How to Choose Your Canoe Paddle
- Your size.
- Your canoe’s width and cross section.
- Type of paddling and length of outing.
- Types of paddles and features to look for.
1. Your size
There are many subtleties (and opinions) regarding the best paddle length. Many experienced paddlers have a collection of different paddle models and sizes for different conditions, but most people find the following chart to be effective in sizing new paddlers. The general rule: the shortest paddle that allows you to properly reach the water is best. In the middle of their stroke, most paddlers hold the grip so that their top hand is about the height of their nose, and the point where the paddle blade meets the shaft (the throat) is at the water line. Measuring the length of your torso is a good way to approximate that geometry. Here’s a simple and accurate way to measure your torso. Sit up straight – don’t slouch – on a flat chair. Measure the distance from the surface of the chair between your legs to your nose. Then follow the chart below:
An easy way to measure in the field is to place the grip of the paddle between your legs while sitting. Mark where the shoulder of the blade (the point where the blade meets the shaft) hits you. The shoulder on a straight shaft should be at your forehead; the shoulder on a bent shaft should be at your nose.
2. Canoe style
- If you have a general-purpose, family tandem canoe, your selection process can be streamlined. You’ll want to look at the sizing chart below to make your paddle selections.
- For narrow tripping canoes, those with tumblehome (inward leaning) gunwales, or low seats, select a paddle with a shorter shaft (typically by one size).
- Extra-wide, flared canoes and those with high seats require a slightly longer paddle so that you can easily reach the water with the blade and avoid hitting the shaft (or your knuckles) on the gunwale.
3. Type of paddling and length of outing
Lakes and rivers:
- Straight paddles are the most commonly-used, all-around canoe paddles for the conditions you’ll find on lakes and rivers. The main variables to consider among these paddles are weight, comfort, and durability.
- If you normally paddle in shallow water, you’ll be better off with a shorter, flat-bottomed paddle. The blade tip should be made with a resin to make it more durable in the shallows.
- If, on the other hand, most of your paddling is in deep water, you might choose a more traditional paddle in a standard shaft length. These paddles enter and exit the water more quietly, and their longer length gives you more control.
- A canoe paddle with an ovalized shaft (vs. a perfectly round shaft) will be far more comfortable, easier to hold, and less fatiguing.
- In general, paddles with the classic rounded palm grip are more comfortable to paddle on lakes and rivers. Or try the symmetrical grips (freestyle type) which allow you to paddle using either face.
Extended trips on flat water or racing:
- Bent-shaft paddles are more efficient (they move more water with less effort) and are best for long distances over flat water. Racers commonly use bent-shaft paddles.
- The shape of bent shaft paddles generates powerful strokes but makes most maneuvering strokes and steering more difficult. Bent-shaft paddles allow the canoe blade to be kept vertical for a longer portion of the stroke, which is where the available power is greatest.
- Keep in mind that bent-shaft paddles are generally four inches shorter than straight paddles forthe same size paddler.
- You’ll need a paddle that can take some hard knocks. Most serious whitewater paddlers follow the Straight Canoe column in the size chart above, but opinions abound.
- Make sure that the paddle blade has a urethane tip to protect it.
- Whitewater paddlers will typically choose a T-grip for the control it provides.
- And a paddle with an ovalized shaft will be easier to hold.
4. Types of paddles and features to look for
- Laminated wood shafts are generally both stronger and stiffer than solid wood.
- Blades with fiberglass resist splitting if they get caught between sharp rocks or piled under duffel bags in the back of your vehicle.
- Particularly with wood, smoothness of the finish is critical for your comfort.
- Some manufacturers offer high-grade resins along the entire edge of the paddle blade as well as on just the tip. If your paddle sees rough treatment or will be continuously exposed to water on a long trip, you’ll want this type of protection.
- Spar varnish is recommended by some paddle manufacturers for continuous exposure to sunlight, but that gives a softer finish that can pick up fine grit and feel tacky. Polyurethane provides a harder and more durable finish.
Premium touring paddles. (Click here to see our selection.) Made of closed grain, light weight, durable hardwoods, these paddles are both attractive and versatile for the paddlers who take their time on the water more seriously.
- Designed for flat water cruising on lakes and rivers.
- Rugged enough for heavy use – strong shafts, resin-tipped blades.
- Some have fiberglass-wrapped blades, good for heavy use in wilderness tripping.
- Most are available with both straight and bent shafts.
- New to the touring line, the 100 percent carbon Black Pearl brings lightweight performance to another level.
Performance touring paddles. (Click here to see our selection.) Beautifully-crafted from multiple hardwoods, these high-tech, ergonomically-sound paddles are designed for the canoe elitist who wants the finest in power, comfort, and beauty.
- Designed for weeklong or day trips on lakes and rivers.
- Blade tips should be made of resin for durability.
- These exquisite paddles are typically available in both bent and straight shafts.
Recreational paddles. (Click here to see our selection.) If you’re taking short trips with your family or friends, fishing or shore exploring, a straight-shaft recreational paddle would be the right style of paddle for you.
- The old-fashioned Beavertail paddle. A wood laminate or one piece of wood, with a long rounded blade is a great choice. These narrow and longer bladed paddles pull extremely smooth through the water, and the length helps with sweep strokes.
- If your kids’ young hands will be piloting the boat, choose a paddle with a T-grip that’s easier for them to hold on to.
Expedition paddles. (Click here to see our selection.) Expedition paddles are built to stand up to the rugged conditions of an expedition or whitewater use:
- Typically built of the beefiest components/materials.
- Should have a fully-protected blade edge (with a urethane resin) and a fiberglass blade wrap for added durability.
- Look closely at the paddle grips. T-grips are typically better for whitewater, while a curved palm grip may provide you the comfort you’re looking for on a long trip.
- Usually available with both straight- and bent-shafts.
Solo paddles. (Click here to see our selection.) Solo paddles let you get out on the water by yourself.
- Like a long kayak paddle, these paddles have a single shaft with dual blades to eliminate corrective strokes – a huge help in windy conditions or when keeping up with fast tandems.
- Make sure the paddle and grip are both comfortable and efficient for your use, as there’s only one person doing the work here.