Canoe vs. Kayak: What’s Best for You?

Last Updated: December 2020

Are you thinking of buying a canoe or a kayak so you can go paddling? 

That’s great! 

Paddling is really fun, and it’s a great way to spend some time with friends on the water.  

Whether you’re looking for a fun way to get some exercise or just a way to unwind on the weekends, getting a personal-sized boat can be wonderful. 

In the epic debate of canoe vs. kayak, neither boat is a clear winner. It comes down to knowing which boat, and which model of boat, will be right for you. 

There are a lot of factors involved in choosing the right boat. This article will put you on the right track for finding your next canoe or kayak. 

If you are new to kayaking, check out our article How to Kayak: All You Need to Know to Paddle Like a Pro.

kayak girl ocean

Quick Guide

These should be your primary considerations when deciding whether to get a kayak or a canoe.

How many people will be paddling with you?

  • Both kayaks and canoes come in single and tandem.
  • Only canoes have three-seater options. 

How much weight can you handle when lifting the boat?

  • Traditional canoes are heavier than recreational kayaks.
  • If you’re going out by yourself just for fun (not fishing or long excursions), a kayak might be a better choice.
  • If you’ll be paddling with a partner and a bunch of gear, a canoe might be a better choice.

What sort of conditions will you go paddling in?

  • If you’re going to be a casual “weekends and after work” paddler, a kayak is probably your best bet.
  • They’re cheaper than canoes, and they’re more portable. 

How easy do you want it to be?

  • If you’re new to paddling, kayaking is more intuitive. 
  • Canoeing can be a ton of fun and offer a bit more versatility, but if you’re looking for an easy recreational activity, kayaking is easier.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between kayaks and canoes and their various models available.

kayak sunset

What's the Difference Between Canoes and Kayaks?

Most new paddlers aren’t sure what the differences are between canoes and kayaks, much less what the differences are for various models of boats. 

There’s a surprising number of differences! 

The most notable difference between a canoe and a kayak is how you paddle the boat and the way you hold the paddle. 

Kayaks have a double-bladed paddle, meaning each end of the paddle has a blade on it, and you hold it in the middle. The double-blade means that you rarely have to change your hand positioning, and the paddling motion is steady. 

kayak paddle

Canoes have a single-bladed paddle, meaning it’s got a blade on one end and a handle on the other. The single-blade means you have to sometimes swap from paddling on the left side of the boat to the right side of the boat and vise versa. 

canoe paddle

Beyond that, knowing more about each type of boat will help you get a better idea of what’s best for you. 

Types of Kayaks

Now let's look at the four most common types of kayaks.

1. Leisure/Recreation Kayaks

A leisure or recreation kayak is probably what you envision when you think of a kayak.

These are the most basic types of kayaks that you see people paddling in TV shows or movies, and what most people buy when they want something easy to paddle. 

Sit-in or Sit-on-top

You’ve got two options when it comes to kayaks: sit-in or sit-on-top. And they are designed exactly the way they sound.

The sit-in models have a little opening that you sit in. The sit-on-top models don’t have that opening, so it’s not enclosed in any way.

Storage room

There’s room to store some stuff during your trip, but not a ton.

Depending on the model of boat that you buy, you might have just enough space for a day-tip, or you might be able to pack what you need for an overnight camping trip. 

Range in price

You can find them cheap, but there are also nicer, more expensive models.

The cheap ones aren’t typically great for long paddles -- just day trips. The more expensive ones are good for long or overnight paddles.

If you just want a kayak that you can take out now and then for a little fun, you can likely find a used one for a reasonable price. 

2. Fishing Kayaks

Fishing kayaks are designed specifically with anglers in mind.

They function the same way as the leisure and recreation kayaks, but they have a lot of fishing-specific amenities built-in.


Fishing kayaks are designed to be more sturdy and less likely to flip than regular kayaks.

Rather than having an area that you put your legs “in” while you sit, your legs just stretch out in front of you. This also makes it easier to stand while fishing, something you would NOT want to do in the other kayak types. 

Foot pedals

Many fishing kayaks come with foot pedals that you can use to propel and steer the boat. That way, you can still use your hands to hold your fishing pole while you move the boat. 

Typically more expensive

Since they usually come with added stability and extra fishing-specific features, fishing kayaks tend to be a little more expensive than leisure kayaks.

