Canoe vs kayak: what is the difference?

Nov 19, 2013 BY Paul McWilliams

To the untrained eye watching last year’s Olympic paddling at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, the kayaking and canoeing look to be essentially the same thing. But this is not the case. So, just what are the differences, and who would win a canoe vs kayak race?

Canoe vs kayak Wikimedia image by David Merrett

On the face of it, to the uninitiated the two do seem very similar. But say to that to an enthusiast of one or other and you’ll be met with an icy stare. In reality there are some key differences which affect the way you sit, ride and handle the boat.

Ok, so of course there are some fairly key similarities. Both are long, narrow boats that are propelled by the use of paddles (as distinct from oars which are used in rowing) but that is more or less where the similarities end.

Although they may look similar to the untrained eye, thanks to a greater modern emphasis on aerodynamic design (or should that be aquadynamic design), they are actually quite different. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Look at the paddles

Canoe paddles have one blade and kayak paddles have two blades. That’s a fairly significant difference and easy to spot. When in a canoe, you have to switch the side you’re paddling on in order to control the boat (unless there is more than one person in the boat). In kayaking, the double ended paddle means you can simply paddle harder on one side than the other to change direction.

Canoe vs kayak Wikimedia image by Ludovic Rivallain

Stance in the boat

Another key difference in the canoe vs kayak debate is the way you are positioned. Kayaks are paddled while sitting in the bottom of the boat, legs stretched out in the bow. Canoes are paddled from a kneeling position, on both knees in a slalom canoe and on one knee in sprint events. Occasionally you can paddle from the position of a raised seat, although this is more for leisure canoeing than competitive events.

Naming of events

If you’re watching kayaking or canoeing events, the specific type of race is described in the name. The letters C and K are used before a number, which tells you how many people are paddling. This is then followed by a distance which is the length of the course. So K4 2000m is a kayak race with four people per boat over 2000 metres.


Depending on where you are in the world, canoeing and kayaking are often categorised differently. In the UK for example, kayaking is treated as a sub category of the older, more traditional canoeing. The historical misnaming of some forms of kayaks as canoes has led to some confusion over the years – so be careful.

Canoe vs kayak Wikimedia image by David Uriarte

Within each category of canoe and kayak there are a number of different design types. Sit-on kayaks are becoming more popular and a form of stand up canoeing, called paddle boarding is currently one of the fastest growing water sports. Closed-top kayaks are also available to prevent water entering the hull and sinking. This is a great article about the different types of kayaking if you want to know more.

Canoe vs kayak race

So who would win a canoe vs kayak race? Well that depends on a lot of factors….

Kayaks are typically lighter and have less resistance in the water due to their shape, weight and the depth they sit at. They are also more efficient to propel with double ended paddles and a lower sitting position. All this means that kayaks travel faster, however put a beginner in a kayak and a beginner in a canoe and because canoes are more stable and easier to get the hang of the canoe is likely to go faster.

At the end of the day the canoe vs kayak debate is not about speed as they do not race each other. It is really about which you would like to paddle in and that comes down to personal preference. So its worth giving both canoeing and kayaking a go before you decide and ‘STOP THE PRESS’ you can like them both if you want.


Canoeing, Kayaking, Sea Kayaking
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