Solo vs Tandem?

I’m really having a hard time deciding between a solo and a tandem canoe - any feedback would be greatly appreciated! Here’s my situation: my average day out canoeing will likely be by myself, but I would like the option to take my 7 yr. old daughter (small, non-paddling passenger) out with me or in rare circumstances another adult paddler. I have gone on a few canoe trips, but I wouldn’t consider myself an avid paddler. I know as a solo rider you can “sit backwards” on the front seat of a tandem canoe, but having tried this in a large 18 ft. hauling canoe I’m not sure how practical this is (I was able to leave shore, but in a wind I would’ve been doomed; does this actually work in a smaller canoe?). I have also seen a variety of canoes with a 3rd seat that seems to be set up for a solo passenger or perhaps a smaller 3rd passenger - do these work out a bit better? Since my average trip is going to be solo, does a solo canoe simply outperform a tandem canoe to the point where I shouldn’t bother compromising with a tandem canoe? Thanks for your help!

Get both?
Get yourself a nice solo and keep an eye out for a cheap, used, tandem.


Solo vs Tandem
I recently had your same dilema. I chose a 16’ tandem. From what I researched, that is the size that will allow a decent solo experience - as long as it is not too wide (say 34" or less). You can take a child in a large solo boat, but not an adult. If you do install a center seat, you will need a removable yoke if you want to portage. I am going for a kneeling thwart, instead of sitting backwards in the bow.

Sometimes, maybe, and probably.
An 18’ canoe with just you in it is going to be pushed around by the wind easier than a similar 16’ canoe similarly loaded. If you load both canoes so that they sit lower in the water and are less effected by with, the 18-footer will be harder for you to paddle solo just because of the increased wetted surface.

I find a center seat to be a better option in some tandem canoes, but it depends a lot on the width and depth of the canoe - among other things. A center seat on your 18-footer will still leave you with too much canoe to solo with a paddle, IMO.

A good solo canoe will outperform a soloed tandem. In my case, I can easily gain more than 1mph difference between my MR Malecite paddled solo and my Dagger Sojourn. Going slower, the Solo canoe just takes much less effort to propel.

But if you can only have one canoe and there is a likelihood that you will want a passenger or another paddler aboard, IMO it’s better to compromise with a good tandem of average size (~16’).

If you’re buying new, you can be picky -and it’s just a matter of deciding where you will be paddling. For instance - the Wenonah Escapade is a good compromise for mostly tandem with some solo lake paddling - or their Solo Plus, which is geared more toward mostly solo or a light tandem load.

If you’re buying used, you may find it just as easy and more sensible to have two (or more) canoes.

Mad River Explorer 14 TT
I don’t think they make them anymore but that is what I used. I made a about 2 inched narrower and paddled it backwards from the front seat when solo. It worked fine for everything but was not nearly as fast a most 14 foot kayaks.

Solos can be great for Dad + Daughter…
We’ve used a solo as a dad-and-daughter tandem for the past 2+ years… and the set-up is arguably better for us than ANY dedicated tandem arrangement could be.

Firstly, from the child’s perspective: it’s easy to find an appropriate paddling station - solos tend to be shallower and narrower at an appropriate distance from the bow.

Secondly, from the parent’s perspective: whilst we might be able to rely on our tandem partners at crunch moments… we’re likely to be soloing a fair bit… and the closer we can get to a standard solo position the better!

My daughter does normally contribute with the paddle… but here (from 15 seconds in) I seem to be the only one doing anything :frowning:

…and here’s a video of us sailing our Flashfire on a 2 mile coastal crossing from the mainland of Scotland to the Isle of Bute…

I’d recommend a solo with more length for most dad and daughter combinations… but for what we do, most solos would strike me as a better option than most tandems!

forgot to mention I’m a big guy…
Thanks for your comments everyone! I think I’m leaning towards a bigger solo canoe, but I forgot to previously mention that I’m 6’1", 260 lbs - does this change things considerably? Any thoughts on seating a child with me in a solo?

Thanks for the videos!
Great example, thanks for the videos!

