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How to Choose a Whitewater Paddle

Selecting the perfect whitewater kayaking paddle is probably the most important decision you will make as a boater. That’s because the paddle is 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’s an important decision, it doesn’t have to be hard. Here are the choices to consider as you make your selection:

Shaft options

  1. Straight Shaft: It has a familiar feel and many of us are used to it. It’s also a lighter and a less expensive option. Using good technique—lightly gripping the shaft, with your hands forming the “okay” symbol—you can enjoy all-day, pain-free paddling.
  2. Bent Shaft: A great choice for those who have developed some aches and pains in their hands and wrists. Paddlers who hold on too tightly to their paddle (and let’s face it, we all do when we get nervous) will also benefit. By always keeping the wrists in an ergonomically correct straight alignment, less pressure is put on the small tendons and ligaments of the wrist, reducing pain. Bent-shaft paddles are more expensive, but the expense is justified if it helps you paddle pain free.
  3. Shaft Diameter: Werner offers two shaft diameters to comfortably accommodate different sizes of hands. Proper shaft diameter allows paddlers to use a more relaxed, low-stress grip. If your hand is larger than 7 inches from the base of your palm to your fingertip, you will want the standard-diameter shaft. If the length is less than 6.5 inches, choose the small diameter shaft. In between, you can go either way.

Blade Size

The blade size that works best for you will depend on your body type and fitness level. While a blade with more surface area will push more water, a bigger blade does not make every paddler more powerful. Smaller and less advanced paddlers may find that a blade with a small or medium surface area puts less stress and strain on the body while allowing more efficient strokes.

Paddle Material

A paddle made out of stiff, lightweight materials will lead to less fatigue, allowing you to run more drops, surf more waves, paddle farther and perform better. A lighter “swing weight,” or effective weight of the paddle through the stroke path, 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, requiring less energy from your stroke to create more motion. Carbon fiber paddles are generally the lightest options. Fiberglass models are the most durable and are still quite light.

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

  1. River Running or Creek Boating:
    As we paddle downstream we are faced with many features: holes, waves, eddies, and 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 more surface area at the upper tip, focusing the blade’s surface area 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.
  2. Play Boating:
    As the sport of whitewater kayaking has grown over the years, the ways we “play” on 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 playboat blade shape, focusing more of the blade’s surface area below the center line, the paddle will engage the water sooner, allowing paddlers to perform play boat control stokes with greater ease.
  3. 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 kind of paddling do you envision doing most? Take a look at your kayaking goals, 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 paddling efficiency.

  • 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, 194 cm fits shorter people, 197 cm fits those of average height, 200 cm works well for taller paddlers. For a more in-depth look, especially for uniquely sized paddlers, check out the Werner Paddle Fit Guide.
  • 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. As a general rule of thumb, short people should look to a 191 cm, paddlers of average height to 194 cm, and those long folks to 197 cm. 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, 800.677.4327 or drop an email to service@nrs.com.

Happy paddling!