Canoe vs Kayak: How to Pick the Boat Right for You

Canoe vs. kayak is a great debate. Canoes and kayaks are both popular vessels for exploring lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water. But which one is the right boat for you? Which one should you choose?

This blog post will examine key differences between canoes and kayaks, to help you understand the nuances of each.

Whether you are looking for a canoe or a kayak depends on the experience you want.

People are very passionate about their boats, and most likely, each type of owner will tell you why their choice is best. Depending on what type of kayak or canoe you may own, it can make a big difference in your opinion.

You may not agree with everything in this article, but I can say that both kayaks and canoes are great. If we leave you shaking your head in disagreement, please feel free to leave a comment below! We can still be friends 🙂

We know it can be confusing to decide which type of vessel will be best for you. Our goal is to help you understand the canoes vs. kayaks debate to spend more time on the water and less stress over which boat to choose.

Canoe vs. kayak

There are key differences between canoes and kayaks, from the basic design and seating to how you paddle.

There are a wide variety of boats in each category. Let’s talk about some of the critical differences in the canoe vs. kayak discussion related to recreational paddling.

Design

One of the critical differences between kayaks and canoes is the vessel’s design.

Generally speaking, canoes are wider, have more open space, and are heavier than kayaks. But, some canoes these days are very lightweight.

The canoe’s design allows for a lot of storage and a robust weight capacity. You can paddle a canoe solo or with multiple people paddling on either side. Canoes generally have a less efficient hull design than kayaks.

Two women paddling a canoe on a lakePin

On the other hand, kayaks have a narrower design, although some are wide. As a result, kayaks cut through water quickly and easily and typically only require one person to paddle (though some can accommodate up to three).

Kayaks are especially good at maneuvering through tight spaces like harbors and rivers where there’s not much room. but kayaks don’t hold as much cargo or weight capacity as canoes.

Flat-bottom canoes are great for beginners because they are stable and easy to paddle, similar to sit-on-top kayaks, which are great for novice paddlers.

Sit-inside kayaks have a cockpit which can be a little more challenging to get in and out of than a canoe.

Seating

A canoe typically has a bench-like seat and a higher seating position. Many canoes have two seats, and some have three. Generally, the paddler sits up off the floor of the canoe. But a canoeist may also kneel on the floor to generate more powerful strokes.

Kayaks have a couple of different seating arrangements; the paddler sits in a cockpit with a padded seat with a solo sit-inside kayak. Tandem sit-inside kayaks have two cockpits, one for each paddler.

A sit-on-top kayak is precisely like it sounds. The kayaker sits in a seat on top of the deck. The open deck is not as confining as a cockpit but also leaves the paddler exposed to the elements.

Many kayaks have room for up to three paddlers, but then there is less room for gear. A typical canoe is a great option for two people paddling with a decent amount of gear.

There are many different seating arrangements for kayaks and canoes. The best way to figure out which is right for you is to talk with other paddlers or try them yourself.

Paddle (and Paddling)

Generally speaking, a canoe has a traditional single-blade paddle used in both hands while sitting down. A canoe paddle has a “T” knob on the top of the paddle for one hand, and the other hand goes in the middle of the paddle.

A canoeist can alternate sides and paddle or learn advanced techniques like a “J stroke” to paddle a straight line on one side of the canoe.

A kayaker uses a double-blade paddle (blade on each end), with alternating strokes on either side of the kayak. The kayaker doesn’t have to move across the cockpit to paddle. Instead, you sit in the middle and paddle.

Getting wet

Anytime you are paddling, there is an opportunity to get wet. The nature of a canoe sitting up higher can help keep you drier. In addition, with a canoe, your paddle is always close to the water, unlike with a kayak.

With a kayak, you sit lower in the water, and you have to lift the blade out of the water with each stroke, allowing water to drip down the blade, handle, and into your kayak.

A kayak paddle has drip rings to help prevent water from getting in the kayak.

With a sit-inside kayak, you can add a spray skirt (which gives you a closed cockpit) to keep the water out in rough conditions, which helps keep you drier.

Both vessels can capsize, so that is a concern with either boat. However, most recreational kayaks and canoes are pretty darn stable, depending on the conditions.

So, overall your risk of getting wet is more significant in a kayak since you sit closer to the water than in a canoe, and paddling is prone to water entering the kayak.

