What’s the Difference Between a Canoe and a Kayak? (Experts Weigh In)

This is a loaded question that is similar to asking, “what’s the difference between a car and a truck?” The variables are nearly endless so a definitive answer is hard to offer without asking some questions in return. Nevertheless, after a whole lot of years pushing water with a paddle, I have some insights!

For those considering paddling with a partner or partners in smaller lakes, rivers, and around the cottage, a canoe would be the best option. For those who paddle mostly alone and are partial to bigger water like the great lakes or the ocean, a kayak would be a more appropriate choice.

Having said that, there are some surprising factors you may have never considered that just may help you decide definitively what to buy. I’ll help you decide whether to buy a canoe or kayak and what type of canoe or kayak.

“Canada’s identity lies with the canoe. When I see a car barrelling down the highway with a canoe strapped to its roof, I don’t necessarily see a somewhat inexpensive recreational watercraft owned by some poor fool who can’t afford a speedboat; I see a way of life.”

Kevin Callan – Author, speaker, Wilderness Canoe Adventurer
What To Look For In A Fishing Kayak

What are the Types of Canoes and Kayaks?

I would be doing you a disservice if I simply gave you my opinion or description of a canoe and then a kayak. In fact, there are several radically different styles of both canoes and kayaks.

Here’s a quick look at some canoe and kayak styles:

  • Recreational Kayak
  • Touring Kayak
  • Whitewater Kayak
  • Sit-on-top kayak (Fishing Kayak)
  • Kayak Playboat
  • Touring/Expedition Canoe
  • Recreation Canoe
  • Whitewater Canoe
  • Racing Canoe
  • Canoe Playboat

KAYAKS

Kayaks have been around for a very long time and originated a few thousand years ago in the colder regions of North America. Animal skins stretched over wood or bones from a whale formed the main body of the craft, while fat deposits from various animals like whales and caribou would be used for waterproofing.

It was an ideal craft for keeping items dry in a closed environment, and it was a very maneuverable craft that made very little water disturbance as it moved, which made it ideal for hunting or fishing.

When we speak of kayaks today, it’s crucial that we are clear about what type of kayak we’re talking about. There’s a world of difference between them.

Of course, they have lots in common like they all use a double-bladed paddle, they’re pointed on both ends to cut through the water and they are generally operated the same way (except for some fishing kayaks we’ll mention later).


1Touring Kayak

A touring kayak is a style that has been around the longest and most resembles a classic Inuit kayak. It’s quite long at 12′ – 18′ in length and very fast. The length and shape of a touring kayak make it the most efficient design to travel the longest distance per stroke, so it’s really the only style used for longer trips or expeditions.

It is primarily (almost exclusively) used on open water such as lakes and oceans and some slower-moving rivers with few to no rapids.

It’s also less stable and increases the possibility of a capsize, especially with inexperienced paddlers.


2Whitewater Kayak

A whitewater kayak looks nothing like a touring kayak and is meant only for rough rapids and fast-moving rivers. It’s quite short and very wide. Most are between 5 and 9 feet long. This kayak is well-suited to quick and easy turns, and it’s manufactured to be very resilient and sturdy due to the punishment it will receive on rocks and other river obstacles.

This is the type of kayak you see being launched off a waterfall and then plunge beneath the water surface below, only to pop back up with both kayak and rider intact and attached to each other.

It is, however, very inefficient when it comes to traveling straight on open water. Because it’s so short, it will turn quickly and does not track in a line well at all. It also holds little to no gear at all.


3Sit On Top Kayak (Fishing kayak)

This type of kayak is mostly used for fishing, and it looks nothing like a touring kayak in the least. It’s basically a stand-up paddleboard with some accessories to allow the paddler to sit down with his fishing gear.

It is much more stable than a touring kayak, but the paddler will almost certainly get wet from any splashes, waves, or even just the water dripping from the act of paddling itself.

A Sit on top kayak is best for warmer water (Inuit would not like this style of kayak) and is not at all efficient for longer distance travel.

