Kayak vs. Canoe – How To Pick The Right One For Your Great Adventure

Need help making a kayak vs. canoe decision? We put together all the information you need about the two types of lightweight boats – their unique characteristics, differences and similarities, and the best uses for each of them. If you don’t know which one suits you best, look no further – you’ll find all the details you need to know right here!

Although kayaks and canoes look pretty similar at first sight, and kayaks are actually considered to be a type of canoe, there are some important differences between the two types of lightweight boats. Both kayaks and canoes are powered by humans using paddles, can be used on rivers and lakes for various activities and are suitable for different recreational activities.

Canoes, however, can carry more load (people and supplies) which makes them ideal for family activities and for paddling in calm waters. Kayaks, on the other hand, carry less load and are faster, suitable for use in water sports.

Canoes vs. kayaks – How to tell them apart

  • The position of the paddlers – in a canoe, paddlers sit on a seat or kneel, while in kayak they are seated at the bottom of the boat with their legs stretched out in front of them.
  • Paddles – usually, for canoes, single-bladed paddles are used, while for kayaks paddles are double-bladed.
  • The deck – canoes have, most of the times, an open deck, while kayaks are closed-decked. This means that the paddler is enclosed by the deck of the kayak.

Main parts of the canoes and kayaks

First things first: before deciding on whether to get a canoe or a kayak, you should learn how the parts are named.

Understanding how kayaks and canoes are built will also help you understand why slight differences in design can actually make a huge change in how the canoe and the kayak work.

The parts of the canoe

  • The bow and the stern – The bow is the front of the canoe, while the stern is the back of the canoe. The bow seat of the canoe has more space between the front of the canoe and the seat, while the stern seat is closer to the back of the canoe;
  • The hull and the deck – The hull is the bottom of the canoe, the area that makes contact with the water. The deck plate is mounted toward the top of the canoe (the tip of the canoe, so to speak);
  • The gunwale – runs from the stern to the bow, protecting the entire length of the canoe. The gunwale can be made of wood, vinyl or even aluminum. The gunwale also provides mounting space on the inside of the canoe for things like the seats.
  • The seats – usually two seats, located near the both ends of the canoe, can be made of wood, plastic or vinyl;
  • The thwarts – are structural crosspieces that provide added support for the canoe, helping it keep its shape, and also providing support for the seats;
  • The rocker – is an element of the canoe’s design, the curve of the keel line from bow to stern;

The parts of the kayak

  • The hull – is the body of the kayak;
  • The stern – is the rear of the kayak;
  • The deck – is the top of the kayak;
  • The starboard – is the right side of the kayak, while the port is its left side;
  • The cockpit – is the opening where the paddler sits;
  • The hatch – is the compartment for storing gear;
  • The keel (or the centerline) – is part of the hull and runs from bow to stern;
  • The toggle or the grab handle – is a rope loop and handle that lets you hold onto the end of the kayak;

Types of canoes

Canoes can be built for different purposes. Depending on your plans, you can go with for an expedition canoe, that can hold a lot of supplies, or you can get a performance canoe, designed for extreme sports and destined to be used exclusively in rapid waters.

Here are all the types of canoes available, their most important characteristics and their best uses.

  • Expedition Canoes – these massive canoes are designed for longer expeditions and can carry not only two or three paddlers, but also plenty of supplies and equipment. The increased bow depth and the moderate rocker makes this type of canoes very steady and a dry ride even in deeper waters. Usually around 18 to 20 feet in length, expedition canoes can haul more weight than any other type of canoe;
  • Wilderness Canoes – these canoes also have increased carrying capacity to facilitate weeks long trips in the wilderness. They usually range between 15 and 18 feet and are designed to be stable, easy to handle and efficient to paddle;
  • River Tripping Canoes are designed for rapid waters and vary from 15 to 17 feet in length. Usually, these canoes are designed without keels, with rounded or flat bottoms, flared sides and increased depth. Also, they feature a generous rocker on each end, which offers them maximum maneuverability in all situations;
  • Recreational Canoes – usually, they are shorter (13 to 16 feet), but greater in width than a regular canoe, which makes them steady, reliable and easy to control. They are perfect for inexperienced paddlers and very popular for fishing trips;
  • Whitewater Canoes – are designed for use in rapid waters (waters with a white and foamy surface, hence the name) and usually feature an extreme rocker and flotation in the bow and stern to prevent the canoe from filling with water;
  • Racing Canoes – are designed for performance, narrower and longer (18 to 20 feet), with rigid hull materials and as light as possible.
  • Specialty use canoes – are designed for certain special situations, such as transporting more people than a regular canoe, the need to use it with a motor or with extended decks for paddling in the ocean;

