What's the deal with canoe seats?

I have an Old Town Next and absolutely love the seat. I want something a little longer and narrower but is still shallow depth. This pretty much puts me into a higher price tag, composite canoe. The one that seems to be the best blend of specs is the Northstar Trillium.

For me, lightweight is nice but it’s not the main characteristic that is driving my decision. Durability is more important to me than weight and Northstars IXP layup seems to meet that need. AND, seat comfort is more important than having a canoe I can lift with one hand.

I’m perfectly willing to pay more for a really well-crafted canoe. The problem is that Northstar, Swift, Placid, Wenonah and others seem to be in the dark ages for seats when compared with Old Town’s Element seat in the Next.

What is the deal with boats made out of space-age laminates that go for thousands of dollars that have narrow wood and webbing seats from the stone ages? Or have molded cheap plastic or foam seats with back bands? Why does seating seem to be an afterthought, an evil necessity to high-end canoe builders?

Someone please sell me a boat like the Northstar Trillium that has an Old Town Element Seating system, or better yet, a lighter weight version of it.

As it is, it looks like I will end up buying another Next, not because it’s cheaper, but because I am loath to pay 2 to 3 times more for a boat that has a seat that a 6-grader could have made in shop class.

Hi, seaverlink,

The canoes you’re comparing aren’t really the same boat. The Trillium is a more traditional solo canoe design, intended to be paddled while kneeling or seated using a single blade paddle. The seat is mounted higher so paddlers can tuck their legs under the seat and efficiently clear the gunnels using traditional single blade paddling strokes. There are bench seats with a curved frame that are quite comfortable, especially if you use a foam pad. Many canoe manufacturers offer comfortable tractor seats for people that don’t kneel. But rarely will you see a back rest included with a traditional canoe seat. I’ve tried a couple after-market back rests but find the back rest just gets in the way when using a single blade paddle.

The Next is essentially a pack canoe, designed so it can be paddled with a double blade paddle while seated in the bottom of the canoe. You can use a single blade paddle but the design lends itself more to a double blade. The seats (with a back rest) that are installed in pack canoes are basically kayak seats.

If you want a more sleek version of the Next, a Swift Keewaydin 15 might be what you’re looking for. It’s a pack canoe designed for touring. Swift offers what appears to be a very comfortable seating option. The Placid Boatworks RapidFire might also be what you’re after. You might be able to figure out how to install an Old Town Element seat in either of those canoes.


You’re right that I’m wanting pack canoe style and use a double bladed paddle. I just don’t see that antiquated bench seats being what we should expect in a high end boat in 2020. My buddies who all have nice solo canoes that they paddle double-bladed lust after my seat in the Next and try to use GCI Sitbackers or other solutions but they’re just not as good, or comfortable.

You’re kind of missing the point. The seats need to be suited to paddling technique. Bench seats are put into canoes designed to be paddled kneeling using a single blade paddle. If you and your buddies want a touring pack boat with a cushy kayak seat buy a Swift Keewaydin 15. Otherwise stay away from canoes set up for single blade paddling. You might be able to figure out a way to install an Element seat system in a pack boat or more conventional solo canoe. But I didn’t see anywhere on the Old Town website where they sold the seat system separately. You might try contacting Old Town and see if they’d sell you a seat system. Or even if Old Town (or another boat manufacturer) would build a lightweight composite solo canoe with the Element seat system installed.


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I agree with tketcham’s comments and I’ll add that I did see that you can buy the Element seat system alone for $159. You’re looking for a kayak…that Old Town seat with it’s leaned back seating position looks like a back breaker to a canoe person like me. I’ve paddled a Trillium and it’s an awesome hull design. You could get it with a foot brace and add a seating system that suits you…you could even measure the width of your current seat to see if it would drop into a Trillium. I also agree with tketcham that you should consider a Swift pack boat. They offer them in an Expedition Kevlar lay-up and they offer an optional gelcoat which adds a lot of abrasion protection. I’m most attracted to the 14.8 in the link below but I’d also be interested in trying their brand new 15.8. They offer a wide variety so you should be able to find one that suits you if you can test paddle them.

