Contrary to what you may have heard, standing height is not an accurate way to size a canoe paddle. Since you sit while boating, the best way to choose a paddle length is to sit—either in a canoe or on the floor.
Most flatwater and whitewater canoeists will require a paddle in the 52" to 60" range, but lengths vary to fit paddlers of all sizes. Bent-shaft paddles are shorter overall, with common lengths of 48" to 54".
To find your ideal paddle length:
Kneel down with your rear 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 noted on REI.com product pages. The total is the correct overall length for your paddle.
Kneel down with your rear about 6" off the floor, as if sitting in a canoe. Hold the paddle upside down, with the grip on the floor. If the paddle length is correct, the blade should start right about even with your nose.
The less a paddle weighs, the less fatigue you'll feel during a long day of canoeing. But don't choose a paddle based on weight alone—the best paddles offer a good balance of light weight, strength and flexibility. For whitewater canoeing, a strong, stiff paddle will hold up to the rigors of the river and provide a quick response in rapids. For flatwater canoeing, a flexible paddle helps absorb shock with every stroke.
Wood is by far the most popular material for canoe paddles. It transmits the feel of the water well, and it flexes slightly to absorb shock. It also retains warmth, so hands stay comfortable in cold conditions. Most paddles today feature wood laminates that include both hard woods and soft woods. This combination is more durable (though more expensive) than those made only from soft woods.
Many wood paddles have a layer of fiberglass over the blade for added strength and/or have a tip guard to improve durability and help resist abrasion. Some upkeep, such as sanding and varnishing, is required to maintain its appearance.
Lightweight, durable and virtually maintenance-free, fiberglass paddles are typically more expensive than those made of other materials. Whitewater canoe paddles are often made of fiberglass.
Durable and economical, paddles with aluminum shafts and plastic blades are heavier than paddles made from other materials. Aluminum shafts can feel cold in cool weather but often feature a vinyl or foam pad where your hand grips the paddle. They make great spare paddles, and can be a good choice for beginners.
Blades vary in width and length. A large, wide blade will power you through the water quickly, but each stroke requires a lot of energy. A small, narrow blade is easy to paddle and more efficient over a period of time, but your stroke will not be as powerful. Some paddles designed just for flatwater cruising feature long, narrow blades, which offer a fairly good balance of power and efficiency.
Not sure what size to get? Paddle blades measuring 8" x 20" are most common and are a suitable choice for most canoeists.
There are 2 common shapes:
Shafts are available in 2 styles: bent or straight.
Shafts can be round or oval in shape. Oval shafts offer a more comfortable grip than the traditional round shape. Some round shafts feature an oval section for better grip. This is called oval indexing.
If you lost your paddle on day 3 of a 5-day canoe trip, what would you do? What if it broke in the middle of a whitewater run? Without a spare, you might literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle. An aluminum-and-plastic paddle makes an inexpensive spare that could save you a lot of time and grief should the unexpected happen, even if you're only out for a day trip.
The best way to choose a paddle is to try one out. Check out your local REI store—a few locations even let REI members demo boats and paddles for free. You could also borrow from a friend or check with a local paddling club about renting one.
After you purchase a paddle, try a dry run. Kneel on the floor and practice paddling. Is the paddle long enough? Is the grip comfortable in your hands? If so, you're ready to hit the water.
Shop REI's selection of canoe paddles.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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