How to Choose the Right Canoe Paddles

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By Bryan Rucker •  17 min read

Do you have an upcoming camping or canoeing trip—one with river, or lake access? Are you looking for just the right canoe paddle or paddles to help propel and steer your boat in the most accurate and efficient manner? If so, the following article may prove very useful to you. Here we will explain how to select and size the perfect canoe paddle just for you, and highlight the various things you should look for when you venture out to shop for one or more of these very useful and necessary items.

[su_note note_color=”#f2f23e”]Quick Answer: What are the best canoe paddles for the money right now?


Parts of the Canoe Paddle

The different parts of the canoe paddle are common to all paddles you will encounter. Below we will define the various parts of the paddle to help you better comprehend the various aspects we will discuss in the article to follow.

Best Canoe Paddles for Beginners (2018)

What to Look for in Canoe Paddles

When you need canoe paddles, there are several factors and characteristics you should look for and there are several things you need to understand. According to canoeing experts, determining the right paddle for you means you will need to become familiar with the various designs and materials associated with these paddles, and determine how the canoe paddle feels in your hand and how it cuts through the water when in motion. These are just some of the topics we will cover in this article. However, before you decide on the exact paddle you need, you must first decide on the type of paddling you are going to do. Just like the canoe itself, there is no single canoe paddle that is ideal for every type of water and water condition you are likely to encounter over the life of your canoe. The manner in which the paddle is constructed, the shape and style of the blade, and the paddle design: these are all factors you will have to consider depending on the type of canoeing you intend to do.

Choosing a Canoe Paddle for Flat Water Conditions

If paddling with more ease and less strenuous effort is important to you when canoeing on flat water, we strongly suggest you select a paddle with a beavertail or ottertail blade shape. These blades are a lot alike in many ways, but they do have some minor differences. If you can picture a beaver’s tail, you can guess that the beavertail blade has a rounded tip on the blade, and a nearly consistent width until it tapers off towards the neck. The ottertail blade has a blade tip that is slightly less rounded, and the blade itself is a bit narrower than that on the beavertail blade. Both of these blades shapes tend to hold less water on the blade face, especially when compared to blades with wider designs. This latter category of wider blades can tire you out much more easily on your flat water canoeing trip, while the beavertail and ottertail blades make for a less strenuous paddle and usually a more enjoyable trip.

If speed is most important to you when paddling on flat water, you may want to opt for a bent shaft paddle. Bent shaft paddles tend to give the blade face more vertical time in the water when in motion. This vertical time definitely increases speed and efficiency, but can make steering strokes more difficult and generally more tiring than paddling with the two blade types mentioned above.

Paddles for Canoeing in Whitewater/Rapids

While the beavertail and ottertail paddles have blade tips that are basically rounded, the paddles recommended for whitewater conditions have blades that are both shorter and wider than the former paddles. They also have squared off tips. The reason for this design on the whitewater paddles is that it makes it much simpler for canoeists to make rapid strokes and last minute maneuvers like draws and pries as they navigate the rapids. These paddles are always equipped with a straight shaft, as a straight shaft is absolutely crucial in whitewater, making braces and other key techniques easier to perform.

Some whitewater-designed paddles are equipped with slightly curved blades. This design specific assists the blade’s grip with the water each time it is contacted.

If traveling along large rivers that feature both flat water sections and roaring whitewater and rapids, some experienced canoeists will bring two paddles along—or two sets of paddles—helping them to navigate both water conditions in the most efficient manner.

Paddles for Canoeing Solo

If your next canoeing adventure will be a solo one—one in which you will be paddling alone—you might want to think of a different canoe paddle design. According to many longtime guides, if you are paddling solo you could probably benefit from a longer and narrower blade. You should also look for a paddle that has a shorter shaft length—in addition to the features above—as this will give you much more precision and control as you navigate tough waters. With these specially-designed paddles the canoeist is supposed to recover while the blade of the paddle is underwater, rather than when it is above the water in the air.

Paddles for Canoe Racing

Paddles for canoe racing, also referred to as racing paddles, typically have blades that are wider and shorter than the blades found on other styles of paddles. The wide blade face on this paddle will catch more water with every stroke, and the stout nature of the blade allows for more rapid paddling. Many of the most experienced racing paddlers also tend to get shafts that are bent. Bent-shaft paddles tend to improve performance by increasing the forward power and effectiveness of every stroke taken by the boater.

