Tripping Canoe vs. 2 Pack Boats

Hi all,
My wife and I would like to purchase either an ultralight canoe or pack boats for multi-day tripping and day paddling. My question is, what are peoples thoughts on a tandem tripping canoe vs. 2 pack boats?

  • I’m 240 lbs., my wife is 150 lbs

  • I have a moderate amount of experience paddling canoes & kayaks; she has limited experience with kayaks, none in canoes.

  • We’ll primarily be using the boat(s) on lakes and flat water in the Adirondacks, and ease of portaging is a priority

  • We’re very experienced ultralight backpackers, therefore our tripping loads will be light (i.e. total of 80 - 100 lbs. max for a 1 week trip)

Thanks for your feedback!

If you can afford to get two pack canoes, it would be much easier on your wife as well as frankly your relationship. The difference in size between the two of you is enough that any tandem canoe that works for you would feel like a barge to her. Plus if you each have a well suited boat, she can take a boat out by herself. She would be challenged by trying that with a tandem that works for the two of you.


Hello, SFB, welcome to

Celia brings up some good points, especially the pack boat for your wife since she can use a double blade paddle. And a solo boat can be taken out without the need for a paddling partner. You could take your tandem canoe out solo but it’s never as good as paddling a solo canoe. Plus, it’s nice to paddle your own canoe sometimes, married or not. :grinning:

I’ll add a couple of other suggestions you might consider.

The advantage of a tandem tripper, depending on design, is it will handle bigger waves than your wife might be comfortable handling in a solo pack boat. Canoeing isn’t fun if you’re anxious. The weight distribution in a tandem can be evened out somewhat by having sliding bow and stern seats. You can fine tune the trim with some additional weight behind the bow paddler. This is easily accomplished when the canoe is loaded for a trip. A tandem tripper doesn’t have to feel like paddling a barge if it’s a good design and trimmed properly. But a tandem canoe works best with two paddlers. If you aren’t sure you’ll have someone to paddle with every time you want to go canoeing, a solo canoe is probably the better option.

A solo canoe of similar construction and materials to a tandem is going to be lighter but not necessarily easier to portage. I say that because most solos don’t have a good integrated portaging yoke while most good tandem trippers can be set up with a very comfortable portage yoke. A 50-55 lb tandem canoe on your shoulders isn’t that bad to carry if it has a good yoke. If you don’t plan on long portages this isn’t a big deal with lightweight solo boats. And you could probably find decent removable solo portage yokes for tripping.

One last thought, if you decide on two solo canoes, would be to get a tripping pack boat for your wife and a more traditional solo tripping canoe for yourself. If you enjoy using a single blade paddle the traditional seating configuration is better suited to a canoe paddle.

Have fun in your quest and out on the water.

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My choice would be a tandem, for the reasons tketcham has already given. A tandem will of course be somewhat heavier, and a little more difficult to portage than a small solo canoe, but it will be much easier and quicker to portage than two solo canoes.

For lake tripping in the Adirondacks, the only canoe stroke your wife would need some mastery of (assuming she will be the bow paddler) would be a forward stroke.

Depends on the portaging. Two boats and two packs make a different scenario for example on the three mile long Lows to Oswegatchie carry. Or on numerous smaller carries in a day. We usually can do the portage in two portage lengths . One carries halfway , the other carries all the way. Then the one that went all the way goes back to retreive the item at half way and the other has gone back to pick up what was left at the start. Usually we leave the canoe in the middle so that the person carrying it is never alone ( we have made mistakes with following the correct trail when carrying the canoe alone. Spent the whole PM looking for the canoe and portageur in Killarney) Both folks end up meeting at the middle
Hope you can follow that game plan. Easier executed than written.
Solo pack canoes do accommodate detachable portage yokes if the portage length is too far to carry over a shoulder. Moreover mine is my choice over a tandem on big seas like Lake Superior as the weight is centered on the middle and the boat rides nicely over rollers. I do have a spray cover system for those waters.We have done Superior in a tandem canoe too and it was way more scary. Part of that scariness was in following seas as I had no idea what was going on in back of me… Bow paddlers do not have eyes in the back of their heads and sometimes lurches from the stern are unsettling.

