What's the difference between a Kayak and Canoe?

If you're a newbie to water sports, you maybe wondering what the difference between canoe and kayak is. Many people have come to take the two to mean the same thing, and do get confused when told that there is a difference between kayaking and canoeing.

Truly, the two share a lot of things in common, and so it's kind of hard to tell one from the other. However, although canoe and kayak are types of boats, each is unique in functions and features. Get ready to be educated, as we take a look at the differences between kayak vs. canoe. You need this information to help you distinguish between these two types of water sports, especially if you have interest in partaking in any of them.

Both canoe and kayak are lightweight boats that you can propel forward by using paddles. They are different types of boats, but are generally built thin and lightweight, and designed to have narrow and pointed tips that enable them slice through the water. They serve various purposes which include traveling, fishing and recreation.

Besides wood, several other materials are used in building both vessels, and so it's not uncommon to see plastic kayaks, aluminum canoes or inflatable canoes made from PVC. Composite materials such as fiberglass are also used for building these boats.



The following are intricate details and features that will help you identify the differences between kayaks and canoes.



#1 Boat Classification

Basically, these boats are classified by the use of letters and numbers. In each classification the designated letter comes first, followed by a single-digit number. The letters used are 'C' and 'K', referring to whether the boat is a canoe or kayak, respectively.

Each of these boats will need a paddler to paddle them along, of course. The number that follows the letter C or K refers to the number of people paddling the boat. Therefore, going with the letter and number system, a kayak with one paddler will be classified as K1 (K for kayak, and 1 means the kayak has 1 paddler). A kayak that accommodates only 1 paddler is said to be a solo kayak, and when the paddlers are two it's called a tandem kayak.

This same classification system applies to canoes. Just as it is used for kayaks, C1 would refer to a typical canoe with only one paddler, C2 for a canoe boat with 2 paddlers and C4 for a four-member crew.  

There are many types of canoes and kayaks, and some are modified some more to suit the type of water activities or the water conditions whether it's for use on calm water or harsher body of water. Atypical canoe has an open deck, but some type of canoes used in paddle sports competitions under harsher elements have closed cockpits.

For the purpose of identification, canoes with open deck are classified with the letters 'OC' and those with closed cockpits are denoted with 'C'.  For example, an open-deck canoe with two paddlers will be classified as OC2 while a closed cockpit canoe with two paddlers would be classified as C2.


#2 Purposes

Many paddlers often use both kayaks and canoes for different purposes like recreational activities, fishing, traveling or exercise. Both types of boats are equally used for different kinds of watersports such as boat racing and whitewater paddling.

However, canoes are more of a no-fuss boat for stability, practicality and versatility. They are more manageable, and these make them the choice boat for leisure paddling on calm water and for sightseeing expedition with the entire family.

Kayaks on their part are constructed to accommodate fewer people compared to a typical canoe. They also travel much faster than canoes, a feature that makes them preferred over canoes for competitive water sports.


#3 Design of Boats

Though the basic structure of both types of boats may look alike, a typical canoe differs from a kayak in the design of their decks. Canoes are normally constructed with the deck open while kayaks usually have a closed deck.



In other words, canoe is an open-top boat, and this means the deck is open and gives the paddlers ease of movement but they're vulnerable to the elements. For this reason, the side frames of a regular canoe is raised higher than that of a kayak in order to protect you from getting splashed while paddling on water.

A kayak on the other hand is closed-top and the sides are lower. The closed deck shields you from the water and provides protection from the weather.

The closed deck of a kayak offers a good degree of safety, but it is expedient to purchase a spray skirt to help keep water from getting into the boat.

#4 Seating Positions

When paddling in a canoe, the paddlers get to either sit on the raised seat inside the deck with knees bent and placed against the top edge or rim of the boat, or kneel in the boat by drawing close to the front of the seat and wedging the knees against the sides of the boat.

If you're paddling solo on a canoe, you'll feel more comfortable sitting on the low seat and facing the rear of the boat (stern).

In addition, the seating position in a kayak is just above the waterline, while in canoe paddling the paddlers seat way above the waterline. In a kayak the paddlers sit in the cockpit, close to the boat floor (hull). Their legs stay stretched forward in the kayak, with the knees rested on thigh braces.  

