Kayak vs Canoe | Differences, Makes & Models, Historical Facts

As many outdoor enthusiasts know, there have been plenty of instances where the words kayak and canoe have been misused or misread. Truth is, the two are very similar. They’re virtually the same thing when looking at it from a bird’s eye view. However, there are some stark contrasts between a kayak and canoe, and not everyone knows what those differences are.

In this article, we’ll take a look at kayak vs canoe and how to spot the difference between the two.

What’s the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe?

The main difference between canoeing and kayaking is the type of vessel you choose. There are plenty of unique features that each vessel has, and to know which vessel to choose, you have to see what you’re working with.

As a beginner, one thing to assess is how important having a certain feature is to you. This feature may be cost-effective pricing, mobility, design, and so forth. These concepts are what’s going to pull you either in the direction of a kayak or a canoe.

Let’s find out more below.

Design and Appearance

Canoes are bigger and heavier than kayaks because they have a broader frame and taller sides. Canoes mostly have an open deck that looks similar to your standard rowboat.

Kayaks are relatively smaller than canoes, with a narrow, sleek design. Kayaks are designed for speed and mobility.

The hull design differences are what sets these two water vessels apart.


Price is a variable thing when it comes to choosing the right boat.

The components to consider choosing between a canoe or kayak are:

  • design
  • materials
  • additional features
  • accessories
  • brand name

These factors influence how much you’re willing (and able) to invest in the water vessel and sport you want to pursue.

Kayak prices are usually lower than canoes. This is because they’re essentially smaller, lower, and narrower in size.

Woman in Red Kayak

Load Capacity

Another big difference between a canoe and kayak is the load capacity. While a kayak may hold around 200 to 450 pounds on average, canoes have more space on board and the load capacity to match.

Canoes can carry at least twice the weight and load capacity of a kayak, with the ability to carry up to 900+ pounds.

Kayaks are also commonly meant to carry only a single paddler. Yes, tandem kayaks do exist, but a kayak’s design and weight capacity are naturally suited for solo trips.

Canoe rides are way less lonely because you get to fill your boat with gear and a passenger or two. Keep in mind, though, that canoes are much heavier to transport to and from the water.

Intended Uses

A canoe ride is a perfect choice for unwinding. The slow, gentle movements of the vessel are ideal for a relaxing afternoon out on a calm lake. Canoe rides are filled with family, fun, and playful adventure.

Then you have the kayak.  This adrenaline-infused vessel is mostly used for those risky explorers and extreme-sport enthusiasts. The kayak is a lean, mean, fighting machine for those who dare to dabble in the hazards of the wilderness.


These are the common uses for a canoe vs kayak, but the inverse could also be true. There are some canoes that are used for competitive sports and some kayaks that are used for simple relaxation and family fun. How you use either one is completely up to your own preference and intent for your machine.

Extreme Kayaking

Seating Positions

Some kayaks have the luxury of padded seats and accompanying backrests, although not all of them. Having these perks also helps relieve some lower back pain and discomfort from extensive paddling sessions.

Canoers might vouch more for the freedom of movement one has on an open deck. Having the privilege to switch from one seat to another is all you need sometimes, and ease of movement is quite easier in a canoe. Although, kayaks have also been modified to carry the same ease in shifting seating positions.

Paddle Design & Use

Both kayakers and canoers use paddles, but these paddles differ in design and use. Kayakers use double-bladed paddles that have 90-degree offset blades on each end. These blades are made to boost efficiency with every stroke.

Canoe paddles have a single-blade design with a T-shaped knob on the other end. Canoe paddles require moving them from one side to the other with every row.

Green Canoe

Historical Difference Between Kayak and Canoe

Just like with other forms of sports and modes of transport, they all started somewhere and adapted with time. Kayaks and canoes have played both practical and leisurely roles throughout the course of history.

Both the canoe and the kayak originally began as modes of transport for hunting, gathering food, wars, and general moving around. It wasn’t until much later that people discovered that these activities had the potential to become recreational, let alone competitive sports.

Here’s more on the history of canoes and kayaks.

The History of Canoes

Throughout history, canoes have taken many shapes and forms.  The materials used in canoes have ranged from logs, animal skins and tree bark.

Canoes were invented and mainly used for basic transportation, trade, and in some instances, for war. The design of each canoe varied, depending on its use and where it was built.