Maneuverability

Generally speaking, canoes are wider, longer, and more spacious but more difficult to paddle than your standard recreational kayak, especially if weighted down with people, pets, and gear.

Kayaks are generally narrow and easier to paddle than a traditional canoe, especially solo.

There are many choices today, including hybrids that are kind of like crossovers combining features of both canoes and kayaks.

Two men paddling kayaksPin

Kayaks have the advantage of maneuvering rough water or surf conditions, unlike a canoe.

Kayaks are lower profile and not as prone to being tossed around by wind as a canoe with a higher profile. In addition, paddling solo in a kayak (in general) is much easier than in a canoe.

Many kayaks have built-in rudders or skegs for better tracking to keep the kayak heading on a straight line.

Storage Space

A canoe is open and much more spacious than a kayak which means there is more room for people (or a dog) and gear. Storage space makes a canoe an ideal vessel for large groups of people and pets. It will be less crowded on the canoe than on the kayak.

Canoes have a higher load capacity, and you can distribute the weight more evenly as well. With a sit-inside kayak, you are limited to hatches and bungee storage for your gear. Unless you have a tandem kayak, there isn’t much room for a pet, let alone another human being.

One obvious disadvantage to a canoe is that there are no covered or watertight storage areas like hatches on a kayak. Therefore, you will need to be diligent with using dry bags to keep your gear from getting wet.

No doubt about it, space is limited on a kayak. Sit on top kayaks give you a lot more space for gear than a sit inside, but in most cases, you still won’t have as much room as you will in a canoe.

A kayak’s advantage is covered or watertight storage areas to help keep your gear dry.

If space for people, pets, and gear are your goals, then a canoe is better.

Weight limit

Canoes, by far, have a higher load capacity than kayaks and carry lots of stuff. Most recreational kayak have a lower load capacity than canoes.

Some kayaks have hefty weight limits, like the Sea Eagle 380x, which can support up to 3 paddlers or 750 pounds.

But a canoe such as the Old Town Penobscot 164 Canoe has a robust weight limit of 1,250 pounds. So, there is a significant difference between these two.

So, if you need to carry a lot of gear or people (we keep mentioning this), a canoe is the way to go. A canoe is great for multi-day trips, camping trips, etc.

Canoes are better for larger groups with lots of gear than the average kayak can manage. On the other hand, kayaks work best for someone with less gear who may not want to take their pup paddling.

Transporting 

Both canoes and kayaks present some challenges when transporting the boat from your house to the waterway.

Two women paddling kayaksPin

With a hardshell kayak, you need a truck, a roof rack, or a trailer to transport it to and from the water.

A canoe is much the same, so you don’t gain much with either vessel. However, it will be easier to load and unload if you are canoeing with multiple people. If you are kayaking solo, it’s much more difficult to load and unload a kayak yourself.

Both kayaks and canoes require some planning on getting to and from the water.

Portaging

If you need to portage frequently, a canoe is a much better option. Even with a backpack full of gear, you can still toss a canoe on your back and walk it where you need to go.

Portaging a kayak is much more complex, and forget about it if you are padding a tandem kayak yourself. You can take a kayak cart along, but that takes up valuable cargo space, and kayak carts are not great on uneven terrain.

Depending on the situation, portaging bypassing sections of a river can be tough with either vessel. Typically carrying a canoe by yourself is easier than a kayak. Unless you are weighed down with lots of gear, in which case you might have to carry the vessel and gear on multiple trips.

Types of canoes

There are various options for canoes, so comparing canoes and kayaks can be difficult when you get really into the weeds.

Different types of canoes include:

Racing canoes

Narrow, more like a long kayak, designed for racing.

Recreational canoes

The traditional canoe most people think of is typically 13-17 feet long.

Whitewater canoes

Yes, there are whitewater canoes. These are shorter than a recreational canoe and much more maneuverable.

Types of kayaks

There are many different types of kayaks, including:

Sit-inside

Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 sit inside kayakPin

Recreational kayak with a cockpit, generally around 9-12 feet long, easy for most people to paddle.

Sit-on-top (SOT)

Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 Sit on top kayak (SOT)Pin

No cockpit; the paddler sits in a seat on the deck, easy to get on and off, excellent for warm weather. Many fishing kayaks are SOT designs.

Whitewater kayaks

You guessed it, designed for rapids, need to be a skilled paddler with whitewater kayaks.

