So you’ve got yourself an excellent kayak, but you aren’t ready to go out paddling yet. There is one more thing that you need to have: a kayak paddle. Well, can you go paddling without a paddle?
There are plenty of kayak paddles available on the market. There actually are so many of them that a beginner or an unprepared kayaker may get confused easily. That’s when a kayak paddle buying guide would come in handy.
Let’s now see what you should be looking for in a kayak paddle without further ado!
Our kayak paddle buying guide
Low- and high-angle paddles
The high and low angles refer to the angle at which the paddle enters the water. A low-angle paddle enters the water more horizontally at about 20 – 30 degrees, while the path of a high-angle paddle is more vertical.
The blades of low-angle kayak paddles tend to be longer and narrower. When you paddle with a low-angle paddle, your top hand usually stays below your shoulders.
Low-angle paddles are designed for shorter horizontal strokes, which thereby makes them much more suitable for beginners or those who paddle just recreationally.
Things go the other way around with high-angle paddles: their blades are shorter and wider, which allows them to catch and hold the water better. A high-angle paddle allows more aggressive strokes that propel the kayak forward faster.
A high-angle kayak paddle is stroked in a longer and closer-to-boat path. To be able to achieve greater speed with such a paddle, you need to make precise strokes. Otherwise, you will get fatigued very quickly.
Paddle blade design
The shape and size of the paddle blade are one of its most important features. The performance of the paddle is impacted mainly by its blades.
We’ll now examine the most basic shapes of paddle blades. There is a plentitude of their variations out there, but it’s not really possible to examine all of them since every manufacturer approaches the blade design differently.
Flat vs dihedral
A flat blade is just flat across its whole surface, though it may be slightly curved. The “flat” refers not to the absence of curves but rather to the absence of any ribs running along its centerline.
On the other hand, a dihedral blade does have a rib running down along its center. The purpose of this rib is evenly guiding the water towards the outer edges of the blade.
This reduces the flutter of the paddle blade, which is the twisting of the blade as the water flows off of it.
A dihedral blade also usually has angled sides that are designed to further facilitate the water flow across its surface. Aside from that, the rib also contributes to the overall strength of the blade.
Symmetrical vs asymmetrical
In a symmetrical blade, both sides of the blade have the same size and shape. Because of this, you could hold a symmetrical kayak paddle any way you want, which makes these paddles more suitable for beginners. Besides, whitewater kayak paddles’ blades typically are symmetrical.
In an asymmetrical blade, one of the blade sides is narrower and shorter than the other. Kayak paddles enter the water at a shallow angle: because of this, the angled surface of an asymmetrical blade grabs water more uniformly and efficiently. This contributes to the power transfer characteristics of the paddle.
The blades of a kayak paddle can either be matched or feathered.
Matched blades are positioned in the same plane when viewed down along the shaft. Such blades are also called unmatched. On the other hand, feathered blades are angled on different planes.
The degree by which the blades can be offset from each other can be 30, 45, and even 90 degrees. Most of the modern paddles allow you to adjust the feathering by 15-degree increments. Very few even allow you to adjust the feathering to any desired angle.
The advantage of feathered blades over matched blades is that they encounter reduced air resistance, which leads to increased stroke speed and decreased fatigue.
For those who want to get the most out of their paddle and kayak, the reduced wind resistance would play a huge role, especially in windy conditions.
However, a recreational paddler probably wouldn’t notice the difference between the two, so there most likely isn’t that much point in chasing the reduced wind resistance for them.
Choosing the right kayak paddle length is possibly the most challenging thing when picking a paddle. It often requires plenty of trial and error, as well as some prior experience before you find the perfect size.
The easiest way of going about the paddle length is checking on the sizing charts provided by paddle manufacturers. You should be able to find those charts on the website of any kayak manufacturer.
Kayak paddle sizing guide
Every manufacturer has their own sizing guides, and there may be noticeable discrepancies between them. This could complicate choosing the appropriate size quite a bit.
For example, Werner Paddles uses a complex size guiding system that takes into account the activity, the style of paddling, the kayak type, and the size of the blade. We think that Werner Paddles’ guide could greatly help those who know precisely what they are going for, but it would probably be overly convoluted for beginners.
A simpler example is the sizing guide provided by Accent Paddles. They only take into account the style of paddling – high- or low-angle – which should be quite enough to help most kayakers make their final choice.
Here is what Accent Paddles’ sizing guide looks like (the paddle length is indicated in centimeters):
|23” – 25”
|5’ – 5’6”
|5’6” – 6’
|23” – 25”
|5’4 – 5’6”
Following these numbers would be appropriate if you have got any kayak other than a whitewater kayak. For whitewater kayaks, the numbers are entirely different: the paddles used are much shorter.
Here’s the chart provided by Sawyer, another manufacturer of kayak paddles:
|Approximate paddle length
|188 – 194
|5’ – 5’8”
|191 – 197
|194 – 203
In general, the numbers will fall very close to each other across different manufacturers. There may be variations here and there, but they shouldn’t be significant.
