Kayak Or Canoe, Which is Best for you?

Even though you might very well be able to tell the difference between a kayak and a canoe, simply by looking at them, many people can’t. They often mix them up, even though they differ in quite a few areas. In the article below, I will try to touch upon the history of both kayaking, and canoeing, and we will take a look at some of their similarities and differences. We will also see what kind of people each of the boats is best suited for, and who should buy what.

The history of canoeing vs. the history of kayaking

Hunter kayak harpooningThe accounts are pretty different, and both sports started developing in various parts of the world. Well, at least in the beginning. The oldest example of a canoe is the Pesse Canoe. Experts believe that it dates somewhere between 8,000 and 7,500 BC. This is a simple dugout, and it was recovered near Pesse in Holland, during the construction of a new motorway, hence the name Pesse Canoe. And, it isn’t just the world’s oldest canoe, it is also the oldest boat ever found, of any type.

There is evidence that these kinds of canoes, dugout canoes, were used all around the world in the prehistoric times by various people. This also includes people such as the Aborigines and the Amazon rainforest tribes. However, the greatest advances in canoe development were made in North America. When the Europeans initially explored the interior of the continent, they noticed that locals used a more sophisticated design. Namely, their canoes were made of birch bark, which was stretched over a frame made of wood. These are considered the predecessors of today’s boats which are made of metal, fiberglass, and plastic. And, this is why the open top canoes are often known among people as Canadian Canoes.

Inuit kayak historyAs far as kayaks go, their history is a little different. Their origins can be traced back to one particular period, unlike the canoes. It is believed that the kayak was invented by the Inuit tribes, who lived in the far north, on territories that currently belong to Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. The first kayaks were mainly made with seal skins which were stretched over a wooden frame, and their primary purpose was to be used as a hunting boat. When you couldn’t find wood, you’d use carved whale bones. They were pretty sleek and very quiet, and they were ideal if you wanted to sneak up to an animal, such as a seal, undetected.

a black and white picture of kayaks nunavukThe first Europeans to take up kayaking were the Scandinavian explorers and missionaries, and locals even taught them essential techniques such as the Eskimo roll. There was a public demonstration of the Eskimo roll in Norway in 1889, and the person who demonstrated it is known as Oluf Christian Dietrichson, a member of the Greenland expedition which was led by a Norwegian explorer, Nansen. However, kayaking as a sport only caught up in Europe in the 20th century, around the same time as other sports such as alpine skiing. However, when it did catch up in Europe, kayaking as a sport grew up rapidly. Alongside a few pre-existing canoe disciplines, it was featured in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, as a demonstration sport. However, the two paddle sports were completely integrated into the games 12 years later, in the infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936. Nowadays, both kayakers and canoeists compete in two disciplines, sprint, and slalom, and the competitor’s race in four seater kayaks, two seater kayaks, or single seat kayaks, and there is a variety of distances.

What is the difference between a kayak and a canoe?

multiple kayaks and canoesThe general opinion is actually that a kayak can be considered a type of canoe. If you’re discussing “canoeing,” as a recreational activity, it may refer to paddling either a kayak or a canoe. However, kayak enthusiasts will tell you that paddling a kayak is known as “kayaking.” Both of the boats are lightweight, and they’re both meant to be used primarily on lakes and rivers. They’re also both human-powered, and for that, paddles are used. Both can be used for plenty of recreational activities, such as fishing, for example, and they both can travel in shallow waters. However, now that you know how they’re similar, it’s time to take a look at the differences.

If you see them from a distance, there is one thing you can use to distinguish them from each other. The paddlers, if in a canoe, usually sit on a seat, or kneel. However, kayakers are seated lower down, on the bottom of the boat, and their legs are stretched out in front. The paddles are also different since paddlers prefer single-bladed paddles when in a canoe, and double-bladed paddles in a kayak.

a green canoeThe next difference is the deck. A kayak will almost always come with a closed deck. This ensures that the inside, such as the storage place for your gear, is enclosed, and it surrounds the paddler. On the other hand, canoes have an open deck, which leaves the inside of the boat uncovered and open. Due to this, if you carry gear inside your canoe, be prepared for it to get wet in case waters get rough.

