Have you ever been kept awake at night with those questions running around your head, what is the difference between a kayak and a canoe? Are Canoes faster than Kayaks? Are they still made out of wood? The chances are, you’ve probably been out on the water in one or the other… perhaps both, but you just aren’t sure which is which.

The terminology gets thrown around a lot, with kayak enthusiasts claiming they are going “kayaking’ but go further back and the activity of going ‘canoeing’ basically means to paddle your kayak or canoe. The term ‘canoeing’ is often used across the board for heading out on the water on both water crafts, there are actually many differences between the two sports.

This blog isn’t going to be about the pro’s and cons of each watercraft, but more a in-depth look at what separates them and to help you decide which would be perfect for you.

Both Canoe and Kayak can be paddled by humans, both float on water and both are lightweight. So apart from the obvious designs, what are the differences? And when is a Canoe actually called a Kayak and when is a Kayak called a Canoe? Let’s take a closer look…


The history of both sports goes a long way back, with both having techniques that differ massively. A kayak was designed completely different to a traditional canoe and both were designed in opposite parts of the globe. Experts think that the Canoe dates as far back as 8000 BC with the design looking like you would expect, a dug out tree trunk. It’s thought that these ‘dug-out’ style canoes were used all over the world, from Amazonian tribe’s people to Aboriginals in Australia, but the development in design didn’t get explored until the 15thcentury.

Europeans exploring North America starting experimenting with different, more sophisticated designs, taking a wooden frame with birch bark stretched across too increase buoyancy. This design was not too dissimilar to the canoes you see today and they are still often referred to as ‘Canadian Canoes’. Obviously the materials used have come along way since the 15thcentury, with different types of treated plastics, fibreglass and even metals used, the seating positions and style of paddles used still remains almost identical.

The Kayaks history isn’t so deep unfortunately, but, the design idea can be traced back to one particular region of the world – the far north of Canada. Invented and developed separately by the Inuit tribes, these kayaks were used as hunting boats. Early designed kayaks were made by individual hunters and taking influence from a Canoe, they used seal skins stretched out over a wooden frame. In rare cases where there were no woodlands for miles around, the hunter would use whale bones. Could this explain why whales are often intrigued by kayaks?

The idea behind the kayak was simple, a quiet mode of transport that made sneaking up on seals and hunting them a lot easier.

Does this explain how the term for the stunt ‘Eskimo Roll’ came about? The technique was taught to Scandinavian explorers in the late 18thcentury, who returned to Norway and demonstrated this maneuverer. Heavily adopted by the Europeans, kayaking really took off and became featured in the 1924 Olympic games in Paris. STRUCTURE OF THE BOAT

As we mentioned above, the design history of both boats has a very noticeably different shape. Where as both Canoe and Kayak are designed to feature pointed ends, it’s the kayak that features a more prominent, defined pointed front and back. This is because kayaks are designed to be used by a single person at one time and these pointed ends enable the boat to make quick turns or even a backwards motion. When you take a look at the actual structure of both watercrafts, they are very different.

Canoes tend to be open and have the ability to fit more than just one person. It was designed like this to help fishermen and hunters, who were usually out on the water for long periods of time, haul in their catch, nets and any other bits of equipment without sacrificing space. Having an open craft makes it a lot easier for loading and unloading.

If you look at someone in a kayak, you will notice that it features a closed deck and it somewhat surrounds the paddler.

It was designed to be a solo-mission mode of transport and throughout time has developed into a faster, gliding craft with the intension of being raced. The less you can carry with you, the faster you will go. The weight of a kayak is usually a little lighter than a canoe, due to the narrower design. You may notice that a canoe is slightly like a small boat, the hull of which sits in the water and cuts through when paddling. A Kayak sits on the water, not in and covers a larger surface area which gives it that ability to glide faster.

