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Canoe vs Kayak | What Are The Differences?

Fact Checked By James A Rockey | Post Updated On: May 22, 2021
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So, wondering what the difference between canoeing and kayaking is?

Do you want to know which one could be the best one for you?

The difference between canoeing and kayaking isn’t as simple as it might initially sound. It is because many situations involve the difference between them. While many people mistake canoeing for an umbrella term to define both the sports, obviously concrete differences lie between them.

First of all, kayaking gear is different from canoeing gear. The watercraft of both sports are designed differently. The canoeing paddles are different from those of kayaks as well.

The history of kayaking and canoeing is quite different. You need to apply separate techniques to canoeing and kayaking. As a result, you have to learn canoeing and kayaking differently. Most importantly, kayaking and canoeing have their own different kinds of the waterway.

What are the differences between Canoe vs Kayak?

A kayak is designed to be used primarily in freshwater or for touring. It has a narrow, pointed bow and stern, a flat bottom, and a shallow draft. The cockpit is fitted with bungee cords to hold the paddler’s feet in place. A kayak is designed for one person who paddles it by using a double-bladed paddle.

A canoe is typically wider than a kayak and has more of an oval shape to its hull with rounded ends and flared sides at the bow and stern (known as “rocker”). The hull of the canoe may have no rocker at all (known as “flat bottom”) or have quite pronounced rocker that helps it travel faster through water.

Here are the details of each feature differences and technical issues:

  • History
  • Gear and watercraft
  • Paddles
  • Techniques
  • Waterway

I wish to cover everything possible when discussing both the sports, including their distinctive history. Before we get on to the important discerning factors, let’s learn how they get started. Yes, the history it is!

kayak vs canoe - the differences.jpg

History: the Brief History of Kayaks

The history of kayaks goes back as far as 4000 years. It was during when the Native people in the Arctic regions of North America first built them. The kayaks, then, used to be crafted with either whalebone or driftwood.

Animal skins were stretched across the kayak. Caribou fat or whale was used to produce the waterproof feature.

The first people recorded to have had used kayaks were the Inuit people. Kayaks primarily then, used by the Inuit people for hunting. However, the Inuit people had crafted larger kayaks for transport purpose as well.

The Inuit people used to live closer to the icy environment. Researchers believe that the enclosed design of the kayaks originated from the Inuit people’s protection. The enclosed design of the kayaks was possibly meant to keep the paddlers and their belongings dry.

This also proved effective for keeping people warm. The Inuit people might have primarily used the kayaks on the water for food, clothing, and shelter.

Another benefit of such design is worth mentioning is that the design proved effective for maneuvering through the icy water. The kayaks generate a little disturbance while going through the icy water. This lets the kayakers make a more successful trip.

In the 1800s, kayaks gained much prominence among the Arctic explorers and sportsmen alike. Europeans were also heavily involved with kayaking then. In 1936, kayaking was featured as an official Olympic sport at the Berlin Olympic.

Kayaking History at a Glance

  • Humans started kayaking about 4000 years ago
  • The Inuit people were the first ones who used kayaks reportedly
  • The Inuit people used kayaks as a transport for hunting
  • The enclosed design was crafted to offer protection from the icy environment
  • Europeans adopted kayaking as a sport in the 1800s
  • Kayaking as an Olympic competition was first introduced at the Berlin Olympic

Kayak Design

There are basically two different types of kayaks available. The two different types are a sit inside and a sit on top kayak. Built on these two types, there are differently designed kayaks available as well. The design of a kayak is dependent on the objective the kayaks are intended to serve.

However, there is a common feature you will find in every type of kayak, which is a paddle with two blades, one on each end.

  • Sit Inside Kayaks

With this style of kayak, you will have to expend less energy when paddling compared to canoeing. To head straight, kayakers don’t paddle from side to side, since there is already a blade attached. All you have to do is just rotate your hands to paddle forward or backwards.

A sit inside kayak features the original type of two types. It has a cockpit where the paddler can sit. This design will keep the paddler’s entire body from the hip hidden within the hull of the kayak. As a result, you will have protection from water as well.

