Updated: May 20, 2021
Are you new to paddling? Choosing between a canoe and a kayak is a major decision because they each offer a unique paddling experience.
Many people aren’t clear on the key “canoe versus kayak” differences, which makes the task even more daunting. How they differ makes each one more suited to certain situations and paddling styles, so it’s important to know what sets them apart.
In this article, we’ll discuss the key differences between kayaks and canoes, including the cost, stability, design, and more. We’ll also highlight the pros and cons of each so you can decide which type of paddle craft would be the better purchase option for you.
Canoe vs Kayak: Which One is Which?
The first step to choosing between a canoe and a kayak is understanding which kind of paddle craft is which.
In general, a canoe is a paddle craft that has an open deck. The seats are positioned just below or level with the gunwale.
On the other hand, a kayak is a paddle craft that has a closed deck. The seats are positioned on top of the deck or in the interior bottom of the hull.
Canoe and Kayak Comparison
Let’s compare the key canoe vs kayak differences one at a time to help you decide which one best suits your paddling style and needs.
#1 – Cost
In general, a kayak will be more affordable than a canoe. If you’re on a really tight budget, an inflatable kayak will get you out on the water without breaking the bank.
#2 – Open vs Closed Cockpit
Canoes are designed with an open cockpit and gunwales that sit well above the waterline. On the other hand, kayaks have closed cockpits and sit lower on the waterline. So, you can stand up and move around carefully in a canoe, more like a traditional boat.
The open design and higher position on the water makes a canoe the better choice for fishing and exploring with kids or dogs. Although you can fish from a sit-inside kayak, a canoe allows for greater freedom of movement.
#3 – Sit-on-Top vs Sit Inside vs Open Seating
Most canoes come with two or three bench-style seats. The benches are attached to the sides of the cockpit. So, when the paddler sits in the canoe, he is positioned just below or level with the gunwale. The feet rest flat against the bilge, so it’s a lot like sitting in a normal chair.
On the other hand, kayaks require the paddler to sit inside or on top of the kayak. The paddler leans against a seatback and the legs extend forward with the feet resting on pegs or foot pedals. The knees rest against the underneath of the deck and the paddler utilizes them to help maneuver the craft.
Most people find canoes more comfortable than kayaks due to the open, bench-style seating.
#4 – Ease of Paddling
Canoes are paddled with one paddle, which is switched from side to side. Skilled paddlers use a technique called the J stroke, which allows them to paddle straight without the need to switch sides.
Kayaks are paddled with a double paddle that has a blade on each end. They simply alternate sides with the paddle to go forward, or paddle on one side to turn.
Most people find it easier to learn how to paddle a kayak, so it’s probably the better option for a beginner. You can even install a kayak sail kit which has its own benefits.
#5 – Staying Dry vs Getting Wet
Canoes sit higher in the water, so you are likely to stay dry in calm water. Kayaks sit low in the water, making you more exposed to spray. With either, a good dry bag to store your phone, wallet, and keys is invaluable.
However, a sit-inside kayak has a closed cockpit, which will keep you drier out on the open water, when the waves are high. You can also fit your kayak with a spray skirt to help you stay even drier and protect you from the wind.
A sit-on-top kayak offers the least amount of protection from wind and water, making it the best choice for warm climates. You will get wet, which will help you stay cool as you paddle.
#6 – Storage Space and Capacity for Short vs Multi-Day Excursions
Canoes generally have a larger capacity than kayaks, which means they can carry more gear and more people on longer excursions. You don’t have to empty the cargo holds of a canoe for portage across dry land, which can be a major advantage in some locations.
Kayaks are smaller than canoes, so they can’t carry as much gear and they’re generally designed to accommodate only one or two people. If you have to carry the kayak across dry land, you’ll need to empty all cargo from the vessel first, which can be a real pain, depending on where you’re traveling.
However, kayaks generally have more dry storage space. This can be a tremendous benefit on both long and short trips, especially if the water will be rough or there’s an unexpected rain shower.