About Grips

As we mentioned in the section “Parts of the Canoe Paddle,” the grip, which is located at the very end of the canoe paddle shaft, typically takes on one of two shapes: a tear-drop shape, also known as the palm grip, and a triangle or T-shaped grip. A palm grip is shaped like a teardrop and tends to fit perfectly in the canoe paddler’s hands. If you are a recreational canoeist or if you intend to be paddling on flat water, this is the recommended grip for your paddle. The triangle or T-shaped grip, boasts a longer horizontal section the paddler can wrap his or her hand around. This shape is not as comfortable as the palm grip, but it does allow for a greater degree of precision and control. If you intend to be paddling in whitewater/rapids, the T-shaped grip is recommended.

Paddle Shaft Type

The shaft of the paddle always takes on one of two shapes: round or oval. According to those in the know, the oval shaft makes paddling a lot more comfortable. To make round shafts more comfortable to the boater, some manufacturers add what is known as “oval indexing.” This is when a round shaft has a dedicated section that is oval-shaped, making it easier for the paddler to grip the implement from that section of the paddle.

What Material Should I Choose for My Canoe Paddle?

Canoe paddles are manufactured using a variety of materials. These materials include wood, composites, and a paddle that has a combination of plastic and aluminum. Below we will take a closer look at each of these materials to help you make the most informed and educated purchasing decision.

Wooden Canoe Paddles

When it comes to canoe paddles, wood offers a lot of advantages and only a few downsides. First, for canoe enthusiasts who are purists, there really is no better choice than wood—the original material for canoe paddles that has been used for hundreds of years. Wood paddles simply look better than those made of other materials, especially when they are well cared for and maintained. Sanded wood paddles feel excellent in the hands. In warm weather, your hands tend to sweat less with a wooden paddle. This provides a better and more consistent grip. And in cold weather conditions, wood is much warmer and more comfortable to the touch than those paddles made of aluminum or composite materials. The downside to wooden paddles is they do require a level of maintenance over their lifetime. To prevent moisture from penetrating the wood and thus rotting the paddle, users will occasionally have to treat the paddle with varnish or another type of sealant. Wood paddles may also have to be sanded from time to time to maintain their smooth finish.

Wood paddles can be made from a variety of different wood products. Some of these include:

In certain cases, a manufacturer will use several different kinds of wood in the same paddle, laminating them together. Shiny wood paddles that have different shades running throughout them are often made from two or more kinds of wood.

To preserve and lengthen the lifespan of wooden paddles, some manufacturers add a fiberglass tip to the paddle. This comes in very handy when you are forced to paddle in shallow or very rocky waters—waters that can cause your wood paddle to chip or get dinged.

Wood paddles are an excellent choice for flat water paddling, especially in large lakes and ponds.

Composite Canoe Paddles

Composite paddles are relatively new in the marketplace, but they are becoming very popular for a number of reasons. Made from materials such as fiberglass, carbon and aramid (sometimes in combination), composite paddles tend to be much lighter than traditional wooden paddles, and in some cases even stronger. These paddles also differ from wooden paddles in other ways. First they are much stiffer than traditional wooden paddles, and this stiffness means less flex. This can add to the speed of the canoe, but it can also make the paddler much more tired over a long period of time. Unlike wood paddles, composite paddles require little to no maintenance, and they tend to last a very long time.

In terms of price, the cost of composite paddles depends on the ratio of carbon to other fibers. In other words, the more carbon that exists in the paddle, the higher the price tends to be. This is because carbon is much more expensive to get than other materials, and because it is both strong and very light.

Due to the stiffness of composite paddles, they are often the first choice for racers on flat water surfaces.

Aluminum and Plastic Canoe Paddles

The combination paddles, made from aluminum and plastic, are typically the least expensive type of paddles. They usually have a plastic blade and a shaft made of aluminum. The plastics used to make these combination paddles are very strong and durable, which translates to a blade that requires little to no maintenance over its lifespan. The combination paddles are typically much heavier than composite paddles, and roughly the same weight as wooden paddles, if not a little bit heavier. Canoeists that tackle the whitewater rapids often use these paddles for their flexibility, as the aluminum has much more give than wooden and composite paddles, making it easier to do certain maneuvers when navigating rushing waters. On hot days, however, the aluminum shaft can be quite hot to the touch, and the sweating it may cause makes it harder to grip. On cold days, the aluminum can feel icy cold and not nearly as comfortable as grasping a wooden paddle.

