Whether you’re a waterway veteran or a beginner, the age-old question of what to choose, canoe vs kayak plagues many.
Below, we’re going to dive into the primary factors behind selecting a canoe and a kayak. We’ll explore the major benefits and drawbacks behind both, allowing you to make the most informed decision possible.
Canoe vs. Kayak: What’s Best?
What Are Kayaks Used For?
It’s believed that the Inuits, an Arctic people, were the first to invent kayaks. Constructed from wooden frames and covered in insulated sealskin, kayaks were originally made for hunting and fishing.
The kayak’s purpose is right in the name – the term means “hunter’s boat”. These watercraft are designed to be lightweight and sleek. Gliding through narrow passages, kayaks allowed early hunters to maneuver unnoticed through dense nature and capture prey.
Nowadays, all varieties of sportsmen, anglers, and adventurous spirits enjoy kayaking. Kayaks are perfect for narrow water entrances, death-defying whitewater rapids, and ocean-faring.
Technically difficult passages, such as coastal British Columbia, the Mulberry River, or the Colorado River, are great locations to take a kayak. If you’re looking to cover a lot of ground in minimal time, a lightweight kayak would be suitable for you.
What Are Canoes Used For?
In contrast with kayaks, canoes are broad, deep-hulled watercrafts designed for recreation and touring. Canoes were developed simultaneously by all cultures in the world exposed to water passages.
Though they were originally meant for small trade, canoeing has become one of the favorite pastimes for all varieties of water-faring. With a hollowed-out hull and extra seating room, canoes can carry a lot of gear and be boarded by many riders.
Owing to their stable and somewhat broader design, canoes are very stable on still water and make for a comfortable day out on the lake. Canoes perform excellently on calm rivers and lakes, like Lake Tahoe, the Tuolumne River, and the Quetico Provincial Park.
Fishermen, tourists, and families value canoes since they provide storage space for all-day trips and roomy seating.
Of course, canoes can be used on whitewater rapids and in hard-to-maneuver waterways. However, you’ll have to pay careful attention to the canoe’s width, weight, and materials before attempting dangerous routes.
Anatomy of a Kayak
Kayaks vary significantly in design, especially when they’re crafted for specialized use in mind. However, there are a few key components that are universal across kayaks.
All kayaks (and watercrafts in general) are referred to with these key terms: bow, stern, port, and starboard. The bow refers to the point where you’re headed, while the stern refers to the rear of the boat. The port is boat-speak for the left side and starboard refers to the right side.
Moreover, all kayaks feature a deck and a hull, which vary in length and depth. Running lengthwise under the seat, an underside keel runs from the bow to the stern. Directly ahead of the seat, a hatch is an internal port that can accommodate all your gear.
Scupper holes, placed behind the seat, help to drain water that sloshes into your boat. Optionally, a rudder or skeg is a type of adjustable drop-down fun placed at the stern that keeps your kayak on track.
No modern kayak would be complete without a deck line – a stretchy bungee cord for securing above-the-board gear – and convenient carry handles for transport.
That said, kayaks are divided into two major types: sit-in and sit-on-top. Sit-in kayaks have an internal seat with thigh braces and adjustable foot braces. The ring around the seat is dubbed a coaming.
By contrast, sit-on-top kayaks feature a top-level seat with external footwells and thigh braces.
Anatomy of a Canoe
Canoes are similar to kayaks, yet vary in significant ways, featuring a deeper-set hull and a longer keel.
Most starkly, canoes include a yoke, which is a central cross beam that connects the starboard and port sides. A curved indent in the center fits over the shoulder of the canoeist, which rests on the shoulder when the craft is carried.
The beam, or the width of the canoe at its widest point, is significantly wider than a kayak. A thwart cross-bar connects the starboard and port, providing greater rigidity when the boat rests on land.
The gunnel is the outer rim that runs along the top edge of the canoe, which sits high above the waterline at the canoe’s maximum weight capacity. Canoes often feature wooden seating, grab loops, and internal handles for securing gear.
What Are the Advantages of Kayaking?
Perhaps the kayak’s biggest advantage is that it’s excellent for solo-paddling. Since kayaks are comparatively more lightweight and slim, it’s significantly easier to cover distance all by yourself.
Ever visited the Oregon coast? Imagine what it’d be like to struggle against the cold current and lopping waves in a heavy wooden watercraft by yourself. The thought makes me shudder! If you love the waves, chances are you’d fare well in a sea-faring kayak. Serious kayaks are designed to handle unpredictable conditions and frothy waves with grace. Unlike canoes, kayaks have a long bow-to-stern line and lower height, which makes them perfectly adequate to brace against powerful currents.
