How To Choose A Kayak Paddle: Step-By-Step Guide & Expert Advice

Your kayak aside, the paddle will have the most significant impact on your performance. It may not seem as important, but a few thousand paddle strokes down the road, you’ll notice that it makes all the difference.

So, a kayak paddle isn’t something you want to choose on a whim.

Choose wisely – and while you’re at it, check out my guide on how to choose a kayak paddle for some expert advice on the matter! 

The Importance Of Choosing The Right Kayak Paddle 

A girl paddles a red kayak on a river in a sunny day

You’d be surprised by the difference the right kayak paddle – or the wrong one, for that matter – can actually make on the water. You should always think about the paddle as a primary means of propulsion; that tells you enough about its importance.

Choose a paddle that’s not right for you, and you’ll essentially be giving up: 

  • Control – An unsuitable paddle will usually have an impact on your paddling technique. And that, in turn, means you’ll be giving up some control over your kayak, especially in terms of navigating, maintaining your course, and steering in the desired direction.
  • Comfort – Being able to handle the paddle with ease does a lot for your overall comfort. And the more comfortable you are, the longer you’ll stay on the water. Go too short, and you’re up for sore hands and knuckles, with a bit of back pain sprinkled on top. Too long, and you might find it hard to maneuver. Either way, it won’t make for a pleasant outing.
  • Usability – It can be the best kayak paddle on the market, but if it doesn’t work for you, you won’t get much out of it performance-wise. You’ll give up efficiency, meaning you’ll have to put in a lot more effort with each stroke, experiencing muscle strain and fatigue on every outing. 

Choosing A Kayak Paddle: Narrowing Down Your Options One Step At A Time

Man with red paddle kayaking in sunny day on lake

Choosing the right kayak paddle is no easy business – so, here’s how we’re going to do this: 

I’ll ask some crucial questions while also providing some context as to why they matter. As you continue reading, answer them one by one to narrow down your options. By the time you answer the last question, you should have a pretty good idea as to what type of kayak paddle you need – and you’ll be ready to check the actual specs and features. 

Here’s a piece of advice: 

If you’re shopping for a paddle in a store and no one bothers to ask you any of these questions, run. They’re obviously not trying to help you find the best kayak paddle for you

Step #1 What Type Of Kayaking Do You Enjoy? 

Recreational kayakers won’t need the same type of paddle as someone who’s running rapids or someone who typically goes on long-distance, multi-day trips. It’s the same with kayaks; they all differ when it comes to their on-the-water performance. 

It should go without saying that your paddle should always match your style of kayaking – or, to be more specific, the intended uses.

So, the first step in your process of choosing a kayak paddle should be determining what type of kayaking you’re interested in and what your needs are performance-wise.

To put it simply, think about where and how you’ll use the paddle. 

Step #2 High-Angle Vs. Low-Angle: What Is Your Paddling Style?

Carbon fiber kayak paddle

Paddles are designed for either high- or low-angle paddling style – and the kayak paddle sizing will vary based on this. So, yes, I’d say this is the second most important thing to consider when choosing a kayak paddle.

Here’s a quick overview of two paddling styles:

  • High-angle paddling, where the blade enters the water at a more vertical angle, has a close-to-the-kayak path, and packs more power with each stroke, is more aggressive. It calls for a shorter paddle with wider blades.
  • Low-angle paddling, where the shaft is more horizontal, and the blades hit the water further from the hull, is less tiring and usually preferred for leisure paddling and long-distance kayaking. Longer, narrower blades and longer paddle shafts are go-to options for easy-going strokes. 
High Angle vs Low Angle Paddles | Kayak Paddle Differences

If you’re not entirely sure what your paddling style is or you feel like you tend to switch between the two, there’s a pretty good chance your technique is a bit off. If that’s the case, consider checking out this guide on how to paddle a kayak or signing up for kayaking lessons.

Step #3 Paddle Length: How Tall Are You & How Wide Is Your Kayak?

Now that you’ve narrowed things down in terms of paddling style and intended uses, you can move on to finding the right “fit” in terms of how the paddle’s length suits you.

When it comes to how to choose kayak paddle length, the answer is a bit trickier because it depends on variables such as your height, torso length, and kayak’s width. 

