While it’s sometimes said that “a poor craftsman blames his tools,” the size and design of your kayak paddle can have a large impact on your experience on the water.
Learning how to choose the right kayak paddle size is an important part of becoming a kayak owner.
Leaving aside design elements for a moment, there are several important criteria that will help you choose the paddle size that’s right for you.
But how do you know what those criteria are if you’re new to the sport?
Thankfully, we’ve taken the time here to create a definitive guide to kayak paddle sizes.
This article is designed to answer the specific question: “What kayak paddle size do I need for my kayak?”
We’ll start by defining some important paddle jargon that you’ll come across throughout the article.
Then we’ll lay out how to choose the right kayak paddle size for your kayak and we’ll conclude with several other important considerations to keep in mind when you’re deciding on the best kayak paddle for your kayak.
- Jargon Buster
- What Kayak Paddle Size Do I Need?
- Methods For Choosing A Kayak Paddle
- Other Considerations
- A Final Reminder
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If you’re relatively new to the sport of kayaking, there might be a few important terms you need to get familiar with.
So let’s briefly cover some definitions of kayak paddle jargon that you’ll encounter throughout the rest of this article.
The shaft of a kayak paddle is where we place our hands to control the paddle. It connects the blades on either end and usually comes in a one, two, or four-piece design.
Blades are located on either end of the shaft on a kayak paddle. Unlike a canoe paddle or a paddle used for standup paddleboarding, kayak paddles have two blades that are used in an alternating fashion to propel and steer our kayak.
Drip guards are small rubber rings that wrap around the shaft of a kayak paddle. These rings should be positioned outside of our hands (towards the paddle blades) and they function to reduce the amount of water that flows down the paddle shaft to drip in the cockpit of our kayak.
The power face of the blades on a kayak paddle is usually the concave side of the blade. This is the side of the blade that generates power for us to maneuver the kayak and it should be facing towards us when seated in our kayak and holding our paddle properly.
The back face of the blades on a kayak paddle is typically the convex side of the blade.
While some paddles have flat blades, we can also think of the back face as the side of the blade that faces away from us while we’re seated in our kayak with the paddle held properly in front of us.
What Kayak Paddle Size Do I Need?
The right kayak paddle size depends on more than just the size and design of your kayak. Your height plays a large role as well. In this section, we’re going to provide recommendations for choosing the right kayak paddle size.
The height of the paddler that’s going to be using the paddle is the most important dimension to consider here. While arm length can also come into play, the most general way to choose a paddle size for your body type is by using your height.
The recommended paddle size for your height will often vary depending on the specific manufacturer of the paddle.
That said, it’s a general rule that taller paddlers will require longer paddles and shorter paddlers will be more comfortable with a paddle that is a shorter length.
The Dimensions of Your Kayak
The dimensions of your kayak also play a role in selecting the right paddle size. And the dimension that we are most concerned with here is the width of your kayak.
As a rule of thumb, you can assume that you’ll need a longer paddler for a wider kayak. The reverse is also true for narrower kayaks that don’t require as much reach in order to get the paddle’s blades fully submerged into the water.
Taking both of those factors into account, here’s a quick chart with recommendations for paddle size depending on paddler height and boat width:
Stroke Angle Preference
Depending on the type of kayaking you like to do, your stroke angle preference will change. Whitewater kayakers, for example, typically use a high-angle stroke because they need to get as much purchase in the water as possible.
On the flip side, recreational kayakers tend to get by with low-angle strokes because they aren’t fighting through rapids or battling strong ocean currents. If you’re interested, check out these more detailed explanations of kayak paddle strokes.
When it comes to choosing the right kayak paddle size, your preferred stroke angle should also be taken into account. Generally speaking, paddlers using a low-angle style will be more comfortable with a longer paddle than paddlers using a high-angle style.
We’ve included the chart below to help you understand how the right kayak paddle size for you might change depending on your stroke angle preference.
