Kayak vs canoe… Which is the better boat?
Kayaking and canoeing both are highly popular water activities among Americans. But in recent years, kayaking has outgrown canoeing in popularity, according to this 2018 outdoor recreation participation report.
In 2017, 9.2 million people were engaged in canoeing and 10.5 million people were engaged in just recreational kayaking. When you add to that kayak fishing, kayak sea/touring, and whitewater kayaking, you get almost 19 million people!
19 million kayakers against 9.2 million canoers. Undoubtedly, kayaking was the more popular activity in 2017. In 2018, it has probably been the same.
But does this mean that kayaking is better than canoeing?
Let’s try to give an answer to this question by comparing the main instruments in these activities – the kayak and the canoe.
Differences between kayaks and canoes
Both kayaks and canoes can be used in generally the same activities – fishing, whitewater, or recreational paddling. But there are some differences that may make one better than the other in some cases.
There is a huge variety of kayaks and canoes out there, so all the differences we’ll describe are general. A kayak and a canoe can be either very similar or very different, depending on which models you compare. So this guide won’t be able to cover absolutely all options of the kayak vs canoe comparison.
Kayaks tend to be noticeably smaller and narrower than canoes. Because of this, they have several traits not typically present in canoes.
First of all, thanks to their narrowness, kayaks tend to be more maneuverable. On the other hand, narrowness also makes them less stable, which is one of the things that would prevent you from standing on a kayak.
Besides, the risk of capsizing is higher in kayaks.
Secondly, due to their small size, kayaks are generally easier to store. And besides, they are easier to use in confined areas, narrow rivers, etc.
Now, it should be mentioned that not every kayak is going to be highly maneuverable and unstable. Wide and long kayaks are less maneuverable, quicker, and more stable than their compact counterparts. So it really depends on the kayak you are looking at.
There is a rather common misconception that kayaks are quicker than canoes due to their lightness, narrowness, or whatnot. In reality, the maximum achievable speed of any vessel will depend on its length.
So a kayak and a canoe with the same length should have around the same hull speed. What may differ though between them is their acceleration. A lighter vessel will most likely reach its maximum speed quicker because it is easier to propel.
In terms of size, things tend to be the other way around with canoes. They are wider and less compact.
Needless to say, this means that a typical canoe will mirror a kayak in terms of performance. A canoe will be more stable and will even allow standing. On the other hand, storing a canoe isn’t the easiest of tasks.
In addition, canoes can get much longer and wider than kayaks. Kayaks usually don’t go over 14 feet long and about 34 inches wide, while canoes can be over 20 feet long and over 40 inches wide.
So if you are looking for the quickest and the most stable vessel, a canoe would be the better choice. But it would be much heavier, larger, and less maneuverable than a kayak.
In kayaks, the seat is situated right on the hull, so you are pretty much sitting on the bottom of the hull with your legs spread in front of you.
There is an obvious downside to such a seating position: your legs occupy some of the hull area, leaving less free space for your gear.
There are two types of kayaks based on the seating – sit-on-top and sit-in. We’ve described the pros and cons of each type in our kayak buying guide, so you could check it out.
To put it short, in a sit-on-top kayak, your entire body is exposed. In a sit-in kayak, your legs are covered by the hull, and only your torso is out in the open.
The sides of sit-on-top kayaks are pretty low, so getting wet in such a kayak is really easy. Because of that, these kayaks are usually used in warm weather. However, it is rather easy to move around in a sit-on-top kayak, which is why they are preferred for fishing.
Things are the other way around in a sit-in kayak. It isn’t as easy to get wet in them, so they are more suitable for cold weather. But they limit freedom of movement quite a lot.
In a canoe, you are sitting on an elevated bench rather than directly on the hull. Because of this, your legs aren’t straight out in front of you. Rather, you are seated like on a regular bench.
Thanks to this, your legs don’t occupy precious interior space. And there is also some additional space beneath the sitting bench.
