CHOOSING A KAYAK PADDLE
(Last updated December 2017)
If the kayak is your vehicle, the paddle is your engine, transmission and steering system combined. We advise you to spend a little less on your first kayak and a little more on a good paddle. In fact, we’ve known people who invested in a good paddle first then rented kayaks for several months before deciding on the kayak they wanted. This doesn’t always work since the proper paddle length is somewhat dependent on your kayak, but if you stick with something between 210 and 230 cm you should be okay.
The best recommendation is that you buy the lightest paddle you can afford. If you just go out once in a while on 1-2 hour trips it probably will not make much difference, but for all-day and multi-day tours the 10+ oz difference between a cheap paddle and a good paddle can mean the difference between being tired and sore at the end of the day and being ready to go out again for a sunset paddle. Some major manufacturers of touring paddles are: Werner, Swift, H2O, Bending Branches, and Adventure Technology.
If some terms we use here are unfamiliar to you, please see our page Kayaking Terminology.
Based on materials, there are 3 types of paddles made for recreational/touring kayaks: Aluminum/plastic, fiberglass, and carbon.
The least expensive paddles have an aluminum shaft and a plastic blade. These paddles are inexpensive ($30-$100) and tough which makes them the top choice of outfitters for kayak rentals. The aluminum shaft is usually at least partially covered by a plastic coating since bare aluminum would conduct both cold and heat to the paddler’s hands. The plastic blades are relatively thick and usually have a lot of flex to them. This leads to a cavitation or “trembling” as the blade goes through the water which many people dislike and it certainly is much less efficient than a stiffer blade. But the biggest down side of the aluminum and plastic paddles is weight. These paddles generally weight around 40 oz. They also usually have just 2 or 3 holes for making feathering adjustments (see below for feathering) and the aluminum has a tendency to corrode in salt water. However, because of their low price they make good spare paddles or for use around oyster beds or rocky areas.
It’s a big step up from a plastic paddle to a fiberglass paddle, in all respects. These paddles have fiberglass blades which are thinner and stiffer than plastic blades and therefore are more efficient. The shafts are either fiberglass or a fiberglass and carbon fiber blend. They generally weigh around 28 oz and cost $200-$350. These paddles also sport adjustable ferrules (rather than 2-3 holes) so you can set the degree of feathering you prefer – usually in 15 degree increments.
At the top end of the spectrum are the all-carbon paddles – carbon fiber shaft and carbon blade. Carbon shafts are extremely stiff and light and contribute to a very efficient stroke. However, carbon can be more prone to chipping and breakage. But then If you invest in a carbon paddle to get every extra oz of benefit, then you’re probably the type to baby your paddle a bit. All-carbon paddles weight around 22-26 oz and cost $350-$600. Is the 2-6 oz difference in weight worth an extra $200? That decision we’ll leave up to you.
Why is weight so important and worth the investment in a good paddle? Here are some quick and dirty calculations based on the differences in paddle weight.
A relaxed paddling stroke translates to approximately 1000 strokes per hour so on a full day of paddling (6 hours on the water, allowing for a few breaks) you may take approximately 6000 strokes. With an aluminum/plastic paddle at 40 oz that’s 15,000 lbs you will swing in a day. With a carbon/fiberglass paddle it’s 10,500 lbs. For a top-of-the-line, all-carbon paddle that’s 9,000 lbs or less.
What do most of the 5-Star Yak Pak use? Most of us have the carbon shaft/fiberglass blades since they provide the biggest weight benefit for a moderate cost. Some of us also have all-carbon paddles.
The trick to choosing a paddle of the correct length is to get one just long enough to get both blades fully in the water without having to lean over. If your paddle is too short you’ll be bumping your knuckles on the deck with every stroke. If your paddle is too long it will require extra effort to swing and you will either be paddling too far out to the side (expending energy in turning instead of going straight ahead) or it will be much deeper in the water than you need (expending more energy to recover it with each stroke).
Paddle length is a factor of your height above the water (your own height from the seat to your shoulders), the width of your boat, and your paddling style. Most recreational and touring paddlers use a relaxed or “low angle” paddling style while white-water paddlers, racers, sprinters, and exercise paddlers will use an aggressive or “high angle” style.
As a very general rule, if you are 5′ 6″ to 6′ tall and your boat is 25” wide or less, go with a 220 cm paddle. If you are shorter than 5’6″ and/or your boat is narrower try a 210 cm paddle length. If you are taller or your boat is wider then move up to a 230 cm paddle. If you are tall and paddling a wide SOT or tandem sit-inside then you might even go with a 240 cm paddle. The only way to really know what’s right for you is to try them out. Rent, beg and borrow from friends until you find what works best for you and your boat.
You can set your blades to be either feathered or unfeathered. When they are unfeathered the blades are aligned parallel with each other. When they are feathered one blade is offset at an angle to the other blade.
The original reason for feathering was to cut down on wind resistance on the blade that is in the air and to avoid hitting the gates on slalom courses. If you are not a racer and don’t frequently paddle in very windy conditions, feathering is largely irrelevant.
