There are two kinds of kayak paddles: touring and whitewater. Both have the same variables for you to choose among: length, blade shape, materials, and feathered versus unfeathered.
Whitewater kayaking is about control, and that means a rigid shaft with wider blades (and tip and edge protection). Most are feathered and the most popular materials are fiberglass and wood. Pricey composites (graphite, carbon fiber) are growing in popularity. Most have one-piece shafts, feathered blades, and right-hand control.
Touring kayak paddles are designed for efficiency and comfort during many hours of paddling. Most are two-piece with adjustable ferrule positions, allowing for feathered or unfeathered paddling. These paddles also allow a fair amount of flex, mostly for the paddler’s comfort. Blades tend to be narrower and smaller, asymmetrical, and lightweight. Common materials include aluminum shafts with thermoplastic blades, as well as fiberglass, composites (graphite, carbon fiber, etc.), and wood.
You’ll find a complete guide to canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the Canoe & Kayak magazine 2004 Buyer’s Guide. Order it from the Canoe & Kayak shopper.
Finding the Right Length
For whitewater kayaking, buy a paddle that’s 191-200 cm long. If you’re really tall, or an ex-racer, you might want 200 cm. If you’re a real hairboater, and want the additional bracing and stability of a high paddle cadence, you might want a 191-cm paddle.
For kayak touring, if you’re an average-sized paddler (5′ 2″ to 6′ 2″) in a solo boat, you’ll be happy with a 200- 220-cm paddle. If you paddle a beamy tandem, you might prefer 230 cm, and for an expedition folding double, maybe even 240 cm.
If you hold your paddle high, like a racer, and paddle with a rapid cadence, shave two to four centimeters off the length. If you paddle with the shaft low (navel-high), and with a slower cadence, you’ll want a slightly longer paddle. The proper shaft length puts the junction of your paddle blade and shaft right at the waterline. Long, narrow blades create an overall longer paddle than short, wide ones.
Blade Shape Whitewater blades tend to be shorter and wider than their touring counterparts in order to provide power and grip in aerated water. Touring blades tend to be longer, narrower, and smaller, for a smooth and efficient paddling stroke that can be maintained all day. Smaller blades are easier to control in the wind.
Symmetry Imagine a line down the paddle shaft and continued across the blade. If both halves are mirror images, the blade is symmetrical. There’s a growing trend toward asymmetrical kayak blades. The asymmetry equalizes the force on each side of the blade (top and bottom), resulting in less twisting of the paddle.
Shaft Shape Oval shafts are more comfortable to hold than round shafts, and let your muscles index the relative angle of your blades. Too large a diameter for your hand and it will tire; too small and it may cramp. Most shafts are straight, but we’re seeing more “double-crank” shafts bent at the hand positions for more comfortable and efficient long-distance paddling.
Feathering There is no right answer for this ages-old debate. Kayak paddles were originally feathered (with the blades set at an angle to each other) to reduce wind resistance for the blade as it moves forward through the air. A feathered blade slices through the air, an unfeathered blade bulls its way through. The most efficient returning blade is at right angles to the blade in the water, meaning you would need to rotate your wrist 90 degrees with each stroke. You’ll not last long doing this, we assure you. Blades comfortably feathered between 30 and 75 degrees can kite and dive in a headwind, while a beam wind may lift the windward blade of a feathered paddle.
A feathered paddle in the 75-degree range is more aerodynamically efficient than an unfeathered paddle. Virtually anyone can master a feathered paddle, though some people complain of wrist pain from the repetitive rotation it requires. Choose whichever is more comfortable for you – that is what is best for you.