The size of each style of boat can vary and each have a purpose to serve. You might be put off by a four-person Canoe due to the sheer size of it and might think of it to be a bit sluggish compared to a six-foot Kayak, but the larger the Canoe the easier it is to steer in a straight line. Smaller Kayaks tend to need a lot more effort to plain straight as they are a lot easier to manoeuvre and turn sharp angles due to the length. This makes them perfect for fast river runs and cruising down river rapids.


This is where a big difference comes about…the seating positions. Canoes can have a number of different seats depending on the shape and size, varying from kneeling or half-kneeling, to sitting on seating that goes from from the left side to the right.

These seats are raised from the bottom of the boat, meaning that the paddler has their feet flat with knees bent. Depending on what the Canoe has been designed for, usually dictates the amount of seats, varying from anything from two seats to four seats. The design allows the added weight to be evenly spread so to not over-balance the canoe. Too much weight at either end will result in some heavy resistance paddling and an unstable Canoe.

A Kayak seat is completely different to that found in a Canoe. Many kayak seats do not come with backrests but can be added, a paddler sits with their legs stretch out in front of them. The seat itself is usually the bottom of the canoe but sometimes can be slightly raised to keep out of any water that might have splashed in. This helps with the paddling style when riding a Kayak (we will cover that below) and the lower seating design helps add that streamline shape that makes the Kayak glide more smoothly. Now, some people who are prone to getting a sore or bad back, tend to find sitting low in a Kayak with no back support isn’t comfortable for them, but there many back supports available that are definitely worth checking out.


Now, we all know that both kayaks and canoes use paddles to make the craft move through water, but the types of paddles are completely different. If you are out in a canoe, the type of paddle you would use tends to have a flatter blade at only one end and a T-shape handle to grip at the top, helping to cut through the water. The reason for this is that canoes tend to be more than a single person water craft and each person paddles on a selected side of the boat.

These paddles tend to be shorter with less time taken out of the water and makes each stroke taken very smooth and effortless. Single person Canoes do exist but are usually more for competitive racing and sports. This is where you will see a slightly longer paddle used and will see the paddler adopting the half knee, or ‘drop-knee’ position.

A paddle used in a kayak is double ended with a slight twist in the design. Much longer than one used in a Canoe, a Kayak specific paddle blade is usually a fraction smaller, lighter and slightly curved. This gives a ‘scooping’ action whilst cutting through the water and helps pick up speed through the faster, more swift movement. Due to the length and double ended style, the techniques used are very different between the both.

The blades pass by both the left and right side of the Kayak to create the forward motion. The paddle is held with both hands in the middle, pulling with one blade in alternate strokes. On a closer look you’ll notice that the blades are actually set at 90 degrees apart from each other. This means that a twisting technique has to be used when paddling.

This helps with maximising the pushing power whist cutting down on wind resistance getting the blade back to starting point.

If you are used to only paddling on one side of a Canoe, it might take a little bit of getting used to, as the motion involves a slight twist in the wrist to paddle with each side. We have seen people trying to propel a Kayak using a single bladed paddle, add that to that low seating position, lets just say it looked very exhausting.


Has that cleared up some of the questions you had about the differences between a Canoe and a Kayak? There are a lot of similarities.

Modern versions of both these water crafts are made out of very similar materials, but it’s the shape and design that is one of the small differences. There’s no right or wrong for what you use them for, the smaller closed top Kayak or the the larger, open top Canoe, both steeped in history and both designed to take you on a water adventure. One has a raised seat whilst the other sits you low and surrounds you. The paddles are either singular or double ended with a slightly different design, the way you grip the paddle differs from one hand on the top to both in the middle, but both stroke down the side of the craft and propel you through the water.

Hopefully you are now a little clearer on the difference between a Kayak and a Canoe, it really comes down to personal preference and what kind of activities you wish to take part in, the main thing is you are out on the water and enjoying it! If you are looking for fun for all the family to get involved in, then a Canoe is probably going to be your best bet, but, if you are looking to head out with friends and fancy being competitive with some speed or heading down some rapids, a Kayak is for you. The question is, which one do you prefer?

If you need any advice on choosing your kayak or canoe, feel free to contact us and our specialist team will be there to get you going!

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