks because of their raised hull and seating, and this can make transporting them quite difficult. You’re much more likely to fit a kayak on the roof of your car than a canoe. In addition, kayaks can be bought in the inflatable variety making them all the easier to move to different locations. 


    • Seating and comfort: For longer trips, canoes win easily in the comfort department. The elevated bench seating means you can sit up straight, while the raised position offers you a better view of your surroundings. Moving around inside a canoe is much easier, as kayakers are limited to a single seating position. Also, there’s little chance of getting wet in a canoe, unless you’re on whitewater. In a kayak, there’s little protection between you and the water, so it’s likely you’ll end up sitting in a puddle. Water skirts in closed hull kayaks help keep your lower body dry, but even so, you’re likely to get some splashback on your upper body. The entry and exit process is also much easier in canoes, as these stable boats are open in design. Kayaks can present a serious risk of toppling or even capsizing when climbing in and out especially sit-inside designs. 


    • Paddles: One of the objects of utmost importance regarding canoes and kayaks are the paddles. This is how you maneuver and move through the water, and you could be paddling all day, so it’s important to choose the right option. Kayaks have a significant advantage in this area because they have double-bladed paddles. No matter the number of people in your boat, using double paddles makes it easy to keep in a straight line. Kayaks are also more lightweight than canoes, meaning they require less effort to get moving. Canoe paddles feature a single pedal, meaning you must work with a partner to paddle on one side each, or alternate sides with every stroke. This can be much more taxing than paddling a canoe, and the technique has a much steeper learning curve. The single paddle approach of canoes also makes them more difficult to steer, especially when coordinating with other paddlers. If you’re just going for a lazy ride down the river, canoe paddles are fine. However, longer and more intense trips benefit from the increased ease of use of double-bladed kayak paddles. 


    • Stability: Because canoes are wider with a broader hull, they’re more stable in general than kayaks. Canoes allow for a fair amount of movement within the craft before they can be destabilized, and in calm waters, it’s very difficult to capsize them. However, in the unlikely event that a canoe does topple, it can sink. Without proper training it can be very difficult to right a capsized canoe, so don’t take them on whitewater unless you’re an experienced canoeist. Kayaks are not built for stability, rather for speed, so they don’t offer much room for error. It’s very popular to take kayaks on rough whitewater to capsizing is a common occurrence, but setting your craft straight is quite easy. You can even employ techniques such as the Eskimo roll to help you right a capsized sit-inside kayak without having to climb out. That’s why kayaks are always preferred for whitewater boating. 


    • Maneuverability: Where canoes win easily in the area of stability, kayaks are unparalleled in their maneuverability. Paddling a kayak requires the use of your full body, and the lightweight design means it’s easy to turn this craft to your will. They’re popular among adventure enthusiasts because you can become one with the boat, a vital element if you want to enjoy the adrenaline rush of whitewater boating. In comparison, canoes are heavy and cumbersome. You need skill, rather than power, to steer them correctly, and changing direction quickly is close to impossible. 


    People canoeing in the mountains.

    If you want to paddle in a group, canoes generally allow for more passengers to come on board.


    Final Verdict: 

    So, should you go kayaking or canoeing this weekend? Figuring out the answer is quite simple; firstly, you need to consider your destination. If you’re heading for some whitewater rapids for an exciting water-borne adventure, sit-in kayaks are the best choice. The closed hull design will keep you safe even if you capsize, while the lightweight and sleek shape allows for the most maneuverability in the water. This option is best if you’re kayaking alone or in a couple, or of course, you can use several kayaks for a group trip. 

    If you’re heading for a flatwater destination such as a calm lake, the options are more open. Sit-on-top kayaks can be a barrel of fun, allowing you to paddle, sunbathe, and hop in and out of the water easily. If you’re going in a group or with your family, canoes allow for more people to paddle in the same boat. Check out the best fishing canoes if you’re looking for a new angling craft. You’ll have to use a single-bladed paddle, which could be more taxing and tiring, however, the improved comfort of sitting on a bench and being able to move around makes up for it. 


    Bonus tip: Check out this video for a visual explanation of the difference between a kayak and a canoe! 



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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.