How to Choose Kayak Paddles
First, Choose a Length
Paddle lengths for touring range from approximately 220cm to 255cm.
One way to determine correct size is as follows: Lift the paddle and rest the center on top of your head. Position your hands on the shaft with both elbows bent at roughly 90 degrees. The blades should be about 4" to 5" from your hands, though this is just a general guideline. Consider torso lengths, too—a tall person with a short torso, for example, might need a shorter paddle, and vice versa.
Individual height, boat width and simple personal preference might also influence your decision. Some general length guidelines:
Taller people and/or those with wide boats: 240cm or more.
Average-size people: 230cm to 235cm.
Recreational paddlers and shorter individuals: 220cm to 225cm.
Again, boat width is an important point that could result in an average-size person with a wide boat using a 245cm paddle. Consider all the variables and, if possible, try some paddles out before choosing a size.
The following questions can help fine-tune the fit of your paddle.
How wide is your boat? Wider boats, such as tandem kayaks, need longer paddles. A longer paddle allows you to reach the water without straining or hitting the side of the kayak during a stroke. A paddle that's too short requires extra effort to get the entire blade in the water, making it more difficult to propel the boat.
What's your paddling style? If you make quick, rapid strokes, a shorter length will make the paddling more efficient. If you're more laid back, or out for an extended tour, a longer paddle requires less effort, which saves energy for the long haul.
How long is your torso? In general, taller paddlers and those with long torsos need longer paddles to reach the water without stretching or straining. Shorter paddlers (and shorter torsos) need shorter paddles to prevent awkward strokes. Height is not always an indicator of torso length, though, as a short paddler with a long torso may need a longer paddle than indicated above.
Are you buying for a child? Choose a paddle designed specifically for children. They are built proportionally smaller and are easier for small hands to control.
It goes without saying that the lighter the weight, the easier the paddling. However, the best paddles offer a balanced combination of light weight and strength. Whitewater paddles are expected to hold up to a vigorous workout, and strength is a big consideration. Touring paddles, on the other hand, won't be subject to the same strains, so weight becomes more important, especially on long trips.
Wood transmits the feel of the water well, helping achieve a smooth stroke. It retains warmth to keep hands comfortable in cold conditions. Some upkeep is required to maintain its appearance. Many wood paddles are covered with a layer of fiberglass and/or have a tip guard to improve durability.
These paddles are lightweight, durable and virtually maintenance-free. The nature of fiberglass allows for more complex blade shapes. In the middle of the price range, these are by far the most popular choice for whitewater and sea kayaking alike.
Carbon fiber paddles are among the lightest available. The high-tech material and manufacturing process produces durable paddles with extremely light weights. They cost more, but are worth it if weight is a concern, such as when you expect to be paddling long hours or on multi-day trips. Carbon fiber is slightly less durable than fiberglass.
Paddles with aluminum shafts and plastic blades are durable and economical, but heavier than paddles made from other materials. Also, aluminum can feel cold in cool weather. They make great spare paddles, and can be a good choice for beginners or recreational kayakers. Blades are made from a variety of plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene, thermoplastic and ABS.
Blades are either feathered or nonfeathered. Nonfeathered blades are positioned parallel to each other. Feathered blades are rotated at an angle to each other. The main benefit of feathering is that it reduces wind resistance. As one blade strokes through the water, the other slices through the air. Blade angles vary from 45 to 90 degrees, with most falling in the 45- to 65-degree range. Smaller angles are easier on the wrists, but larger angles offer greater efficiency when paddling.
Blades are feathered in such a way that one hand always maintains control of the paddle. This "control hand" rotates the shaft with each stroke so the blades enter the water at the most efficient angle. Most whitewater paddles are controlled with the right hand. Most touring paddles have take-apart shafts that let you change the feather angle and the control hand. The control hand is a matter of personal preference, and is not necessarily determined by whether you are right- or left-handed.
Large symmetrical blades can power you through the water quickly, but each stroke requires a lot of energy. While smaller blades are gaining in popularity, larger blades are useful for surfing and paddling that requires quick, powerful bursts of acceleration.
Asymmetrical blades help you paddle most efficiently. They are narrower than their symmetrical counterparts and tolerate a more horizontal stroke, which uses up less energy. If you're paddling for long periods of time, or just want to reduce fatigue in general, consider asymmetrical blades.
Blades are either flat, cupped (spooned) or dihedral. Cupped blades are curved much like the head of a spoon. This design helps the blade remain stable as you paddle through the water. Dihedral blades have a built-in angle, similar to an airplane wing. The dihedral shape helps water flow smoothly and evenly over both halves of the blade to prevent fluttering and twisting. Many paddle blades are a combination of dihedral and cupped shapes.
Paddles are available with either 1-piece or take-apart shafts. One-piece shafts are inherently stronger. Because whitewater paddles suffer more abuse than touring paddles, they generally feature the more durable 1-piece shafts. Touring paddles, on the other hand, usually break down into 2 or more pieces. Take-apart shafts let you change blade angles from feathered to unfeathered. They make great spares for whitewater kayaking and touring, because the are easy to transport.
Shafts come in 2 shapes: oval and round. Oval shafts offer a more comfortable grip than the traditional round shape. Some round shafts feature oval hand sections for a better grip. This is called oval indexing.
Swing weight is how balanced a paddle feels while paddling. A paddle with lightweight blades and a heavier shaft feels lighter than a paddle with heavy blades and a light shaft. Ideally, blade weight and shaft weight should be balanced. Hold a paddle and practice your stroke to get a feel for the swing weight.
Carry a Spare
If your paddle breaks in the middle of a whitewater run, or if you lose it on the second day of a 4-day sea kayak trip, what will you do? Without a spare, you might literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle. An aluminum-and-plastic paddle with a take-apart shaft makes an inexpensive spare that could save you serious time and grief should the unexpected happen. They are easy to stash and stand up to rigorous use.