Depending on the type of water you are going to use your sit-inside kayak in, you will find plenty of different sizes and shapes.

  • Sit On Top Kayaks

Of the two types, sit on top kayaks feature a modern design of the kayak. The name of the kayak is self-explanatory. You will have to sit on top of the deck of the kayak. This is different from being enclosed within the hull.

As a result, your legs and lower part of the body will be exposed, thereby making it easier for you to jump in and out.

Most kayaks, regardless of types, are designed to be portable. Therefore, you can transport it easily onto the water if you aren’t anywhere near the waterway. The kayaks are usually lighter than and smaller in size than a canoe.

Kayak: Uses

As I discussed above, kayaks were first used for hunting and the carrying of people and goods. Modern kayaks have come a long way and separated from the earliest kayaks. In recent years, kayaking as a sport has gained much popularity along with kayak fishing.

A report published in 2015 found that kayaking had become the most popular paddling sport in the USA. Over 13 million people in the USA take Kayaking as a sport. The number eclipses canoeing by 3 million in terms of participants. Over 10 million people participate in canoeing.


Canoeing is a pleasurable experience. It is one of the most challenging, recreational boating activities you will undertake. Canoeing has been the second most popular boating activity in the USA. Canoeing doesn’t harm the environment in any way. Moreover, it has lots of physical benefits.

You don’t burn any fuel while you go alone in your canoe. There is no possibility of harmful substances being released into the environment either. The only thing you will burn is calories. And, what you will develop from regular canoeing is rock-solid muscles and core.

Canoeing: the Brief History of Canoes

So, you are wondering how the concept of canoes came into being? No one knows for sure how someone first paddled the canoe, or how the first canoe looked like. Everyone could think of a story like this: once upon a time, there was a hominoid.

The hominoid once saw a log floating. And, he thought what could happen if he tried riding it. He discovered that a stick could help him propel the log fast. Then, the hominoid picked a hollowed out a log, and lighten it by putting an animal skin over the frame.

Then, the canoe went through much development. Finally, it may have looked like the wooden dugout canoe discovered in Pesse, the Netherlands in 1955. The canoe was dated to be at least 10,000 years old.

The Duncan Canoe, discovered in Nigeria is said to have been 8,000 years old. Go search Google to find out how the first canoes looked like!

Canoe History at a Glance

  • Canoes have been in use as a transport for thousands of years
  • The earliest form of canoes discovered in the Netherlands, which was 10,000 years old
  • Native Americans built canoes using wooden frames and birch bark. They used to use tree resin to seal the craft together

Canoe vs Kayak

Canoeing looks very similar to kayaking. However, there exist subtle differences between them. The following discussion explains what makes them different.

Let’s get started!

Canoe vs Kayak: The Gear

The most obvious difference between the two is the equipment you use. The crafts used in each differ from each other. Canoes can seat two or more people depending on the design. You can either sit on benches running across the beam of the craft or kneel down.

On the other hand, kayaks are usually closed-top crafts. Kayaks have usually roamed for only one person. Kayaks seat people usually lower in the water than canoes. Kayakers sit on the floor of the craft with their legs stretched out forward, while canoe men sit on a bench with their legs bent at the knee.

The design of the paddles is another crucial differentiating factor. Kayaking paddles have two blades with each extended at either end. Canoeing paddles have one blade and are much shorter. Both sports require different paddling experience.

Canoe vs Kayak: the Gear at a Glance & The Differences

Differentiating Factor Canoe Kayak
Design Usually open-topUsually closed-top
Capacity Can seat two or more peopleUsually single-seaters
Sitting On benches running across the beamOn the floor of the craft with legs stretched out
Paddles Paddles have one blade one at either endPaddles have two blades

Canoe vs Kayak: the Techniques

Canoeing techniques differ from kayaking techniques. The technique is also a crucial factor to note. The difference between the paddles is what causes the techniques to vary.

