If you and your partner are looking for a new watercraft, you might find yourself in the age-old tandem kayak vs canoe conundrum. We understand because many of us have been there, and the good news is that there’s no wrong answer.
However, one choice might be better for your particular paddling style and desired activity. Plus, your experience level can come into play when you’re trying to select which of these two awesome paddle craft is best for you.
To be clear, the point of this guide will not be to definitively say that either a tandem kayak or a canoe is better than the respective other.
Instead, we’ll focus on giving you as much information about these two paddle craft as possible so that you can make an informed decision for yourself.
But, let’s also not kid ourselves! We’ll conclude the article by offering our pick between a tandem kayak and a canoe and we’ll also explain why we do prefer one of these paddle craft over the other for the majority of paddling occasions.
Let’s hop into it!
Table of Contents
- 1 Tandem Kayak vs Canoe
- 2 Differences Between Tandem Kayaks And Canoes
- 3 Canoe vs Tandem Kayak: Pros & Cons
- 4 How To Choose a Tandem Kayak vs Canoe
- 5 Our Pick – Tandem Kayak
- 6 Enjoyed Tandem Kayak vs Canoe? Share it with your friends so they too can follow the KayakHelp journey.
Tandem Kayak vs Canoe
One of the biggest differences between a tandem kayak and a canoe is the type of paddle you use to propel them forward! The best kayak paddles offer blades on either end for maximum efficiency while canoe paddles feature just a single blade and must be regularly switched from one side of the canoe to the other.
Another major difference between tandem kayaks and canoes can be found in their seats.
While the photo above doesn’t quite do canoes justice (you don’t seriously have to kneel down the whole time), most kayaks offer seats with backrests while many canoes do not.
That’s not to say that all canoes have super uncomfortable seats, but it is indeed one of the major differences between these two types of paddle craft. To be honest, there are many styles of kayaks out there that compare differently to canoes than others.
That’s why we’re going to do a deep dive as we go further along in this article. For now, it’s good to know that paddling efficiency and seat design are the two major differences between tandem kayaks and canoes.
But It’s also worth noting, however, that there are certain canoes out there designed for just a single paddler.
But because we’re focusing on tandem kayaks, we’ll stick to comparing them to canoes built for two in the interest of providing a more even comparison here.
Differences Between Tandem Kayaks And Canoes
When you’re evaluating any type of paddle craft, there are certain criteria you can look at to help you get a better idea of how that craft will perform on the water. We’ll utilize a number of those important buying criteria to explain more of the differences between tandem kayaks and canoes here.
There is indeed a difference in stability between canoes and tandem kayaks, but the degree of that difference is going to depend on the style of tandem kayak you choose. Your choices there will either be a sit-inside tandem kayak or a sit-on-top tandem kayak.
The latter tends to be more stable than the former and, also, more stable than most canoes. But if you opt for a sit-inside tandem kayak, the difference in stability between a kayak and a canoe can actually be negligible.
The main reason for the added stability of the sit-on-top tandem kayak is because most of them offer wider designs. Because sit-inside kayaks tend to be much narrower, their lack of primary stability can take some getting used to.
Canoes also don’t have much primary stability because of the rounded nature of their hulls.
That’s not to say that canoes and sit inside tandem kayaks will flip over the moment you try to sit inside them, but they will both feel much more stable once you’re underway.
That’s why tandem kayaks and canoes are often used for longer expeditions where you won’t be sitting still all too often.
If you’re more interested in recreational paddling and you know you’ll be just floating and relaxing for at least part of the time, then you’d probably want a sit-on-top tandem kayak.
When it comes to the ability to load a bunch of gear into your paddle craft, it’s pretty hard to beat the amount of space you’ll have inside a canoe. That’s especially true when you compare that space to what’s generally available on most sit-on-top tandem kayaks.
That being said, some sit-inside tandem kayaks actually boast quite a bit of storage space that can be utilized for overnight gear and they have the added benefit of having bulkhead storage compartments that can be sealed to remain watertight.
If you opt for a canoe, you’ll have the most storage space at your disposal for any sort of gear you want to bring along. The only drawback is that you’ll need several dry bags or a large waterproof duffel bag to keep your gear from getting wet.
In addition, most kayaks actually come with bungee rigging or tie-down points that make it easy to keep your gear secured to the kayak in case you capsize.
But tying all of your gear into a canoe can be a little bit more difficult and can lead to a garage sale of gear floating down the river if you accidentally flip.
To be honest, this probably should have been our first point because the difference in efficiency between paddling a tandem kayak and a canoe can be considerable. It all starts with the design of the paddles used for each type of watercraft.
