Canoes vs Rowboat Differences (Which is best for you?) – Light As Air Boats icon

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Canoes vs Rowboat Differences (Which is best for you?)

Canoes and rowboats are great ways to get out on the lake or river. Both provide hours of fun and exploration.  Which one do you need?  There’s a lot to consider before making your choice.

In this article, we will mainly focus on recreational use.  While racing is big fun, that sport deserves an article all its own. We will also break down the benefits of buying each type of boat so that you can choose the best boat for your water adventures.

What are canoes?


Simply put, a canoe is a boat pointed at both ends and propelled by one or two paddlers.  The paddlers can be either seated or kneeling and face the direction they are traveling.

What is a rowboat?


A rowboat is a small boat propelled by two rowers who face backward in the direction they are traveling.  The rowers utilize oars held in place by oarlocks. 

2 Main differences

There are two key differences between a canoe and a rowboat.  To make it a little easier think direction first.

The occupants in a canoe paddle forward.  In a rowboat, they row backward. 

Notice we said paddle for canoe and row for a rowboat. 

That’s the second difference.  In a canoe, you use one paddle which you switch from side to side.  It's called a single-bladed paddle.  Rowboats utilize two oars that are connected to the boat.  

Why do you paddle backward in a rowboat, you ask? 

The strength of the human body is in the back and leg muscles.  Rowing backward allows the rower to use more power and propel the boat more efficiently and with less fatigue. The rower transfers more energy to the oars allowing them to travel further with each stroke. 

Let’s dig into all the things that make a canoe different from a rowboat.

Paddles vs. Oars

A canoe uses a single-bladed paddle that is not attached to the boat so you can easily move the paddle from one side of the canoe to the other. 

There are different types of canoe paddles.  A lighter paddle is better for a long trip.  A flexible paddle works well in flat water while a stiff paddle is better for whitewater trips. 

A rowboat uses two oars that are attached to both sides of the boat. The oar locks keep the oars in place.    A row boat’s oars are larger than a canoe paddle.

A sliding-seat rowboat requires longer oars (sculling oars).    Sculling oars are pricey, ranging from $500 - $1,000 a pair.

Oars come in two blade shapes – Macon or Hatchet.

Macon blade oars are spoon-shaped.  They are the traditional oars for rowing.

Hatchet oars are longer on the side that extends into the water from the shaft.  They require the rower to feather (turn the oar horizontally on the return stroke).  This makes the stroke less wind resistant and less likely to catch the water on the return.


Canoeing goes hand in hand with camping trips.  The average camping trip is one to two days and will cover about 30 miles total.

Generally, a rowboat is used for greater distances than a canoe.  In about seven hours, you could canoe 20 miles.  You would probably row about 15 miles farther in the same amount of time.




Both types of boats are stable.  A canoe is not easy to tip if people are sitting properly and not leaning too far over to the side.  A longer narrower canoe will be less stable than a shorter one.

Rowboats may feel a little unstable as you get in, but they resist tipping.  The more expensive rowboats often have transoms above the waterline allowing for passengers to move to the back without tipping. 

Higher sides outside the water make the rowboat resistant to swamping in waves. 

The least stable is rowing shells.  These long narrow boats are awesome for speed but require more experience in waves.



Canoes are great on flat waters like a local lake. They can work well on whitewater too.  Canoes that are made for whitewater have flat bottoms to keep them floating if tipped over. 

Paddlers need to kneel in whitewater canoes for stability in waves. 

Traditional rowboats (flat bottomed) are not suited for rough waters but will serve you well for fishing lakes and inland waters.

Rowboats with transoms shaped like a wine glass (dories) lift the rowboat over the waves making excellent dinghies or tenders for coastal waters.    


Canoes are easier to handle in both shallow water and the ocean. A flat-bottom canoe bottoms out less than a standard canoe. But flat-bottomed boats aren’t as good in waves and are slow.

If getting a canoe, buy one that the widest part of the beam is about a foot behind the center to keep it afloat in shallow water.  Go with a slightly round hull to have less boat in the water and improve speed. Include a rocker with ends turned slightly upward so the craft will turn on command. 

Rowboats have a v-hull and a pointed bow that helps them cut through deeper water.  It also aids in riding high waves. A rowboat can smoothly ride choppy waters and is considered an ocean-worthy vessel.  They can hold their own for fishing in rough water.


Canoes on the average paddle at 2.6 knots (3 mph).  Most rowboats can be rowed at 3-4 knots (3.5 – 4.6 mph).  The longer boats can reach 7 knots (8.1 mph). 

Rowboats are faster because the rower puts more muscle into each sweep of the oar.

