How to Choose the Perfect Kayak Paddle

By Danny Mongno, Regional Sales Manager, Werner Paddles

Selecting the perfect kayak paddle is probably the most important decision you will make as a boater. That’s because the paddle is your engine, your tool to transfer energy to the water. Choosing the proper blade shape will allow you to perform at the highest level for your style of boating, and understanding how to get the perfect fit will allow you to be more comfortable, use less energy and spend more time on the water. Although it is such an important decision, it does not have to be hard.

First of all, for either whitewater or touring paddles there are some common choices that you’ll need to make. Let’s go over them now:

Shaft options
The benefits of a straight shaft is that it has a familiar feel; most of us have used a straight shaft at some time and it’s what we are used to. Other benefits are lighter weight and less of an investment. If good technique is used and a paddler can hold on loosely to the paddle, focusing on grasping the shaft with the “O-Kay” symbol all day, pain-free paddling can be obtained.

For those who have developed some aches and pains in their hands and wrists, and for those who generally hold on too tightly to their paddle (and let’s face it, we all do when we get nervous), neutral bent shaft becomes an insurance policy for your body. By always keeping the wrists in an ergonomically correct straight alignment, less pressure is put on the small tendons and ligaments of the wrist and pain is avoided. Although more of an investment, it can make all the difference for spending more time on the water. The concept of neutral bent allows for a smooth transition from your old paddle, as your hand position is familiar and exactly the same as it was on your straight shaft.  The only thing that changes is that your wrists remain straight while paddling.

Shaft diameter and blade size
Both of these options are really common sense and easily determined by your body size. Folks with smaller hands and smaller bodies, should look towards the smaller diameter shaft for a more relaxed grip and a small or medium blade surface area to put less stress and strain on the body. Larger boaters, generally with larger hands, prefer the standard diameter shaft and a medium to full sized blade area, depending on their fitness level.  Remember, a bigger blade is not always going to make us more powerful, especially if we are just working too hard to move that extra size through the water. If your hand is larger than 7 inches from the base of your palm to your fingertip, you will want the standard shaft. If the length is smaller than 6.5 inches, you should use the small diameter shaft. In between, you can go either way.

Spend as much as you can afford on your paddle material
As I said early on, the paddle is your engine. You will use less energy on the water, run more drops, surf more waves, paddle further and perform better if you are less tired. A paddle that is lighter to move through the stroke path, referred to as the paddle’s “swing weight,” will allow you to feel fresher as the miles and hours wear on. A paddle with a stiffer material will flex less, causing less water to “escape” from the blade face and for you to use less energy in your stroke to create more motion.

Higher end materials like Performance Core provide more buoyancy in the blades, which helps you brace with more confidence and roll more easily, even in the most aerated water. Sure, paddles wear over time, but so does your boat, your automobile or mountain bike tires, your tools. However, think of the performance advantages you are getting while on the water. Is your paddling enjoyment worth the investment? Well, I think that sums up how to decide what to spend…how much do you value your time on the water; how far do you want to stretch your skills? 

Now, let’s take a few simple steps toward fitting you with the perfect whitewater or touring kayak paddle:

Choosing a Whitewater Paddle:

Choose the shape of your blade based on the style of paddling you are doing.

  1. River running or Creek boating:
  2. As we paddle downstream we are faced with many features: holes, waves, eddies, ledges both small and large (i.e. waterfalls). To navigate your way through these obstacles your forward stroke will be far and away the most valuable tool. A river running paddle will have a larger portion of the blade shape at the upper tip, or a focus above the center line of the paddle. This oversized tip allows paddlers to reach the water sooner and get instant bite at the most important part of the forward stroke, the catch. For those paddlers looking  primarily to run rivers or steeper creeks, this is your best choice.

