Kayak Paddle Selection Guide
A paddle is a kayaker’s best friend, as it enables them to deftly navigate through the water. You’re shopping for your first paddle, and you want to get it right. How do you choose the perfect kayak paddle?
Here’s what goes into selecting the right kayak paddle for you:
- Try a durable, lightweight material
- Choose between a single-piece or multi-piece paddle
- Pick the blade and shaft designs
- Consider the paddle angle
- Avoid paddles that are too heavy or long for you
In this kayak paddle selection guide, we’ll go through each of the above points and provide plenty more details. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll confidently be able to buy a kayak paddle!
Kayak Paddle Materials – How to Choose
The first consideration is what your kayak paddle will be made from. Paddles are available in a variety of materials, and depending on which you choose, your paddle will be heavier and possibly more expensive as well.
Here is an overview of kayak paddle materials, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each one so you can narrow down your options.
A material that’s rapidly growing in popularity is the carbon-fiber kayak paddle. The reason? A carbon fiber paddle is easy to use–even for beginners–and promotes awesome agility. Also, when it comes to lightweight paddles, it doesn’t get any lighter than carbon fiber.
The stiffness of carbon fiber is a benefit as well. As you make each stroke with your paddle, it will never waver. This can instill in you greater self-confidence.
If yours is a pure carbon fiber paddle, then it’s going to be quite costly. Fortunately, you can enjoy the perks of carbon fiber but without the hefty price tag by purchasing a composite kayak paddle.
These paddles feature a carbon-fiber hybrid, usually with the addition of fiberglass as well. A hybrid paddle will weigh slightly more than a pure carbon fiber paddle, but the durability is even better due to the combination of materials.
Speaking of fiberglass, that’s another material that manufacturers use to make kayak paddles. On its own, fiberglass is lightweight and durable. That said, it weighs more than carbon fiber, although not by a significant margin.
UV rays and back-and-forth travel shouldn’t hurt your fiberglass paddle. However, these paddles can chip or crack if you’re too hard on them, and when that happens, you might be forced to replace yours.
On top of that, fiberglass paddles are not that much less costly than a carbon fiber kayak paddle, so those on a shoestring budget will have to keep looking.
A plastic kayak paddle refers to one that’s made of nylon, polypropylene, polymers, plastic blends, or a combination of these materials.
If you can, read the label so you know what you’re getting, as there is a difference in price and performance depending on which type of plastic your paddle is made from.
If your kayak includes a paddle as part of your purchase, the chances are quite good that those paddles are made of plastic. This is a cost-saving measure on the part of the manufacturer, as plastic paddles are among the cheapest to produce.
This is good news for the shoestring budgeters we mentioned above. You can get yourself a set of plastic paddles and not surpass your budget.
Short-distance kayakers and beginners will quite enjoy plastic paddles. Once you begin sharpening your kayaking skills though, you might outgrow this material quickly.
Plastic paddles have among the shortest lifespans of all the kayak paddle materials because they’re simply not designed for durability.
Plastic will degrade or rot if exposed to sunlight for too long. On hard surfaces, plastic can scratch and sometimes snap off. The handle of a plastic kayak could be more comfortable too.
For a rustic feel, a wood kayak paddle is an irresistible option. Compared to many other kayak materials, wood can take a beating and still look good (maybe just a little dinged and scratched, but otherwise no worse for wear).
Manufacturers use all types of wood for kayak paddles. Hardwoods such as maple, cherry, walnut, and ash are popular. Softwoods like basswood, pine, fir, and cedar are reliable choices as well. Each species of wood looks different, so your paddle might be paler wood or tinged with pink or red.
The price of a wood paddle varies depending on the type of wood you select. Some wood species are heavier than others, so your kayak paddle might be a reasonable weight for you or a little too heavy. Choose carefully!
The last kayak paddle material is aluminum. Relatively cheap and built to sustain damage without showing it (at least too badly), a set of aluminum paddles is sure to last you for quite a while.
Aluminum can be rather heavy though, which may deter some kayakers from choosing this material despite that it’s tough and inexpensive.
Single-Piece vs. Multi-Piece Kayak Paddles
The next consideration for your kayak paddle is whether it will be one piece or more.
If yours is a multi-piece paddle, then it will include ferrules. We’ve discussed ferrules on the blog before, but if you need a recap, they’re the connector that keeps the pieces of your paddle attached.
Both single-piece and multi-piece kayak paddles have pros and cons. Let’s start first by discussing single-piece paddles.
A single-piece paddle does not need adjustments, which means you can just get out and go. You don’t have to stress about your multi-piece paddle potentially coming disconnected either so you can focus more on improving your paddling technique.
Since your paddle doesn’t come apart, you’ll have to find a nook in your garage or basement that’s large enough to store the paddle at its full length. If you have a small home, this can be rather challenging.
