by Wes Kisting
So, after weeks of intense research and dreaming about the principles of kayak design, you’ve decided which kayak is right for you. Now you think you can finally rest easy, right? Think again. A kayak is only as good as its paddle, and choosing the right paddle can be a difficult decision—especially when you start weighing subtle differences in performance against potentially dramatic differences in cost. If you don’t have an opportunity to test out hundreds of paddles side-by-side, your next best option is to read kayak paddle reviews online. But to make sense of these reviews, you’ll need to understand how the design of a paddle affects its performance. Start by reading my overview of paddles below.
Blade Design: Those Curves Aren’t Just for Looks
Blade design is potentially the most important consideration when buying a kayak paddle. And this is where reading reviews online will serve you well (assuming, of course, that you don’t always have an opportunity to try out the paddle before buying, which is obviously the best way to decide if a particular kayak paddle is right for you). In a perfect world, the ideal kayak paddle will have blades designed to accelerate you quickly, require minimum effort to pull through the water, turn you on a dime, maintain an excellent cruising speed, weigh less than a sheet of paper, and make no noise whatsoever as it enters and exits the water. Of course, in the real world, you need to seek out a happy compromise among all these qualities.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb to help you understand how the size of the paddle blades impacts the performance of a given paddle:
The wider the paddle blade, the bigger the “bite” it will take out of the water (more power), meaning that a wider blade will accelerate your kayak more quickly and turn you more forcefully. The narrower the paddle blade, the less effort it will require to pull the blade through the water (more efficiency), meaning that a narrower blade will tire you out less quickly and allow you to traverse greater distances before you run out of energy.
For touring kayaks, or kayaks less than, say, 25 inches wide, it seems appropriate to buy a paddle with a long, narrow blade design. It might require a few extra strokes to get your kayak up to speed (compared to a wider paddle), but it will be far more efficient, allowing you to paddle farther with less exhaustion. With some recreational kayaks, you might want to buy a paddle with slightly fatter blades because many recreational kayaks are so wide that they need a little extra “oomph” in the paddle to make them perform well—especially when accelerating from a dead stop.
While I’m talking about blade design, I should also mention that I strongly recommend avoiding any paddle with a shaft which protrudes through the power face of the blade. The “power face” is the side of the blade that gets pulled through the water to propel you forward (the side which faces you when you hold the paddle properly in front of you). To reinforce the blade and reduce flutter, some manufacturers extend the shaft straight through the blades, resulting in a long, rounded ridge protruding straight across the power face of each blade. In my experience, and despite what some manufacturers claim, this design almost always causes the blades to “slip” rather than grip the water securely, resulting in loss of performance and, often, a noiser “plop” as the blades enter and exit the water. Of course, it’s fine (and fairly typical) if reinforcement ridges run across the back of each blade, but for the power face, the smoother and flatter, the better. A few kayak paddles have a mild crease running down the center of the power face of each blade. This is fine too. What you don’t want is any raised seam or structural reinforcement protruding through the power face.
I should also clarify that, so far, I’ve been talking about European-style paddles: the long-shafted paddles with flat, oval-shaped blades. There are two other kinds of kayak paddles worth mentioning: “wing paddles” and “Greenland paddles.” Wing paddles are typically used for racing or sprinting. The blades on wing paddles have a curved face, making them look a little more three-dimensionally scoop-shaped than the typical, flatter Euro-paddle. But while wing paddles may eek out slightly higher speed, some paddlers consider them less versatile or less effective for bracing and rolling techniques. Other paddlers insist that wing paddles are just as versatile, but require time to get the proper feel for them. I haven’t found one yet that I liked as well as a comparable Euro-paddle, but there are probably some paddlers who will prefer them.
Greenland paddles originate from the traditional paddle design used by Inuit tribes. Compared to a Euro-paddle, a Greenland paddle consists of a much shorter shaft (usually only slightly longer than the width of the paddler’s shoulders) combined with much longer, narrower blades. Many paddlers claim that a Greenland paddle offers greater versatility and allows for easier rolls and more varied bracing techniques. Also, because of its ultra-long, ultra-narrow blade design, a Greenland paddle is ideal for efficient, long-distance touring. You are much more likely to find Euro-paddles in most paddle shops, but Greenland paddles can be bought online or, even better, built at home with a nice plank of wood and a decent block plane. For beginning kayakers, we recommend the standard fare Euro-paddles, but if you’re looking for something new or a little more unique, a Greenland paddle might be just the thing for you.