Because the sides of a canoe are rather high up the water, the risk of water getting into the hull is pretty low. Thus, a canoe is a better choice for paddling in cold water than a sit-on-top kayak.
At the same time, a canoe is more comfortable than a sit-in kayak because it doesn’t limit freedom of movement as much.
Kayaks are smaller, so they obviously have much less storage area in them. Their weight capacity usually doesn’t go over 700 pounds. In addition, a kayak can accommodate 2-3 paddlers at most, depending on the size.
Canoes have much more storage space in them. Their weight capacity can go well beyond 1000 pounds. And they also allow you to take kids or a dog on board. You can have, for example, 2 paddlers in a canoe and 1-2 passengers.
However, the huge plus of kayaks is that they can have sealed storage compartments that can keep all your gear dry, unless you capsize.
Canoes don’t have such a feature. So if you have water-sensitive gear with you, you’ll need to be careful not to allow any water to get into the canoe.
Kayaks are used with specialty kayaking paddles. These paddles have two blades on them – one on each end – unlike canoe paddles that have only one.
Generally, it is considered that kayaking paddles are more efficient. If you use the momentum of the blade that is ascending from the water, you can save a lot of energy on propelling the vessel.
Besides, learning kayak paddling is usually easier than canoeing.
However, kayak paddles are heavier than canoe paddles, so you’ll need to have the physical capacity to use them.
Kayaks are smaller, so they are much, much lighter than canoes. This is the thing that makes kayaks very easy to carry.
But if you don’t care about transporting too much, then the weight of a canoe won’t be a downside for you.
Canoes tend to be more expensive than kayaks. High-end canoes can cost as much as $3000, while kayaks usually don’t go higher than $1500-1700.
In fact, you can get kayaks rather cheap – $400 and even less. At the same time, canoes mostly cost around $1000. Maybe this is the main reason for kayaking’s insane popularity in the United States.
We can’t say that canoes are overpriced though. They have their own unique features which kayaks don’t have. So for a paddler who needs those features, a canoe wouldn’t be a waste of money.
Pros & cons of kayaks and canoes
To round all this info up, let’s now see the pros and cons of both kayaks and canoes.
- Kayaks are more lightweight and easier to transport.
- Kayaks are more compact and easier to store and use in confined areas.
- Kayaks are easier to accelerate due to their lightness and because their paddles are more efficient.
- Kayaks can be more maneuverable.
- Thanks to sealed hatches, gear can be kept dry in kayaks.
- Kayaks tend to be cheaper.
- It is very easy to get wet in a kayak.
- Kayak paddles are heavier.
- Kayaks don’t have much storage capacity.
- Kayaks don’t allow as much freedom of movement.
- Canoes have much higher storage capacity.
- Canoes are more stable than kayaks. You can stand in them, and capsizing a canoe is more difficult.
- Canoes allow great freedom of movement.
- It isn’t easy to get wet in a canoe.
- You can bring your kids or dog for a canoe trip.
- Canoes are heavy and big, so they are difficult to transport and store.
- Canoe paddles are less efficient.
- Canoes don’t have watertight storage compartments.
- Canoes are more expensive.
Kayak vs canoe – which is better?
This will be up to you. A kayak will be great for one situation and terrible for another. The same goes for a canoe.
Both are highly situational. You wouldn’t want to use a kayak on a long trip where plenty of gear may be necessary. And on small water bodies, a canoe may be too sluggish for convenient paddling.
And besides, canoes and kayaks can be very different, so the “rules” we described may be applicable to a much less extent.
The number of paddling scenarios is truly huge, so we cannot realistically give recommendations for each one. Try to understand the logic behind each point, and, using that knowledge, pick the vessel that is better for your paddling tasks!
And yeah, if you decided to get a kayak, then check out our buying guide.
If you are more interested in fishing, check out our separate post on kayak vs canoe fishing.