Sit on top kayaks have evolved perhaps more quickly than others regarding design since many fishing kayaks now include foot pedals that turn a water wheel that propels the craft without the need of a paddle, while others include advanced rudder systems and even outriggers that can make the kayak into a fast sailboat that won’t tip!

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Kayak with stabilizers/outriggers that allow use as a sailboat

4 – Recreational Kayak

A recreational kayak is a craft that resembles a sit-on-top kayak, but it’s shaped a little more traditionally (like a touring kayak) but shorter and wider and more stable than a touring kayak. Recreational kayaks are usually about 9 to 12 feet in length.

These kayaks are usually among the least expensive kayaks and are often the most common on any given lake with vacationers and cottages. It’s a bit of a cross between a fishing kayak and a touring kayak but it’s not a boat you’d like to take any long trips with.

A recreational kayak is only marginally better than a whitewater kayak for taking longer trips on lakes and it doesn’t track well, it’s heavy and harder to paddle than a touring model.


5 – Playboat Kayak

A playboat kayak is a small craft that is primarily used for doing fun tricks and exercising skills on whitewater. Terms like “squirting”, “slicing”, “surfing”, and “cartwheeling” are used to describe activities done with this type of kayak.

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A playboat kayak doing what it does best – whitewater stunts, tricks, and surfing

CANOES

Much like kayaks, canoes have a very long history with North America’s indigenous tribes. While in recent years, kayaks seem to have the advantage when it comes to popularity with beginners and paddlers in general, it has not always been that way.

Canoes have traditionally been the craft of choice for serious explorers of inland waterways for centuries.

Also like kayaks, canoes come in a whole variety of styles and options that are quite different one from another.

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A touring (expedition) canoe out for a casual afternoon paddle

1Touring/Expedition Canoe

Touring canoes are purpose-built for traveling great distances with incredible efficiency and ease. They are long (16′ – 19′ typically) and light. Most are made of lightweight Kevlar or carbon while some less desirable models are made from much heavier fiberglass or wood.

They are most often asymmetrical in design meaning that the bow or front end of the canoe has a totally different profile and design than the stern. This means that they should only be paddled in one direction for both safety and efficiency.

The rocker (the amount the boat curves like a banana front to back) is minimal, making it much easier to keep in a straight line on a lake while traveling from point A to point B.

A touring canoe is not the craft you want while challenging class 3 or 4 rapids given the relative fragility of the construction material compared to whitewater canoes.

They are also light, often weighing 25 – 50 lbs depending on the size.


2Whitewater Canoe

A whitewater canoe is a very tough boat, and it’s made to withstand collisions against rocks, logs and other obstacles in a river. These canoes are not light and often weigh more than twice that of a similar-sized touring model.

They are made of tough composite synthetic materials and they are most often symmetrical in design, which allows them to move well in either direction.

They have a significant rocker that allows them to be turned very easily to avoid obstacles and optimize overall control.

While they can be used for touring, they are not ideal given that they are very heavy to carry on portages, and they don’t track straight as well given their rocker.

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A great example of a solo whitewater canoe (you can see it looks nothing like a lake touring canoe)

3Recreation Canoe

Recreation canoes are most typically heavy, inefficient, symmetrical, and inexpensive. They are meant only for casual use, and arguably, they don’t really do anything well. They are too fragile for whitewater (usually) and too heavy for touring.

They are, however, pretty well-suited to one type of activity in one type of situation. The situation is on a single body of water (ie. no need to portage to another lake), and the activities are bird-watching, fishing, hunting or just exploring.

A recreational canoe is quite stable (at least initially) and most canoes that are used predominantly for fishing are recreational canoes outfitted specifically for fishing.


4Racing Canoe

Racing canoes are not really that popular with the general canoeing public, but I thought they’d be worth a mention.

They are, of course, very light, efficient and fast, but unlike the touring canoe (which is also light, efficient and fast), the hull shape (side to side) is designed for pure efficiency with no stability, so capsizing is always a concern.

The hull shape is basically half a circle which gives no stability but maximum speed. They are often made of lightweight carbon and their beam (width) is narrow for, you guessed it, “efficiency” or speed.


There are lots of other variations of these canoe styles like square-stern canoes for holding a small motor, inflatable canoes, and canoes for 1, 2 or 3 paddlers.

