Canoeing and kayaking are hugely different traditions, yet they sometimes involve using almost identical boats to do exactly the same thing.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell them apart, but even enthusiasts will struggle to say why.

Read on for a whistle stop tour on canoeing vs kayaking and the real differences between these fine traditions to help you work out which might be most appealing for you!

Who really cares?

Traditional canoes came in all shapes and sizes!If you’re racing, how a boat is moved really matters. That’s why sailing and paddling canoes were distinguished in regattas of the 1880s, and it’s why single and double blade competition boats (paddled on one side or on both sides) have conventionally been separated as “canoes” and “kayaks”… even if the same person is in the same craft with each type of paddle!

If you’re in a boat to go somewhere, or to transport something, the “paddlesport” world’s simple rules can be ignored. You can accept that a person playboating in a kayak doesn’t become a canoeist if their paddle snaps in half and you don’t need to fret that “pack” canoes are conventionally used with a double bladed paddle!

If you want simple answers for making an everyday choice skip to “what do you really need to know” (below)! Read on for more detail…

Is it Canoeing or Kayaking?

Canoeing with How Stean Gorge Outdoor Team in the Yorkshire Dales

Sometimes it’s easier to say what isn’t canoeing than to say what is canoeing. We can go canoeing in almost any human or wind powered watercraft that doesn’t have a more specific name, especially if the watercraft is associated with transportation or journeying.

At one extreme of modern recreational canoeing you have an Adirondack tradition, dating to the 1880s and based around ultralight canoes designed for ease of carrying through the forest. In the same era, British canoeists were sailing across the sea to the isles in heavy decked canoes with keels. Outside of recreational canoeing, canoes can be even more diverse, and even include the large, the ocean going canoes of the Haida which can carry sixty people.

For now, let’s just say canoeing fits somewhere between using coracles, rafts, rowing boats, sailing dinghies, dragon boats, yachts and so on!


From the early-mid 19th century, European enthusiasts identified kayaking with sitting low in a narrow, soft sided, decked (seaworthy) skin-on-frame craft traditionally used for hunting and fishing in sub-arctic regions. This European sense of kayaking evolved in the early 20th century as enthusiasts moved onto white water rivers – but that was just one part of the story!

Enthusiasts today talk of “sport” kayaks as coming in shapes and sizes to suit almost any imaginable purpose or place. We might find ourselves meaning anything from squirt craft designed for “downtime” (going below the surface) to sleek skis designed for riding big rollers on the ocean!

For now, let’s accept that we can only have handy rules to distinguish “what counts” as kayaking for specific (and limited) purposes such as competition and qualification systems.

So, what do you really need to know?

Most of the time, you don’t need a complicated answer. If you’re looking for an easy answer you can often get by with a few very simple rules.

When someone says “canoeing” at a club, an activity or a hire centre they’ll usually be pretty clear what they mean. In the UK and in most of Europe they’ll almost certainly mean using a 4.5-5m / 15’-17’ tandem (two person) open boat with two seats and two single bladed paddles.

If someone says kayaking at the same club, activity or hire centre he or she will generally mean using one of three things:

  • A sea kayak you sit inside: an enclosed touring boat
  • A “general purpose” sit-inside (enclosed) kayak: a more playful river boat
  • A recreational “sit-on-top” kayak: unsinkable and really easy for novices

With all of these you will end up lower down and using a double paddle to push through footrests which will need to be adjusted to suit your leg length. No matter which you are offered, you should expect a craft suitable for your size and weight: one size does NOT fit all!

Why choose Open Canoeing?Canoeing vs Kayaking

If you get offered a tandem open canoe on sheltered water you can sit on high, comfy seats and just get on with it. You can even move around, or swap positions. You can also carry (and easily get to) bags or kit. They are highly recommended for touring / journeying / expeditions.

As these canoes are open, they are easy for getting in and out. On a calm day, on sheltered water, most tandem canoes can be handled by people of almost any size without any special adjustments. With one person at each end, controlling the boat with a paddle is really easy: you just paddle on the left to turn right and swap over to paddle on the right to turn left!

Why choose Sea Kayaking?

If you want to clip along easily on your own, even in wind and waves, sea kayaks are one obvious answer. These work well on touring rivers,  lakes, estuaries and along coastlines, as well as on the open sea.

Getting yourself and your kit in and out of sea kayaks is harder than with open canoes, and as with any kayak you’ll need to adjust footrests before using them. Having a sea kayak that’s the right size (that fits) is also recommended.

Why choose “Inland” or “General Purpose” sit inside (enclosed) Kayaking?

Over recent years, “general purpose” kayaks have become increasingly playful. Most have been designed for use on fast flowing rivers. These tend to be shorter and more manoeuvrable than sea kayaks. This is great but usually makes them slower and more difficult to control!

Most “general purpose” kayaks are great for exploring on ditches and along shorelines but they really come to life when on fast flowing water or on waves. Enthusiasts commonly learn to brace and roll them (simple enough skills) so capsizing can mean nothing more than a momentary inconvenience even in more challenging environments.

Why choose Recreational Sit-on-Top Kayaking?

Many prefer to sit on top a kayak rather than to sit inside a kayak. All sense of enclosure disappears, as do any worries about capsize and recovery. Styles of sit-on-top do vary but most offer an extremely forgiving way to be independent on the water with minimal experience.

Setting up a sit-on-top is generally much quicker than setting up an enclosed kayak as the footrest is generally very simple and in full view. The speed and performance is rarely as good as in an equivalent enclosed kayak but if you seek an experience of being out on the water, these craft remove barriers like no other!

What Next?

Now that you know the key differences between kayaking and canoeing, which would you prefer? At How Stean Gorge, we run a number of canoeing experiences, including the Great Yorkshire Canoeing Expedition. Be sure to contact us for more information!