If you are shopping for a canoe, the first thing you need to consider is how you intend to use it. It’s very important to pick the right canoe for the job. A whitewater canoe will do a very poor job if you are planning a weeks-long expedition in the wilderness. Good with your hands? Check out our easy instructions on DIY canoe making for more options.

Also, paddling on white waters with an expedition canoe is beyond unsafe. So, take your time to decide which type of canoe truly suits your  needs and preferences.

Types of kayaks

Kayaks are generally considered the “sports cars” of the canoe family. Descending from the hunting boats of the Inuits, kayaks come different shapes and sizes.

Here are the main types of kayaks:

  • General Purpose Kayaks – are ideal first boats for beginners and, although they won’t beat any of the specialty kayaks in their departments, will offer you an overall good experience, as they are pretty stable and reliable, and will allow you to try a little bit of everything before deciding whether you are attracted to the more extreme forms of kayaking;
  • Sit-On-Top Kayaks as their name also suggests, these kayaks allow you to sit on them, as opposed to getting your body inside the cockpit. They are made of plastic, with air inside for floatability. They are great for learning to use a kayak, because they are easy to handle.
  • Sea Kayaks can cover long distances and are designed to carry gear and supplies. This type of kayaks is made of either plastic or composite materials and might have extra compartments for storing stuff;
  • Touring kayaks – are design for cruising for longer periods of times in different types of waters, from coastal areas to lakes and rivers. These kayaks are of moderate length and very stable, provide maximum maneuverability and versatility. Many of them come with storage hatches.
  • Whitewater kayaks can vary a lot when it comes to style, shape and size, from very short ones to longer kayaks designed for river running. As they are designed for speed and for use in extreme conditions, they usually come with some extra safety features, like, for example, loops to grab in case you risk falling into the water.

Things to consider when shopping for a canoe or a kayak

As we already discussed above, the most important thing, when shopping for a boat, whether it’s a canoe or a kayak, is how exactly you are planning to use it. The design and the characteristics of the canoe or the kayak can vary a lot, depending on its purpose.

However, this is not the only think you should keep in mind. There are many other factors you should consider before purchasing your new boat. Here are the most important things that should influence your decision:

  • Your degree of experience – it’s not a good idea to get a canoe or a kayak designed for use in extreme conditions, such as whitewaters, if you never paddled before. In fact, it’s downright dangerous to do so. Paddling on rapid rivers is something that requires a lot of skills, so don’t rush into it. If you are a beginner, a steady, easy-to-maneuver general purpose boat is the best option for you. In time, as you develop more skills and you accumulate some paddling experience, you can switch your recreational boat for a whitewater canoe or kayak.
  • Solo or tandem paddling – are you into this by yourself, or you want to share the fun with someone else? Think long and hard before deciding, because once you buy the canoe or the kayak, there’s no much else you can do. It’s very difficult for one person to maneuver a boat designed for two people, while a solo one can’t fit two paddlers.
  • Weight and height – the weight and the height of the people who will be using the boat is very important. Make sure you talk to the vendors before deciding on the size of the boat. A lightweight boat carrying too much weight will not provide an enjoyable experience and will have floatability issues. Also, a boat that’s too big and too heavy for you will be difficult to maneuver.

What’s going to be? The kayak or the canoe?

Still having trouble deciding between a canoe and a kayak? Well, here are some more information that might help you decide. The design differences between the two types of boats and their strengths and weaknesses make them suitable for different types of activities.

Canoes are more suitable for calmer, flatter waters, and are also easier to navigate. That makes them ideal choices if you are planning to explore inland waterways. Canoes are also better for longer expeditions, as they can carry more load and large ones can accommodate up to four peddlers. In a canoe, you can access you gear easily and you don’t need to go ultralight.

