Man kayaking into the sunset

Canoe Vs Kayak: What’s The Deal and How Do You Choose?

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The age old question… Canoe Vs Kayak?

We came here to answer life’s important questions… Or at the very least, answer a question we hear all the time.

What’s the deal with kayaks and canoes?

I hail from the Pacific Northwest, more specifically Seattle. Watersports in the summer are a cherished escape considering that we only get two months of summer a year. So we tend to take full advantage of every second of good weather and try every type of water sport available.

Canoes and kayaks are both a blast to jump in, or on, and spend a morning or afternoon. I have spent many days in the summer enjoying both of them. They both are similar in that they are small boats, but have major differences in terms of purpose, use, and water terrain (I think that’s a thing).

A Brief History of Kayaks

Kayaks are believed to be around 4000 years old, with the word kayak originating from the Greenlandic language spoken by Inuit tribes of North America.

According to How Stuff Work’s, the Aleut and Inuit tribes of North America is where we find the first evidence of kayaks in use. There are two variations at this point, one made with only driftwood and the other made by stretching seal and other animal skins over the frames of whalebone… That’s awesome.

The traditional kayaks have a covered deck and seat one person per cockpit. These particular kayaks are used to float on inland coastal waters, lakes, and rivers. Similar to the kayaks of today.

A Brief History of Canoes

Canoes are believed to have first been constructed around 8200 to 7600 BC and found in the Netherlands. That’s a ballpark figure obviously.

Side note…  The Netherlands is an amazing place to visit if you ever get the opportunity. The Tulips fields and the windmills are a breathtaking site, and pictures do them no justice.

Canoes have been around for thousands of years and there is evidence of them being used by different indigenous people, from Australia to North America. They use a number of different materials from bark to the most common hollowed out tree trunks.

Traditionally canoes were used for transportation of people and goods, with the industrial era they became a means for recreation and sport.

Differences in Kayaks vs Canoes?

At first glance, they look an awful lot alike depending on the model of kayak you are comparing a canoe too. There are quite a few differences when we get down to the nitty and gritty of these two watercrafts.


Kayaks are narrow and both long and short. Often times they are used for speed and accuracy, think white water rapids, racing, and long di.

Canoes are wider and shorter, yes there are exceptions to every rule. They are designed more for distance travel and leisure.


Kayaks have a skirt around your waist which keeps the water out of the hull of the boat. Sit on kayak’s are the outlier in that they are hollow and you only sit on top of them, never in them.

Canoes will never have a covered deck, it is wide-open and made usually with a couple benches for the paddlers to paddle.


Kayaks are often made of composite materials and plastics that can become quite spendy. As they are used for different sporting activities the quality of the material has a widespread.

Canoes are usually crafted from wood or metal for standard usage. When it comes to the racing and whitewater canoes, they are similar to kayaks, in that they are made from a wide range of composites.


Kayak paddles are designed to row with both hands, so they have a shaft with a paddle on both ends.

Canoe paddles, on the other hand, are designed for two people. Each person holding a shaft with a paddle on one end.


Kayak seating comes in two varieties, the sit-in, and the sit-on. Self-explanatory I hope.

Canoe seating is similar to bleacher seats, they have uncomfortable benches, usually two that you sit on.

Which is Easier to Learn?

The usual answer would be…

Canoes, of course, since you don’t have to learn how to roll over in an emergency situation. This is true, however, by saying that you are ignoring the sit-on kayaks which have become extremely popular in recent years.

Canoes, in general, are extremely easy to use, and anyone can hop in one with a partner grab a paddle and go. You don’t have to put in anywhere near the time and effort that you would with a whitewater kayak.

Canoes, in general, take little to no practice when first learning, the biggest obstacle is coordinating a straight course with your partner.

They are great for families with small children, all the way to couples who want a romantic paddle on a lake with swans and lilies like that scene from the notebook.

There is another super easy option…

Sit-on kayaks are just as easy to use as a canoe, you just have to take into consideration the fact they are easier to fall off.

What’s that mean? Maybe not the best for the little ones who haven’t figured out how to swim, but for everyone else, absolutely as easy as a canoe.

Styles of Kayaks

Kayaks resting on a dock

Kayaks are much more versatile than your standard canoe. Sure, they have sporty canoes for all types of endeavors, but kayaks are literally built for completely different water terrain, like how I snuck that back in?

Kayaks are made for everyone, from the beginner who has never paddled to the experienced vet hitting level 4 whitewater rapids. They come in multiple shapes and sizes, each having their own unique purpose.

Recreational kayaks

They are the kayaks that you see the most (close contender to sit-on). Recreational kayaks are designed for lake usage and calm waters. Think of the rentals you see in the summer being pushed on you at every body of water. They are wide, safe, and require little to no practice.

Touring kayaks

Touring kayaks are long and narrow and are known for their tracking. A fancy way to say the keep a straight line better than their kayak siblings. Touring kayaks are great for covering a long distance and are known for their speed.

