If you’re getting into kayaking, you might put a lot of research into finding the right vessel. Don’t underestimate the importance of choosing a proper paddle, though. Ideally, you’ll end up with the best boat and paddle for your needs. However, a perfect paddle can enhance the functionality of a substandard boat, and a shoddy paddle can negate the benefits of even the most expensive kayak.
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Kayak paddles range in price from about $20 to several hundred dollars. Although a more expensive paddle isn’t necessarily the best one for you, the price can indicate the quality of materials and construction. However, many other factors go into selecting a good kayak paddle.
When you have the one that works best for you, you’ll know it. A kayak paddle can help you navigate effortlessly over the water. It can help you transform your muscle energy into efficient power for your boat without wasting energy. It also allows you to steer effectively.
All of this translates into a better experience for you. A good paddle reduces fatigue and soreness. It’s comfortable to hold and doesn’t give you blisters.
When you’re looking into a kayak paddle, you should take the following characteristics into account:
A wide range of materials may be used in the construction of a kayak paddle. Cheaper materials usually weigh more and are less efficient. As the weight decreases, the expense usually increases. Durability may be a factor if you’re going through rapids. Moving through rocky areas puts your paddle at greater risk of breaking.
The shaft, or pole, of the paddle is usually made from aluminum, fiberglass or carbon.
Aluminum is an entry-level material for a shaft. It’s one of the heaviest options, which can tire you out quickly.
Temperature might not make a difference when you’re paddling in the summer, but it could be a deal-breaker during colder months. If you leave an aluminum paddle in the sun, it can become blisteringly hot. You can also wear gloves to protect your hands from a hot or cold paddle.
Fiberglass is durable and lightweight. It can stand up to a great deal of abuse, which is why many paddlers prefer this option. It also balances cost with quality. The shaft or the blade may be made of fiberglass.
A fiberglass blade weighs less than plastic. It’s also more durable. Although fiberglass can chip, it won’t usually crack all the way through like plastic can. Fiberglass blades are more efficient than flexible plastic ones.
Carbon fiber is the most expensive paddle material. Carbon fiber paddles can cost up to three times as much as fiberglass versions. They’re also lighter and more durable than fiberglass.
When used to construct the blades, carbon fiber is the lightest and stiffest material. This translates to less fatigue and enhanced efficiency.
Wood paddles are less common than the other materials. However, some manufacturers combine wood with state-of-the-art materials to achieve a beautiful product that holds up to heavy use.
More and more sea kayakers are turning to Greenland-style paddles for touring. These sleek, streamlined paddles are slim, which eliminates bulk and weight. The blades are long and narrow, and the tips may be curved or squared off.
These paddles are made from one piece of wood. They can’t be taken apart for portability, and they aren’t feathered.
If it doesn’t have fiberglass, wood or carbon blades, a paddle may have plastic or nylon blades. Although you might think that plastic is indestructible, it can degrade with exposure to the sun. Many plastic and nylon blades are reinforced with fiberglass or carbon. This makes them more durable, but it also adds to their weight.
There are different types of kayaks, including recreational, touring, performance, sit-on-top, river and open sea vessels. There are also different types of kayak paddles, although there is no standard for naming the types. You need to take multiple features into account to determine which type is best for your needs.
For example, a paddle for a sit-on-top kayak will need to be longer than a paddle for a low-profile kayak. For recreational use, you’ll probably want a low-angle blade, which lends itself to a more relaxed stroke.
If you kayak competitively, you need something that will enhance your performance. A high-angle blade might be a better option in this case. We discuss high and low-angle blades further in the section on kayak paddle length.
Kayak paddles may come as one, two or four pieces. A four-piece paddle is ideal for hiking, transporting on a plane, storing in small spaces or using as a spare paddle.
The width of your boat and your height help you determine paddle length. A taller paddler and a wider boat require a longer paddle.
Every paddle manufacturer should be able to offer you a chart to help you choose the right kayak paddle length. If you fall between sizes, you might want to select a shorter paddle, advises REI. It will be lighter and easier to hold. However, if you have a short torso, a longer paddle extends your reach.
The length should also take into account the type of paddling that you do. Low-angle paddling is done with a relatively horizontal stroke. This technique is more recreational and relaxing. A low-angle paddle should have a longer shaft and narrower blade.
A high-angle kayaker places the paddle in the water at a more vertical angle. This can increase power and speed when done correctly. Paddles for this type of stroke are usually shorter and have a wider blade.
