Long summer days spent on the water. Those are the moments we dream about.
Paddling along placid lakes or tackling raging river rapids. Canoes and kayaks allow you to access these aquatic environments and the UK has plenty of fantastic locations on offer.
From oceans to tidal bores, seas to rivers, or lakes to marshes – all can be explored with a canoe or kayak.
However, each landscape is variable with vastly different conditions. This begs the question of canoe vs kayak – what’s the difference? Canoes tend to be bigger and great for exploring gentle rivers on a camping trip, whereas kayaks are smaller, more nimble and fun in whitewater. Canoes tend to be open and the paddler sits or kneels on top, whereas a kayaker sits in the hull with legs stretched out inside a closed cockpit.
The answer is less to do with which is better, per se, and more to do with which is better suited to your style of adventure. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the main differences between canoes and kayaks.
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What is a canoe?
A canoe is a narrow boat with an open deck. It is pointed at both ends and hollow in the middle. They have high sides to maintain stability and to prevent water sloshing into the boat. Slats support the structure and benches are often in place for users to sit upright or kneel on. A canoe is manoeuvred by a single paddle. It is often used by 2 or 4 people who sit on opposite sides. You can store plenty of equipment in a canoe and it’s easy to move about.
Canoes are historic and have been used by cultures such as the Native Americans for thousands of years. Traditionally, they are made from wood and canvas or animal hide, but modern materials such as treated wood and fibreglass are preferred nowadays.
A canoe doesn’t require much technical knowledge to navigate. It can be tricky to get the paddle tempo flowing, but once you figure it out the rest of the technique falls into place easily. Make sure you balance yourself in the middle and use steady strokes and you should be good to go!
What is a kayak?
A kayak is also a narrow water vessel. They are often smaller than canoes and are used by a single person. A kayak is manoeuvred by a double-edged paddle. This allows for considerable control over directionality and movement. Kayaks have a closed deck with a small entry hole where the boater will sit with their legs out in front of them.
A spray deck is often in place which prevents water from filling the hull. This allows a kayak to be rolled and markedly improves the vessel’s buoyancy making it an excellent choice for tackling turbulent waters. Kayaks are thought to have been invented by the Greenland Innuits where they were produced from traditional materials. Today, they are made from plastic, fibreglass, and inflatable tubing.
You can sometimes find tandem kayaks and open-top models where you sit above the vessel. These varieties can sometimes be confused for canoes even if they are labelled as kayaks. Ultimately, a kayak will put you low in the water which means you will get wetter than with a canoe!
Canoe Vs Kayak – Key Differences
Frustratingly, the terminology for canoe and kayak is sometimes used interchangeably. For example, at the Olympics, the sports category is designated as canoeing, but the races are sub-divided into canoeing or kayaking. In any case, there are some key differences that divide the two sports.
The paddles differ for a canoe vs kayak. Canoes have a single paddle blade and kayaks have a dual paddle blade. This impacts the ease of movement between the two. Canoes are good for steady paddling on slow-moving bodies of water. Whereas kayaks can be turned and whipped about with surprising speed in high-velocity waters.
Next, you have the hull shapes. Canoes are open-topped. This makes them comfortable to sit in and rather spacious – hence you kneel or crouch in a canoe. However, they allow water into the vessel which makes them more prone to sinking or capsizing. A kayak offers a sealed vessel which can be rolled underwater, flipped, and battered with waves or rapids from all angles without compromising its buoyancy. This causes you to sit upright with your feet stretched at a different angle to a canoe.
When you look at a canoe vs kayak, they are often made from different materials. Although this is not always the case, it can be accepted as a generalisation. Often canoes are found on pleasure lakes where they’re made of glossy or varnished wood. However, kayaks are usually made from plastic or fibreglass and are selected for adrenaline-fuelled activities where a more durable material is required.
This brings us to a final difference between the battle of canoe vs kayak – their purpose. A canoe is often used for touring activities such as fishing and camping. Sprint canoes are used in flatwater racing and other varieties can be used for marathon races. Canoes are also used in slalom, freestyle, and wild water canoeing, although at this point, they begin to closely resemble a kayak in design.
Kayaks can also be used for touring, but you may select one if you are going on a more challenging water course. For example, when sea fishing, it’s advisable to use a sea kayak rather than a canoe. Kayaks are preferred in most white-water activities and have even been used by the military for special operations.
Buying a canoe can be a bit of a minefield. They aren’t cheap bits of equipment, and you need to ensure you’re selecting the right model for you. It’s advisable to visit an outdoor equipment store where they sell canoes in person. Alternatively, spend some time renting and trialling different canoes to get a feel of what works for you.
However, for convenience, inflatable canoes are on the rise. They aren’t as popular as inflatable kayaks, but they still offer many great features. The Sevylor Adventure Plus Inflatable Canoe is a good choice as it is quick to inflate, easy to transport, and highly convenient. The canoe weighs 15 kg and can fit two adults and a child (up to 200 kg total weight).
For a reputable brand of recreational canoes, check out Pelican. They are expensive but you get what you pay for. They’re durable and easy to use for beginners. Pelican canoes are predominantly 3-seater and are to be used for short trips on flat water. Enigma Canoes is another great brand that is manufactured in the UK. They have a variety of options to suit all adventures although they are pricier than Pelican canoes.
As with canoes, kayaks should also generally be purchased in person. However, there are more options on the market for inflatable kayaks and many users are opting for this instead of buying a hard-shell model. For example, Decathlon have some really great value inflatable kayaks. Their basic single kayak is around £200, but they also have some high-performance, high-pressure drop stitch kayaks from around £500.
Alternatively, for something very basic that will get you having fun on the water, you could try the Intex Challenger or Intex Explorer. The Challenger shares many of the same features as the Intex Explorer except it is more adapted to sport kayaking. The price is similar on both models, but the Intex Challenger is slightly heavier at just shy of 16 kg. However, it can hold 180 kg of cargo which allows for more equipment to be carried. It is also more streamlined than the Intex Challenger which makes for better manoeuvrability in rough water.
When you begin looking at specialised kayaks, the prices soar, but that comes with a dramatic increase in bespoke quality. If coastal paddling is your thing, check out the Cambridge Kayaks Adventure 450. This is a 4.5-metre-long solo kayak. It’s perfect for ocean fishing, wildlife watching, and sea-bound adventures. It is spacious and exceptionally durable.
Make sure you have some training before you head into the wild. There is a considerable amount to learn when using a canoe vs kayak. This knowledge can be acquired individually but it’s better to learn from others instead of diving in at the deep end, so to speak. Also, these hobbies are expensive! Renting a kayak or having lessons with a canoe is a great way to get introduced to the sport without having to shell out lots of money.
Using a canoe vs kayak always requires a level of safety. Buoyancy aids and life jackets are recommended for both sports. In some cases, a helmet should be used to provide protection from rocks, tree roots, and paddles. As with hiking or any outdoor activity, let others know where you’re going and have a backup plan in case anything goes wrong.
At last, we come to the final decision – canoe vs kayak, what’s the difference? As mentioned, there is some variation in design and functionality with the key differences being the seating/kneeling position and paddle type. Ultimately, you can often use a canoe and kayak interchangeably, but it’s better to choose the model best suited for your adventure style.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.