Old Town Penobscot RX 16
Old Town Penobscot in royalex, 16 feet long, about 36" wide. These are widely available new and used. Unlike most canoes, it is symmetrical, so you can turn it around and paddle it “backwards” from the front seat. I did this for years as my only canoe and it worked surprisingly well. If I could have but one canoe, I’d get another one. Just you and a small amount of gear, you will get blown around in a stiff wind, but you can’t have everything. 54 lbs is heavy to car top for many but you are a big guy.

either way
I think you could go either way with this one. Most of your “big guy” solo canoes are in the 15-16 ft range, which is the same size as “soloable” tandems. So your storage/transportation issues are basically the same for either type. You didn’t mention what you’re planning on doing in your canoe. If you intend to fish much, for instance, you may want a boat with more initial stablility than most dedicated solo canoes have, so that may influence your decision.

I’m about your size and have no trouble soloing my 16 foot tandem. The beam is about 32" across at my paddling station. I am probably not as fast as I would be in a dedicated solo, but I do think that the tandem is more versatile. I don’t worry much about trim, for instance, which is a major concern in a dedicated solo. The tandem canoe is also stable enough to stand easily and happily handles the kids’ squirming about. In my experience, paddling with kid(s) is similar to soloing in that you have to be able to propel and control the boat yourself because kids will tucker out or lose interest in “helping” halfway through your trip anyway.

For general recreational use, I think you’d do great with something along the lines of a Wenonah Solo Plus or a similar “big guy” solo. And then when you take your daughter, just experiment and see what works. If the solo canoe doesn’t work with your daughter, chances are that you can just rent a tandem for those occasions. Unless you take her alot. In that case, you may need a second canoe. But inexpensive tandem canoes are MUCH more plentiful on the used market than solo canoes.

Oh, and remember to check outfitter websites for “End of Season” deals on used canoes. In the next month or so, you’ll start seeing those pop up and a lot of them will ship. I think one of the BWCA outfitters has a Solo Plus for sale. Worth googling around a little for more info.

I’m with Dave on this
A Penobscot is just about ideal for your description of what you need. (It is 34 inches wide, by the way). With a 7 year old, I think I might just paddle it backwards from the bow seat and let her kneel. I added a kneeling thwart to mine just aft of center - I solo most of the time.

I have both
a true solo canoe and a 17’ tandem with a center seat(almost center) that I added. I have paddled both quite successfully, but having the tandem with 3 seats makes it great when I want to paddle with someone else. The center seat(just aft of center) also would work great when taking a small person in the front. Toss a small day pack/cooler in the back for final trim and you have a balanced boat.

For me, the biggest advantage of the solo over the tandem for paddling solo is performance in wind. I’m only 160 lbs, and in any kind of breeze the tandem is a sail.

For two adults, you need a tandem.

For a small child, either should work. I set up the seat in my solo so that it’s trim with an 80-pound dog in front of me.

might wanna go tandem, and then
keep the eyes out for a used solo that’ll fit you. Lots of people today get rid of boats that are on the large side…ie they don’t have the patience or drive to perfect their paddling skills…so you shouldn’t have that much of a problem in finding one…$.01

I’d say you have a true fork in the road
True solo canoeing involves occupying a center seat in a boat designed for single occupancy (narrower beam to allow paddle access from the center on both sides). A proper solo canoe is not much different from a deckless kayak, and the paddling techniques needed are entirely different from tandem paddling. More important, the paddling strategy of solo canoeing is a world different from tandem. A solo canoeist has total control of his craft; his skills are based what it takes to control his boat independently. It is this freedom and independence that most solo canoers love. In tandem canoeing, each paddler relinquishes control of the opposite end of the boat. Success requires cooperation, collaboration, and sometimes mind reading. This is not easy, nore even enjoyble for some people. It is not an accident that tandem canoes have long been referred to as widomakers.

Some people love the enforced cooperation of tandem canoeing; some hate it (myself included). Same for solo: some love, and even require the total control that is the essence of solo canoeing. Attempts to hybridize the two are risky. If you choose a solo canoe that’s the proper size for you, putting a small child in the front will create problems with trim and stability. Get a small tandem canoe that is big enough for a 2nd occupant, and in most cases your beam will be so wide paddling will be more difficult.

Every canoe is a series of trade-offs. The best solo canoes don’t like extra occupants; good tandems welcome loads but are not so friendly to a single paddler on a middle seat.