Please note that this chart uses ‘torso height’ rather than overall height, which is common amongst certain kayak paddle manufacturers.
Methods For Choosing A Kayak Paddle
There are two basic methods for choosing a kayak paddle: the ‘quick-pick’ method and the ‘on-water’ method. We’ll provide a definition of each here, as well as some pros and cons of these two methods.
The ‘Quick-Pick’ Method
Without having to paddle out, there are actually two useful methods for deciding whether you’ve chosen the right kayak paddle size for your body. The first method involves first gripping the paddle as you would if you were sitting in your kayak.
Raise the paddle above your head so that the center of the paddle shaft is centered on the crown of your head.
If the paddle is the right size for you, about two-thirds of the shaft (measuring from the center out to the blade) should be on the inside of your hand and the remaining third should be between your hand and the blades of the paddle.
Here’s a quick visual to clarify this quick-pick method:
The second quick-pick method involves standing the kayak paddle upright next to your body. Reach your arm up to compare the paddle’s length to your height (plus the extended reach of your arm).
Your fingers should be able to wrap just over the top edge of the paddle blade and fold at the middle knuckle.
If you can wrap your entire hand over the blade (or your fingers don’t reach the top edge of the blade at all), you’ll need a shorter or longer paddle size, respectively.
The ‘On-Water’ Method
If you have the ability to actually test different paddles on the water, this is the best way to choose the right kayak paddle size.
This testing method does require that you’re already familiar with proper paddling techniques but, if you are, this is by far the best way to choose a new kayak paddle.
As you paddle, pay attention to the resistance you’re feeling as the paddle moves through the water. Also, notice how far the blades are sinking down into the water as you’re utilizing proper paddling form.
Demo days are a great way to test multiple kayak paddles for performance and comfort.
They also have the added benefit of testing out different kayaks, but we recommend choosing the right kayak and testing various paddles from one kayak rather than trying to test multiple kayaks and paddles in the same day.
Aside from your height, your boat’s width, and your stroke angle preference, there are various additional factors to consider when comparing kayak paddles. In this section, we’ll provide some insight into other considerations that will help you choose the right kayak paddle.
1. Seat Height
The height of the seat in your kayak can impact how long your paddle should be. When your seat is raised higher (like those in some of the best fishing kayaks), you’ll need a longer kayak for more efficient paddling.
Conversely, sitting very low in your kayak means that you don’t need a paddle that’s extra long. In fact, using an extra-long kayak paddle can actually make paddling more difficult and lead to earlier fatigue.
Before selecting a kayak paddle size, look at the height of the seat in your kayak in relation to the height of the gunwales (sides) of the kayak.
Factor in your torso height to make sure you choose a paddle length that will easily allow you to reach outside your kayak and deep into the water to generate power.
2. Tweener Sizes
There are always a few of us that don’t easily fit into the categories included in a manufacturer’s sizing chart. So the question becomes, “what should I do if I fall somewhere right between recommended paddle sizes?”
As a general rule of thumb, most manufacturers will recommend erring on the shorter side if you fall between sizes. In reality, you’ll probably be able to get away with using either size, but going shorter will also help you choose a lighter paddle.
That being said, certain shorter individuals can benefit from a longer paddle that allows for extra reach. This can come in especially handy if you’re piloting a wider kayak that sits lower in the water.
3. Blade & Shaft Materials
There is quite a bit of variety in the materials used in blade and shaft construction of kayak paddles. In this section, we’ll provide some advantages and disadvantages to the most common materials used in these elements of kayak paddles.
The materials used in the blade of a kayak paddle impact the paddle’s performance and price. Some of the most common materials used in kayak blades are plastic, nylon, fiberglass, and carbon fiber.
- Plastic and/or Nylon
Plastic or nylon blades are generally used in the most affordable kayak paddles on the market. These blades are reasonably durable but don’t perform nearly as well as their fiberglass or carbon fiber counterparts.
