Choosing a kayak paddle is just one more challenge in a whole list of factors that any beginner or veteran has to work through.
As the owner of multiple canoes and kayaks (and a whole host of paddles), and with over 40 years of paddling experience, I’ll help you work through a short but detailed tutorial on all the important factors concerning kayak paddles and how to choose the best one for you and your kayak.
What Are the Parts of a Kayak Paddle?
What Are Kayak Paddles Made Of?
Kayak paddles can be made of wood, aluminum, fiberglass, plastic, or carbon fiber. Each of these materials comes with its list of pros and cons (like anything else). Carbon fiber paddles are usually the priciest and offer the best qualities overall, but there are many reasons to choose another material.
Many paddles come with shafts that are made of a different material than the blade and the combinations are plentiful.
WOOD Kayak Paddle
Some kayakers prefer wood kayak paddles because they float if dropped in the water and they’re also a fairly lightweight option.
Wood paddles can be restored from scratches (or worse) relatively easily compared to other materials which may just need to be replaced. Wood paddles offer a nostalgic, retro feel that connects you to the wilderness as well.
Greenland kayak paddles are most typically made of wood for a more traditional, authentic feel.
On the downside, wood kayak paddles are more expensive than their counterparts and need to be refinished periodically with marine-grade varnish to protect them from sun and water damage.
Kayak paddles often have a set of wood blades with a composite or aluminum shaft.
ALUMINUM Kayak Paddle
Aluminum kayak paddles are less expensive than wood but they’re much heavier, don’t float well if dropped in the water, and can corrode over time.
Most aluminum paddles have an aluminum shaft with a plastic/Polypropylene blade.
Aluminum paddles are not only heavier, but unless they have a rubber or foam sleeve, they’re much colder on your hands (which matters if you’re paddling in Winter or cold weather).
Aluminum paddles are considered lower-end and are available more readily for budget-conscious paddlers. They’re so inexpensive that they are the only type of paddles that are often included at no extra charge with the purchase of some kayaks.
Unless you’re a casual, recreational paddler that doesn’t take kayaking too seriously, I’d suggest not getting an aluminum paddle.
FIBERGLASS Kayak Paddle
Fiberglass kayak paddles are a happy medium between wood and aluminum – they’re more durable than wood but lighter than aluminum and won’t corrode.
Fiberglass paddles usually have a blade made of Polypropylene plastic, so they’re similar to aluminum except that the shaft is lighter and more comfortable.
Better quality fiberglass paddles also include a fiberglass blade that offers an upgraded level of durability, less flex and lighter weight than plastic blades.
PLASTIC (POLYPROPYLENE) Kayak Paddle
Plastic paddles are really just plastic blades with aluminum shafts. Plastic blades are, of course, the least expensive option but also the least durable and offer the most flex (which is not a good thing for energy transfer).
Because plastic paddles are less durable and too flexible, they are often made a bit thicker to help balance these negative features. However, a thicker paddle is heavier, less efficient in entering the water, and often presents a “feel” of a lower-budget product in your hands.
CARBON FIBER Kayak Paddle
The king of kayak paddle materials is Carbon Fiber. This material is noticeably lighter than other options and it’s not cold to the touch.
Carbon is also the lowest flexing material of all the options, and that allows for every unit of energy used in paddling to be transferred most efficiently for maximum thrust with each stroke.
This is the material used in Olympic canoeing and kayaking competitions and for good reason.
Carbon Fiber is even being used in the manufacture of Greenland kayak paddles which are traditionally made of wood.
If you’re a longer-distance kayaker or you find yourself in remote areas where your safety can be threatened by sub-standard gear, it’s VERY WISE to purchase and use a Carbon Fiber blade.
Kayak Paddle Blade Designs
Kayak paddle blades are available in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit different kayaking styles. There are two main types of kayak paddle blade positions – fixed, and feathered.
Also, blades come in various shapes. There are low-angle and high-angle blades, as well as dihedral, asymmetrical and Greenland-style.
Fixed Kayak Paddles
Fixed kayak paddles have blades that are set at a 90-degree angle to the shaft. This makes them ideal for beginners or for kayakers who don’t want to worry about adjusting their paddle blade while on the water.
Feathered Kayak Paddles (adjusting your paddle for different kayaking styles)
Feathered kayak paddles have blades that can be adjusted to different angles (usually between 60 and 90 degrees) in relation to the shaft. This allows kayakers to customize their strokes for maximum efficiency and is especially helpful in windy conditions.
Adjustable kayak paddles allow kayakers to change the blade angle on the fly, which can be helpful in a variety of kayaking conditions.
The idea behind feathering a blade is that while one blade is powering through the water during a power stroke, the other blade is sailing overhead towards the front of the kayak getting ready for its power stroke.
