What Is the Best Type of Kayak Paddle to Buy?
For kayakers, having the right paddle can mean the difference between an enjoyable and efficient experience on the water and one that leaves them fatigued and disappointed. With so many options to choose from, it can be overwhelming for the novice paddler to decide which kayak paddle will best meet their specific needs.
In this comprehensive blog, we’ll provide an overview of various aspects to consider when selecting a kayak paddle, including paddle length, paddling styles, blade and shaft materials, pricing, specialized options and blade shapes.
This information is geared to paddlers who are just starting out or are ready to upgrade and want to understand the core distinctions between different types of kayak paddles.
So, let's dive in and find the ideal paddle for your kayaking adventures.
Parts of a Kayak Paddle
Let's start with the basics. This illustration by Lifetime shows the primary elements of a kayak paddle. One detail that's not included in this illustration is the "grip section" of the paddle. As expected, the paddle grip is the part of the shaft you hold in your hand when you paddle. Many manufacturers include an ergonomically shaped grip area that fits comfortably in the palm of your paddling hand for hours of smooth, comfortable paddling. There's also a "shoulder" at the top of the blade, starting at the throat. This is the angled section of the blade that gets wider the closer you move toward the tip until it reaches its widest point.
If you're not sure which side of the paddle faces which way, understanding the power and non-power face will help. The power face of the paddle is the side of the blade that catches the water when you take a forward stroke.
Consider the Type of Kayaking
Now that you know the parts of the paddle, it's time to find the right tool for the right job. That starts with determining what style of kayaking you’ll be doing. Here are the most common categories:
Whitewater kayaking involves navigating fast-moving rivers, rapids and obstacles. Whitewater-specific paddles are designed to withstand impact, have smaller blades for quick maneuvering, and are typically shorter in length.
Sea kayaking and touring involve long-distance paddling on large expanses of open water or long trips. As the writers of Paddling Magazine explain, "All sea kayaks are touring kayaks, but not all touring kayaks are sea kayaks. Touring kayaks are defined by their bulkheads and hatches, which allow for gear storage on multi-day trips. Sea kayaks are among the longest and narrowest touring kayaks." Touring paddles are typically mid-length and come with varying blade shapes to provide power, control and efficiency during extended trips.
Recreational kayaking includes casual paddling on calm lakes, slow rivers or flatwater. Paddles for recreational kayaking come in various lengths and blade shapes, catering to different preferences and skill levels.
Adaptive kayak paddles are designed to help individuals enjoy kayaking regardless of their physical challenges, which often include strength or mobility limitations stemming from a disability, injuries or age. Adaptive kayaking is usually done in mostly calm, flat-water environments. Adaptive paddles range from mount-supported paddling systems that eliminate the weight of holding the paddle, to mounted angled paddles that require a smaller range of motion, to simple adjustments to regular paddles, such as adding grips.
Fishing kayaking, more commonly referred to as kayak angling, requires a paddle with stability, maneuverability, and the ability to paddle in various water conditions. Paddles with adjustable lengths, durable construction, and specialized features such as built-in measuring devices or a notch to hook a fishing line are customary.
Understanding the Different Categories of Kayak Paddles
As we’ve already described, kayak paddles are generally categorized based on their purpose, design and construction. Now, we'll get into more detail about the major types of paddles and what distinguishes each.
Touring paddles are suitable for long-distance kayaking. Some come with wider, shorter high angle blades for enhanced power and efficiency. Others use narrower, elongated blades to facilitate a more relaxed, low angle paddling style.
Whitewater paddles are built to withstand the rugged conditions of rapid-filled rivers. They are shorter in length and are often constructed from durable materials to withstand impact from rocks and other obstacles. The blade size depends on the paddler's body, fitness level and preference. A blade with a larger surface area will push more water, but doesn't necessarily make the paddler more powerful. Some find that that a blade with a small or medium surface area puts less stress and strain on the body and allows for more efficient strokes.
Recreational paddles are versatile and suitable for casual paddling, fishing and exploring calm lakes or slow-moving rivers. They offer a balance of performance and affordability, with a variety of blade shapes and shaft materials to choose from.
Designed to require less strength, mobility or endurance from the paddler, adaptive paddles often come with mounts that attach to the kayak to support the weight of the paddle, thereby reducing joint stress. Many feature adjustable lengths and have custom configurations to accommodate people with different abilities.
