As the sport of kayaking has evolved over the years, there have been a number of different kayaking paddle products that have emerged. For new paddlers, this vast selection can be somewhat overwhelming. In fact, many kayakers often question whether or not these so called “high-caliber” paddles have any noticeable advantages out on the water.
Casual kayakers typically won’t see much of a discernible difference between kayak paddles. Frequent kayakers, however, may notice a marked difference in their maneuverability, stroke power, energy levels, and levels of soreness when switching over to a higher quality kayak paddle.
Generally, the longer and the more physically taxing that a kayaking trip is, the more important the specific make and model of a kayak paddle becomes. Below, we’ll discuss the exact ways in which a kayak paddle can improve your experience on the water, as well as how to go about selecting the most suitable paddle for you.
Ways that Kayak Paddles Impact Efficiency on the Water
Seasoned kayakers are constantly on the hunt for tips and strategies to paddle with greater efficiency. Fortunately, the kayak paddle can provide a slight boost in paddling productivity, without the need for any extreme change in form.
Blade Shape Influences Steering and Sustained Stroke Power
For one, paddle blade design can markedly improve maneuverability and power if you get the right model.
Generally, blade shapes are classified under two categories—short, broad blades and long narrow blades. Each type of blade has its pros and cons, so it’s important to match the blade shape with whatever type of kayaking you choose to participate in.
Short, Broad Blade – This type of paddle blade is optimized for mobility. Since this kind of blade has a greater amount of surface area, the kayak is a lot more receptive to each and every stroke. Consequently, kayakers can perform lateral movements very quickly.
The greater sensitivity of a short, broad blade makes it the choice paddle blade among surf kayakers. Since they need to react instantaneously to the constantly changing the landscape of the waves, this blade can be highly advantageous.
Long, Narrow Blade – This type of paddle blade is optimized for paddle stroke efficiency. Due to its slim construction, the blade is considerably lighter compared to a short, broad blade.
A recreational kayaker may not be able to notice this subtle change in weight, but it can make a massive difference on extended kayaking trips. After performing hundreds—or possibly thousands—of paddle strokes, the effect of this slight weight reduction becomes more evident as a paddler reaches the final leg of their journey.
Every ounce of energy counts when you embark on an all-day paddling cruise, so you may want to consider a long, narrow blade if this is the type of kayaking you prefer.
The Blade Angle Can Minimize (or Exacerbate) the Effect of Wind Resistance
Another structural element of paddle blades that influences efficiency is the feathering of the kayak paddle. For those of you that do not know, paddle feathering is a kayaking term used to describe how the paddle blades are angled relative to each other.
Often times, inexperienced kayakers pay little attention to the angle of their paddle blades. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the majority of novice kayakers don’t even know that two paddle blades on the same shaft can be positioned offset to one another. When I first ventured into the realm of kayaking, I know that I was completely unaware of this subtle detail.
Now that you know what paddle feathering is, let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of unfeathered paddles versus feathered paddles.
Straight (Unfeathered) Paddle – This is the type of paddle that first comes to mind when people typically think of a kayak paddle. The paddle blades are exactly aligned with one another, with absolutely no variation in how the blades are angled onto the paddle shaft.
Straight paddles are fairly intuitive to use, since kayakers don’t have to consciously keep track of how the paddle blades are oriented in relation to the water. The paddle blades lie in the same plane, which makes it extremely convenient on the paddler to perform strokes in a quick, precise fashion.
Offset (Feathered) Paddle – An offset paddle, on the other hand, features paddle blades that do not lie in the same plane (source). The paddle blades are oriented so that when one blade enters the water, the other blade that lies above the water is angled toward the wind. This way, the flat side of the blade doesn’t collect nearly as much wind, which ultimately reduces the effects of wind resistance.
You can see what a feathered blade looks like by analyzing the picture below.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the paddle blades don’t face the same way. This was done intentionally to minimize the effects of wind resistance to help this paddler preserve their energy over the course of a long trip.
It does take a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of a feathered paddle, but it’s well worth the patience for lengthy kayaking expeditions.