If the paddle is feathered, the blade in the air is slicing through wind rather than acting as a sail as it would if it was not feathered.
Additionally, the biometrics of a paddler’s hands/wrists can be more efficient (and kept from undue fatigue or injury) using a properly-adjusted feathered paddle.
A feathered paddle is not great for most paddlers learning how to roll or brace a kayak. The alternating angles can often cause confusion while multitasking (as you would while learning a kayak paddling skill).
What is the Best Kayak Paddle Feather Angle?
The best kayak paddle feather angle is one that is comfortable for you and suits your kayaking style. For beginners or those who don’t want to worry about adjusting their paddle blade, a fixed kayak paddle is a good option.
A fixed blade is probably the best choice for weekend cottagers or casual paddlers.
For kayakers who want to customize their strokes for maximum efficiency, a feathered kayak paddle is the way to go. And for kayakers who want the flexibility to change their blade angle on the fly, an adjustable kayak paddle is the best option.
The adjustment from feathered to unfeathered is done via the ferrule, which is the joint where a paddle can be adjusted to be feathered or unfeathered.
High Angle Kayak Paddle
A high-angle kayak paddle refers to a paddle that is used at a very steep angle during the power stroke. A high-angle kayak paddle is one that has a blade angle of more than 60 degrees. This type of paddle is good for kayakers who want to customize their strokes for maximum efficiency.
In other words, if you look at a high-angle paddler from the front, you’ll see the non-submerged blade almost directly above his head and the kayak paddle being used in the same position as a canoe paddler.
This type of paddle (and paddling style) is best for maximum power and speed. It’s also used in whitewater typically. The disadvantage is that it is much harder to sustain a high-angle stroke efficiently for a longer period of time.
High-angle paddle blades are typically shorter and wider (top to bottom).
No matter what type of kayak paddle you choose, be sure to practice with it before taking it out on the water. This will help you get comfortable with the paddle and ensure that you’re using it correctly. Happy paddling!
Low Angle Kayak Paddle
A low-angle kayak paddle is one that has a blade angle of 60 degrees or less. This type of paddle is good for beginners or for kayakers who want to customize their strokes for maximum efficiency.
A low-angle paddle is used with a stroke where the blade out of the water is not over the paddler’s head but lower and farther to the opposite side of the power stroke.
It’s not as aggressive and it’s not as tiring on the paddler’s shoulders or arms, and it can be sustained for a longer period of time.
This type of paddle is longer and narrower (top to bottom) and is the paddle of choice for long-distance kayak expeditions on flat water.
Dihedral Kayak Paddle Blade
A dihedral blade is one with a rib or raised ridge down the center. This feature allows for water to be flow or be distributed evenly over both sections of the paddle.
Without this raised ridge or rib, a paddle tends to wobble a bit more unless it is operated with perfect form and precision.
Concave vs. Convex vs. Straight blade profiles
Most blades on the market seem to have at least a bit of a profile unless they are homemade.
If your blade is convex, it means you’re using the wrong side as your power side (the water-pushing side). All blades with a curved or scooped profile are meant for the inside curved or scooped side to push water (see diagram below).
Most mid-range priced blades have some version of a concave profile and even a dihedral blade can be designed with a bit of a concave flavor. Scooped or winged blade profiles are usually made from carbon fiber and are very aggressive in design and performance.
Any blade with a version of concave in its design is meant to trap water for a better “grab” in each stroke which will increase efficiency in each stroke.
Straight or flat profiles are not very common and seem to reflect more of a historical, wood design.
Kayak Paddle Shaft Designs
Makers of kayak paddles offer paddlers a great variety of shaft designs including the shape of the shaft, the material from which it is constructed, and the level of adjustability.
Multi-Piece Kayak Paddles
Multi-piece kayak paddles with the ferrule are a great option for those who want a customizable kayak paddle.
The ferrule is the section of the paddle that connects the two pieces of the kayak paddle and allows them to be adjusted to different angles. This makes it easy to customize your kayak paddle for maximum efficiency and comfort.
Ferrule systems usually use a spring-loaded pin system where a pin fits into different holes in the shaft to lock at a particular angle. Other ferrule systems have a friction-operated or tightening system to secure the two pieces of paddle together.
Multi-piece kayak paddles with the ferrule are also a good option for those who want to transport their kayak paddle in a compact way. When the two pieces are disconnected, they measure only half the length of the full shaft, making them easy to fit in a kayak or canoe storage area.
This type of kayak paddle is also adjustable for feathering, so you can change the blade angle on the fly depending on the conditions.
One-Piece Kayak Paddles
One-piece paddles are not the norm today as most paddlers prefer the ability to disconnect a long paddle if only for the sake of travel.
However, for those who really abuse their paddles as one might in whitewater, a one-piece paddle may be the best for longevity and durability. A two-piece paddle can become a bit wobbly at the joint (ferrule) over time because of factors like constant use and the wearing away effect of sand and dirt, etc.
