Can One Person Paddle a Two Person Canoe? (Facts to Know)


If you’re an avid canoeist, there will be times where you plan to paddle with a partner, but they bail for one reason or another. Consequently, you’re left with a two person canoe but only one paddler. Rather than forgo the trip entirely, you may wonder whether or not paddling a tandem canoe solo is an actual possibility.

One person can paddle a two person canoe if they deliberately seat themselves toward the canoe’s center of gravity and employ corrective paddling strokes to keep the canoe on a straight path. With that being said, solo canoes are still better suited for solo paddling.

To understand the exact reasons as to why solo paddling on a tandem canoe is possible, it’s necessary to delve into the underlying details of how experienced canoeists utilize their improvisation skills. Read further to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of paddling a tandem canoe on your own, as well as several helpful tips on how to solo paddle a two person canoe.

Why It’s Possible to Paddle a Tandem Canoe Solo

Although tandem canoes are designed for two people paddling in unison, an experienced solo canoeist can find ways to make a tandem canoe work. To pull this off, you just have to be a little bit creative in how you address the hidden complications that a tandem canoe may present.

Improvising Your Seating Position Will Even Out the Weight Distribution

Often times, people are skeptical of solo paddling a two person canoe because of the problem of weight distribution.

Generally, a two person canoe is fitted with two seats at each end of the watercraft—one at the bow and one at the stern. Since there’s only one paddler, these seating positions throw off the weight distribution. Either the bow or the stern will rise out of the water due to the excessive weight on one end of the canoe.

Fortunately, the solo paddler doesn’t have to sit at either of these ends of the canoe. Since the canoe has an open deck, solo paddlers have the option of sitting practically anywhere they want on the canoe.

Solo paddlers can improvise their position on the canoe to lie more toward the middle of the canoe, where its center of gravity lies. This way, the trim of the canoe is optimized, allowing both the bow and the stern to sit in the water equally.

Corrective Strokes Keep the Canoe from Veering Off Path

Another potential concern that solo paddlers have is that the canoe will stray off of its linear path.

This is a somewhat logical concern, since a solo paddler can only paddle on one side at a time, causing the canoe to veer off path ever so slightly. As the paddle strokes add up, however, this veering effect can compound and become much more pronounced. With tandem paddlers, this isn’t nearly as much of a problem since both riders paddle on opposite sides of the canoe, negating each other’s veering effect.

Luckily for solo paddlers, there are ways to get around this. The primary way that solo paddlers counteract this veering effect is by implementing a corrective stroke known as a J Stroke.

The J Stroke is a special form of a forward stroke that incorporates a slight pry at the end of the paddling motion. This pry corrects for the minor bend to the offside that solo paddlers experience with every stroke.

This can be a bit hard to picture with words alone, so I provided an instructional video on the J Stroke below to help illustrate this concept.

Although mastering the J Stroke does take time, it’s the most effective way to solo paddle on a two person canoe. Constantly deviating off path can become very bothersome, so it’s better to learn this technique rather than stubbornly keep to the forward stroke.

A Tandem Canoe Will Still Move with Efficient Paddle Strokes

Canoeists also tend to worry about the prospect of paddling a larger, heavier canoe by themselves. They have a fear that their power alone will not be enough to drive the canoe forward.

I can assure you that solo paddling a tandem canoe is well within the realm of possibility. Even though tandem canoes are built for multiple riders, their primary function is to glide along the water in an efficient manner. If you have a basic understanding of the paddling fundamentals, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get the canoe moving at a steady pace.

Many people across the internet have attested to this fact. There are even videos online of solo riders paddling on a tandem canoe with no problem whatsoever.

At the end of the session, you may be a tad more tired than usual given that you had to maneuver around more weight on your own, but this is only a minor setback. The extra weight of a tandem canoe is not enough to stifle the possibility of solo paddling a two person canoe.

Why Do People Paddle a Tandem Canoe Solo?

Now that you understand that solo paddling a tandem canoe is a viable option, you probably want to know why canoeists do this voluntarily. If there’s extra room on board, why wouldn’t they bring another paddler along for the ride?

Easier to Plan Solo Canoeing Trips

For one, organizing a solo canoeing trip is a lot less of a hassle then coordinating with other people.

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is busy with this, that, or the other. Since practically everybody has their calendars over-scheduled, it can be tough to find a time that works for you and your prospective paddling partner.

Some days, you will just want to take a spontaneous trip out on the water without having to wait on anybody else. Often times, this spontaneity can lead to some of the most satisfying canoeing sessions. It’s nice to have a paddling partner on occasion, but having the ability to venture out on the canoe anytime you feel like it is also extremely valuable.

