Canoes and kayaks are small, narrow watercraft designed for one or two people. Typically, these boats are unpowered, using unmounted paddles to propel the craft through water. The paddlers face in the direction of travel. Despite the similarities, canoes and kayaks are different craft. Each offers design benefits and features that make each better suited to a different range of activities.
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Canoes are open and uncovered watercraft, typically 12 to 18 feet long. They are shaped to come to a point at the bow (front) and stern (back), with flat, rounded, shallow arc or shallow "V" shaped hull bottoms. The shape of the hull determines the stability and maneuverability of the canoe. Canoes are constructed from fiberglass, aluminum or a variety of other specialized materials. Paddlers can sit on low benches or seats, or kneel in the bottom of the canoe. The width of the canoe can also determine the length of your paddle. Paddles come in wood, fiberglass or aluminum.
There are two basic designs for kayaks. The traditional tandem kayak has a closed and covered hull, with two openings called a "cockpit," for each paddler. Once seated in the cockpit, the paddlers' lower bodies are inside the craft. Waterproof skirts cover the cockpits, protecting the interior from splashing water. The sit-on-top kayak is an uncovered shallow craft with molded or attached seats. Kayaks are shaped to come to a point at the bow and stern but are shallower and narrower than canoes. Tandem models typically range 13 to 20 feet long. You have a lot of choice when it comes to kayak paddles. They can be long or short, symmetrical or asymmetrical or spooned.
Weather and Rough Water
Canoes and sit-on-top kayaks are open, providing no protection from water or rain. Traditional kayaks are designed for paddling through river rapids, where turbulent water and the tipping of the kayak cause water to come up and over the top of the craft. In windy conditions, a canoe's high sides catch the wind, pulling the craft off course and making it difficult to handle.
Kayaks, particularly traditional kayaks, are more maneuverable than canoes. But some of the maneuvering advantage is lost in a tandem kayak over the shorter one-person models. The narrow, low profile design provides more stability and less water resistance, giving paddlers better handling and more speed. The shallower draft of kayaks allows them to be used in shallower waters and are easier to beach. When a traditional kayak capsizes, the paddlers typically stay in the craft, allowing them to right the craft and continue paddling.
Convenience and Comfort
Canoes allow paddlers to sit or kneel. There is only one way to sit in a kayak, which may become uncomfortable after a long period time. Canoes provide more space for and easier access to gear and equipment. A canoe can be paddled by one person, and a longer canoe can carry three or four people. Tandem kayaks allow for only two paddlers, and may require both to be in the craft for proper balance and handling. Canoes are easier to enter and exit than kayaks.
The primary consideration when choosing between a canoe and a kayak is the planned use. Kayaks are better suited to fast-flowing water with rapids, referred to as whitewater. Canoes provide greater comfort and convenience for touring and activities requiring access to gear such as fishing and photography. Sit-on-top kayaks are best suited for warm weather, calmer waters, day trips and certain activities such as scuba diving.