The word canoe originates from the Carib word kenu, which translates as ‘dugout’.  The name makes sense when you think about the hollow shell of the canoe.

These seafaring vessels were used by the Carib Indians of the Caribbean islands. The Carib Indians’ canoes were made of large tree trunks shaped and hollowed. These creations were strong enough to travel between the islands.

The earliest canoe, now known as the Pesse canoe, was first discovered in the Netherlands and dated back to 8200 BC. This canoe is the oldest known boat globally.

The indigenous people of America are also renowned for their canoes. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans were fascinated by the canoe designs they encountered when exploring the area.  This particular intrigue then played a pivotal role in the European exploration of North America and the perfection of the canoe design.

The material used to make canoes has been modified over time to cater to the changing needs of its users. Canoes were historically dugouts made of bark or wood. Makers then transitioned from dugout wooden frames to canvas on wood frames, and then to aluminium.

The most common material to make canoes today is rotomolded polyethene. The material is popular because it’s flexible, resistant and relatively cheap. Fiberglass has also been a conventional material to use. The material adds value to the canoe in that it’s ultra-light, very responsive, durable and easy to repair.

Of course, wood also remains a popular option because it has a touch of nostalgia attached to it and makes you feel like an old-time explorer. It is also considered art to be able to make canoes with wood. Something which an artisan can spend weeks carving out and preparing for the rigorous journeys ahead.

Old Wooden Canoe

The History of Kayaks

The first kayaks can be dated back to about 5000 years ago. The first designs were created by the Inuit and Aleut people, whose intentions were to travel swiftly across the water.

These tribes, situated in Arctic North America, would assemble the kayaks out of whatever types of material they could find at the time. These materials included animal skins, bones and wood.

Kayak history could also be pointed towards Greenland, where the Eskimos used kayaks to get around. Kayak (ki ak), translated in Eskimo, means ‘man-boat’.

This man-boat was found mainly in the northern parts of the world, such as North America, Siberia and Greenland. They were primarily used as an ideal transportation model when hunting and fishing.

Kayaks were made to ensure that the icy Arctic water did not enter the boat. They were designed to stretch animal skins over a wooden frame and typically only carried one man at a time.

Kayaks were introduced in Europe during the mid-18th century as a soft-sided vessel for sailing across the cold waters. While tribes in the Arctic still used the boats for exploring, the Germans and French became the first people to use kayaks for recreational purposes.

The material you’ll find in kayaks today is heavy-duty polyethlene plastics that can last up to 15 years when properly taken care of.

Old Log Kayak

Where to Go Canoeing vs Kayaking?

You can go kayaking or canoeing anywhere where there’s water. It can either be on the vast waters of the ocean,or the timid streams of your local canal.

Canoes and kayaks can be pretty expensive and hard to store and transport. So if you’re looking to go canoeing or kayaking, it’s best to check on Google for a hire point near you. Where there’s water, there tend to be boats as well.

Different Types of Kayaks and Canoes

There’s plenty of consideration that goes into deciding which water boat suits you best. Yes, we’ve gone through the basic structure of what makes a kayak and canoe. But now, let’s dive deeper into the different types of canoes and kayaks. 

Different Types of Kayaks

As the years have evolved, so have the makings of the kayak. Kayaks may look the same in the eye’s of a rookie, but the more experienced enthusiasts know that there are different kayaks for different occasions. 

There are two main types of kayaks. These are:

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks are the classic kayaks that have been customized with an enclosed cockpit. The lower body sits underneath the deck. When the enclosed deck is paired with a spray skirt, it manages to keep the paddler and the cockpit dry. 

Sit-On Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks have a relatively open, molded deck that features drains or scupper holes to remove excess water. There’s no cockpit, which leaves your entire body exposed to the elements. Sit-On-Top kayaks are better suited for warmer climates. 

Both SIK and SOT kayaks are available as singles or tandems and as hard shells or inflatables. 

Categories of Kayaks

There’s a kayak for every season and every reason. So, whether you like taking it to the extreme or playing it cool on the waters, it’s still worthwhile to find out which kayak best suits you.

Recreational Kayaks

A recreational kayak works best if you’re paddling on still waters or if you’re looking for a beginner kayak. These waters are considered as lakes, slow-moving rivers, and sheltered coastal areas. 

This kayak is typically 9 to 12 feet long and wide enough to ensure initial stability without compromising mobility. It’s stable, reliable, comfortable, and the easiest to control. 

Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are sometimes considered “playboats“ because of how tiny they can be. The average whitewater kayak measures just under 6 feet. 

The wider and shorter hull enables a whitewater kayak to maintain stability and mobility even when tossed around in the harsh whitewater rapids. 

Racing Kayaks

Racing kayaks are long, slender, lightweight boats that can reach up to 36 feet long. The defining detail of a racing kayak is a pronounced rocker. A rocker is the degree of curvature in the hull from bow to stern. The curvature helps kayaks ‘roll’ with the water to avoid capsizing. 

Racing kayaks are primarily made for flat water marathons and sprints. They do have the speed to go the extra mile, but they lack stability and require a rudder for tracking. 

Whitewater Kayaking

Categories of Canoes

Canoes have been used for thousands of years to transport people and goods around the world. The transition from ‘prehistoric dugout’ to  ‘modern-day canoe’ was long and tedious. Surprisingly enough, the core design is still the same. 

The classic canoe still has a large hull and open deck.  The sides, known as gunwales, come up higher above the waterline to offer more protection on the waters. Then, the final touch is a bench-like seat on either end. 

Just like kayaks, canoes have also adopted different models for different reasons and seasons. These are the different categories of canoes out there:

Recreational Canoes

Recreational canoes are a great solution for family activities and leisure paddling on lakes and slow-moving rivers. They are praised for their stability, steadiness, and ease of use. If you have ever seen a canoe before, chances are that it was a recreational one. 

Whitewater Canoes

Whitewater sports are usually known as kayaking territory. However, some canoes can handle rough, turbulent waters as well. A whitewater canoe is a shorter version of the classic canoe. The only difference is that it comes with higher sides, a more curved profile, and front and back flotation panels.

Racing Canoes

Racing canoes feature a narrower body, sit lower in the water, and usually don’t have bench seats, which makes for optimal speed and initial stability. 



Kayaking Gear & Precautions

A significant difference between kayaks and canoes that we’ve highlighted so far is the proximity of the boat to the water. A kayak is lower and closer to the water than a canoe, which requires your paddles to be stronger and more durable. 

Do not skimp on or try to interchange kayak paddles with canoe paddles. They are different for a reason.

In a sit-in kayak, there is only one small hole where water can enter the boat, and it happens to be the same place you’ll be sitting in. It might be harder to get water out if it does get in, although this is only in extreme cases. To avoid this, kayakers usually wear a spray deck to prevent water from getting into their boat. Doing this will make it a bit harder to get out of the kayak, but it does ensure that you’re protected throughout your excursion. Again, this is only for extra precautions and is largely based on the type of kayak you’re using. 

Once you’re familiar with the basics of kayaking and using a spray deck. Another technique that’s beneficial is learning how to perfect an ‘eskimo roll’. This technique is used to recover if you ever capsize a kayak. This technique is more useful for sit-in kayaks than sit-on-top kayaks.

The Eskimo roll is a great skill to learn in the event that your kayak is upside down in the water. The technique involves you using your paddle and body to force your kayak back upright without ever leaving the vessel. 

Pretty neat, right?

Canoeing and Kayaking Essentials

Even when adventure calls and adrenaline pumps vigorously through your body, it’s important to be safe on the water. The ocean is a great place to lose

Here are some crucial essentials that you’ll need for your trip:

  • canoe or kayak (to state the obvious)
  • multiple water bottles
  • dry clothes sealed in a waterproof bag
  • the right paddle for canoe or kayak
  • life vest or jacket
  • Helmet (if whitewater kayaking)
  • first aid kit
  • repair kit for your boat
  • a small pack of high energy foods
  • mobile phone sealed in a waterproof container
  • spare paddle

Red Canoe

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between a Kayak and Canoe

Whether kayaks or canoes are better is a complex topic that could go on forever. There’s no real conclusion other than personal preference and intended purpose.

There’s plenty to see and know about these wonderful water machines. Whether you’re a beginner trying to dip your toes in the water or an expert enthusiast who enjoys the raging waves of the ocean.

If you’re a beginner who’s still struggling to decide, the best way to figure out what you’re into is to simply try it out. Join a local club and raise your skills in a safe and helpful environment.

To anyone who’s planning on taking a deep dive anytime soon, make sure your preparation and skills are good enough for the paddling activity you have planned ahead.