Pack Canoe Paddle Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to Selecting your First Pack Canoe Paddle
Pack canoeing is one of the hottest and fastest growing sports in paddling today. People are investing in these boats because of their light weight, comfortable seating, storage capacity, and unique maneuverability. Many paddlers believe they offer the movement of a kayak with the capacity of an open canoe, now with seats ideal for aging paddlers.
As the world’s largest paddle maker, we too have adapted our line of paddles to meet this new customer base. Below is the summary of our research and experience regarding everything you need to know before buying your first pack canoe paddle.
Kayak Paddle Sizing
Double bladed paddles, i.e. kayak paddles, are the preferred choice amongst pack canoeist today for their overall efficiency and ability to propel the boat at a consistent, expedient pace.
Just like your grandmother’s chili recipe, every seasoned paddler has their perfect recipe for paddle sizing. With that said, getting the right size paddle is actually more important having the right paddle.
Too short of a paddle and you’ll hit your hands on the gunwale of the canoe; too long of a paddle and you’re inefficient (zig-zagging the boat) and more fatigued. Make sure with every stroke that at least 80% of the blade is sufficiently in the water to maximize the effort.
In our professional experience, there’s a simple way to find your size and then additional factors to dial things in further (should you be interested).
THE SIMPLE METHOD: Find your boat length. There is almost a perfect correlation between boat length and paddle size. The longer the boat, the narrower the cockpit width, and therefore the shorter the paddle size. The shorter boats are usually wider and more stable, requiring longer paddles.
Here’s the breakdown between boat specs, the average appropriate paddle size, and percent of paddle sales by size. Our online sizing guide is the most up-to-date and accurate source of sizing information for our paddles.
If you’re looking for more data in order to make a more informed, thorough decision, here’s the additional factors:
Size 5-15 centimeters longer if you have two or more of the following:
- A more relaxed, casual paddling pace
- A true low-angle (horizonal) forward paddling stroke
- Abnormally wider boat width
- Flare, flat-bottom, or V-shaped (usually bevel outward) boat design
- High seat position in the canoe
- You are taller than 6’
Size 5-15 centimeter shorter if you have two or more of the following:
- A more aggressive, active, or endurance focused paddling pace
- A true high-angle (vertical) forward paddling stroke
- Abnormally narrow boat width
- Tumblehome boat design
- Lower seat position in the canoe
- You are shorter than 5’
Kayak Paddle Recommendations
The model you select is highly dependent on which length you need, as certain models are only available in certain sizes. This is mainly due to pack canoeing being such a new paddlesport and few manufacturers offering pack canoeing specific paddles. Therefore, you’re left to accept what’s currently available from these brands, Bending Branches included.
Blade Shapes: The larger the surface area of the blade, the more torque and horsepower it will provide, and also the more it will maneuver your pack canoe. This is a feature you will like if you’re paddling narrow rivers, have a heavily loaded boat, or know you prefer a high-angle paddling stroke (more vertical in forward propulsion). However, on longer distance trips, this blade shape will lead to potential inefficiencies in forward propulsion and fatigue when presented with wind resistance.
The large majority of pack canoeists prefer a long, slender, and generally smaller in nature blade shape, as they’re more efficient and less fatiguing. Once a boat gets up to speed, it can only go so fast (regardless of blade size), so forward momentum becomes more about efficiency than force. Additionally, most pack canoes use longer paddles and their approximation to the water naturally leads to a more low-angle forward stroke.
Most importantly, always buy the lightest paddle you can afford. A lighter the paddle means less strain on your body and less overall fatigue, meaning you can spend more time on the water enjoyable the paddling experience. Lighter paddles are also usually made of better-quality components, designed to last longer and withstand more paddling conditions.
Our long, slender, low-angle and best-selling options:
- Navigator: Available in lengths up to 240cm, the Navigator is one of our best sellers for pack canoeing given the optimal combination of traditional woods with modern carbon shaft technology. The naturally buoyant blades make paddling effortless and the lightweight T-700 is top of the line, ideal for enthusiasts or long-distancing trips. Available in both a fixed length snap-button and adjustable length Versa-Lok™ Snap: $349.95 MSRP; 28 oz. (794 g); Versa-Lok™: $374.95 MSRP; 29.5 oz. (836 g).
