Canoe vs Kayak – What Are The Differences?


There are two types of small, lightweight watercraft that many people take out for days of relaxing, fishing, or sport. But when you compare the Canoe vs Kayak, there are a number of key distinctions that can make big differences on your days out.

Canoe vs Kayak – What Are The Differences?

Therefore, should you get a canoe or a kayak?

To help you discover the answer, we have created this comparison. We will answer questions regarding their ease of use, purpose, and practicality. All this info should help you to find the perfect watercraft that will best suit your activities.

We’ll start by covering the basics of each. Followed by a comparison of the two for specific activities such as fishing. By the end, you should know exactly what’s what, and be ready to go play on the water.

The History Of Kayaks

The Native peoples of the Arctic regions of North America first began using the kayak at least as far back as 4,000 years ago. These early vessels were first formed from driftwood or whalebone. This was then carved and then lined with animal skins stretched about the shell. This was then all sealed with whale or caribou fat to keep the kayak afloat.

Photo by rob_hunte

What were these early kayaks used for?

Used primarily for hunting, the kayak also allowed the Inuit people to transport themselves and all of their goods whenever the ice lessened enough on the great Arctic seas. In fact, it was likely due to this sub-zero environment that led the ancient peoples of the north to design the kayak with the enclosed shell.

Keep out the water and stay warmer with kayaks…

Having closed in the shell of the kayak, both the people paddling them and the goods that they carried with them would be free from splashes of ice-cold water. This would both keep them warmer, and preserve any food, fuel, clothing from getting wet. This, as we can imagine, would be very beneficial in places where temperatures rarely hit levels comfortable to humans.

One other key aspect of kayaks is the limited water disturbance that they cause when gliding across the water. Necessary for successful hunting trips, the minimal hull signature and lack of any real wake allowed ancient hunters to keep themselves and their families fed in the icy regions of the far north.

When did the kayak hit the world stage?

By the 1800s, the kayak had been welcomed into Europe. It then became popular both among many Arctic explorers, and a wide range of sportsmen alike. Becoming so popular infant that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin featured kayaking.

Kayak Designs

Kayaks can be easily separated into two different types. Firstly, those that encase the paddler within the kayak. And secondly, those where you sit on top. There are, of course, further distinctions in design depending on their intended purpose, but this is the primary feature that splits kayakers into groups.

All kayaks have a double ended paddles…

It’s one thing that unites all designs of kayaks is the use of a paddle with a blade on either end. This differs from the paddles used for canoes, which require you to continually switch from side to side to keep a direct heading.

When it comes to the two main types of kayaks, sit inside kayak are the traditional style, where the paddler sits within the cockpit area. With this option, your legs and lower body are sit within the hull for protection from water.

Sit inside kayaks come in a range of shapes and sizes…

Photo by Gus Dahlberg

Depending on their intended use, sit inside kayaks can differ greatly depending on the type of water in which they will be used. Longer hulls will track better, and glide better as well. This means you’ll be able to travel farther with less energy being expended.

Sit on top kayaks are a more modern option…

This design allows the paddler to sit atop the deck rather than enclosed within the hull. With your legs and lower body exposed, this makes it easier to jump in and out. It also makes casting a fishing rod considerably easier for most anglers.

Kayaks are also generally easier to transport…

This is due to them being smaller and lighter, which is another difference from canoes. And it’s certainly a huge advantage for anyone who isn’t lucky enough to have access to their desired waterway from their backyard.

What Are Kayaks Used For?

While the kayak has been traditionally used for hunting, fishing, and the transportation of people through the icy waters of the north. In recent years kayaks have become increasingly popular for a wide range of activities.

In fact, in 2015, a report determined that kayaks had become the most popular form of paddle craft in the United States. With around 13 million Americans using kayaks as opposed to the 10 million that participated in canoeing.

However, for those looking to head out on the open seas, a sit inside kayak is better equipped to deal with choppy waters, as well as the longer multi-day trips. This style is also preferable for those looking to hit the whitewater of the fast flowing rivers of the world.

For navigating whitewater, a short sports kayak will be required…

Photo by satomi f

Being more maneuverable is vital when navigating over and around rapids. Therefore, the shorter sport kayaks allow you to hit the waters that most would be uncomfortable navigating. If waves and whitewater weren’t enough, there are even snow kayaks these days for ripping through the powered stuff.

On the other hand, if you’re a beginner, sit on top kayak requires less technical skill to master. With no concerns with having to perform an Eskimo roll or wet exit, you can simply slide off the kayak, and then climb back on. There is also no risk of drowning while stuck upside-down.

These sit on top kayaks are also favored by most for fishing. This is due to the greater mobility for casting and reeling in your catches, while also leaving the gear more accessible. If you have tackle gear to access, this can be quite handy. Especially when compared to having to dig it out of the hull every time you need new bait or lure.

Sit on top kayaks are also ideal for warmer climates…

This is not only because of the ease of dismounting for a quick dip to cool off but also because you’ll likely be getting a bit wet from splashes anyway.

For even more information on the differences, please check out our Sit on Top vs Sit In Kayak article.

Finally, the size variation of kayaks…

The wide range of kayaks provides an equally wide range of performance that covers all desired uses. From the longer and more narrow kayaks for faster speeds, to shorter and wider options that offer increased stability and maneuverability. There’s even tandem kayak for those that want to share their outdoor experience rather than escape for some alone time on the water.

