Canoe vs. Kayak: A Guide On How These Two Boats Differ

taking a canoe in a open water

The middle of Saranac Lake is not a forgiving place when you have an impending storm coming over the mountains,

boats whizzing by to get back to their docks with no regards to those in canoes like myself,

and your wife – who you have been married to for only a year – is yelling at you wondering if you know what the heck you are doing.

*Record scratch*

Yep, that was me – back in 2012 I thought it was a terrific idea to rent a canoe for the very first time and go camping on an island in the middle of the Adirondacks without giving a moments notice to check the weather before setting off on the journey.

Looking back on it, I would just simply watch other people canoeing across the lake effortlessly and always found myself wondering – ‘if some soccer mom can paddle across the lake without tipping then surely I could!  

I mean come on, at the end of the day it was only a canoe, right?!

How wrong/naive I was…


more on that in just a minute.

First off, when looking at canoes and kayaks its always critical to actually know how these two, yet very distinct crafts on the water vastly differ.

To try and break everything down for you – I want to just first take a step back and give a very quick, and more importantly, brief history lesson on how these two vessels came to be:

The Birth Place Of The Canoe Isn’t Exactly Where You Think It Would Come From

netherlands birthplace of canoeing

Now when most people think of canoes, they immediately think of Canadian folklore, I mean who wouldn’t?

When you see ducks and beavers on the Canadian currency, its nearly instinctive that the indigenous people of Canada likely relied on canoes from the earliest days in order to traverse from point A to point B quickly and efficiently – well you would be right – partially.

While canoes seem to be ubiquitous to Native Americans, to trace back the origins of the canoe, you actually have to travel all the way back to the 8200 BC in Netherlands to see the Pesse canoe.

Like many canoes that came later on, the Pesse canoe was crafted from a single piece of timber, in this case scotch pine, that would hold its passengers as it floated across the water.

Canoes later on would be responsible for hauling several men and accompanying gear while playing a pivotal role in the transportation of the North American fur trade.

One noticeable absent part of a canoe is a rutter.

The underbelly of many canoes will simply lay completely flush.  While this a terrific advantage when paddling through shallow or lilypad heavy waters, when on an open lake its likely going to spell disaster for efficiency.

Without the addition of the rutter, inexperienced canoers (like myself in 2012) may often find themselves zig-zagging their way to their final destination.

Especially when paddling in tandem with their partner.

To further confuse the directionally challenged campers, canoes are often equipped with a single-blade paddle.

A single-blade paddle is great for pushing yourself away from a shallow bank or easing your way onto a beach – but can be incredibly tiresome after several minutes of paddling.

Unlike the double-bladed paddle that is used for kayaks, the canoes single-bladed paddle will require additional effort to balance out your strokes on your left and right sides in order to keep your bearings straight – too much paddling on one side will make your canoe go in circles.

For those that share the canoe with another – a single bladed paddle will require further coordination between passengers in order to prevent the canoe to favor one direction over another if the paddler is cutting the oar too deep into the water with each stroke.

However before we dive into the function of this particular vessel, we first want to also cover the kayak.

Kayaks Are Built For Speed And Rough Open Waters

kayaks in open waters

While kayaks can fit one or two passengers within its body – their origins can be traced back to tribal natives in the sub-arctic regions as they were used for hunting.

Their incredible ability to gain speed with its narrow design coupled with a double-bladed paddle simply outclassed the much heavier and wider canoes.

Kayaks have an uncanny ability to glide effortlessly through the water in its slender body design.

Beyond its edge in hunting and speed, kayaks are also terrific for rough waters as well.  While canoes may flip when caught within high wake areas, a kayak is still susceptible to tipping, however, has the ability to actually roll completely out of any hazardous scenario.

Therefore if you are ever capsized in a kayak, you may be able to roll over with the simple (for some anyways) use of your core strength in order to get it back upright.

Another notable difference when it comes to function on a kayak is that they often contain a rutter within the tail-end of the boat that will help to guide you directionally.

While a double-bladed paddle will give you much more control to cut through the water, the rutter that rests on the tail underside of the kayak will generally keep you in a much more straight alignment with each stroke of the paddle.

Kayaks Are For Hunting – But Does That Mean You Can Go Fishing In Them?

birthplace of the canoe and kayak

Of course you can definitely find your favorite YouTuber or friend fishing from a kayak.

But when it comes to actual practicality, a canoe will make for a much more comfortable experience when it comes to fishing.

