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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 how canoes and kayaks differ from each other to help you understand the nuances of each.

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

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 canoe vs. kayak debate to spend more time on the water and less stress over which boat to choose.

Canoe vs. kayak

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

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

Design

One of the key differences between kayaks and canoes is simply the design of the vessel.

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, a robust weight capacity, and paddling can be done by one person or multiple people paddling on either side.

Two women paddling a canoe on a lakePin

On the other hand, kayaks have a narrower design, although some are particularly wide. They’re designed to 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 this also means they don’t hold as much cargo or weight capacity as canoes.

Flat-bottom canoes are great for beginners because they are stable and pretty easy to paddle. Much the same can be said for sit-on-top kayaks, which are great for the novice paddler.

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 design. 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; with a solo sit-inside kayak, the paddler sits in a cockpit with a padded seat. 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. This 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.

There are many different seating arrangements in either vessel, and the best way to figure out which is right for you is to talk with other paddlers or go try them for 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 either move from side to side and paddle or use a “J stroke” to paddle straight without changing sides.

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 just 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 to 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.

With a sit-inside kayak, you can add a spray skirt to keep the water out if you are in rough conditions, which helps keep you drier.

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

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

Maneuverability

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

Kayaks are generally more 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

Canoes are not meant for surf like you can with specific kayaks, so kayaks have the advantage of maneuvering rough water or surf conditions.

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 (keeping the kayak headed straight).

Space for your gear

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

With a canoe, 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.

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

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. The advantage that a kayak offers 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 the better choice here.

Weight limit

Canoe by far has a larger carrying capacity than kayaks. This is what they are designed for. Some kayaks have hefty weight limits, like the Sea Eagle 380x, which can support up to 3 paddlers or 750 pounds of weight.

But a canoe such as the Old Town Penobscot 164 Canoe has a robust weight limit of 1,250 pounds. So, there is a decided 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 that need to be carried and more gear than the average kayak can manage. On the other hand, Kayaks work best with one person who has less gear and may not even want to bring their dog along.

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, if you are canoeing with multiple people, it will be easier to load and unload. Whereas 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 how you get to and from the water.

Portaging

If you need to portage frequently, hands down, 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 difficult, and forget about it if you are padding a tandem kayak yourself. Sure, you can take a kayak cart along, but that takes up valuable cargo space, and kayak carts are not great on uneven terrain.

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, 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 a ton of different types of kayaks when it comes down to it.

Different types of kayaks include:

Sit-inside

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

Sit-on-top (SOT)

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 kayak

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

Touring kayaks

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

Inflatables

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

Canoe vs. kayak 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
  • A great option for families, multi-day trips, camping trips, etc.
  • Easier to vary your sitting position than a kayak
  • Much easier to portage than a kayak
  • Easy to get in and out of
  • Wide-open, 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 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. If you are venturing into surf-type conditions or rough water, a kayak is a better option.

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

If you want more speed and maneuverability, a kayak is your best bet.

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 a little 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 kind of 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 (both 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 definitely don’t see that as often.

Fishing kayaks come equipped with tracks for gear, like a fishfinder, fishing rod holders, etc., and 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, for example.

Second, inflatables are much easier to store. They can literally 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.

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

Conclusion

I am sure the canoe vs. kayak 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, and/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 for you.

Let us know what your favorite mode of paddling is in the comments below.

Steve, Founder of Paddle About
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve is an avid kayaker and founder of Paddle About. When he is not on the water, Steve enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, camping, and hiking with his family. Read more.

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