What Is The Difference Between A Canoe vs Kayak?

kayaking

The main difference between a kayak and canoe is to do with how the paddler situates themselves in the boat.  In short, a kayaker sits on their butt and a canoeist sits on their knees.  A kayaker uses a double-bladed paddle, and a canoeist uses a single-bladed paddle.

In addition to the main differences in the sitting position and paddle, canoes and kayaks are also often built with specific design differences that are meant for specific activities.  It is important to know whether you should be using a canoe or a kayak for the activity you wish to do, because both types of boats are built to do certain things with ease.  If you are trying to choose between a canoe or a kayak, keep reading below! 

Kayak

Quick History of the Kayak

Kayaks were invented by the Inuit people of the arctic.  The first kayaks were built with frames made of either wood or whale bone.   Seal skin was then stretched over the frames to create the outer walls of the kayak.  Whale fat was often rubbed on the seal skin to make it more waterproof.

Kayaks were primarily used by the Inuit people for hunting.  They could sneak up on animals in the water, thus giving them a much better approach for hunting than they would if they were just hunting from land.

If you have ever heard the term “eskimo roll”, this is where it came from.  The Inuit people built the world’s first kayaks, and then invented the technique used to upright the kayak after capsizing.  This was especially important in the frigid waters of the arctic where the kayak was invented.

canoe vs kayakKayaks slowly made their way to Europe in the 1800’s, and by 1936, kayak races were included in the Berlin Olympic Games.

Fiberglass kayaks were invented in the 1950’s.  These were much lighter and stiffer than the previous wooden-framed kayaks.

In the 1980’s, plastic kayaks became more mainstream as more people began enjoying the sport for recreational purposes.

Today, kayaking is a large component of the Olympic Games, with slalom, sprint, and marathon kayaking being events at the Games.  There are even artificial whitewater parks being built for recreational and training purposes.  There are entirely artificial rivers built as Olympic slalom training and competition venues, such as the one in Charlotte, North Carolina, or the one in Rio, Brazil.  These courses have water pumps and large blocks to act as rocks that make it feel like a natural river, even though the entire course is artificial.

There are also artificial whitewater parks being built within natural rivers.  These are found all over the west coast of the United States, with one in almost every town in Colorado.  To build these, engineers work with hydrologists to artificially engineer whitewater features within the natural riverbed.  They will add rocks, concrete, and sometimes even remote-controlled bladders in order to manipulate the way the water moves within the river channel.  These are meant to form rapids that kayakers can use for recreation and competition.  Some whitewater parks are built specifically for freestyle kayaking, which is when the kayaker surfs on a standing wave in the river and uses their boat to perform aerial tricks- like spins, flips, and barrel rolls in the air.               

Sitting Down with Legs Outstretched

One of the main differences between a canoe and a kayak is in the way the paddler situates themselves in the boat.  In a canoe, the paddler sits on their knees.  In a kayak, the paddler sits on their butt with their legs outstretched in front of them.  Kayakers reach their feet in front of them to rest on foot blocks or foot pegs.  The foot blocks and foot pegs provide the kayaker with a way to tighten themselves inside the boat.  When kayaking, it is best to be situated fairly tightly inside the kayak.  This allows for the kayaker to have full control over the kayak, thus making it more stable.  It is also important to not be situated TOO tight in the kayak, because it can cut off circulation, thus making the kayaker lose feeling in their legs.

Once inside the kayak, the kayaker will rest their knees out to the side and into pockets specifically shaped to hold knees.  It is important that the kayaker’s knees are in contact with the inside of kayak so that they can control the stability of the kayak with ease.

Kayaks are made to be stable or instable by their hull and chines (also commonly called edges).  A kayak with a flat hull is going to be more stable than a kayak with a v-shape hull.  Similarly, a kayak with soft edges (or chines) is going to be more stable than a kayak with hard edges.

