Home Kayaks Kayak vs Canoe: Which is a Better Fit for you?

Kayak vs Canoe: Which is a Better Fit for you?

kayak vs canoe

Kayak vs. Canoe is a tough one.

Both are popular small water vessels that are, at times, easily confused among those who are unfamiliar with their differences. They each have recreational, transportation and hunting benefits.

I’ll explain in detail the features of each to help you decide which one is best for your task.

The History of Kayaks and Canoes

Kayaks date back thousands of years; they are traced back to the indigenous people of the North Atlantic Ocean and Article Circle. Eskimos used these small watercrafts to hunt and fish.

The word kayak means “hunter’s boat” in the Inuit and Eskimo language. They were made from driftwood, which was suitable for travel on inland bodies of water.

The Caribbean Islands are the source of canoes, according to the experts at the International Canoe Federation. Canoes were made from hollowed out tree trunks, which is much more suitable for open water. The Carib Indians used canoes to travel between islands.

A better-known version of a canoe has a frame of wooden ribs with lightweight bark from cedar, elm, or birch trees. The North American Indians created this design and used it to travel through lakes, rivers, and streams throughout North America.

The International Canoe Federation continues to explain that kayaks were primarily used in the northern hemisphere throughout history for individual transportation, hunting, and fishing.

People living in Greenland, Siberia, and North America used animal skins as added insulation, to prevent the cold waters from coming into their kayak vessels, according to the American Canoe Association.

Since canoes were more versatile and durable, North American tribes and Polynesians used them for long distance traveling, trade, and even warfare. Canoes could transport more than one person and heavier cargo simply based on the materials they were built from.

Kayak vs. Canoe What's the Difference?

The historical beginnings of these water vessels shaped the foundation of the modern versions of each. However, the basic concept of each boat remained the same throughout time.

Kayaks are closed boats and have a cockpit for the user to sit in. You use a double-blade paddle to guide and move kayaks from your seated position. Canoes are steered with single blade paddles and have an open boat frame for sitting or kneeling.

Modern versions of kayaks and canoes are both made from plastic. Kayaks are lighter and smaller, which make them built for speed. To prevent water from entering a kayak, you can use a kayak skirt to wrap around the cockpit and your torso.

Canoes are larger and heavier than kayaks. The deck on a canoe is open so that they can fit two or three people in addition to cargo and gear. These are popular choices for camping since you can pack a bag, fit a tent, sleeping bag, and bring food with you as well.

The single blade paddles of a canoe help you conserve more energy, which makes them more suitable for longer trips. Canoes are also better suited for calm waters, whereas kayaks can handle waves, rapids, and rougher currents.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Kayak?

Kayaks have plenty of features that make them a top choice watercraft. However, in addition to those benefits, there are some negatives as well. I’ve outlined some of the major pros and cons of kayak usage.


  • Kayaks are fast, agile, and easily maneuverable.
  • Most kayaks have the ability to roll over without taking on water.
  • You can use a kayak in the open water and during rough weather conditions.
  • Rubber rudders help you steer during windy conditions and strong currents.
  • It’s easy for a beginner to learn how to navigate with a two bladed paddle.


  • You cannot bring too much gear or equipment with you on a kayak since they are small and compact.
  • Comfort is not ideal for long trips or extended periods of time using a kayak.
  • Today, there are two person kayaks available for purchase, but more often than not, kayaks are not meant for more than one person.
  • Compared to a canoe, kayaks are less stable and easily tip over, according to outdoors specialist Rob Streeter at the Times Union.

You need to balance the pros and cons based on what you are looking for. If you’re heading on a long camping journey, a kayak probably isn’t the best choice. But if you want a fun workout for a couple of hours in rough water, you’ll want to use a kayak rather than a canoe.

What Are the Benefits of Using a Canoe?

Canoes also have plenty of great features that make them a great option to choose from. Just like kayaks, they also have some downsides and pitfalls. Here are the pros and cons of using a Canoe on the water.


  • Canoes can fit multiple passengers, which make them suitable for families.
  • Paddling a canoe is easy and requires little to no experience.
  • They are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, depending on what you want to use them for.
  • Since canoes are large and have plenty of room, you can fit extra gear for camping, hunting, or fishing, in addition to extra passengers.
  • Multiple riders mean paddling is easier since you can take turns or paddle at the same time.
  • Canoes are higher off the water, which makes it harder for the water to get inside the vessel.
  • Canoes do not tip over as easily as a kayak, and they are much more stable.