To enjoy canoeing the most with your daughter, you may need a small tandem; to enjoy canoeing you may find yourself attracted to a solo boat.

The best medicine for confusion is always information. Learn more about solo canoeing, study the individual models available from Wenonah, Mowhawk, Placid, etc. If you find yourself getting serious about buying: read until you’re sure you are getting what suits your style and type of water. Once you’re committed, buy the best you can; it may hurt but not as much as discovering 3 months down you road you have a piece of crap that is no fun to paddle.

Ouch, that sounds severe. I always heard “divorce boat”. Same idea, I guess.

The OP sounds like a big dude and shouldn’t have any problems reaching over the side to solo paddle if he decides to go with a tandem over a dedicated solo, as long as the beam is 35" or less.

For one boat, a 16’ tandem
If you go the one boat route, I’d get a 16’ tandem. Many are quite nicely soloable, and then you have the option of paddling with your daughter or another adult, which can be a lot of fun. Some models have been recommended. If you will be mostly on lakes and flat water, I’d get as lightweight a model as you can afford.

If you or your family get more interested in canoeing as a sport, you will end up with at least one other canoe, which could be a nice solo.

As much as a love Snowgoose’s contributions and his web forum (, he should disclose his weight when recommending a small solo such as a Flashfire for family use. I believe he and his daughter combined weigh a lot less the the average American male.

thoughs on beam
You are quite right that a big guy should be able to reach over the side of a tandem, if he’s kneeling. I’ve watched good solo paddlers move a tandem around quite well. My only though on this is that a canoe with a narrower beam is easier and more comfortable to control for a paddler in the middle of the boat–and maybe not just a little bit. Even if the OP decides to buy a tandem, it would be worth his time (imo) to find a good quality solo correct for his weight and take it out a couple times. For the sake of comparison. A 15 or 16 ft boat with a beam under 28in is gonna feel a whole lot different from a canoe with a beam that’s 34+ If the extra speed and ease of paddling don’t appeal, or he doesn’t want to deal with the stability issues, there’s lots of good tandems around.

And yes–tandems must surely be responsible for more divorces than widows :slight_smile:

From what I’m gathering - lots of people are making tandem canoes work well solo; a center seat seems to improve this. A true solo canoe seems to be a better fit for what I’m looking for - I trade the flexibility of having a 2nd adult for something more ideal for my average day, and a small passenger is not out of the question. However I am looking to keep the cost of this purchase down as low as I can, no more than say 1500. I’m thinking my best value may be a used canoe, but there seems to be very few used solo canoes and when I do find them, they’re top-notch canoes and the seller is asking thousands. As far as new canoes, I see the Old Town Pack is being offered right around 900, but at 12’ and with everyone describing 16’ and 17’ canoes this doesn’t seem ideal. Wenonah Solo Plus has been mentioned, but their low-end model is on the upper end of what I’m looking to spend. The Old Town Penobscot 16 seems to be readily available used, and offered at around 1400 new so falls nicely within my price range, but is heavy and probably ends up being a compromise for what I really am looking for… any ideas?

For the larger paddler…
Displacement is likely to be a critical factor with any choice of canoe for anyone. The better manufacturers generally give an “optimum load range” or something to that effect: not quite the same thing as the displacement as the latter includes the weight of the canoe, but equally useful.

For tandem use, stated figures generally correlate (very approximately) with the 3"-3.5" (minimum) and 4.5"-5" (maximum) waterlines. For solo use, the correlation tends to be with the 2"-2.5" (minimum) and 3.5"-4" (maximum) waterlines… though I believe some designs are more forgiving than others with over-loading and/or under-loading.

FWIW, sea kayaks generally do the same thing. For a superbly presented example, see

Most US solo canoes are designed for average American blokes with or without a reasonable tripping load. Options are limited for those of us who are more compact (e.g. me at < 150 lbs). At 260lbs, you’re pushing the limits the other way: most solo canoes (like most sea kayaks) would work OK if you didn’t carry much else… but would offer limited scope for kit.

Options do exist for you to carry a load / your daughter… but for flatwater use, you’d maybe want to look at something the size of a Wenonah Encounter (see JJMish Photo of dad-daughter tandem set-up)… and for WW you’d maybe want to look at something the size of the Hemlock SRT or Novacraft Supernova.