I’m definitely not looking for a kayak, but a pack boat, yes. With the Element seat you can certainly lounge if you want, but it’s also very comfortable upright with straight posture. It’s on a rail system that allows easy trimming. It doubles as a very comfortable camp chair. Unlike foam or molded plastic pack seats and back bands, there is airflow behind and beneath the breathable fabric which keeps you cool and makes for fast drying out of clothes if you’re wet. Also, the length of the seat is much more comfortable than short bench seats with or without a back support. My wife broke her back last year; she’s comfortable for several hours in the Next seat. I can’t get her on the water in a typical sit-in kayak seat or bench canoe seat.

Part of the problem with high back seats is rescue is very difficult. You can’t do a boat over boat when a capsize happens… And it will, if you paddle enough , it will.

And portaging is nigh impossible with that seat back. Traditional canoe seats can be comfortable with at least a footbar and backbands if necessary and a forward cant angle. But as Seaverlink states not all seats fit all backs equally. To each their own. I chuckle at the mention of cool… Our weather is still cool. We did get to 65 for the first time since last October today! It snowed five days ago( again yet)

The Trillium is available in a pack canoe seating configuration You just have to ask for it from your dealer. The seat is the same as on the Northstar ADK - floor mounted sculpted foam with a padded back rest. You can also do the Phoenix in the pack canoe seating set up.

You might also look at the Wenonah Wee Lassie 126, which has (to my mind) a very comfortable seating configuration with volume comparable to the Next, and at less than half the Next’s weight.

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I bought a Placidboat Rapidfire several years ago. it is a pack boat designed for most people to be paddled with a double blade (a kayak paddle). I already had a Hornbeck in which the design requires that it be paddled with a kayak paddle. I don’t like that format of canoeing.

The Rapidfire comes with a choice of three different height molded floor mount drop-in seats. But I wanted a canoe to use the pleasures of a single blade paddle, not a kayak. Even the highest standard option seat was too low for my paddling comfort. The boat design and light weight quality prevents gunwale or side mounted high seats. I noticed that Joe (PB owner) had an on-floor high rail mount seat with a slight forward tilt in his own RF, higher than the drop in options. So I asked that he do the same for me. He reluctantly did, saying I could never go back. It works for me just the way I want, using my choice of single blade canoe paddles. Later for another customer he did make a boat with a reinforced “belly band” to mount a high seat. I wish I had known this before I bought mine. In retrospect, the Keewaydin may have been an overall better choice.

I think you might enjoy test paddling a Trillium. It also looks like Swift may be offering some of their newest pack boat designs as Performance Solos. Rapidfire may still be fastest of all but the Swift 14.8 and 15.8 sure look worth trying to me.

I agree with tketcham and TomL’s remarks. Re-read them. You are viewing canoes and seats through your own narrow lens. Canoes can be adapted with many different seat styles depending on technique.
I also find your remarks about weight curious. You are considering paying a premium price for one of the lighter weight canoes on the market, yet don’t understand why weight matters. Consider wilderness tripping where one might portage a hull miles between paddling venues. Believe me every ounce counts.

I can’t find the hull size and shape I want in a poly or t-formex pack canoe, so that leaves me with composites, which are lightweight, yes, but not the reason I’m considering one. I don’t do wilderness trips and rarely do overnights. I spend my time on rivers and streams that have very few dams or rapids so I end up portaging around a dam or rapids once or twice a year. I transport using a pickup or a utility trailer so being light weight to get on and off the top of a vehicle is a non-issue for me. I can find pack canoes made of T-formex or poly that have comfortable highback seats but aren’t the hull size/shape I want. Or I can find lightweight composite pack boats that have the hull size/shape I want but comparatively primitive seating. I’d add an extra 5 lbs to have a great high back seat in a 30 lb boat any day.

seaverlink, I get that you’re disappointed in the seating options available with the hull design you’re after. But don’t lay the blame on canoe designers. Manufacturers are just accommodating market demand and the combination you’re after isn’t mainstream. I do think it would be worth your while to see about having an Element seat system installed in a canoe hull you like. You might be able to have the manufacturer install it or have them build a canoe without a seat and you could have someone else install it or even install it yourself. If enough people saw your setup they might want to install something similar and interchangeable seat systems could become mainstream.