Straight-Shaft Kayak Paddles
Straight-shaft kayak paddles are the norm and most paddlers whether novices or pros will use a straight shaft.
This type of shaft allows for maximum versatility for all types of maneuvers like rolling and bracing. It can be used well in nearly all situations and even when the paddle is not held in a specific way.
Straight-shaft paddles are usually a few ounces lighter than bent-shafts, and straight-shaft blades allow for infinite hand-grip locations.
Bent-Shaft Kayak Paddles
A bent shaft paddle may not be as versatile and it may not be as useable from every position, but it does offer a potential benefit. Some paddlers find a slight improvement in biomechanics using a bent shaft paddle.
The angle of your grip while paddling may help alleviate some wrist fatigue or pressure.
The curves on a bent-shaft paddle necessarily dictate the location of your hands (grip) and therefore you really have no choice as to where you place your hands, even if you’d prefer to have them slightly wider or closer together than the paddle allows.
Finally, bent-shaft paddles don’t allow for an efficient feathering or off-setting of the blades. The bends in the shaft make it cumbersome and inefficient.
How to Choose the Best Kayak Paddle for You!
Choosing the best paddle for your purpose is a matter of just a few elements or choices which will really narrow down your search quickly. Ask yourself these few questions and much of the potential confusion is eliminated:
1 – What type of paddling am I going to do (sea expeditions, fishing, casual recreation, whitewater, etc.)?
2 – In what type of kayak will I be paddling (touring, fishing, sit-on, sit-in, recreation, etc.)?
3 – What’s my budget?
4 – How serious am I about paddling (casual odd weekend paddler or hard-core all-in fanatic)?
5 – How strong are you or how much priority do you place on the weight of your paddle?
Once you figure out some basic answers to these questions, you’ll narrow your choices quickly.
If you’re planning on touring with a narrow touring or sea kayak, you’ll go for a low-angle paddle. The materials will be determined by availability and budget as well as just personal choice.
You may also consider a Greenland-style paddle for efficient touring.
If you’re looking at fishing from a specifically designed fishing kayak, you’ll want a paddle designed for fishing (more on that later).
Recreation kayaks with casual paddlers are good with aluminum paddles and modest Polypropylene blades which will last many years and are extremely affordable.
If you have a bit of a bigger budget and/or you place a high priority on weight and efficiency, you’ll want to focus on a carbon fiber paddle with a ferrule system to tweak your efficiency and comfort level.
Paddle Lengths – How to Choose the Right Length for You
The length of a kayak paddle is the subject of many discussions with many opinions. For casual weekend paddlers at the cottage, the length of a paddle won’t make a huge difference, but for long-distance touring paddlers, the cumulative effects of using a paddle that’s too long or short will start to become evident.
There are several different methods for choosing the right paddle length, and while they approximate each other in the end with a similar recommendation, there is still a variance of at least 10cm or more for each paddle length recommendation.
The chart below gives a general idea of what lengths work best for your height. Information is compiled from paddle manufacturers’ suggestions, but ultimately it’s best to get on the water and determine what length feels best. It may be that a length that works for you is not indicated in this chart.
|PADDLER HEIGHT||KAYAK WIDTH 21″ – 28″||KAYAK WIDTH 29″ – 31″||KAYAK WIDTH 32″ +|
|up to 5’6″||220 cm||220 cm – 232 cm||233 cm – 239 cm|
|5’7″ – 6’0″||220 cm – 232 cm||233 cm – 240 cm||240 cm – 250 cm|
|6’1″ – 6’8″||230 cm – 235 cm||230 cm – 250 cm||252 cm – 265 cm|
Another method of measuring the correct length of paddle is to use your torso height as the determining factor. Torso height is the distance measured from your crotch (while seated on flat surface) to your nose.
|TORSO MEASUREMENT IN INCHES||LENGTH OF PADDLE IN CM|
|21 – 23||180 -190|
|24 – 25||185 – 210|
|26 – 27||190 – 210|
|28 – 29||200 – 215|
|30 – 31||210 – 230|
|32 – 33||225 – 240|
|34 – 35||230 – 240|
|36 – 37||230 – 250|
Finger Curl Method
A very informal method of getting a general determination of an acceptable paddle length is to stand straight (flat feet – no tip toes) beside your upright paddle (also with one blade tip touching the ground).
Reach up with an arm grab the tip of the paddle above your head. Curl your fingers over the top and your middle knuckles should be right around the blade tip.
I have found personally that this method is a bit on the short side. For my fishing kayak and my body style (I think it’s about average in build and height), I’m happy if my finger tips either touch the blade tip or are even a few inches below it.
My fishing kayak is over 260 cm and this method does not work for that paddle at all!