To add more confusion to the issue, each type of canoe and its options can be made of any one of dozens of materials ranging from tough T-formex or Royalex to fiberglass, plastic, aluminum, Kevlar, wood, bark and more!


Basic Differences Between Canoes and Kayaks

1Deck Design

Canoes have an “open” top design meaning they can take on water in the form of large waves or rain. Traditional kayaks have a “closed” top design meaning the deck or top of the kayak is covered so waves and rain just shed off the top and sides.

However, sit on top kayaks have no such rain protection because of their radically different design, and most canoes can be equipped with a spray deck that sheds water much like a kayak.

So, even some basic differences can be minimized or even eliminated.

2Paddling Techniques

While some solo canoe paddlers choose to use a double-bladed paddle, most canoeists use a single blade. A double-bladed paddle is a virtual necessity for a kayak since you won’t have the ability to use corrective strokes with a single-blade paddle while sitting in a kayak.

Typically, a kayaker will use a double-blade paddle to propel and steer the craft, while a canoeist uses a single blade for propulsion and steering.

3Learning Curves

Canoe paddling techniques (just to get started) are harder to learn than kayaking basic skills (just enough to get started).

However, more advanced kayaking skills are far more difficult to learn than even advanced canoe paddling techniques.

The reason is that along with kayaking, come some pretty significant dangers that don’t exist with canoeing like the need to right oneself in a kayak after tipping over. An example would be learning an “eskimo roll” which is an advanced kayak rescue technique.

4Seating Options

Kayaks come with one seating option … SITTING! Not only sitting but sitting with legs straight in front of the paddler. This is not such a bad thing as long as the seat is comfortable.

However, canoes offer quite a few more options that are suited to a variety of conditions. While paddling in a canoe, you can sit with your legs in front like a kayak, but you can also bring your legs under your body for a change in position.

Furthermore, you can also kneel, which is often preferable during rough water and larger waves since kneeling (while crouching low so your butt is touching your heels) will lower your center of gravity making the canoe less likely to capsize.

5Storage

In nearly all cases, a canoe will have significantly more space for storage. Even a small, short tripping or touring/expedition canoe will have more cargo space than a large, touring kayak.

The catch here is that a kayak’s cargo hold is automatically waterproof (especially if the kayaker has a spray skirt), while the canoeist must take measures to ensure the gear is protected from the weather.

6Trip-Friendliness (portaging, lake-tripping)

A kayak can be wonderful to paddle in many conditions, but one of those conditions is NOT in close quarters with fallen brush, logs, rocks and shorelines. Canoe paddles can be maneuvered more easily and can propel a canoe through a gap of only 35 or 40 inches wide.

Kayak paddles can be a problem in such cases. Also, loading and unloading a kayak for portages is pure drudgery compared with the ease of access to a canoe’s cargo.

And, as for how wet you may get, a canoe is likely to keep the paddler (if not always the gear) drier than a kayak.

7Seaworthiness

If your plan is to paddle on big water, a kayak is typically the craft that will fare better given its ability to float over larger waves while shedding any water that comes over the bow. Canoes don’t like water over the bow and will eventually capsize.

While canoes can navigate large waves with an experienced paddler, they won’t quite do the job as well as a kayak.


A recent report released by the OUTDOOR FOUNDATION in 2019 revealed some interesting statistics. Both canoeing and RECREATIONAL kayaking were way ahead of any other paddlesports like stand-up paddleboarding, kayak touring or whitewater kayaking.

Here’s a revealing snapshot of popularity levels of canoeing and kayaking as recorded in 2018;

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Since 2013 recreational kayaking has been slightly increasing year over year while canoeing is decreasing at the same rate. However, both are significantly more popular than any other type of kayaking or stand-up paddling. Touring kayaking is also decreasing in popularity.

What Do the Experts Say?

I recently had the opportunity to ask several authorities and lifelong paddlers and manufacturers about their thoughts on canoes vs. kayaks.