Paddle Length: Yes, Size Matters
Once you’ve decided which blade design appeals to you, you’ll need to determine which size (length) of paddle best fits your height, your paddling style, and your kayak. Kayak paddle lengths are almost always listed in centimeters (cm), and for the average recreational or touring kayak, you’ll need something in the 210 cm to 240 cm range. Here’s one basic rule of thumb that many retailers use to size kayak paddles to their customers:
Standing next to the paddle, reach one arm up over your head and see if you can curl your fingertips over the top of the paddle blade. If you can’t reach the top of the paddle, the paddle is too long. If you can reach your whole hand over the paddle, the paddle is too short. If you can just curl your fingertips over the top of the paddle, the length is right for you.
Based on this rule, a paddler who is 5’10” to 6’1″ tall would need a kayak paddle in the 220 cm to 230 cm range—and indeed, these are usually the most common lengths that you will find in paddle shops. Shorter, smaller-framed paddlers can use a 210 cm paddle, and taller, large-framed paddlers can use a 240 cm paddle. But there are still a few other factors that need to be considered. One of these is the width of your kayak. The finger-curl test for sizing a paddle works fairly well if you’re selecting a paddle for a kayak 20 to 25 inches wide, but if your kayak is wider, you may need a longer paddle to help you extend the blades beyond the sides of the kayak and submerge them fully in the water. If you’re paddling a kayak with a width of 28 to 30 inches, for example, you might need a 230 or 240 centimeter paddle—even if you’re only, say, 5’5″ tall. Otherwise, the constant banging of paddle blades against the side of your boat may drive you crazy, or it may prove difficult to fully submerge the blades during your normal stroke without awkwardly reaching or leaning to each side. In either case, your paddling performance and enjoyment will suffer.
In recent years, the trend among many kayakers has been to use shorter paddles. The trick is to buy a paddle that has just enough length to get the blades fully into the water (without reaching or leaning to either side). If your paddle is longer than it needs to be, you will need to put extra (unnecessary) effort into your stroke because the water will have more leverage against you. On the other hand, some kayakers believe that a slightly longer paddle adds a little extra length or “fullness” to your paddling stroke, allowing you to accelerate more quickly and to maintain cruising speed with a slightly slower cadence. Again, we’re talking small, perhaps negligible differences. If you’re one of those paddlers who seems caught “in between” two sizes, I think it’s smarter to err on the side of the slightly longer paddle (if for no other reason than to avoid grating your knuckles against the deck during each stoke). Having said that, I do recommend sizing your paddle as short as convenience permits because a shorter paddle weighs less and, as I mentioned, give the water less leverage against you, thus reducing fatigue.
On an even more practical note, shorter paddles make it easier to keep your kayak moving in a straight line. Why? Because the further out you paddle to either side of your kayak, the more turning leverage you exert in your stroke. Extra paddle length means more turning leverage, causing the bow to wander side-to-side a little more with each stroke. Ideally, you should keep your paddle blades tucked in as close to your kayak as possible because a closer, more upright stroke (called a “high angle paddling style”) transfers more of your stroke’s power into straight, forward movement. Obviously, this is much easier to do with a shorter paddle because the blades will be closer to your kayak to begin with. In fact, if you find yourself zig-zagging all over the lake even on calm days, part of the problem may be that you’re using a paddle which is much too long. Consider downsizing.
Paddle Weight: What a Difference an Ounce Makes
When you check out the price ranges of kayak paddles, one of the first things you will notice is the dramatic price difference between “recreational” or “economy” paddles and top-of-the-line “performance” or “composite” paddles. Is there really that much difference between a $40 plastic special and a $300 carbon-fiber elite? Well, if you like to paddle more than three or four miles in a day, the answer is simple: Yes! The difference between a 40 oz. paddle and a 28 oz. paddle might seem small—just a mere three-fourths of a pound, right?—but imagine lifting that extra 12 oz. over and over and over, several thousand times. Trust us, it adds up! At the end of a long day of paddling, those 12 ounces can make the difference between feeling like you’ve just had a “nice, invigorating day on the water,” or dragging yourself out of the cockpit, collapsing on the sand, and crying like a baby because your shoulders feel like mush. That’s not to say that a heavier paddle can’t get the job done, but your body will be much more forgiving when you lay out the cash to save the ounces. You get what you pay for, and with paddles, what you pay for is performance: the weight-savings that will allow you to paddle harder, longer, further, with fewer rests—and still end up feeling “refreshed” instead of “dead” at the end of the day. Don’t just disregard ultra-light weight-saving paddles as a “luxury” you can live without. Consider your paddling habits seriously, and if there are any long paddling days or expeditions in your future, save a little longer to get the right paddle.
Despite the rumors, “performance” paddles are not just for kayakers who eat up nautical miles as if they were girl scout cookies. Even if you’re a casual paddler, you will appreciate the lighter, finer feel of a well-made performance kayak paddle. Of course, casual paddlers—those laid-back folks who like to mess around on the waves, but don’t feel a need to run laps around the lake or chase the sun across the horizon—may find it harder to justify the “performance” price tag. Especially when plenty of good, strong paddles retail for around $100. We’ll admit, it’s tempting to stick to “economy” paddles in some such cases. Especially if you’re paddling a stubby little Old Town Otter, for example. But if your recreational kayak has the potential to be more than a glorified raft, and if you frequently spend more than a couple hours in it each time you go to the beach, don’t rule out a performance paddle. At the end of the day, your shoulders and elbows will still thank you for lightening the load.
Having said all this, there does seem to be a point at which the “performance” paddle price tag becomes absurd for 95% of the kayaking community. There is typically an enormous difference in quality, weight, and design between, say, a paddle that costs $60 and one that costs $200. But above $200, the weight savings and performance advantages become far less noticeable. If you don’t want to break the bank on a paddle, but you do want to get the best out of your paddling experience, consider spending somewhere between $160 and $220. You’ll almost certainly end up with a terrific paddle that will serve you well for a long, long time. Realistically speaking, only die-hard long-distance tourers will benefit from those paddles which charge more to shave off those last 4 or 5 ounces. Besides, the ultra-light construction of the most expensive paddles is generally less durable than the excellent paddles you find in the $200 price range, so purchasing a $400 paddle for casual paddling can actually prove impractical in more ways than cost.
Straight Shaft vs. Bent Shaft Paddles
The debate over which paddle shaft type is better—straight or bent—may never be resolved. Why? Because both kinds of paddle shafts have advantages and disadvantages. One of the most common problems experienced by beginning paddlers (and also some experts) is pain and stiffness in the wrists and elbows. Such pain occurs when a paddler fails to rotate his or her torso throughout the stroke, or grips the paddle too tightly. A stiff, tight-gripped paddling style forces your wrists to bend and flex at unnatural angles during the beginning and end of each stroke. This can be combatted, of course, by making a conscious effort to rotate the torso and not grip the shaft so tightly. Of course, some of the more nervous or stressed-out paddlers on the water seem hard-wired to grip their shaft like a vice. If you’re one of those people, a bent-shaft paddle may feel like a gift from heaven.
Essentially, the thinking behind bent-shaft paddles is that if you build a proper angle into the shaft at those places where the paddler is most likely to grip the shaft, it will significantly reduce how much the paddler’s wrists need to flex during the basic forward stroke. For casual paddlers who only intend to go out pleasure paddling on fair-weather days, a bent-shaft paddle is probably ideal. But for advanced paddlers, I think the decision to switch to a bent-shaft is much more difficult. Personally, I prefer straight-shaft paddles because I think they are much more versatile. It may be that I’m just more accustomed to the straighter shaft, but I also like to move my hands around on the shaft a lot. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.
On windy days, when my kayak starts to weathercock, I like to off-center my grip on the shaft to create more paddling leverage on one side, effectively compensating for the turning effects of the wind. With a bent-shaft paddle, this technique would be uncomfortable because I would have to grip the bent shaft right where the awkward bends are located. Similarly, I perform some rolling and bracing techniques in the extended paddle position (with my hands significantly off-centered, again to create leverage) and the bent shaft gets in the way during these maneuvers, too. Finally, I find the bent shaft disorienting when an unexpected capsize occurs and requires me to set up for a roll. In my experience, the bent shaft makes it more difficult to determine the orientation of the paddle blades as I set up for the roll. Of course, like anything, these difficulties could probably be overcome with a little practice and a lot more familiarity with a bent-shaft paddle. Maybe I just don’t have the patience. Whatever the reason, I remain dedicated to the straight shaft, and I generally recommend that paddlers learn to relax their grip on the paddle, rather than seek out a modified shaft, to correct the problem.
Paddle Terminology: Understanding the Lingo
Be sure to check out the Paddle Performance Terminology overview to famililarize yourself with important terms and concepts that pertain to kayak paddle performance. You will encounter many of these terms as you read kayak paddle reviews online, so it is important to understand what they mean.