What is the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe

What is the difference between a kayak and a canoe? This is a commonly asked question.

Beautiful canoe with reflection

We are going to dive a little deeper into this question and solve the mystery of what the difference is in a canoe and a kayak. Come along on my journey for information and learning.

What is a Canoe

According to Wikipedia, a canoe is a light-weight narrow vessel. Typically, pointed on both ends and open on the top, propelled by one or more seated or kneeling paddlers facing in the direction of travel using a single-bladed paddle.

Merriam-Webster says that a canoe is a light narrow boat with both ends sharp that is usually propelled by paddling.

Dictionary.com probably has the longest definition for what a canoe is. They say that a canoe is any various slender, open boats tapering to a point on both ends. Generally propelled by paddles or sometimes sails and traditionally formed of a light-weight framework covered in tree bark, skins, or canvas. Also, could be formed from a dug-out or burnt-out log or logs and are now usually made of aluminum, fiberglass, etc.

First looking at these definitions of the canoe one would think that there is no difference between a canoe and a kayak. It is true that in British English, the term “canoe” can also refer to a kayak, thus canoes are then referred to as “Canadian canoes” or open canoes to distinguish them from kayaks.

Britannica had the canoe broken down into categories.

  • Canadian Canoe – Open from front to end and propelled by a paddle having one blade.
  • Kayak – Covered deck with a well or cockpit, propelled with a double-blade paddle
  • Dugout – Constructed from a dugout or burnt-out log
  • Pirogue – A dugout created from a single log

A Bit of History

Canoes are probably one of the oldest means of transportation. They have recorded that the oldest canoe was probably constructed between 8200 and 7600 BC, found in the Netherlands.

Canoes have been used on virtually every continent and still are. The indigenous peoples of Australia used a variety of materials to create canoes. The Indigenous people of the Amazon tended to use Hymenaea tree while the Pacific-northwest people typically used dugout style canoes made from red cedar logs.

Indiginous man paddling a dugout style canoe in the river

Many Indigenous people of the Americas used bark covered canoes, with birch being the primary bark used. The early canoes were just as diverse in their size, shape and function as they are today.old fashioned hide covered canoe

The early canoes were shaped and constructed with a purpose in mind. They were used for carrying goods, by hunters, fishermen, and warriors. They varied in length from 15 feet to 20 feet and were known to be as long as 100 feet. Some had outriggers, while others were just slender and fast.

beautifully decorated Alaskan canoes tied to a dock

Canoes were used by explorers and missionaries crossing our great country. Lewis and Clark used a canoe for much of their expedition into the new world.

The Kayak

Wikipedia has the definition of a kayak as; a small, narrow watercraft which is traditionally propelled by a double-bladed paddle.

Merriam-Webster says a kayak is a light, narrow boat that has both ends tapered to a point, propelled by a double-bladed paddle, and often has a closed top except for an opening in which the paddler sits with their legs stretched out in front.

man paddling a traditional single man sit-in style kayak

Kayaks were typically associated with the boats used by the Aleuts and the Inuit people of Canada and Greenland. These were constructed of materials such as whale bones, and wood for the light-weight frames and covered in skins, such as seal. These vessels were primarily used for hunting and transport.

So, you can see that the definitions are by-at-large very similar. The big difference back in the early days were the paddles used and the fact that the canoe is an open-top boat and the kayak is a closed top boat.

Where did Kayaks Originate?

The word kayak comes from the Greenlandic word qajaq. There were first developed by the Aleut, Inuit and Yup’ik people and used to hunt inland lakes, rivers and coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic, Bering Sea and North Pacific Oceans.

Kayaks are believed to be over 4000 years old and the oldest to date is displayed North America department of the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich, with the oldest dating from 1577.

Native builders built their boats based on personal experience and the generations before them. The word “kayak” means “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat”. Kayaks were a personal craft, as they were built by the man who used it.

Skin-on-frame kayaks are still being used today by the Inuit people in Greenland for hunting. The tightly stretched skins glide through the waves silently and why fix what isn’t broken.

Modern Kayaks and Canoes

In modern society the kayaks and canoes are just as diverse as they have always been. Constructed of the more modern materials of today, for the most part. Materials such as aluminum, fiber glass, polyethylene, etc. You can find a whole article about the styles of kayaks here that I previously posted.

The modern kayaks of today differ from native kayaks in almost every way possible. From their initial form to conception, construction and function.

brightly colored sit-in style kayaks on a rack

Some areas of the world still use the tried and true methods of construction, but for those of us out for just some good ol’ fun and recreation, we can enjoy the modern products of today.