On top of that, you have to be triply sure that your paddle is the right angle when you buy it (more on this later), as there’s no going back and changing it later.
Moving on to multi-piece paddles, you can twist or otherwise adjust the ferrule to make incremental changes to the angle of your paddle.
You also have the advantage of being able to disassemble your paddle at the end of the day or the season and storing it. If you’re short on storage space or you have a small house, a detached paddle takes up far less space.
Onto the downsides of multi-piece paddles, the ferrule system can be confusing to learn. The inclusion of a ferrule also adds weight to the paddle that can hinder your kayaking performance.
If you do decide you’re interested in a multi-piece kayak paddle, you then must decide how many pieces you want. Some paddles are two pieces, but others can break down into four pieces.
Blade Designs and How They Affect Performance
The blade of your kayak paddle is the portion of the paddle that slices into the water. Thus, its design is going to be one of the biggest determining factors in which paddle you ultimately purchase.
Here are the different blade styles you can shop.
A dihedral kayak blade is ribbed. You’ll be able to see an extra bit of material down the middle. The inclusion of the rib allows water to move evenly across either half of your blade. You also have more control of the blade for straight tracking.
Kayak blades can be asymmetrical, which refers to a blade that’s short and narrow but only on a single side. Although you might worry this would make the paddle lopsided, an asymmetrical design creates an angle that balances out the blade’s surface area, especially when the paddle is in use.
Some kayak paddles are both asymmetrical and dihedral, so they combine the qualities discussed in the paragraphs above for optimal performance.
A matched kayak paddle is one in which the blades are in perfect alignment.
The opposite of matched blades is feathered blades. These blades occupy different planes at offset angles. This design choice lessens wind resistance each time you raise your paddle from the water.
Blade Angles and Why They Matter
Outside of the style of your kayak paddle blade, it will also be set at either a low or high angle. Some kayakers will buy both types of paddles while others choose one or the other based on the style of kayaking they most engage in.
Let’s talk about both kayak angle options now.
A low-angle kayak paddle has an angle between 20 and 30 degrees. Using a paddle set at this angle doesn’t take as large of a physical toll on your body, which is why low-angle paddles are recommended for recreational kayakers, touring kayakers, and those who spend hours on the water fishing in a kayak.
The narrow, long blades of a low-angle kayak paddle travel through the water with ease. Each stroke you take is easier so you can conserve your energy and prolong your time out in nature.
The opposite is a high-angle kayak paddle. These paddles are set at a vertical angle to increase your power and speed on the water. If you’re into whitewater kayaking, ocean kayaking, and other styles of kayaking in which you need to take impactful strokes, a high-angle paddle is right for you.
The angle of the paddle allows you to displace more water each time you stroke than what you would with a low-angle paddle. Wider, shorter blades will grab onto the water and hold it so you can move forward with greater speed.
You will exhaust yourself a lot faster by using a high-angle kayaker, but you can cover more ground, so that might be the price you decide to pay.
Shaft Designs – Straight or Bent?
The shaft of your kayak paddle must get some attention too as you narrow down your options. Most kayak paddles are straight-shafted, but some are kinked or bent. These paddles will have bends at several points across the shaft.
What’s the point of this? The angles of the shaft allow for optimal hand positioning, giving your digits a comfortable place to grip as you stroke. The power of your strokes should increase as a result.
If you only go kayaking for several hours at a clip, then a straight shaft should suffice. That’s also true if you’re a recreational kayaker who’s not concerned with power and doesn’t paddle hard.
For those kayakers who want to ramp up the power of their strokes, try a bent shaft. We’d also recommend this shaft design if you find that your hands and arms get very tired when kayaking after a short period. Bent shafts are less difficult on your joints and muscles.
Do keep in mind that going from a straight shaft to a bent one or vice-versa is not going to be a seamless transition. You should spend a couple of hours practicing on the water with your new paddle to adjust your strokes according to the shaft straightness.
Further Reading: Twist in your kayak paddle? Here’s Why!
Determining Your Kayak Paddle Length
The last consideration as you select your kayak paddle is its length. We won’t go into much detail in this section since we wrote a whole post on this very topic.
To recap, the most accurate way to determine the correct length of your kayak paddle is to measure your kayak at the widest point of the hull. Then you want to have a friend or family member help you measure your torso length. This will require you to stand and tilt your head, then put one hand on your hip.
With the myriad of charts we provided in that article, correlating your height to the proper kayak paddle length should be easy-peasy!
Selecting the right kayak paddle for you is about more than its looks or price. You must choose the paddle material, length, blade angle and design, and shaft angle. You also have to decide whether you want a single-piece paddle or one with several pieces. Good luck!