What’s the Best Kayak Paddle for a Beginner?
The best kayak paddle for a beginner is the best one you can afford for the type of kayaking you’ll be doing. Each type of paddling (touring, fishing, whitewater, recreation) has a general style of paddle that’s best, and there’s no difference between beginners and experts when it comes to which paddle is best.
The better (and, unfortunately, the more expensive) paddle you buy, the more enjoyment and less frustration you’ll get as a beginner.
What is the Best Paddle for Whitewater?
The best whitewater paddle is usually made of Carbon Fiber (both blade and shaft) for durability and responsiveness. It’s also a one-piece design and is not feathered. Feathered paddles are for ergonomic comfort for long, quiet journeys, not for short, adrenaline-filled, class 5 rapids!
Feathered paddles tend to lose rigidity at the ferrule (joint) over time.
The best whitewater paddles have high-angle blades which are wide (top to bottom) and shorter in length. This allows for better shallow water control and makes your paddle shorter (which is good in whitewater).
What’s the Best Kayak Paddle Material?
The best kayak paddle material for weight, strength, efficiency, and durability is carbon fiber. From the standpoint of a paddler, there is no real downside to using a carbon paddle other than the initial cost.
As outlined earlier, Carbon Fiber paddles will not corrode like aluminum can, and they won’t wear down and need re-finishing like wood. They are not cold on your hands and they maximize the power in each stroke so no energy is lost through shaft or blade flex.
They are the lightest option available, and they also look the best because anyone who sees it typically knows that Carbon Fiber is super expensive.
What’s the Best Kayak Paddle for Fishing?
The best fishing kayak paddle is probably the Pelican Catch. While there are other excellent paddles for kayak anglers (like Bending Branches), the Catch is less expensive but comes with all the specifications of a more expensive option.
The Pelican Catch is made of Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon blades along with a fiberglass shaft (that looks just like carbon fiber) with adjustable drip rings.
The blades themselves have a water diversion notch and a lure-retrieving hook built into the blade. There are not many (if any) kayak-angling-specific paddles that are noticeably better than the Pelican Catch.
Specialty Kayak Paddles
In addition to low-angle and high-angle paddles that work for many different kayaks and paddling styles, there are purpose-specific paddles that are an excellent choice for anyone involved in activities for which those paddles were made, like fishing or touring.
Kayak Fishing Paddle
Kayak fishing paddles are unique from regular kayak paddles in two main ways.
The first is that they are close to 260 cm long (give or take) which makes them longer than any other kayak paddles. The reason is that most often, fishing kayaks are wider than other kayaks. In addition, the paddler sits a bit higher than paddlers of other kayaks.
Those two distinctions make it so that the water is farther away from the paddler. A longer paddle makes it much easier to propel yourself (especially with a low-angle stroke).
Bending Branches makes the “Angler” series of paddles which are probably the most expensive and best quality paddles made specifically for fishing.
Pelican makes another awesome paddle that has the same features as most of the Bending Branches paddles, but it’s about half the price because Pelican’s name isn’t as “premium” as Bending Branches.
I own the Pelican Angler Catch because it’s almost as light as a carbon paddle and it looks just as good, but features an FRN (fiberglass reinforced nylon) blade and fiberglass shaft. The blades are slightly concave and feature drip rings, drip cuts to divert water, and a lure retrieval hook!
Greenland Touring Paddle
The Greenland touring paddle design was specifically designed for the needs of an open water paddler, so that’s really where it shines compared to rivers or shallow waters where traditional paddles may serve better.
Traditional Greenland paddles have a shorter shaft (loom) and the paddler’s hands are closer together than with a “regular” paddle.
Greenland paddles offer some distinct advantages over the more common style of paddle with 2 distinct blades at the very end of a long stick or pole.
One of the advantages is that when you begin a power stroke with a regular paddle, the newly-inserted blade catches the water and resists your pull in a more overt manner causing stress over the long term.
A Greenland paddle does not have an obvious blade at the end of a stick, so there is no “initial load” on the stroke and power is gained during the middle and end of a stroke instead.
Greenland paddling legend Turner Wilson sums up the advantages of a Greenland paddle perfectly:
How to Choose the Right Kayak Paddle – Key Takeaways
We’ve covered a whole lot of information on kayak paddles in this post and more could be said! I hope you’ve gleaned enough information to determine the general style and qualities of the paddle you’ll want and need.
Remember that you’ll want to focus on the type of kayak you have and the type of paddling you’ll be doing. Once you figure that out, the choices get fewer and your job of deciding gets easier.
Above all, try your best to test the paddle out on the water before sealing the deal because experience has taught me that even when a paddle looks great on paper, online, or with all the great specifications, it may not feel nice in your hands.
Paddle on and blessings to you all my friends!
Sources: Paddlingmag.com (Turner Wilson quote)