Selecting the Right Size Canoe Paddle

Not that you have an idea about what to look for when shopping for a canoe paddle, it’s time to determine the right size paddle for you. Regardless of the type of canoe paddle you select, and despite the type of canoeing you are planning to do, if you do not have a correctly sized paddle it is not going to work well for you at all. Canoe paddles that are too large or long for you will feel cumbersome in your hands, and will tire you out much more rapidly, leading to a trip that is miserable. Conversely, a canoe paddle that is too small will be inefficient in the water, making you take more strokes than you normally would.

To ensure that you find a correctly sized canoe paddle that is perfect for you, simply follow the tips below.

Tips for Selecting a Correctly Sized Canoe Paddle

The perfect canoe paddle size will depend on the canoe in which you will be propelling and how you sit in that canoe. In a perfect world, the best way to test if a canoe paddle is the right size for you is to take it out in the water with your canoe, but because that will normally not be possible, you can try these sizing options that we have compiled below.

When you are in the sporting goods store shopping for your next canoe paddle, go down onto your knees with your back and legs straight. Next, grab the canoe paddle at the neck—where the shaft meets the blade—with the grip resting on the floor in front of you. If the canoe paddle is the right size for you, your arms should be fully extended/vertical. If your arms or bent, the canoe paddle is too short for you, and if you cannot grab the neck with the grip on the floor, the canoe paddle is too large for you.

Another sizing tip is to sit in your canoe seat and place your feet on the floor of the canoe. Now, take note of—or have a friend measure—the distance between your nose and the very tip of the canoe. This distance should be roughly equal in feet/inches as the length between the neck of the canoe paddle and its grip.

The next tip is to take a broomstick as a make-believe paddle and place your canoe in the water. While sitting just as you would on a canoeing trip, begin paddling with the broomstick—just a couple of paddles. Now, examine the broomstick carefully. The part of that broomstick that is still dry represents the length of the shaft that is appropriate when paddling in that canoe. This method is very accurate as it takes into account the height of the canoe seat, the depth of the water and the position of your hands in determining the proper length of shaft you will need. Once you have determined this, you will just need to decide on a blade length and type that best suits your paddling style for the type of water in which you will be canoeing.

The final tip for determining the right paddle size for you is to simply sit down in a chair with your back straight and your eyes looking straight ahead. Have a friend measure the distance from the seat of the chair to your eyebrows. This distance is roughly equal to the proper shaft length for you. Again once this is determined, you will just need to decide on an appropriate blade.

Other Canoe Paddle Tips

These last few canoe paddle tips will help you get the most out of your paddle and maximize the fun on every single canoeing expedition you plan to do.

Canoe Paddle Storage

The ideal way to store your canoe paddle is to buy or build a rack for it. These racks will preserve the shape of the canoe paddle and ensure it remains in tip top shape for a very long time. If you do not have a rack, you should store it on a flat surface where it will be protected. Do not leave your paddle outside, and avoid storing it in places like basements where the conditions can be damp. Moisture can absolutely ruin a wooden canoe paddle, so make sure you find a clean, dry place in which to store it.

Protecting the Blade

A great way to protect the blade of your canoe paddle when it is not in use is to buy or make a sleeve for it. A hockey sock will work well for this, but absent that there are many items that can be used to make a sleeve that fits over the blade of the canoe paddle. These sleeves can protect the blade from the elements and keep it from getting accidentally dinged or broken when storing or transporting it.

Always Bring an Extra Paddle

If your canoe paddle gets lost or stolen, your canoeing expedition is essentially a bust. Paddles can get washed away in the rapids, stolen, dropped or broke. This is why it always pays to bring an extra paddle along that is stowed away safely in your truck or RV. This is especially important when planning an extended canoeing expedition. Things happen, but if you prepare for the worst you can ensure your canoeing trip will proceed without interruption.

image credit: SimpleFoto (DepositPhotos)

Bryan Rucker

Brian Rucker has spent his entire life participating in essentially all things wildlife. His concern grew astronomically during the previous tensions between the United States and other nations. He also has grown a substantial interest in survival and sustainability due to the current shape of the world over the years. He believes that preparation triumphs all things.