Understanding the difference between canoe and kayak

What is the difference between kayaking and canoeing? It’s a common question and the answer is not as instantly obvious as it might initially seem.

While canoeing is often used as an umbrella term to refer to both activities, there are in fact very concrete differences between these two sports.

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Kayaking gear is of course different to canoeing gear, the boats themselves are designed differently, and the paddles are also different. But it’s not just that.

"Canoeing is often used as an umbrella term to refer to both activities but there are in fact very concrete differences."

The history of kayaking and canoeing are quite different, the two require different techniques (learning to kayak and learning to canoe are very different) and the two are suited to different kinds of waterway - if you ever go kayaking or canoeing abroad you’ll usually find the locals favouring one over the other.

Canoe vs Kayak - The Gear

The biggest and most obvious difference between canoe and kayak is the equipment you use. The boats used in each are different for starters.

Canoes are usually open-top boats, often designed to seat two or more people either sitting on benches running across the beam of the craft or kneeling down.

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Two kayakers paddle a section of white water. Note the double-bladed paddles, closed-top boats and spraydecks which mark  them out as kayaks rather than canoes.

Kayaks are generally closed-top boats and more often than not are single seaters. They usually sit lower in the water than canoes, which tend to have higher sides.

Instead of sitting on a bench with their legs bending at the knee, kayakers usually sit on the floor of the boat with their legs stretched straight (or nearly straight) out in front of them.

Another crucial difference between kayaking gear and canoeing gear is the design of the paddles. Kayaking paddles have two blades, one at either end, while canoeing paddles have one and are shorter. The two require different paddling techniques.

A couple paddling an open topped canoe - otherwise known as a Canadian canoe. Note the single-bladed paddles and the seating position. Photo: iStock

There are a number of other bits of gear that are different too - the closed design of kayaks means most kayakers wear a spraydeck to prevent water overflowing into the cockpit.

Because kayaks are more commonly used for running rapids and paddling whitewater, kayakers often wear helmets and noseplugs too. They’re also more likely to wear buoyancy aids which allow more freedom of movement than the collared life jackets sometimes worn by canoeists.

Kayaking History vs. Canoeing History

The history of kayaking and the history of canoeing are different, with the two developing in different parts of the world, at least initially. The oldest example of a canoe ever discovered is the Pesse Canoe. Incredibly, it’s believed to date from somewhere between 8,000 and 7,500BC.

The Pesse Canoe, which dates from around 8,000BC. Not only the oldest canoe ever found but also the oldest boat of any sort ever found.

A simple dugout, the canoe was found near Pesse in Holland when a new motorway was being constructed. Not only is it the world’s oldest canoe, it is the oldest boat of any type ever found.

There is evidence that dugout canoes were used by various peoples all round the world in prehistoric times, including the Aboriginal people of Australia and tribes from the Amazon rainforest.

It was in North America that the canoe really developed though. When Europeans first began exploring the interior of the continent in the 14th and 15th centuries, they recorded instances of locals using more sophisticated designs made of birch bark stretched over a wooden frame.

A lithograph print shows a native americans (or first nations people) and white explorers using Canadian canoes on the St Lawrence river. Photo: Hulton Archive

These were the precursors of today’s metal, fibreglass and plastic boats, which is why open top canoes are still often referred to as Canadian Canoes.

Kayaks were developed separately and their genealogy can be traced to one particular region of the world - they were invented by the Inuit tribes who live in the far north of what is now Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

Designed as hunting boats, the early kayaks were handmade by individual hunters using seal skins stretched over wood, or carved whale bones when there was no wood available, as in the treeless landscapes of northern Nunavut and Greenland. (Perhaps that's why this whale nearly killed two kayakers recently?) A quiet mode of transport, they were ideal for sneaking up on seals undetected.

An inuit man in a traditional seal skin kayak. Photographed by Edward Curtis in 1929. Photo: Curtis

Scandinavian missionaries and explorers were the first Europeans to take up kayaking, learning techniques like the eskimo roll from locals. Oluf Christian Dietrichson a member of the Greenland expedition led by Norwegian explorer Nansen publicly demonstrated an eskimo roll in Norway in 1889. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that kayaking caught on a sport in Europe and elsewhere - around the same time as sports like alpine skiing, but much slower than rock climbing or other action sports.

