Paddle Vs Oar: The Difference Between Oar And Paddle Explained

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Sam OBrien

If you’re having some trouble distinguishing between paddles and oars, trust me, you’re not alone – many people make the same mistake.

There’s a lot of confusion about the matter among novice kayakers. And the fact that a good portion of the paddling community still uses the two terms interchangeably doesn’t help, either.

They’re not the same, though – not even close. 

Shape and appearance, required techniques, suitable types of watercraft, and purpose; there’s more than one crucial difference between oars and paddles.

So, let’s settle the whole paddle vs oar debate and bring an end to the confusion, shall we? 

Oars 101: What Is An Oar? 

oar vs paddle - 4 rowers on calm winter river

Oars are single-bladed “tools” used for rowing that mount directly to the boat and are fixed in place by oarlocks. The boat’s sides support the oars and act as a fulcrum for the rowing motion.

They used to propel the craft in the opposite direction to where the rower is facing, making it feel as if you’re going backward. 

An oar consists of the following parts:

  • Handle, or the section that you hold when rowing
  • Shaft, also known as “loom,” which comprises the majority of the oar’s total length
  • Sleeve, a thin piece of plastic that prevents the oarlock from damaging the oar’s shaft
  • Collar, also referred to as the “button,” found on the sleeve, keeps the oar from slipping past the oarlock
  • Blade, a flat blade face, also known as the “spoon,” located on the end of the oar’s shaft 

Paddle 101: What Is A Paddle? 

orange paddle close up to show difference between oars and paddles

Paddles can be both single-bladed – like canoe-style paddles – and double-bladed, commonly used for kayaking. Unlike oars, paddles are not attached or mounted to anything and require two-handed operation; the paddler has to keep a hold of the paddle at all times.

The forward paddling stroke, which is performed on alternating sides, propels the vessel in the direction that the paddler faces. 

The essential components of a paddle are:

  • Grip, or the top of the handle, found in canoe-style paddles
  • Shaft, the longest, typically straight part of the paddle – kayak paddles may feature a bent shaft – that’s often indexed for a secure grip
  • Throat, the part where the “handle” meets the blades
  • Blade, which consists of the power face – the side that catches the water – and the opposite, so-called back face 

8 Differences Between Oars And Paddles You May Not Know About (But Should)

oars vs paddles picture of both piece of equipment

Yes, both paddles and oars are used for propelling small, narrow watercraft; this is far from an apples-to-oranges comparison. 

But there are still eight crucial, hard-to-miss, not-to-be-overlooked differences between the two. 

Difference #1: Purpose & Intended Use 

The way you’d use an oar vs paddle is nowhere near the same: 

Paddles create forward momentum by “pulling” on the water with each stroke, propelling the vessel in the direction as the paddler is facing. Being able to see where you’re going – without having to look over your shoulder – makes paddles the more versatile choice.

That’s why they’re the go-to choice for recreational paddling, travel, river-running, and fishing trips.

Oars propel the boat by pushing the water away from it and require the paddler to sit with their back turned to the direction they’re going – essentially rowing backward. Not ideal for exploring, huh? 

Difference #2: Watercraft Type 

Again, both are effective means of propelling smaller-sized vessels across the water.

However, when it comes to matching paddles and oars with the suitable type of watercraft, that’s as far as the similarities go.

Paddles are best-suited for kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and rafts. As for oars, you’ll typically find them on Jon boats, rowing boats, sculls, and sweep-oar boats.

What about canoes? 

Is a Double Blade (Kayak Style) Paddle Good in a Canoe? First Impressions on a 200km Solo Trip

Are you better off using paddles or oars?

Well, the answer isn’t that simple:

Single-bladed paddles are still regarded as the more popular, accessible, and easy-to-use solution for canoeing. You’ll occasionally encounter canoes fitted with oars, though. 

Difference #3: Design & Appearance 

If you paid attention so far, the fact that design and appearance make for a notable difference between oar and paddle shouldn’t be too surprising.

Oars are single-bladed; since they attach to the boat’s sides via oarlocks, you can – and should – use two oars, one on each side.