Sea kayaks

These are going to be long and narrow, ranging anywhere from 15-19 feet and heavy to boot. They have two sealed bulkheads which allow you to pack in a bunch of gear for a camping trip. This doesn’t mean you should just jump in one and paddle across the ocean, but yea, they are made for the sea coasts.

April 19, 2014, a man named Aleksander Doba, 67, became the first person to cross the Atlantic by kayak at it’s widest point. This man is an absolute beast.

Whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are short and narrow, ranging from 5.5 to 9 feet and are made for extreme whitewater conditions. These are the kayaks that you DO NOT jump in and try without mastering the roll-over. They have a skirt around the cockpit and are built with a thick and durable hull.

Not to mention the most badass videos, this is just one example of masters of their sport. These guys are inspiring and insane, I wish I had 1/8 the skill and balls these whitewater kayakers posses.

What a ride!!!

Sit on top kayaks

Sit on top kayaks are hollow on the inside and have the shape of a kayak. They are also found at every park and lake in the summer for rent and are easy to use. Designed for recreation and leisure, they are perfect for the family or a tough 8-mile paddle around your local lake.

Sport kayaks

While not really an official category, sports kayaks come equipped with sporting equipment that would not normally be attached to a kayak. Mainly fishing equipment, along with some that are being made for scuba diving.

Inflatable kayaks

When storage and transport is a concern, the inflatable kayak is going to be your best bet. They come in different models that can take you from a lake into a river. The breakdown and set up is the benefit here, remember to bring an air pump, always.

Canoe Styles

Row of canoes resting on a beach

Just as you would expect, there’s not that much you can do with a canoe. You kind of get what you see, however, given that we live in an industrious world. There are a few different varieties that you can choose from that do serve different purposes, so they say…

Recreational Canoes

Your standard canoe. Not much to see here folks… They are the canoes you see on lakes being used for all types of activities from fishing to swimming. We have the standard aluminum canoes you see rusted, laying on the sides of houses, to plastic and composites.

Whitewater Canoes

Yep, I said it… Whitewater canoes, crazy if you ask me, but nobody asked me. Whitewater canoes are shorter and narrower and include skirts to keep the water out and the captain going down with the ship. They have flotation bags on the front and back that aid the boat from not flipping and are made for the most badass of canoe enthusiasts.

Racing Canoes

New to me, but apparently canoeing is an Olympic sport and has been for close to 100 years?! These canoes are made of high-quality materials such as Kevlar, carbon fiber, and fiberglass so they can haul ass. Not for the faint of heart (or wallet), these will tip over easily and are made for one thing, kicking ass and taking names.

According to Alan Anderson of the Gig Harbor Kayak and Canoe club, racing canoes and kayaks can “pull a water skier.”

Is a Canoe or Kayak Right for Me?

I can’t really answer that for you, hopefully, you have a better idea of the options that are available for you today. The best course of action is to figure out exactly what you plan on using it for 80-90% of the time.

Don’t go out and buy something that you think you want to try.

To find out which one is best, ask yourself the following questions…

Where do I want to use it?

  • River
  • Lake
  • Seacoast
  • Whitewater rapids

What do I plan on using it for?

  • Relaxing
  • Camping
  • Fishing
  • Racing

How often do I plan on using it?

  • Daily
  • Summertime
  • All year
  • Weekends

What do I need to transport it?

  • Car rack
  • Trunk
  • Trailer
  • Backseat

How much do I want to spend?

  • 1 dollar
  • 100 dollars
  • 500 dollars
  • 1000 dollars

Answer all these questions and you’re going to have a pretty good idea of whether a canoe or kayak is best for you.

Talk to a Real Person with Experience

Reading reviews online and articles like this one are a good start. Reviews online tend to come from a one-sided perspective, someone who has only tried their particular type of kayak or canoe.

Speaking with someone who is an active user of either a kayak or a canoe will give you an idea of what they like and dislike about them. Asking them to pick their favorite is similar to asking someone who drives a Chevy which type of car they prefer. You’re again going to get a one-sided answer, it will still be good information, just one-sided.

Explorer all your options. Read reviews, talk to people, visit the locations you plan on using an ask people there, and visit a shop for a rental and conversation.

Head out to the spot you plan on using a kayak or canoe and see what people are using. Then take a minute and ask some questions about their craft, their experience level, and how long they have been paddling.

Head out to a shop, and actual brick and mortar. Talk to the staff and tell them your ideas and have a conversation. Rent both and try both, figure out which one feels better on the water.


For the casual paddler or someone looking to get into kayaking or canoeing the options are endless. Look into each model, really evaluate how much you are planning on using it, not like that old gym membership. Then make an informed decision based on your usage and personal preferences.

Kayaking and canoeing are both so much fun, either way, you won’t be disappointed. If your hesitant or have any doubts go out and rent a couple and jam around a lake or preferred body of water. Better yet, take a class and learn how to roll back over, as long as your learning your living.

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