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How to know the difference between a canoe and a kayak. - Tandem Kayak Report

How to know the difference between a canoe and a kayak.


If you are new to water sports, then you may have a challenge knowing the difference between a canoe and kayak. Both share some characteristics, for example, they are both lightweight boats that you propel and control using a paddle. You can also use both for water sport, fishing, recreation, and traveling. However, despite the similarities, they have some differences that would help you know one from the other.

In terms of resemblance, but kayaks and canoes look alike because they are narrow, lightweight, have pointy ends and both have a hull.  However, kayaks displace water meaning they float just below the surface forcing the water to be pushed to either side as they move, that’s requiring a deck which is this semi-enclosed covering at the top of the kayak.

To understand canoes and kayaks a little better, let us start at the beginning.



The word canoe comes from the word ‘Kenu’ which means dug out. The basic canoe was made from a dugout tree trunk.  This was around the year 8000 BC and was used by the Caribbean people, the Amazon people and the aboriginals in Australia. The initial canoe was for transportation and for fishing purposes. Nowadays it is less for transportation and more for recreational purposes like water sports and spot fishing.

The use of the canoe did not expand much until the 15th century when North Americans started experimenting with different designs like increasing buoyancy by stretching birch bark across a wooden frame. This has pretty much stuck around to date because some of the canoe designs still bear this look.

The material used in the construction has however evolved and includes material such as fiberglass, metal and different types of plastics. The basic design features however still remain for example the sitting style, and how the paddles look.



The kayak is attributable to the Inuit, Aleut and Yup’ik people who reside in the arctic regions. The history dates back to about 4000 years ago to about 1577. The boats were used for hunting in the coastal waters and were made of animal skin stretched over whalebone skeleton or wood.

Most of their kayak-building skill was passed down generation to generation, if a man needed a kayak, he would build it himself with the assistance of his wife who would work on the skin. To protect himself against the elements, the paddler wore a tuilik that was stretched over the rim of the kayak and was held using a drawstring. This would provide protection for the paddler if there was a situation like capsizing of the boat and it also made it easy to rescue him. A modification of the design in the modern kayaks is the spray deck which is made of a waterproof synthetic material which fits tightly around the cockpit rim and body of the paddler.

Despite their striking similarities, they have some features which set them apart. We will guide you on how to distinguish between the two.


Learn the classifications.

Canoes and kayaks have different letters and numbers. The letter refers to the type of boat and the number refers to the number of paddlers controlling the boat. For example, a canoe with one paddler is known as a C1 or solo, while those with two paddlers are C2 or tandem. A C1 is generally about 280 cm in length while boats like a c4 can be up to 9mm and weigh about 30kgs.

Some canoes have an open deck which leaves the top and the sides exposed to the elements, however, there are some that have a closed cockpit and are for use in competitions where there is harsh weather thus providing protection to the people in the boat from the elements.

The same classification can be used on kayaks.  If there is one paddler in the kayak, it’ll be referred to as a K1 while if it has two paddlers it’ll be known as a K2. The letter and number classification will change depending on the number of crew on the boat. If the boat has 10 crew members it will be known as a k10.


What are the uses of the canoe or kayak?

If you are using the canoe for recreation, it will be referred to as a ‘pickup truck’ while if you’re using a kayak for the same reason, it will be known as a ‘sports car.’ All these are metaphorical representations of the boats.

Canoes are practical, easy to manage, and versatile. They are therefore very good for use in calm water and can provide a favorite pastime for family activities. Kayaks carry fewer people and can travel faster than canoes, which makes them great for water sports and more challenging water conditions.


Consider the difference in the design of the canoe and the kayak.

The typical canoe has an open deck while the kayak has a closed deck. If you’re in an open deck boat, you will be exposed to the elements although it makes it easier to handle the boat because there are no side restrictions so it is easy to use the paddles.

A closed deck will give you more security but you will find it hard to paddle because you have to position yourself appropriately within the boat. It is also more comfortable to sit in a closed deck because you do not have to deal with the elements like the hot sun, rough water or the wind. This makes kayaks very good for use in rough water for example in the sea. If it has a spray skirt, it will protect you from getting wet at all and it will also keep the boat dry because no water will be able to enter the boat.

There is really not much of a difference in where the kayak and canoe can be used. They are popular in basic to Olympic level use. You may need to vary the design a little depending on where you’re going to use it, the type of water, and the discipline.


How do you sit in a canoe and kayak?

If you are paddling a canoe, you have two options, which is either to sit or to kneel.  If you are sitting, you will have to put your knee against the rim or edge of the boat. If you’re kneeling, you have to position yourself close to the front of the seat and wedge your knees to the sides of the boat so that you are stable. If you do not do this, you risk falling into the water or capsizing the canoe.

In a kayak, sit on the bottom of the boat cockpit. You then stretch your legs forward and rest your knees on the braces for additional stability.


Know how to differentiate the paddles.

