How to Choose a Canoe Paddle

How to choose a canoe paddle

Canoeing is cathartic. You’re likely surrounded by birds and other riparian wildlife. Maybe a good friend is in the boat with you and you’re chatting about your weekend. Perhaps you’re even catching the sunset from your boat while you’re catching some fish. Sounds relaxing, right? Of course it does!

But you can’t canoe out to these peaceful places without a paddle.

Before you grab any old paddle off the rack of OGE and hit the water, let’s get a good handle on common materials and blade shapes. Different materials feel and are designed for different things; different blade shapes move water in different ways. Considering these and other factors will help you choose the perfect paddle for your adventure goals and will keep you paddling-stoked for years to come!

Let’s launch into some common vocabulary words to familiarize ourselves with paddle components.

An image of a canoe paddle with callouts to each part. From left to right: Tip, blade, throat/neck, shaft, grip.

A Paddle’s Purpose

A paddle’s purpose is to get you from point A to point B. Plain and simple.

There are several factors to consider when deciding what kind of paddle to buy, including the type of water you’re paddling in, the depth, the current, and the adventure. All these elements will affect the design and shape of your paddle.

Tripping And Flatwater Paddles

There are two classic shapes in the paddling world that are at the top of this list: the ottertail and the beavertail.

A silhouette of an ottertail-shaped canoe paddle

Ottertail

The ottertail shape has a narrower tip. The blade is at its widest point most of the way up before thinning out at the throat. Although you get less power from the bottom of the blade, this shape is all about feel — and it feels like a hot knife through butter.

A silhouette of a beavertail-shaped canoe paddle

Beavertail

The beavertail has a rounded-shaped tip, and the width stays fairly consistent until the neck/throat of the blade. This is a common shape for general paddling use. It can be used in a variety of canoe adventures including fishing, day touring, flat water, and moving water.

Bent Shaft vs. Straight Shaft

Canoe paddles can also be completely straight or have a bent shaft:

A straight shaft canoe paddle on the left, a bent shaft canoe paddle on the right

A straight shaft canoe paddle (left) vs. a bent shaft canoe paddle (right). A bent shaft requires less effort to dip into the water at a perpendicular angle, making it less tiring to use on long, flatwater trips.

Paddlers with long and strenuous flatwater trips may go for a bent shaft paddle. These paddles’ blades are at a fixed angle so that little to no effort is needed to get the blade perpendicular to the water (read: less work with each stroke). The most common blade shape for bent shaft paddles is a blend of ottertail with a square whitewater-like shape.

A straight shaft paddle is better for more technical whitewater paddling. You will want to use both sides of the blade face to paddle around obstacles.

Whitewater Canoe Paddles

These paddles are wide throughout the blade and most commonly sport a rounded square shape. The blade length is shorter and the bottom is totally flat. This allows for a lot of power to grab the water and move it with each stroke. This is perfect for whitewater since quick and slight adjustments are a constant requirement.

An example of a whitewater canoe paddle's blade shape, which is squared off and stouter than other canoe paddles'.

A whitewater canoe paddle’s blade shape is squared off and stouter than other canoe paddles’, increasing maneuverability in quick water.

Another big must-have for a whitewater paddle is a straight shaft. When rolling the canoe or bracing after a wave, the ability to get both the blade and shaft flat allows for significantly more power for righting or correcting with strokes.

On longer trips, some paddlers will bring one of each paddle. One touring (or easy-paddling flatwater) paddle, and a whitewater paddle. The right tool for the job is vital for maximum adventure and fun.

Solo Canoe Paddles

Solo paddling requires a lot of time with the blade in the water. This means your paddle will spend a lot more time in the water with each stroke rather than coming out of the water like it might with a regular stroke due to you being the only one turning and moving the canoe. If you plan to solo paddle, an ottertail paddle with less power and more maneuverability through the water is ideal.

A solo paddler could also consider using a double-bladed canoe paddle — while they certainly lack the classic canoe paddle look, using one all but eliminates the need for corrective strokes and switching a paddle from side to side to track straight in the water.

A picture of a double-bladed canoe.

A double-bladed canoe paddle allows the solo paddler to use less corrective strokes to move in a straight line.

