These days, the kayak world is broadly divided into whitewater and touring boats, outfitted with the appropriate paddles.

Whitewater Paddles

Most whitewater paddles have the blades offset, or feathered, between 30 and 90 degrees, and will have right-hand control, which means that when you rotate the shaft between dips of the offset blades, your right hand will stay gripped around the shaft while the left hand opens slightly to let the shaft rotate.

A 195-centimeter paddle is probably the best all-around beginner-size paddle. Beginners can size paddles by gripping the shaft, hands four or five inches from the blades, and placing the shaft on top of the head. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees.

Whitewater paddles take tremendous beatings and thus require reinforced tips and edge protection. All in all, whitewater paddles must favor durability over light weight. Fiberglass and fiberglass composites offer a working balance between weight, durability, and affordability. Wood laminates are light, stiff, and strong.

Oval shafts and molded grips are essential to whitewater paddles for comfort, control, and safety. In addition to providing a more comfortable grip, the molded grip on the control hand lets the paddler know that his or her hands are properly positioned. A decent fiberglass whitewater paddle won’t break the bank and shouldn’t require any special care. Laminate wood paddles are light and beautiful but will require more maintenance than fiberglass.

Kayak Touring Paddles

Kayak touring paddles are longer than whitewater paddles, have smaller blades, and weigh less. They must be comfortable and efficient over long days and many miles, but rugged enough to survive the sea and shore. They are commonly sold as two-piece models for ease of storage and transport. Most will be feathered and feature right-hand control. Fiberglass is popular and affordable, but wood and high-tech materials appear. Touring blades will likely be curved (from end to end) or spooned (across the face), or both, for maximum efficiency. Many long-distance touring blades are becoming increasingly narrow, presenting less resistance to the wind and water.

The best way to determine the right length is by taking a class and finding out what paddle length works best for you. For most of us, that paddle will be somewhere between 210 and 240 centimeters. A good paddle is a well-balanced one. Mixing fiberglass shafts with high-tech blades can combine the best of both worlds-in a well-balanced and well-designed stick. Wooden paddles-both laminate and solid wood-are joys to hold, and bring a natural spring to the paddle motion. Laminate weights can be very competitive.

Oval shafts and molded grips can be found on many composite paddles. Lower angles of the blades are increasingly common, mainly for comfort. A “double-crank” shaft features “bends” at the hand positions that proponents find more comfortable and efficient. Your first paddle should make a good backup for life, so take your time and choose wisely.