Kayaking 101: Picking out your paddle

The blade of the paddle. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

The blade of the paddle. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg

You know the expression “up shit’s creek without a paddle”? Well, that could be you if you’re willing to spend $500 on a shiny new kayak without taking the time to find the perfect paddle.

And while the standard sporting-goods-store paddle will get you where you need to go, you can save the headache (and shoulder ache) by schooling yourself with this little guide to picking your perfect paddle.

The lingo

Blade: The wide, flat part of the paddle you dip into the water

Tip: The very end of the blade

Throat: The point where the blade meets the shaft of the paddle

Shaft: The long section between the grip and the blade

Power face: The side of the blade that takes the force of the water on a forward stroke

Back face: The other side of the blade (not the power face)

The materials

Paddles are most often made of wood or something synthetic like plastic, fiberglass or composite. Pretty much everyone would love to own a wooden paddle for its warm, soft feel — plus, it makes you feel like a real woodsman when you sand and varnish it once in a while — but most of us end up with a synthetic paddle.

Synthetic paddles range from cheap and weak to expensive and strong, so take your time deciding and invest in the best you can afford. Keep in mind you’ll definitely need something stronger and heavier if you’re more apt to hit the rapids than the lake.

Find your size

A bent shaft paddle. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

A bent-shaft paddle. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg

The easiest way to find your fit is to hold the paddle over your head with your arms bent at 90 degrees to the shaft. You should have 4 to 5 inches between your hands and the blades. Other stores will tell you to stand the paddle on its tip and reach your hand toward the opposite tip. If you can curl just a knuckle or two over the top blade, you’re good.

However, all of this depends on what you’ll be using the paddle for. Touring kayakers might want longer paddles, while whitewater lovers need shorter, more controllable paddles. Someone who is 5’8” inches tall will most likely need a whitewater paddle that’s 194 to 200 cm long and a touring paddle that’s 220 to 230 cm long. Check out Canoe & Kayak’s paddle guide for more.

Keep this in mind: Most shafts are made to fit an adult male’s hands. If you have small hands, look for a thinner shaft. Pay attention to any wrist pain that could develop. Shafts also come in bent, adjustable and breakdown options, all depending on what you’ll be using the paddle for. (For example, a spare paddle should always be a two-piece paddle for easy storage.)

Feathered vs. non-feathered

Feathered blades are offset blades, meaning when one blade is held parallel with the ground, the other is tilted at an angle. It’s mostly a personal preference whether you want your paddle blades feathered or not, but having one blade offset means it hits the air with less surface area, giving you faster cadence of paddle strokes and less pressure on your wrist.

If you buy a paddle with a breakdown shaft, there’s often the option to feather your blades or keep them straight.

Sound complicated? It’s really not if you know what you’re looking for, and once you hold a few paddles in your hands you’ll determine what fits you, your boat and your style the best.

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