Canoeing 101: The Right Paddle For You

On the surface, a canoe paddle is one of the most blessedly simple pieces of outdoor equipment there is: It consists of a grip, blade and shaft and, as an extension of your body in the water,  does (pretty much) whatever you tell it to. 

But choosing the right one can make a big difference in how enjoyable your canoe outing is. The last thing you want is to get stuck with one that's too long or too short—you'll wear yourself out compensating for the unnatural size. Also, other considerations like flexibility, strength, material and whether or not the shaft is bent can affect the quality of your experience.

If you're taking your daughter for an afternoon canoe outing, you're not going to want the same size paddle as hers.

Keep this in mind: It's the shaft length, not the overall length, that matters. Paddle manufacturers list overall length, so you need to subtract the length of the blade to find the number you're looking for.

When you're paddling, the grip should be about at nose-level when the blade is just fully submerged—i.e. the shaft length should be the distance from the water to your nose.

There are a couple ways to measure this on dry land. If you're at your local outdoor outfitter and have access to a canoe, sit inside and flip your paddle upside down, grip on the floor. With the paddle roughly vertical to the ground, the throat—the part where the blade meets the shaft—should be about at eye-level.

No canoe or paddle in sight? Grab a broomstick, curtain rod or other such substitute, kneel about 6 inches off the ground, and hold it vertically as you would a paddle on a forward stroke. The tip should be on the ground and your top hand should pinch the faux-paddle at mid-face-height. That's your shaft length.

For a simpler method recommended by the American Canoe Association, sit on a flat surface with your back straight, place a paddle or paddle substitute straight up between your legs and measure the vertical distance to your nose. This is the shaft length.

Of course, this length can vary depending on your purpose, type of paddle and the width of your canoe. But for basic recreational paddling, this is a good rule of thumb. Another note: if you're paddling in tandem, the forward paddler may want a slightly shorter paddle for the shorter stroke, and vice versa for the rear paddler.

There's a whole range of materials used to make canoe paddles, from wood to fiberglass to various composites. The cheapest option, though, and best for most beginners, is a paddle with an aluminum shaft and plastic blade. Although heavier than most fiberglass and wood paddles, a comfortable aluminum paddle with a plastic or foam grip (to insulate your hand from the cold metal) will get you going for a reasonable price until you have a more nuanced understanding of what's worth your money.

Generally, you want a paddle that's light and strong, and has the desired level of flexibility. Fiberglass and other composites are the lightest materials and the most rigid, but they're also the most expensive. You'd want them on whitewater where control is more important, or any application where keeping weight down is a big concern.

Wood paddles are heavier, but have a little more give—good for flat water, where shock absorption is more important. Some wooden paddles can be almost as cheap as aluminum, but they're not as durable and require more maintenance.

Other Considerations
Grip: A T-grip allows for more control, especially if you're a beginner or on whitewater, but if you're touring, a rounded "pear" grip is easier on your hand.

Blade: The wider the blade, the more muscle it takes to complete a single stroke—but the faster you can go. Conversely, the thinner the blade, the easier it is to turn and the less energy you expend, but the harder it is to move forward. If this is your first paddle, you probably won't be out for so long that exhaustion is a worry and you probably won't be doing any complicated maneuvering. A larger beaver-tail shaped blade will make you a happy camper.

Shaft: There are two main types of shaft: bent-shaft and straight-shaft. A bit more advanced, the blade of a bent-shaft paddle is at a slight forward angle from the shaft. (Unlike many straight-shafts, there's a definite front and back.) This generates more power at the back of the stroke, which is good if you're trying to maximize your speed or distance covered, but not so good if you need to make quick turns, like on whitewater.

Comfort: The only way you're going to know how comfortable a paddle is is to test, test, test. Getting the size exactly right, finding a comfortable weight and grip—all these little things require that you get out there and see what works. Start with an aluminum paddle of the right size and go from there.