Kayak vs. Canoe: The Major Differences

There are few experiences in nature that are equal to paddling down a calm river or across a still lake. The water is at your fingertips, the wispy clouds seem just in reach, and the sights and sounds of wildlife are intimately close. Paddling in a small craft is appealing to the competitive thrill seeker as well as the nature lover. After all, there are many level five river rapids in the world to be braved and conquered. Probably the biggest question to be answered is simply whether a canoe or a kayak is best suited to your water adventure.

The Basics
A canoe is a narrow boat, open on top, that typically holds two paddlers. Paddlers kneel or sit at the front and back ends of the boat and are each equipped with a single bladed paddle. Canoes have existed in some form for thousands of years with the oldest known canoe coming from the Netherlands. Originally made from bark and wood, modern canoes are made of molded plastic or fiberglass.

A kayak is a narrow boat, with a covered deck and one or two cockpits. Paddlers, who each use a double bladed paddle, are seated with their legs straight in front of them under the covered deck. Originating among native people who inhabited subarctic areas, such as the Aleut, Inuit, and Yupik, the first kayaks were constructed of bone and animal skins. Today, kayaks are made of various materials, including fiberglass, molded plastic, or wood.

While both types of boats are used for sport and recreational purposes, canoes and kayaks have several important distinctions.

  • Canoes require skill in steering as they are paddled with one or two single bladed paddles
  • Kayaks are fairly easy to steer due to the use of double bladed paddles
  • Canoes are slower as they sit higher out of the water than kayaks
  • Kayaks are speedy as they sit low in the water
  • Canoes are good for long trips and navigating portages as they can hold a significant amount of gear and are relatively easy to carry
  • Kayaks are not as well suited to long trips as they are small and more unwieldy to carry over portages
  • Canoes are more stable than kayaks, but when tipped require considerable effort to be righted
  • Kayaks are easily flipped but most designs can usually be righted without the paddler leaving the boat

Ultimately the choice between canoe and kayak is a matter of personal preference. Both provide a great experience on the water.