Related: Best Kayak Cooler

Two Paddle Blades

Kayakers use a paddle that has two paddle blades on it.  One blade on each side of the paddle.  This allows the kayaker to place a blade in on their right side, then alternate to the left just as the right stroke exits the water.  This is a very efficient way of propelling forward because not much energy is lost when the paddle blades are alternated.  This is in opposition to the single-bladed paddle that canoeists use.  Because canoeists are sitting on their knees and are therefore higher out of the water, a single blade allows a canoeist to reach farther and have a more powerful stroke, even if they only have one blade.              

Canoe

Quick History of the Canoe

Some say canoes were invented by the native people of North America.  The original canoes were made from hollowed out tree trunks.  The word ‘canoe’ came from the word ‘kenu’, which means dugout- thus implying that the first canoes were literally dug out of tree trunks.  These first canoes were mainly used on the sea between Caribbean islands.

The second canoe design was built with a wooden frame covered in birch tree bark.   These canoes made out of birchbark were lightweight, waterproof, and quite sturdy.  They could withstand the abuse of being used in lakes, streams, and rivers.

There have also been canoes found in the Netherlands that are dated to be from 8200 BC.  These were dugout canoes from hollowed out tree trunks.

what is the difference between a kayak and a canoeCanoeing has been and continues to be one of the more popular means of water transport in Canada.  Alexander Mackenzie did the first east to west overland crossing of North America in Canada.  He used canoes for the majority of his exploration, and now has the Mackenzie River- the longest river system in Canada- named after him.

The Lewis and Clark expedition in the United States also used canoes as their primary mode of transport for exploration.  Lewis and Clark canoed the Ohio River and the Missouri River, and explored all the way across the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean.  Eighty percent of the journey was done by water.  The expedition used fifteen dugout canoes dug out from logs.

In the 19th century, canoes in North America evolved from birch bark on wooden frames, to canvas on wooden frames.

In the late 1800’s, canoeing started becoming a recreational activity, rather than simply a convenient mode of transportation.  The American Canoe Association was founded in 1880, and the Canadian Canoe Association was founded in 1900.

Canoeing became an Olympic sport in the 1935 Berin Olympic Games, when sprint canoe was included in the Games as an athletic event.

The International Canoe Federation was formed in 1946, which has become an umbrella organization overseeing all the canoe organizations worldwide.  Today, the International Canoe Federation is responsible for organizing and hosting canoe slalom, canoe sprint, canoe marathon, canoe freestyle, and canoe polo competitions.  These include world cups, world championships, as well as playing a large role in the organization of canoe slalom and canoe sprint in the Olympic Games.

Today, canoeing is still largely recognized as a good mode of transport on rivers, lakes, and sea.  However, many people use it as a way of recreating.  Canoes can be used on flatwater, whitewater, or in the ocean.  Whitewater canoes are becoming increasingly more popular, with both open and closed canoes being used for this discipline.  Canoes, like kayaks, can also be used for freestyle purposes in whitewater.  This is when the canoeist surfs a standing river wave and uses the canoe to perform aerial tricks.

On Knees

The difference between the way kayakers and canoeists sit in the boat is that canoeists sit in the boat on their knees, rather than on their butt.  If it is a closed canoe, it will most likely have straps over the canoeist’s thighs to keep them from moving around too much.  In an open canoe, the thigh straps aren’t as common because open canoes don’t often require as much maneuvering as closed canoes.

Canoeists will often place foam pads beneath their knees for added comfort while paddling.  The thigh straps that are often used in closed canoes will also have padding on them to prevent chafing on the canoeist’s legs.

One Blade

The main difference between a canoe and a kayak is that a canoe is paddled with one blade rather than two.  The use of one blade may seem inefficient and like somewhat of a disadvantage at first, but once a canoeist knows what they are doing, they can paddle just as fast as a kayaker.   Because canoeists sit on their knees, they are sitting much higher out of the water than kayakers.  This gives them an advantage of being able to reach much farther for longer and stronger strokes.  The added leverage of being on the knees and having a larger reach makes up for them only having one paddle blade.  

