What Is the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe?

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What Is the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe?

For many people, the words kayak and canoe are interchangeable. After all, they both represent a small boat where one or two riders can sit and navigate using a paddle. Both kayaks and canoes have vague ties to the native peoples of North America, which makes things even more hazy in the minds of many. There are, however, significant differences in the two and even though they can both be used in similar circumstances, seasoned kayakers and canoeists are well aware of these differences.

Many experts participate in actual kayaking and canoeing at sporting events with well defined rules and regulations. For anyone who plans to take up either one of these sports and purchase either a kayak or a canoe, it is important to first understand the most fundamental ways in which they differ. Kayaks and canoes differ in history, structure, seating, and paddles. Understanding these differences can start an amateur well on his way to becoming a seasoned veteran.

The Origins of Kayaks and Canoes

The kayaks and canoes that most people are familiar with are actually just subsets of boats used by the native peoples of North America and the Caribbean. Each of these designs was refined over thousands of years, and both have proven themselves useful in difficult situations around the world.


Kayaks are perhaps the oldest of the two, and actually have their origins in Siberia, near the Bering Strait. Thousands of years ago, a large migration of Siberians to what is now Alaska began. Much of this journey took place over open water in small wooden boats known as 'umiaks'. These boats proved to be versatile and as these people, now known as the Inuit, settled in North America and spread eastward to Greenland, they continued to adapt a version of their old boat, creating the kayak. The version of the kayak that proved to be most resilient is enclosed, an innovation that prevented the kayak from being swamped with waves. This was particularly important to those engaged in fishing along the frigid arctic coasts of Greenland and Canada.


Canoes also have their origins in the Americas, but there were many different types of canoes available. The peoples of the Caribbean made their canoes out of hollowed out logs that proved to be seaworthy. Elsewhere in North America, the people of Eastern Canada, and what is now the United States, created canoes out of birch bark attached to a wooden frame. These canoes proved to be lightweight and versatile, perfect for navigating the rivers and lakes of North America. As Europeans began to colonise North America, they saw the virtues of the canoe and continued making them until the present day.

The Structural Differences Between Kayaks and Canoes

The primary and most obvious difference between kayaks and canoes is in the structure. Kayaks are enclosed, with a 'deck' that only allows the user's torso to protrude. This design makes it possible to enter the open sea, where waves can be shrugged off. This same ability makes it possible for the user to take a kayak into white water rapids where the spray of water should not inundate their boat. Canoes, on the other hand, are open, and are seldom used out on the open ocean. Instead, canoes are often used in rivers and lakes.

Kayaks and canoes are different beneath the water as well. For the most part, a canoe has a flat or a rounded bottom while a kayak has a flat or more square bottom with a built-in rudder. In general, canoes are also longer than kayaks, and can typically carry more passengers. While canoes are seldom used solo, kayaks are very frequently designed for only one person.

The Spray Skirt

A large part of a kayak's versatility is due not only to the deck, but to the spray skirt, also known as a spray deck, worn by the kayaker. This spray skirt is usually made of rubber or other waterproof material and is tight around the torso, spreading outward to cover the interior of the deck to prevent water from entering. In order to properly wear a spray skirt, a kayaker must know how to right themselves if waves flip them upside down. This is a technique that must be mastered before entering the open sea, otherwise, the kayaker may drown when upside down. Kayaks can be used without a spray skirt, but this is only done in calm, still water. Canoes do not usually require a spray skirt.

The Seating Differences Between Kayaks and Canoes

For someone watching a canoeing or kayaking event, it can be difficult to see any differences between the way that the passengers are actually seated. Canoes generally contain a seat of some kind that allows the passengers to sit with their legs beneath them, as if they are on a bench. Some varieties of canoes allow passengers to kneel. In many cases, and especially in competition canoes, there is a brace or strap that is placed over the thighs that allow passengers to have some leverage in order to stay in place when pushing against the water. Kayaks, on the other hand, allow the user to sit with their legs in front of them, or to kneel. When one is sitting in a kayak, one generally has a lower profile, making it more difficult to control the vessel against heavy winds..

Seating Designations

In many cases, but especially during sporting events, canoes and kayaks are differentiated by their seating. These designations consist of a letter, K for kayak, and C for canoe, along with a number, indicating how many people can be seated in each vehicle. For example a C4 event in the Olympics would be an event involving four-person canoes.

Paddles For Kayaks and Canoes

Another very prominent difference between kayaks and canoes is in the way that they are paddled. Due to the fact that a person seated in a canoe is higher up, they have more vertical power against the water. For this reason, canoe paddles are one sided, allowing the user to push against the water on one side of their canoe before switching to the other side. A kayaker does not have a similar advantage since their profile is so much lower. Kayak paddles are therefore double sided, which allows the user to spend less time between strokes. This actually makes it possible for a kayak to achieve higher speeds on flat, calm water in short periods of time.

The disadvantage to a double sided paddle is that it is more wearying to the user, and the higher speeds cannot be maintained for very long. A double sided paddle also makes it harder to control the course of the vehicle. Where a canoe can move in a very straight line, a kayak would zig and zag back and forth, losing momentum and energy.

Buying Kayaks and Canoes on eBay

Kayaks and canoes in a number of styles and sizes are available on eBay. Once a potential buyer has learned the differences between the two, and knows best what kind of boat might fit their needs, it is a simple matter to find it on eBay. This is best done by entering a keyword such as 'K2 Kayak' into the search bar on the ebay home page. The search results can be modified by changing the keywords or adding additional terms to the search.

Be Thorough

Kayaks and canoes are large items and while there are many brand new examples of both on eBay, there are many used ones to choose from as well. While buying used can save a person a lot of money and provide them with a quality item, it is important to read each item's description in order to learn about its history. Doing so can provide information about whether or not the kayak or canoe has ever been damaged or repaired, along with where it might have been used.


Both kayaks and canoes allow users to enjoy themselves in a variety of aquatic situations. Both vessels have long and storied histories, and have proven their worth and versatility over time. For many people, however, it is difficult to tell the two apart. While there are some similarities, it is possible to understand the differences if one looks at the history, structure, seating, and paddles used for each. Kayaks have their origins in the frozen arctic regions inhabited by the Inuit people, while Canoes come from farther south, developed by the woodland tribes of North America and the Carib peoples of the Caribbean. Canoes are open vessels, while kayaks are enclosed with a deck that allows them to be used on the open ocean without getting swamped.

When one is seated in a kayak, the legs are forward, while canoes allow one to sit with their legs beneath them. This makes a big difference in how one paddles, which is why canoes use a single bladed paddle and kayaks use a double bladed paddle. Both kayaks and canoes are used in competition and are a favourite at the Olympic Games. Learning more about these modes of transportation makes it possible for one to better understand the sport, or even to just better appreciate the recreational opportunities provided by each.

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