Lighter, More Durable Paddles Deplete Less of Your Energy
In addition, the manufacturing ingredients used to construct a kayak paddle are largely responsible for the overall weight of the paddle itself. The strength to weight ratio of a kayak paddle can play a major factor on your kayaking trip, especially if you’re planning on trekking multiple hours on rougher waters.
Generally, kayak paddle blades can be made from three classes of production materials: plastic, composite, and wood. In the eyes of a casual kayaker, the effectiveness of all these paddle blade materials will be about the same. Advanced paddlers will be more cognizant of the subtle differences that each type of manufacturing material offers.
- Plastic Paddle Blades – These paddle blades are the most popular choice among recreational kayakers, mostly because they’re the least expensive. Plastic paddle blades can run into durability issues with overuse, particularly if they face too much UV exposure. Plus, these paddle blades tend to flex, which detracts slightly from stroke power.
- Composite Paddle Blades – These paddle blades encompass a variety of materials—like fiberglass, kevlar, and carbon fiber for example. Certain composite materials are held in a higher esteem relative to others. Generally, carbon fiber paddles are the most expensive, but they’re markedly lighter than a normal plastic paddle blade.
- Wooden Paddle Blades – These paddle blades are less popular than they used to be, as kayakers have been shifting more toward the plastic and composite paddle blades. However, there are still kayakers that prefer traditional wooden kayak paddle blades because of their reliability and simplicity.
Kayak paddle shafts, on the other hand, are typically made from aluminum or composite. Unlike paddle blades, it’s not common for a paddle shaft to be constructed from plastic.
- Aluminum Paddle Shaft – This type of paddle shaft is the most popular option for most kayakers. It performs well in most conditions, but it’s important to realize that this material has a tendency to take on the effects of the surrounding weather. In other words, the aluminum will heat up in warmer conditions and feel cool to the touch in colder conditions.
- Composite Paddle Shaft – This type of paddle shaft covers an umbrella of manufacturing materials, but the most popular ingredients are carbon and fiberglass. Both carbon and fiberglass paddle shafts are largely seen as a step up from aluminum paddle shafts, given its superior strength to weight ratio.
Paddle Shaft Bend Can Reduce Wrist and Elbow Strain
Lastly, the construction of a paddle shaft has the potential to curtail wrist and elbow strain. After spending hours paddling, it’s only natural for these particular joints to get sore. The repeated stress of having to pull the paddle through the water compounds over time, until your wrists and elbows start to ache.
Straight paddle shafts tend to worsen this aching sensation because the wrist and elbow joints are put in an uncomfortable position. The straight construction of the paddle shaft forces paddlers to bend slightly at the wrists, which ultimately throws the elbows slightly out of alignment as well.
Holding this position over an extended period of time inevitably results in additional soreness, since your body is not conditioned to maintain this unnatural alignment.
Fortunately, you can greatly reduce this aching just by slightly modifying the bend of the paddle shaft. Sometimes referred to as crank shafts or ergo shafts, this type of paddle shaft reduces soreness and improves paddling efficiency by allowing kayakers to align their wrists and elbows in a more natural position.
How to Pick the Right Type of Kayak Paddle for You
Now that you know that paddle shafts can have a positive effect on your kayaking, you likely want to know how to approach selecting the best kayak paddle for you. The last thing you want do is buy a kayak paddle on a whim and realize that you’ve made the wrong choice when you finally take to the waters.
Step 1: Decide on What Type of Kayaking You Will Be Participating in Most
First and foremost, you need to consider what type of kayaking you will be participating in. If you’re new to the world of kayaking, the most popular kayaking activities are listed below:
- Recreational Kayaking – This activity is where most paddlers begin their kayaking journey. They cruise around for thirty minutes to an hour just taking in the sights.
- Touring – This is a step up from recreational kayaking, as paddlers commit to multiple hour or day long trips on the water.
- Whitewater Kayaking – In this kind of kayaking, paddlers have to navigate through rough water conditions, such as rapids and waterfalls.
- Kayak Surfing – This activity has the same general premise as surfing. The only difference is that you’re riding the waves on a kayak, not a surfboard.
- Kayak Fishing – This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s definitely a solid way to spice up your typical fishing outing.
Every kayaker leans toward at least one subcategory of paddling. Once you decide which of the kayaking activities above suits you best, you’ll have a better understanding of exactly what essential features to look for in the ideal kayak paddle for you.