While canoes and kayaks have always been very similar with slight differences, either in looks, or functionality, I think that today we define them about the same as we did back then even though they have different uses now than the traditional models of the past.

Generally speaking the basic canoe is larger and more cumbersome than the average kayak. Again, there are those special cases in both worlds where each was designed for a specific purpose making them bigger, smaller, wider, narrower, etc.

We even have companies making a hybrid of sorts. May the evolution of kayaks and canoes never end, LOL

Back in history kayaks and canoes were a necessary way of travel and they still are in some regions of the world. They are also popular in the recreational and sporting world today. They are used for racing, touring, white water, surf and sea, fishing, and in my journey just plain exploring.

With modern day technology they have become more durable and a ton of bells and whistles. Everything from peddles to sails. You can even strap on a motor if it suits you.

Well, I hope that I was able to answer you questions about how a canoe is different from a kayak. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

Thanks for spending time with me today and I look forward to sharing some more interesting information with you soon.

Until Next Time!

16 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe”

  1. Very interesting! I love that the origin of kayaks was originally for hunting boats. I also love how long they date back to! I love kayaking and was very intrigued informed by this site! Canoes are pretty cool too, especially like the really old ones Indians used to carve out of big trees and stuff! 

    Reply
    • The history of our beloved tiny boats was very interesting indeed. I loved learning about their origins. Thank you for spending time here and learning with me.

      Reply
  2. Thank you very much for this awesome article. Whenever i read insightful articles like this. I feel the need to appreciate the work done by the writer and i must say that this is a great article with vital information to pass across on the difference between canoe and kayak. it is ture that basic canoe is larger and more cumbersome than the average kayak. thank you for the displays also. it helped

    Reply
    • I am so glad you found it interesting. I had a good time doing the research and learning the history myself. Thank you for spending the time and reading my post.

      Reply
  3. What a great deal of information that you have given out in this awesome and interesting article I must give you a big thumbs up… I encountered an article like this on the internet and it changed my knowledge about the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe and gave me a new system to approach it….Thanks a lot for sharing. 

    Reply
    • Thank you for kind words and I am glad you enjoyed it. I hope you find more useful info on my site as well. So, check out the rest of my posts if you would like.

      Reply
  4. I have to admit, I had always asked myself this question and had always concluded that they’re somehow the same thing but with a different model. After reading your article I have come to terms to which one is what. The action both of them provide are really similar as well but from associating the different pictures I’ve seen, I can now say I’m finally able to distinguish which one is a kayak and which one is a canoe. 

    Reply
    • Stephanie, I too had asked the question and I had a great time tracing down the answer. It was an interesting journey af cool history and modern day applications. Thank you for spending time here today and if you have any other questions you need answered just let me know.

      Reply
  5. Hello there, little did I know I could find such as great article online and I really appreciate it. It’s really nice finding some really useful article that could help increase your understanding of something and I like it. I think the kids would be happy when I read this article to them and make them understand too. Cheers

    Reply
    • Thank you Justin. I appreciate your kind words and hope that the education I provided here has helped you understanding of the difference between a canoe and a kayak.

      Reply
  6. Hello 

    A useful and practical Post,  Your disruptions between the two types and construction leaves me smarter today. 

    This post is a good guide and revealing,its also instructional and helpful on history with evolved versions of what was once simple methods needed to hunt, travel quickly and easily using the waterways.

     Simple but effective creative building techniques are amazing

    A well worthwhile read 

    chris

    Reply
    • Thank you Chris for stopping by. I am so glad you found it informative and easy to read. I appreciate your kind words and I hope you will check out some more of my site. 

      Reply
  7. In my younger days, I joined the Boys’ Brigade and we had camping activities that brought us out for canoeing courses. But it turns out that they are kayaks. In fact, the term is indeed used interchangeably. I realise now I had been using a kayak instead of a canoe since it was a closed top! Thanks for sharing this useful article to describe the difference. I love history so it is always nice to know the history behind something. 

    Reply
    • I love history as well. This was a fun article to research and write. I am happy that you also enjoyed it. You are right they do use the word canoe and kayak interchangeably, depending on where you are geographically. Thank you for spending time with me and I hope you return again.

      Reply
  8. Well I have honestly been on the delusional side because I have actually been categorising the two to be one. Actually I never would have thought they had any differences before now which actually seems rather justified to an extent to me. However, this is actually good to see here ad it makes quite a lot of sense. Surely a very good and worthy one here to see. Thanks so much

    Reply
    • Nath, I am so glad I could bring you out of your dilusion, LOL. I am glad you found the article enlightening and useful. Thanks for stopping in and spending some time with me. 

      Reply

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