- Sunrise Glass: Available in lengths up to 240cm, the Sunrise Glass is designed to be the higher-end of recreational paddles, with a warm, ovalized fiberglass shaft and a durable, tight fit from tip-to-tip. With bright colored blade options and American-made quality, this paddle is built to last and ideal for the novice pack canoeist. $119.95 MSRP; 35 oz. (992 g).
- Bounce: Available in lengths up to 240cm, the Bounce is designed to be a value-oriented, comfortable paddle option. With the ovalized shaft coated with x-grips, the Bounce deters blisters and hauls a load without worry. $89.95 MSRP; 37 oz. (1049 g).
Long, skinny options from Aqua Bound (our sister brand):
- Sting Ray Fiberglass: Available in lengths up to 260cm in 5cm increments, the Sting Ray Fiberglass has our best-selling Sting Ray shape in a more affordable model. The fiberglass shaft is warm on the hands and the blades offers a smooth, flutter-free stroke. Includes a snap-button ferrule with a snug fit. $129.95 MSRP; 34 oz. (964 g).
- Sting Ray Hybrid: The Sting Ray Hybrid is the best-selling Aqua Bound paddle. Lighter than comparable models by 4 oz., paddlers enjoy the 100% carbon shaft and nylon/fiberglass, flutter free blades. With the Posi-Lok™ ferrule, it’s available in lengths up to 260 cm in 5 cm increments. The Versa-Lok™ ferrule is an industry best, being corrosion-free and offering unlimited feathering and adjustable length up to 15cm. Posi-Lok™: $174.95 MSRP; 30.5 oz. (865 g). Versa-Lok™: $194.95; 32 oz..
- Sting Ray Carbon: The Sting Ray Carbon offers full carbon fiber in the shaft and blades, designed to be the lightest and most performance-oriented paddle under $225 USD. This model is a click lighter, stronger and stiffer than its Hybrid With the Posi-Lok™ ferrule, it’s available in lengths up to 260 cm in 5 cm increments. With the Versa-Lok™ ferrule, it’s available in adjustable lengths up to 15cm. Posi-Lok™: $224.95 MSRP; 28.75 oz. (815 g). Versa-Lok™ for adjustable length: $244.95 MSRP; 30.25 oz..
- Tango Fiberglass: Available in lengths up to 250 cm, the Tango Fiberglass is the gold-standard amongst composite blade options. With stiff yet forgiving fiberglass blades and the lightest, strongest straight shaft in paddles, the Tango is ideal for long-distance pack canoeists. $324.95 MSRP; 26 (737 g).
- Tango Carbon: Available in lengths up to 250 cm, the Tango Carbon is the lightest low-angle option available and perfect for older or long-distance boaters. In addition to the weight savings, the overall stiffness makes every forward stroke the most impactful and enjoyable. $399.95 MSRP; 23 (652 g).
The oversized, high-angle options we recommend:
- Impression / Impression Solo: The Impression is available in lengths up to 240cm, while the Impression Solo covers the longer length (260 and 280cm). The Impression is a favorite amongst the purists who want the beauty, feel, and buoyancy of wood, in a presentation that’s hand-built and will last for years to come. Regular: $274.95 MSRP, 40 oz (1134 g). Solo: $274.95 MSRP, 44 oz. (1247 g).
Kayak Fishing paddles that work well in pack canoes:
- Angler Classic: Available in lengths up to 280cm, the Classic is the best-selling kayak fishing paddle on the market. With its nylon-reinforced fiberglass blades and durable, comfortable fiberglass shaft, this paddle is a great value and a step up from entry level paddles. It’s available in both the snap-button and Versa-Lok™ ferrule systems. Snap-button: $159.95 MSRP; 35 oz. (964 g). Versa-Lok™: $184.95; 36.5 oz. (921 g).
