Canoes vs Kayaks: Differences, Similarities and More!

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Canoe VS Kayak. Have you ever ridden a kayak? Or was it a canoe you rode in? These two boats look alike and somehow have a lot in common, both are waterborne vessels. Both canoe or kayak have been used for thousands of years, both canoe kayak can prevent you from having a swim in the cold waters. 

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Canoes Vs Kayak: So what’s the difference?

Kayak VS Canoe. Difference between kayaking and canoeing? Despite the fact that people use the names interchangeably, there’s actually a clear difference between canoe and kayak . The shape is different, the gears are different, even their histories are contrasting. But sadly a lot of people don’t understand the distinction between these two boats.

So in this guide, our aim is to help people to see the difference between a kayak and canoe. And to give some interesting similarities between both of them. So next time if someone asks you about the difference between a canoe and kayak, you can confidently tell them the facts rather than replying with three-half mumbled sentences and fumbling awkwardly with your phone.

Similarities between canoes and kayaks

As mentioned above, both canoes and kayaks are waterborne vessels, which means that it is ridden on the water, used for thousands of years in the Netherlands and Northern America and can prevent you from falling into the water.

Other than that, these two boats share a similar shape, a flat oval shape. And both boats use an oar to paddle. An interesting point of the canoe and the kayak is that they are good for fitness, although you may find many water sport events use kayaks for competition, doesn’t mean that kayaks are a better fitness sport than canoes.

Overall the similarities are quite little, but when it comes to differences, there comes the fun part.

Differences between canoeing and kayaking

What’s the difference between a kayak and a canoe? The difference between canoeing and kayaking can be divided into 4 sections:

  • Main difference
  • Gears and benefits
  • History
  • Sport

Let’s start with the main difference

Main Difference

Canoe vs Kayak (4)

Canoes and kayaks have a similar shape, but when it comes to the way a person sits in or enters the boat is very different. 

Canoes are open-deck boats, which means that the top of the boat is revealed from the front to the back. For a person to enter it isn’t a big problem. Paddlers will either kneel or sit inside the canoe depending if there’s a small bench inside (most canoes come with a small bench, you can also buy one and install it yourself).

Another thing to note is the paddles or oars. Canoes use a single-bladed paddle to move themselves forward, moving to the left, right and backwards will be tough.

On the other hand, kayaks are closed-deck boats, which means that the whole top is covered except a hole big enough for a paddler to enter. Paddlers will climb into the kayak legs first and extend it to the front as much as possible, leaving the torso and the upper body outside while sitting on the seat. For the paddles, kayaks use double-bladed paddles which helps them to move almost every direction they want.
[ Also Read: Our detailed guide on Best Kayak Paddles if you do not own one yet ]

[ Also Read: Our ultimate guide for the Best Kayak Seat to make your kayaking more comfortable ]

So you got the difference yet? Let me sum it up for you.

Canoes: Open-deck boats, paddlers kneel or sit inside and use a single-bladed paddle to steer

Kayak: Closed-deck boats, paddlers climb into and sit inside the kayak and use a double-bladed paddle to steer.

View More Kayak Guides

Gears and benefits

We’ve covered the main differences between the two boats, namely the type of boat you use and the paddles. How about we get a little bit deeper into the benefits of each one of them.

As we know, a canoe has an open-top, which means that the insides of a canoe is more prone to water entering it compared to a kayak, which is a closed-top. Because of this, canoes are built with high sides, so that it’s harder for water to jump up and splash into the boat as you paddle.

For kayaks, they are lower, so you’ll be closer to the water than if you were to paddle in a canoe. In a kayak, there is a small hole where water can enter the body (obviously the place  you’ll be sitting). But it will be almost impossible to get the water out when you’re in it, which is why many kayakers use a spray deck to keep it out.
[ Check out our guide on how to hold a kayak paddle correctly. ]

This does make it slightly trickier to exit the kayak, so if you’re going to use a spray deck, make sure to be comfortable taking it on and off and rolling out of the deck, also if you accidentally capsize, you may need to do it underwater.

To sum that up, kayaks are more nimble and faster than canoes. Because of their shape, lighter weight and double-bladed paddle, it makes them quicker and more agile compared to a canoe. Meanwhile, canoes are more stable and harder to capsize.

