Canoe Paddles (A Complete Guide)

With so many factors to consider when buying a canoe, we’ve done our homework and consulted experts to find out what is the best paddle, how to fit a paddle for you, what are the parts of a paddle, and what styles there are to choose from!

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What is the Best Canoe Paddle?

The best canoe paddle is the one that suits a paddler’s purposes better than other options. Generally, a stiff paddle with a wide but short blade is best for whitewater, while a paddle with a longer, narrower blade is best for deep water.

Other factors come into play like the material, length, and grip style, so there are lots of factors to consider for a more detailed and accurate answer to this question. We’ll unpack all that if you read on!


Parts of a Canoe Paddle

First things first! Let’s hit the basics! A canoe paddle is called a “PADDLE”, not an “oar”. An oar is a completely different watercraft propelling device that involves attaching the device to the gunwales of a boat and using 2 of them simultaneously for each operator. Aside from their general purpose and maybe construction material, there is very little these two devices have in common!

A canoe paddle has some very specific parts and features so let’s see what the 6 primary parts are:

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1 – GRIP

The grip is the part of the paddle where one of your hands will grasp. One of your hands will always be grabbing the grip. It needs to be comfortable and the design of the grip needs to suit your specific situation.

2 – SHAFT

The shaft is the main, long, thin piece that connects the top grip to the rest of the paddle (or blade). The shaft can be oval or round and lengths can vary greatly.

3 – THROAT

The throat is the part of the paddle on the shaft, just before the shoulder of the blade. It is where your other hand will spend most of its time. Depending on your specific situation on the water, your hand might be gripping the actual throat, or it could be just above the throat.

4 – SHOULDER

The shoulder is the part of the blade that immediately connects to the shaft. It typically tapers (much like our own shoulders) and widens from the throat to the main section of the blade. Some blades have a very pronounced shoulder, while other blades have nearly no shoulder at all.

5 – BLADE

The blade is the most prominent and well-known part of the paddle since it is the wide, flat part of the paddle that is used to push the actual water behind you as you propel forward during each paddle stroke.

6 – TIP

The tip of the paddle is the very bottom of the blade. It receives its own name (rather than just being a part of the blade) because it receives quite a bit of attention. The tip is often made of a different, tougher material to increase durability since the tip is subject to lots of abuse from rocks, trees, etc.


Parts Explained

Canoe Paddle Grip
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There are a variety of grip styles available to paddlers and most of the grips are very specifically designed to offer the best performance for a specific task.

For example, a T-GRIP is almost always found on whitewater paddles in which a paddler needs to very quickly and forcefully maneuver the paddle and canoe to avoid obstacles like rocks or drop-offs while running rapids. The T part of the grip allows for a more sure grip in these conditions.

On the other hand, a PALM GRIP is considered a bit more comfortable and is used on many touring or expedition paddles. It can be relatively comfortably used while using the paddle on either side. It is symmetrical in every way.

The ASYMMETRICAL GRIP is most often used on a paddle that will always be operated facing in the same direction. The best example of that would be a bent shaft blade which can’t really be effectively or comfortably used in both directions. The grip is formed with maximum comfort in mind.

The top of the grip is formed to allow fingers to curl around the top with something to grab comfortably. Paddles with asymmetrical grips are often the priciest paddles.


Canoe Paddle Shaft

A canoe paddle shaft plays a crucial role in the paddling process and involves more than most realize. For example, shafts often come in different shapes.

The best paddles come with a slightly oval shaft that is designed for maximum grip comfort. The oval shape runs opposite or perpendicular to the blade. This allows for the most ergonomically comfortable grip while paddling.

Some shafts are perfectly round. Nearly all plastic, aluminum and composite shafts are round, and even those with an oval grip, are often round in the areas where your hands will not be gripping.

Shafts can be bent using a unique and specific process which we show in full detail HERE.

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HOW on EARTH do you BEND A CANOE PADDLE SHAFT and why would you want to??? I’ll show you right now!

Canoe Paddle Throat

The throat of a canoe paddle is really just the lowest part of the shaft just before it starts to taper wider into the blade itself. It is the section of the paddle where most paddlers will place one of their hands while paddling. The lower your grip is on the throat, the more power you’ll deliver in each stroke, or at least it will be easier to apply more pressure without discomfort in your arms or back.

However, in most paddling conditions, it’s better to place your hand near the top of the throat (farther from the blade) or even just above the throat.


Canoe Paddle Shoulder

The shoulder of the blade actually has 2 sides. Much like our shoulders are the tapered transition between our heads and rest of our body, so too the paddle’s shoulders are the transition between the shaft and the blade. Some paddles have a very tapered (nearly indistinguishable) shoulder, while others have very prominent and shallow-tapered shoulders.

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Canoe Paddle Blade Designs

Blade shapes vary greatly and each design is made with a specific purpose or theory behind it. Here are some designs in my paddle portfolio;

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SQUARE TIPPED paddles have become popular over the past few decades and do not have a long history of use in paddling. They are popular with Dragon Boat racing and many whitewater canoes favor a square-tipped design.

