Magnolia Branch Wildlife Reserve

Canoes vs Kayaks

Discovering the differences between canoes and kayaks 

If you have never been canoeing or kayaking before, it can be a scary ordeal once confronted with the water. What if I tip over? What if I don’t know how to steer away from debris in the water? How do I get in the boat without tipping it over? These are questions we all have at some point. But learning the basics will give you confidence enough to enjoy the experience.

A common myth in defining these activities is that canoeing is for two people and kayaking is done solo. However, both boats are made to support tandem and solo actions. The real difference is seating positions and paddles.

In a canoe, participants are either on an actual seat or kneeling in the vessel. For kayaks, you sit in the cockpit of the boat with your legs stretched out in front of you. Likewise, a single-blade paddle is used for canoes whereas for kayaks, the paddle has a blade on both ends.

Sound confusing? We will break it down a bit for you. Below are a few things to keep in mind when canoeing and kayaking. We will discuss each type of boating, and you can decide which activity works best for you and your group.


Launching the canoe: The best way to get into a canoe and get it moving is to place the canoe at the shoreline of a beach or in very shallow water next to a dock. You don’t want the canoe to be floating freely on the water just yet. It should have some sort of grounding. Have someone hold the canoe steady as you crouch down, keeping your body low. Carefully step into the canoe and take your position. If riding tandem, the person in front should get in first. Then the person in back can push the canoe a little further into the water and get in, using the paddle to push off from the shore once safely seated in the canoe.

Use your body: The position of your torso greatly affects the way you paddle and steer the canoe. Rotating your torso to the desired direction you want to go allows the stroke of the paddle to do its job. Keep your posture upright and your weight even.

Sitting positions: Most people will begin by sitting on the seats in a canoe. This gives you a balanced start once you push off into the water. However, once you get going, you should gently switch to a kneeling position to be the most effective in your trip. This provides a more stable foundation for keeping the canoe upright because the weight of your body is proportionally displaced. In most cases, you still will be able to rest your behind on the seat but use your knees to support your body. Some people find this uncomfortable, so sitting in a seat and staying centered is acceptable. And always keep your back straight, as good posture creates the best maneuvering of the canoe.

Paddling and turning: The key to steering your canoe in the right direction is to use a combination of strokes, and when tandem, the person in the back is the "driver.” The person at the bow (front) paddles on the opposite side of the person at stern (back) in most cases.

Using a J-stroke from the stern allows for a steadier move through the water. To do this, simply give your stroke a hook at the end of a straight power through, creating a J shape in the water. It’s a subtle move and propels the boat straight ahead, with no weaving of the bow.

To turn the canoe around or change directions, a Cross-Bow stroke is the quickest way. Lift your paddle over the canoe to your offside and plant it deeply in the water, keeping it as vertical as possible, and placed in front of your knees. You will need to rotate your torso dramatically to stay upright. Then twist your paddle so the front faces the bow of the canoe. Hold the paddle firmly so it doesn’t shift away from you. The canoe will then turn towards your paddle. When tandem, the bow person initiates this turn while the stern person paddles to keep momentum.

A more gradual way to turn is to carve your boat. No, this doesn’t mean take a knife to it. Carving is way to change directions of a canoe that is in fast motion. Once you start to turn, lean into the curve so the canoe tilts just a bit on the side into the turn. Then hold the tilt as you continue paddling until you are heading in the direction you want to travel.


Getting started: The best way to get into a kayak is to have the kayak in shallow water. Place the paddle in the front, then straddle the boat and have a seat. Next, bring your legs in and stretch them in front of you. Then you can use your hands or the paddle to push off into the water. If using a dock, make sure the kayak is level and parallel with the dock, not below it. Then sit on the dock and place your feet into the kayak. Hold on to the dock as you scoot yourself off the dock and into the seat.

Types of kayaks: Unlike canoes, kayaks have many purposes and styles. There are recreational kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks, touring kayaks, inflatable kayaks, etc. It’s important to choose the right kayak depending on your activity. Will you be bringing a lot of cargo, i.e. snacks, beverages, towels? If so, a sit-on-top style would be best so there will be room to place things. Also, if you purchase a kayak instead of renting one every time you are on the water, inflatable kayaks work well and are easier to transport.

More versatile: Kayaks were designed to handle better than canoes and are often compared to sports cars because of their speed and versatility. As a result, kayaks are used in a variety of water sports. They maneuver and turn quicker, making it a perfect vessel for whitewater rapids or swift moving creeks.

Proper paddling technique: To get the most out of your kayaking experience, you need to have an upright posture with your legs out in front of you and your knees relaxed, to where your legs naturally fall into a relaxed and open position. Next, grip your paddle and have your hands equal distance apart. Your control hand is using your dominant hand, i.e. if you are right handed, your right hand will be your control hand. Begin stroking from side to side, allowing the displacement of water to guide you forward. Your torso should rotate in the opposite directions from your stroke pattern. So if your paddle is on the left side of the kayak, rotate your body to the right as you stroke. Repeat on the other side.

And there you have it; some of the basics of canoeing and kayaking and how they differ from each other. Which boat do you prefer? The choice is yours.