You Can Take Breaks Whenever You Prefer

In addition, you don’t have to worry about coordinating your breaks with a partner.

This benefit is especially seen with extended, full day canoeing trips. As you paddle for long stretches of time, you or your partner will inevitably grow tired. Eventually, you and your partner will have to halt the paddling completely if the exhaustion becomes too much of a problem.

If you’re paddling with someone who doesn’t have your level of stamina, it can be somewhat annoying having to stop every few minutes to take a breather. The opposite might hold true as well. Trying to keep pace with an extremely fit paddler can be an arduous task.

When paddling solo, you set the pace of the trip. This lifts a burden off of your shoulders in that you don’t have to constantly keep tabs on your partner’s stamina levels. You’re free to paddle as much, or as little, as you desire.

Great Time to Meditate and Put Your Mind at Ease

The last and arguably most important reason why canoeists paddle a two person canoe alone is the opportunity to meditate.

Rarely in today’s world are you afforded the chance to remove yourself from civilization entirely and enjoy pure peace and quiet. Solo paddling offers people this chance.

With a partner, this limited time for reflection can be disrupted with conversation at a moment’s notice. Your partner may not even have ill intentions, but these interruptions will happen nonetheless.

On your own, you can allow your mind to wander freely and get lost in the rhythmic motion of the paddle strokes. Since it’s only you and nature out there, this is a rare time where you can compose your thoughts more clearly. No matter how your life is going, everyone can benefit from extended periods of self reflection.

Why Don’t People Paddle a Tandem Canoe Solo?

It’s not all benefits when it comes to solo paddling. There’s a flip side to the coin as well. Although the glaring issues associated with solo paddling can be dealt with, they’re still important to consider if you ever decide to venture out on your own.

Greater Potential Safety Risk

The biggest drawback with paddling a tandem canoe alone is the potential risk for injury.

Although improvising your paddling technique can counteract the issues presented by tandem canoes, it’s still far more likely that you’ll flip a tandem canoe as opposed to a solo canoe. The extra size and bulk of the tandem canoe makes it more clumsy, which increases the chances of you and the canoe being swamped in the water.

Since there’s nobody else around to help turn the canoe right side up, re-entering the canoe can be a major problem. This is why it’s important that you mitigate these potential safety risks by wearing a life vest and informing a third party where you’re going prior to the canoe trip.

Improper Body Positioning May Raise the Bow or Stern Out of the Water

Maintaining the proper trim of the canoe is tougher in a two person canoe when you’re the only paddler available.

In this situation, positioning yourself too far from the center of the canoe will lift the bow or the stern up out of the water. There’s a greater potential for capsizing when the bow or stern is raised in this manner. Plus, you will be thrown off course when faced with windy conditions, as the raised end of the canoe acts like a rudimentary sail, being tossed about in all different kinds of directions.

Since tandem canoes are not pre-fitted with a seat at the canoe’s center, some canoeists may have to kneel throughout the entire trip to sustain their balance. Constantly kneeling takes a heavy toll on the legs, to the point where you may not even be able to walk the next day!

So it’s essentially a catch-22, in that you must choose between properly trimming the canoe or enduring the soreness that accompanies hours of kneeling.

The Additional Canoe Width Complicates Solo Paddling

Since tandem canoes are slightly wider than solo canoes, it can be difficult for the paddler to switch paddling sides on a whim. For this reason, it’s not optimal for the solo canoeist to switch paddling sides with every stroke.

It’s much easier to exclusively paddle on one side for an extended period of time, then make the necessary switch when your paddling side has become too exhausted.

This isn’t a huge problem, but it can cause one side of your body to get fatigued rather quickly. To help ease the negative effects of fatigue, it’s important that you pay attention to your paddling form to ensure that you get the most out of every paddle stroke.

Tips on How to Paddle a Two Person Canoe on Your Own

If you’ve decided that you want to give this solo paddling thing a try, there are a few effective tips that you can use to make sure everything runs smoothly. These tips are rather subtle, but they can make a huge difference in the overall quality of your canoeing experience.

Turn the Canoe Around So the Bow is At Your Back

One odd yet effective tip is to physically turn the canoe around and paddle in the canoe backwards.

If you look at a tandem canoe closely, you may realize that the seat at the stern is positioned very far from the canoe’s center. As a result, sitting at the stern will cause the bow of the canoe to lift up out of the water.

The seat at the bow, on the other hand, is positioned much closer to center. The only problem is that it’s hard to maneuver the canoe around while sitting at its front end.