Kayak Paddle VS Canoe Paddle
Basic Parts Of A Kayak


Just a heads up for everyone. If you don’t like history, feel free to jump to the next category. And to those who want to know more, have fun reading.


Canoe vs Kayak (2)

The origin of kayaks can be traced to Inuit tribes of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. And its name came from the Greenlandic term qajaq (Means boat, kayak). The earliest kayaks were constructed from stitched seals (yes, the animal type of seal) or other animal skins stretched over a wood or whalebone-skeleton frame. With the earliest kayak dated in 1577, it is believed that the kayaks were used for about 4000 years.

Kayaks are mainly used for hunting, like fish hunting. It wasn’t long until some Scandinavian explorers brought kayaking into Europe in 1907 and made it popular. From there people started to make it more modernized and casual. The kayak has grown from wood with animal skin to wooden frames with waterproof rubber canvas to fiberglass kayak till today’s polyethylene resin kayaks. 


Canoe vs Kayak (1)

The name canoe comes from the Spanish term canoa, which means a ‘dugout canoe’. The earliest canoe ever discovered is the Pesse canoe, which was found in the Netherlands and dates all the way back between 8200 BC to 7600 BC. The canoe was found in a Denmark expedition and reveals the use of dugouts and paddles during the Ertebolle period (c. 5300 BC-3960 BC).

Canoes play interesting roles throughout history. For the Amerindian (The indigenous people of America) groups, they colonized the first Caribbean Islands using single-hulled canoes around 3500 BC.

And the Native American groups used it mainly for fishing. The Native American groups made different versions of canoes for different purposes, from western-red cedar or yellow cedar wood depending on availability. 

The development of canoes has also improved over the years, it started from dugout wood to skin canoes which are made from bark to today’s modern canoes which are also made from wood, bark and waterproof canvas.

Nowadays kayaking and canoeing are featured in the Olympics and many other events. In 1924, kayaking was featured as a demonstration sport at the Olympic games. Then 12 years later, at the notorious 1936 Olympic games (Was well known because it’s hosted by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany) it became an offical Olympic sport.

There were 9 events contested, all in the canoe spirit, but all for men only. It wasn’t until 1948 that kayaking and canoeing were opened to women too. 


If you skipped the history section, here’s your checkpoint. And those who read through the history section, good work. Let us proceed to the sport section of kayaking and canoeing.

In the world of kayaking and canoeing, sport is involved. Mostly in the Olympics and for recreational purposes. Both of these boats share the same benefit, which is to build stamina, build upper body strength, toned legs and more.

In terms of Olympics, both kayaking and canoeing are similar and different at the same time, just like Schrodinger’s cat (Dead or alive in a box). Let’s start with sprints. Sprint is literally the sport of being the fastest among the others in a distance, which also applies to kayaking and canoeing.

Both sports can have multiple people inside it, which are then categorized to different categories which are K-1, C-1, K-2, C-2 etc. (K stands for Kayak, C stands for Canoe. The numbers at the back indicates the amount of people in the boat

As mentioned above, kayaks are more lightweight and agile compared to a canoe, which is why kayaks have some events more specifically for them. One of them is called wild-water racing. If you were to search wild-water kayaking, it would show wild-water canoeing, keep in mind that kayaks and canoes difference is in the deck’s shape.

Wild-water racing is literally racing on heavy currents, and athletes must go down a course of 6-10 km (4-6 miles) river. The event is solo, and depends on the athletes skill to keep themselves stable and as fast as possible to the finish line. 

Did you know that dragon boat competitions fall into the category of canoe sport. Dragon boats are long, everyone in the boat uses a single-blade paddle, and is open-deck. Dragon boat competitions are more popular in Asia compared to other continents.

Each boat consists of 18-20 for a standard boat and 8-10 for a small boat. The goal is the same as a canoe sprint, to get to the target as fast as possible.

What's Next

That’s about it. Just to sum things up, both kayak and canoe are interesting in their own ways and you should try both of them.

Jules and Ken

Jules and Ken

We are outdoor lovers, travellers, and writers all rolled into one. You have seen our posts here reviewing lots of different types of outdoor gear, camping equipment, RV equipment, kayaking, to cycling. Our reviews are guided by our years of experience being outdoors. We are happy to share our knowledge with you to make a better choice when you are outdoors.

We hope you enjoyed this article and if you have questions about the differences between Kayaks or Canoes, or want to leave your review, feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

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