- Angler Ace: Available in lengths up to 280cm, the Ace is considered the best overall value in kayak fishing paddles. With a full carbon shaft and carbon/nylon blades, it’s the ideal combination of lightweight performance with amazing durability. This paddle works great for those hard on their gear or buying according to durability. Snap: $224.95 MSRP, 31 (850 g); Versa-Lok™: $249.95 MSRP, 32.5 oz. (921 g). (new link)
- Angler Navigator: Available in lengths up to 280cm, the Angler Navigator is one of the newer and quieter options available. The carbon shaft plus wood blades make it buoyant, forgiving, and long-lasting, perfect for the naturalist or aging paddling demographic. Snap: $349.95 MSRP, 33 oz. (936 g); Versa-Lok™: $374.95 MSRP, 34.5 oz. (978 g).
- Angler Pro: Available in lengths up to 280cm, the Angler Pro is the most popular and desired paddle in the fishing community, given the performance and reliability of this paddle. With a carbon shaft and laminated fiberglass blades, there’s no better long-distance paddle option. Available in both a fixed length snap-button and adjustable-length Versa-Lok™ Snap: $324.95 MSRP, 28.5 oz. (808 g); Versa-Lok™: $349.95 MSRP, 30 oz. (850 g).
- Angler Pro Carbon: Available in lengths up to 280cm, the Angler Pro Carbon is the lightest angler paddle we make, designed for extended trips and those looking to save every available ounce. Snap: $424.95 MSRP, 25.5 oz. (723 g); Versa-Lok™: $449.95 MSRP, 27 oz. (765 g).
Canoe Paddle Sizing
For those that prefer the natural feel, buoyancy, and maneuverability of a wooden canoe paddle (i.e. single bladed paddle), or tend to paddle from their knees, this is your sizing guide.
The canoe paddle sizing is much simpler and universally accepted whether you’re in a tandem canoe, solo canoe, or pack canoe.
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 or shoulder) is at the water line.
MEASURING YOUR TORSO WITH A TAPE MEASURE: 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:
MEASURING YOUR TORSO WITH A CANOE PADDLE: 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 hits you. The shoulder on a straight shaft should be at your forehead; the shoulder on a bent shaft should be at your nose.
For additional information on canoe paddle sizing, selection, and recommendations, be sure to check out our comprehensive canoe paddle sizing + selection guide.
Canoe Paddle Recommendations
When it comes to selecting a canoe paddle for your pack canoe, we do not deviate from our regular canoe paddle recommendations very much. Just like the same sizing guide holds true, what makes certain models better for certain conditions, also holds true.
Remember when buying paddles, you get what you pay for. As you go up in price, you’re paying for better quality components, lighter weight, and/or more paddle reinforcements.
If you’re going to rugged, uncertain conditions or are tougher on your gear, consider buying a paddle focused on durability and longevity. These models will feature full (or extra) Rockgard®, fiberglass (4 oz. or 2 oz.) coating each side of the blade, laminated shafts, and darker woods. These features will protect the wood from damage (cracking or warpage) and slow the wearing process. Our top durability focused straight shaft models are the Expedition Plus, Explorer Plus, and Catalyst ST, with the bent shaft options being the Viper Double Bend, Cruiser Plus, and Catalyst 11. The Catalyst is our first and only paddle made of recycled parts from our previous paddles.
If you’re paddling longer distances, have a weaker paddling cadence, or plan to do some racing, consider prioritizing weight in your paddle buying journey. These paddles will come backed with the necessary reinforcements, but come with features focused on performance and aerodynamics, such as solid shafts, darker woods, and leaner overall profiles. The most popular straight shaft option is the Java ST, followed by the Sunburst ST and Arrow. In terms of bent shaft options, the Java 11 is also a best seller, with the Sunburst 11 and BB Special winning on their own fronts. The Black Pearl II is the lightest paddle we offer and a top choice for expedition pack canoeists.
