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, we appreciate that you'll need to know the difference between a kayak and a canoe first. Both are waterborne vessels. Both use paddles - and both have been used for thousands of years to prevent homosapiens getting wet (with varying degrees of success) in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.

So what’s the difference between a kayak and a canoe?

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Despite the fact that many use the two words interchangeably, there is a clear distinction between a kayak and canoe. The boats are different. The gear is different. Even the history is different. So let's dig into the details...

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 - and so between kayaking and canoeing - is the vessel itself

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

Here's a summary of the differences between a kayak and a canoe:

  • 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 go cheat in that pub quiz you’re competing in.

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If you’re interested in the respective histories of canoes and kayaks, some more technical 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 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 exiting your kayak – if you capsize, you'll need to remove it before exiting underwater.

A canoe has high sides, so it’s harder for water to jump up and splash you while you paddle.

Once you master the basics of kayaking - namely how to get in and out safely, and paddle properly - you can look at using a spray deck. Stick with it and once you're experienced in a kayak, you’ll be able to try to learn to do 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, their lighter weight and the double-bladed paddle, which allows for quicker and more agile piloting. Canoes, meanwhile, are more stable and harder to capsize.

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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.

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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.

Is it easier to kayak or canoe?

The open deck of a canoe means that many first-time paddlers feel more at ease in a canoe than a kayak, but both have their advantages and challenges. Kayaks are more nimble, easier to manoeuvre and can travel faster. But canoes are more stable and spacious.

If you want a boat that's more about comfort, slower turns and has more in it, go for a canoe - though note that it may be slower and tougher to turn. If you want a vessel that's quick, super responsive and simple to paddle, then go for a kayak.

Can you canoe or kayak as a beginner?

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

Absolutely. Both canoeing and kayaking are accessible to first-timers - though for safety reasons, getting a guide is always recommended.  The better your balance and core strength, the better you may be initially, but as you learn the basic paddling techniques, you'll find it's as much about rhythm as anything else.

Of course, certain rivers and bodies of water are more difficult to navigate than others, so beginners should seek out quiet rivers, ideal for first-time paddlers. You want to avoid rapids and stay away from waves and rough patches of water. Hire a guide and they'll keep you safe - and teach you proper paddling techniques.

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Ultimately, though, no experience is needed to try out kayaking - as long as the level of the paddling is appropriate, and it isn't technically demanding.

It's likely that you'll be able to feel the muscles in your core, arms and shoulders after a day of paddling for the first time, whether in a kayak or a canoe.

How can I start kayaking or canoeing?

The toughest thing about kayaking or canoeing at a beginner level is getting access to the equipment, which is big, bulky and expensive. So, a great way to get started is to book a session, or a fully-fledged adventure, with a guide who can supply the life jacket, paddle, vessel and helmet (if required).

This way, you get an expert guide who can show you the ropes and provide you with all the equipment needed. They'll also be on hand for any questions that you have. If you're not sure you'll like it, you could look out a multi-adventure trip, which only involves a little canoeing or kayaking, or seek out a one-day hire session at a nearby outdoor centre.

You could also check out our beginners guide to kayaking, for starters.

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 questions.

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Not many people own canoes or kayaks themselves, as they are not only expensive, and require a nearby body of water to use - they're also 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. And if you do buy one, message local paddling clubs to ask for tips on where to store it.

Check out our full range of kayaking and canoeing adventures now, and rediscover the world from the water!