If you ask someone who knows, they will tell you that canoes and kayaks are made for different purposes. There is a good analogy here; you can compare them like you can compare a sport-utility vehicle to a sports car. The canoe would be the sport-utility vehicle since it can carry more people and more supplies. Therefore, it is better suited for people or whole families who want to leisurely paddle around calm lakes. The kayaks would take the spot of the sports car here. You don’t get as much storage options, both for passengers and supplies. However, their sleek hull design usually makes them faster, and they’re better suited for competitive water sports like white water rapids racing.

The consensus is that a kayak is made to be faster, and agiler. However, in the hands of an experienced paddler who knows what he’s doing, most canoes can travel as fast as a comparable kayak. However, overall, kayaks are made for speed, while canoes are made for stability and roominess.

a man in a yellow canoeBesides the boats being different, you will notice that the techniques for paddling both vessels are different. Since the canoe has a single bladed paddle, there is a t-handle on the other side. One hand holds that handle, while the other hand is used to hold halfway down the paddle. With this grip, canoeists can alternate strokes on both sides of the boat, and therefore compensate for having only one blade.

However, kayakers have a double bladed paddle. What this means is that they can grab the paddle in the middle, and use alternating strokes, pushing themselves first with the left blade, and then the right blade in the water. The blades are set at a 90-degree angle to each other, which means that the paddler should know the required twisting technique to maximize his pushing power and minimize the wind resistance. Kayakers also have some advanced techniques that they can learn, such as the Eskimo roll. The maneuver lets you use your hips and the paddle to right the kayak after it has capsized. Since the canoe has an open deck, as mentioned earlier, this is pretty much impossible to do.

a man kayaking in  africaThe fact that canoes and kayaks have pretty different strengths, as well as weaknesses, if you want to go kayaking or canoeing abroad, you should consider the destinations you want to visit. There are plenty of places that you can enjoy in a kayak, but they would be impossible to enjoy in a canoe, and vice versa. The general public opinion is that flat waterways are better suitable for canoes. They are usually easier to navigate, so if you want to explore inland waterways, a canoe is usually the way to go. For example, if you want to go canoeing, popular places include France and Holland. Kayaking abroad, on the other hand, often comes with the possibility of going white water kayaking. This requires the complete opposite of canoeing conditions and asks that you head to the mountains, where you can find fast rivers. For example, travelers in Nepal and northern India love kayaking. Uganda is also considered an incredible place for serious paddlers, mostly because of the White Nile. Another popular option is the Zambezi River in Zambia and Zimbabwe as well. You will also find that there are sea kayaks, which are boats that aren’t suitable for white water, but instead for waves, as well as sea conditions. They’re an excellent way to see the coastline of a country, as well as explore any outlying islands. For example, Florida and Puerto Rico are two pretty popular kayaking locations. If you’re nearby, you can also find great sea kayaking spots in Scotland as well.

Debunking some pretty popular myths in regards to canoeing vs kayaking

If you’re still undecided, you will undoubtedly run into a few myths on this topic. However, most of them aren’t true and are simply there to steer you towards one or the other model by sellers. Let’s take a look at a few of them and how true they are.

a man doing kayak tricks in the rapids1. Paddling a canoe requires more skill than a kayak

This is in no way true. This may seem to be the case when you see a beginner. If he’s in a kayak, on a calm lake, he will look good, whereas if he’s in a canoe, he will need some skill to be able to maneuver it. However, for any rougher conditions, all of this falls apart, as you’re on your own in a solo kayak. You can’t possibly learn everything you need in one season. The point is that if you’re a beginner, you can get around in calm water easier on a kayak. However, once you master both, you can do equally well in any of them. The only difference is the canoe’s steeper learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. Kayaks, on the other hand, are easy if you need the basics, but the advanced techniques require quite some time and practice.