See also: Best Canoe Paddle: Paddle your way to Victory

If you are into fishing, or if you are planning to bring children with you, a canoe is also the way to go. It’s basically impossible (well, not impossible, but extremely uncomfortable for sure) to fish sitting on the bottom of a kayak. Also, it’s easier to teach your children how to paddle in a canoe and they will certainly enjoy that experience more than being entrapped in a kayak.

Kayaks, on the other hand, perform better than canoes on rough waters and are usually faster that canoes, partly due to the double-sided paddle and partly due to their sleeker, more ergonomic design. Also, kayaks are lightweight and easier to transport on the ground.

If you are planing a complex expedition, where you will be carrying your kayak from a lake to a river, for example, a kayak is much lighter and easier to carry. On the other hand, kayaks have much less space for storing gear and supplies. Also, unless the kayak is designed for two people, you can’t carry a passenger in it.

Precautions to take while canoeing or kayaking

  • Put on a life jacket or wear a buoyancy aid even if you are paddling in calm waters. Falling in the water is always a possibility, and you need to be prepared. If you are paddling in the proximity of rocks, a helmet is also a must.
  • Exposure to elements is another risk. You could be facing a variety a situations, from very low to very high temperatures, strong winds, rain, intense sunlight and so on. Obviously, a lot of times you won’t be able to find shelter when the weather deteriorates, so make sure you have the right clothes and equipment on you. Also, check the weather forecast before each trip, because canoes and kayaks are lightweight boats, not suitable for navigation during storms and bad weather.
  • Whitewater kayaking always poses a risk, so make sure you have the skills and experience necessary for this extreme sport. If you are a beginner, don’t attempt to go on your own.
  • Getting lost, especially if you are kayaking on open waters: a sea, the ocean. Be sure to read on our article on how to choose the best satellite phones for your own use.

Make sure you have navigation tools to keep you on track and equipment that allows you to make emergency contacts (a satellite phone, for example). Don’t forget to read our review of the top handheld GPS you can use for fishing.

To conclude: both canoes and kayaks are ideal for recreational activities, are reasonably easy to maneuver and you can learn to use them pretty fast. However, canoes are more suitable for longer expeditions, calmer waters and can carry more people and supplies.

Kayaks, on the other hand, are lighter, faster and more suitable for extreme sports, such as whitewater paddling.

Which one do you think is a better option for you? Let us know about your preferences!


6 thoughts on “Kayak vs. Canoe – How To Pick The Right One For Your Great Adventure”

  1. Very detailed article. Thanks for touching on some of the safety concerns of both options, as that was something I was particularly interested in. Personally, I prefer canoeing, but I know a healthy hand full of people who would benefit from reading this article. It clears up a lot of questions that people have.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and sending your great comments Greg. Whatever your preference, picking a sturdy, reliable canoe or kayak is very important. I can’t stress enough on the safety factor of each equipment/gear I’m reviewing, but yeah, pick only from trusted brands that have a proven track record for years. There may be differences in user preference but one thing should remain constant and that is staying safe while indulging in an activity you love.

  3. I honestly can’t pick which one I enjoy more or that I like more. I enjoy the canoe and it’s really fun, especially when you have more than one person. I also enjoy the kayak, which can also have more than one person. I couldn’t pick! I like them both. This article makes me want to get out on the water right now!

  4. There’s nothing like being on the water, away from everything. I enjoy kayaking so much. I like to just get in the water and just lightly paddle. I’m not a big rapids person but a calm lake in the early morning and afternoon…there’s just no beating it. I think this article does a great job in comparing and contrasting both options.

  5. I know what you mean. 🙂 You can enjoy both anyways. There are times when you have to take that canoe ride with someone special or with a fun group of friends. Those are easily the best times for me. Yet, I also enjoy the solitude of being on my own just fishing and doing my thing.
    In any condition, just make sure you’re safe by always keeping track of safety guidelines. Enjoy the outdoors!

  6. Ditto! I also love to fish alone or just do some photography on my kayak. Those are moments where I can just distance myself from the world of technological noise and just connect with nature. However, when my buddies and I want to bond together, we take our kayaks and go fishing or whitewater paddling. 🙂


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