We have single and double blade paddles. The former is used in canoes and the latter in kayaks. The kayak needs a double paddle because of the way you sit, just above the waterline unlike in a canoe where you sit way above the water line. This means you will not be able to get efficient propelling if you use a single paddle.  It is also easier to learn using a double blade paddle but the single blade paddle allows you to conserve your energy so that you are void or minimize zig-zagging motions in the water.


Which sports can you play using a canoe?

Modern canoes offer a wide variety of uses and this normally determines the design. Many have a combination of designs thus making them great for multiple uses. This also determines the material used in the construction of the canoe.  Some of the areas that the canoe is used include:-

  1. Sprints

This is normally used for flat-water racing and the paddler kneels and uses a single blade paddle.  Steering of the canoe is by use of a paddle using the stroke motion.

  1. Slalom and wild water

This refers to canoe sports where a paddler navigates white-water rapids through a series of hanging poles. The poles identify the number to pass and have different colors showing the path where you have to pass through. If you strike or miss the poles, then you get a penalty.

  1. Marathons

These are long-distance races and may vary in terms of the number of crew in a boat. the weight of the boat also varies, usually, the minimum boat weight is 10 kilograms for the C1 boats, and 14 kg for the C4 boats.

  1. Recreational purposes

You can use the canoe for recreational purposes and have one with a motor so that you have more freedom and comfort, if you are, for example, fishing. You can also use the canoe for sailing by making the appropriate adaptations to it.

Canoes also give you a wonderful opportunity to tour lakes and rivers. The types of canoes you use for this are usually lighter and have storage space because you will spend a lot of time in the water. Some also have modifications like having a covering so that it gives the paddler some protection from the elements.


Which sports can you play using a kayak?

There is not much difference in the kind of uses between a canoe and a kayak, what you require is a great level of skill because kayaks are very narrow and are much faster than canoes.

Kayaks were also used in the military in the Second World War in some operations like operation Frankton on the Bordeaux harbor. They are still very popular because they can be easily launched from submarines or carried to the surface by swimmers.


Is it possible to get a motorized canoe or kayak?

Using a canoe or kayak is a fun experience because they are easy to control whether in calm or rough waters. They are also a great way to exercise because of the level of physical activity you use when you are paddling or navigating through the water. However, the reality is that they can be very tiresome especially in a situation where you may be on your own and do not have someone to help you. Unless you are in a sport that requires you to paddle, you may want to consider getting a motorized kayak or canoe.

Not only will you get better performance, but, they are easier to use, faster and allows you to rest if you get tired of paddling. If you still like the physical part of paddling, you can opt to use the motor when you get very tired or are in a hurry to get back.


What should you consider when buying a kayak or canoe?

When choosing a kayak or canoe, it is important that you look at certain factors like maneuverability, stability, the design, the strength amongst other factors. If you do not get these factors right, he will choose a kayak that is not right for you and will be extremely uncomfortable to use.

Look at that design.

Sit-on-top kayaks are good for beginners and children and are therefore ideal if you’ll be using the kayak for family outings. However, if you live in a cold area it may not be the best option for you.

What will you use it for?

Be clear about the reason why you’re buying the canoe or kayak. If you’ll be using it to explore, then look for a touring kayak which has a narrow design and is built for speed. Surf kayaks are specifically for surfing. The design allows it to catch and glide on waves because of the longer board, flat bottom, and a sturdy rocker.

Recreational canoes are good for use in flat waters. They are very stable but not very agile. Multi-purpose canoes can handle all types of water and have space for bigger loads and longer trips. If you like challenging the waters by running rapids, then you may need to consider buying a river canoe. They are made of a material that will not rust and have high sides so that they deflect the water that hits the sides. They are also very maneuverable which is important if you are navigating rapids or very rough water.

Inflatable kayaks are good for the ease of use and the fact that you can easily carry them around with you wherever you go. Get a design that is easy to fold and store away once you finish done using them.

How do you know the right size?

Since you’ll be paddling while sitting or kneeling, then this is the best way to determine the size of kayak you need to buy. It should not be too small or too wide because you’ll be using the sides to brace yourself. You also need to be able to make a quick exit in case of anything, like if you capsize.


You should also pay attention to the length and type of paddles you buy, a comfortable length should allow you to maneuver comfortably whatever motion you’re using. If the boat is long, you may need to buy a paddle which is a bit longer so that you can use it comfortably. Your physical size also matters, if you are short, you may need to buy a slightly longer paddle to be able to comfortably reach the water and comfortably maneuver.

There are many types of paddles you can choose from. The standard pattern length is between 210 cm to 260 cm. You also have the option of low angle or high angle paddling which describes your paddling style, whether slow which is more common when you are using the canoe or kayak for recreation or the more aggressive paddling which is common in water sports.   If for recreation, their paddles are normally slimmer for ease of use in the water.

Also, consider the kind of material that you want your paddle to be made from. Fiberglass paddles are durable and lightweight, carbon-fiber paddles are good for high-performance paddling while nylon aluminum paddles require little maintenance and are lightweight. They’re also good for beginners and recreational use.


The material used in the construction of kayaks and canoes.


