Types of Kayaks & Canoes [year]

Kayaks and Canoes: Types & Differences Explained In-Depth

Kayaking and canoeing allow you to have fun and feel closer to nature. It is a good way to escape the humdrum of life and recharge your batteries.

But finding the right kayak/canoe can be daunting. Kayaks and canoes come in many designs and serve various purposes.

This guide shows the different types of kayaks and canoes used around the world.

Difference Between A Kayak and a Canoe

Kayaks are usually designed with a closed top with a narrow opening. They are often single-person boats. The seating position is generally lower in the boat than canoes. Canoes have open tops with horizontal benches made for sitting as opposed to inflated seats that are seen in kayaks. Kayaks have closed decks – the lower half of the kayak isn’t visible with the paddler sitting in.

this is a kayak

In kayaks, the paddler sits on the floor with legs stretched straight, while in a kayak, one sits with a bent knee – it is like sitting on a low-height bench. Another difference is in the paddles. Kayaking paddles usually have blades at both ends, canoeing paddles are shorter and have a blade at only one end.

Another difference is the purpose for which they are used. Kayaks are the sports cars of boating – they let you tackle rough waters and have fun with the waves. Canoes were originally meant to carry people from one place to the other. However, there are many recreational and racing canoes used around the world today.



Since kayaks are meant for adventures, kayakers often wear safety gear such as helmets and personal floatation devices more sophisticated than collared life jackets.

Different Types of Kayaks

Sit-on-top Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks are different from ‘sit-inside’ kayaks in that they don’t have a closed cockpit like the sit-on-top kayaks.
Sit-on-tops are usually wider than sit-inside kayaks and it is common knowledge that wider kayaks are more stable on water. The downside is that you can get sprayed from erratic waves and get wet since the seating position is higher than that in sit-inside kayaks.

Sit-on-tops are also easier to get into and get off from.


Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are longer and thinner than the recreational kayaks meant for every day consumers. They can be between 12 to 24 feet long and often contain multiple bulkheads for storing supplies.Recreational kayaks are designed for easy handling. On the other hand, touring kayaks are meant for experienced kayakers that want to navigate faster currents and longer distances.


Sea KayaksSea kayaks are longer than touring kayaks and built more ruggedly to survive in the testing conditions of the ocean.They are faster than touring kayaks because they are longer than touring kayaks.

The longer and more pointed the kayak, the faster it cuts through water. Sea kayaks track very well because they are long and narrow.

Another difference is that they are very tippy, which is counter-intuitive but works well on rough waters. If a boat is centered and stable, it will capsize on rough water.

But a tippy boat can ride through rough waters, adjusting itself to the rising currents. Sea kayaks also have deck lines, bulkheads and hatches that keep them afloat even when they are swamped with water.

They also have braces for thighs and feet along with a rudder or skeg.


Whitewater KayaksWhitewater kayaks are meant to tackle fast currents such as rapids and rocky courses. They are shorter than sea kayaks, ranging from 4 to 10 feet in length.

Whitewater kayaks can further be classified into two different types: play boats and creek boats.Playboats are shorter in size, have a scooped front end and a blunt rear end. This makes them the perfect boats for having fun and even performing different tricks.

Hard shell vs Inflatable Kayaks


Hard shell kayaks are made from rigid materials such as fiberglass and composite materials such as Kevlar, plastic or wood. They are heavy-duty and more stable in water as compared to inflatable kayaks.The most important thing is that they are more durable than inflatable kayaks. Hard shell kayaks are fast on water and tackle rough waters without any hint of fragility.

They also don’t need much work to set up like inflatables.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are usually made from PVC material, with an occasional nylon-outer covering.

Some brands like Advanced Elements also use aluminum to further strengthen the build quality of their inflatables.

They are easy to maintain and highly portable. Some brands design their inflatable kayaks such that they can be worn like a backpack when deflated. Most inflatable kayaks are only meant for calm or moderately challenging waters.

Solo vs Tandem Kayaks

As the name suggests, solo kayaks accommodate one paddler only while tandem kayaks accommodate two paddlers.

Tandem kayaks tend to be heavier and larger than solo kayaks. For beginners, it is better to start paddling in a tandem kayak to learn the basics of paddling with an experienced paddler and ensure water safety since they move slower through water.

