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How to Select a Canoe Paddle

Posted by Darren Bush on 6/11/2013 to Canoe

Selecting the proper paddle isn’t that hard, provided you have all the information you need, both anthropometry (your size and how you relate to the paddle) as well as your style of paddling, and in what conditions you plan to use your paddle.

All paddles work basically the same way, with greater or lesser efficiency depending on the design. Many paddlers think of the paddle as “pushing water” with the paddle blade, but in fact the blade doesn’t move much at all. Since water is very dense (do a belly-flop and prove it to yourself), you can stick a paddle in the water and it won’t move much. Rather, think of it as pulling yourself up to a flexible pole sticking out of the water, releasing the pole, and grabbing the next one to move yourself along. Watch your paddle in the water—it really doesn’t move all that much, does it? This is what you’re aiming for—no wasted movement, no inefficiency, no sound or splashing.

Focus on efficiency. Efficient paddles are ones that move the least when you plant them in the water, and show little or no tendency to flutter as you apply pressure to them. Also consider that the lightest paddles are likely to be more efficient, because you’re putting effort into your stroke, not fighting the forces of gravity. Other than that, here are some other considerations that are more specific to canoe or kayak paddles.

The Art…

Choosing a canoe paddle is an art more than a science. The final test of whether or not a paddle is a good fit for you is how it feels in the water. That being said, here are a few guidelines.

Length is measured differently depending on the style of the paddle. Bent shaft paddles will be shorter, and traditional paddles will be longer. As far as the paddler’s height, torso length is where it counts, since when you’re kneeling or sitting your legs are pretty much irrelevant. To find your size, sit in a hard chair (like a straight-backed kitchen chair) and sit up straight (no slouching!). Measure from the surface of the chair to your eye level, and this should be the length of the shaft of a bent shaft paddle.

If you have a straight shaft paddle, add five to six inches to the length, and sometimes a little longer for a traditional paddle like a Turtle Beavertail.

Your Boat…

If your boat is other than average in depth (like a very deep boat, such as an Old Town Discovery) or a very shallow boat ( like the Wenonah Jensen series), you may want to adjust your paddle length a little bit. If you paddle multiple boats, well, you can either not worry about it or buy multiple paddles…

Blade Size and Shape

Size first. Blade size is mostly determined by your paddling cadence, with the size of the paddle blade shrinking with the stroke rate increasing. To use a bicycle analogy, the paddle size is your gearing. Smaller blades require higher cadences to pull you through the water efficiently, while you sacrifice some control at lower speeds. Larger blades give you a lot of control, but are difficult if not impossible to paddle quickly unless you’re Manimal™.

The shape of your paddle blade is often determined by personal preference. For shallow water, you’re often better off with a shorter, flat-bottomed paddle with a resin tip (like the Bending Branches Arrow). The main advantage is toughness. For deeper water, many folks are turning toward traditional paddles because of their quiet entry and exit from the water, and their long length providing incredible control and precision.

What about Solo Canoeists?

Solo canoe paddlers often carry both types of paddles—a small blade bent shaft for when you really need to put on a lot of miles quickly, and a larger blade straight shaft for meandering down twisty rivers or for more control when just goofing around. I carry three—a carbon-fiber racing bent-shaft for speed, a traditional ottertail, and a large-blade freestyle-type blade for fun between travelling days.

Get a Grip

Top grips are determined by function. A top grip is like a steering wheel in a car, allowing you to control the direction of the blade. Paddling whitewater is like driving off-road, with more forces acting on on the paddle, some trying to twist the paddle out of your grip. Because of this, many whitewater paddlers are more likely to choose a T-grip paddle. While they offer a more positive lock on the paddle, T-grips can be less comfortable for long distances and some people find a standard grip more versatile in general conditions. They also can give you nasty blisters over a long trip due to having your thumb curled under the T.

Shaft…(right on)

Shaft diameter may be important to you if your hands are smaller than average. It can be very tiring to paddle with a shaft that is too large, plus you’re hauling around a bunch of extra material that you don’t need. People who are smaller in general (e.g. women, Robert Reich, etc.) find some of the more traditional blades less tiring to pull through the water and with a smaller shaft, it’s a no-brainer.

Other than that, just play around with paddles. The best way to learn what works for you is to try them out and learn what your preferences are. Call us at (800) I-PADDLE if you want more information or learn more about how you can come and test out paddles right here at the shop.

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