When Europeans started adopting it however, kayaking grew rapidly in popularity. Alongside several canoe disciplines, it was featured as a demonstration sports at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but it wasn’t until 1936 (the infamous Berlin Olympics hosted by Hitler) that the two paddle sports were fully integrated into the games.

Emile Fer of France competes in a K-1 (single seat kayak) slalom event at the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: Wikipedia

These days kayakers and canoeists compete in two disciplines, slalom and sprint, and competitors race in either single seat, two-seater or four-seater kayaks or canoes over a variety of distances.

Kayaking Techniques vs. Canoeing Techniques

Another difference between canoe and kayak are the techniques used. Kayaking techniques differ from canoeing techniques. Most obviously the difference between the paddles necessitates different paddling techniques.

Canoeists use their single bladed paddles to alternate strokes on either side of the boat. One hand grips the t-shaped handle at end of the paddle while the other grips halfway down the paddle shaft.

Kayakers on the other hand grip their double-bladed paddles in the middle and propel themselves forward by pushing with first the right and then the left blade in the water. With the blades set at 90 degrees to each other, a twisting technique is required to ensure that the pushing power is maximised and the wind resistance minimised.

A kayaker takes a stroke with the left blade of his paddle. Note the angle of the righthand blade at 90 degrees to the left to minimise wind resistance. Photo: iStock

There are more advanced techniques that kayakers can learn too, including the eskimo roll. This is a way of righting a kayak after it has capsized using your hips and the paddle. The open topped design of canoes means this is impossible.

Kayaking Centres in the UK vs. Canoeing Centres in the UK

There are a proliferation of places to go canoeing and kayaking in the UK where you can learn basic kayaking techniques and start learning the ins and outs of the sport including the basics of racing, whitewater kayaking and even freestyle kayaking.

While many kayaking centres will also teach canoeing, the open topped design of canoes means they aren’t as well suited for paddling in whitewater or running rapids. If you want to learn to canoe, it’s worth checking that the centre you’re visiting will teach canoeing as well as kayaking - and perhaps avoid UK white water centres.

Professional freestyle kayaker Eric Jackson gets inverted. For obvious reasons such manoeuvres are impossible in a canoe. For this reason, whitewater kayaking centres may not teach canoeing. Photo: Jackson Kayak

British Canoeing (otherwise known as the British Canoe Union or BCU) is the governing body for the sport in the UK. As well as being responsible for selecting and supporting the UK’s Olympic kayaking and canoeing teams, the BCU is in charge of issuing the qualifications needed to teach beginner's kayaking.

So if you’re looking for a kayaking or canoeing centre in the UK make sure they are BCU accredited.

A full list of the UK’s accredited kayaking and canoeing centres (including for example centres where you can go kayaking in London, or places to learn canoeing on the River Wye) is available on British Canoeing’s website. We’d also recommend looking at Mpora’s recommendations of the best places to go kayaking in the UK.

A kayaking lesson. Photo: iStock

Kayaking Abroad vs. Canoeing Abroad

Because of their different strengths and weaknesses, going kayaking abroad and going canoeing abroad tend to involve visiting different destinations.

Canoes are usually used on waterways that are flatter, and easier to navigate, so canoes are popular for exploring inland waterways all over the world. Canoeing in France is popular, while canoe holidays are also popular in the US, Canada and places where there are a lot of canals, like Holland.

Kayaking abroad often involves an element of white water and so kayakers often head to mountainous regions with fast-flowing rivers to get their kicks. Kayaking is popular amongst travellers in Nepal and northern India, while Uganda is considered a kayaking Mecca amongst serious paddlers because of the White Nile. Similarly kayaking on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and Zambia is popular.

Kayaking on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Photo: Michael Long

Sea kayaks - longer boats designed to handle waves and sea conditions - also provide a great way to see a country’s coastline, or explore outlying islands. So kayaking in Puerto Rico is popular, as is kayaking in Florida. Closer to home, there is also excellent sea kayaking in Scotland. Have a look of Mpora’s recommendations of the best places in the world to go kayaking here.

Now that you know the difference between canoe and kayak, which one do you prefer?

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