Cheaper plastic and aluminum square-tipped paddles are more popular with recreational paddlers and not as much with expedition paddlers.

Typically, a square-tipped design is used on a shorter, wider blade (though not always) and this blade shape catches more water per stroke but because it’s not also deep, it allows for a faster stroke rate or cadence. It is often used by canoe racers.

BENT SHAFT paddles are most often paired with a shorter, wider blade because of racing characteristics. Bent Shaft paddles are usually used by the bow paddler whose only job is to provide forward thrust during most of the paddling journey.

OTTERTAIL paddles are longer and narrower than other paddles and they usually taper even narrower from about halfway down the blade to the tip (mine doesn’t, so it’s kind of a Beavertail/Ottertail hybrid). The theory behind this design is that the paddler’s cadence is faster, but each stroke is easier because less water is being pushed, so you’ll be less tired. I’ve not found that to be an exact science, but I still like my Ottertail.

These paddles also perform best in deep water. If you’re in shallow water, they won’t be able to push much water before they hit bottom and you stress the tip.

BEAVERTAIL paddles are probably the most common paddles since they incorporate a bit of all the other designs like a sleek design and shape (similar to Ottertail) but also some width and “pushing power” like a whitewater paddle.

WHITEWATER paddles are shaped almost exactly like the photo of the Bent Shaft above but without the bent shaft. The blades are shorter top to bottom, but wider. This allows for more immediate control of the canoe in fast, moving water and can propel your craft out of danger more quickly, as well as being shorter so they won’t beat on the rocks as much.

The angular line of the shoulder ensures that water does not flow back into the boat during recovery

FREERANGER CANOE – in reference to voyageur trekking paddles

VOYAGEUR paddles are not seen very often on the water. They are styled after early Canadian fur traders as seen in many paintings. These blades do have a good ability to push water and they are best suited for deeper water given their blade lengths. According to one Voyageur paddle maker (Freeranger Canoe), the very sharp and angular design of the shoulders helps prevent water from dripping into the boat during the paddling process.

Other paddle types do exist such as kid-sized paddles and double-bladed designs like a kayak. These may suit your needs perfectly though they are not quite mainstream in the canoe world … at least not yet!


Canoe Blade Tip

The tip plays a crucial role in the function of your paddle. It’s the bottom edge of your blade and it’s sometimes curved and sometimes straight. Paddles with a rounded or curved tip are more traditional and common since they are the quietest paddles. However, square-tipped paddles are becoming more popular in recent years and that may be in part due to the fact they are easier to equip with modern tip-protecting materials such as epoxy resins.

I recently built a softwood paddle with a hardwood blade tip to reduce wear on the tip which pushing off of rocks, logs and even sand and gravel while in shallow water.


Canoe Paddle Materials

WOOD – This is the most common material for canoe paddles and we like it best. In a world that is moving towards all things synthetic and high-tech, I like the feel of traditional wood that offers us centuries of history and aesthetically beautiful warmth and tone.

Both softwood and hardwood can be used to make paddles, but hardwood is significantly heavier. I make my paddles out of soft pine, and after decades of paddling, I’ve yet to have one break on me. That said, softwood is more fragile and susceptible to scratches, dents, and outright breakage.

Both types of woods can be combined in the same paddle to offer the best of both worlds but it’s just a compromise (that may suit you well).

Wood paddles are well-paired with a tip-reinforcing product like another piece of hardwood or epoxy resins or plastic/fiberglass.

Other benefits of wood include the ability to flex and the ability to shape the shaft to fit your hand most comfortably – not to mention that you can make your own with about $15 – $20 worth of 2×4 plank. Learn how RIGHT HERE!


FIBERGLASS/CARBON COMPOSITES – Paddles made with composites are relatively new. Composites do offer some benefits that other materials don’t have (at least not to the same degree). They are incredibly light, strong, and can be shaped in nearly any way imaginable. However, they don’t flex as well as wood, and perhaps the biggest downside of all is their price tag! They can cost many times more than their wood counterparts.


ALUMINUM/PLASTIC – This combination of plastic blade/grip with an aluminum shaft is common but has little merit aside from price. It’s the material of choice for recreational paddlers who put a low priority on paddling or youth camps whose equipment is abused.

These paddles are neither exceptionally strong nor light or performance-oriented. Their price is their only virtue.


Sizing a Paddle to Fit Perfectly

While there are multiple factors that must be considered when sizing a paddle, we can at least give you a good starting point of how to approach the process. After that, you can consider the other factors and perhaps finesse your decision to reflect all the important factors.

There are other methods, but here are 2 very easy and common methods to get the general size of a paddle for you.

BODY / TORSO SIZE

One of the quickest ways to get a feel for the right length of the paddle is to sit in a chair and keep your back very straight. Then, place the grip on the chair seat between your legs. The shoulder of the paddle should be right around your forehead area.

However, if you’re sizing for a bent shaft paddle, it will be slightly shorter. The throat or start of the shoulder should be around your nose.