Paddle Grips

There are two main options for paddle grips: T-Grip, and Palm Grip.

The T-grip is seen most commonly in whitewater paddles because a more secure grip with a bigger blade makes it more controllable. The flat top combined with the smaller area to wrap your fingers around the grip makes the paddle less likely to move around allowing the paddle blade to stay flat against the water. When the moving water is pushing the blade, you can keep it strong, secure, and in control with the T-grip.

An image of a palm paddle grip (left) and a t paddle grip (right)

Left: A palm-shaped paddle grip. Right: A T-shaped paddle grip.

The Palm grip is what you’ll see on most flatwater and recreation paddle shapes. The Palm grip allows the main part of your palm to rest comfortably on the little area of the grip. It is teardrop-shaped, which lets the fingers rest over the top and onto the back of the grip. Most paddlers prefer this grip shape thanks to its increased comfortability compared to a T-grip. It is a top choice for those long days and makes paddling flatwater a dream.

Paddle Materials:

Wood

It looks fantastic, it’s smooth, it feels great in the hands, it floats naturally, and it’s the material of choice for most canoers: both recreational and tripping.

Some of the common woods used are maple, cherry, and ash. Each has its differences. Maple is great, but over time it can become flexible. Cherry, especially darker cherry, is a sight to behold. Ash is as rugged as wood goes, so it can handle a beating. Bonus: if your wood paddle has seen better days, you can sand and varnish it to make it look (and function) like new.

Some paddles are made with multiple wood types (i.e. maple and cherry to achieve color contrast). To our knowledge, this doesn’t really have a function, but it does create a nice visual.

Fiberglass/Carbon

Paddles made of carbon and fiberglass are super lightweight compared to wood. They make paddling feel effortless, and the stiffness of the materials creates a sturdy paddle with little maintenance required.

With the ability to create any shape, the different blade shapes vary more with carbon or fiberglass in comparison to wooden paddles. It’s worth noting that fiberglass tends to chip or scrape off over time if it’s dragged over rocks. But fear not, a little bit of sandpaper can take care of that!

Prices for fiberglass and carbon paddles vary. Read: the more carbon a paddle has, the higher the price point. There also are mixed paddles that utilize wood for the blade and carbon or fiberglass for the shaft and grip. These offer a best of both worlds scenario: a light, strong, featherweight blade with a durable shaft. Mixed paddles will cut down on the price of a full carbon paddle too.

Aluminum and Plastic

Another common type of paddle is one that is made from a combination of aluminum and plastic. Aluminum and plastic paddles are used by whitewater enthusiasts, tripping paddlers, and weekend canoers alike. Most often the blade is plastic, and the rest of the paddle will be aluminum. Both materials are durable and require little maintenance.

While aluminum-plastic paddles are the cheapest paddle option, they do have some performance disadvantages. These paddles will be slightly heavier than their carbon or wooden counterparts, which may require a little more work for the paddler.

All this being said, aluminum-plastic paddles are a great option for folks looking to go on shorter paddling adventures or for those who need a spare on their longer trips.

Sizing a canoe paddle

A paddle that is the right size for the paddler is important, regardless of the material. A paddle that is too big will create problems down the road. If it’s too long, then the paddler’s top arm will be too high which can cause discomfort. Too short, and the paddler will have to lean a lot with each stroke, making for a less-efficient stroke and adding unneeded energy to be expended. The best way to get the paddle that is the right size is by coming into OGE and talking to a paddling OGExpert, or stopping by your local paddle shop and getting sized properly.

Canoe Paddle Sizing Chart

Torso Size Straight Paddle Length Bent Paddle Length
26″ 52″ 48″
28″ 54″ 50″
30″ 56″ 52″
32″ 58″ 54″
34″ 60″ 56″
36″ 62″
38″ 64″

Source: Bending Branches.

It’s Just A Paddle, Right?

Yes, but ensuring you choose the right size and type for your adventures is key!

Finding the right paddle to match your style and canoe adventures is worth taking some time to go into a shop and hold a few. You will find a preference in price, shaft width, and materials. It’s a confidence-inspiring process! Getting the right tools for any adventure adds a level of confidence, whatever a body of water tries to throw at you. Happy Paddling!

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