While it may seem obvious where you should sit in a canoe by looking at the seats, you’d be shocked if I told you all of my experiences with novice canoeists and their seating blunders! I’ll dig deep into my 40 years of paddling practice to shed some light on who should sit where, when, how, why, and in what canoe!
As a rule, the heavier, stronger, and more experienced person should sit towards the stern of the canoe while tandem paddling, while the lighter and/or less experienced paddler sits at the bow. If paddling a canoe solo, the best position is either at the center point or just back of center (towards the stern) for optimal control in all conditions.
While that outline is a general two-sentence answer, I might suggest you read on before you just head out and assume you’re good to go with all the info you need. There are dozens of things that are crucial to know about where to sit or kneel based on wind direction, experience level, water conditions and more!
Table of Contents
Paddling Postures – A Basic Introduction
1 – Kneeling
Until relatively recently (past decade or two), kneeling was considered the “purist” form of paddling. It was what “real” canoeists did and much of that idea came from the icon of canoeing – Bill Mason.
In fact, in his very well-read and famous book “Path of the Paddle”, he devotes a whole chapter to “Paddling Positions” and in that section are 10 different positions. But here’s the catch; ALL THE TEN POSITIONS ARE KNEELING POSITIONS! They’re just different types of kneeling.
I’m really not sure I’ve ever seen a photo of Bill Mason in a canoe where he is not kneeling. Of kneeling he writes:
While kneeling is universally known as the most stable position traditionally, and is a very good option in rough waters (since it puts your center of gravity lower than sitting in MOST canoes), modern design advances have begun to shift that paradigm back towards sitting as being the most sustainable and even stable (not to mention efficient) position.
In fact, kneeling in my Wenonah Escape with tractor seats would raise my center of gravity from the default seating position and increase my chances of a spill in rough water.
Sometimes a “one-knee” position is adopted by paddlers who need a shorter burst of power to fight headwind or current, but it’s also not a long-term sustainable position, and in the opinion of this writer, is rendered virtually obsolete by modern canoe designs (I’ll explain later!).
If you choose to kneel, there are lots of options like knees spread wide, or butt against your seat, or sitting on your heels, or leaning the canoe over to the side and lots more. Kneeling is more of a purpose-specific position that can help with conditions like rough water, short bursts of power, or classic solo canoeing for fun!
Also, if you use the kneeling position often, you’ll likely need kneepads or compressed foam padding along the floor of the canoe and partially up the walls on both sides of the canoe’s interior.
2 – Standing
Standing is another traditional posture for advanced paddlers, but it’s really not common nor recommended in most cases. Bill Mason says it’s a useful position, but he does not explain why one would stand. He does explain that your paddle-side leg should be pressed against a seat for stability and your paddle should be in the water for stability.
As far as my experience and research have shown me, standing is useful for an advanced canoeist, in a relatively stable canoe, in calm water, while the paddler is poling a canoe (usually around obstacles and only in very shallow water).
3 – Sitting
Now we’re talking! Sitting really is the new “kneeling”. Sitting is the only long-distance, sustainable position I’ve ever heard of. Sitting is unquestionably the most comfortable position, and isn’t that really the point of enjoying a day out on the water? Sitting is increasingly the only option available to paddlers since many canoes only offer tractor-style seats that hug your butt and make you sit quite low in a very stable position.
Furthermore, many modern canoes include a foot brace which gives you ultimate power transfer to your paddle, and make it less efficient to kneel.
Finally, as alluded to earlier, some canoes (especially with tractor or bucket seats) are fitted with seats that are lower than traditional seats. They are meant to keep you in one position (hard to slide side to side). They are also so low (only a few inches off the bottom of the canoe), that your center of gravity is noticeably lower than if you were in a kneeling position.
This would obviously make kneeling a MORE DANGEROUS position in terms of stability, than sitting.
Such is my Kevlar canoe from Wenonah. In fact, I sit so low that I use a custom-made paddle that’s only 4 feet long!
Seating Positions for a Standard Tandem Canoe Trip
How Trim Affects Weight Distribution in a Canoe
TRIM – a reference to how much of either end (bow or stern) is lower or higher in the water – to increase or decrease freeboard at the front or rear of the vessel.
When 2 people paddle a tandem canoe, the general rule is for the heavier person to sit in the stern. That scenario will leave the canoe’s trim, slightly “bow-light” which is kind of a “default” canoeing position. However, this rule has so many exceptions, it probably shouldn’t even be the rule.
For example, if the heavier person is only slightly heavier and has no experience, then the more experienced (and only slightly lighter) person should be the stern paddler. This is especially true if the canoe has gear that can be shifted toward to the stern to simulate a heavier person in the back.
However, to add confusion to that rule, the idea of having a heavier person at the back is only a good idea under conditions of calm wind and water, or when you are paddling WITH the wind and both paddlers are being hit by wind on their backs.
If the paddlers are heading INTO the wind with the bow of the canoe, it’s often better to “trim” the canoe slightly forward (which also means trimming it so it’s stern-light). That means more weight (or, the heavier person) should be in the bow in order to slightly raise the stern. The reason is that whatever part of your canoe sits HIGHER, will be the part that is downwind.
That means it’s easier to paddle in a straight line into the wind if the stern paddler is slightly higher. However, because you may be paddling into the waves, we don’t want to sacrifice dry-ness and safety just to get the bow lower and the stern higher.
Thankfully, many “asymmetrical” tripping/expedition canoes have a much taller bow than stern, so it can be safely trimmed forward for just this situation.
