Canoes vs. Kayaks

Canoes vs. Kayaks

For new comers in particular, knowing the specific differences between canoes and kayaks can quickly become very confusing, let alone knowing which one you are most suited to.

In this in-depth article we aim to make sense of all this, and break down the various types, differences and designs, together with an analysis of exactly when to use each type of vessel.

So to start…

What is a canoe and what is a kayak?

It’s important to clear away some of the confusion here. The term ‘canoe’ is often used by Americans to talk about a particular kind of paddle craft. The deck is open, and the seats are about flush with, or just below, the gunwale.

Americans use the term ‘kayak’ to talk about another particular kind of paddle craft. The deck on this one is open, and the seat is right next to the bilge, which is what we call the bottom of the craft’s hull.

As for Brits and Canadians, they say ‘Canadian canoe’ where Americans would just say ‘canoe’, and ‘canoe’ when they are referring to a kayak. 

What are canoes used for?

Traditionally, canoes were mainly used for transport of both people and goods. However, in the modern day, they are used for other activities, including sports. In fact, there are tens of millions of people in the USA alone who go canoeing on a yearly basis.

Canoes are more popular when on slow moving water, such as on lakes or rivers. They are excellent for family use and going exploring. They are also very stable and harder to capsize than kayaks. Even kids will have an easy time paddling these craft.

What are kayaks used for?

Right from their start, kayaks were used for both transportation and hunting by peoples living in colder waters, such as in the arctic. Modern kayaking has extended this to other activities, such as sports.

When it comes to paddling, kayaking is one of the most popular in the USA, with tens of millions of Americans taking part in the activity. The uses for kayaking are as varied as the different types of kayaks.

Each type of kayaking will need a specialized type of kayak. Sit-inside kayaks, for example, are useful for trips that take multiple days at a time or kayaking on the sea. They are also better for cold environments, as they keep you dry if you attach a skirt to the cockpit.

Sit-inside kayaks are also quite useful in whitewater kayaking. However, the kayaks used in this sport are shorter than normal, so they are easier to maneuver in rapids and around obstacles. There are even kayaks that are used on snow, known as snow kayaks.

There are also sports that use sit-inside kayaks. Canoe polo, for example, uses sit-inside kayaks with two blade paddles, despite the misleading name suggesting canoes are involved.

Another kind of kayak with special uses is the sit-on-top kayak. These are designed for beginners as they are relatively easy to use. While sit-inside kayaks require you to perform a wet exit or an Eskimo roll if you capsize, a sit-on-top kayak will simply have you fall off your craft, in which case you can just climb on again.

Sit-on-top kayaks are popular for fishing activities, as your legs aren’t restricted, allowing you to move around, and provide easier access to your gear and allow excess water to drain off more easily. In a sit-in kayak, everything is in the hull and harder to access.

Sit-on-top kayaks are also better for warmer climates, as they allow you to jump into the water and swim when you want to or have to. A major disadvantage of this type of kayak, however, is that you get wetter far more easily, which makes it unsuitable for cold climates. It is better for warm and wet climates.

Each kayak is built to perform overwhelmingly well in particular environments and at particular activities, which means their styles will affect such things as stability and speed.

The longer and narrower the kayak, the faster it is, but also less stable. Short and wide kayaks are more stable and easier to maneuver in tight spaces, but also slower.

Kayaks can also come in tandem and single person versions, whether sit-in or sit-on-top. You can therefore go alone or with someone else on a joint paddling trip.

What is the difference between a canoe and a kayak?

Cockpit: open vs. closed design

Overall, canoes are called open, with their sides rising high above the water line. Kayaks, on the other hand, are closed and have a cockpit where the paddler can sit inside.

They sit lower in the water than canoes, which often means spray skirts have to be worn by the paddler to prevent water splashing into them and entering the kayak.

That said, some, as we have already mentioned, can be sit-on-top kayaks with an open cockpit. However, the majority are sit-in.  A good way to think about it is to say you wear a kayak but ride a canoe.


You can store a variety of supplies and gear in both crafts. However, because they are larger, canoes tend to have far more storage capacity than kayaks.

The main downside with canoes is that gear needs to be tarp-covered to keep it dry if it isn’t already waterproof.  On the other hand, if all you’re concerned about is transporting yourself and a companion on a short trip, you don’t have to worry about getting wet.

Kayaks have less storage capacity than canoes, but they are more waterproof, especially when a spray skirt is worn. As long as you don’t get in very bad weather or capsize the kayak, you are likely to stay dry for the entire journey.

Canoes vs. Kayaks

Using a canoe and kayak

Both craft can be used in a variety of activities, including long-distance trips, fishing, camping and river paddling. However, there are benefits to each. Canoes have more storage space, which makes them better for a day out in calm water with some friends and a hard cooler.

A kayak is more adventure-friendly, being better suited for such activities as deep-water fishing, ocean paddling, and whitewater rafting.