Tandem kayaks also have a social aspect to them. You can go kayaking with your friend, spot things together, have a conversation and enjoy each other’s company.

It is funny that some people call tandem kayaks ‘divorce kayaks’. This label is based on the premise that arguments can happen when two people aren’t paddling in sync. However, it isn’t something to be worried about when you have good company.

Fishing Kayaks

When kayak brands realized that many people were using their kayaks for fishing, they created a dedicated fishing boat for them – the fishing kayak.

Fishing kayaks come with features with specific utility such as pole rests, a wider hull that gives stability while an angler is standing up to fish and sometimes pedal-powered wheels that free your hands for fishing.

Fishing kayaks are made for performance so that one can paddle long distance to find their fishing spot.

They are also faster than regular recreational kayaks. Fishing kayaks are better able to tackle rough water and choppy conditions than regular kayaks. They also come with a larger storage space.

Furthermore, fishing kayaks come in various types:

Sea fishing kayaks – Sea fishing kayaks are built to handle moderate conditions on the coast or inland waters. They can easily tackle rough waters and some level of wind and tide.

They can accommodate more weight and are larger in size than recreational kayaks. Their hulls are – varied in design – some are lightweight and speedy, others are heavy-duty and stable.

Recreational fishing kayaks – Recreational fishing kayaks are shorter and compact. They are easy to control on water and don’t require a lot of experience or skill. Since they are lightweight, they are easier to carry too.

Pedal Drive / Motorized Fishing Kayaks – These are sit on top kayaks that can be peddled with your feet or often are motor driven.

Needless to say, handling and maneuvering is the easiest on these kayaks.


Surf Kayaks

As the name suggests, surf kayaks are the hybrid product of surfing and kayaking.They can be sit-inside or sit-on kayaks. They have flat bottoms and hard rails, just like it is in surf boards. They have a narrow front profile and a pointed bow to cut through large waves.

The fact that these kayaks are designed specifically for surfing makes them a great way to try various surfing techniques and have fun in the water.

Surf kayaks come in another sub-type called a wave ski. Wave skiing is a sport which uses the sitting position of a kayak and its maneuverability along with the dynamic performance of a surfboard. Wave skis look like big surfboards – they have a broad and flat hull.

They also have a seat, fins, foot straps and seat belt – features that help the surfer eskimo roll when capsized. Wave skiing involves the use of a double-sided paddle as well.

The only downside is that surf ski kayaks cannot be used for other activities because of their unique design.Here is a video showing how surf kayaks are used on sea waves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPlOfNc9LnA


Sail Kayaks


Sail kayaks or kayak sails aren’t that popular among the recreational boating community.

However, kayak sailing has been in existence for over a hundred years. A kayak sail is not a unique product but a sail that can be attached to a regular kayak. While most kayakers stay away from winds, kayak sailing can help you use the wind as your ally.

However, it depends on the speed of the wind. If the wind speed is too high, kayak sailing becomes rather challenging.

Since it is the wind that propels the kayak, it takes the load off the kayaker and allows them to sit back and enjoy the tour. It also helps kayakers cover long distances with ease.

Note that in order to be sail to be effective, the kayaks should be long and narrow. This is the reason sails are used on sea and touring kayaks.


SUP Kayak Hybrid

SUP stands for stand-up-paddleboarding. The SUP kayak hybrid combines the features of a SUP board with the maneuverability of a kayak.However, it comes with some limitations.One can stand and use it like a paddle board when the wind and waves are favorable.

When the conditions are rough, one can sit down and paddle it like a kayak.

SUP Kayak hybrids allow people to cover longer distances and experience less fatigue as sitting becomes an option.The downside to this hybrid design is that the seat isn’t as comfortable.

The same is true for foot support. So if you are going to kayak most of the time, you might as well buy a comfortable kayak.

When it comes to paddleboarding, the SUP kayak hybrids weigh more than original paddleboards. This is because SUPs are made from plastic while paddle boards are made from composite materials. This heavier nature takes away their speed on water, so they feel slow when used as a paddleboat.

Note that there are other forms of kayaking as well:


Squirt Boating
Squirt boating is a form of kayaking where more than half of the boat stays submerged in water with the paddler’s legs tucked inside. Although this sounds strange, there are various competitions held for squirt boating around the world every year.The aim of squirt boating is to submerge as much in water as possible, but still stay afloat while the kayak twirls around its stern.

The design of the squirt boat is different from a regular kayak. They have almost half the length of a regular kayak and flat in design.Here is a video that shows how squirt boating actually works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ldXRgRjj4M


Slalom Kayaking
The primary aim of slalom kayaking or canoeing is to ride against challenging waters including eddies, swirls, stoppers and upstream currents.

Here is a video of slalom canoeing from the 2012 London Olympics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VvPcUaE7ho

Slalom kayaks have a flat hull and have a low profile deck. The flat hull helps with maneuvering on rough waters.

They are designed to be stable so that they can tackle rough waters but they don’t move fast – which they don’t need to since they’re moved by fast currents.

Here is another video showing how slalom kayaking works. Notice how the paddler uses the current of the waves and tackles it to move ahead.

Types of Canoes

Recreational Canoes

Recreational canoes are the most popular type. They have a solid build quality and are stable on water. They are made using plastic or aluminum.They aren’t special in any way, they are just commuter boats with basic and necessary features – such as seats. You may have even seen them as rental boats in your local lake.They are easy to maneuver and have good directional stability. But they aren’t fast like advanced canoes. Recreational canoes are good for day trips with your friends or family, fishing or observing wildlife.


Advanced Canoes

Advanced canoes are for those who want a more sophisticated boat with better build quality and a range of features.

True enthusiasts and professionals choose advanced canoes because they have a superior build quality along with better performance. Advanced canoes are fast and lightweight unlike ordinary canoes. Advanced canoes are also aesthetically more pleasing as it is with all kinds of expensive boats.

Whitewater Canoes

As the name suggests, whitewater canoes are made for rough waters including rapids, eddies, wave trains and so on.

Their sides are high which ensures that water from waves doesn’t come and accumulate inside.

They sometimes have an extreme rocker, that is, curved shape of the bottom, that helps with tracking.Sometimes they have a flat bottom which helps them turn fast but also inhibits tracking.

They have the option to attach ‘floatation bags’ – bags that help them float in case water accumulates inside or when it capsizes. Whitewater canoeing is usually done while kneeling on the floor which helps with balance when tackling rough waters.

Racing Canoes

Racing canoes are some of the most popular canoes because canoe racing is a huge competitive sport.

They are quite expensive as they are made from superior quality materials such as Kevlar, fiberglass and composites of multiple robust materials.

They have high structural strength with robust hulls and are better performing than other types of canoes.They are fast and have excellent tracking. They are usually about 20 feet long and narrow in design. Amateur paddlers will find them unstable but they are meant for experts. They are often eccentric when it comes to looks and features.

Expedition Canoes


As the name suggests, expedition canoes are for trips involving multiple days and even hundreds of miles.

These canoes can carry large amounts of weight onboard.

They tend to have two or more paddlers. In such canoe expeditions, paddlers take enough supplies and gear to camp along the way.

Expedition canoes tend to have a medium rocker and deeper bow than regular canoes. For best performance, they need to carry an appropriate amount of weight that goes with their large displacement and depth. They are usually eighteen to twenty feet long.


Tripping Canoes

Tripping canoes are usually 15 to 18 feet long and have the space and capacity to accommodate large amounts of supplies and gear along the way. They are similar to expedition canoes in that they are also meant for longer trips.

However, expeditions can last months while tripping canoes are meant for a few days of canoeing. Tripping canoes also come in both solo and tandem designs.


Specialized Canoes

Specialized canoes are built for specific environments or purposes. For example, fishing canoes are exclusively built for fishing and have pole rests and wider hulls for stability. They are built to navigate long distances so that one can find their fishing spot. They are stable enough so that anglers can stand up and fish.

So Which Kayak or Canoe Should I Buy?

To select the right canoe or kayak, consider what you will be using it for. Consider your experience, budget and the weight capacity you will need.

If you are a beginner, a kayak can be easier to handle and there are many budget inflatable kayaks available that offer a great kayaking experience.

Whatever you choose, always remember to take the necessary safety measures.

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