Canoe vs Kayak: What’s the Difference PLUS Pros & Cons of Each

Canoe vs Kayak Feature Image

Choosing between a canoe and kayak for paddling can be a tough choice. There are some major differences to consider and both have their pros and cons (as we explain here).

To help you decide if a canoe or kayak is better for you, we’ve detailed all the things you need to consider.

We look at the differences, the pros and cons, and the different types of each one. By the end of it, you should be in a much better position to make your decision about which one is right for you.

What is a Canoe & What is a Kayak?

To keep things as simple as possible, the easiest way to know whether you are looking at a canoe or a kayak is to look at the deck portion of the vessel.

A canoe has an open deck and you either kneel or sit on the seats which are level with, or, just below, the gunwale (the upper edge of the side of the craft). A canoe’s gunwale sits a good distance above the water while you paddle. The open deck of a canoe can make them feel safer and maybe better suited to beginners as you won’t be enclosed in your boat as you would be in a kayak.

A kayak is a paddle craft with an enclosed cockpit. The seat of a kayak is positioned adjacent to the interior bottom of the hull (bilge). A kayak’s gunwale is usually very close to the waterline when in use. Being enclosed, there are additional safety elements to kayaking that need to be considered such as knowing how to get out of your boat if it rolls over in the water (or how to roll it back into an upright position).

In addition to the cockpit differences, the seating is different in both paddle crafts too. A canoe usually has bench seats that are attached to the side of the boat. Kayaks tend to have a molded composite or plastic seat that the user sits on. The kayaker then extends their legs out inside the kayak with their knees up against the underside of the front deck.

Kayaks are traditionally paddled using the double-bladed paddles, whereas a canoe is paddled using a single bladed paddle.

Canoes: Full Details

Canoes in action

Parts of a canoe

What is Rocker on a Canoe?

Rocker is the amount of upward curve your canoe has on its bottom, bow, and stern (front and back).

If your canoe has less rocker, i.e. its shape is almost a straight line, then it will likely track very well but it could be more challenging to turn. If your canoe has more rocker, i.e. a much more curved appearance, then it will likely be easier to turn but might not track as well. Speed could also be reduced with more rocker due to greater water resistance.

A canoe with less rocker would be well-suited to a lake whereas a canoe with more rocker would be better suited to a river where more turning will be needed.

Typical Canoe Paddle Shape

Types of Canoes

To make things even more confusing, there are actually different types of canoes and kayaks too. Some types of canoes include:

Recreational Canoes

Commonly between 13-feet and 17-feet long, recreational canoes are built for stability and ease of paddling. They are usually fairly easy to control and make for a good choice if you are heading out onto a lake, pond, or even a slow-moving river on your own, or with your family. Some canoes are even stable enough to fly fish from!

Flat Back Canoes

As their name suggests, flat back canoes have a flat back where a small motor can be attached. While you can use this type of canoe without a motor, a good trolling motor can be a good idea if you plan on covering a large distance in your canoe. You could take regular breaks while the motor keeps you moving towards your destination. Once you are ready to paddle again, you can turn off the motor and return to your paddling power.

Whitewater Canoes

Whitewater canoes are usually much shorter than recreational canoes and they tend to have more rocker too. This is to allow you to maneuver them easier through whitewater. They can be challenging to keep in a straight line though.

They are less stable as the user normally has to lean them to help guide them through rougher water. Whitewater canoes also tend to have floatation bags to help prevent the cockpit from filling with water and sinking your boat.

Racing Canoes

Racing canoes are much narrower than other canoes to help keep water resistance low in order to generate more speed. Another big difference that racing canoes have is that there aren’t always seats to sit on. Instead, you would kneel in the bilge and paddle in that position.

Kayaks: Full Details

Parts of a kayak

Typical Kayak Paddles (Shape)

When paddling a kayak, you sit in the middle of the boat with the double-bladed paddle in hand.

Types of Kayaks

Along with the different types of canoes, there are also several different types of kayaks too. Some of these include

Sit Inside Kayaks

The name pretty much sums up sit inside kayaks. These are probably the traditional kayak that most people would recognize. They have an enclosed cockpit with a seat adjacent to the bilge.

Sit On Top Kayaks

Sit on top kayaks have an open cockpit like a canoe. They still have the low gunwale so they do still look different from a canoe but they are probably the most canoe-like of all the types of kayaks out there. We love using Hobie sit on kayaks for fishing. This type of kayak has a pedal drive as well as paddles to allow you to keep your hands free when required for fishing.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks (see our favorites here) are very similar to sit on top kayaks but they are inflatable rather than solid crafts.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are normally quite short and wide. This gives them good levels of stability and maneuverability. Sit on top kayaks and inflatable kayaks are both considered to be recreational kayaks.

Whitewater Kayaks

Most whitewater kayaks use a sit-inside design. They tend to be quite short with good amounts of rocker to make them as maneuverable as possible. As they are used in rougher waters, being able to turn and move your kayak around is important and these fit the bill nicely.

Surf Kayaks

Surf kayaks are fairly similar to whitewater kayaks but their hulls are slightly different in order to make them efficient at surfing waves. These are obviously very well suited to kayaking trips in the sea.

Day Touring Kayaks

These are usually either sit inside kayaks or sit on top kayaks. They are normally longer than other kayaks allowing you to keep them moving in a straight line (tracking) easier as well as making them a faster-moving kayak too.

Day touring kayaks are a good choice for slightly longer kayaking trips where you will spend a big part of your day on the water.

Expedition Kayaks

Expedition kayaks are designed for long distances and long times spent in your boat. They are commonly longer and wider than other kayaks and provide more internal storage space for more gear such as camping gear, food, and water.

They are sit-inside kayaks and would make a good choice if you are going on a big kayaking expedition and need to carry a lot of your gear with you on your travels.

Racing Kayaks

Whether you have a sit inside racing kayak or a sit on top surf ski, they will both be longer and narrower than expedition kayaks and day touring kayaks, as well as having much more rocker. Racing kayaks are not very stable but move much faster than other kayaks. They commonly need a rudder in order to keep them moving in a straight line.

Canoeing vs Kayaking

As well as the differences in design, look, and positioning of canoe vs kayak, the way you use your paddle craft is quite different too.

Canoeing – Paddling and Turning

When paddling a canoe, you sit at the rear of the boat and put your paddle into the water on one side. You make one or two strokes in the water before moving your paddle to the other side of the canoe and paddling for the same number of strokes as you did on the first side. The weight of your strokes should be equal on both sides to keep you moving in a straight line.

If you want to turn right in your canoe, you would need to paddle on the left-hand side of your boat only. Turning left would mean only paddling on the right-hand side. If your canoe is already moving, you can actually use your paddle as a rudder by simply putting it into the water and angling it to make the canoe turn in your chosen direction. Back-paddling on the opposite side will make your canoe turn sharper.

Kayaking – Paddling and Turning

When paddling a kayak, you sit in the middle of the boat with the double-bladed paddle in hand. You put one end of the paddle into the water for one stroke before putting the other blade into the water on the other side for one stroke. As long as the weight of your strokes is equal, your kayak will move in a straight line.

To turn left, you would just paddle using the blade on the right-hand side. To turn right, you would only use the blade on the left-hand side. You could also use your paddle blades as a rudder to turn if your kayak is already moving through the water.

Canoe vs kayak pros and cons:

Advantages of a Canoe

There are some advantages that canoes have over kayaks, these include:

  • They are usually wider than kayaks making them more stable
  • Canoes tend to be easier to get in and out of
  • You can carry more gear in a canoe as they usually have a greater load capacity compared to kayaks
  • A higher seat position in a canoe gives you a better view of your surroundings. This can be useful for safety as you can see what’s ahead, but it’s also beneficial for making the most out of your time in nature
  • Moving from water to land is more efficient in a canoe as it is much easier to load and unload your gear

Disadvantages of a Canoe

Canoes do have some disadvantages when compared to kayaks too. These include:

  • As the cockpit of a canoe is open, you are more exposed to sun, wind, rain, and any other of the elements you might face in the wild
  • Canoes take more effort to paddle as their hulls are not as efficiently designed as kayaks
  • They are less maneuverable than kayaks
  • Canoes are usually heavier than kayaks so they can be more challenging to transport and store

Advantages of a Kayak

When comparing canoe vs kayak, kayaks have some advantages over canoes. These include:

  • As the hull of a kayak has a more efficient design, kayaks require less effort to paddle than canoes
  • They are more manoeuvrable and turn much easier than a canoe
  • Kayaks are usually lighter than canoes so can be quite a bit easier to store and transport
  • If you have a sit-inside kayak, the cockpit will be enclosed which can offer some protection from the elements
  • Sit-inside kayaks have a storage area where you can keep your gear dry
  • Another benefit of sit-inside kayaks is that they can be rolled back into an upright position if they capsize. You can simply roll it back over while still inside it and continue on your travels

Disadvantages of a Kayak

For all the advantages kayaks have over canoes, there are also some disadvantages to consider. These include:

  • Kayaks are much less stable than canoes so are more likely to roll over (capsize)
  • They are more challenging to get in and out of
  • You won’t be able to carry as much gear with you in a kayak as they have a lower load capacity than canoes

Canoes vs Kayaks: Which to Choose?

Once you fully understand the differences, pros, and cons of canoe vs kayak, you can then start to think about which one might be the right paddle craft for you. To help you in this decision, there are some questions to keep in mind to help you work out whether a canoe or a kayak would be better for you.

Which is easier to fish from?

Depending on where you will be fishing, a canoe or a kayak could be suitable. A canoe can provide more stability than a kayak so this can be helpful when trying to land big fish. A fishing canoe will also give you the option of fishing with others in the same boat too. You can also carry more fishing gear in a canoe. Canoe fishing is best suited for calm lakes or slow-moving water.

Fishing kayaks are an option in faster moving or rougher waters or even out at sea. While they may be more unstable than a canoe, fishing in a kayak allows you to move quicker and help keep the impact you have on the environment to a minimum.

Both paddle crafts can be used very well for a fishing trip. It will probably come down to the type of water you will be fishing on that will sway your decision one way or the other.

How important is speed to you?

If you want to move at a faster pace with less effort being required to get things moving, then a kayak will probably be a better choice for you.

How important is stability to you?

The chances of capsizing are much greater in a kayak. If you prefer your boat to be more stable on the water, then a canoe is likely a good option. As they tend to be wider than kayaks, they have higher levels of stability.

How important is manoeuvrability to you?

Kayaks have better levels of manoeuvrability compared to canoes. The smaller size and the shape of kayaks make them easier to move around in the water. Kayak paddles are also better suited for changing direction quickly. A canoe’s single-bladed paddle requires a bit more effort to turn your craft.

How important is load capacity to you?

Depending on what you plan on doing while out in the wild, you might need some room for some extra gear. Camping gear, fishing gear, supplies, or even an adventure buddy – all of these take up space.

Canoes offer higher load capacities so can handle more gear than a kayak can. If you need quite a bit of stuff with you on your adventures, a kayak might simply be too small for you.

What type of water will you be paddling on most often?

If there is any chance that the water you will be paddling on might get rough or choppy, a kayak will be your best option. However, if you know the water will be calm throughout your trip, a canoe will be a better choice.

Will you be frequently entering and exiting your paddle craft?

As canoes are more stable, they will be better suited to you if you plan on getting in and out of your boat frequently. If you are just using the calm waters to move from one place to another, spending a bit of time there before moving on again, a canoe will be a great choice.

However, if you will be spending most of your time in the water, then a kayak could be more beneficial. They are less stable so getting in and out is more of a challenge, but if you are only doing that at the start and the end of the day, a kayak could be a great paddle craft for you.

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Rob Harvey is an experienced outdoor writer with a passion for using and writing about all the gear that makes camping, hiking and fishing fun. He's been a freelancer writer for more than five years and loves sharing his experiences with readers.
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