Mike Cichanowski from Wenonah Canoes and Kayaks says this about tandem kayaks. “Tandem kayaks are heavy and large and you don’t have a spot for packs or the extra kid”. This comment is from a canoe and kayak maker who makes tandem kayaks so he’s fairly unbiased.

Tandem kayaks are quite heavy and large, and you don’t have a spot for packs or the extra kid. A tandem kayak can be hard to deal with vs. a light tandem canoe.

Mike Cichanowski – Owner of Wenonah Canoe and Kayak Company


Canoe Pros and Cons Summary

I’ve touched on some pros and cons in the section above but here’s an outline that should help summarize;

Canoe PROS

  • Holds more gear and is easier to load/unload on portages
  • Easier to paddle with a partner
  • Usually lighter than kayaks
  • Most often keeps paddler(s) drier than kayak
  • Capsizing is more difficult
  • Easier learning curve to get to advanced level
  • Easier to handle in tight quarters and on portage trips
  • Versatile seating positions to change body dynamics during long trips
  • Can be carried with a yoke
  • Can be slept in if necessary
  • Works well for families of 2-5 people (in 1 canoe)

Canoe CONS

  • Not as good as kayak for ocean waves
  • Cannot be righted after capsizing (must be emptied and re-filled with gear, etc.)
  • Cargo not protected from rain/spray
  • Most canoes (other than solo) are more difficult to paddle solo than a kayak
  • Seats potentially less comfortable than kayak seats


Kayak Pros and Cons Summary

Kayak PROS

  • Better than canoes on big water
  • Are often faster than canoes
  • Gear is kept dry in touring kayak
  • With advanced paddlers, kayaks can be righted after capsizing easily
  • Easier to learn the basics of kayaking
  • Look very cool (sleek, fast, slim, etc.)
  • Usually have more comfortable seats

Kayak CONS

  • Usually heavier than a comparable sized canoe
  • Harder to deal with on portage trips (loading, unloading, tight space maneuvering)
  • Paddler will get wetter than canoeist
  • Less freedom of movement and seating positions
  • More difficult to learn important but advanced techniques
  • Less stable than most canoes
  • Can’t be carried with a yoke which means they’re harder to carry easily over long distances
  • Can’t sleep in a kayak
  • Not great for family outings


Is it Easier to Kayak or Canoe?

Much has been said and written about the controversy over which one of these crafts is “better.” One of my favorite canoe memes is, “if canoeing was easy, they’d call it kayaking”. Of course, kayak lovers have the same meme with a few words switched around!

If you compare the most stable and user-friendly canoe with the most stable and user-friendly kayak, you could probably assume they are about the same as far as “easy” goes. If you take a good touring kayak and a good expedition canoe, the canoe would feel a bit more stable and give you more confidence as a beginner, so it would technically be “easier” than the kayak.

There are other factors worth considering here, however. Some kayaks have a rudder that helps a novice steer more effectively, and a novice kayaker won’t have to learn any corrective paddle strokes, so some would argue kayaking is easier.

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This article’s author in the middle of a video explaining how to deal with a headwind while paddling a canoe

The counterargument to that is that kayaks with rudders are often touring kayaks that are very unstable compared to a recreational canoe, which can result in capsizes that complicate things and make kayaking much more difficult.

Plus, paddling a kayak in close quarters to fallen trees and branches or in tight spaces is far more challenging than paddling a canoe.


Can a Canoe Keep up to a Kayak?

Here’s a question asked a lot on Google, so I’ll answer it with some clarity.

As far as speed is concerned, a longer boat will typically move faster than a shorter one. This is true for both a kayak and a canoe. So, the longer boat (considering similar width, hull design and propulsion power) will move faster.

Another important factor is the rocker of a canoe. If the rocker is minimal or non-existent, it will be noticeably faster than a canoe with lots of rocker.


YEARS of Participation by all those currently involved in Paddle sports;

1 YEAR

19%

5-7 YEARS

16%

16-20 YEARS

5%

Is it Better to Fish from a Canoe or Kayak?

To a great extent, the answer to this question is based on pre-existing biases or just plain preference. I’ll give you some insight that will hopefully be impartial and helpful since I’ve experienced both options!