We touched on this example a bit earlier, but if you have a strong inclination toward touring, it’s in your best interest to invest in a long, narrow paddle blade to maximize stroke efficiency. On the other hand, if you’re into kayak surfing, you’ll want to invest in a short, broad paddle blade to maximize maneuverability.
Step 2: Narrow Down Your Paddle Selection Based on Your Height and the Kayak’s Width
Once you have a general idea of what essential features to look for, you now need to pare down your selection by browsing through the appropriate sized kayak paddles.
Kayak paddles are sized according to the height of the paddler and the width of the kayak. To get a general idea of the appropriate paddle length for your specific height and kayak width, check out this easy-to-follow sizing table put together by REI.
From here, you can get a better idea of what types of paddles are available, since certain kayak paddles may be out of stock at the particular size that you’re looking for.
Step 3: Prioritize Paddle Accessories According to Your Particular Preferences
Next, it’s a smart idea to consider the additional accessories that accompany each prospective kayak paddle that you’re interested in. These features may not be essential to what you’re looking for, but they may be nice to have in a pinch.
For example, there are some kayak paddles that can be disassembled into smaller pieces for superior storage and portability. If you don’t live right next to a body of water, this disassembly capability may be extremely convenient. Attempting to pack a lengthy paddle in a small, compact car to ferry over to a kayaking spot can be a hassle. If you have difficulty choosing between two paddles that are of the same relative quality, this might be the deciding factor to push you in the right direction.
The disassembly capability is just one of many paddling accessories to consider. You can also consider whether you want your kayak paddle to have feathered blades versus unfeathered blades, a bent shaft versus a straight shaft, or a small diameter shaft versus a standard diameter shaft.
Step 4: Select the Best Paddle that Fits Your Budget
After considering all of these various properties, the final determinant is price. Depending on what your budget is, certain paddles will lie well out of your price range, whereas others will fall well within your maximum price limit.
Remember that price is not always indicative of quality. Often times, the so called “top-tier” kayak paddles are highly priced because of the brand, not necessarily the product.
This is why I deliberately made price analysis the last step of the paddle selection process. If you focus on the price tags of the paddles rather than the practical features that each paddle offers, you’re far more likely to make the wrong choice. Follow this step-by-step buyer’s guide as it’s outlined and you’re bound to find the paddle that’s right for you.
What’s Makes a Bigger Difference: The Kayak or The Paddle?
After people learn the importance of the paddle for serious kayakers, they often bring up the controversial topic of what’s more critical to the kayaking experience: the kayak or the paddle?
Although this is a loaded question that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, it’s a meaningful question to ask. When I was first learning the ropes of kayaking, I often wondered about this myself.
On one end, you can make a solid argument that the kayak is more important than the paddle, as it’s the actual thing that glides through the water. A kayak that has a streamlined design with superior stability will definitely enhance the paddling experience, since the kayak can cut through the water with greater efficiency.
At the same time, however, the kayak is meaningless without the paddle. The paddle is what actually propels the kayak forward. On a typical kayaking trip, paddlers perform thousands of repetitions with their paddle. Think about it this way. What would you rather do… thousands of paddle strokes while carrying a two pound weight or a five pound weight?
By using a high caliber paddle, you can travel much farther distances and reduce soreness all without having to put forth any additional effort. In contrast, a paddler that chooses to use a low-end paddle is likely to have much more of a frustrating experience keeping the kayak moving along.
At the end of the day, both the kayak and the paddle need each other to function. Just like you can’t go driving without the proper gas to fuel your car, you can’t go kayaking without the proper paddle to power the kayak forward.
The major takeaway here is to spread your resources out equally to get the best combination of kayak and paddle for your budget. Investing all of your resources exclusively on a kayak or exclusively on a paddle is not the best use of your money.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a casual kayaker, I wouldn’t worry too much about the specific make and model of your kayak paddle, as you probably won’t notice much of a difference in performance anyway. Veteran kayakers are the ones that benefit the most from investing into particular features on their paddles, since their trips are usually more protracted and demanding on the body.
So if you’re serious about taking your kayaking to the next level, consider upgrading your kayak paddle! You may be surprised at how much of a difference that it makes.