  • The paddling motion of a single paddle is more difficult to learn than the two blade paddles used on a kayak.
  • Canoes are heavy, which make them more difficult to maneuver and make sharp turns in the water.
  • Unlike a kayak, which can flip over and be fine, a canoe will sink if it starts taking on too much water.
  • Canoes are made for calm waters and are not suitable in rapids, strong currents, or ocean waves.

If you want to take your family on a weekend camping trip on a calm lake, a canoe is your best choice. However, if you plan to spend time in the ocean or water with rough weather conditions, leave the canoe at home and bring a kayak instead.

What Are the Legal Conditions of Operating a Canoe or Kayak?

If you recently purchased a canoe or kayak, it’s important to understand all the legal terms to make sure your vessel complies with local and national laws. Some of these regulations will vary from state to state, but many of them overlap.

Check with your state's boating laws for an in-depth description of requirements needed to own and operate a canoe and kayak. In addition to the state laws in your state, you should reference the United States Coast Guard Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats handbook.

Some examples of these rules include registering any canoe or kayak that is also operated by a motor or sail. If you are operating the craft in waters under the United States Coast Guard’s jurisdiction, you’ll need a navigational light between sunset and sunrise.

Personal flotation devices are required for anyone under the age of 13 years old if they are an operator or passenger on a kayak or canoe. In certain states and parks, personal flotation devices are required for people of all ages while operating these watercrafts.

It is often required for you to wear a helmet if you are operating your kayak in rough waters such as river on state property. It’s also important to check the local laws if you plan to camp, hunt, or fish while operating a kayak or canoe. Those laws vary from each state as well.

Is it Easier to Learn How to Ride a Kayak or Canoe?

When you are first learning how to use a kayak or canoe, it’s imperative that you have someone with you that can teach you how to operate it safely. For example, someone needs to teach you how to avoid capsizing your kayak.

You should not ride alone, regardless of if you are using a kayak or a canoe, especially as a beginner. As a safety precaution, you should always wear a personal flotation device such as a life jacket or even a helmet in certain circumstances.

If you are a beginner, it will be easier for you to learn how to paddle and use a kayak. The two bladed paddles are easier to steer and maneuver with. Plus, kayaks are much lighter than canoes.

Learning to use a canoe requires some coaching from a skilled teacher and co-pilot. You can probably figure it out on your own if you don’t like asking for help, but I recommend riding along with an experienced co-pilot for your first canoe session on the water.

How Do I Decide Between a Kayak and Canoe?

So if you are debating whether or not you should buy a kayak or canoe, try to think about what you will use your new vessel for the most. If you want to be able to bring friends or family along with you, then a canoe is the obvious choice.

For those of you that want some excitement or adventure during a solo ride, a kayak is a more suitable choice. Another option to consider is your geographic location. Will you be spending time on lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, or oceans? Are you inland or coastal?

Remember, you can make changes or alterations to your new watercraft after you purchase it. These changes are based on your needs and what exactly you’ll be using the kayak for.

For example, if you plan on spending extended periods of time in your kayak, you may decide to swap out the original seat with a customized one designed for comfort. You can also replace the foot braces with ones that are more for your style and comfort.

According to the Go Canoeing Organization, the first thing you should do after purchasing a new kayak or canoe is to fill out the manufacturer’s guarantee card. They continue saying that there are plenty of second kayaks and canoes that you can buy used.

A used boat will likely have scratches and scuffs, but that’s normal and shouldn’t turn you off. You want to examine the craft for holes, loose bolts, and check the seat, bow, and stern thoroughly.

Are you still undecided on which boat is best for you? Try renting one of each for the day. Give them a try and see which one you feel most comfortable in. You probably wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it, so the same concept applies here.

Safety Tips for Operating Kayaks and Canoes

Before you plan a trip on the water, check the weather and tide information. Be prepared to adjust or even cancel your plans if the weather and tide are unfavorable and causing unsafe water conditions.

You should wear bright clothing and attach reflective tape to your paddle and vessel to increase visibility, according to the SA Government Boating Safety page. You should always carry a means of communication with you as well.

Be on the lookout for larger boats and keep a safe distance from them at all times. You will clearly be able to see them, but they may not always be able to see you.

Take a moment to assess your personal fitness and skill level. Do not embark on a journey that you can’t complete. You do not want to get stranded out in the water because you are physically unable to continue the trip. Always bring water, food, and a safety kit with you.

So if you're stuck on Kayak vs. Canoe, just remember, there is no right answer to which watercraft is best. It just comes down to personal preference. Just make sure you follow all safety precautions, regardless of which one you purchase.

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