Canoe Designs

While kayaks have been in use for a considerable amount of time, and are generally preferred these days with the U.S., canoes can trace their origin back far further. Truth be told, the earliest known boats, which date back thousands of years, are essentially dugout canoes.

The oldest known example was found by archaeologists in Pesse, the Netherlands, in 1995. And it was dated to around 10,000 years ago. Similarly, the oldest boat found in Africa is a canoe discovered in Nigeria that dates back to 8,000 years ago. While in Kuahuqiao China, another has been dated to around the same time.

Photo by alie rose


A hollowed out tree makes for a mighty fine canoe…

This is how our ancestors fished and traveled the waterways in ancient times. Hollowing out a tree or log with stone axes to create a buoyant vessel. Later, by the time the Europeans reached the New World, the design had evolved into wooden frames and birch bark, which were sealed together with tree resin.

A canoe’s form differs from kayaks in that it is completely open on the top. They also have relatively short sides coming up out of the water. There is then generally a bench at either end, for tandem rowing with one behind the other. These canoes are also larger and heavier than kayaks for the most part, which affects the ease of transportation to and from the water.

Single blade paddles require some extra skill and effort…

Photo by RichardBH

Unlike the paddles used for kayaks, canoe paddles have a blade only on one end. With a handle usually making up the butt-end. This means that you’ll be required to lift the paddle out of the water and put it back in on the opposite side of your canoe to continue moving forward.

If there are two of you, this is less of an issue as each of you can pick a side to paddle on, and then switch to keep from tiring out one side of your body.

Canoes can hold a lot more gear than most kayaks…

This makes them perfect for longer trips that require additional gear, or simple family adventures with a cooler full of snacks (or beer) to keep you all going for the whole day. It’s also considerably easier to enter and exit a canoe than sit inside kayaks.

Canoes are more comfortable for some…

Rather than having your legs straight out in front of you as you do in a kayak. In canoes, your knees are bent from an elevated seat on a bench. This is to most a more comfortable sitting position.

What Are Canoes Used For?

Canoes are typically more about transportation, at least traditionally. However, these days they also make popular watercraft for slower moving water such as lakes and slow rivers. There are also canoes designed for whitewall rapids that have additional coverage on top, plus additional buoyancy devices to help stop them capsizing.

There are also canoes of a more narrow, streamlined design for racing. These faster performance designs are generally used in Olympic canoeing because kayaks aren’t the only watercraft paddling sport to compete in.

Canoe vs Kayak – The Choice Is Yours!

The primary difference between a kayak and canoe will be apparent the moment you have set eyes on the two watercraft. With canoes tending to be the larger of the two. This makes kayaks considerably easier to transport. Especially if you purchase one of the new inflatable options currently on the market.

For those looking to partake in water sports, kayaks are the obvious choice. Still, you’ll find a range of options, each designed for specific types of water and purpose.

But, before you make your final decision, you’ll want to consider that…

Canoes are a better option for transportation of substantial gear, as well as people and even the family pet. They also require less technical skill to paddle compared with kayaks, especially sit inside kayaks.

Kayaks, on the other hand, are certainly a better choice for those looking to head out into the coastal waters of our beautiful planet. Equally, the kayak makes a much better craft for navigating the rough, whitewater of fast flowing rivers.

Is a canoe or kayak better for fishing?

Photo by Giulia Forsythe

It is true that canoes offer a greater amount of space, which is ideal for toting around with all of your fishing gear. However, they also will be much more difficult to paddle solo. This makes them a better fit for those going out fishing with company, than for those who prefer to spend time in solitude.

You likely would find it difficult to transport a canoe to the water on your own anyway…

One advantage of the canoe is the greater availability of seating positions, and the ability to move around the boat. With canoes, you cannot only more readily change your seating. But many also offer the ability to kneel and even stand. That is, assuming you have the balance and stability required.

Some kayaks are made specifically for fishing…

Kayaks, on the other hand, come in so many variations that many are designed specifically for fishing. These options come fully kitted-out for the task at hand, regularly also offering the ability to stand in their extra wide hulls.

Fishing kayaks often come with dry storage areas or are designed to offer places for seeing live bait at hand. This is certainly an advantage, but a greater one is their ease of paddling alone. There are even some options out there equipped with pedals to keep you moving with rod and reel in hand.

Canoe vs Kayak – which is better for you, is down to personal preferences

Photo by catsoff2you

Canoes can be riffed to your specifications, which allow you to customize the fishing craft that you have dreamed of. At the same time, kayaks can be found that were designed with the angler’s needs in mind. This saves you from needing to worry about any extra work before heading out.

Which is better for you will depend on your style and intended use. And with so many options out there in kayaks, we expect that the trend towards them in place of a canoe will continue into the future.

No matter which watercraft you decide to purchase, you’re bound to have a great deal of fun from it. The final thing to remember is that you’ll need to familiarize yourself with whichever craft you choose. The more you use the kayak or canoe. The more stable and relaxed you will become in it on the water.

Happy water traveling, regardless of which mode of transport you choose!

Further Reading

The following articles may well be of interest, How to transport a Kayak without a Roof Rack, and What are Scupper Plugs. You may also enjoy our Best Fishing Kayaks under 500 reviews, our Best Sit on Top Kayak reviews, our Best Kayak Trailer reviews, and our Best Kayak Seat reviews.

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