Here’s all straight shaft options we offer https://bendingbranches.com/collections/straight-shaft and here’s all the bent shaft options we offer https://bendingbranches.com/collections/bent-shaft.
Pack Canoe Background
Here’s the brief history and origin of the pack canoeing market:
- Pack canoes (in the most generic form) have been used in the Adirondacks for over a hundred years. Many lakes in the Northeast area of U.S.A are only accessible via hiking (no boat ramps), so lighter solo boat options have been required for portaging and so most people would simply throw them over their shoulders.
- The pack canoe market is a biproduct of the traditional solo canoeing market and has really taken-off in recent years. As baby boomers have aged and look for convenient ways to enjoy their favorite sports and the outdoors, canoe manufacturers have introduced more comfortable and transportable boat option in pack canoes.
WHY GO PACK CANOEING? – Paddling has blossomed in popularity due to the pandemic and desire for outdoor social distancing activities, especially amongst older paddling crowds.
- Many boaters are switching from kayak or traditional canoe because of the convenience + weight savings of a pack canoe.
- People are finding the paddling to be a relaxing, fun way to get exercise.
- Paddling is a social activity they can enjoy with friends.
- It’s becoming one of the most accommodating paddle sports, especially for paddling in comfort, a priority amongst older demographics.
- Pack canoeing is for everyone, of all ages, from the long-distance/overnight enthusiast to the weekend casual paddler.
WHY USE A PACK CANOE? Why are people switching from kayaks and other traditional canoe designs to pack canoes? The main reasons are convenience, comfortability, and weight:
- Lighter than comparable kayaks
- Better seats than solo canoes
- More capacity than kayaks
- Easier to transport (and portage) and load on/off vehicles
- Agility/maneuverability to fish, hunt, and capture photos
- Lower seat position in the canoe (vs. solo canoes) = more stability
- Freedom and independence (vs. tandem canoes)
- Swift Canoes is currently the market leader for pack canoes with their many different models (rec/touring/long-distance options), comfortable seats, and innovative hull designs. Canadian build, many paddlers appreciate their look and attention-to-detail. The Pack models are ideal for shorter, flat water trips and cottage paddling. The Prospector models are the all-purpose option, from fishing in your backyard to overnight adventures. If weight and performance is the priority for longer-distance trips, be sure to check out the Cruiser.
- Hornbeck Boats have found a home with hand-made boats from a family run operation. As one of the innovators in the pack canoe sport, Hornbeck offers competitive boats from their home base in upstate New York. The Classic is their iconic model and a best seller in the industry, available in many different options and perfect for pretty much all paddling conditions. The New Tricks is the lighter, speed + maneuverability option, perfect for longer distance trips.
- Placid Boatworks offer a modern, kayak-like feel and design to their pack canoes, prioritizing speed and performance. The SpirFire is the smallest and lightest option they offer, being an ideal choice for the beginner pack canoeist. The RapidFire model offers the most speed and versatility, a clear winner for all kinds of paddling and their best seller. The Shadow is the racers choice in the group.
- Wenonah is an iconic brand in the canoeing world, being around since the 1960s and a best-selling brand of boats. Although their specialty is tandem, tripping boats, they do offer couple models ideal for pack canoeing. The Wee Lassie is a recreational, flatwater boat designed for everything from fishing to river paddling to relaxing cottage boating. The Prism, on the other hand, is all about speed, gliding, and cruising long-distances with a light load.
- North Star is the birthchild of Ted Bell and Bell Canoes, a beloved brand amongst boaters. They offer many models that fit the bill of solo canoeing more than pack canoeing, but operate in a similar capacity. Check out the ADK for recreational, flatwater paddling, the Trillium Pack for all-purpose touring, and the Rob Roy for a unique canoe/kayak cockpit style.
- Another traditional canoe brand is Old Town, offering a rec, price point option with the Next and a fishing, outfitting option with the Discovery 119.
- If you’re handy and want to build your own boat, be sure to check with the good folks at Chesapeake Light Craft, who offer a pack canoe option in their Nymph Canoe.