High Angle vs. Low Angle Paddle: Different Paddling Styles Call For Different Paddles

I noticed that many people looking to get into kayaking tend to be unaware of the paddle selection’s importance. 

If you’re one of those “a paddle is a paddle” folks, you’re in for a surprise. 

There are many different paddle designs to choose from – and more than one paddling style, too. Your body type, kayak size, and specific paddling activity all play into your paddle choice. 

Today, we’ll discuss the high angle vs. low angle paddle options – and see which of the two paddling styles might work for you!

But First – What Is Paddle Angle?

Carbon fiber kayak paddle

Maybe you haven’t thought about it until now, but if you look around your local paddling group, the chances are that you’ll notice a lot of different paddles for kayaking being used. 

And no, I’m talking about color options. 

As straightforward as it looks at first, a kayak paddle’s design is affected by various factors: 

Paddle length, shaft construction and size, blade construction, paddle material, blade shape, and size, paddle joint, overall and swing weight, feather angle, indexing – all these features play into the paddle’s design. 

What’s more, every recreational kayaker will be faced with a high angle vs. low angle paddle choice at one point or another. 

Considering that you’re transferring energy through the paddle, choosing a kayak paddle is one of the most critical decisions you’ll make as a kayaker. And when you do, your style of paddling should be one of the deciding factors. 

But how can you make such a choice if you don’t quite get how paddle angle classification works? 

That’s the thing – you can’t. 

So, I figured I’d start with the basics and explain what paddle angle is before going further. 

It has to do something with the angle of your paddle – duh – but it’s not about the blade’s construction, as you might’ve assumed. Instead, the paddle angle is defined as the angle at which your paddle’s blade enters the water.

High-angle paddling is more vertical and aggressive, while low-angle paddling tends to be more horizontal and doesn’t put as much emphasis on paddling technique. 

What causes these differences, though? 

Well, it all comes down to your paddling style. More specifically, your paddle’s angle when it enters the water is determined by your upper arm’s height during a forward stroke

The upper hand’s height can change the angle of your paddle’s shaft to the water. 

For example, if your upper hand is at or above shoulder height, that’s considered a high-angle stroke – because the shaft’s angle is high. On the flip side, if your hand is at or below shoulder height, you have a low-angle stroke. 

Paddle Angle & Position - Ivan Lawler Kayak (Canoeing) Technique

You could take a break from reading and assume the paddling position if you’d like. It might help you get a feel for it. 

As mentioned already, your stroke type dictates kayak paddle’s choice – and you’ll see how in a second. 

What Is High Angle Paddling? 

A kayaker races down the whitewater of a river using high angle paddle

High-angle paddling is considered the more aggressive paddling style out of the two, taking your paddling performance to a whole new level. 

Your paddle tends to go into the water from a higher, more vertical angle, led by a more powerful forward stroke, and glides through water closer to the kayak’s hull. As a result, more of your paddle’s blade goes into the water, providing a better “bite” – and generating more power – with each stroke.

What’s more, this paddling style lets you play around with a wider variety of stroke types, packs more force, and allows you to paddle at a higher cadence.

Sprint Kayak Stroke Analysis

Who’s it for, though? 

Well, here are a few examples where high-angle paddling style might work for you: 

  • If you have a more narrow kayak, because a narrow hull generally allows you to perform high-angle strokes more easily 
  • If you’re looking to improve your technical paddling skills, since mastering high-angle strokes let you experiment with a variety of dynamic strokes as your paddle technique improves
  • If you’re using kayaking as a conditioning tool since a high-angle stroke packs higher energy outputs with increased speed being the “reward” 
  • If you’re a high-performance paddler and want to cover as much distance as possible in a short time 
  • If you’re a kayak angler and typically sit in a higher position 
The Ideal Forward Stroke - Sea Kayak Technique

Powerful strokes and the overall dynamics of high-angle paddling may sound tempting, but keep in mind that it could place more pressure on the shoulder muscles. So, before you go at it full-speed, be sure to practice proper torso rotation

Choosing The Right High-Angle Paddle 

Man carries high angle paddle on shoulder

Whether or not you need to accelerate quickly determines the recommended size of paddle blades and the shaft’s length. 