Canoe men alternate strokes on each side of the craft with the single-handed paddles. One hand is used to grip the t-shaped handle at the end of the paddle, while the other is rested halfway down the paddle shaft.

On the other hand, kayakers have double-bladed paddles that allow them to propel themselves forward. The blades are rested at 90 degrees to each other. As a result, kayakers apply a twisting technique to ensure that the pushing effort gets the maximum power.


5 Reasons to Choose a Canoe Instead of a Kayak

  1. Easier to control rapids
  2. Use as a shoreline kayak
  3. More stable than kayaks in rough water
  4. Less likely to flip over than kayaks
  5. Better for fishing

Is it easier to kayak or canoe?

This is a hard question to answer as it depends on the kayaker’s skill level and the canoeist’s skill level. If both persons are equally skilled, then I would say kayaking is easier. It would be easier because a person can use their arms and legs to paddle while in a canoe, you have to use your hands which may get very tired after a while and it’s not as easy to maneuver.

Do kayaks flip over easily?

This is a common misconception. Kayaks are stable and will not flip over easily, in fact they are less likely to flip over than other boats that have more freeboard (the height of the side of a boat above the waterline).

The wider hulls of kayaks are more stable in the water and provide better tracking (reducing the chance for a tippy boat).

Is a canoe slower than a kayak?

A kayak is a small boat that is propelled using a double-bladed paddle and they are designed for speed. Kayaks are also easy to enter and exit.

A canoe is a boat that was traditionally used for fishing, cargo transportation and exploration. Canoes typically have one blade, which means it must be paddled in a traditional manner with the use of both hands on one side of the blade.

Canoes provide stability and can carry more weight than kayaks because they have more space. They are also cheaper than kayaks because you only need to buy one paddle whereas a kayak needs two paddles that cost about $100 each (the paddle for the left hand is called an “oar”).

Kayaks are faster than canoes due to their lighter weight and more efficient propulsion. They are better for longer distances than canoes.

Is kayaking harder than canoeing and Why?

Kayaking is more physically demanding than canoeing because of its length and the need to paddle.

Kayaks are much longer than canoes, so there is more work involved in paddling. The kayak paddler also has to be in a kneeling position for the duration of the journey.

As a result, kayakers burn more calories per mile than canoeists. In addition, kayakers often have stronger core muscles and lower-back strength because they are constantly in a kneeling position while paddling.

Where should the heavier person sit in a canoe?

The heavier person should sit in the front of the canoe because they are more likely to tip the boat over.

The heavier person should sit in the back of the canoe because they will have more control over balancing out their weight and don’t need to work as hard to keep it from tipping.

Do canoes tip easily?

Canoes do not tip easily if they are handled correctly. Make sure that you are sitting on the right side of the canoe, paddle facing forward, and that your center of gravity is in the middle of the canoe. You should also tilt slightly to one side or the other as you paddle your way forward so that your weight is shifted to one side or another.

If you are doing all these things and still feel unstable in your canoe, try sculling instead of paddling with a single blade – using both hands on an oar.

Can you get trapped under a kayak?

The answer is yes. A person can get trapped under a kayak if they are not wearing a life vest. The person can also get trapped if they are not wearing water-tight neoprene shoes, and their foot gets caught in the kayak’s foot peg or skeg.

Is kayaking hard for beginners?

Kayaking is one of the oldest and easiest boat sports that anyone can learn in a single day. It is a terrific way to get in touch with nature by being on the water.

Kayaking can be easy or hard for beginners, depending on the kind of kayak you paddle and your skill level. If you are paddling a sit-in kayak, then kayaking is not hard for beginners because the kayak will do most of the work and you will only need to paddle.

If you are paddling a stand up kayak, then it might be more difficult for beginners because they will have to balance themselves and paddle while looking ahead at where they want to go.

Final Thought

Understanding the difference between kayak and canoe is important to determine which will be most suitable for you. With subtle differences between both the sports, you will find which one is easier than the other.

On this page, you will find comprehensive information on canoe and kayak. Choose wisely and hit the water with your preferred craft.

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