Both canoes and kayaks can be used for excursions spanning multiple days, known as touring, depending on the exact kind of touring you’re doing. While a canoe is better for lakes and inland rivers with calmer waters, Great lakes, and oceans demand kayaks.

Canoes may seem like the default choice for going fishing, but kayaks are also growing in popularity for this. In fact, modern kayaks seem to be built for the activity, with foot pedals replacing paddles, a deep well for gear storage, and rod holders.

When thinking about whether to buy a canoe or kayak, you should also think about how you’re going to transport it. Kayaks can be carried in and on just about any type of vehicle. Folding and inflatable models in particular, are incredibly easy to transport and store. Canoes, on the other hand, need more planning.

Interestingly, canoes are more suited to self-portaging (traveling over land between two bodies of water) than kayaks. This is because they can be worn as a bag (via the thwarts) like backpacks. There is hardly a comfortable way to carry a kayak over land without the help of some kind of vehicle.

Stability and maneuverability

Generally speaking, a canoe is more stable than a kayak, but a kayak is easier to maneuver, and also faster, than a canoe.

Kayaks tend to be narrower than canoes, and their bows and sterns are often curved more sharply upward than canoes. This curving upwards is known as a ‘rocker’. So we say kayaks have sharper rockers than canoes.

The result is that less of a kayak’s hull is under the water line, leading to less resistance when paddling. Kayaks also often come rudders and skegs built in to make for easier steering. Also, because of their lower center of gravity, each paddle stroke requires less effort than in a canoe.

Then there is the issue of moving in a straight line, also known as tracking. It’s much easier to do this in a kayak than in a canoe. Kayaks have double-sided paddles, which means the paddler can stay upright while paddling; they don’t have to shift their body weight.

Canoes, on the other hand, have an upper hand in the stability department. Since the hull is wider, it offers more stability, especially when the water is calm.

That said, we should point out that most modern designs for canoes and kayaks are very stable overall, and both vessels are difficult to capsize when designed using modern materials and standards.

How wet will you get?

The answer here is a little more nuanced than you might expect.

Generally speaking, a canoe will keep you dryer, simply because you will be sitting higher above the water. However, when out in open or rough waters, you might fare better in a kayak.

A kayak keeps water out of its closed cockpit, meaning even the roughest of waves won’t get you wet, but will instead wash over the boat. You can also outfit the kayak with a spray skirt to completely prevent water from getting into the cockpit.

Canoes are harder to capsize than kayaks. However, the kayak has an advantage over the canoe in that it is easier to right when it is capsized. Such techniques as a wet exit and an Eskimo roll exist for kayaks but not the canoe. If your canoe capsizes, your trip is likely ruined.

Canoes vs Kayaks

Types of paddles

Canoes have a single paddle (note that it is not an oar). You use this paddle to paddle water on either side of the canoe using something known as a ‘J’ stroke, allowing you to paddle in a straight line without having to swap sides every time you paddle.

Kayaks, on the other hand, have a double paddle, which has two paddle blades, one on either side. You then paddle on alternate sides to propel the kayak forwards.

How to paddle

The single paddle of the canoe gives you two options for paddling. Either you can paddle from side to side or use a special type of stroke to enable you to move in a straight line while paddling on only one side.

This is known as the ‘J’ stroke. To effectively do the ‘J’ stroke, you start with the palm of one hand resting on the base of the paddle, with the thumb perpendicular to the paddle.

Push the paddle into the water so that it enters vertically. You should then push the paddle back with the other hand so that it slices the water, twisting it under and over the water as you do so. More on this in the below video…

Kayak paddles, on the other hand, have 2 blades, which allows the paddler to maintain their track by making alternate strokes.


The seats on canoes are like benches and are flush or slightly under the gunwale, raising the paddler well above the bilge. Canoes typically have two or three seats. A good position to sit is with the knees on the floor, which provides greater stability and also adds power to the paddler’s strokes.

Kayaks, on the other hand, have a seat which is deep in the cockpit, right next to the bilge. There is some space in the front of the kayak, where the paddler will place their legs and feet. The kayaker can then use their knees to help steer their kayaks by bracing them against the sides of the kayak. This is particularly common among advanced kayakers.


Canoes are built for safety and comfort as you try to get to your destination. They are also a better choice for families, since more than one paddler can steer the canoe. You also have space for gear, food and water if you’re going for a picnic. You can even bring along a pet.

Kayaks are built for speed and adventure, since they can go through rough waters easily. They are more suited to things like sport. They aren’t really built with comfort in mind.


Kayaks are faster than canoes, especially on rougher waters. In fact, they are often used in races, whereas canoe races are rarer.

