Canoe vs. kayak

A look at some of the advantages, disadvantages of two time-honored modes of paddle travel

Canoes and kayaks have been around basically as long as people have been propelling themselves along the water.

Borne of need – as a platform for fishing or hunting or transporting goods – today the personal paddlecraft fulfills a far less practical need: recreation.

And while canoes and kayaks share many traits, they also are different enough that deciding between the two can cause the first-time paddler a bit of consternation.

Basically, it comes down to this: Where do you want to go, what do you want to do, and how many of you are there?

And though there are exceptions to the rules and either style of boat can be built to be more like the other, generally speaking canoes are less efficient in the water but can carry more, while kayaks tend to be faster but a bit less stable.

Those generalizations aside, here’s a more in-depth comparison of the two boat styles, courtesy of a couple of guys who should know: Malcolm Smith, a veteran, avid paddler of both styles, and Andrew Shank, paddlesports expert at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike.


Advantage: kayak


For straight-line speed, it’s hard to beat a kayak.

“To me, canoes are really good for water that’s calm and you’re not in a hurry,” Smith said. “You want to take your time. Kayaks are just a lot faster, more efficient in the water.”

The elements

Wind is a canoeist’s enemy. So is the cold.

“In a canoe, you’re limited to spring, summer, fall. Kayaking, as long as the water isn’t frozen, you can go out any time,” Smith said. “One of the advantages of a kayak with a skirt is, once you get the skirt on, the kayak hull serves as a heating device.

“We have a tradition with a group of us here who kayak in Lawrence of kayaking every Christmas Eve morning at sunrise. That’s not something you can do in a canoe.”

A bit of a blow also affects a kayak less because of its lower profile.

“Canoes can be much more affected by the wind,” Shank said, “especially if you’re paddling by yourself, sitting in the back having your whole front end getting blown around.”

Go anywhere

Because a canoe sits lower in the water, it’s limited where it can go more than a kayak, and it’s easier to launch a kayak off a shallow beach.

“Sometimes we’ll go kayaking and head down a little stream or the Wakarusa River,” Smith said. “You can do that when there’s very little water. Sometimes you can’t do that in a canoe.”

Thrill factor

A kayak’s great maneuverability and the paddler’s greater sense of control – kayaker’s “wear” their boat and can maneuver or even roll it with leans and twists of the hips – make it a more likely platform for playtime.

“Out at Clinton Lake, sometimes wakes can be an issue,” Smith said. “There can be high wakes that can tip a canoe. You’re more likely to get through a big wake in a kayak. Kayaks are the workhorses. That’s what they were designed for: big waves and ocean currents. And choppy days at Clinton Lake. Some of the most fun I’ve had was on a smaller river kayak at Clinton. It’s like riding the surf. You don’t normally get to do that around here.”


Advantage: canoe

Gear hauling

Though many kayaks have bulkheads that can carry gear, they pale in comparison to the canoe’s massive hull.

“In a canoe, you can put in a big cooler, camping supplies,” Smith said. “You can do some of that in a kayak, but you put it inside the boat. It’s not as accessible, and you carry less gear. Kayaking is more one-day, two-day trips. If camping is your goal, if you’re going to be out for several days, carrying tents, a canoe is the way to go. You just can carry more stuff.”


Especially for the first-time paddler, kayaks can be intimidating. Blame the eskimo-rolling stereotype.

“For the casual person coming in and looking around, that can be scary,” Shank said. “You see yourself in that cockpit and just know you’re going to tip over. There’s the perception you’re going to tip over and get stuck in the boat. That can be a big thing to overcome.”

Truth be told, kayaks can be very stable, but the tippy perception is there.

Family time

Generally, it’s easier to take young children canoeing. Most kayaks are made for one or two paddlers; canoes can hold four comfortably.

“Kids are kind of dead weight in either boat,” Smith said. “The paddling in a kayak is something kids can pick up easily. But if you have smaller kids, you can get three people in some of the canoes, even four with smaller kids. You certainly can’t do that with a kayak.”

Learning curve

Take wind and waves out of the equation, and canoes generally are quite stable.

Kayaks can be a bit tricky.

“The drawback with a kayak,” Smith said, “is there’s a slightly more difficult learning curve. They can be a little more tricky. It takes a little bit longer to stabilize one. That’s also a plus in that they’re also easier to turn and maneuver. Most people start out with canoes. They’re a good way to get kids used to the idea of traveling on water under their own locomotion. Canoeing is a safe way to begin to understand that.”

Bottom line

Of course, it’s easy to pigeonhole both paddle platforms.

Some canoes can be very tippy, while some kayaks are very stable. Some canoes can be faster and lighter than their skirted counterparts.

And then there’s a category of kayak that transcends the stereotypes.

“We actually have a boat that’s a cross between the two,” Smith said. “A sit-on-top, two-may kayak. It’s real stable. It’s hard to roll. We like to take it out in the middle of Clinton and swim off of it. It’s kind of in between the two.”

When it comes to deciding between a canoe or kayak, Smith falls firmly on the side of the kayak.

Except :

“As a family outing, a day on the Kaw – in a canoe – can’t be beat,” he said. “Or a day in a canoe at Lake Clinton? That can’t be beat.”