High-angle forward strokes, as I explained already, are all about producing the maximum amount of power. So, you want a high-angle blade that works hand in hand with rapid, powerful strokes, providing a more aggressive grip on the water. 

High-angle kayaks paddles are built for getting your kayak from point A to point B as fast and direct as possible: 

If you prefer the high-angle paddling style, you should opt for shorter but broader blades. With a larger area of the blade getting in contact with the water, your high-angle forward strokes become more efficient – and you propel the kayak faster. 

The shaft’s length is generally slightly shorter in high-angle paddles – here are some rough guidelines: 

  • If you’re up to six feet tall, go with a 210-centimeter paddle.
  • If you’re over six feet one, go with a 215-centimeter paddle. 

What Is Low Angle Paddling? 

Kayaking paddling touring kayak with low angle paddle

Did you know that low-angle paddles and even-tempered strokes have their roots in the Inuit people’s paddling techniques

The goal was lessening the strain on the paddler’s body during long hours spent hunting or fishing in a kayak by making the stroke more efficient. 

I mean, if you think about it, that’s pretty much the same reason why kayakers enjoy low-angle paddling to this day. It requires less effort, provides more stability, and allows the paddler to conserve energy – a welcome benefit for long-distance touring

A low-angle stroke places the shaft at a more horizontal, 45-degree angle – with the hands staying at or below shoulder height – and the blade enters the water further from the hull. 

Here are a few examples where low-angle paddling might be a much better choice for you: 

  • If you have a kayak with a broader beam since a more vertical paddling forward stroke would be difficult to perform 
  • If you’re going for a leisure paddling session, and want to keep your stroke relaxed, rather than focusing on power and speed 
  • If you’re covering longer distances, such are when touring, and need to preserve your energy for the many miles ahead of you 
  • If you’re new to kayaking and haven’t polished your paddling skills yet, as low-angle paddling puts less emphasis on stroke technique are far more forgiving to the novice recreational kayaker
  • If you have chronic muscle pain in your shoulder or back,  you may benefit from the more gentle forward stroke and less pressure in the upper body 
Basic Flat-Water Kayaking

Choosing The Right Low-Angle Paddle 

Kayaker with low paddle on side of a boat at still river water

The slimness and length of the blades are definite, hard-to-miss differences between low-angle and high-angle paddles: 

Low-angle paddles feature longer, narrower blades that are more appropriate for the sweeping, easy-going strokes typical for the low-angle paddling technique. This design is a balancing act of sorts, providing the right surface area for efficiency while keeping the forward strokes smooth. 

The slender blades allow you to pull the paddle through the water with ease, which ultimately means less fatigue for the paddler – and a more relaxed paddle overall. 

Plus, modern low-angle paddles often feature high-tech materials and incorporate precision weighting into their design to increase a sweeping forward stroke’s efficiency. 

Again, I’ll leave you with a few easy-to-follow guidelines regarding low-angle paddle’s shaft length

  • If you’re up to six feet tall, go with a 220-centimeter paddle. 
  • If you’re over six feet one, go with a 230-centimeter paddle.
  • If your kayak’s beam, or width, is over 28 inches, add another 10 centimeters to the paddle’s length after determining what works for your height. 

High Angle vs. Low Angle Paddle: Which One’s Better & Why? 

A pile of kayak high angle and low angel paddles on the beach close up.

After exploring different paddling styles – and looking into the whole high angle vs. low angle paddle matter – I’d like to wrap things up with a simple message: 

No, a paddle is not a paddle – not in the sense that your choice of paddle design doesn’t matter or won’t affect your on-the-water performance. 

It does – and it will. 

That said, there’s no “better” or “worse” option here; your choice of paddle design depends solely on your paddling style and goals: 

If you have a more aggressive forward stroke and want to focus on speed, a high-angle paddle is your best bet. But if you’re more into relaxed paddling – or want to conserve energy for longer trips – then low-angle paddles are the way to go.