Kayaks may be better suited for fishing in quiet waters with little or no water turbulence and where transporting the canoe overland is not necessary. Canoes are far better for fishing if you want to carry it to good fishing lakes, especially if you use stabilizers that allow you to stand and fish.

The Case for the Kayak

There are kayaks made specifically for fishing, and given the comfortable seating, they are an excellent option for casting and angling. Many are already made to hold a trolling motor, and they come equipped with lots of amenities like rod holders, fish finders and paddle holders.

It’s quite possible to stand in a fishing kayak, and there’s something to be said for the “cool-factor” of a fishing kayak as well!

The Case for the Canoe

After much consideration, I chose a canoe for fishing, and here’s why: The canoe I use is a Prospector style design. This allows me to use it on rivers (I can steer easily) though only on class 1 rapids (class 2 if I was better!).

Then, it’s made of Kevlar with a very comfortable yoke that allows me to carry it and paddle easily on wilderness lake expeditions.

Then (and here’s the best part), I’ve outfitted the canoe with outrigger stabilizers that allow me to stand up and even walk around in the canoe without fear of tipping.

This extreme versatility far outperforms a fishing kayak on nearly every metric from storage area to weight and portability, while allowing the same craft to be used in whitewater day trips and week-long lake expedition trips – neither of which a fishing kayak can do.

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The author’s canoe fishing setup. It’s as stable (or more stable) as any fishing kayak but it’s lighter and easier to portage or transport, and can also be used for whitewater travel or lake expeditions

The “Expert’s” Comments

Kevin (aka The Happy Camper) is the author of 18 books; his latest being Once Around Algonquin: An Epic Canoe Journey. He is an award-winning writer and a keynote speaker at outdoor events across North America.

Kevin is also a regular guest on several television morning shows and CBC Radio. He has won several film awards, writes a column for Paddling Magazine and Explore Magazine.

Kevin was listed as one of the top 100 modern-day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society.

He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada. Check out his website at www.kevincallan.com and YouTube channel KCHappyCamper.

Kevin’s demeanor is often light-hearted with a good dose of cheeky-ness and humor mixed in!

With a list of accomplishments as long as his, one would do well to see his comments as holding some weight and truth (though they are often delivered with a good dose of humor).

Kevin’s first love of watercraft is the canoe, and so this comment I received from him recently should come as no surprise:

“Canada’s identity lies with the canoe. When I see a car barrelling down the highway with a canoe strapped to its roof, I don’t necessarily see a somewhat inexpensive recreational watercraft owned by some poor fool who can’t afford a speedboat; I see a way of life.”

Wenonah Canoe and Kayak President Mike Cichanowski further comments on canoe fishing vs. kayak fishing. His thoughts again seem to be favoring the canoe, but it’s with good reason.

He believes that in most cases because you are alone in a fishing kayak, that puts you in charge of your own navigation which can be hard in wind and waves.

While fishing in a canoe, you can often rely on a partner to help position you while you fish, and you have a greater range of casting if you’re in the bow. A kayak is best to fish from the side (especially if you have a longer nose on your kayak).

(With a kayak) You’re at the mercy of wind and currents out there (in open water). In tandem canoe fishing you have one person putting you right where you want to be. The person in front can have access to 360º – the boat can be turned. Particularly in big lakes … tandem canoe fishing is very popular and we would think that would be the superior way to fish.

Mike Cichanowski – President of Wenonah Canoe and Kayak company

Final Thoughts on Which is Better – Canoe or Kayak!

I suppose like anyone who has experience with both canoes and kayaks, one of them will rise to the status of “favorite”.

While I ultimately prefer my canoes for their superior versatility and portability, I will say that my bigger goal that is far more important than which craft I use, is to encourage both young and old to get out onto the water safely and detach yourself from the trappings of this world for just a little while, and at the same time increase your physical fitness.

This allows you to operate at your best because you’ll be using your body as the “manufacturer” of your body intended. The Bible tells us in Mark 6:31 to come away and rest awhile.

This separation from the grind of daily life will help you physically, mentally and with God’s grace, spiritually as well.


And He said to them, “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while”. For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.

Holy Bible – American Standard Version

Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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