Difference between Lake and River

Updated on September 26, 2016

Of course you know how to tell the difference between a lake and a river! Even a six year old can. But what else can you say about the difference between the two? If this question has got you reaching for the phone and Googling information, you’d better keep reading because you’ll find everything here. Let’s see what is the difference between a lake and a river.


Image of a naturalized former gravel pit lake in Croatia

A lake is a still body of water of variable size, formed either naturally or artificially. It is surrounded by land and does not have connections to the ocean. A lake is larger and deeper than a pond, and although there is no international regulation on the matter, some experts say that a body of water must be at least 2-5 hectares wide to be considered a lake.

It can be fed or drained by rivers or streams, providing it with a seepage system that lets its water flow out instead of simply evaporating. Lakes are filled with fresh water, making them a primary source of water and food for humans and animals alike. Artificial lakes are used for harnessing hydro-electricity.

Aerial view of a riverbed canal

A river is a moving water body. It moves in only one direction along its banks. They are long, and their surface is defined by their course. Throughout a year, a river’s size can vary as some of them dry out in the dry season. Rivers are filled with freshwater, which means they are a primary source of food and water to the humans and animals living nearby.

A river’s course can take it to the sea, an ocean or to another river. The starting point of a river is called a source, which is formed when rain falls at a high elevation or when a glacier melts and the water begins to seep down.

Lake vs River

So what is the difference between a lake and a river?

The main difference between lakes and rivers consists in the fact that a river is a moving body of water, whereas a lake is an immobile body of water. This also determines their difference in appearance, as a river is long and its shape is defined by its course. It basically looks like a snake. On the other hand, a lake is like a huge puddle.

Both of them are fresh water sources, but lakes are inland and do not communicate with other sources of water. Rivers take water from one place to another, and they have a source and a mouth where the water is poured into an ocean, sea, lake or river.

In theory, man can make both artificial lakes as well as rivers and harness their energy to create electricity or to reshape the ecosystem in an area. In reality, there is only one example of a man-made river: the Great Man-Made River, which is actually a network of pipes that supply water to the Sahara in Libya.

Comparison Chart

Immobile body of waterFlowing body of water
Looks like a huge pondLooks like a snake
Inland, does not communicate with other water bodiesMoves along its water banks and communicates with other water bodies
A freshwater sourceA freshwater source
Can help create hydro-energyCan help create hydro-energy
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