Pros and cons of canoes


They are bigger and have an open-top, making them more comfortable

They are great for joint paddling and family activities

They have plenty of storage room

They are harder to capsize

They are easier for portage


They are harder to paddle alone

They are harder to maneuver in a straight line, especially when alone

They are harder to right when capsized

They don’t have waterproof storage

Pros and cons of kayaks


They are easier to maneuver

They are faster

They are better for open and rough waters

They have waterproof storage

They can easily be righted when capsized

They are easier to transportation


They are less comfortable due to the closed cockpit

They are less stable than canoes on calmer waters

They are easy to learn but hard to master

Less storage space

Canoes vs Kayaks

Different types of canoe

There are 4 main types of canoe:

Recreational canoes – These often range in length between 13 feet and 17 feet and are designed to have very high initial stability. They are also much easier to control than other types of canoe. They are commonly chosen for paddling on inland rivers, lakes, and ponds, and are great for both family and one-person paddling.

Square stern canoes – These have a flat rear so one can attach a motor to them if one wishes. They are great for extended trips where a motor can do the work as you take a rest and relax.

Whitewater canoes – These are shorter than other types of canoes have a high rocker so that they are easier to maneuver. However, they are harder to track (keep moving in a straight line) than other canoes.

They also have lower initial stability than recreational canoes. They often have floatation bags filled with air to stop water from getting into the cockpit.

Racing canoes – These are narrower and lower than other types of canoe for extra speed. They also generally don’t have bench seats, with the paddlers kneeling on the floor.

Different types of kayak

Sit-inside kayaks – These have a closed cockpit and the seat is normally adjacent to the bilge.

Sit-on-top kayaks – These have open cockpits.

Inflatable kayaks – These are just inflatable kayaks, whether sit-inside or sit-on-top.

Recreational kayaks – These are wide to provide high initial stability and short, so they are easier to maneuver.

Whitewater kayaks – Most of these are sit-inside kayaks that are short. Their hulls have higher rockers than recreational kayaks for easier maneuverability.

Surf kayaks – These look a lot like whitewater kayaks, though their hulls are specifically designed for surfing ocean waves.

Day touring kayaks – These can be either sit-inside or sit-on-top kayaks. They are longer than whitewater kayaks so they can be faster for long-distance travel. They also have more moderate rockers for easier tracking. They are popular for medium range excursions.

Expedition kayaks – These are suitable for long range excursions and kayak camping. They are all sit-inside kayaks and are longer than day touring kayaks. They also have sealed bulkheads and greater internal capacity for gear storage and extra floatation.

Racing kayaks – There are two types of racing kayaks. Surf skis, which are sit-on-top, and regular racing kayaks, which are sit-inside. Both are longer and narrower than expedition kayaks with more aggressive rockers. They are also less stable and need a rudder to help them track.

Is it easier to kayak or canoe?

Kayaks are generally easier to paddle than canoes since they have a much smaller wetted surface. This reduces the overall water resistance. They are also easier to track.

On the other hand, canoes are easier to turn and are overall drier in calmer waters. Canoes are also more comfortable.

Do kayaks flip over easily?

Not really. They have a low center of gravity which makes it very difficult to do so. They will, however, be more likely to flip over if you shift your weight too far and too suddenly, such as when you turn your whole body to look behind you or try to reach out too far to pick something up in the water.

Paddling with the wrong technique may also cause a flip in some cases, although it is rare. With proper training, flipping over isn’t easy, and righting the kayak or getting back inside it if you fall out gets easier.

Do canoes tip easily?

Canoes are wider, which means they are more stable than kayaks. That said, this is only true in calm water. In white water, there is a higher chance of a canoe capsizing than a kayak, and righting it is very difficult for an untrained person to do.

It is therefore important to only ride in canoes on flat water and in good weather.

What is better for fishing canoe or kayak?

What is better for fishing canoe or kayak?

Both can be used for fishing, to be honest, though there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

A canoe has more storage space for your bait, beer, and rod, as well as anything else you might want to bring along. If you want to relax and socialize as you fish, then a canoe is the right one to pick.

On the other hand, kayaks built specifically for fishing are pretty reliable as well, with many of them coming with rod holders, extra storage for your gear, and a lot of other bells and whistles.

It all boils down to where you’re doing the fishing (rougher waters need a kayak), how much gear you’re bringing along (canoes have more storage space), and why you’re doing the fishing (canoes are more suitable for socialization and relaxation).

Canoe vs kayak with a dog

Lots of factors go into whether your dog is well-suited to canoeing or kayaking in the first place, such as age, upbringing, temperament, and breed. However, most dogs can be convinced to try out kayaking and canoeing if they are adventurous enough.

Overall, canoeing is a better option since canoes have more space available, and they are more stable, especially on calmer waters. However, sit-on-top kayaks or two-person kayaks can still accommodate dogs.

Try to get your dog accommodated with the canoe or kayak on land first before taking it out on open water. When you do take it out, make sure to bring some life gear for your dog and chew toys to keep it calm. Also, bring some fresh water in case you’ll be paddling on salt water.

Which one is best for you – the verdict

If you’re looking for something for family and friends, or to relax, then canoes are the better choice. They are more stable and more comfortable.

If however you want a little more adventure and speed, then kayaks are better. Kayaks are also the better choice for open waters. Whichever you choose, make sure you have fun!

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