Canoe vs Kayak Design Differences

Realistically, if you take a kayak, remove all the interior outfitting and seat, replace it with foam knee pads and thigh hooks, then paddle it with a canoe paddle- voila!  You have made yourself a canoe!  If you are paddling a boat on your knees and using a single-bladed paddle, you are paddling a canoe.  Alternatively, if you are paddling a boat on your butt and using a double-bladed paddle, you are paddling a kayak!

While this is true that canoes and kayaks can be interchangeable if paddled differently, there are also specific canoes vs. specific kayaks that are designed with each specific paddling technique in mind.  It is still considered a canoe if you take a kayak and re-outfit it for kneeling and using a one-bladed paddle.  However, there are also specific canoes that are designed to be more efficient when paddled in the canoe kneeling position.

difference between kayak and canoeCanoes are often designed for longer multi-day overnight trips than kayaks.  These canoes will have more volume than a kayak, and thus more open space for filling with gear.

Most canoes also have specific design attributes that are not present in kayaks.  The large, open canoes that you are most likely to picture in your head when you hear the word “canoe” have thwarts and gunwales.  These are not present in kayaks of any kind.  A thwart is a crossbar placed in the canoe, meant to keep the canoe’s width and shape.  Thwarts act as braces for the canoe to keep it from folding inwards.  They are shaped like yokes (used to carry heavy loads) in order to aid in carrying the canoes.  Thwarts are often made out of wood and are positioned in the boat just in front of and just behind the center of gravity of the canoe.  The gunwale (pronounced gunnel), is the top edge of the side of the canoe.  Gunwales are present in most boats, not only canoes.  Gunwales are mostly made of wood, plastic, or sometimes even aluminium.  The thwarts are attached to the gunwale.

There is another difference between canoes and kayaks in that canoes often have keels.  A keel is an external track on the hull of the canoe that helps the canoe hold its course.  Keels are useful for canoeing in flatwater if you want to go in a straight line, but can make maneuvering more difficult, and can make it less stable and also get the canoe stuck on rocks.

Most canoes also have less rocker than kayaks.  Most canoes are designed to go long distances in fairly straight lines.  Non-whitewater canoes will most likely not have any rocker, as the rocker is not needed when there are no waves.  Whitewater canoes will have some rocker to aid in crashing through waves, but they most likely not have as much rocker as kayaks.

A key difference in canoes vs kayaks is in the material they are made of today.  Most kayaks are made out of either plastic or fiberglass.  Canoes are often made out of plastic and fiberglass, but there are also canoes being built out of polycarbonate, aluminium, and PVC.  In fact, those materials are starting to become more common than plastic canoes.  Both canoes and kayaks are built to be quite durable and built to whithstand bumping against rocks in lakes and rivers.  However, it is important to note whether the canoe or kayak you are interested in is built for recreational purposes, whitewater purposes, or touring purposes.  Each of these specific purposes of use will determine how durable the material is that the canoe or kayak is built out of.  Plastic is more durable than fiberglass, but fiberglass is lighter.  Aluminum is a very durable material used for canoes, but it does not float as easily as fiberglass or plastic, and therefore requires float bags in case the canoe capsizes in the water.

Different Uses of a Canoe vs. Kayak

There are many different uses of canoes and kayaks.  Kayaks are better suited for some activities, while canoes are better suited for others.

For flatwater recreation purposes, both canoes and kayaks are good options.  In a kayak, you will be closer to the water and will be a little less stable in the water.  A canoe will allow you to be farther out of the water, with more stability and less of a chance of capsizing.  Canoes can also carry much more gear and equipment than kayaks, and thus are often preferred for multi-day camping trips.  For camping trips, canoes are often filled with waterproof barrels that are strapped into the canoe with bungees, ropes, or camp straps.  These barrels are filled with overnight gear and food, and can carry enough gear for multiple people for multiple days at a time.  Kayaks are also used for camping trips, but they will only fit enough gear for one person for several days.

