Where to Sit in a Canoe

Students Paddle Blindfolded

George E. Sayour

Every year thousands of people rent canoes in parks and camps around the U.S. Properly situating the paddlers in the canoe will greatly improve how well the canoe travels in the water. In general, the weight should be equally distributed in the canoe. 

Sitting in the Stern (Back) of the Canoe

The back of the canoe is where the steering takes place. For this reason, the more experienced paddler, or more coordinated person, should be in the stern of the canoe. When there are only two canoeists, it is also better to have the heavier person in the back of the canoe. However, maintaining the balance between whoever is heaviest and whoever has the most experience canoeing can be difficult. Ideally, the heavier individual is also the more experienced paddler and that person will paddle from the stern. 

Sitting in the Bow (Front) of a Canoe

The person in the front of the canoe should be the lightest canoeist. This is the person who won’t be steering but rather just paddling straight ahead on whichever side they like. For this reason, the person in the bow can have less experience than the person in the stern.

Sitting in the Center of Canoe

Only two people paddle in a canoe. However, while not all canoes have three seats, they usually can handle the weight of a third or even fourth person. If there are three people, the heaviest person should be in the middle. It is imperative that the extra people sit on the floor of the canoe and not the crossbars--known as thwarts or the yoke--which serve as support and for carrying. Sitting up high will raise the center of gravity and almost guarantee a flip.

Paddling in Tandem

Properly positioning paddlers in a canoe is only part of the battle. Having good communication is a key to being able to canoe in tandem. In general, let the person in the bow paddle away and the person in the back compensate for the steering through their paddling. That will get you going until you learn how to paddle a canoe in tandem.