Kayak paddling

Got propulsion? Your choice of paddle can make a vast difference in your kayaking comfort and energy level out on the water. Fortunately, kayak paddles are not too difficult to choose. This article covers the basics of paddle shapes, sizes and materials.

Shop REI’s selection of kayak paddles.

Length

Kayak paddles range from about 210cm to 260cm in length. The correct size for you depends on your paddling style, your height and the width of your boat.

Paddling Style

Kayak paddle

Low-angle paddling uses a relaxed style with a slower cadence. It offers efficiency on long trips. The flatter (more horizontal) angle of the blade into the water means that low-angle paddles feature slim blades and are slightly longer than high-angle paddles.

High-angle paddling describes a more aggressive style and a faster cadence. This is preferred in moving water where acceleration and maneuverability are important. Because it requires ample force for each stroke, it's also a great choice for fitness.

Height and Boat Width

The taller the paddler, the longer the paddle that is needed. For example, a 6'2" paddler with a 26" wide boat would want a 230cm long paddle for low-angle paddling; a 5' tall paddler with the same-width boat would be happier with a 220cm paddle. Boat width is important, too, so see the charts below (courtesy of Werner Paddles) for general guidelines.

Low-Angle Paddle Sizing

  Under 23" 23" to 28" 28" to 32" Over 32"
Under 5' tall
210cm 220cm 230cm 240cm
5' to 5'6" tall
215cm 220cm 230cm 240cm
5'6" to 6' tall
220cm 220cm 230cm 250cm
Over 6' tall
220cm 230cm 240cm 250cm

High-Angle Paddle Sizing

  Over 26" Under 26"
Under 5'1" tall
200cm 220cm
5'1" to 5'4" tall
205cm 220cm
5'4" to 6' tall 210cm 220cm
Over 6' tall
220cm 230cm

REI also carries a few shorter kayak paddles designed for kids.

Blade Materials

It's true that the lighter the weight, the easier the paddling. However, the best paddles offer a balance of light weight and strength. Weight is most relevant for touring paddles, especially on long trips; strength is key for whitewater paddles (whitewater gear is not generally carried by REI).

Fiberglass

In the middle of the price range, these are popular for touring and recreational use, and for good reason. They are relatively light weight and offer excellent durability. Plus, they come in a wide range of colors.

Carbon Fiber

With its light weight and distinctive look, carbon fiber is the high-performance choice. It costs more, but if you're headed out on a multiday trip you will appreciate the reduced weight over thousands of paddle strokes. 

Nylon/Aluminum/Plastic

These paddles are affordable, durable and require minimal care. They make great spare paddles and can be a good choice for beginners or recreational kayakers. Downsides: They are relatively heavy, and aluminum can feel cold in cool weather. 

Blade Design

Feathering

Blades are either feathered or nonfeathered. Nonfeathered blades are positioned in line with each other. Feathered blades are not on the same plane; they are offset at an angle to each other.

The main benefits of feathering is that it reduces wind resistance and wrist fatigue. As one blade strokes through the water, the other slices through the air. Typical feathered blade angles vary from 30° to 45°. Smaller angles are easier on the wrists; larger angles offer greater efficiency when paddling.

Blades are feathered in such a way that one hand always maintains control of the paddle. This "control hand" rotates the shaft with each stroke so the blades enter the water at the most efficient angle. Most whitewater paddles are controlled with the right hand. Most touring paddles have take-apart shafts that let you change the feather angle and the control hand. The control hand is a matter of personal preference, and is not necessarily determined by whether you are right- or left-handed.

Blade Shape

Most paddle blades these days feature a asymmetrical dihedral shape

Unlike older symmetrical blades, asymmetrical designs are relatively narrow and tolerate a more horizontal stroke, which requires less energy on your part. The dihedral shape creates a built-in angle, similar to an airplane wing. This allows water to flow smoothly and evenly over both halves of the blade.

Shafts

Most kayak paddles have simple straight shafts. Bent-shaft paddles have a “kinked” section that positions hands at a more comfortable angle during the power portion of a stroke, which minimizes discomfort and fatigue—especially if you have joint or shoulder injuries.

Two-piece shafts break down for easy storage; 4-piece shafts break down even smaller making them a great choice for inflatables or as a backup paddle.

Small-diameter shafts offer a less fatiguing grip for women or any paddler with smaller hands.

Shafts come in 2 shapes: oval and round. Oval shafts offer a more comfortable grip than the traditional round shape. Some round shafts feature oval hand sections for a better grip. This is called oval indexing.

Carry a Spare

If your paddle breaks in the middle of a whitewater run, or if you lose it on the second day of a 4-day sea kayak trip, what will you do? Without a spare, you might literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle. A take-apart paddle makes an inexpensive spare that could save you serious time and grief should the unexpected happen. They are easy to stash and stand up to rigorous use.

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