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How to Select a Kayak Paddle

Posted by Darren Bush on 6/12/2013 to Paddles

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 less 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.

Blade size and shaft diameter affect the way your paddle, so pay attention to those things as well as the following information, which is unique to touring kayak paddles.

There are a number of factors which will influence the length of your paddle, but the three most important are your torso length, the beam of your kayak, and your style of paddling. Even so, as you go through the process, keep in mind that this is art, not science. There are few absolute truths when it comes to paddle selection.

Touring Kayak Paddles

Since kayak paddles are not sized precisely, we don’t need to be picky about exact measurements. Your height will work fine here. Roughly speaking, if you are under 5’5″ tall, we’re going to find you a shorter paddle. If you’re 5’6″ to about 6’2″ you will take a medium length, and taller that that means you need something longer. In choosing length, remember that to do you any good, the paddle must reach the water. Since it must do so over your boat, the beam of your kayak is relevant. Kayaks of 22″ or less in beam will call for shorter paddles, 22.5″-24.5″ will call for medium lengths, and 25″ and greater will normally call for something longer.

Your style of paddling is also important. We usually divide people into two groups, those with low-angle style and those with high-angle style. Low-angle style means that the paddle is held at a shallow angle more parallel to the surface of the water. It is very energy-efficient, and is the style most favored by paddlers in North America. If you don’t know what your style is, it’s probably low-angle.

The high-angle style sees the paddle shaft more perpendicular to the water. It is used by whitewater boaters, racers, and surfers, as well as touring paddlers who prefer a faster cadence. It is the style favored in Great Britain, and most British-made equipment is designed with this style in mind. Although it can be a bit more tiring, the faster stroke rate provides a bit more stability in really rough conditions and is slightly more efficient.

Feathering is the angle of the paddle blades relative to each other. An unfeathered paddle is where the difference between the angle of the paddles is zero, so that you need not use your wrists to change the blade angle as it enters the water. It’s easier on your wrists, but you pay a price—the blade that is not in the water is pushing its back face against the wind, which can be difficult if there is already a headwind. Feathering the blades allows the top blade to present itself to the wind with an edge rather than a face, making paddling more efficient. This does cause more wrist problems, especially for people who have carpal tunnel symptoms. The choice is yours.

Standard feathering used to be 80 to 85 degrees, but paddlers have found that they can reap the benefits of feathering with less extreme feathering angles. 60 degrees is common these days, and even some 45 degree paddles have shown up in whitewater circles.

Indexing is what allows you to tell which way your paddle blades are pointing, and it’s obviously important to know that without looking at the blade (especially on the face of a large wave, when you’re about to be creamed, and you’ll need your Eskimo roll).

Indexing is a personal preference, and there are two main ways to do it. One is to shape the shaft itself so that it is ovalized in your hands, which is simple and low-tech. The other way to do it is to add a piece of material on the outside of the paddle on your index side (usually your right hand if you’re right-handed). There are subtle advantages to both systems, and personal preference usually determines which you end up with.

Whitewater Kayak Paddles

This is the easiest category of all to size. Basically, you start with a 200 centimeter paddle and go from there. Seriously, that’s what we sell to most people. People with stronger shoulder joints or ex-slalom racers may want a slightly longer paddle, like a 203 centimeter paddle, but that is rare. Extreme hairboaters may want a shorter paddle to increase their cadence (since every stroke is an effective brace), but rarely do we see paddles shorter than 194 centimeters. The trend is toward shorter paddles.

Feather is usually 45 or 60 in whitewater paddles. Since they are not usually paddling in big open water, whitewater paddlers usually choose paddles based on their preference for keeping their cadence quick. 45 degree feathers allow a split second more time in recovery and new stroke, and allow more rodeo maneuvers.

If you have more questions, call us up at (800) I-PADDLE or e-mail us.

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