Being that canoes are meant to hull goods from point A to point B – within a canoe (especially that with a wider body) you will be able to store all your tackle, bait, and even coolers – in the event that you want to enjoy a few cold ones on the open waters or perhaps if you want to bring a few fish back for a hearty meal.

While kayaks are more susceptible to tipping (although they can roll completely over) – this may lead to your gear shaking loose should the worse scenario play out (i.e. a complete roll over).

While most folks scoff at a kayak ever tipping – the likelihood becomes extremely possible depending on what you are fishing for.

If you plan on fishing for larger game, a fight with a fish could spell disaster as not only will the fish lead you to sway one way, but a sudden break of a line may leave you off-balance struggling to regain your center – not doing so quickly will likely be too late leaving your costly tackle at the bottom of the lake.

If You Are Going Camping, Which Vessel Should You Use?

camping in the wilderness

With just about anything in camping – it really depends on the scenario.If you are going for a multi-day backpacking journey, kayaks often won’t be the best choice as their cargo capacity is relatively limited.

Even more so if you plan on sharing the kayak with another passenger.

Within the kayak body you may have very limited room in the front of your body, while there will be some storage behind that can store over-night (likely two night maximum) days worth of supplies.

Now if you are traveling between the keys (or smaller islands within) in southern Florida and plan on sleeping on the beach under the stars  – then a kayak is likely not going to be a problem at all.

On the flipside to this – if you are going to be in the back-country for several days and are planning on traveling with your significant other and perhaps a child or two, then a canoe is going to be the best choice.

The amount of storage that a canoe can carry will simply outmatch that of a kayak.

While it might take you much longer (and more effort) to get to your destination, a canoe will be the better of the two choices for you.

Specifically with wider body canoes, they will be much less susceptible to tipping – especially when carrying a much larger load.

The key takeaway here is to consider the scenario of your trip and how each boat would work for you.

Comparing Canoes vs. Kayaks on A Cost Basis

comparing a canoe vs kayak cost

If you are seriously considering purchasing a canoe or kayak the options are nearly limitless.

However, when it comes to price points, canoes will typically lean towards the higher end of the budget while kayaks will tend to favor those looking to save a few bucks.

But as it goes with just about any product category, there will always be the super luxury or thrift brands that will break outside the median price.

At Burnsly, we generally recommend if you plan on making your water adventures a regular weekend getaway, then you simply can’t go wrong with a kayak.

With their versatility in the water coupled with their incredible efficiency, you can easily navigate either the open waters or seaweed-laden creeks.

The double-blade design of the oars on kayaks makes for a low amount of effort exerted that will allow you to simply enjoy the calm waters without exerting all your energy ultimately feeling exhausted.

Therefore, if you just want a serene river to paddle down or perhaps watch a bird or two, you simply can’t beat a kayak for a simple weekend craft.

Now as we covered above, if you are looking to turn your weekend adventures into one or two day getaways with yourself plus a few others, then a canoe will be your best bet.

While canoes generally tend to be a bit pricier, they are a much more affordable way to get the family on the water without having to worry about purchasing a fishing boat and going through the registration processes.

Their incredible storage options (i.e. you don’t have a motor to worry about) along without having to worry about a hitch/trailer set up will make it easier to fit into a ‘get-up-and-go’ family environment.

Beyond just the family option that canoes offer, they will also unlock a plentiful amount of uncharted campgrounds that would otherwise be un-accessible if you were traveling by foot.When traveling to beautiful parks like Banff up in Alberta, CA or Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks where some camping grounds are only accessible by canoe – this method of transportation will make you really feel ‘off-the-grid’ compared to a simple light hike or car ride.

Understanding What You Get Out Of A Canoe Or Kayak

roasting marshmallows over a campfire

While we could talk all day about the advantages or disadvantages of a canoe vs. kayak – when you really boil it down – it comes to lifestyle and personal preferences.

A canoe or kayak is able to access areas that are normally blocked off to boats or hikers due to their ability to navigate waters and access areas that are only seen by a few people.

Their initial investment cost is normally offset within a few expeditions as they will really unveil a world of wonder for both outdoors-men old and young.

If you are single person, a kayak is generally going to be the better of the two options given its tail rutter along with its inexpensive cost and smaller footprint for storage.

However, if you are a family of 3 or 4 (max) a canoe can store a plethora of gear along with being an incredibly great family experience that will leave memories lasting a lifetime.