Some pack canoes have seating arrangements and hull design that allows for use of a short single blade bent shaft paddle. My RapidFire is one of those boats.

There are pros and cons for each; tandem and solo but it may be that your wife will enjoy a solo pack canoe more as that is not so much of a jump in skill set. Tandem paddling in the ADKS usually involves some degree of maneuvering in tight places ( like the Oswegatchie!) and bow paddlers need forward draw and cross draw. How much is she interested in learning something new?

Do you have somewhere where you could test paddle tandems? It sure would be good if you could try it together once…in ANY tandem. Some people like the independence of solo boats, but your wife might fall behind and get frustrated. If you think you two would be compatible in a tandem and enjoy paddling together I think it’s the better choice. A decent tandem will travel effortlessly with just gentle participation from both paddlers. Portaging seems like it would be much simpler with one lightweight tandem.

One couple in your situation bought a Keewaydin 17 and loves it. Your load would be right in it’s efficient range whether lightly loaded on day trips or fully loaded on longer trips. It’s not delicate yet it’s well under 40 pounds and has a sliding bow seat which would be good given your weight difference. A Wenonah Spirit II ultralight would work well too…it weighs a bit more. It would be best if you could test paddle since people have a broad range of tastes and perceptions.

I couldn’t disagree more with above statement. The bow paddler need not be relegated to becoming a simple motor. A stern paddler taking on 100% of the steerage and maneuvering responsibility is not enjoyable for either paddler. 90% of the time I am the bow paddler, including multiple times totaling nearly 4,000 miles on the Yukon, 23 Adirondack 90-miler races, and my tenth Cannonball-90 completed just the day before yesterday. When racing or not, My favorite part of the '90 is rounding the nearly continuous switchbacks of Brown’s Tract. I am practically never, rarely if ever passed by other racers in that section and enjoy making the tight turns at high speed coordinated with my stern partner in everything from a C2 to a voyageur. I am in the best place to view and initiate the proper time to begin draw, post, side slice, and other strokes to pivot and power the boat around each turn. My stern paddler takes his/her cue from me of when to act and apply power, draws, or rudder.

As Kayakmedic indicates, tight maneuvering (such as on the Oswegatchie headwaters) in a tandem takes more coordinated team effort than a stern paddler can usually manage alone. I can assure you that a full quiver of practiced bow strokes makes any canoeing trip highly enjoyable and successful.

Regarding the OP question it is difficult to chose one mode over another, since I enjoy both ways. Although given the large differential in body weight, I would tend to advise toward individual solo boats. I too paddle my RapidFire almost exclusively 99% with a single blade canoe paddle. Doing so will teach much about paddle and canoe fine control when paddling in any seat in any kind of canoe.

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I don’t know if it is the same couple, but we have a couple with very disparate weights in LOAPC that have a Keewadin 17 that looks just like the review picture (Red over kevlar with infused rails). They will dip 3 - 5 gallons into a container to add ballast to the bow before launching and empty it at takeout when they are paddling empty. If the budget runs for it (new & light 7K - 11K) go big and get both - one good tandem lake the Kee 17 and two good and properly sized solos. Oddly enough, that price range is the same as for high end bicycles.

I have considerable experience with paddling tandem open boats in whitewater up to Class IV including some that was pretty technical so I am fully aware of the value of a bow paddler who has a full panoply of strokes in his or her quiver.

But the OP seems to have some concern that his wife with no prior canoeing experience might present a limitation to controlling a tandem canoe. And the operative word in my comment was “lake”. An experienced stern paddler on open flat water should have no real difficulty controlling a tandem canoe, barring high winds and waves, if the bow paddler can execute a decent forward stroke and not a whole lot more initially. With a bit of experience, the draws, pries, crossdraws, Duffeks, cross-Duffeks, and braces will come. But they are not essential initially for lake paddling under the conditions that I expect the OP would encounter at first.

I just completed a 50+ mile downriver trip on Class I water with my daughter in the bow of my tandem who didn’t know a pry from a draw. Easy water but some maneuvering was required. I have many times taken individuals with zero prior canoeing experience down whitewater runs up to Class III in the bow of an open boat and have not encountered any real difficulty so long as they kept their paddle in the water pulling on a forward stroke.