  3. Play boating
    As the sport of whitewater kayaking has grown over the years the ways we “play” the river has expanded. For some the feeling of front surfing a glassy wave is what provides that all-day smile while others need to notify the local air traffic controller before they start their aerial assault on the river. No matter what your idea of play boating is, the proper shaped blade will help your performance. By down turning or “drooping” a play boat blade shape, with more focus of the blade surface area below the center line, the paddle will engage the water sooner, allowing paddlers to perform play boat control stokes with greater ease.

  4. What if you can’t decide?
    If just getting to the river and enjoying your time on the water with your family and friends is your ultimate goal, with no set agenda, we say play the percentages.  What do see yourself doing the most out there? Then buy the blade that works best for that application. Remember, the proper blade shape is going to offer you maximum performance in your discipline, but that is not to say you can’t “cross train”.

Length options
Now that you have the proper blade shape for your paddling style, let’s be sure you have the perfect fit. The perfect fitting paddle will assure comfort and better paddling efficiency.

  1. River running paddles will always be longer, again due to the importance of the “catch”. The catch is where the blade first enters the water, where you have the most energy in your stroke. So if your paddle has some extra length you will have more “catch length” and take fewer, more powerful strokes.
    Generally speaking, short people use 194 cm, medium people 197 cm, tall 200 cm. For a more in-depth look, especially for uniquely sized paddlers, check out the Werner Paddle Fit Guide.

  2. Play boating paddles tend to be shorter, as you will need to perform more dynamic paddle strokes when performing play boat maneuvers. You will also need to take much faster, higher cadence strokes as you attain upstream to catch waves or drop into holes.
    For a general rule of thumb, short people should look to a 191 cm, medium at 194 cm and those long folks 197 cm. For a more in depth look, especially for those uniquely sized paddlers, check out the Werner Paddle Fit Guide.

Choosing a Touring Paddle:

Choose the shape of your blade based on the style of paddling you are doing.

 

  1. Low angle - “more options”
  2. Most people enjoy the low angle style of paddling. Low angle paddles have longer and narrower blades designed to pull through each stroke with the right amount of surface area for good power while maintaining a smooth forward stroke. The low angle stroke puts your hands at about shoulder height, is more relaxed and puts significantly less pressure on your upper body, arms and shoulders.


  3. High angle - “more commitment to technique, but far better tracking.”
  4. This is typically a more aggressive style of paddling with a faster cadence and a larger variety of strokes being used on each paddle outing. By focusing on keeping your top hand about forehead height as you take your stroke you will notice the blade travels closer to the kayak. With the blade traveling in this path your boat will track significantly better and go straighter. Werner’s wider, shorter blade shape puts more surface area of the blade into the water in this position. This does place more emphasis on proper torso rotation since more pressure can be put on your shoulders in this higher angle paddling style. The commitment is worth it though for those looking to take their paddling to a higher performance level in longer, sleeker, light touring and touring kayaks.

  5. What if you can’t decide?
    What do see yourself doing the most out there?  Look at the boat you’re paddling and your goals in the sport and then buy the blade that works best for that application. Remember, the proper blade shape is going to offer you maximum performance in your discipline.

Length options
Now that you have the proper blade shape for your paddling style, let’s be sure you have the perfect fit. The perfect fitting paddle will assure comfort and paddling efficiency.

  1. Low angle
  2. Here are some easy to follow rules:
    • 6 feet and under, use 220 cm.
    • 6’1” and over, use 230 cm 
    • If your kayak is over 28” wide, add 10cm to the length of the paddle, after you choose based on your height.

    For a more in-depth look, especially for uniquely sized paddlers and boat width combinations, check out the Werner Paddle Fit Guide.

  3. High angle
  4. Here are some easy to follow rules:
    • 6 feet and under, use 210 cm.
    • 6’1” and over, use 215 cm 
    • Kayak width generally does not come into play since most high-angle paddlers are in more narrow light touring and touring kayaks.

    For a more in depth look, especially for uniquely sized paddlers, check out the Werner Paddle Fit Guide.

If you have questions about boating styles or paddle choices, give the folks at NRS a call, 800.635.5202 or drop an email to service@nrs.com.

Happy Paddling!