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It can be argued - which is the more important purchase, the canoe or the paddle(s)? As might be expected due to cost and investment, most people think first of the canoe but your choice of paddle can have an equal, if not greater, impact on the quality of your paddling experience.
Think about it, you lift and carry the canoe a couple of times in a day (unless you're on the 7 Carries Route in the Adirondacks or something similar). When it comes to the paddle though, you'll be lifting and swinging it hundreds of times a day, if not a 1000. If that paddle is heavy or poorly balanced, the result is going to be fatigue and muscle stiffness and soreness, and less than fond memories of your time on the water. If that paddle is too stiff or has a too-large blade or wrong length shaft, the results will be the same.
With paddles, it is very much a situation of you get what you pay for. Inexpensive paddles, whether synthetic or wood, tend to favor durability and a lack of attention to detail. Making a quality paddle requires skills and craftsmanship and time, all of which add to the cost of the “stick” but can make all the difference out on the water.
If there's any place in the buying process where you should stretch your budget if possible it's when you select your paddles. Too often, the canoe gets all the attention during the buying process and by the time that's nailed down, the tendency is to hustle through the paddle selection, maybe lowball the paddle to salvage some of the budget. To fall prey to this is to shortchange yourself and the paddling experience you can achieve.
When you test paddle or demo potential canoes, check out the paddles available and give some different ones a try to get a feel for the difference it can make. Oftentimes, paddles provided for demos tend to be lower end models but still it's worthwhile to trial what's available.
If your budget is maxed out and all you can afford to get the boat on the water are the most inexpensive paddles, by all means do it, but immediately start putting some money aside to upgrade those paddles and relegate them to roles as spare or beater paddles to be used in shallow abusive conditions that can damage your best paddles.
If you do some homework, you'll realize it's not too difficult to find paddles that may well cost more than some canoes. Most likely though, you won't have to go to that extreme to find a paddle that suits you well.
An awful lot of paddlers got their first experience with canoe paddles at summer camp and oftentimes the sizing process entailed standing up and being given a paddle that came up to your chin or close to it. While this is efficient in terms of getting people off the beach and into boats, it isn't a process you should rely on when selecting your personal paddles. For one thing, standing height has little to do with proper paddle size; after all, the vast majority of your paddling will be done from a sitting or kneeling position, not standing tall. Second, that traditional sizing method was based on paddles that featured long narrow blades. Most contemporary paddles are made with shorter wider blades. If you use the old simple sizing method with a modern paddle, you'll end up with a paddle with a shaft far too long to work well. Think about it this way: a 60” narrow “beavertail” paddle could have a blade that measures 26” long by 6” wide, resulting in a 34” long shaft. If you translate that to a contemporary paddle with a 19” by 7” blade, that translates to a 41” long shaft, fully 7” longer.
Many new paddlers opt for big blades under the impression that they can generate more power and make the canoe go faster, much like a V-8 will kick the butt of a 4 cylinder engine. But that power comes with a price.
The bigger blade creates more resistance moving through the water as well as the air on the recovery phase. More mass also usually translates to increased weight, not a good thing. Large bladed paddles are simply harder to use in terms of endurance and strength. There's a reason the Voyageurs of the Canadian Fur Trade opted for skinny blades even though they were paddling big canoes.
Simply put, the bigger the blade the more effort it takes to put it to use. As paddlers become more experienced they realize that they can generate speed and more importantly, sustained speed, more efficiently through stroke rate and rhythm than by simple power or force. The latter can not be sustained for long periods of time and what can be the most telling is that even when pulled through the water at a reduced pace, a big blade still generates a lot of resistance, making it difficult to rest and recuperate.
With paddles, it's a case of less being more. Generally speaking, lighter paddles are preferred to heavier unless the type of paddling you're intending needs maximum durability, such as whitewater. But even then, if you have the choice between two models of apparent equal durability, go lighter.
It's simple physics, a lighter paddle is easier to lift and swing through the air as well as pull through the water. The difference may not seem like much in the morning but by the late afternoon, it's all too plain and evident. Ounces add up. For arguments sake, say a paddler takes 1000 strokes in a day. If his paddle weighs 30 ozs, he's lifted 1,875 pounds in the course of those 1000 strokes. If the paddle weighs 21 ozs, that translates to a burden of 1312 ozs., a savings of about 40%, nothing to be sneezed at.