Greenland paddles originate from the indigenous Inuit people of Greenland. They are characterized by long, narrow blades and a longer shaft and are typically made from wood, though modern versions can be found in other materials such as carbon fiber or fiberglass. They do not have defined blades and appear to be more "stick-like" in appearance. Greenland paddles are known for their versatility, allowing for a variety of strokes and maneuvers, and are often favored by sea kayakers seeking a more connected and traditional paddling experience.
Aleutian paddles are another kind of traditional paddle, originally coming from Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Unlike Greenland paddles, Aleutian paddles have asymmetrical blades. One side of the blade is almost flat and suits perfectly for sculling and rolling. The other side of the blade has a raised ridge running along the centerline of the blade. Aleutian paddles are approximately 10cm longer than Greenland paddles.
These are the main types of kayak paddles, but there are others.
Kayak Paddle Sizing: What’s the Best Length for a Kayak Paddle?
The length of your kayak paddle plays a crucial role in optimizing your paddling efficiency and comfort. Several factors, including your height, kayak width, seat height and paddling style, should be considered when determining the ideal paddle length.
There is no one-size-fits-all, but this data, borrowed with permission from AquaBound, provides a good starting point for determining the right length for you.
Kayak Width & Seat Height
Recreational and angling kayaks tend to have wider cockpits, ranging from about 29 to 35 inches, as opposed to touring kayaks, which have narrower cockpits averaging just 20 to 25 inches. Consequently, some rec and fishing kayakers use paddles of 240 cm to 280 cm in order to make full contact with the water, whereas touring paddles may range from 210 cm to 230 cm. In addition, many angling and sit-on-top kayaks have raised seats which position the paddler further from the water. These paddlers also tend to gravitate toward a longer paddle.
Style of Paddling: High Angle vs Low Angle Blades
High-angle paddling involves a more aggressive stroke technique, suitable for faster-paced paddling and maneuvering. For this style, paddles tend to be a bit shorter, typically between 190 cm to 200 cm in length. This black paddle is an example of a high angled blade.
Low-angle paddling is a more relaxed stroke technique used for touring and long-distance kayaking. A longer paddle, typically between 210 cm to 240 cm, is recommended for this style to provide a more efficient and comfortable stroke. This white paddle is an example of a low angled blade.
Paddle Sizing Rules of Thumb
If this is too many variables to consider, one general rule of thumb for paddle length is to stand up straight and extend one arm above your head. Next, hook your fingers over an imaginary paddle. Your paddle should be about that length.
Another is to use these recommendations from AquaBound. Use the chart above as a guide and then scaling up or down by 5 cm based on the following:
Consider sizing 5 or more centimeters longer if you have two or more of the following:
A more relaxed, casual paddling pace
A true low angle (horizonal) forward paddling stroke
An abnormally wide boat width
A flare, flat-bottom, or V-shaped (usually beveled outward) boat design
A high seat position on the kayak
You are taller than 6’ and outside the sizing chart
Consider sizing 5 or more centimeters shorter if you have two or more of the following:
A more aggressive, active or endurance-focused paddling pace
A true high angle (vertical) forward paddling stroke
An abnormally narrow boat width
A tumblehome (usually beveled inward) boat design
A lower seat position than most stock boat models
You are shorter than 5’ and outside the sizing chart
More on Low Angle and High Angle Paddling
If you’re not sure what’s the difference between low angle and high angle paddling, this video provides a nice overview. (Note: we have no affiliation with Werner Paddles) These paddling techniques refer to the angle at which the paddle enters and exits the water during the stroke. The distinction between the two lies in the amount of shaft rotation and the degree of torso rotation involved.
Low Angle Paddling
Low angle paddling involves a more horizontal paddle entry and exit angle, with a gentler and relaxed stroke. It is well-suited for recreational kayaking, touring and long-distance paddling. Low angle paddling is generally more efficient for conserving energy during extended periods on the water. A low angle blade, like the white one here, is typically long and narrow since it’s inserted into the water close to parallel with the surface of the water.
High Angle Paddling
High angle paddling features a more vertical paddle entry and exit angle, with a higher degree of shaft and torso rotation. This technique is commonly used in whitewater kayaking and provides more power and maneuverability for quick acceleration and turns. High angle paddling requires more upper body strength and is typically employed for shorter bursts of paddling. High angle blades, like the one shown here, are generally wider and shorter to provide more power during a vertical, aggressive stroke.