canoe race in rapids2. A kayak is faster than a canoe

This one is simple physics, and it is also not true. Both are hulls, and their highest speed depends on their length. If the boat is thinner, it is faster. You will find that you can go equally fast in both a fat canoe, as well as a skinny kayak, as long as they’re the same length. The difference is that the kayak since it has the less wetted surface might be easier to paddle. The ease of paddling, and not the speed, is why some people would prefer a kayak over a canoe.

3. A single paddle is much harder to use than a double paddle

Harder? No, but it is less efficient. A double blade paddle is more efficient because the effort you put into returning one blade into the catch position is the same energy that powers the different blade. However, the double blade paddle is also much heavier than a single blade paddle used in a canoe, which means that you’ll lift more weight. And, since there’s a rotational difference between the two blades, the wind can cause resistance and require that you regularly rotate the shaft to counter this. In the long run, this is known to cause tendonitis, which is why some paddlers opt for non-directional blades, as they can’t be feathered.

4. A canoe is far less comfortable than a kayak

canoe seatThis is a result of the significant difference in the construction. As mentioned earlier, a sit in kayak has a closed hull design, whereas a canoe has an open one. When you’re inside the kayak, you’re wearing it. What this means is that you’re stuck inside. Situations such as portages, downed trees, or even docks, are potential problems when you want to get in or out of the kayak. This is even more of a problem if you aren’t athletic. Your dog won’t like your kayak. Your grandma won’t like your kayak either. You will be pretty cramped inside the kayak, and the fact that your legs are out in front of you will make them fall asleep. Water will run by the paddle drip rings into your lap. Sure, you can wear a spray skirt, or a dry suit top. But, do you want that in the summer heat?

On the other hand, when you’re in a canoe, regardless of whether you’re seating, or kneeling, you’re in a higher position. You have a better view of what’s ahead, and the seat of the canoe will give you a much better view of the surrounding wildlife. If you want to photograph or fish, you also get a much more stable platform due to the height you’re at.

The verdict: who needs what

types of kayakssAs you’ve seen in the article above, kayaks and canoes are pretty different. Starting with their construction, canoes are open, while sit in kayaks are closed. With a canoe, you are on top of the boat, with a sit in kayak you’re inside, and near the bottom. They’re both suited for very different environments. Canoes are better suited for flat, calm waters, while a kayak is ideal for many things and can be specialized for white water rapids. A canoe requires a single blade paddle, which requires switching to both sides in an alternating matter, while with a kayak you get a double blade paddle. However, the kayak’s paddle is heavier and requires a more careful technique. With a kayak, you can learn the basics in a pretty short time, while with a canoe it will take a while before you can maneuver it with ease. However, once you do get the hang of both, a kayak is much more challenging as far as advanced techniques go.

It all comes down to what you need and what you will use it for. The fundamental difference, the purpose, could very well be the deciding factor. If you live, or travel often, to an area which has calm, flat waters, a canoe will be much better, even though it will take you a little longer to get the hang of it. On the other hand, if you live, or often travel, to the mountains or the open ocean, and you have fast flowing water and rapids, a canoe can be a disaster, and you need a kayak. So, if you don’t want to make a mistake, give your needs and requirements a good thought, and make your decision.

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About Julian Thompson

cb787c59d2808e1f609076e790ca977e?s=90&d=mm&r=gCertifications: Certified Kayaking Instructor (AKA)
Education: American Kayak Association
Lives In: Denver Colorado

I am a kayaking expert/instructor who has been fishing for over 15 years. Fishing is my passion, but kayaking keeps me on the water. I love to share my knowledge of techniques and tips with others. I live in Colorado with my wife and two kids and own a small kayak rental business On Grand Lake where I rent and instruct.