Kayakers in a picturesque lake
Kayaking and canoeing are both great ways to get out on the water. Photo: Getty Images

Canoe vs kayak. It’s time to choose your fighter. Though in order to do so, you really need to know what the difference between a kayak and a canoe actually is. Both are waterborne vessels; both have been used for thousands of years; both use paddles and both can help prevent you from taking an unwelcome, untimely bath in a lake, loch, reservoir, sea or ocean.

So what’s the difference?

Despite the fact that many use the two words interchangeably (and that your high school P.E teacher didn’t know the difference, and got angry when you asked), there is actually a clear distinction between a kayak and canoe. The boats are different. The gear is different. Even the history is different. But few know what those differences actually are.

What's the Difference Between a Canoe and Kayak?

Wooden boats and a turquoise lake
Not many people know the difference between canoeing and kayaking, and both do have a lot in common. Photo: Getty 

The main difference between a kayak and a canoe, or between kayaking and canoeing, is in the vessel that you use.

Canoes have an open-top design with the rower sitting or kneeling inside, using a single-bladed paddle to propel themselves forward on the water. Kayaks have a closed deck which the rower sits inside with their legs stretched out in front of them and they use a double-ended paddle to move forwards and backwards across the water.

In short;

Canoe: Usually open deck boat, seated or kneeling rowing position, one-bladed paddle.

Kayak: Closed deck boat, seated position with legs stretched out, double-bladed paddle.

If you came to this article hoping to get an absolute basics guide to the differences between canoeing and kayaking, then there you go. Voila. We have little more to offer you. Close the browser and off you go and cheat in that pub quiz you’re currently competing in.

If you’re interested in the respective histories of canoes and kayaks, some more slight differences, and where you can give each of them a shot, stick around and keep reading. We are having such a great time together, after all. Right?

What Gear Do you Need for Canoes and Kayaks?

Woman kayaker about to launch a double kayak
Kayaking requires a double-bladed paddle, while canoeing uses a single-bladed paddle. Photo: Getty Images

So we’ve already mentioned the key differences in gear between a canoe and a kayak. Namely, the type of boat that you use. But let’s get a little deeper (only a little, mind you) into the benefits of each of those.

A canoe has an open-top, which means the deck inside is less protected from the elements than a kayak, which is closed-top. Because of this, a canoe has high sides, so that it’s harder for water to jump up and splash you while you paddle.

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A kayak is lower, so you’ll be closer to the water than if you were to paddle in a canoe. In a kayak, there is only a small hole where water can enter the boat (the same place you’ll be sitting!). But it’s harder to get water out if it does get in, so many kayakers wear a spray deck to prevent water getting into their boat. This does make it slightly trickier to get out of the kayak, however, so if you’re going to use a spray deck, make sure that you’re confident taking it on and off and rolling out of your kayak – if you capsize, you may need to do so underwater!

Once you master the basics of kayaking, and of using a spray deck, you’ll be able to try to learn an “eskimo roll”. An eskimo roll is a technique used to recover if you capsize a kayak. Once your kayak is upside down in the water, you use your paddle and body to force your kayak back upright without ever leaving the vessel. It’s a great skill to learn.

Kayaks are a lot more nimble and speedy than canoes, due to their shape, lighter weight and double-bladed paddle, which allows for quicker and more agile piloting than a canoe. Canoes, meanwhile, are more stable and harder to capsize.

A Quick History of Canoes and Kayaks

Canoe in beautiful natural surroundings
Canoeing incredibly dates right back to beyond 8000 B.C. Photo: Getty Images.

The word ‘canoe’ comes from the Carib kenu (dugout), from the Spanish canoa. The name makes sense when you think about it, and indeed, a ‘dugout canoe’ is still an alternative name for a canoe, particularly one which has been made from a hollowed tree trunk.

The earliest canoe ever discovered is the Pesse canoe, which was found in the Netherlands and dates all the way back to 8200 BC. This is currently not only the oldest canoe, but the oldest known boat in the world.

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The indigenous people of America are well known for their canoes. When Europeans began exploring the area in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, they were impressed by the designs of the canoes, which then ended up playing a key role in the European exploration of – in particular the interior of – North America.

A historical photo of canoes in Hawaii
Historical photography shows canoes in Hawaii. Photo: Getty Images

Kayaks can be traced back to Inuit tribes in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They were commonly used for hunting and would be made from wood, with seal skin stretched over to provide the closed top. Scandinavian explorers later took up kayaking and popularised it in Europe.

In 1924, canoeing was featured as a demonstration sport at the 1924 Olympic Games. Then 12 years later, at the notorious 1936 Olympic Games (remembered best for being hosted by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany), canoeing became a full Olympic sport. There were nine events contested, all in the canoe sprint, and all for men only. It wasn’t until 1948 that canoeing and kayaking entered the Olympics as a women’s sport.

These days, rotomolded polyethylene is one of the most common materials used to make kayaks and canoes. It’s flexible, resistant and relatively cheap. Fibreglass is also common, being ultra-light, very responsive, durable and easy to repair – and wood remains popular too. It may not be recommended for white water, but it does make you feel like an old-time explorer.

Where to Go Canoeing and Kayaking

A boat trip through Kerala's backwaters.
Anywhere there’s water, there’s the opportunity for canoeing or kayaking. Photo: Getty Images

You can go kayaking and canoeing anywhere there’s water. The ocean, the local canal, even your local swimming pool – though good luck getting a kayak through the doors without the poor receptionist asking you a few serious questions.

Naturally, not many people own canoes or kayaks themselves, as they can be pretty expensive and are especially tough to store. So if you’re looking to go canoeing or kayaking, it’s best to check on Google for a hire point near you. Where there’s water, there tends to be boats.

Here at Much Better Adventures, we offer a plentiful selection of kayaking holidays both in the UK and further afield. From a 100km kayaking expedition across Scotland, to  four days kayaking, hiking and wild camping in the Norwegian fjords and even a week hiking and kayaking in Cuba, there's something for every adventurer!

A kayaker in the Norwegian fjords
A serene day kayaking on the waters of the Norwegian fjords.

Check out our full range of kayaking and canoeing adventures around the world, and get yourself out on the water – no matter what boat you use or how many blades you have on your paddle when you do so.