Photo: Brian Lasenby

How to Buy the Right Canoe Paddle

Several Factors Go Into Picking the Right Canoe Paddle

Before you play voyageur and head off canoeing into the wild blue yonder, you’ll need a solid paddle—otherwise, you’ll be up a creek without one. Several factors go into picking the right canoe paddle, from materials, shape and length, to even the choice between a straight or bent shaft (yes, there is such a thing). Following are a few pointers to get you stroking in the right direction.

Sizing

Canoeists are opinionated, and there are certainly many viewpoints regarding the ideal paddle length—varying with the boat and type of water, seating position (whether you prefer to sit or kneel) and stroke mechanics. In general, experts agree to get the shortest paddle that allows you to still reach the water. When paddling, your top hand should be at about nose height in the middle of your stroke, with the paddle throat (where the shaft meets blade) at the water line. 

Go slightly longer if you're paddling in whitewater or shallow creeks where you need maneuverability, and shorter for narrower canoes. Hint: Most manufacturers have charts to help determine sizing. Helpful trick: Sit on a chair and measure your torso, from between your legs to your nose; 26 inches equals a 52-inch paddle; 28 equals 54; 30 equals 56; 32 equals 58; and 34 equals 62 (subtract 4 inches for bent-shaft paddles). To measure in the field, place the paddle’s grip between your legs while sitting; the throat should be at your forehead (with a bent shaft it should be at your nose). Another trick for at the store: Grab the paddle with one hand on the grip and the other at the throat, then place it over your head. If your arms are perpendicular, elbows bent at 90 degrees, it fits. If they’re bent outward, it’s too long; bent inwards, too short.

Sizing also varies depending on blade shape and canoe style. For beavertail (rounded) blade designs, size up 2 to 4 inches to accommodate the shorter shaft. For narrower tripping canoes, those with tumblehome (inward-leaning gunwales, pronounced “gunnels”), or low seats, use a shorter shaft. For wider canoes, boats with flared top edges (outward gunwales), or those with high seats, go slightly longer. 

Straight vs. Bent Shaft

Straight-shaft canoe paddles are great for all-around paddling, offering control and maneuverability for technical rivers; it doesn’t matter which way the blade faces. Bent shafts, where the blade is angled forward (usually 11 degrees or so), are more efficient for long-distance trips. The angle increases reach and allows the blade to remain vertical in the water longer, requiring less energy for a more efficient stroke; this makes them good for racing and longer trips. Hint: Make sure the blade bend is angled forward when using. Solo and stern paddlers often use longer, straight shafts for easier steering with increased leverage, while bow paddlers often use shorter, bent shafts for easier strokes to provide more forward momentum. 

Photo: Yossarian6

Grip

There are two main grip types: palm and “T” style. Palm grips, designed to fit into your palm, are great for comfort and overall function; T-grips are designed for extra control, letting your fingers wrap around the handle. Most palm grips are symmetrical, allowing you to use the paddle on either side. Most bent shafts employ an asymmetric, or “classic” palm grip, for use on one side.

Materials

Canoe paddle materials run the gamut from plastic and aluminum on the least expensive end to wood laminates, fiberglass and other composites (combinations of layered and resinated fabrics such as carbon and Kevlar). As weight decreases, its price rises. The common plastic-blade, aluminum-shaft paddle option will offer supreme durability to withstand seasonal abuse and get you by on shorter outings. As you add miles, however, you’ll find the weight savings worth the slight cost and significant performance increases on every stroke with a wood or a composite paddle.

For wood, go with a laminated shaft, which is stronger and stiffer than solid wood. Many prefer wood for its look and feel; it’s also buoyant, slightly flexible and warm on the hands. In general, darker woods are more dense, durable, rigid and expensive; lighter woods are lighter and cheaper. Many builders add resin and other reinforcing layers along the blade’s edge for durability and polyurethane varnish for sun protection. On the high end are carbon-fiber paddles, many with foam-core composite blades; they’re lightweight, durable and stiff, with minimal flex. Fiberglass blades are durable, but heavier. You can also split the difference, going with a wood blade with a composite shaft.

Blade Shapes

From widest to narrowest, most canoe paddles come in four blade shapes: square-tipped/teardrop, beavertail, otter tail, and voyageur. In general, a larger blade means more power, while a narrower blade means less wind resistance and a less fatiguing stroke. Teardrop and square-tipped feature wider blades, best for shallow water and flatwater paddling, with a smooth, efficient entry and exit. Beavertails have a longer, narrower blade, for easier maneuverability and deeper water; they’re also good for solo canoes. A sort of extended beavertail, otter tails have an even narrower blade toward the tip, with a shorter shaft. Voyageur blades are even longer and narrower—ideal for long, mile-making days of high-cadence strokes once your outing ambitions grow to continent-crossing length.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.