If you’ve spent time around access points, you may have overheard seasoned kayakers dismissing tandems as being less than nimble on the water and more than heavy on land. What you might not have heard were the tandem paddlers out on the water in their spacious yet speedy designs. When it’s time to purchase a new boat, who can help you decide between tandem vs. single kayaks?
Pros and cons of tandem vs. single kayaks
Find a tandem kayaker and ask how they feel about their boat. They’ll tell you that tandems offer versatility to groups, possibility to families and a close connection for happy couples. Then again, type divorce boat into Google and the first result is a relationship blogger’s account of her day renting a tandem kayak—“oars” included—with her new husband. It wasn’t pretty, she reports.
So, tandem or single? The long and short of it depends on how you weigh the following considerations.
Things to consider before buying a tandem boat
1. The speed factor
Tandems stretch out a typical sea kayak hull by at least 20 to 30 percent, but add a full 100 percent of paddle power. These boats can move. What’s more, with two paddlers on board, one can take a break while the other maintains forward momentum and direction.
This has made tandem kayaks the pick for some record-breaking expeditions, including Olly Hicks and George Bullard’s 2016 paddle from Greenland to Scotland. For the same reason, tandem designs may be perfectly paired with hobbies like photography, fishing and Fortnite.
2. More usable space
While two solo sea kayaks might offer more gallons of cargo space per paddler, a tandem setup holds its own thanks to an increase in usable space. The long and skinny bow and stern cargo holds of solo sea kayaks can be a challenge to pack. Most tandem kayaks have a comparatively capacious central hold at the kayak’s widest point. Going tandem is a way to camp with a cooking pot big enough to actually feed two.
3. Ideal for families
If taking on ambitious routes with kids before their mid-teens, you’re going to need a tandem. Think of it as the marine equivalent of a piggyback, except they can’t pull your hair. If little ones have a tough time paddling from the large cockpit of a sea kayak, use a dry bag or pad as a booster seat. Tandems are also perfect for bringing your fur babies along.
4. Adaptable for a group
A group of single kayakers always moves at the pace of the slowest paddler. This can put pressure on group dynamics. Add some tandems into the mix and you have options. Pair the weakest paddler with a stronger paddler to suit the speed of the group. Similarly, if you are on a group trip in solo boats and encounter illness or injury you are out of luck. Tandems are more forgiving.
5. Less adaptable for soloing
With sea kayaks, tandems are a package deal. While one paddler can propel a smaller tandem without much trouble, trim and paddler position suffer without a bow paddler. If you only have a tandem sea kayak and your partner can’t make it out that day, you’ll wish you had two solos. Tandem sit-on-top kayaks typically offer more flexibility with seating positions, which makes them more versatile to paddle solo.
6. Transport woes
Tandem kayaks can be as much as 50 percent heavier than a comparable single kayak. Extra weight is easily overcome on the water with a second paddler, but if you are paddling tandem because one of the paddlers isn’t robust enough to go it alone, hefting an 80-pound craft on the top of a car solo is challenging.
Fortunately, roof rack manufacturers have been outdoing each other to solve this problem. Most manufacturers offer rolling mechanisms to integrate into a roof rack so you can hoist one end of the kayak into position and then roll it onto the rack.
7. Storage wars
Tandems designed for touring tend to range from 17 feet up to 22 feet in length. For comparison, the average minivan is just shy of 17 feet long. Length is not just another trivial spec if your garage is only 21 feet deep. Shorter tandem designs are easier to store but the tradeoff is less speed and storage capacity. Less overall length also means less space between paddlers and a greater chance of getting your paddles mixed up in a swordfight.
8. Embrace the rudder
Even if you prefer to go rudderless (on the water, if not in life), you’ll want to resign yourself to toe-tapping on active foot braces to control a tandem. The longer boats require more effort to turn, and given the need to paddle in sync with your partner, you are usually better off keeping a steady stroke and steering with your rudder than throwing in corrective strokes.
9. Partner synchronicity
Master of edging? Bombproof roll? It all goes out the window with a tandem, at least until you’ve logged enough hours with the same partner to read each others’ minds. In some tandem kayaks, the cockpits are close enough paddlers must paddle in synchronicity or end up bumping blades.
The final verdict on tandem vs. single kayaks
That’s enough to consider before your purchase, and maybe enough to sink some paddlers’ tandem dreams. Even in lengthier designs, maneuvering a double requires more communication and teamwork than soloing, which is a non-starter for anyone who prefers to go their own way. The good news for those still weighing whether to buy a tandem vs. single kayak: wide tandem hulls are stable, giving your relationship a good chance of remaining so too.
Ian Merringer is a former editor of Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots magazines. He paddles solo but convinced his parents to buy a tandem kayak back in 2012. He reports they’re still happily married.