How to Choose the Right Canoe Paddle

Choosing the right canoe paddle should not be an intimidating task. In fact, by asking a few questions and understanding some basic concepts, you will find the best paddle for you and enjoy yourself in the process.

how to choose the right canoe paddle

The first and most important question is—what kind of paddling will you most likely be doing?

Flat water (lakes and rivers), rough water (rivers and expedition), or white water? Based on your answer, the journey to your new paddle can be more focused or customized.

The first choice we will touch on involves deciding between a straight shaft or bent shaft. In short, bent shaft paddles are best for flat water where it’s most important to maximize stroke efficiency. When paddling in water where paddle control and stroke versatility are paramount, a straight shaft paddle would be the better choice.

Check out the Bending Branches Java for an illustration of both shaft styles. For even further explanation regarding the difference between these two shaft types, check out the Bent vs Straight shaft video below.

Next, let’s briefly touch on blade shape. Just like with shaft type, the type of blade for you also depends on the type of paddling you’re most likely to do. Long skinny blades (often called Beaver tail or Otter tail) are great for flat water like lake cruising. Shorter, wider blades (often called Sugar Island or Squired Tipped) are better for the technical paddling needed on moving water like rivers.

The importance of a paddle's grip is often overlooked, but is a critical part of making sure a paddle feels right for you and helps make control strokes easier. There are two main types of grips: palm grips and T-grips. The palm grip is more ergonomic and a good choice for casual paddling or for longer trips. The T-grip gives you more control over your paddle and is better for expedition-type paddling when tighter control of your boat is more important. The T-grip is also a great choice for kid’s paddles.

For more about paddle grips watch the second video below.

What materials should my paddle be made of? While most canoe paddles are constructed entirely of wood, you can find paddles where high-tech materials like carbon are used to reduce weight without reducing strength (like in our Sunburst premium canoe paddles).

On the other end of the spectrum, you can find paddles constructed of plastic—although if you’re taking the time to research your purchase, I wouldn’t think that would be an option you’d be happy with.

Here is a further breakdown of each material:

Wood: For the traditionalist, an all-wood paddle is attractive, responsive and warm to the touch. It is by far the most popular material for canoe paddles. In order to add strength and durability, wood paddles will often consist of laminates—combining the best characteristics of different soft and hard woods.

Many also have a layer of fiberglass over the blade for added strength, and even a tip guard to improve durability and to protect the most vulnerable part of your paddle.

Plastic/aluminum: Durable and affordable, these aluminum shafts with plastic blades are a bit less comfortable and responsive than wood. They make great spare paddles and can be a good choice for beginners.

Fiberglass: This material is not often used by itself for canoe paddles except for those paddles who are likely to go through the most abuse. Whitewater paddlers, expedition paddlers and stand-up paddlers will often look to see if this material has been added for protection.

Carbon: For the serious paddler who sees their paddle as an investment into their hobby, carbon can be found in some canoe paddles. Carbon is extremely strong, yet light and agile, allowing for rugged and extended use with less muscle fatigue.

The material used in a paddle plays a large factor into paddle cost. Aluminum/plastic are the least expensive materials, followed by wood, fiberglass and carbon at the top. You truly get what you pay for.

Once you’ve clarified the type of paddling you’re likely to do, have chosen a bent or straight shaft profile and have looked at what material options are available for those combinations, it’s time to fit your paddle to you.

You can check our paddle sizing guide for details or use the following tips, depending where you are:

If you’re in your canoe on the water—sit inside the canoe and measure the vertical distance from your nose to the waterline. This measurement should match the distance from a paddle's grip to the throat, where the paddle shaft meets the blade.

If you’re in a store trying out a paddlekneel down with your bottom about 6" off the floor, as if sitting in a canoe. Hold the paddle upside down, with the grip on the floor. The throat of the paddle should be between your chin and your nose.

If you’re at home without a paddlekneel down with your bottom about 6" off the floor, as if sitting in a canoe. Measure from the floor to your nose. Add this measurement to the blade length (commonly 19") for the correct overall length.

Here are couple additional tidbits to consider. First, for bent-shaft paddles, deduct 4" from the length you've determined above. Also, if you paddle a wider canoes or will be doing a lot of paddling from the stern (rear seat), consider adding 2" to the paddle length so you can reach the water without excessive leaning and to avoid banging your paddle against the side of the boat.

Lastly, if you’re buying a paddle for a child, look for kid-specific paddles as they offer shorter lengths and narrower shafts. These paddles are often designed with T-grips which will help them control the paddle more easily. A great choice for the little paddler is our Twig Kid’s Canoe paddle.

Weight, comfort and price all come into play. The main difference in weight between two paddles of the same size and style will be the material(s) your paddle is made out of. Aluminum/plastic paddles will be the heaviest, carbon/fiberglass the lightest, and wood will be a nice balance of weight and durability. The lighter the paddle, the less fatigue you’ll feel after a long day of paddling.

The best paddles will balance weight with strength and flexibility. Again, you need to consider the type of paddling your most likely to do to help determine how important weight will be. For example, whitewater paddlers are most concerned with a strong stiff blade and less concerned about a super light paddle that may handle the abuse they put their paddles through.

Price point: Whether you start with price as your highest priority or not, it’s important to remember that the right paddle can make a big difference in your level of enjoyment. You also need to decide how often you'll want to purchase a new paddle. Do not underestimate the value of owning and using a well-made paddle.

Remember to think about the type of paddling you are most likely to do. Use the information discussed here along with any other research you want to do to truly enjoy the experience. Before you know it, you’ll have the paddle of your dreams in your hands and you’ll be ready to put it into action!

As always, if you have more questions please call our Wisconsin-based Customer Service team: 715-755-3405

Happy Paddling!