Whitewater canoes and kayaks can either be very similar or very different.  A whitewater kayak design can be outfitted to be paddled like a canoe.  This is done by removing the seat of the kayak and replacing it with foam pads for the canoeist’s knees to rest on.  The boat is then paddled with a single blade rather than two blades.

There are also specific whitewater open canoes that are designed much differently than kayaks.  These whitewater canoes are designed with more rocker than flatwater canoes in order to crash through waves with more speed.  Whitewater canoes are also built with more durable material than flatwater canoes.  This is meant to prevent the canoe from being dented or cracked if it hits rocks in the river.  Whitewater canoes are often built with enough space to carry overnight gear, similar to flatwater canoes.  However, some whitewater canoes are meant to be outfitted with float bags.  Float bags allow the canoeist to actually roll the canoe back upright if it has capsized in whitewater.  This roll is somewhat similar to the eskimo roll performed in a kayak, but requires a different technique since the paddler is sitting on their knees rather than their butt.

canoe or kayakAnother difference between canoes and kayaks is that kayaks are most often built to be paddled by a single person.  There definitely are tandem kayaks, however they are not as common as single kayaks.  Canoes are more commonly built to be paddled by two people.  The person in the front of the canoe is responsible for building up speed and momentum with their paddle strokes, while the person in the back of the cane is responsible for steering and turning the canoe.  The person in the back of the canoe is most often the heavier paddler of the two.  Having good weight distribution throughout the canoe aids in the canoe tracking properly through the water in a straight line.

Similarly to freestyle kayaks, there are also freestyle canoes.  These include both open and closed canoes.  Open canoes are canoes without a sprayskirt or spraydeck covering the cockpit of the canoe.  The canoeist kneels in the boat with a single-bladed paddle, and performs aerial tricks on a standing river wave.  Since the canoe is open to the water, it will often fill up after one or two tricks, and the canoeist will have to paddle to shore to empty it out.

Closed freestyle canoes are similar to freestyle kayaks in their design, but have a different seat.  The paddler kneels while using a single-bladed paddle, and uses their body weight to perform aerial tricks.  The cockpit of the canoe is covered by a sprayskirt or spraydeck, so no water gets inside the canoe and the canoeist does not have to paddle to shore to empty the water out after performing tricks.

In the Olympics, there are both canoe and kayak athletic events.  These events are done on similar courses and with similar distances, but the paddler is either kneeling with a single-bladed paddle (canoe), or sitting on their butt with a double-bladed paddle (kayak).  There is canoe slalom and kayak slalom.  Similarly, there is canoe sprint and kayak sprint, as well as canoe marathon and kayak marathon.  The biggest difference in Olympic events in canoe vs kayak is that there is a C-2 division in the Olympics.  This event consists of canoes being paddled by two people through slalom gates on a whitewater course.  Most slalom events are single person events, in kayaks or canoes that hold a single person, but this event is performed by two people in one canoe.  The duo works together to maneuver the canoe through the whitewater course and through the gates of the slalom race.  Most of the time, the paddler in the back paddles on one side of the canoe, while the paddler in the front paddles on the other side of the canoe.

Summary

In summary, the main difference between a kayak and canoe is in the way the paddler sits in the boat.  A kayaker sits on their butt, while a canoeist kneels in the boat.  Also, kayakers use double-bladed paddles (one on each side), while canoeists use single-bladed paddles. Canoes and kayaks can have exactly the same design, but used with a different seat, or they can have strikingly different designs!

The most common design of a canoe is for it to be long, made out of fiberglass, with two spots for two people to knee on, and open on top.  These canoes can carry lots of overnight gear and are best for flatwater recreation and touring purposes.  Canoes are very commonly used in Canada, as the canoe has played a large role in the history of Canadian expeditions across the country.

The most common design of a kayak is for it to be shorter than a canoe, made out of plastic, with one seat for a person to sit on, and closed on top.  Kayaks do not fit as much overnight gear for touring as canoes, but they are much more easily maneuvered in rough or choppy waters.  Kayaks were invented by the Inuit people of the arctic to be used for hunting purposes, but are most commonly used for recreational and touring purposes today.

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