Easier to Maneuver
With a narrow build and slightly curved bow-to-stern line, kayaks are significantly easier to maneuver than other watercrafts. Since the kayak is curved, less of the hull sites under the waterline.
Why is that important? Simply put, you can glide over shallow lake beds, river beds, and dense algae pockets. Boats with deeper hulls have a much smaller range of applications since they can’t venture too far into inlets or near coasts.
Kayaks aren’t just versatile – they come in a huge array of different types. Depending on your preferences, the right kayak for you could brave the sea, whitewater rapids, or shallow rivers.
The five major types of kayaks include sit-in, sit-on-top, recreational, touring, inflatable, and pedaling. They vary in terms of speed, durability, maneuverability, weight, and application.
Sit-in kayaks, which are valued for their stability, have an internal seat that covers your legs and extends to your mid-back. By contrast, sit-on-top kayaks have no closed cockpit and are generally easier to board.
Touring kayaks are longer than 12 feet and have a slim internal cockpit. Narrow and long, touring kayaks are very speedy and maneuver well around difficult turns.
Generally around 10 feet in length, recreational kayaks feature a closed cockpit with a roomy opening that’s large enough to fit gear or kids. Since they’re shorter, they are cheaper than touring kayaks and easier to transport, yet may not track as well.
Paddling and inflatable kayaks are often considered “toy boats”, ideal for those with shoulder and back problems.
Kayaks can even be classified more specifically. Some are marketed as whitewater kayaks, while others are ocean-faring, sea-faring, tandem, or canoe-kayak hybrids. The list goes on and on.
Compared to canoes, kayaks are also very lightweight. Kayaks usually weigh between 35 to 65 pounds, for single versus tandem riding. Since these watercrafts are lightweight, they are easier to maneuver and transport by yourself.
Easier Capsizing Correction
When a kayak capsizes, you’re not out of luck. Most kayaks, especially sea-faring ones, can be buoyed upwards through a technique known as the Eskimo Roll.
Kayakers simply bring the paddle parallel to the kayak and roll their wrist upwards. Using their hips, the kayaker pivots their body to bring the kayak back to the surface of the water. The simple momentum of wiggling helps turn the craft upright again.
Once again, this is one of the primary reasons that kayaks are preferred for more technically difficult water passages and coastal conditions.
Less Effort to Paddle
Sportsmen that like to adventure alone usually prefer kayaks since they are easier to paddle. A single stroke will cover more distance than a comparable stroke in a canoe.
With less effort on the part of the paddler, it’s easier to explore in a kayak. This is due, in large part, to the lightweight and slimmer build of the kayak.
Paddle for paddle, the rule of thumb is that a kayak goes twice as fast as a canoe with all other factors being equal. Compared to a single-sided canoe oar, a kayak paddle has two blades that dip into the water at a higher rate.
What are the Disadvantages of Kayaking?
Kayaks aren’t all fun and games; there are a few considerable downsides you’ll need to consider before investing in one.
Compared to the standard canoe, kayaks are considered much less stable. Since kayaks have a narrower width, it’s easier to accidentally capsize them if you’re attempting a difficult route without the experience to back it up.
Additionally, the kayak’s bow-to-stern line is curved, meaning that less of the hull is submerged underwater. It only takes one poorly timed wave and tilt of the body to send you dunking into the water.
That said, both modern kayaks and canoes are fairly stable and difficult to capsize. Kayaks with rudders and a sit-in design are more difficult to capsize than other types. You’ll need to make sure your gear and clothing can withstand a brief water-welcome before ever boarding one.
Make sure to invest in waterproof storage or verify that any internal storage is free from intrusion.
Harder to Board
Owing to their design, kayaks are more difficult to board than canoes. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as stepping into a wide hull and getting seated.
If you’re boarding from the dock, the easiest way is to ask a friend to hold the watercraft steady while you enter and exit. Alternatively, you’ll need to start the kayak parallel to the dock, place your fit in the cockpit, and pivot your body carefully to the bow while slowly lowering yourself in.
It takes a bit of practice to comfortably enter a kayak, which is why many prefer beach or ramp boardings. With the front half in water and the back half on land, simply climb in and then scootch forward into the water.
Still, those that suffer from mobility issues may struggle to master the art of boarding. Consider your capabilities before selecting a kayak since designs differ in terms of boarding difficulty.
Generally, sit-on-top kayaks are easier to board since there’s no internal cockpit to lower down into. Instead, you just hop on, which makes mounting from a dock or beach much swifter.
The key? Practice, practice, practice.
Low Maximum Capacity
Every kayak has a strict weight limit that they’re designed to accommodate. For example, a touring kayak has a standard limit of 350 pounds, while sit-on-top and tandem kayaks can exceed 400 pounds. A standard recreational kayak may have a limit as low as 200 pounds.