Sitting in the Bow of the Canoe
Bow paddlers usually have a bit less responsibility than the stern paddler in that the stern paddler is the one who steers the canoe. The bow paddler usually just paddles. However, that’s mostly true on flat water. While canoeing in rapids and rivers in general, the bow paddler has just as much responsibility as the stern paddler for steering and helping to avoid obstacles.
The bow position is best for inexperienced paddlers (often young people just learning to paddle). There are times when it’s not as “easy” to paddle in the bow, however.
For example, if a canoe has bench-style seating where you can slide your butt side to side, then the bow paddler can get close to the gunwales which makes it easier and more efficient to paddle.
If he/she gets close to the gunwale on one side to paddle easier, the stern paddler can often slide a bit to the opposite side to keep the balance even.
However, in canoes with tractor seating, the paddler cannot slide from one side to the other and must remain slightly farther from the gunwales than the stern paddler will be (thus making it potentially harder to paddle by having to reach farther out from the body to access the water’s surface).
Sitting in the Stern of the Canoe
The stern paddler is the one who influences most of the steering. His/her paddle is used as a rudder, so it’s best that they have some experience.
Typically, you can spot novice canoeists by watching them for about 30 seconds. They will often switch from side to side in order to keep the craft going straight, and that can be completely annoying for the bow paddler who gets a couple of teaspoonfuls of water on the back of the head every 15 seconds from the novice stern paddler’s flying, wet blade as it travels from one side of the canoe to the other!
Stern paddlers often have the advantage of sitting closer to the edge of the canoe, which means they have easier access to the water, which makes paddling easier and more efficient.
Sitting in the Middle of the Canoe
In most cases, there will be no one sitting in the middle of a canoe unless they are a passenger, or unless the canoe itself is a solo canoe.
If the canoe is a tandem canoe and you are paddling solo, it’s important to position yourself properly. The center point is good, but there’s usually a yoke right at that point. So, the best practical position is just behind the yoke towards the stern.
However, depending on what canoe you are paddling, the stern (while paddling tandem) can become the bow (while paddling solo). If your canoe is symmetrical (meaning the profile front to back is identical in construction with the same freeboard, rocker, etc.) then you can just turn it around and use the bow seat as your solo seat (which puts you just back of center).
On the other hand, if your canoe is asymmetrical (like most lake tripping canoes are), which means the entire bow half of the canoe is designed in nearly every way different than the stern, you won’t be able to turn the canoe backward.
For example, my Wenonah Escape has a much shorter stern than bow, so it can handle larger waves head-on. It’s a bit awkward to paddle backwards with a tiny bow rising out of the water. It doesn’t even feel safe!
In this case, you’ll have to rig a kneeling thwart or additional seat to serve as your solo position on a tandem canoe.
Can I Sit on a Canoe Thwart or Yoke?
You absolutely can sit on a canoe’s thwart or yoke, but I wouldn’t recommend it! The thwart was never designed to have a person’s full weight on it, and has the potential to be bent or broken (if it’s thin wood).
The same is true with the yoke. The yoke was meant to bear the weight of the canoe (often 50 lb – 75 lb) and not the weight of a 200 lb paddler.
Even if the yoke or thwarts are made of aluminum, they are relatively thin and can absolutely bend under lots of pressure. Even if they do not bend or break, they may become loosened or detached from the gunwales since they are not connected as well as a seat is connected.
Lateral Canoe Seating for Good Balance
This article would not be complete without a mention of lateral seating since most canoeists are at least passively aware of the idea. I alluded to the issue earlier in this article.
If you are paddling with a partner and you decide to get closer to one side of the canoe in order to access the water better with your paddle, you’ll no doubt notice that the canoe tilts in the direction of your movement. That effect can be even more prominent for a solo paddler in an empty canoe.
In order to maximize stability and minimize any accidental spills or confusion, some canoe companies have included tractor seats (named after the classic old steel tractor seats of the early 20th century) to keep the paddler’s back end in one place – THE CENTER of the canoe.
In some cases, the problem is that the center of the canoe may not allow the paddler to access water without reaching out farther, which is less efficient and more tiring.
Fortunately, most canoes that include tractor seating are quite narrow, so both bow and stern paddlers are relatively (or very) close to the gunwales.
Furthermore, most canoes do NOT have tractor seating, so paddlers CAN slide themselves to the edges of the canoe. If they do, it’s a VERY good idea to coordinate those movements to avoid any safety issues or confusion.
Can Paddlers Face Each Other in a Canoe?
While anyone in a canoe can face any direction they want, it’s impossible to paddle efficiently if any two paddlers face each other. Both paddlers should face in the direction they want to go.
However, there are many times when only one person is paddling and another person (or people) can face that paddler. When I do videos in the canoe, my son will always face me while operating the camera!
Extra Passenger Seating in a Canoe (Who Should Sit Where in a Canoe?)
As a rule, passengers (typically children but not always) should sit in the middle of the canoe (front to back and side to side). They should also have a very low center of gravity.
To this end, I have invested in a number of seating options to make life in my canoe as inviting as possible. For anyone less than adult-size, I bought the RADISSON ETHAFOAM CANOE SEAT. It sits on the bottom of the canoe and the backrest leans against a thwart or the yoke.
I also bought the DROP IN CANOE CENTER SEAT by Spring Creek Manufacturing. This seat can fit anyone, but be careful if that person decides to paddle since the edges of the seat (where it connects to the gunwales) has some jagged and clunky parts that pinch paddling fingers!
While not for extra passengers, I also thought it was a good idea (for longer trips) to buy gel seat pads for the bow and stern paddlers. You can find a whole selection HERE!
See the World’s Best Selection of Canoe Seats Right HERE: