It’s easy to become confused about which paddle to buy with so many different brands and styles on the market. Much like choosing a kayak, the best way to choose the right paddle is to try it out on the water at a shop with on-site demos. Ask a staff member to watch you as you paddle to evaluate your paddling style and make suggestions on paddles to try. If this is not possible then use the following recommendations to guide you in choosing a paddle. Note that traditional paddles (wooden or otherwise) and racing paddles (wing paddles) are not included in this discussion.
Blade Shape: The shape of your paddle blade is directly related to your paddling style. If you are an aggressive paddler with a high-angle stroke (angle between the horizon and paddle shaft >= 45 deg) then consider a blade shape that is short and wide. If you are a relaxed paddler with a low-angle stroke (angle between the horizon and paddle shaft <=30 deg) then consider a blade shape that is long and narrow. Matching your blade shape to your paddling style is important in order to ensure that you paddle blade area is being utilized efficiently.
Blade Area: The blade area of your paddle should also be matched with your paddling style. If you are a strong, aggressive paddler or in need of a solid, powerful stroke then you should consider a paddle with a larger blade area. If you are a relaxed paddler or are dealing with elbow issues then you should consider a paddle with a smaller blade area.
Paddle Weight: Your choice of materials directly impacts the weight of your paddle (and the weight of your wallet). The most inexpensive paddles have plastic blades and aluminum shafts and they will do the job for those on a tight budget. However, these paddles are also the heaviest and swing weight (the amount your paddle weighs times the number of strokes you take) adds up on extended trips. Consider upgrading to a fiber glass shaft or an “all carbon” layup for a lightweight dream.
Shaft Material: The materials that your paddle is made of impacts more than just the weight of the paddle. Stiffness, corrosion resistance, and temperature sensitivity are all important material properties to consider. I always recommend a composite (fiberglass or carbon) shaft over an aluminum shaft. Aluminum shafts tend to corrode in the salt environment leading to a fusion of your two piece paddle into a one piece paddle at the ferrule. Aluminum shafts also respond to changes in temperature by getting very hot when left in the sun and very cold when used in the winter. Composite shafts are stiffer and more stable with respect to salt and temperature.
Blade Material: Blade materials are typically either plastic or composite (fiberglass or carbon). I’m a big fan of composite blades because they tend to be lighter and stiffer than plastic. Stiff blades are more efficient at transferring energy from your paddle stroke to the water.
Length: Here it is…the topic that has caused me undue anguish as an instructor. Whoever it was who suggested that sizing a paddle is based solely on the paddler’s height and/or arm-span is just plain wrong. Sizes of paddles range from <190cm to 240cm. Sizing is based on a multitude of factors including boat width, paddling style, and paddler size. To keep things simple let us consider an average paddler (5’2” to 6’ tall) in a sea kayak of average width (22”) with a low-angle style. The standard length 220cm paddle would be the proper size in this case. Adjustments from the standard are made as follows: Shorter paddlers or those with a high angle style should consider a shorter paddle of 190-215cm. Taller paddlers or those with wider kayaks (>26in) should consider a longer paddle of 230-240cm.
Shaft Diameter: Recently manufacturers have been producing paddles labeled “small diameter” shaft to better accommodate paddlers with smaller hands. A quick test involves gripping the paddle such that your fingers wrap around the paddle shaft. If you can get your fingers around a small diameter shaft such that your fingertips touch your palm then you should move up to a regular diameter shaft. Note that the regular diameter shaft is appropriate for most paddlers.
Bent or Straight Shaft: Bent shaft paddles are ergonomically designed to orient your wrist in a more neutral position throughout your paddle stroke. The idea is to decrease the stress on your wrist and elbow to reduce the risk of overuse injury. Some paddlers like the feel of a bent shaft paddle but I have always found it strange. I have also found that you can do a lot to reduce joint stress while using a straight shafted paddle by adjusting your grip slightly.
Ferrule Design: Every paddle manufacturer has a different ferrule design. In general, I appreciate a ferrule that fits snugly such that there is no “slop” between the two pieces but not so snugly that you can’t get the two pieces apart at the end of the day. Also, ferrules that allow you to adjust to various angles of feather are desirable.
Number of Pieces: Paddles come in one, two or four pieces. The advantage of a one piece paddle is that it has no connection points that could weaken or fail. A two piece paddle is the most common in sea kayaking because it allows for easier transport and stowage than a one piece paddle. Also, a two piece paddle has a ferrule which may allow for adjustment in the feather angle. A four piece paddle can be helpful if you’d like to pack you paddle in your luggage for transport to your next big adventure. However, a four piece paddle has three connection points which are subject to weakening and failure.
Kayak Dave recommends the following paddles:
High angle: Werner Ikelos (see gear review)
Low angle: Werner Camano or Aquabound Expedition AMT
I hope that this post answers some of your questions about how to choose a kayak paddle to suit your needs. I realize that you may have more questions now than before so feel free to comment on this post and I’ll do my best provide insightful feedback. Also, check back for more posts related to this topic as I dissect the various components of the paddle in more detail.