What happens when you exceed the weight limit? In addition to being too hard to maneuver, the kayak hull may sit too low under the water and hit debris. Or you could find that water continually laps into the boat on a calm river. Worst case scenario, the entire boat gets submerged until the weight is relieved.
If you need to tote a lot of gear or extra occupants, a low capacity kayak may be too cumbersome.
Harder to Portage
Portage refers to how a kayak is transported across the land. If you’re mapping out new territory, portage can be unavoidable. Your path may be blocked and moving across land could be your only option.
Though kayaks are comparatively lightweight, they are long and cumbersome – they’re not meant to be taken out of the water, after all.
If you plan to portage for more than a few minutes, you’ll want a kayak that’s less than 50 lbs with a shorter bow-to-stern line. However, these shorter and lighter kayaks generally have worse quality tracking and poorer maneuverability in the water.
With a kayak, you’ll need to plan out your route in advance to make sure it’s suitable for as little portage as possible.
Fixed Seating Position
Most kayaks have a fixed seating position, meaning that the seat can’t be moved too far forward or backward to accommodate different riders. That means you’ll need to buy a kayak for different stages in life ranging from kid to adult.
However, seat backrests, thigh pads, and foot braces are usually adjustable in modern kayaks. Though it’s not a complete fix, you’re not totally out of luck.
What are the Advantages of Canoes?
Better for Two People
If you enjoy spending time with loved ones out on the water, a canoe might work better for you. Generally, canoes are better for more than one person since they feature multiple seats, a roomy hull, and a high maximum capacity.
With two people in a canoe, paddling is both easier and more efficient. To boot, the riders’ weight is distributed evenly from the bow to the stern of the canoe, making it much stabler overall.
Canoes come in a variety of sizes that can fit anywhere from one to four or more people. The number of people you can stuff in greatly depends on the watercraft’s width, length, and weight allowance.
Higher Maximum Capacity
Not only can canoes fit more people, but they also feature a higher maximum weight capacity than most kayaks. The average canoe can hold up to 940 pounds, meaning you’ll never have to pare down on gear or kick your friend off the water trip.
For reference, a 14-foot canoe holds over 700 pounds, while a longer 17-foot canoe can accommodate up to 1,160 pounds. The heaviest gear and riders can be placed at the back of the canoe where steering takes place, making the canoe easier to maneuver.
Easier to Portage on Foot
Contrary to popular misconception, the easiest way to carry a canoe is all by yourself. Since most canoes feature a carrying yoke and an easy-carry central crossbeam, it’s simple to hoist the watercraft right onto your shoulder.
Canoes are ideal for areas you expect difficult portage trails or low clearance.
That said, you must practice with other experienced canoeists before attempting the lift the canoe yourself. When performed correctly, it’s not difficult or dangerous, yet the wrong move could cause back or shoulder injury.
Better for Family Events
Want to spend quality time with your family? Canoes force you to sit together in the same place, surrounded by nothing but water and sunshine. Name one way to foster deeper relationships – I dare you.
Owing to their spacious hull and high weight capacity, canoes allow for multiple riders, tons of snacks, and heavy gear. In this way, canoes work well for extended multi-day trips down the river.
Canoes also require more extensive work to paddle and maneuver, making it more important for a family to work together to make it across a body of water.
Easier to Learn
In good weather conditions, it’s simple to learn how to properly canoe. On a nice summer day with calm water, new canoeists only need to master one simple technique to get moving: the classic J-Stroke.
Putting the paddle blade directly into the water, with the face perpendicular to the bow-to-stern line, stroke up and outward away from the port-side. This simple motion allows canoeists to counteract the natural tendency of the boat to steer off track.
The other techniques, mainly the forward and reverse stroke, are so simple that they need not be described. This makes canoeing a great option for young kids or beginners.
Better for Dogs
Dogs – especially big ones – love to roam around in the hull of a boat. If you want your pup to have room to jump into the water and back into the boat, a canoe makes it much simpler.
With a kayak, your dog will have to stay relatively still so that the watercraft doesn’t lose its balance and pivot.
When a canoe is loaded up with riders and gear, the weight ultimately presses down on the widest part of the hull. As the boat leans, both sides of the hull at the center point stay submerged in water, which makes it easier for clumsy paddlers to balance effectively.
This also means that the canoe features less resistance against rocks and waves. Compared to a kayak, the rider’s body stays much more perpendicular to the surface of the water.
Used right, a proper canoe can last you for several years to come. Since modern canoes are made from composite materials like layered polyethylene, aluminum, or Royalex, they are extremely durable despite their rigidity.
Most canoes can withstand the unexpected crash, scuff, or odd transport incident. Moreover, the material can make a huge difference in longevity: Kevlar canoes are stronger than fiberglass and nearly 25 percent lighter.