Aah Pete we know your and M’s skill
But the oxbowy meandering bank bonker ADK streams do benefit from learning more than Forward
Going WAY back memory lane my hubby to be and I wound up in the same canoe class at college( canoeing or golf were the phys ed choices and tou had to take phys ed)
We were presented the Little River a barely flowing snakelike river in the ADK foothills
I learned how to draw and crossdraw the first sessions as impaling a Grumman was no fun
Not long after I mastered the static version of both so you could call me a very early freestyle camoeist though that term was not used
All I knew is that I could help the canoe turn precisely with no bank banging and no work on my part .
Bow paddlers can contribute if they wish That is the rub If they would prefer not to( I have my days when I would rather man the camera than the paddle) then steering will have the same finesse as running through a grocery store steering the cart from the front (ie backwards) In big spaces this is of course acceptable.
On the delightful small ADK streams there might be a domestic argument
Pete are you and M paddling ?
sorry for the hijack

I agree about bow paddlers learning their strokes. I will never forget the first time I had a really skilled paddler in the bow of my canoe. It was Jerry Nyre in Denver. He could control the boat completely from the bow. Jerry and a friend were the first guys to paddle from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers upstream by eddy hopping to Moab. Before that everyone took a jet boat.

The easiest way to portage is to have one person pick up each end of a boat and carry it. With a tandem you take the canoe in one trip, either with packs for a single traverse or you go back and take your packs, traversing the portage 3 times. With two pack boats you either endure carrying them overhead (not to be taken lightly, its noisy under there and you are more likely to go off balance and injure yourself) in a solo carry or hike the portage yet again for the second boat.

That technique will for sure result in injury. The rear carrier has no vision of the ground immediately ahead. It will for sure result in misery in the Adirondacks where roots and rocks are part of the portage trail. We are discussing the Adirondacks. If it is not rocks and roots it is “loonshit” a mudhole .
Pack Canoes are light sub 30 lbs and it is easy to balance and negotiate the rocky paths.

There is a reason you see no one carrying one on each end except in a parking lot or at a launch.

KnuPack used to make a external frame backpack with u shaped horns to fit over the thwarts of a boat. Never really caught on for tandem boats and at that time pack canoes were not abundant. Its too bad as it was a product ahead of its time.

I have two photos of me using a Knupac backpack carrier. The first is on my initial steps diagonally crossing the Adirondacks (SW to NE) on a 185 mile trek one hot dry July with my 10.5’ Hornbeck, to include a total of 62 miles of carries. With this canoe only, I have a rigid mount with an aluminum conduit pipe from the bottom of the pack to the canoe. Everything I needed for the 7 day trek was in the pack.

In the second photo, I only carried the 32’ cedar voyageur about 10 feet as a promotional photo for Eric Knudsen, the originator of the Knupac. In normal mode the tilt/tip of the canoe is controlled with a line from bow to stern held at the hip with one hand.

It is not particularly noisy under there, and balance or falling or injury was never an issue, even as I continue to use the system today with various reasonable sized canoes.

The preferred method of making a double/triple carry traverse (if you find that is necessary) is to take your pack and gear first so that you can inspect and possibly clear the trail of hazards, before returning to carry the canoe with more limited visibility.

Lightweight pack canoes are often carried to the side on one shoulder, which is possible and marginally comfortable for fairly short distances, although many on the 90-mile race will carry that way even on the over one mile carries. I find it too painful and awkward to maintain that configuration, so with my RapidFire I use a very comfortable padded shoulder yoke quickly clamped in at the balance point. For longer non-race more relaxed time bushwhack carries, my Knupac fits nicely in the same yoke.

Tandems or C4s, sometimes even voyageurs, during races are often carried overhead by two paddlers while running on the trail, with the helpful addition of foam pool noodles on the gunwales, or sometimes using the clamp-in yoke on one end or the other if that may work better on certain canoes.