Brands like HobieJackson, and Kysek dominate the fishing kayak industry. They’re pricey, but you get what you pay for. 

3. Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks are designed for cutting through waves when paddling through a large body of water.

This makes them great for paddling on long river trips or bayou trips because they track (stay in a straight line while you paddle) really well.

These boats are longer and more narrow than the other types of kayaks. 


Sea kayaks are always sit-in boats. In anticipation of paddling through waves, you might also want to add a spray skirt (it keeps the water out of the boat) when you’re paddling.

Typically more expensive

These are quality boats meant for longer excursions, and they’re not cheap.

However, if you’re planning on a more extended excursion through choppy water, you definitely don’t want cheap craftsmanship. You get what you pay for.

4. Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are designed specifically for whitewater paddling.

They’re not great for other types of kayaking. But, other types are kayaks aren’t great in whitewater. So there’s a tradeoff.

These are the smallest kayaks, and they handle well in super rough water.


All whitewater kayaks are sit-in models. You definitely want a spray skirt to help keep the water out of your boat. It will fill up quickly if you don’t.

Range in price

You can typically find some models that aren’t super expensive if you look around for used ones.

However, if you plan to do a lot of whitewater kayaking, you might want to consider a higher-end model.

Learning curve

Before you go whitewater kayaking for the first time, learn what you’re doing!

Whitewater paddling can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t have the right equipment. If you’ve never paddled in whitewater before, check it out with a guide first. 

family canoe

Types of Canoes

Now let's discuss the 3 common types of canoes.

1. Traditional Canoes

This is what probably comes to mind when you envision a canoe. It’s sort-of pointy at both ends and bowed out in the middle.

They are typically made of either metal, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or Royalex (no longer in production, but there’s a lot of old models on the market).

Metal canoes are typically the cheapest. Carbon fiber canoes generally are the most expensive. Everything else is in the middle. 

Number of seats

Most traditional style canoes are two-seaters, but you can also find three-seater and single-person canoes.

The number of seats in a canoe corresponds to the length of the canoe. If you want a boat with more seats, prepare to get a longer boat (16’-20’).


Carbon fiber canoes are surprisingly light. All of the other models are as heavy as they look. A typical two-seater canoe made of metal, fiberglass, or Royalex weighs 60lb-80lb.

If you’re planning to maneuver this boat on your own when loading it onto the roof of your car, be ready for lifting!


Traditional canoes are great for everything from small day trips to fishing trips to long expeditions. Canoes have plenty of room for gear, so they can be used for any paddling you want to do. 

2. Square-back Canoes

Square-back canoes are designed specifically to attach a trolling motor or outboard motor to the back of the canoe. 

Duck hunters or anglers typically use these to motor out to their favorite fishing spot or duck blind, then paddle the last little bit into the spot. 

Number of seats

Square back canoes typically have two or three seats, but you can sometimes find a single-person boat. 


These weigh as much as, or more than, traditional canoes. Be ready for lifting. 


Due to their design, square back canoes don’t track as well as traditional canoes. If you’re not planning to add a motor, there’s no reason to buy one. 

3. Whitewater Canoes

Whitewater canoes are typically single-person canoes designed to be paddled in whitewater.

They’re not as great in flat water. But as with the kayaks, the rest of the canoe types also aren’t as great in flat water. It’s a tradeoff. 


Since these boats are much smaller than traditional canoes or square back canoes, they’re also a lot lighter. Weight isn’t much of an issue with these boats. 

Learning Curve

Also, as with the kayaks: Before you go whitewater kayaking for the first time, learn what you’re doing!

Canoeing, in general, is not as intuitive as kayaking, even more so in whitewater. 

There’s extra gear that you’ll need for whitewater canoeing, so double-check that you’ve gotten all of that. If you’ve never been paddling in whitewater before, go with a guide on your first trip. 

Once you’ve looked through all of that, you should understand what each type of boat has to offer. Then, you can start sorting through which boat will meet your needs and your budget. 

kayak couple ocean

Key Takeaways

Paddling is really fun, and it’s a great way to spend some time with friends on the water.

In the debate of canoe vs. kayak, it comes down to knowing what will be right for you.

To make that decision think about how many people you will be paddling with, how much weight you can handle, what the conditions will be, and how easy or challenging you want it to be.

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