#7 – Stability and Maneuverability
Canoes have wider hulls, so they’re more stable on the water. They’re also easier to get in and out of. However, their wider hulls also make them more difficult to maneuver and turn quickly. When a canoe capsizes, you’ll have to push it to shore to turn it upright again.
On the other hand, kayaks have narrow hulls, which makes them easier to maneuver and turn. They’re generally faster than a canoe, even with a solo paddler.
A sit-inside kayak is fairly easy to turn upright in the event of a capsize. However, the narrow hull also makes them less stable, easier to tip over, and more difficult to get in and out of.
But, at the end of the day, both vessels are pretty stable. It’s unlikely that you’ll capsize in either one unless you’re in very rough water.
#8 – Calm Water vs Adventure Activities
In general, a canoe’s wider hull makes it more suitable to calm water and gentle paddling. Kayaks are the better choice for whitewater and ocean paddling. Their smaller size makes them easier to maneuver in out of the way and tight places, so they’re better suited to adventure activities.
That said, a recreational kayak is great for gentle paddling on calm water. You can also get a canoe designed specifically for whitewater and ocean paddling. At the end of the day, they’re both quite versatile depending on the style of vessel you choose.
Pros/Cons of a Kayak
Kayaks come in a wide range of versatile designs. You can choose from a recreation kayak that’s best for calm water, a whitewater kayak for fast-moving water, a sea kayak for the ocean, a sit on top kayak to keep you cooler in warm climates, a sport kayak if you want to race, or an inflatable kayak for easiest storage and transport.
Here are the pros and cons of choosing a kayak.
Advantages of a Kayak
- Narrow hull design makes them faster and easier to paddle and maneuver on the water.
- Designed to be lightweight, which makes them easier to transport and store.
- Sit inside kayaks provide protection from sun, wind, and spray.
- Sit inside kayaks offer more dry storage.
- Sit inside kayaks are easier to turn upright in the event of a capsize.
- Learning how to paddle a kayak is fairly easy, making it perfect for a beginner.
- Kayaks are more suited to whitewater and ocean kayaking.
- Easier to store in the offseason (especially inflatable kayaks).
Disadvantages of a Kayak
- Due to their narrow hulls, kayaks tip over more easily than canoes.
- Their instability makes them harder to enter and exit.
- Kayaks generally have a lower load capacity, so they can’t accommodate as much gear.
- You’re more likely to get wet in a kayak.
Pros/Cons of a Canoe
There are also several different types of canoes to choose from, depending on your needs. You can get a recreational canoe, a whitewater canoe, or a racing canoe, based on your needs.
In general, all canoes share the following pros and cons.
Advantages of a Canoe
- Wider bottoms make canoes more stable in the water.
- Easier to enter and exit due to better stability and an open deck.
- Greater load capacity to allow for more passengers and gear.
- A higher seating position provides a better view.
- Portaging across land to water is usually easier because loading and unloading are easier.
- Comfort and capacity make them better suited to longer excursions.
- You can stand up in a canoe.
- Canoes are better suited for excursions with kids and dogs.
Disadvantages of a Canoe
- Open deck leaves you more exposed to spray, wind, and sun.
- A wider hull requires more effort to paddle and makes it more difficult to turn.
- Canoes are usually larger and heavier than kayaks, so they’re harder to transport and store.
- Learning to paddle a canoe takes more practice.
The Bottom Line: Which Should You Pick?
Choose a Canoe If:
If you want lots of space for people and gear and more stability for exploring with kids and pets, choose a kayak.
Choose a Kayak If:
If you’re a beginning paddler or you want speed and maneuverability in calm or rough water, choose a solo or tandem kayak.
At the end of the day, your decision will come down to personal preference and practicality. Carefully consider how you’ll use your paddle craft, the type of paddling you’ll do most, and how much storage and passenger capacity you’ll really need. No matter what you decide, getting out on the water is a great way to spend more time in nature and enjoy your leisure time!