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The start of the shoulders of the blade should be around the top of your forehead for a properly sized (for length) paddle

90˚ ELBOW ANGLE

Another quick and easy method to approximate a good paddle length for you is to grasp the grip with one hand and the throat with the other and hold the paddle above your head. If your elbows are bent about 90˚, then the paddle is pretty close to a good fit for you generally.

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Grab the paddle like this and check the general angle of your elbow bend. A 90-degree angle means the paddle is a good fit.

OTHER FACTORS THAT WILL AFFECT YOUR PADDLE CHOICE

Now that you have a general starting point, there are other issues that will affect the paddle length you’ll want and the style of blade. After you figure out the details, choices of materials and aesthetics are secondary.

If your canoe has seats that are only a few inches below the gunwales, you’ll need a longer paddle. If your canoe has tractor seats (which don’t allow you to sit closer to one side of the canoe to reach the water easier), you’ll also need a longer paddle.

The paddle I’m holding in the above photo could be considered a few inches too short for me, except for one thing; I sit in the stern seat on a very narrow canoe. My tractor seat is very low so I’m close to both the water and the gunwales. That means my paddle needs to be a bit shorter than measured using the methods I’ve outlined.

Otherwise, my grip hand will be high overhead in the middle of my stroke!


WHAT CANOE PADDLE BLADE SHAPE IS FOR ME?

I’ve already outlined the basic function of each paddle shape, but here’s a brief overview of which paddle will work best for your situation:

Beavertail – Probably the best all-around paddle for all paddling conditions with good touring and whitewater abilities.

Bent Shaft – Best design for forward thrust efficiency by the bow paddler. If used by the stern paddler, it will be difficult to complete basic control strokes.

Wide, Short Blades – These blades are found mostly on bent shafts, but if you get a paddle with a wide, short blade with NO bent shaft, then it’s perfect for whitewater. This blade will give you quick maneuverability and more thrust per stroke and more ability to transfer your own power into boat control.

Ottertail – This is the best design (arguably) for long-distance trips where fatigue is the enemy. Your cadence will increase, but your energy output won’t burn you out. It also offers more subtle control of the canoe and you’ll be able to better finesse your control strokes.


Paddling Safety (and Safely)

Out of 50 veteran paddlers surveyed, here’s the percentage of them that …

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94%
Always carry spare paddle

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6%
Never carry spare paddle

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96%
Never needed spare paddle

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When asked for their honest answers, 50 experienced paddlers gave me their responses to the question of whether or not they bring a spare paddle on their excursions. 47 said yes, 3 said no, and 48 said they’ve never needed one in all their years of canoeing.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take; if I’m going out from camp for an evening of fishing, I usually don’t take an extra paddle with me. If I’m headed out on a multi-day trip, I WILL take an extra paddle, but I won’t bring a full-sized wood paddle. Instead, I bring a small, packable, emergency paddle. I’ve never yet needed it!

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Here’s my own, actual spare paddle.

Paddle Maintenance and Storage

If your paddle is plastic, aluminum, carbon, graphite, fiberglass, or some polymer composite, etc. there is really no maintenance protocol. The standard “wipe with a clean, damp cloth and don’t use harsh or abrasive cleaners” will do just fine.

On the other hand, if your paddle is like most and it’s made of wood, you may need to keep an eye on the finish. Most often the tip of the blade will need a bit of TLC at the end of each season or two. Unless you’ve left your paddle in outdoor elements all year or abused it, there may be little need to re-finish the entire paddle.

If you see any wear on the tip or anywhere else, it’s a good idea to sand it with medium grit paper (100 – 200) followed by a few swipes of 400 grit to clean the surface of loose, peeling varnish and prepare the surface for adhering to the new lacquer.

I use a glossy Marine Spar varnish, and most often you won’t need more than 2 coats on a small repair.

I don’t have any paddles that are oiled, but I use Tung Oil on my wood canoe gunwales. If you want an oil that has that “oiled” look (mat surface with darker, richer color), then Tung may not be for you. It acts more like a varnish if you apply more than 3 coats.

You can experiment with lots of other oils (I’ve used hemp oil, walnut oil and even coconut oil) to see if they work on your paddle, but any oil will repel water … it’s just a question of how well and how long.

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My Paddle Storage Wall. It’s just a strap of 1×3 pine with pegs (and even wood screws) stuck into it.

STORING your paddles is fairly straightforward though not always as easy as it sounds. You may want to just lean them up against the wall in your garage, but gravity will play cruel jokes on you and warping may result. The better scenario is to either hang them like I do, or lay them flat where they won’t get stepped on. If you must lay them in your canoe or if your canoe is upside down on its gunwales, you can lay the paddles inside across at least 2 thwarts, yoke, seats.


FINALLY….

There’s a whole lot more to know about paddles, but I hope this was a good introduction to the basics. It’s enough to get you to buy the right paddle for you and to store and maintain it well. Oh, and did I mention that you’ll now know more about paddles than probably anyone you’ll ever meet? That’s just a bonus!


Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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