As you should know, kayak paddles have blades on either end that are connected by a paddle shaft running between them. Canoe paddles, on the other hand, have just one blade, a shaft, and a T-shaped handle at the other end.
This difference in design means that you’ll regularly switch a canoe paddle from one side of the craft to the other. Kayak paddles allow you to keep your hands in place while propelling your craft forward.
That’s why paddling a tandem kayak tends to be more efficient than paddling a canoe. There’s no wasted energy and effort switching hands to move the paddle back and forth and there’s also less difference between the strength of your paddle strokes from right-to-left.
This also means that tandem kayaks, in general of course, are easier to keep tracking straight than a canoe.
But if you’re truly a beginner to paddling either of these watercraft, you’ll probably find yourself doing a bit of zig-zagging until you get the hang of things.
The comfort of a certain canoe or kayak can actually vary greatly from model-to-model. But there are some general differences between tandem kayaks and canoes that we can cover in this section.
For starters, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tandem kayak out there that doesn’t come with some type of flip-up or clip-in seat with a backrest. This provides the type of lumbar support that makes longer paddles more comfortable.
When you’re looking at canoes, on the other hand, many of them boast bench-style seats without backrests.
This is especially true if you’re looking at cheaper canoes because, to be honest, some of the best canoes out there actually do boast pretty comfortable seats with plenty of spinal support.
What most canoes and sit on top kayaks usually lack, however, are adjustable foot braces that give you a comfortable place to rest your feet while paddling.
These foot braces also help you maintain a more upright paddling position that maximizes the efficiency of your paddle strokes.
But when it really comes to comfort when you’re paddling, adaptability is key because it’s hard to find just one position that you’ll remain comfortable in for several hours on the water.
That’s why the clip-in seats on most kayaks can be nice because they allow you to recline or sit up straighter depending on your preference.
Some kayaks and canoes do have flip-up seatbacks, which are a nice happy medium between a clip-in seat and no seat at all. Of course, canoes without seatbacks tend to be the least comfortable option because of their complete lack of lumbar support.
Not everything about kayaking or canoeing is focused 100 percent on the water. There’s also the importance of getting your preferred paddle craft from your home (or storage area) to the shoreline where you want to launch.
Generally speaking, canoes tend to be much larger and heavier than tandem kayaks. As you might imagine, this extra size and weight make transporting canoes a bit trickier than transporting a smaller, lighter kayak.
Most tandem kayaks are light enough for you and your partner to lift onto a roof-mounted kayak roof rack. They also won’t be too bad to carry from your car down to the water’s edge when you arrive at your destination.
Canoes, on the other hand, tend to be more difficult to lift, load, tie-down properly, and transport safely. That’s not saying that it can’t be done and, in fact, this video will give you some really helpful pointers for transporting a canoe safely.
With both of these paddle craft, there can be a lot of merit in purchasing some extra equipment that makes transporting them much easier.
The best carts, wheels, and trolleys for paddle craft will allow you to roll your vessel from the car to the water (and back) without having to lift and strain your back.
When it comes to your safety when paddling, it’s rare that you’ll have to worry about three great white sharks hungrily circling your paddle craft. Don’t worry guys, the photo above is PhotoShopped and in no way real.
But there are some differences in the safety of canoes and kayaks when things don’t go as planned. To begin with, the sit-on-top variety of tandem kayaks is going to be the easiest to flip back over and climb back onto if you accidentally capsize.
Next is the sit-inside tandem kayak because it will require a bit more maneuvering and coordination to get both paddlers back inside.
This is especially true if you, unfortunately, capsize in deep water and you should check out this video for pointers if you’re interested in a sit-inside tandem kayak.
From there, we believe that canoes are the hardest of these three paddle craft to flip and climb back into in deep water. The reason for this is that the gunwales (sides) of the canoe tend to create a suction effect that makes it very difficult to flip over.
Canoe vs Tandem Kayak: Pros & Cons
Now that you know the major differences between tandem kayaks and canoes, we want to provide a brief overview of the major pros and cons of each of these paddle craft.
Tandem Kayak Pros
- More efficient
- Easier for beginners (sit on top varieties)
- Sealed storage space (sit inside varieties)
- Bungee rigging and tie-downs for storage
- Lighter and smaller
- More comfortable seats
- Ability to install a spray skirt (for sit inside varieties)
Tandem Kayak Cons
- Less storage space
- Less durable
- More exposure to splashing water
- Ample storage space
- More protection from splashing water
- Higher top speed
- Sit higher out of the water for better viewing of obstacles and nature
- Requires great coordination between paddlers
- More difficult to flip if capsized
- Fewer tie-down points for gear
- Heavier and harder to transport
How To Choose a Tandem Kayak vs Canoe
Now that you’re familiar with all the differences between tandem kayaks vs canoes and you also know the pros and cons of each, odds are that you already have your mind made up. But, if not, here are a few more pointers on how to choose a tandem kayak or a canoe.