We’ve discussed how high-angle blades are better for performance paddling, while low-angle blades are great for leisurely floats. That’s not to say that you can’t get your hustle on with a low-angle blade, though. You can cover some decent ground in a lake, slow-moving river or marshy waterway with a low-angle blade.
The stiffer the blade, the more power you’ll get from it. A flimsy blade displaces your energy. You’ll have to put more into each stroke than you get out of it. Fiberglass and carbon blades are less flexible than plastic and plastic blends.
Blades can be shaped symmetrically or asymmetrically. This doesn’t mean that the blade on one side of the shaft is larger or differently shaped than the one on the other side. It means that the shape of each blade is either symmetrical or asymmetrical using the shaft as the midline.
It doesn’t matter how you hold a paddle with symmetrical blades. These work well for beginners and are often used for white-water paddling.
Asymmetrical blades must enter the water in a certain way. The shorter side of the blade should hit the water first. This means that there is a predetermined left side and a right side.
Paddle blades can also be flat or spoon-shaped. A spoon-shaped blade grabs the water better, but it must be pulled out of the water sooner to reduce drag.
Some shafts have a smaller diameter than others. Others have an area with a flatter cross-section to help guide your hands. Choosing the best option comes down to your hand size and comfort. A poor grip will lead to fatigue and could cause chafing and blisters.
Bent shaft paddles have a dip in the area where you grip them. This can minimize wrist flexion as you perform each stroke. A bent shaft paddle is often preferred by people who have carpal tunnel issues or don’t execute proper torso rotation.
Some people prefer a straight shaft because it offers more versatility. You can shift your hands or change your stroke depending on environmental factors, such as wind speed. The grip on a bent shaft design is fixed. You can’t widen and narrow your hand position depending on your mood.
The weight of the shaft matters. Physical weight signifies the total measurable weight of the paddle. It’s measured in ounces or pounds. The differences between two paddles might seem negligible, but even a few ounces can be significant. Paddling.com explains that 8 ounces of additional weight can make you lift more than 1,200 extra pounds total during one hour of paddling.
Swing weight is just as important as total weight. Swing weight refers to the ease you feel as the paddle goes through the motions. The best way to get a sense of swing weight is to try out the paddle in person. You’ll know that the swing weight works for you when it feels like the paddle automatically rotates in a circular motion without you putting in too much extra effort.
While size, material and design are important, there are other features to look for in a kayak paddle.
Feathering is the degree of change between the angle of each paddle blade. Most paddles come apart in the center. When you fit them together, you can often adjust the rotation of the shaft so that the blades are either symmetrical or rotated in a different direction from one another.
Feathering is a personal preference. It can also help you adapt to different conditions.
If you’re heading into the wind and your blades aren’t feathered, the broad side of the blade that’s in the air will catch the wind. Rotate it so that it slices instead of resists the breeze. If the wind is at the back, you might want to keep your blades symmetrical so that the air pushes you forward.
If your blades are feathered, you might have to exert less effort when you’re paddling at a high angle. Feathered blades might also be more comfortable on the wrists.
Some blades have predrilled holes and snap-button ferrules that limit the positioning of the blades. Others have unlimited options for feathering.
Most paddles float. However, some aluminum paddles don’t. If your paddle doesn’t float, you might consider getting a floating grip, which can add comfort and visibility if you lose your paddle in the water. This is not to be confused with a paddle float, which offers stability to the paddle blade so that you can use it as an outrigger if you need to attempt a re-entry in open water.
If your paddle does float, you might consider buying a leash. This will prevent it from moving away from you if you drop it.
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Many kayakers recommend bringing a spare paddle along with you. On solo trips, this can prevent you from getting stranded if you lose or break your primary paddle. It can also make you a hero if someone has an issue with their paddle on a group trip and you come to the rescue.
You probably don’t want to reserve your most expensive paddle as a spare. Many people end up using an older, cheaper, or heavier paddle as the spare after they upgrade to a higher quality version.
However, if the paddle doesn’t fold down, it might be cumbersome to bring along with you. Paddles that are designed to be used as spares are usually small, lightweight and compact. They might fold into more than two parts so that you can store them comfortably on your boat when you’re not using them.
If you’re trying to save money on kayak equipment, don’t skimp on the paddle. Buy the best quality for your budget. That means that you should look for the lightest weight materials and the stiffest blades.
A paddle that’s made of 100% carbon might not be in your price range. If you have to choose your paddle based on the quality of the shaft vs. the blades, select the one with the better shaft. The shaft is the backbone of the paddle. Many paddles with carbon shafts have high-quality nylon blades and fall in the middle range, price-wise.