The difference between Canoe and Kayak

What's the difference between a Canoe and Kayak? Well the difference is relatively simple; it’s related to athlete’s position in the boat and the type of paddle they use to propel the boat.

In a kayak, the paddler is seated and uses a double-bladed paddle pulling the blade through the water on alternate sides to move forward.

In a canoe, the paddler kneels and uses a single-bladed paddle to propel the boat forward.

Both the Canoe and Kayak are raced from club to Olympic level, with variations in the boat design depending on type of water and discipline – sprint, slalom, paracanoe, marathon, freestyle, wildwater, canoe polo, ocean racing and dragon boat.

We asked two of the pros to give you the lowdown on the specifics within the Olympic disciplines – sprint and slalom. And further down the page we give you a quick overview of the boats used in each discipline.

Jesse Phillips (AUS) Olympic Canoe Sprint Paddler

Fiona Pennie (GBR) Olympic Canoe Slalom Paddler

A quick overview of the different types of boats used for each discipline

Canoe Sprint

For each of the disciplines there are multiple types of boats; canoe sprint races are categorised based on the type of boat, number of people in the boat, the gender of the competitors, and the distance of the race.

So for example, if a race is a C2M 500m, then that means it’s a Canoe race with two people in the boat who are Men, and the race distance is 500m.

There are three main variations on the canoe and kayaks that are raced to accommodate one, two or four athletes.

Kayak 1,2,4 sprint

Above you can see the three different sprint kayaks (left to right) K1, K2 and K4. Below two examples of sprint canoes – left C2 and right C4.

Different racing canoes C2 and C4

Canoe Slalom

In canoe slalom there are three different types of boat the Kayak Singles (K1), Canoe Singles (C1) and Canoe Doubles (C2).

Canoe Slalom K1, C1 and C2 boats


Paracanoe has two types of boat, the traditional Kayak and the Va'a – a canoe with an outrigger to provide stability. The same principles apply with the double-blade being used for the Kayak and the single blade used in the Canoe (Va'a).

Paracanoe Kayak and Va'a

Wildwater Canoe

The aim of this discipline is to take the quickest line down a rapid filled course; with this in mind the boats have a rather unique shape to keep the boat balanced and fast. There are competitions in Kayak singles (K1) and Canoe singles (C1) and doubles (C2). Below is a Kayak singles boat. 

wildwater kayak


This is a discipline where style counts and being able to flip your boat in multiple directions is key to success. There are three main types of boat the Canoe, Kayak, and Squirt Boat (pictured left to right); each is designed with the specific purpose of being able to perform tricks.

Freestyle boats

Canoe Marathon

These long distance boats are designed to be a light as possible so athletes can quickly scoop them up and run across a portage. Very similar in design to the sprint boats athletes compete in the Canoe and Kayak singles and doubles.

Canoe Marathon

Canoe Polo

This is a team-based sport and is played in Kayaks with a rounded nose and tail to avoid injury, as collisions are part of the game. The boat is designed to be agile, stable and quick – a difficult combination to achieve.

Canoe Polo Boats

Ocean Racing

The main type of craft used in Ocean Racing is a surfski, which is a long boat designed to cut through the waves. Athletes use a double-bladed paddle to propel the ski forward whilst sitting in an open cockpit. Small scupper holes in the footwell allow water to drain out when the athlete is moving.

Ocean Racing

Dragon Boat

Dragon boats are team boats where athletes use a single-bladed paddle and work together to propel the craft forward.

Dragon Boat Race

Learn more about each of the canoe disciplines with our detailed explanations.