The quickest way to size a paddle is to stand next to it and see if you can hook your fingers over the blade’s tip when you reach for it. But I recommend that you go with the accurate approach – one that involves taking your body measurements and kayak’s width. 

It’s going to ensure that you get the best possible fit. 

Kayak Paddle Sizing Guide

You can use the kayak paddle size chart provided below for reference – but keep in mind that it only factors your torso height. 

If you’d like to add your paddling style, your height, seat height and kayak width to the equation, you’ll find more recommendations here 

Paddler Height (Torso)Recommended Paddle Lengths
22 inches180 cm
24 inches180 cm – 200 cm
26 inches190 cm – 210 cm
28 inches200 cm – 220 cm
32 inches220 cm – 240 cm
34 inches230 cm – 250  cm
36 inches240 cm – 250  cm
38 inches250 cm

Step #4 What Are Your Paddling Goals? 

Point of view shot from inside kayak with paddle laying on deck on lake

It would also help if you took a moment to think about your goals. 

What are you hoping to achieve as a paddler, generally speaking? And more specifically, what are you hoping to get out of this kayak paddle upgrade?

Do you expect to add more power to your stroke? Are you hoping to reduce muscle fatigue? Is it a matter of improved control?

Or is it all of the above?

The right choice of kayak paddle does wonders for your performance, but it’s worth considering what aspects of your performance you’re hoping to improve. 

Step #5 What Is Your Budget?

It would be silly not to discuss your budget; it’ll be as much of a factor when choosing a kayak paddle as it is when choosing a kayak.

Decide how much you’re willing to spend and keep your expectations in line with that budget. 

I mean, let’s be honest; you can’t get a high-end Carbon fiber paddle on a limited budget – nor do you need one if you’re getting into kayaking. You could stick with the paddle that came with your kayak for the time being; upgrade once you’re sure kayaking will be a long-term hobby.

One way to work your way around a tight budget and get a decent kayak paddle is to go with a hybrid – such as Carbon-reinforced nylon blades, for example.

How to Choose a Kayak Paddle | $100 vs $500 Paddles

How much do kayak paddles cost?

The prices of kayak paddles can vary significantly, going from less than $100 and up to $500 – and the construction materials will usually be the main determining factor cost-wise. 

Kayak Paddles Technical Specs & Features 

close up of yellow kayak paddle

Once you’ve narrowed your options down using the questions discussed above, you can start looking at specific kayak paddles and their construction, technical specs, and features.

Construction Material

First and foremost, look at the kayak paddle’s construction – or, to be more specific, the material used and how they might affect the paddle’s weight, durability, and price tag.

On that note, don’t be surprised to find that there’s a range of materials – or even combinations of materials – available. 

Paddles 101 - Materials

While it might make the process of choosing a kayak paddle more confusing at first, having options is a good thing. You can mix and match the shaft and blades’ materials and find a perfect combination for your budget and your needs. 

Paddle Swing Weight

It might seem like a trivial aspect to think about, especially when it’s a mere couple of ounces we’re talking about – but I can pretty much guarantee you that it does make a real difference.

Take a basic, heavy paddle out on the water, paddle around for about an hour or so, and then switch to a lightweight, Carbon fiber paddle.

Trust me; the difference will be insane.

Here’s a little bit of math to prove my point:

Let’s say you have two kayak paddles – a 35-ounce and a 25-ounce one. That amounts to only 10 ounces of difference in weight, right?

Technically speaking, yes – but there’s a catch.

If you were to paddle three miles, with roughly 500 strokes per mile, it would actually amount to a difference in paddle swing weight of a staggering 937 pounds. 

That doesn’t seem like a tiny difference, now, does it? 

Blade Material

Kayak paddle blades can be made of just about any material – from plastic or nylon to fiberglass and Carbon fiber. You want to go as light as possible to reduce fatigue and boost efficiency, but you also need to be aware that the lighter you go, the higher the price. 