There is a wide range of material used in the construction of kayaks and each has their advantages and disadvantages.

Wooden kayaks

These typically have fiberglass covering with resin and varnish to protect the wood making them very durable and light. They allow for a wide array of designs, look very nice and are also less costly than those made of other materials.

Polyethylene kayaks.

This is basicall y plastic that has undergone heating and conversion into a waterproof material that can support weight well. The material is quite common and is used in a variety of places like the seat of the booths, bulkheads, paddles, and other flotation devices. A kayak that is made of polyethylene is light and flows easily. It is also durable and not very costly. It makes great material for beginners.

Composite kayaks.

This Refers to fiberglass, carbon fiber, aramid, Kevlar, and graphite which manufacturers blend together or use on their own. Kayaks made from this material are very durable and perform very well. They are lightweight and allow for easy maneuvering in the water.

The best way to decide what kind of material you should pick when looking for a kayak is to be clear about how often you intend to use the kayak, what are you using it for, and the budget you have.  Kayaks made from polyethylene are cheap and resistant to a lot of things that may damage the kayak during use.



Just like in kayak construction, there is a wide variety of material used and these include:-

Thermal form canoes.

This is a lightweight plastic which is durable and not expensive. It is normally used in cartoons that are for recreation.

Polyethylene plastic canoes.

This is another material used in canoes that are mainly for recreation and is durable, inexpensive and has an ability to withstand damage.

Royalex canoes.

This layered construction uses vinyl material to ensure that you get rigidity in the canoe. It is lightweight, durable but a bit more expensive.

Fiberglass canoes.

Such canoes have a combination of fiberglass, resin, and cloth to create a stiff but light canoe. You can also get a variety of shapes thus better design features. Fiberglass may not be as durable as plastic but you can repair them in case of damage.

Wood canoes.

These combine wood and fiberglass to create a stiff hull.  These are very durable and are easy to repair.


What equipment do you need when using a canoe or kayak.

There is some equipment you need to have when using a kayak or canoe.


This is very basic because you need a paddle to control the kayak or canoe. The type of paddle you choose depends on the type of canoeing or kayaking you are doing.   The number of paddles depends on whether you a using a canoe or kayak. Make sure you have an extra paddle in the boat in case you lose the one you’re using.

A floatation device.

This may come in the form of a life jacket and is important because if your boat capsizes, you will need to float. Sometimes if the boat capsizes you might panic and not be able to swim to safety and the life jacket will keep you afloat so that you do not drown. Make sure that everyone on the boat has a lifejacket anytime you are in the water.


This will protect your head in case you capsize in an area with rocks that could hurt you. This is especially important if you engage in the rough water spots where the probability of capsizing is very high.

Proper clothing.

Be careful in the kind of clothes you wear when you are in the water. Look for long sleeves so that you protect your arms from the sun, also wear material that is waterproof or the type that dries quickly. Choose clothing that will keep you cool or warm depending on the weather. Layer your clothes if possible so that the bottom layer gives you installation and absorbs any moisture from your body. The fabric should also allow you movement so consider light material and clothes that are not too tight.

Use gasket seals around the neck and wrist to keep out the water.  Gloves are also important and they should be lightweight, quick to dry and not slippery when they get wet.


Wear shoes that give you protection and a good grip if you need to brace yourself against the sides of the boat depending on the conditions of the water.

Knife and first aid kit.

A knife is important in case you need to cut a rope, while a first aid kit will ensure that you are able to treat any wounds that you may get during the trip.

Additional considerations.

Make sure you apply sunscreen even if the sun isn’t out. Exposure to the sun will damage your skin.

Also, have a rock throw bag that you can use if someone falls into the water, you can use the rope to rescue them by pulling them back to the safety of the boat. You can also use the rock to tow the boat back to the shore in case of anything.

A dry bag is also good to have because it will give you storage for some of the things you need to carry for example the first aid kit, food, water around others.

Also, make sure you carry water and snacks especially if you’ll be in the water for a long period of time. It is very important that you prevent dehydration which can happen because of the sun and the wind hitting your body. A snack will help you keep your energy levels up which is important especially if you’re using a non-motorized canoe or kayak.


So which is a better choice between a canoe and a kayak?

This really comes down to what you are looking for, it depends on why you are buying it, what budget you have, what kind of use you want to put it too, whether you will use it as an individual or together with the family or friends, among other considerations.

You also need to consider the fact that canoes are a bit bigger than kayaks and will, therefore, be a bit difficult to transport if you are not using it near the water. The advantage of kayaks is that they are inflatable thus very portable and offer a wider variety of designs.

If you will need to carry a lot of gear, then you may need to opt for a canoe because they have more space thereby allowing you to transport your family and gear together. This is not to say that you cannot do the same in a kayak, it is only that it cannot give you as much space as a canoe.

Canoes are simpler to paddle but kayaks allow you a better choice of activities especially if you want to explore different types of water bodies like rapids or other aggressive water sports.  Whatever the pros and cons of each are, it is totally up to the individual on which to buy, whether a kayak or canoe.


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