Racing kayaks

As the name implies, racing kayaks go fast. Racing kayaks are long, flat, and designed to go straight with minimal turning.

Touring kayaks

Longer than recreational kayaks, about 12-18 feet or so. Great for speed and long paddling trips.

Inflatables

Canoe vs kayak - Inflatable kayak on a lakePin

Inflatable kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, are very easy to transport and store, and often have a robust carrying capacity. Very popular these days.

Canoes vs. kayaks pros and cons

Canoes and kayaks each have their positives and negatives. Let’s summarize some of the pros and cons of each.

Pros of a canoe

  • Great for large groups of people and or gear
  • An excellent option for families, multi-day trips, camping trips, etc.
  • Easier to vary your sitting position than in a kayak
  • Much easier to portage than a kayak
  • Easy to get in and out of
  • Wide-open, with more room to move

Cons of a canoe

  • Bulky and difficult to transport
  • Harder to paddle solo than a kayak
  • No watertight onboard storage
  • A higher profile is more prone to getting pushed around by the wind
  • Not as fast as a kayak

Pros of a kayak

  • Easier to maneuver on the water and are faster (generally) padding solo
  • Better handling in the surf or rough water conditions
  • Lower profile, not as prone to getting blown around in the wind
  • You can roll a kayak and be upright again
  • Dry storage options onboard
  • Double-blade paddling is more efficient

Cons of a kayak

  • Not as much space for people, pets, or gear
  • More difficult to portage
  • More difficult to get in and out of (sit inside kayaks mainly)
  • You typically get wetter in a kayak

Canoe vs. Kayak: Other factors to consider

We have touched on the pros and cons of canoes and kayaks and some of the features that make each unique now; let’s discuss some other things to consider in the kayak vs. canoe debate.

Where will you be paddling?

If you plan to stick to calm water and want to take a lot of gear along or take the family out for a day on the water, a canoe is an excellent option. However, if you are venturing into surf-type conditions or rough water, a kayak is better.

Both canoes and recreational kayaks are great for paddling lakes, slow-moving rivers, and sheltered coastal areas.

What do you plan on doing?

Both kayaks and canoes are great for relaxing days on the water.

Two silver canoes on a beach next to a yellow kayakPin

If you plan to go camping or on a multi-day trip where you need to take a lot of gear, a canoe is the best way.

A kayak is your best bet if you want more speed and maneuverability.

What kind of vehicle do you have?

Both canoes and kayaks will require some planning in getting your vessel to the water. Crossbars on the vehicle’s roof work exceptionally well for both, as does a pickup or a trailer.

If you are trying to carry a canoe on a Honda Civic, that can be precarious. However, a smaller recreational kayak with a pad for the roof can work well.

Think about your vehicle before you take the plunge and buy any watercraft.

Will you be fishing?

You can fish out of a canoe or a kayak. You can even set up a trolling motor on many models (kayaks and canoes). Kayak fishing has become very popular in recent years.

Fishing kayaks are popular because they are stable enough to stand up and cast and give you greater visibility.

Yes, I know people stand up in canoes, but you don’t see that as often.

Fishing kayaks come equipped with tracks for gear, like a fishfinder, fishing rod holders, etc. Many come with an anchor trolley setup.

Inflatables

Before we wrap up, we need to talk about inflatables. Inflatable kayaks are very popular these days for a couple of reasons.

First, you don’t need an expensive roof rack or trailer to haul an inflatable kayak to the water. Instead, you can put an inflatable in your trunk or the backseat of your car. Inflatables are a great option if you are traveling in an RV.

Second, inflatables are much easier to store. They can fit in a closet or a shelf in your garage.

Although inflatable canoes exist, like the Sea Eagle TC16 (Travel Canoe), inflatable kayaks are much more common.

Canoe vs kayak - Sea Eagle Travel Canoe TC16Pin

If you are interested in reading more about inflatable kayaks, check out this article.

Conclusion

I am sure the canoes vs. kayaks debate is now clear as mud, right? Many paddlers are very passionate about this topic. If you are looking for a multi-day vessel or need to pack several people, pets, or a lot of gear, a canoe is probably your best option.

If you are looking for a faster ride with more maneuverability, a kayak might be the best choice.

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About the author
Steve
Steve is the owner of Paddle About, a blog that's all about helping people get out and enjoy nature. He loves to kayak, camp, hike and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not out exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.