Preferred Paddling Style
The first criteria that you can use to determine whether a canoe or a tandem kayak is better for you is your preferred paddling style.
What we mean by this is whether you prefer recreational paddling, river running, fishing, long-distance touring, or anything else.
The place where canoes can really be beneficial is for extended river running trips. Provided you don’t have any rapids with drops larger than one or two feet, canoes allow you to load in the amount of gear you’ll want to be able to make camp along the river every night.
Canoes are also a great choice for recreational paddling and fishing trips where multiple portages will need to take place. After all, there’s a good reason why canoes are so popular in places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
For long-distance touring on lakes or coastal waterways, however, you’ll probably want to choose a tandem kayak.
This is because of their efficiency over long distances and the amount of sealed storage space that most sit-inside tandem kayaks offer.
But if you’re interested in recreational paddling on lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers, sit on top tandem kayaks can also be a great choice. This would also be our recommended choice for anyone that’s completely new to the sport of kayaking.
Oh, and we can’t forget to mention the best option for families with young children or couples with dogs. If you have a small child or a furry companion that needs space on your paddle craft, we’d recommend choosing a canoe or a sit-on-top tandem kayak.
Your experience level can also dictate whether a tandem kayak or a canoe makes more sense for you.
As we mentioned above, absolute beginners should always start with a sit-on-top tandem kayak because they are the most forgiving paddle craft out there (and that’s why it’s the vessel of choice for most kayak guiding companies).
If you grew up in a canoe, you probably know just how quickly you can get one moving if you and your paddle partner are on the same page.
So if you have experience with canoes and you’re into paddling long distances with speed, then we’d say go for one of the best canoes out there.
For couples with a medium level of experience with paddlesports, we strongly feel that honing your skills is going to be easier with a sit-inside tandem kayak.
The best thing about these kayaks is that they can grow with you as you master new skills and begin to plan longer paddle trips.
How Much Gear You Carry
The amount of gear that you typically carry when you head out on the water may also dictate your choice between a tandem kayak and a canoe.
If you’re not sure what you should be bringing on either one of these paddle craft, we recommend you backing up a step and checking out our essential list of kayak safety equipment.
It should be obvious that more gear requires more storage space, and it’s hard to argue against the ample room for gear in a canoe.
For example, if you like to plan multi-day camping trips and your setup is reminiscent of what someone might pack for car camping, you’re going to need the amount of space that a canoe can offer.
On the other hand, if you’re one of those folks that strive to minimize the size and weight of each one of your gear items (think ultralight backpackers), then a sit-inside tandem kayak is probably going to suit your gear style a bit better (and also allow you to travel lighter and faster).
For those that don’t plan to carry much gear at all, there’s nothing wrong with going with a sit-on-top tandem kayak. Many of these kayaks even offer small gear hatches or bungee rigging at the bow or stern for some gear storage.
Confidence In Your Chemistry
Finally, no matter the craft you ultimately choose, you’re going to need to be confident in your chemistry when paddling in tandem.
You and your partner should choose safe, low-risk locations to gain experience paddling together and communicating effectively on the water.
If you’re not super confident in your chemistry, sit-on-top tandem kayaks can be forgiving because they can still be handled relatively easily by the stern paddler if their partner seated towards the bow isn’t carrying his or her weight.
Sit-inside tandem kayaks require more cohesion and coordination between partners, but they are also easier to keep tracking straight if one paddler messes up here or there.
Canoes tend to require the most communication and chemistry between partners because of the constant switching of paddles that they require.
That being said, a pair of in-sync paddlers can get a canoe to move at higher top speeds than most tandem kayaks (of either variety) are capable of achieving.
Our Pick – Tandem Kayak
While there are definitely times and places where a canoe can be fun, we honestly feel like we’d have even more fun in a tandem kayak! That’s why we’d choose a tandem kayak over a canoe nine times out of 10.
The good thing about making this choice is that there are plenty of different tandem kayak models out there.
Whether your interests range from recreational paddling to long-distance expeditions (or anything in between!), the best tandem kayaks provide plenty of options for paddlers of all skill levels.
At the end of the day, those of us here at Kayak Help simply believe it’s better to be overprepared than to suffer the consequences of a lack of preparation.
This belief is another critical reason why we’d recommend a tandem kayak over a canoe in most situations.
When things don’t quite go as planned, tandem kayaks are much more forgiving and they are generally easier to flip over and enter in deep water if you find yourself in such a scenario. This extra forgiveness is really great for everyone from beginners to experts.