Canoe paddle just above the water

How to choose a canoe paddle

There’s nothing quite like throwing your gear in your boat and getting out on the water, whether it’s for a short paddle after work or going canoe tripping in the backcountry. No matter what you have planned, the right paddle can make a big difference.

So is there such a thing as a wrong paddle? Not exactly, but different paddle designs serve different purposes. To find the best canoe paddle for you, think about:

  • Your own size and strength: The longer the paddle, the more leverage you have – but the more power you’ll need to propel your boat through the water.
  • Water conditions: Are you heading to the river, or cruising on a calm lake? Certain blade shapes are better for certain conditions.
  • The make and feel: Don’t buy a paddle just because it’s pretty – learn about each material’s pros and cons.
  • Bent or straight shaft: Some paddles have a tilt or an angle, and you should know how that changes things before you buy one.

The length of your paddle

When people talk about the length of the paddle, it refers to the combined length of the shaft and the blade. (The shaft is the part you hold while paddling, and the blade is the part you submerge.) The section of the paddle where the shaft meets the blade is called the throat.

So how do you know what paddle length is right you? Here’s a simple hack: sit on a chair with your back straight, and hold the paddle vertically so that the grip is touching the seat between your legs, with the blade in the air. Your eyes should be level with the paddle’s throat.

This is a nice guideline to find a good first paddle, but everyone’s unique. As you spend more time on the water, you may find that you prefer a slightly longer or shorter paddle.

  • A longer paddle is best if you’re going to be paddling somewhere that you can take long, powerful strokes and you don’t need to maneuver quickly – think quiet lakes or ocean inlets.
  • Shorter paddles, on the other hand, let you steer really well and are great for whitewater canoeing or rocky stretches.

Choosing a blade size and shape

A bigger blade requires more muscle power, but you’ll also get greater propulsion with every stroke. For example, short paddles with wide blades are great for whitewater canoeing, because they help you make forceful, lightning-fast strokes even when the blade seems to barely touch the water.

There’s less need to turn quickly on gentle rivers and lakes, so smaller blades will typically do the trick. These need to be paddled at a slightly higher stroke rate, but each stroke requires less effort. This is easier on your wrists and shoulders in the long run, especially when paddling a boat that’s crammed full of heavy camping gear.

Blades that are long and narrow, like the classic beavertail or ottertail design, can reach through surface chop to the quieter waters below, meaning smoother strokes and greater overall control.

Larger blades

Pros:

  • Efficient blades that give great paddling leverage
  • Each stroke is more effective compared to a narrower blade
  • Lets you accelerate faster, manoeuvre quickly, and gives great “bite” for rolls and braces

Cons:

  • Can be more tiring over extended periods
  • Catches more wind, so the paddle can be difficult to control in windy situations

Smaller blades

Pros:

  • Easy on muscles and joints
  • Less surface area to be pushed around by wind

Cons:

  • Faster cadence required to maintain cruising speed
  • Makes quick manoeuvres difficult; less power means the boat can’t be muscled around

“For lake paddling, I love a long, narrow blade. It slices into the water like butter, which makes for a smooth and relaxing experience.” – MEC staffer Paula B.

Canoe paddle materials

The lengths and widths of the paddle tell only half the story. What they’re made of is also super important for comfort, functionality and maintenance.

Wood

Bruce Kirkby's family paddling on the Churchill River

MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby’s family on a 2-week Churchill River paddle. Photo: Bruce Kirkby.

Wood paddles are classic: synthetic materials can’t match their liveliness, flexibility and warmth. They’re often slightly heavier than fibre composite paddles, but can be lighter than paddles with plastic or aluminum parts. Wood does require some upkeep, ranging from the occasional dab of varnish on a chipped area to a full sanding and refinishing.

Laminated wood paddles aren’t the same as traditional wood paddles. They’re strips of wood glued together and they can be hollow, or feature a mix of heavier and lighter woods, so they often weigh less. They’re also stiffer, but what they lose in flexibility and shock absorption, they make up for in their strength and versatility in a range of situations – shallow or deep, racing or touring, calm or rapid.

Why do some wood paddles have resin on the bottom?

People often push off with the tip of the paddle, which wears away the coating or oil and lets water in the wood (which can rot). While it may not look as fancy, resin tips make it a much more low-maintenance paddle in terms of upkeep.

“Hanging my wood paddles on my wall encourages me to hit the lake again soon! Certain wood (like cherry) gets darker the more you use it, and each nick tells a story. You only need a few nails and brackets to hang them.” – MEC staffer Paula B.

Composites

Paddles made from fibreglass perform well in many conditions, and are often more affordable. They tend to have some flex and warmth, and being relatively lightweight, they’re easy on your joints.

Ultralight paddles are made of composites such as kevlar, carbon fibre and graphite, and can even feature a foam core. They were first made for professional flatwater racing, and though they’ve become popular in pretty much every kind of canoeing, they can be expensive.

Plastic and aluminum

Paddlers splashing water at each other with plastic/aluminum paddles

Plastics like nylon, polyethylene, ABS and urethane are used to make durable, flexible, low-maintenance and usually very affordable paddle blades. They’re heavier than fibreglass, but virtually indestructible.

Aluminum is only used to make shafts, which tend to be hardy and inexpensive. They’re cold on the hands, though, so they’re often covered with vinyl or some other insulating material.

Straight shaft vs. bent shaft

When you’re shopping for a paddle, you’ll probably notice that some have a straight shaft while others are bent. If you like recreational canoeing on calmer, more predictable waters, you might actually prefer a bent shaft. The angle of the blade makes your stroke more efficient, entering the water earlier and providing power from start to finish. You’ll find that bent shaft paddles tend to have wider blades to provide better propulsion.

Bear in mind that bent shafts make steering strokes more difficult. Because of this, they’re not meant for whitewater canoeing. If you’re tackling technical whitewater – or if you prefer smaller, narrower blades that are less taxing on your arms – you might consider skipping the bent shaft paddles and choosing something a little more conventional.

Always take a spare

Most people carry a spare paddle for safety’s sake – and although a basic backup will probably meet your needs, there’s no harm in having an extra paddle that’s suited to a more specific purpose, just in case conditions change or you want to explore somewhere new.