I’ve done tandem canoes and solo kayaks in the dacks (but never pack canoes). They both work. If I was single stickin’ (canoe paddle) I like to use a tandem canoe. Having paddled a number of lakes both solo and tandem in canoes I much prefer a tandem canoe with the bow paddler providing power for lake paddling. For solo work, I prefer the kayak’s double blade if I’m crossing a lake in a canoe (or kayak). The exception might be if it got really rough (waves/wind)- then I’d resort to my ww c1 skills (low brace) and the single blade.
Most of the adirondack portages on the nfct route were wheelable which was a good solution for when I had a tandem canoe that was poorly set up (mr adventurer, poly without thwarts) to portage. I even managed to use the portage wheels on a good portion of the racquette falls carry although the up hill portion pretty much sucked carrying a tandem canoe solo, but at least I had a center thwart for that trip (mr courier). I realize that many of the portages are not wheelable in other parts of the dacks.

To me it is just about efficiency and using what I already have.

I have never paddled a pack canoe but have used a kayak paddle in a regular tandem canoe when soloing. It was ok but I would have rather been in a kayak. I took the canoe because it was easier to pack and I could take more stuff- in other words, I was just to lazy to prepare and pack a kayak properly. sometimes you run out of time for good prep ( “fast food” paddling as opposed to real cooking).

Of course there is a real tradition for pack canoes (small light solo canoes with a kayak paddle) in the area you are headed. Nessmuk (George Washington Sears) predicted they would take over leisure paddling (1920)…but there is no way I would want to paddle one of his little nessmuk pack canoes that he designed across a windy lake- the things were tiny and weighed just 16 or 15 pounds. He must have been a really small guy but perhaps he was on to something with the whole idea which did evolve into modern bigger composite pack canoes. Perhaps I’ll rent a modern pack canoe someday and see how it handles. That sounds like fun and would be easier to portage but I will keep the distances short on the flats until I see if it is efficient. Solo canoes tend to get blown around a bit on lakes- so I figure pack canoes might as well. …Then there are oars in canoes (another old tradition) but that is another topic…so many choices.

I can attest to how well KnuPacs work. I used one for a while hiking into a remote whitewater run with my Ocoee for a while. Those days are behind me, so I’d be happy to sell mine to anyone who’d like one. Shoot me a private message if interested. Thanks.

If I didn’t already have two Knupacs, I might bite at your offer. Do you know which model you have? What color is it, that may be a clue if you don’t know. The original model was less comfortable than gen2 and gen3.

Yes, Nessmuk was a very small man, around 100 pounds as I recall. My smaller original Hornbeck is only 10.5 feet long. As a carbon/kevlar hybrid it weighs only 16 pounds. There is an all carbon fiber Hornbeck that weighs just 12 pounds. Unfortunately, IMO, the way it is designed with the low seat, you are pretty much obligated to paddle it with a double blade kayak paddle. Not in any way my favored method of propelling a Canoe. Otherwise, with my somewhat larger Placidboat Rapidfire, I always paddle it with a single blade. Regardless, that short Hornbeck handles big waves well. The trick is to keep all weight from gear as centered as possible. I will put anything heavy (multi day food pack & gear) under my knees, and keep my backpack with heavy stuff close and tight behind my back. In this way, the bow will tend to bob up over waves along with the rest of the boat and contents like a cork, rather than heavily plowing through large waves. The final portion of my Adirondack traverse to finish at my daughter’s home required me to cross over the northern end of Lake Champlain, with huge rollers hitting me both head on and broadside. I stayed dry, although I had a home made spray cover to help out.

OP here…

Thanks for all of the informative and helpful feedback! I really appreciate it.

To answer kayamedic’s question “How much is she interested in learning something new?”…She’s willing to learn canoe strokes. We will likely seek out some type of intro to canoeing workshop for us both to take - I feel it’s better for her to learn from a 3rd party.

Based on the feedback, we’re leaning towards purchasing a tandem now, realizing that we’ll also likely purchase 2 solo boats down the line.

We’re heading up to the Adirondacks this weekend to test paddle a Keewaydin 17, Wenonah Spirit II, and possibly a Northwind 17. Our local Swift dealer mentioned that if we were to order a K17 from Swift, they could build it with the optional sliding forward seat and install the rear seat slightly forward of the normal position; to facilitate trimming the boat given our weight disparities.

I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback on the pros/cons of each of these models.