Most canoes last users somewhere between ten to fifteen years. By contrast, a typical kayak can last anywhere between one to five years, depending on its build and how it’s used.
Of course, this metric depends on how often you use your canoe and how well you treat it – there is no expiration date on a boat that never sees the water.
Make sure to store your canoe properly and fix the damage as you notice it. The canoe’s materials will also play a major role in how long it lasts. Wood, aluminum, and composite plastics are excellent choices for better durability.
What are the Disadvantages of Canoeing?
Canoes aren’t well-suited for every type of weather condition and body of water. Below, we’ll dive into the most major disadvantages of using a canoe.
It’s no secret that canoes are heavy. Standard wooden canoes can weigh over 60 pounds while an aluminum canoe can weigh up to 90 pounds. Polyethylene plastic solo canoes can weigh as little as 50 pounds.
The canoe’s weight will also depend on its length, width, and the number of passengers it’s designed to accommodate. Though they offer easier portage, it’s physically taxing to lug a canoe on land.
Harder to Transport
In addition to their heaviness, canoes are also comparatively more difficult to transport to the water than kayaks. Canoes are much wider (and typically longer) than the standard kayak.
If you have a tiny sedan, you may not be able to strap your canoe to the top of your vehicle. Some cars may require investing in a specialized roof rack for easier transportation. You’ll also have to think about your physical ability to lift the canoe if you’re carrying it across land.
Harder to Drain
Emptying water out of a canoe is more difficult to draining a kayak.
Most kayaks feature a convenient drain plug positioned behind the seat. Once you make it to land, simply open the plug and let the water slosh out of the boat. This also makes spraying the kayak down for cleaning significantly easier.
By contrast, many canoes don’t include drain plugs. You’ll need to manually flip over the boat on land to clear out large amounts of water. Many canoeists recommend keeping a water pump handy in case of emergencies.
Less Efficient to Paddle
Canoes require more exertion to paddle properly. You need to use the power of torso rotation, working in tandem with both your upper and lower body, to get the most power of your watercraft.
If you’re inexperienced, you can waste a lot of time (and potentially injure yourself) if you apply the wrong paddling technique. Compared to a kayak, it’s more difficult for a paddler to cover a lot of distance without the extra work.
Harder to Solo-Paddle
Not only is it harder to paddle in general, but it’s also even more difficult for solo-paddlers to get the most out of their canoe.
When solo-paddling, it’s likely that your weight is not distributed evenly across the boat. This makes it harder to steer correctly and reduces the distance that each stroke can profer.
Where do Anglers Fit In?
If you love fishing, you may wonder: what’s best, kayaking or canoeing? Ultimately, the choice comes down entirely to personal preference. You’ll have to weigh the relative pros and cons of each different watercraft.
Reasons to Fish from a Kayak
A fully-rigged fishing kayak is a great friend to have on your side. Most fishing kayaks are sit-on-top style; you’ll sit with your legs bent or straight in front of you.
In a kayak, you’ll sit closer to the waterline and your vision won’t be obstructed by a wide hull. With a two-bladed paddle, you’ll be able to cover the distance to find the least picked-over fishing spots.
Kayaks are ideal for navigating to difficult corners or inlets off-the-beaten-track. Since they’re relatively slimmer, you’ll have no trouble maneuvering to the best areas.
Reasons to Fish from a Canoe
With a canoe, you can sit comfortably all day long. Moreover, you’ll have plenty of room for all your gear, snacks, entertainment, and friends.
Inside a canoe, you sit higher up above the surface of the water. If you need to you, you can stand and take a breather or adjust your position without a hint of instability.
During a break, it’s easy to drop your paddle down and rest your rod against the side of the deck. Canoes are ideal for extended trips out on the lake or river.
Moreover, you won’t have to adjust your casting technique inside a canoe. Since you’re not so close to the surface of the water, you can use your whole body to pivot the line.
The Verdict: What Should I Choose?
No matter your preference, nothing beats escaping from city life and making your way down to the water. Both canoes and kayaks provide you the opportunity to explore new areas, track through water, and increase your physical endurance.
While kayaks are better suited for complex challenges, canoes are spacious and stable enough for relaxing water trips. Always consider the waterways you want to conquer and what your primary preferences are before opting into any specific watercraft.
1 thought on “Canoe vs Kayak Differences Revealed”
Hi Derek, I liked your article. I did not see where you cover windy conditions. I’m a canoeist by heart but I find solo kayaks do better in the wind. On the first time out I usually put beginners in a wide utility SOT kayak instead of a canoe. They seem to pick up the steering quicker. With canoes you have to learn a few more strokes in order to steer it and keep it in a straight line.