When you think about it, the torso height alone plays a much bigger role than total body height. When you are sitting in the kayak, the length of the legs is factored out. This is important because some people have most of their height in the legs and others in the torso.
With this in mind, Mitchell Paddles provide their own sizing chart based on torso length:
|24 – 28”
|210 – 215
|215 – 220
|28 – 30”
|220 – 230
So how do you choose the right kayak paddle length?
So you’ve got all those numbers, but how do you choose the right paddle length? We know, all those size guides can be quite confusing, but that’s how things go.
Those charts are just charts, and you shouldn’t rely on them 100%. But if you have no experience in choosing a kayak paddle, then those charts could serve you as a great starting point.
Probably the best way of picking the right kayak paddle length is just trying paddles on the water. If you have proper high- or low-angle paddling technique, then you should be able to pretty easily choose the right paddle.
Sure, you could pick a paddle even if you have a poor technique. However, when and if your technique becomes better, you will probably discover that your paddle doesn’t have the right length.
So, make sure you have a proper paddling technique before demoing a kayak paddle.
Paddle shaft design
Straight vs bent
One way of categorizing paddle shafts is dividing them into straight and bent shafts. A straight shaft, as its name suggests, has a basic straight shape, whereas a bent shaft features curves along its length.
The purpose of a bent kayak paddle is to relieve some of the stress on your wrists. Because of the more natural and comfortable positioning of the wrists on such a shaft, the chances of developing pain in them are significantly reduced.
Straight-shaft paddles are typically stronger and less expensive, but they don’t allow you to naturally position your wrists. This actually isn’t an issue if you don’t have any wrist pain. If you do though, you would need to get yourself a kayak paddle with a bent shaft.
One- vs multi-piece
Kayak paddle shafts can also be one- and multi-piece. A single-piece kayak paddle would most likely be the stronger one since it doesn’t have any connection points on its shaft that could actually become weak points.
On the other hand, a multi-piece kayak paddle is a much more convenient choice for traveling since you could disassemble it to save some valuable storage space. And besides, some multi-piece paddles allow you to adjust their feathering, which would be useful if you want to get the most performance out of your paddle.
The cheapest kayak paddles usually have plastic, nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene blades.
These materials are relatively heavy and rather durable, but they can crack or snap easily and don’t live under the sun very well. Their flexibility allows them to withstand shocks more or less well though.
Because of the flex, plastic blades aren’t that good in terms of power transfer, which makes them not so good for speedy kayaking. On the other hand, their cheapness makes them excellent for recreational kayaking, as well as for beginners.
Fiberglass blades are lighter than plastic and less flexible, which makes them much better in the water. They are more expensive than plastic blades but much less expensive than carbon fiber ones.
A paddle with fiberglass blades would be a great choice for more advanced kayakers.
When it comes to performance and durability, carbon fiber blades are on the top. They are extremely stiff and lightweight, which makes them perfect for those kayakers who require top performance.
This also means that the prices for paddles with carbon fiber blades are on the steepest side, so you would need to have a big budget.
Natural wood is a classical paddle shaft material, but you most likely won’t find that many paddles with shafts made from wood nowadays.
When it comes to weight, wood paddle shafts are somewhere in between lighter composite materials and heavier aluminum. A wooden shaft typically has good flex and shock-absorbing capabilities but isn’t as durable as other kinds of shafts.
Because of the flex, wood isn’t the best material for those who want performance. The same thing was with plastic in the blades, if you remember.
A paddle shaft made from laminated wood is stronger and stiffer than a regular wooden shaft. They aren’t as flexible as wood shafts and thereby transfer power better, but they aren’t as good in absorbing shocks.
Both non-laminated and laminated wood require significant maintenance over the course of their service, much more so than other materials.
Aluminum shafts are most commonly met in inexpensive kayak paddles. Paddles with aluminum shafts are durable and low-maintenance, so they would be suitable for recreational kayakers or beginners.
The main downside of aluminum shafts is that they respond to temperature changes very quickly. They could get really hot in summer and cool in winter, so you would need to take some measures to protect your hands.
With fiberglass shafts, things are pretty much identical to blades. A kayak paddle with a fiberglass shaft is durable, quite lightweight, and not so expensive.
And again, carbon fiber shafts deliver top-level performance. If you absolutely need to go quickly in your kayak, then you would probably want to get a paddle that has got both its shaft and blades made from carbon fiber.
The weight of the kayak paddle is exceptionally important. Since kayaks have limited weight capacity, you would need to make sure that your kayak paddle, you, and all your equipment doesn’t exceed it.
Things are pretty simple when it comes to the weight of the paddle. You should pick the lightest paddle that you can afford and that can satisfy your demands.
That’s it for our kayak paddle buying guide! This should be quite enough to allow you to find the best kayak paddle for your needs.
Remember that you may need to go through a lot of trial and error, so don’t get disappointed if you don’t find the right paddle in a short time. In the end, you will definitely find the right kayak paddle regardless of how long it takes!
If you happen to be looking for a paddle, feel free to read our review of best cheap kayak paddles.
And if you are looking for a kayak as well, then have a look at our kayak buying guide.