Canoe vs Kayak, WHICH IS BETTER? - Safecastle

Canoe vs Kayak, WHICH IS BETTER?

Gather a roomful of paddlers, and you'll ignite a debate hotter than a campfire on a July night. Canoe versus kayak? It's the age-old question, capable of fueling arguments fiercer than the rapids of the Grand Canyon. But for newbies dipping their toes into the paddling world, the answer often remains shrouded in murky confusion.

Fear not, landlubbers! This ain't no time for soggy bottoms and bewildered brains. I, a seasoned paddler with years of lake, river, and ocean under my keel (and yes, a perpetually damp posterior), am here to guide you through the treacherous waters of canoe vs. kayak. By the end, you'll be a river-running raconteur, confidently spitting out the difference between these aquatic steeds like a pro.

One of the most common questions, which was actually quite sensible, was "Is this a kayak or a canoe? And after all, what is the difference?"

As it turns out, it's not just children who confuse their canoes with their kayaks. So, to clear things up, this canoe vs kayak guide will leave you never questioning the difference again. It will also help you find out which one is best for you if you're thinking about investing your time and money in paddling.

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Canoe vs kayak: what's the difference?

There are many types of canoes and kayaks; some are so specialized that it's not immediately obvious which category they fit into. So, to keep things simple, here are the fundamental differences between canoes and kayaks.


Canoes are often called 'open' with sides that stick high out of the water. To the discerning learner, this would indicate the lack of a cockpit and that the boats are completely open – like a rowing boat!

On the other hand, Kayaks are known as 'enclosed' with a cockpit for the paddler to sit inside. They sit much lower in the water than canoes, so the paddler often wears spray skirts to prevent water from entering the kayak through the cockpit.


Canoes typically have a bench-style seat to lift the paddler off the boat's floor. Most canoes have two seats and sometimes three. Some kayakers prefer to kneel on the ground. This position is often adopted under challenging conditions to generate more energy behind your strokes.

Kayakers sit on a bench, usually molded to the bottom of the kayak, with their legs in front of them. Kayakers use their knees to brace themselves against the kayak's sides, and advanced paddlers will use this to their advantage when paddling.


Canoes are paddled with a single paddle (not an oar!), which can be used on either side of the canoe. Rowers can adopt what is known as a "J" stroke, which allows them to row in a straight line without switching sides all the time.

Canoes use a double reed with a paddling "blade" on both ends. They will paddle on alternating sides to drive the kayak forward.

Different types of canoes

Generally, canoe shapes and sizes only vary slightly if one looks closely at highly specialized canoes. The main types of canoes are:

recreational canoes

  • Usually between 13ft and 17ft in length, recreational canoes are designed to be stable and easily controlled by one to three paddlers. These are the most common type of canoe and are very much at home on slow waters and lakes.

White water canoes

  • These are shorter than recreational canoes and are explicitly designed to be paddled by one or two people in fast-moving waters. They are much less stable, faster, and more maneuverable than recreational canoes. They often have buoyancy panels at the front and back of the boat to help deal with excess water entering the canoe.

Racing canoes

  • Racing canoes are much narrower, sit lower in the water than recreational canoes, and are designed specifically for solo or duo racing. Paddlers in racing canoes adopt a half-kneeling, half-sitting posture for optimal power and speed.

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Different types of kayak

Many will argue that kayaking is much more versatile than canoeing. Whether this is the case or not, there are certainly more types of kayaks to choose from than canoes. All with particular purposes. These include:

Recreational kayaks

  • At around 9-12 feet in length, recreational kayaks are best suited for paddling on flat, calm waters: lakes, slow-moving rivers, canals, and sheltered coastal areas. They are stable, relatively comfortable, easy to control, and quite tricky to turn.

White water kayak

  • These are shorter and wider than recreational kayaks, making them highly reactive and buoyant when thrown into white water. Their length varies depending on their function, with pleasure boats as short as 5.5 feet and river runners as long as 8 or 9 feet.

Tourist and marine water kayaks

  • At 12-18 feet long, these are much longer and thinner than recreational kayaks and are designed to go faster and further. They usually have storage racks at the front and back of the kayak, and many are also equipped with skegs (or rudders) to help with steering.

Sit-on-top kayaks

  • Often used in warmer climates, sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks do not have a cockpit but a molded top for paddlers to sit on rather than inside. They are ideal for exploring flat, calm waters or fishing and diving. Only basic knowledge is required to paddle SOTs, making them great for families and beginners.