Plastic and nylon also tend to degrade if left in the sun for too long. As they are subject to more UV exposure, plastic blades have a higher tendency to crack as well.
Fiberglass blades offer excellent performance and great durability. While paddles that include fiberglass blades are generally more expensive than those utilizing plastic or nylon blades, these paddles tend to fall in the middle of the pack in terms of price.
Fiberglass is also much more lightweight than plastic, which can help to reduce fatigue as you head out for longer paddles. In some cases, fiberglass blades have been known to chip, but they’ll seldom crack all the way through like plastic or nylon blades.
- Carbon Fiber
Blades that use carbon fiber material are only included in the most expensive paddles on the market today. While the use of this material raises the price of a paddle, it also makes these paddles much lighter than their competitors.
When compared to plastic, nylon, and fiberglass, carbon fiber is also the stiffest material used in kayak paddle blades. This means excellent energy transfer into every stroke and it means you’ll need to exert less effort to get where you want to go on the water.
Aluminium is arguably the most common material used in kayak paddle shafts.It’s affordable, relatively light, and durable, but aluminum can get chilly if you’re paddling in cold weather, so you’ll want to find a solid pair of paddle gloves if this is the case.
- Fiberglass and carbon fiber
Fiberglass and carbon fibre are also used in the construction of certain kayak paddle shafts.Their pros and cons are very similar to when they are used in the construction of kayak blades.
They are both durable, strong, and lightweight. The most expensive material (just like with the blades) will be carbon fiber, which is why some manufacturers choose to use a blend of carbon fiber and fiberglass (or aluminum) to provide extra strength and keep the cost down.
4. Blade Design
When it comes to the design of the blades on either end of a kayak paddle, there are two basic factors that impact performance. Those factors are the width of the blade and the shape of the blade.
Most kayak blades are either asymmetrical or symmetrical. The cheapest kayak paddles feature symmetrical blades, but they perform much more poorly than blades with an asymmetrical shape.
Asymmetrical blades are shorter on one side and relatively narrow overall. This shape angles the blade so that the power face is more uniform when moving through the water, which makes your paddle strokes more efficient.
The best kayak paddles on the market today have blades with an asymmetrical dihedral shape. The dihedral component means that the blade has a rib (or bump) down the center of the entire blade.
This rib further increases the blade’s efficiency by allowing water to move more smoothly over both halves of the blade’s power and back faces. This also reduces flutter, which can negatively impact your ability to keep your kayak pointed in the direction you’re trying to go.
The width of a kayak’s blades comes into play when we’re talking about the type of kayaking you prefer. Wider blades are better for certain applications and narrower blades are preferred for others.
Recreational kayakers tend to prefer paddles with narrower blades because they are more comfortable for longer stretches of paddling.
This also makes them a great option for kayakers that are getting into full-day tours or multi-day expeditions.
Wider blades have their niche for more powerful strokes that allow the kayaker to maneuver and accelerate quickly. That’s why they’re preferred by whitewater kayakers and kayak surfers.
5. Shaft Design
The two main factors in a paddle’s shaft design are shape and number of pieces. There are straight shafts, which are better for novice kayakers, and bent shafts, which are great for minimizing fatigue but take some time to get used to.
Kayak paddles also come in single-piece, two-piece, and four-piece designs. While single-piece designs tend to offer more durability, designs that offer breakdown ability are more convenient for traveling or storage.
A Final Reminder
As a final reminder, we want to stress the importance of reading various user reviews before finalizing your purchase decision. Not all kayak paddle manufacturers put their products through rigorous testing.
This means that the best way to get more information on how a paddle will perform in the field is to consult with others that have put that paddle to use.
User reviews are a great way to confirm (or disprove) the claims made by the manufacturer of a given paddle.
As a last note, make sure to check into the warranty policy for the paddle you’ve selected.
If anything unexpected happens on your paddle’s maiden voyage, it’ll be good to know that the manufacturer stands by their product and will either repair or replace it within a given period of time.