On a typical outing, you may find that you use both styles of paddling, however most people tend to gravitate more towards one style depending on the kind of kayaking they're doing.
Common Blade Materials & Shapes
The choice of blade and shaft materials can greatly impact the performance, durability and weight of your kayak paddle.
Fiberglass blades are lightweight, durable and offer good performance in various water conditions. They provide a balance between stiffness and flexibility, allowing for efficient power transfer during each stroke.
Carbon fiber blades are exceptionally lightweight and offer excellent stiffness, resulting in enhanced power and efficiency. They are often favored by experienced paddlers and professionals for their performance-oriented characteristics.
Plastic blades are more affordable and durable, making them suitable for recreational paddling. While they may be slightly heavier compared to fiberglass or carbon fiber, they still offer decent performance for casual kayakers.
Less common are wooden shafts, primarily used for Greenland and Aleutian paddles.
Of course, there are other combinations of blade materials available, e.g., carbon-reinforced nylon, but these are the core categories.
Does the Shape of the Blade Matter?
Yes, the shape of the blade plays a significant role in the performance and efficiency of your kayak paddle. There are several basic blade shapes found in low and high angle paddles, also referred to as Euro paddles. (In contrast, Greenland paddles have very narrow blades that extend from a thicker shaft, giving them a sleek silhouette.) Paddling.com published a helpful article on blade shapes, some of which we have highlighted here.
Symmetrical vs Asymmetrical Blades
Symmetrical blades have the same shape and surface area on both sides. Each side of the blade is a mirror image of the other. They are versatile and suitable for a wide range of paddling styles, providing balanced performance and a consistent feel in the water. Asymmetrical blades have a distinct shape, with one side being slightly longer and narrower than the other. This design allows for a more efficient stroke, reducing twisting and providing improved tracking and control.
Curved vs Spooned Blades
A curved blade is similar to the shape of a swimmer's hand during the power stroke. The curve is designed to provide an early catch, or bite, in the water during the beginning of the stroke. A spooned blade is shaped like a spoon. If it were laid down flat and facing upward, you could actually add water without it flowing back off as it would with a curved or dihedral blade. A wing design is one variation of a spooned blade that’s used by racers.
Flat vs Dihedral Blades
A flat blade is generally just as it sounds, though it may have a slight sweep or a rib down the center, but the surface from edge to edge is flat. Paddling.com explains that the rib is there to guide the flow of water towards the outer edges of the blade, while reducing flutter. A dihedral blade features two flat surfaces that angle down and away from the shaft of the paddle, creating a V-shape. This dihedral shape was created to direct water to flow evenly off each side of the blade creating a smooth and stable stroke with limited flutter, according to Werner Paddles.
In a category all their own are kayak angling paddle blades, many of which have the telltale J-notch to free snagged lines and hooks.
Width & Length
A shorter and wider paddle blade delivers forceful and powerful strokes, catering to speed enthusiasts or when immediate power is necessary. Conversely, a longer and narrower blade facilitates slower and more relaxed strokes. On average, a touring paddle blade measures around 18 to 20 inches in length and approximately 6 inches in width. Those seeking speed and quick power, however, may opt for a significantly shorter blade design that is noticeably wider by several inches.
Understanding Shaft Shapes & Materials
Shaft Shapes & Diameters
Oval vs Round Shafts
The shaft's cross-section can be fully round or ovalized, known as indexing. The oval shape offers a different grip feel, allowing for quick hand positioning and alignment relative to the plane of the blade. It also promotes a more secure grip and reduces fatigue for most paddlers. Others prefer a round shaft, believing the blade is the best teacher when it comes to understanding the positioning that will provide the best pull in the water. Since round shafts can easily rotate in your hands, however, they tend to result in slightly less control.
Bent shaft paddles feature a slight bend in the shaft, which aims to align the wrist and arm in a more ergonomic position. This design helps reduce fatigue and strain on the wrists, making them popular among those prone to repetitive strain injuries or seeking added comfort during long kayaking trips.
Choosing the right shaft size, meaning the outer diameter of the shaft, for your hands will contribute to a more comfortable paddling experience with less fatigue. To cater to varying hand sizes, manufacturers typically offer two basic shaft diameters: large and small, sometimes referred to as “standard/regular” and “small.” One rule of thumb that’s used to identify the best shaft diameter for you is to measure your hand, starting at the base of your hand, i.e., your wrist joint, to the tip of your middle finger. If that measures longer than 6.5 inches, try a standard shaft. If it’s shorter, go with the smaller diameter shaft.