I’ve installed pedestal saddles in solo whitewater canoes and used sections of angled aluminum rail glued to the bottom of the hull. I drilled bolt holes in the rails to accommodate the adjustable pedestal seat system. I don’t see why something like that wouldn’t work with the Element mounting setup. There’s probably a more elegant installation method that someone could come up with. :smile:


Seats are all about personal preference.
Today I am taking out the tandem seats and thwarts in an OT Canadienne and installing a solo seat from Essex Industries with a new bow thwart. No big deal. Make it how you want it.

Update: after asking lots of questions of the people at Northstar and Swift, I bit the bullet and now am the happy owner of a Swift Cruiser 14.8 in the Expedition kevlar layup, Basalt Innegra, 28 lbs.

I’m happy with the Swift’s seat. I think it’s probably the most comfortable high-back seat available in a composite canoe. Not surprising, there is a huge difference in feel between the seats in the Next and Swift, most of the difference not good or bad, just different. The Swift seat has a sheet of plastic in the backrest that wraps around your low-mid back, is supportive, form-fitting, and has a nice feel. I find myself wanting to sit up straighter in the Swift, which is generally good, and leads to a more powerful stroke than the more leisurely posture that feels more natural in the Next seat. In some positions, if not wearing a PFD, the top of the plastic sheet digs into my middle back a little. It’s relatively easy to adjust to a position that it’s not an issue. Interestingly, to stay comfortable for many hours, I find myself wanting to sit cross-legged for a change in position. Again, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though I do feel the need to change position more frequently in the Swift than the Next. The seat pan isn’t as long as the seat on the Next and so doesn’t support your thighs as much. This also has the effect of putting more weight and pressure on your butt when feet are extended out front and up on the foot rests. Sometimes I find myself wishing there was slightly thicker padding on the seat pan. The way the sheet of plastic in the backrest bends at the bottom to nest in the seat pan isn’t elegant. In the future, an improvement would be for Swift to switch to a molded plastic insert rather than starting from a flat sheet of plexi. They could roll the top edge back to be gentler against your upper back, and shape the bottom for a more graceful intersection with the seat pan. Adding an inch or two of length to the seat pan might be worth the extra few ounces in offering more thigh support. But those criticisms aside, the Swift’s seat is very nice and I’m not disappointed in it. Of course, it’s miles ahead of traditional bench seats.

I didn’t get the optional feature of the seat being on a track for trimming and so far haven’t felt the need for it.

The system of seat straps works fine. One strap goes around the thwart behind the seat, and doubles as the strap to hold the seat in a lowered position during transport. So far, I haven’t had any issue with straps loosening or slipping. Old Town could easily have incorporated a way to hold the Next’s seat in a closed position and why they didn’t is a head scratcher.

There are openings at the bottom of the seat pan that allow water to move along the bottom rather than building up at one end or the other.

There is small removable lumbar support pillow. It’s connected to the seat by a short cord so you won’t lose it. You can position it at nearly any height up the back which has a vertical strip of velcro. I find myself not using it 90% of the time. When I recline the back to a more leisurely position, I find the lumbar pillow nice to fill the void created between my lower back and the seat back. When sitting in a straighter posture the lumbar support pushes you out away from having comfortable contact with the backrest. I suspect that some further design improvements to the back could make the addition of the lumbar pillow unnecessary.

It handles like a dream. It’s straight tracking, but still turns when you need it to with good technique, including some heeling. Near me on the Grand River in Michigan, I had attempted a 20 mile stretch several times in the Next and always gave up. It is a wide stretch with nearly no current, and often headwind. It includes going out through the choppy Grand Haven channel, facing down huge motorboats, and out around the pier into Lake Michigan. I did it my first go in the Swift: 90 degree day. 5 hrs 45 minutes of continuous paddling without setting feet outside the boat. It was a pleasure and I could have gone further. That really put the comfort of the seat to the test.