The degree of feathering and which blade is feathered is a matter of personal preference. If you purchase a paddle that allows for a full range of feathering you can practice at different angles until you find what is most comfortable for you. Note that smaller angles of 30 or 15 degrees may be easier on the wrist. So if you have sore wrists at the end of the day, try a smaller angle or an unfeathered paddle. A couple of the 5-Star Yak Pak use unfeathered paddles, others use feathering at various angles between 15 and 45 degrees. Note that feathered and unfeathered requires different muscle usage, so you will need to try each out for probably a day or more to determine which style you like best.
STRAIGHT-SHAFT vs BENT-SHAFT
There’s a major debate going on in kayaking circles about the benefits of bent-shaft (crank-shaft or crank) paddles and we’re not going to end it here. Basically, the bent-shaft was developed to properly position the hands on the paddle and cut down on stress to the shoulder and wrist joints. However, this also means that your hands are basically locked into gripping the paddle in very specific locations. For example, if you are paddling in a cross wind, with a straight shaft you can grip the paddle a little off-center to counteract the wind force. You cannot do this well with a bent-shaft paddle. However, folks with existing shoulder and wrist problems as well as those who can never seem to give up their death-grip on the paddle seem to really like the bent-shaft. Suffice to say that if it works for you, then great. Most of the 5-Star Yak Pak use straight shaft, but we have one bent-shaft advocate in the group.
This one is pretty easy to understand. The wider the blade, the more water is pulled with each stroke. That is, the more effort it will take and the faster your boat will accelerate. For kayak touring where you are looking to cover miles with the least effort a narrower blade is the norm. With a narrow blade it may take you a few more strokes to get up to cuising speed, but the strokes can be more relaxed. Once at cruising speed it takes relatively little to keep your boat there so a narrow blade works very well. Also, if you paddle frequently in windy conditions, a narrow blade may offer less wind resistance. The Inuit had it right with their skinny Greenland paddles. with which they paddled all day long in sometimes adverse conditions. Most of the 5-Star Yak Pak paddle with a moderate to narrow width paddle.
HOW MANY PIECES?
The vast majority of kayak paddles are two-piece paddles. They connect in the center via a ferrule which also allows for the feather angle adjustment. That makes each part of a 2-piece paddle approximately 4 feet long which is pretty easy to transport. One-piece paddles are available and those who use them claim that they can feel a difference in the way the paddle flexes in use. They are, however, difficult to pack and transport. Four-piece paddles are also available and are particularly useful as a spare (they stow more easily inside a hatch) or for those who travel a lot by air to paddle. There are also a few adjustable-length paddles on the market. While heavier and less well-balanced than a regular paddle, they could be great for a spare or for growing kids.
SHAFT DIAMETER AND SHAPE
There are a few paddle models that come in a small diameter shaft. For people with small hands these can make a big difference in hand fatigue, especially if you are wearing gloves. If you have big hands and the regular shaft feels too small, there are sleeves you can add to the shaft to make it larger as well as adding some cushion. Also, most models have round shafts but a few offer oval shafts. Try them all out and get whatever feels natural in your hands.
A paddle leash is a good investment. While there is a danger of becoming entangled in the leash if you go over (intentionally or by accident), for our type of paddling the risk of entanglement is very small compared to the risk of losing a paddle 5 miles from your take-out point. Whether coil style or straight, just get (or make) one and use it. One end attaches around the middle of the paddle and the other end attaches to your deck rigging. That way, even if you drop the paddle or get out for a swim you will never be up the proverbial creek without the paddle necessary to get you home.
If you travel any distance on the water you’ll want a spare paddle. If you are paddling with a group not everyone needs to carry a spare, but make sure there is at least one extra paddle, just in case. Many people buy (or get at a discount when purchasing a kayak) an inexpensive paddle when they start out. This can then become your spare paddle when you upgrade to a lighter paddle. Or there are a few inexpensive short paddles available for children that will fit inside some hatches. Not only do these make decent spare paddles, but can also come in handy when paddling through areas of low-hanging vegetation or extremely narrow waterways like mangrove tunnels.
Mark your paddle. Use a permanent marker, paint pen or nail polish and write your name and phone number on the paddle someplace. If it ever floats away, at least you will have a chance of getting it back. (This is also a good idea for your kayak, PFD and all your dry bags.) Also, you can place a strip of reflective tape on the paddle to make yourself more visible in low light situations.
Paddling gloves are a must in cold weather or cold water. They can also add some cushioning for the hands, especially between the thumb and fore finger where the paddle shaft rests if you don’t paddle enough to develop calluses there. Plus they provide sun protection for your hands and wrists. For warm weather half-finger gloves work well. For cold weather get full gloves. I think all of the 5-Star Yak Pak wear gloves. Some of us wear special paddling gloves, others have found that inexpensive bicycle gloves work as well, and a couple use light UV protective gloves.
Paddle bags are a great accessory for expensive paddles. They protect the blades during transport and most have a pocket for storing your paddle leash and gloves so you never leave them at home. More paddles are damaged during transport to and from the water than during actual paddling, so some sort of bag to protect the blades is a good idea.
Drip Rings help keep the water from dripping down the paddle shaft and into your lap. They are a real blessing in cold water. Most paddles come with them and you can get replacements if one is damaged.
Paddle Float – see Required (Safety) Gear.