Walking into a sporting goods store and standing in front of the paddle rack can be a dizzying experience. With so many shapes, sizes, and construction materials, bent or straight shaft, how can we make an informed decision on which paddle design is best for us? Let’s dig deeper into paddle function and craftsmanship to see if we can make a selection.
First, you need to decide what type of water you will predominantly be paddling. Are you going to paddle lakes and slow-moving water, fast-moving rivers or extreme whitewater? Based on this answer we can easily select the paddle shape and material that best suits our needs. The paddle grip also comes into play with many different styles – each with its own skillset.
Two of the most efficient water creatures in North America are the beaver and the otter. So, it makes perfect sense that there would be a beavertail design and an ottertail design paddle. The ‘tail’ paddles are at home on flatwater/tripping situations. These paddles have a rounded tip and narrow towards the neck to decrease the chance of constant gunnel scraping. The ‘tail’ design holds less water on the face of the blade than other designs making paddling less tiring and more enjoyable.
In white water situations, you need a Corvette, not a semi-truck. Quick turns and maneuverability are important. Whitewater paddles have shorter and wider blades with a square tip. This allows paddlers to make quick strokes to maneuver around and through boulders and other impediments. Some whitewater paddles will have a slightly curved blade that helps the paddle grip the water better. A square bladed paddle is also okay for recreational situations on flatwater when you’re not paddling miles a day, for days.
If you are planning on some mild whitewater with some flatwater/expedition paddling added in, I would suggest a voyageur style blade. The Voyageurs traveled tremendous distances in their canoes, with heavy loads, on lakes and down rivers. This style blade has years of hard-fought research backing up its design and excels as a great all-around paddle.
While we are on the subject of paddle designs, let’s talk about grips. The two most common grips for a paddle are the T-grip and the palm-type grip. The T-grip is made to wrap your hand/fingers around, thereby giving you greater precision and control. However, that comes at the cost of being less comfortable. T-grip paddles are great for fast-moving water where maneuverability is important. Whereas, the palm-grip is shaped like a teardrop that fits nicely in your hand. There are also variations of the palm-grip, such as the cobra, scroll and pear shapes. Comfort for long days of paddling with less effort is where the palm-grip shines. This grip style paddle is ideal for flatwater tripping/expedition as well as recreational paddling.
Next, let’s talk about materials for the paddle. There are many options and no one material is perfect. Rather, it’s more about feel and your budget. A wooden paddle has a nostalgic look with functionality that can’t be beaten. Wooden paddles are warm to the touch, feel comfortable in your hand and are quieter when scraped/banged against the gunnels. In my opinion, wooden paddles are the go-to for lake water paddlers. Not all wood is created equal. Ash is very durable and can stand up to harsh conditions, maple is strong but flexible and cherry is popular because it is lightweight and strong. Wooden paddles can also be made of laminate materials. These are recognizable by the multi-colored blade/shaft. Some wooden paddles may come with a fiberglass tip which is great if you paddle in rocky or shallow locations. Paddles made of wood do need some maintenance with minor sanding and resealing to keep moisture/rot in check.
Composites, such as Kevlar, carbon fiber and fiberglass also make for great paddles. These materials are strong and very lightweight. Composite paddles are maintenance-free but can be very pricey. They are the choice of racers but can also be a good choice for tripping canoeists due to the lightweight. You’d be surprised at how light these paddles are.
Another choice is plastic/aluminum. Most plastic paddles will have a plastic blade with an aluminum shaft. Plastic paddles are durable, less expensive and don’t require maintenance. However, the metal shaft can be cold/hot to the touch depending on weather conditions.
In conclusion, with the basic tips above we can now make an informed decision of what type of paddle will fit our needs. Add in the right material and the right grip style, and you are well on your way to happy paddling. For me, a paddle purchase is something that I do in person. I want to actually feel the balance, weight, and grip of a paddle before I make a purchase. Remember that this paddle could be in your hands 10+ hours a day on a long canoe camping trip. You’ll want to ensure it is the most comfortable paddle for you. With these few tips, the paddle rack that was previously dizzying to look at is now much less daunting. Stay tuned for some tips on selecting the appropriate length paddle in a future article. Remember, always wear your PFD and ‘paddle true to paddle through’!