I really like the 23.5 inches between gunnels at the cockpit, and brace my thighs and calves there in a way not possible with the wider Next. I’ll be trying a pool noodle on each side to see if that adds a little extra comfort.

In our 3 acre pond, my wife and I raced, her in the Swift, me in the Next. I couldn’t keep up with her.

People had been emphasizing weight to me in choosing a new boat, especially compared to the 59lb Next. I don’t portage much so weight was low on my list of considerations. People would, for example, suggest how much more I’d use my boat if it was lighter and easier to throw on the car or trailer. What no one said, and I didn’t think of until after getting the Swift, is that where the weight really matters for those of us who portage little, is that you’re pulling that much less weight through the water with each paddle stroke. That in my view is the most important reason to want a lighter boat. Strangely, no dealer, no manufacturer, and no paddler mentioned this in all the conversations about what to look for in a boat.

In our pond, yesterday I was pushing things with leaning into turns to see where the point of no return was – and found it. It was the first time swamping the Swift. I found that it was impossible to keep it upright. It just wanted to roll with the lightest amount of weight applied to one side or the other, whether upright, on its side, or upside down. There was no way I could get back in. I suspect that I couldn’t have held on anywhere to keep it upright to bail it out, and am a bit concerned about ever needing to do so in a more urgent situation in waves or current. I did manage to get on top once, straddling the top, with the entire canoe mostly underwater, but upright. The air chambers front and back took on water even though the plugs were tightly fitted. I’m going to need to figure out what’s going on there, and whether there is going to be anyway to bail out or re-enter it when it is swamped and I’m solo. The Next is certainly much easier in this regard.

My paddle is 260cm which I feel is a good fit for both the Next and Swift.

I was hoping that the Swift would be something I’d feel comfortable taking down some of our Michigan rivers that have occasional rocky sections. I’m not worried about having scratches, but honestly I’m not sure the hull would be up to many hits or scrapes along sharp rocks and am reluctant to find out. It’s pretty tough to find pictures of anyone in a Swift other than in rock-free waters. The Next may still need to be my go-to boat for those conditions.

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Wow, nice boat. Thanks for the comprehensive feedback. I think your Expedition Kevlar lay-up can take a lot of abuse on rocks but it’s nice that you have another boat that you can use if you like.

Update: I examined and tested the air chambers further and there are a couple spots that need some additional caulk. I emailed Swift and heard back from Bill Swift himself within about an hour (on a Sunday no less). I’m good with the solution of sending me a caulk kit to take care of it myself. They would have made a new boat to replace it if that had been my preference. That kind of customer service is rare in the world these days.

I did some more attempts in the pond to swamp it and get in, doing so successfully one time, banging up my shin in the process. It was not easy. I also tried entry from deep water with the boat dry. One of the awesome things about this boat is the low center height, but it also makes it very difficult to pull down at all on the side of the boat to get in without swamping it. To reliably get back in in deep water while solo I’ll definitely need to use a paddle float. The likelihood of ever needing to do that is very slim, but I’m glad I’m now clear about my options.

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Beautiful boat. Congratulations.

My experience with kevlar canoes is that they are built to be light, but not stronger than fiberglass boats. Be careful around rocks and do not subject them to abuse if you can help it. Do not drag them around. Land parallel to shore. Avoid rocks in rivers. Avoid low water flows. Take an aluminum beater or Royalex boat for those conditions.

I recommend that you ask Bill Swift about using your new boat on rocky rivers. Your Expedition Kevlar lay-up includes basalt/innegra and those lay-ups are considered tougher than Royalex. Even Swift’s lighter lay-up is used by Canadian outfitters for rentals. I’ve used Kevlar boats on Michigan rivers with rocky sections for decades. Personally I want to enjoy a high performance hull all the time. Even if something really bad happens (like if you swamp it and current pushes it into a big rock) they are easy to repair. Of course if you like your Next it’s hard to beat a plastic boat for smashing into rocks.