Inflatable kayaks

  • It's much less durable than other kayaks but no less fun. Inflatable kayaks are used similarly to SOTs but are much more transportable and accommodate two people more often than not. They look more like canoes in their open form but are paddled with a double reed, offering comfort and play for families and children.

Racing kayaks

  • Racing kayaks are long, lean, and light and can be run with one, two, or four people per boat. They are between 17 and 36 feet long (depending on how many rowers are inside them), sit very low in the water, and have a rudder to help with steering. They are primarily rowed in flat water for sprints or marathons.

Canoe vs kayak: which is better?

So, now you know the difference between the two, the question of which is better is next on the agenda. Now, this is not a question to ask an avid kayaker; for them, it is a simple answer: the kayak is the better of the two. And, you guessed it, ask a canoe fan the same question, and of course, they will most likely say that canoeing is undoubtedly better than kayaking. But they must have asked the same question at some point, and they can't both be right.

Or can they?

Let's take a closer look at the canoe versus kayak argument, highlighting its pros and cons.

Pros and cons of canoe vs kayak

Pros for Kayaking

  • You can carry a lot of gear easily in a canoe.

  • They are ideal for extended expeditions due to their comfort and transport capacity.

  • Canoes are more stable than kayaks and more challenging to capsize.

  • You can vary your sitting position, making it more comfortable than kayaking – especially for long distances.

  • You can get up.

  • Once you've learned the basics, mastering canoeing is quicker and easier than kayaking.

  • Paddling without paddling in white water, you won't get too wet in a canoe.

  • You have a better view of your surroundings than in a kayak.

  • Portaging (by-passing sections of the river on land) regularly on a trip is much more manageable than in a kayak – especially if you carry a lot of gear.

  • Li>Can quickly bring small children and dogs out of the water.

  • Canoes are easy to get in and out of

Cons for canoeing

  • Heavy, significant, and can be challenging to transport.

  • It is initially difficult to master basic rowing skills – especially as a solo rower.

  • Canoes absorb more water than kayaks when paddling in white water.

  • Single paddles are less efficient than double paddles.

  • It takes more effort to paddle a canoe at maximum speed than to paddle a kayak at top pace.

Pros for Kayaking

  • It's quick and easy to learn the basics of kayaking.

  • Kayaks go faster, with less effort exerted by the paddler, than canoes do

  • There is much more variety in kayaking disciplines than in canoeing.

  • Your gear will be drier in a kayak than in a canoe (as long as you don't tip over!)

  • They are lighter and easier to transport than canoes.

  • Kayaks are more maneuverable than canoes.

  • Kayaks handle white water better than canoes

  • You are close to the water in a kayak, making you feel much more connected to the water than a canoe.

  • Double kayak paddles are more efficient than single canoe paddles.

Cons for Kayaking

  • It's unlikely you'll emerge from a kayaking session completely dry.

  • It can take a long time to master more advanced kayaking skills.

  • Transitioning from flat-water kayaking to fast-moving water can be scary.

  • Using a spray skirt can be tricky for apprentices and improvers.

  • Double blades are heavier than single blades.

Canoeing vs kayaking: the verdict

As you may have already noticed, there are many merits to both canoeing and kayaking, and the route you choose to take largely depends on your situation and preferences. It would help if you tried both before dedicating all your time and money to one or the other. So, if you're still not sure, here are a few more things to consider:

Where will you paddle the most?

  • Cruise along flat lakes and lazy rivers with a cooler full of food and beers floating in your boat. Or would it be better suited to carrying some grade 4 rapids, swallowing as much water as air?

Who will you row with?

  • Do you anticipate time alone in the water, or will it be a family affair? If you have children, how old are they? Will your dog paddle with you?

What type of strokes would you like to do?

  • Are you traveling for days at a time deep into the desert? Or do you prefer a quick hour here and there flexing your paddling muscles?

What car do you have?

  • Is it a tiny Mini without a roof rack? Or do you have a huge truck?

If you've made it this far, some of you may wonder what I think is best. Having spent a lot of time teaching and enjoying canoeing and kayaking on flat lakes and whitewater rivers, I can give a decisive answer. Unfortunately, my answer is that it largely depends on you as a person, your setup in terms of practicality and convenience, and what you want to get out of your time on the water.

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