Sitting upright with your shoulders relaxed and your chest pushed out is a great paddling technique that will help you paddle efficiently and avoid straining your muscles.


#5 Deck

The deck of a typical canoe is normally more spacious than a kayak's deck. The seats in canoes are raised a bit higher than those found in most kayaks. Although sit-on-top kayak has a deck that shares a similar design with the deck of a canoe.

The top is open and the seat higher than that of a regular kayak. Apart from having a lowered seat, kayaks also feature thigh braces that help to support your knees when paddling.

#6 Type of Blades

Another feature that distinguishes a canoe from a kayak is the type of blades that the paddlers use. Canoe paddlers usually use  single-blade paddles, whereas in kayak paddling double-blade paddles are used.

Normally, the seat of a kayak is low and close to the boat floor, therefore a single blade paddle won't supply the adequate propulsion that kayak paddlers need to move the vessel forward.

Paddling with a double bladed paddle propels the boat faster, and the technique is easier to master than using a single blade paddle. Nonetheless, a single blade paddle has its own advantages in that it requires less energy to row, and reduces the chances of your boat zigzagging on water.


#7 Paddle

Besides the blades, there is also a difference between the shape of the paddles used for canoeing and the paddle for kayaking. The handle of a canoe paddle is shaped like a T to conveniently provide the paddler with a firmer grip when switching the single blade paddle from side to side.

Kayaking paddles are double bladed, much longer, and are used to row alternately on both sides of the kayak.


Miscellaneous Tips

To learn more on the differences between a kayak and canoe, and the difference between canoeing and kayaking ask an experienced paddler to show you practically.

It's also a good idea to visit a specialty paddling stores where canoeing gears are sold. You can be sure to learn so much more from the employees.

Even though kayaking on whitewater rivers is considered to be more risky, it is important to take all necessary precautions as sea kayaking or canoeing can equally turn life threatening at anytime. Wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid, and helmet as safety measures.

Ensure you have learnt the basics of kayaking before embarking on any kayaking session. Join a paddling club or consult a paddling center to meet other paddlers who will help you learn the ropes.

You can enroll in a kayak academy to learn the right paddling techniques or the several other kayaking disciplines if you intend advancing deep into the intriguing world of watersports.

So which should you go for between a canoe and a kayak? The answer lies in the type of activity you intend embarking on.

For a fishing or camping outing with your family or friends, a canoe would be a better choice as it is large enough to accommodate you all. It's also more stable and easy to handle. Using an inflatable canoe will help to solve the problem of bulkiness and portability.

For expeditions such as whitewater kayaking or competitions on difficult waters, a kayak would be your best bet.


The history of kayaking dates to as far back as 4,000 years ago. Kayaks were originally invented by the Inuits tribes(also known as Eskimos) who are the indigenous people of Arctic North America including Alaska, Greenland, and Canada.

The natives built these handy boats out of animal skin and whalebones, and used them for hunting animals living inside water or by the shores such as seals and whales. The name 'kayak' means' hunter's boat', referring to the purpose of these ancient kayaks. Scandinavians exploring the Arctic regions at that time would later take up kayaking, and thus kayaks gradually gained popularity in Europe.

However, kayaks are considered no different from canoes in the UK, in fact it's regarded as a type of canoe. Previously, canoeing groups in Europe used a type of boats bearing close resemblance to kayaks, and they called this design of canoes "Canadian canoes". Nowadays, modern kayak are more of recreational kayaks designed primarily for fun and comfort, and with advanced features.

Canoes on the other hand, has been inexistence right from before the 8,000 BC. The English word ‘canoe’ (Spanish:canoa; Carib: kenu) translates to 'dug out'. This alludes to how ancient dugout canoes were built from hollowed trunks of trees. Although the oldest canoe was discovered in the Netherlands, development and use of canoes for diverse purposes were more pronounced in North America. That's why even till date open-top canoes are still referred to as Canadian canoes.

Historically, after being featured at the Olympic Games of 1924 as a demonstration sport, canoeing later in 1936 came to become a confirmed Olympics sport where canoe paddlers display their diverse canoeing skills.

In summary, the differences between canoes and kayaks are that canoes have open decks, and canoe paddlers use a single blade paddle and do sit or kneel to paddle the boat. Kayaks, on the other hand, have closed deck, use a double-bladed paddle with the paddlers seated lower.