When considering diameter size, take into account whether you’ll be wearing gloves. A smaller diameter grip may better accommodate the added thickness of paddling gloves.
Aluminum shafts are common in recreational paddles due to their affordability and durability. They provide a sturdy grip and are resistant to corrosion. However, they tend to be heavier than other materials.
Carbon fiber shafts are the lightest and strongest option available. They provide excellent stiffness, reducing fatigue during long paddling sessions. Carbon fiber shafts are preferred by advanced paddlers seeking optimal performance.
Fiberglass shafts strike a good balance between weight and strength. They offer a comfortable grip and are relatively lightweight, making them popular among touring and recreational paddlers.
Wooden shafts are appreciated for their natural feel and aesthetic appeal. They offer a warm and comfortable grip, reducing hand fatigue. Paddlers who value tradition and prefer a classic paddling experience, such as in Greenland-style kayaking, often opt for wooden shafts.
Pricing: The Best Kayak Paddle to Buy Depends on Your Needs
Kayak paddle prices can vary depending on factors such as materials, construction quality, brand reputation, and additional features. It’s nearly impossible to define exact price ranges as there will always be outliers, but generally speaking, here’s what to expect. You can view Paddling Magazine’s Annual Buying Guide for further exploration.
Entry-level recreational paddles can be found in the range of $40 to $225. These are suitable for casual paddling and beginners.
Touring paddles range from $150 to $450, offering better construction quality and performance features. They provide a good balance between price and performance for intermediate paddlers.
Adaptive Paddle Systems
Due to their adjustable features and, in many cases, reliance on a support mount, adaptive kayak paddles run from $250 to $425.
Whitewater paddles can range from $175 to $500, reflecting their durability and specialized design for challenging river conditions.
High-performance paddles, often constructed with carbon fiber, can range from $300 to $1000 or more. These paddles are designed for professionals and advanced paddlers seeking the utmost in performance.
We've covered the basics of kayak paddles and then some, however, there are many more features and considerations that more experienced paddlers take into account in their paddle purchases. Here are some additional features that will contribute to your overall paddling experience, comfort and convenience:
Single-, Two- and Four-Piece Paddles
The most common type of kayak paddle is the two-piece paddle, where the shaft is divided at the center. It provides the flexibility of compact storage while still offering a relatively sturdy structure. Single-piece paddles have less flex than segmented paddles, and since they don't rely on clips or other clamping devices, they are generally less likely to break. Four-piece shafts are convenient when space is limited. Because they can be broken down into a quarter of their original length, they can be used as spare paddles or easily stored in a kayak hatch or other small space.
Kayak paddles utilize various types of joints to connect and hold the shaft together. One common method is the use of ferrules, which are connectors that join the two sections of the shaft. Ferrules can be designed as either push-button ferrules, where a button is pressed to secure or release the connection, or twist-lock ferrules, which require twisting to lock the sections in place. Another method involves the use of clamps which secure the shaft sections together with a tightening mechanism. Additionally, some paddles may employ other types of joints, such as pin-and-hole systems or compression joints, to ensure a strong and sturdy bond between the shaft sections.
Feathering is when the blade angles are offset, or positioned at different angles, instead of aligned at the same angle. This feature can be beneficial for paddling into strong winds, as well as reducing wrist strain. Ferrules and other joint systems are the most common ways to enable feathering. Depending on your preference, feathering your blades can give you either left-handed or right-handed control.
Try Before You Buy
Selecting the right kayak paddle is a crucial decision that directly impacts your paddling enjoyment. So what's the best kayak paddle to buy? By understanding the sizing, paddling styles, blade shapes, shaft materials and specialized options, you can make an informed choice that matches your requirements. Many outfitters and specialty sporting goods retailers have experts on hand who can guide you in making the right choice. Many will even let you try them out before you buy.
Angle Oar's mission is getting people who didn’t think they had the strength or endurance to kayak out on the water and keeping experienced paddlers there longer! We provide adaptive kayak paddle systems, outriggers and other kayaking equipment to people with arthritis, shoulder problems, physical disabilities or limited upper body mobility due to age, injury or ability.