Kayak Vs. Canoe: What Is The Difference?

Kayak vs Canoe

Many people mistake kayaking for canoeing, and vice versa.

Some people even think they are the same thing.

The truth is, kayaking and canoeing are extremely different.

When I have taught people to kayak in the past, they always say “well I know how to row a canoe, kayaking should be a piece of cake!” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Though both can be tons of fun, it’s important to learn the differences between the two so you can better equip yourself.

Almost every aspect of canoeing and kayaking are different, from boat design to paddle shape to rowing technique.

Let’s take a look at a list of things that separate the two.

When you're all done, make sure to check out our top kayaks homepage for our reviews of the top kayaks on the market!

#1 Boat Design

A kayak typically sits very low to the water. A sit inside kayak has a small hole in the center of the kayak where the paddler sits. Many times, since sit-insides are meant to be rolled over in the water, on accident or on purpose, there will be what’s called a “spray skirt.” Since the paddler sits very low in the hull of the kayak, this skirt prevents water from getting inside. A sit-inside kayak is long and sleek, typically not very wide and the stern and bow have a bit of rocker to slice through water chop.

Sit on tops are a little different. Though the paddler is still meant to sit pretty low in the kayak, sit on tops have an open hull so as not to fill with water when flipped over. Sit on tops also tend to be a little wider for easier maneuverability.

The rails of kayaks on the deck tend to be curved downwards towards the underside of the boat. This gives kayaks, both sit-on-tops and sit-insides, a bit of an ellipse shape crosswise.

Canoes typically sit much higher on the water than kayaks, with less than half of the boat submerged. They also contain thwarts, wooden slats that lay crosswise over the canoe rails. They can be used for seating or storage. The hull of a canoe is totally open from stern to bow, unlike most kayaks. And the rails do not turn downwards like kayaks. Instead, the rails of a canoe travel up and inward, making the canoe have a distinct crosswise u-shape.

Another aspect of canoes that differentiates them from kayaks is the presence of ribs in the hull. Most kayaks are made from petroleum plastic which keeps its shape. Canoes, however, are sometimes made of wood and need crosswise ribs in the hull to keep the wood from warping.

#2 Seating

Kayak seats are removable and fit into special seat pits. They are usually fabric with internal foam and create back support for the paddler. Kayak seats are attached with straps that hook onto the kayak. The paddler sits low in the hull so the legs are spread forward for support. Typically, a kayaker will brace their knees against the sides of the kayak hull to provide stability and keep the kayak from tipping over.

Canoers sit up at the top of the canoe. The seats are flat and attached at the top of the canoe at the rails. Rowers sit in an upright position with the legs at a right angle, like they are sitting in a chair. The thwarts can be used as seats as well. It is possible to attach a seat with back support to a thwart, but it is not very common.

Usually kayaks come with up to three seats, while canoes can potentially fit up to as many people that will fit in the boat.

Kayak vs Canoe Seating

#3 Paddling

A kayak paddle has two blades, one at each end of the shaft. The blades have a bit of a curve to catch the most water resistance for momentum. The blades can be alternated into a “feather” pattern. This is when the blades are up to 90 degrees perpendicular to each other. When one blade is in the water paddling perpendicular to the water surface, the other blade is in the air facing parallel to the water surface, cutting through the wind. It reduces wind resistance and increases speed.

Kayak paddling works by alternating the blades in and out of the water at each side. The paddler dips one blade in the water at one side towards the bow of the kayak. By rotating the torso, the paddler is able to move water back towards the stern and get forward momentum. Dipping each blade into the water on alternating sides of the kayak allows the paddler to go straight. If the kayaker wants to turn they paddle on one side only.

Canoe paddling is a bit different. For starters, a canoe paddle has only on blade, with a grip at the other end of the shaft. Instead of sweeping water over the surface perpendicular to the kayak, a canoer dips the blade down into the water, pushing water back parallel to the canoe.

Since there is only one blade, the canoer must take the blade out of the water and move it to the other side of the canoe in an alternating pattern. As opposed to rotating the torso, a canoer will use their shoulder and arm strength to push the paddle through the water in a downwards fashion.

If there is more than one person in the canoe, the paddlers can decide who rows at what side of the canoe and for how long. Turning in a canoe also requires that the paddlers only paddle on one side at the same time.

Apples and Oranges

Though canoeing and kayaking are both wonderful water activities, comparing them can be a little like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, they’re both fruit, but the differences are significant. Design, gear and technique are unique enough to differentiate kayaking and canoeing as seperate sports. Kayaking and canoeing each require a different set of skills, so it’s important to dedicate time and practice to both. So the next time someone says “what’s the difference between kayaking and canoeing?” use this guide to set them straight!