Balance is often the most overlooked aspect of paddle design yet is critical to paddle performance. A paddle with poor balance, particularly with a heavy blade, can wear you down in short order. What we're talking about here is swing weight, the effort needed to lift the blade from the water and swing it forward for the next stroke. With weight in the blade, more effort is required to lift the blade from the water and move it forward. And it's not just the effort to lift the blade but also the amount of force that you have to exert by pushing down on the grip to lift the blade that adds up.
To determine balance, grasp the paddle at the hilt – just above the junction of the shaft and the blade. The paddle should rest pretty much horizontally with a slight weight balance towards the blade. Avoid a paddle that dives blade down as soon as released or one that is grip heavy. If you've found a style or make of paddle you like, test every one that the store has on hand in the proper size. Due to variations in materials, the balance of each example of the same model of paddle will vary.
Test the fit of the shaft by gripping it with each hand just above the junction with the blade. As you will inevitably be switching sides it's important to know the shaft is comfortable for both hands. Evaluate the thickness of the shaft, does it make for a comfortable grip? If too large or too small either will cause discomfort and problems. Do not grab the shaft like a hammer handle, keep your grip a bit loose and fingers slightly open.
The other aspect you want to give attention to is the shape of the shaft. Less expensive paddles tend to rely on a circular shaft due to ease of manufacture. More sophisticated paddles tend to feature ovallized shafts which increase both comfort and control of the paddle.
The grip is a key component in terms of both comfort and control. Grip styles can vary from a palm or pear grip to a defined “T” grip. Though ultimately the choice is a matter of personal preference and comfort, T-grips tend to be favored for whitewater or river paddling while palm grips are the most common choice for touring and cruising paddling.
T-grips offer the advantage of increased control and leverage over the paddle, important attributes in the chaotic world of whitewater. The T-grip is aligned with the blade and the paddler learns to precisely position their blade angle by positioning the grip.
Palm grips come in a range of different sizes and shapes and their primary advantage is the ability to shift or alter your grip as the day goes on or demands change. This makes for a more comfortable grip in the long run.
Regardless of which you choose, test fit the grip with both hands. Judge size, both width and thickness and how it fits your hands (both of them!). Look for any sharp edges or rough areas that can translate into blisters or aggravation on the water. With wood grips you can fine tune the grip shape by sanding or filing the grip. You don't often have that option on a molded synthetic grip.
Protection refers to the reinforcements placed at high wear and impact areas. Generally, the more expensive the paddle the more plentiful the reinforcements. Consider the most likely places for a paddle to take abuse; the first that comes to mind is the end of the blade where it's likely to be jammed into the bottom or banged off a rock. Avoid wood paddles with laminates running down the blade and ending at the tip without any protection. Wood is prone to splitting at the end grain and this is just what is exposed in this style of construction. An impact on the tip can easily result in a split in the grain that expands upward further and further into the blade.
There are a number of different ways to protect the tip of a wood paddle. Some manufacturers wrap the end of the blade in fiberglass. Others encapsulate the end in a urethane resin. Placing a wood veneer that runs across the blade, 90o to the blade laminate is a light weight means of protection. Aluminum tip inserts are also used to provide additional wear and tear.
Another area prone to wear and tear as well as damage is along the vertical edges of the paddle blade. These areas don't see as much abuse but can be vulnerable, especially when things get out of control and the paddle is flailing around. A simple way to reinforce blade shoulders and sides is use a hardwood laminate in that position rather than a softwood. More expensive paddles may have thin stem bent wood edging applied to edges of blade. The advantage is the comparative lighter weight of a thin edge vs. a 1” wide laminate.
Fiberglass wrapped edges do not usually last as long as one might think. Fiberglass cloth does not take kindly to being bent 90o twice in close proximity. It doesn't take much of an impact to pop the ‘glass free of the wood.
A fiberglass overlay on the surface of the blade does add protection and protects against torqueing stress, where one corner of the blade is trapped and the blade is twisted under stress. The ‘glass adds torsional rigidity but it does add some weight as well. Higher end paddles will utilize carbon or graphite in this manner. Much lighter in weight, much stiffer, and, surprise, surprise; much more expensive.
There are two primary ways that synthetic paddle blades are strengthened. One is to use a stronger resin and the other is to make a thicker blade. One adds cost the other adds weight and can affect the paddle's balance.
How do you judge how durable a paddle you need?