To circumvent these two problems, experienced canoeists have learned to turn the canoe around so that the ends are switched. In this flipped orientation, the paddler can comfortably sit at the bow seat—which is now positioned at the back end of the canoe—and paddle from there.

By implementing this method, the solo paddler still has somewhere to sit, but the weight distribution of the canoe remains even. As aforementioned, kneeling for an entire canoe trip can exact a heavy toll on the legs, so it’s best to avoid this problem whenever possible.

Consider Placing Ballast on the Canoe to Help Trim the Canoe

If flipping around the canoe doesn’t work out, there is an alternative way to even out the weight of the canoe.

Rather than playing around with the orientation of the canoe, you can place ballast at the bow and seat yourself comfortably at the stern. For those of you that aren’t familiar with canoeing terminology, ballast is essentially any substance used to weigh down a particular section of the canoe for improved stability.

As a general rule of thumb, the more canoe material that’s held up by the water, the better the stability.

Ballast can take on many forms. Water bags are a solid option to methodically weigh down the canoe’s bow (source). If you have extra rocks lying around, that will do just fine for weighing down the bow. Other canoeists prefer to take a gallon bucket and fill it up with sand to serve as ballast.

Whatever method you prefer, just make sure it’s enough to keep the canoe evenly trimmed. If the ballast isn’t heavy enough, it will only act a hindrance rather than a useful support.

Slightly Position Your Body Toward Your Paddling Side

Another way to improve paddling efficiency is to heel the canoe. Yet another piece of canoeing terminology, heeling means that you slightly tip the canoe to one side by using your body weight as leverage.

When a paddler heels the canoe, it almost looks like the canoe is on the verge of capsizing. If a canoeist isn’t intimately familiar with how to perform this technique, they may very well end up capsizing the canoe if they lean too far. With practice, however, this can be an effective means of generating more force behind every paddle stroke.

Although less stable, the minimal contact between the bottom surface of the canoe and the lake or river allows a paddler to slice through the water at higher speeds.

Plus, the lateral edges of the canoe can make it difficult to stick the paddle in the water when sitting at the canoe’s keel line. Leaning over towards one side of the canoe provides paddlers with more room to operate.

Is It Worth It to Buy a Solo Canoe Instead?

With all this information in mind, you’ve probably asked yourself if solo paddling on a tandem canoe is worth the trouble. Why bother solo paddling on a tandem canoe if you can paddle on a solo canoe, right?

There are advantages and disadvantages to adding a solo canoe to your arsenal, particularly if you already have a tandem canoe available. To help you come to a final decision on this topic, I laid out the top pros and cons of purchasing a solo canoe and abandoning the tandem canoe route.

Pros

Body Positioning Isn’t Much of a Concern – Since solo canoes are specifically designed to hold a solo paddler, you won’t have to mess around with adding ballast or flipping around the canoe’s orientation to get the weight distribution right.

This is a big advantage since it saves you valuable time during the set up process, which affords you more time to do what you actually set out to do—paddle.

Less Chance of Swamping – Solo canoeists don’t have to worry as much about experimenting with heeling since the weight distribution is already on point.

For this reason, you’re less likely to accidentally lean too far one way and overturn the canoe. If you have an extreme fear of being swamped in the water on your own, this is definitely an advantage you want to take into account.

Double-Bladed Paddle – Solo canoes better complement double-bladed paddles since solo canoes are narrower and don’t require heeling. Some canoeists strongly prefer the double-bladed paddle over the single-bladed paddle. If you fit into this category yourself, you may want to consider purchasing a solo canoe.

Cons

Reduced Storage – Solo canoes are noticeably smaller than tandem canoes, leaving less room for food, camping gear, and other essentials that you may need for an extended canoeing outing.

If you plan on going on canoe camping trips frequently, storage is a must. A solo canoe may not be up to the task for this sort of work.

Eliminates the Prospect of Paddling with Other People – With solo canoes, you’re only able to paddle solo. Paddling with two riders is not an option. Tandem canoes, on the other hand, offer you the chance to paddle on your own or with a partner. Losing this flexibility is definitely a big negative.

Spending Extra Money – If you already have a perfectly good tandem canoe at home, spending the extra cash on a solo canoe may not be the ideal choice.

Although solo canoes do have the leg up on tandem canoes, it still begs the question of whether or not this improvement is worth buying an entirely new canoe. Ultimately, that’s up to you to decide.

The Bottom Line

Paddling a tandem canoe on your own is certainly doable. It may take a bit of creativity on your part, but it’s not too complicated. Having made it this far, you definitely have the necessary knowledge to make it work.

Sources: 1

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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