There are a number of kayak paddles on the market. It’s easy to get overwhelmed but having the right paddle makes a big difference. Using the wrong size paddle can lead to fatigue. You will need to work harder to build speed and maneuver the kayak and your hands will move up and down the paddle shaft, causing blisters.
Use this guide to find the right paddle for your next kayaking adventure!
The factors to consider when choosing a paddle are:
- Paddle length
- Blade choice
- Shaft choice
Kayak paddles are measured in centimeters, not inches. So, if you go to the store and ask for a 72.22inch paddle they probably won’t know what you are looking for. But if you ask for a 220cm paddle they’ll show you exactly what you need.
Choosing the right paddle length is a combination of personal preference and three primary factors: stature, kayak width, and paddle stroke.
Body stature: Your height is not really that important. It’s your torso length that matters (after all, you are sitting in a kayak so the length of your legs has very little impact on the ideal paddle length).
To measure your torso, sit in your kayak and measure the distance from the seat (between your legs) to your nose. People with longer torsos usually need longer paddles.
Stroke Angle: Some paddlers prefer to stroke near the side of the kayak. This is called a “high stroke.” A “low stroke” is when you put your paddles further out from your kayak and your arms never really move above your shoulders.
High strokes give more speed and low strokes are typical for recreational kayaking. Paddlers who have a low stroke tend to prefer slightly longer paddles than those with a high stroke.
Kayak width: Kayaks are measured in inches (even though paddles are measured in centimeters). The wider your kayak, the longer you will want your paddle to be so you have enough “reach” over the sides of your kayak.
Most paddle brands provide charts to match your torso length (or total height) and kayak width with the recommended paddle length.
So, if you are between 5’0” and 5’10” with a kayak width of 21” to 23” then most paddle companies would recommend a 220cm paddle. Each brand measures slightly differently but it’s good to get a few reference points to get the size range you are looking for.
Small Diameter Shafts: Some paddle brands offer smaller diameter shafts for paddlers with smaller hands. If you cannot touch your thumb and index finger together as you hold the paddle then you should consider a small diameter shaft. These may be hard to find it will be worth the hunt for the added comfort.
Bent paddle shaft: These paddle shafts have a curve that is designed to position the hands at a more comfortable angle, similar to ergonomic keyboards. The bent design minimizes movement of the paddle in your hand and helps you hold it more naturally through the pull.
Bent shafts do take some getting used to but those who make the switch are almost always pleased with the level of comfort and paddle efficiency.
Shaft materials: Most shafts are made of aluminum, a cost-effective, durable material. Carbon and fiberglass shafts are lighter and durable as aluminum but they cost more.
The blade size and shape affect overall efficiency. Most kayak paddle blades now are asymmetrical, meaning it is a little narrower and shorter on one side of each blade. This design creates a more uniform surface area when it is moving through the water. (Just remember, the shorter side of the blade should be on the bottom, closest to the water when you are holding your paddle.)
Dihedral Angle: Blades with a dihedral angle have a “rib” down the center. This helps water flow more evenly over both sides of the blade and minimize paddle flutter.
Flutter is caused by water spilling off the vertical edges of the blade as it moves through the water. You have to use more energy to keep the paddle straight and still as you pull it. Paddles with minimal flutter give a smoother transfer of power through the stroke.
Flat vs. Curved Blades: Flat blades require more effort and have more potential for fluttering but they move more water. Using flat blades is more work overall than curved blades and can cause hand and joint fatigue over time.
Wide vs. Narrow Blades: Narrower blades are lighter and more comfortable for long paddle trips. Wide blades are designed for quick, powerful strokes and lend themselves more to the faster kayaking sports where speed matters more than endurance and comfort.
Smaller blades are also more effective for technical paddling like whitewater kayaking.
Feathered vs. Matched Blades: Matched blades are aligned with each other but feathered blades are offset slightly. Feathering the blades reduces wind resistance on the blade that is out of the water.
Most paddle shafts allow you to rotate your blades to either be matched or feathered. Some are very adjustable and allow you to adjust the amount of feathering you prefer.
Blade Materials: Blades come in a variety of materials. The most popular are plastic, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. Lighter blades can have a significant impact on overall fatigue when paddling because you have to lift less weight with each stroke.
Plastic blades are the most cost-effective and most popular among recreational paddlers. While plastic is fairly sturdy, the paddles can crack and the plastic will break down over time, especially if left in the sun but these blades are great for everything from recreational touring to letting the kids splash around the cove.
Fiberglass blades are the mid-range price option. Fiberglass is lighter than plastic and fairly durable. It might chip but fiberglass blades usually don’t crack. Because fiberglass is more rigid than plastic these blades are far more efficient.
Carbon Fiber blades are the high-end option. They are lightweight, ultra-stiff, and have excellent energy transfer, making them the most efficient paddle material. You truly get what you pay for but carbon fiber can crack and is not as durable as plastic or fiberglass.
Color: If you are primarily paddling for recreation or touring, consider purchasing brightly colored paddle blades to improve your visibility on the water.
Paddles for Anglers
Some kayak paddles have unique features specifically for anglers. A notch in the paddle blade is handy for retrieving lines stuck in trees and other things. Some shafts have a handy tape measure printed on it to get a quick measurement of your catch.
Now that you know the various options on the market, the best strategy is to decide on your budget then choose the best combination of features that fit your budget. All of the design features of kayak paddles are available on the low and high-end models (things like blade size, shape, feathering, etc.).
Because each paddle feature changes the feel a bit, it’s a good idea to experiment with a variety of paddles to find the one you like best. If you belong to an outdoor club many paddlers are more than happy to lend you their paddle to try.
Do you have a favorite paddle? Share in the comments and tell us how you decided on that paddle!