Gear Storage

Rowboats can carry more people and equipment than canoes, particularly if the boat is equipped for fishing. Getting more gear in your boat is a big advantage of a rowboat.  Often, you pay for that storage though with the weight of the boat

Today, many rowboats are made from fiberglass which is much lighter than wood.  A 15’ fiberglass single-person rowboat weighs about 100 pounds making it a fisherman’s dream boat.



Since traditional rowboats are heavier than canoes, they are perfect for lakes and rivers if you don’t have to carry them far.  And, if you have a dock or storage where you put it in, rowboats are a great choice.  If you have to carry your rowboat some distance, invest in a fiberglass boat.  Both canoes and rowboats are easily transported in a truck bed.


Trolling motors can be attached to both canoes and rowboats.  Using a trolling motor is a great option to free up your hands for fishing or even just to take a break from paddling or rowing.

An electric-powered motor is the best choice for anglers.  They are lighter, quiet, and easier to install. 


Rowing is a great upper body workout building muscles in the arms and shoulders.  Rowing requires that you push with your legs and arms so your legs get a workout too.  And it is also a cardiovascular workout. 

In short, rowing burns calories and is a killer way to exercise.  If you are looking for a great workout, a rowboat is the optimal boat for you.

Paddling a canoe utilizes arm muscles and can be a good upper body workout.
The more continuous strokes used with intensity the better the aerobic workout. 


A canoe typically costs a lot less than a rowboat.  Canoes start at about $600 and the average price comes in around $900.  That’s a great price point for a canoe on a small lake or one not used for distances. 

Wood canoes cost more and can reach thousands of dollars.  They have that traditional look and can be beautiful in design.

Kevlar, which is used for bulletproof vests, is the most expensive material for canoes.  Invest in a Kevlar canoe if you are a fisherman or are using your canoe for touring.  They can take the abuse of paddling in shallow water. 

Rowboats are bigger and heavier and therefore use more material than a canoe.  The average price for a rowboat is $2,500.



So now that you’ve settled on a canoe or a rowboat.  Read on to see the types of each.

Types of Canoes


Choose a canoe that is about 12-15 feet in length and about 2 feet wide for stability and maneuverability.  Pro tip – fish with a partner so both of you can cast. One of you can keep control of the canoe. 

A rotomolded canoe works very well for fishing.  You will want a rod holder or two so you will be able to troll while paddling.


Choose a canoe that has some rocker to be able to make turns quickly.  The canoe should be deeper than a lake canoe to help you stay dry. 

Make sure your canoe is made of tough materials that can withstand hitting rocks. Canoes made from Royalex can handle many years of river abuse.



A good hard plastic canoe can take a beating from the family and is inexpensive. These rotomolded canoes should be stored out of the sun to prevent damage. They are heavy, but perfect for a nice day on the lake.


These canoes are fast and made for the experienced paddler because they give up stability for speed.  They are narrow and made of light materials like fiberglass or Kevlar.


Types of Rowboats

Flat Water Shells

Also called sculls, these are the boat for experienced rowers because they are the fastest.  Flat Water Shells also called a “Fine Boat” are your ultimate racing shells. 

They are manned with a crew.  These rowboats are the lightest and most narrow. 


These boats are super long, averaging 27 feet.  This makes them difficult to spin so they track straight. Sliding seats and outriggers help the rowers get the most from every stroke

Open Water Shells 


They are made of Kevlar, fiberglass, or carbon fiber.  They weigh between 30-40 pounds.  They are sturdier than flat water boats and have a wider hull to handle waves and surf.

Open water shells are less narrow than extremely narrow racing shells.  People with a crew background from college enjoy these boats for workouts and sports. 

Traditional Skiff 


These boats are designed for heavy loads.  They are wide and sturdy with a flat bottom that makes them great for fishing.  This is also your boat if you are new to rowing. 

They are often called dinghy or dory.  This is your “traditional” rowboat, and it can be quite beautiful.  Craftsmen take great pride in delivering some wooden rowboats that are handed down for generations in families. 


These rowboats are smaller and lighter than the Traditional Skiff.  They move nicely through the water.  They are stable to withstand the wake from boats and handle chop well.  They usually use sliding seat rigs with oarlocks.  Touring rowboats are roomy and comfortable.  are made for a crew and are cheaper than racing boats.  They are designed for trips on the river, coastline, or lake.  They are not made for rough water.

Happy Boating

In closing, once you’ve narrowed down your choice by type of boat and done some research on various brands. Try one out if possible.  Some stores will let you test drive for free.  Rowing & Paddling clubs can add to your information before purchase.  The best advice, do your research.  These boats can be passed to future generations and make memories for years to come.  Happy paddling.  Happy boating! 

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