Paddles offer a bit more variety in this regard and are available as single- and double-bladed options:

Former is typically used for canoes and rafts, as it allows on-a-dime turning and control, while kayakers prefer the latter as faster, more efficient, and less physically demanding

Difference #4: Materials & Construction 

Besides looks, the actual construction and choice of materials is another thing that deserves mention here:

Paddles can be made of aluminum, fiberglass, or carbon fiber; materials that keep the weight low – often less than two pounds – are the preferred choice.

Canoe-style paddles, traditionally constructed out of hardwood, are an exception to the rule, but modern-day plastic-and-aluminum paddles are also an option.

Unless you’re into competitive rowing – in which case, you’ll want carbon fiber – you’ll find that oars are most commonly made from hardwood, such as ash.

Difference #5: Physical Effort & Muscles Engaged

Rowing strokes require you to use your entire body, with a particular focus on the arm, back, and leg muscles.

The difference between oar and paddle regarding physical effort is even more visible in sculls and sweep-oar boats, where the entire seat slides back and forth. You can utilize your leg muscles to add more power to each oar stroke.

Even more so, you can work on your rowing technique and train the specific muscle groups on a stationary rowing machine – which isn’t an option for paddling. 

Correct Rowing Technique

There’s an argument to be made about paddling being a full-body workout, too.

But even though paddling isn’t an exclusively upper-body workout – as many non-paddlers would assume – paddling uses different muscles than rowing:

Your core muscles – primarily abdominals and obliques – are what drives the forward stroke, with back and arm muscles supporting the movement and transferring the force to the paddle. Legs don’t contribute to the propulsion per se; they take on the secondary role as stabilizers. 

Difference #6: Stroke Technique 

“Paddling” – as in, using a paddle – isn’t the same thing as “rowing.” You paddle a ‘yak with a kayak paddle but row a boat with an oar.

Being a novice in the world of on-the-water sports can be confusing, huh?

Since the actual propulsion methods are different, the stroke techniques required for paddle vs oar differ, too.

For starters, the rowing stroke you’re not facing the same direction. Unlike paddling, rowing requires you to face backward rather than in the direction you’re going.

Rowing generally requires two oars – one oar in each hand – except for sweep rowing, which requires two-handed control of the oar. 

Paddling calls for one paddle, single- or double-blade one, held with both hands; blades enter the water on alternate sides with each stroke.

Forward Paddling Strokes - Kayaking Technique

Difference #7: Performance & Speed 

When it comes to the oar vs paddle comparison performance- and speed-wise, you’re probably wondering if rowing is faster than kayaking.

Performance can vary depending on weather and water conditions – and drastically so – but the truth is, rowing comes out on top in this regard:

Leg, arm, and back muscles generate the power together, translating into greater forward momentum and more efficient strokes.

And this is the reason why in the performance sport of rowing, oars are the propulsion method of choice. 

That’s not to say that double-bladed paddles can’t deliver exceptional on-the-water performance – especially when paired with a high-performance kayak.

Paddling can still outperform rowing in rougher water conditions.

Race-Off Rowing (M4) vs Kayaking (K4) - Melbourne, Australia

Difference #8: Cost 

Some of you likely noticed the difference in paddle vs oar prices. And for those who are considering going with oars but aren’t sure what to expect cost-wise, the not-so-pretty truth is:

Yes, oars are generally the more expensive option out of the two.  

High-quality hardwood construction and metal oarlocks – times two – are bound to cost more. 

An entry-level kayak, coupled with a double-blade paddle, will be easier on the wallet than a rowboat for those getting into on-the-water sports

Difference Between An Oar And a Paddle: Oar Vs Paddle Summary 

The most notable differences outlined in this paddle vs oar comparison can be summed up as follows:

  • Oars are attached to the boat; the paddle is held by the paddler rather than connected to the vessel 
  • Paddles are used for paddling kayaks, canoes, rafts, and stand-up paddleboards; oars are used for rowing Jon boats, rowboats, sculls, and sweep-oar boats 
  • Paddlers face the way they’re headed; you row with your back turned in the direction of travel 
  • Rowing requires two single-bladed oars, one on each side; paddlers use a single paddle, held with both hands 

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Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.