Your blade options generally boil down to the following three materials:

Kayak Blade Material Explanation
Blade MaterialDurabilityStiffness LevelWeightPrice
Plastic/Nylon Prone to cracks and degrades with prolonged sun exposureMore flex and reduced efficiencyHeavyAffordable
FiberglassMight chip but won’t crack all the wayImproved stiffness and less flexMore lightweightMid-range pricing
Carbon FiberHighly durableUltra-stiff for excellent energy transferUltra-lightExpensive

Shaft Material

The paddle’s shaft will make up the bulk of the paddle’s total weight, so it’s vital that you choose the shaft material wisely. 

Much like paddle blades, shafts come in a variety of materials, too. The two most common will be aluminum and fiberglass shafts; higher-end kayak paddles typically feature Carbon shafst.

Here’s a quick overview of what each material brings to the table:

  • Aluminum is a wallet-friendly shaft material but can still handle heavy use. As such, an aluminum shaft can be a great entry-level option, provided that you’re okay with a bit of extra weight.
  • Fiberglass is stiff, durable, and lightweight, providing an excellent balance of cost and performance.
  • Carbon fiber, an extremely lightweight and super-strong shaft material mostly reserved for higher-end paddles, is second to none in terms of keeping the swing weight as light as possible. The price undoubtedly reflects that level of performance, though. 

Shaft Design: Bent Vs. Straight 

Most kayak paddles available on the market will feature a straight shaft; it’s the standard type of shaft design – but it’s not your only option. You’ll also find kayak paddle shafts with slightly bent sections on them.

What’s the difference? And how do you hold a bent shaft kayak paddle?

The idea behind these bent sections is that they allow your wrists to remain in a more neutral – and, in turn, more comfortable – position during the power portion of your stroke.

If you’re no stranger to wrist pain and fatigue, a bent kayak paddle shaft, although pricier, might be a worthy investment. 

Oh, and while you’re at it, take a moment to consider whether you’d prefer a single-piece shaft or one that can be broken down for storage or travel-friendliness. I’d generally recommend that you get both – if your budget allows it, that is – because then, you can use your one-piece as a day-to-day paddle and keep the collapsible one in your kayak as a backup.

Blade Shape

When choosing the paddle blade shape, the most significant factor you need to consider will be your paddling style.

Generally speaking, low-angle paddles will feature longer and skinnier blades. High-angle ones come with shorter and broader blades with a greater surface area, designed to generate a more powerful stroke.

As you start looking at blade shapes, one of the first design features you’ll need to think about is choosing between asymmetrical and symmetrical blades:

The difference between symmetrical and asymmetrical blades is that the latter has a narrow and shorter edge on one side, rather than featuring the same – symmetrical – shape on both top and bottom edges.

Another option you’ll encounter is the dihedral blade shape.

Dihedral blades are essentially blades that have a raised, spine-like ridge running across the middle, which helps the water flow evenly across the blade’s surface and minimizes fluttering with each stroke. 

Feathering

Feathering refers to the angle between the two blades – and also plays a role in setting up the blades for right-handed or left-handed control.

You’ll generally have two options here:

  • Matched blades, also known as “unfeathered,” where the blades are aligned – set at an equal angle – with each other
  • Feathered blades, where the blades aren’t on the same plane and are, instead, offset at an angle to one another

Beginners and recreational paddlers likely won’t require a feathered paddle. 

However, given that it can improve efficiency and reduces wind resistance, feathering the blades can be a smart move if you’re into kayak touring, for example. 

How to Set Your Paddle Feather For Maximum Performance

The good news is that most kayak paddles available on the market today feature an adjustable feather angle, meaning they allow you to rotate the shaft and change the blades’ position from matched to feathered. Even more so, you’ll be able to adjust the degree of feathering – typically in 15-degree increments.

How To Pick A Kayak Paddle: A Quick Summary

When it comes to how to choose a kayak paddle, the advice can be summed up in a few vital considerations as follows:

  • Decide on the type of kayaking you’re most interested in, and make sure the paddle fits your intended use
  • Choose the right paddle length according to your height, torso length, as well as width of your kayak
  • Consider how the choice of material affects the paddle’s weight, your efficiency, and the price tag
  • Factor in your paddling style – as in, high-angle vs. low-angle paddling – when deciding on the blade shape
  • Choose a bent shaft if you often experience wrist pain and fatigue
  • Go with adjustable feathering if possible; choose matched blades if you’re a beginner