How to Choose a Kayak Paddle
How to Choose a Kayak Paddle
European vs. Greenland Style Paddles
For those unfamiliar with the difference between these two radically different styles of kayak paddles, Greenland style paddles are an ancient form of technology developed by the Inuit peoples of the western Arctic. In contrast, European style paddles are a form of modern technology developed by European white water paddlers that feature radically different designs for fundamentally different purposes.
For instance, Greenland style paddles were for paddling over long distances in relatively calm seas and for stealth when hunting seals and walrus, as well as for dealing with high wind speeds. The first European style paddles, on the other hand, were specifically designed for paddling in white water.
Consequently, Greenland style paddles feature relatively short looms with relatively long, narrow, blades while European style paddles feature relatively long shafts with relatively short, wide blades.
However, the differences don’t stop there. There are many different variations that a paddler can choose from when choosing either style of paddle, such as loom (shaft) length, blade length, and blade width when choosing a Greenland paddle and shaft design, shaft length, blade size, and blade design when choosing a European paddle. So, let’s examine the differences.
European Style Kayak Paddles
European style kayak paddles are by far the most popular type of kayak paddle on the market today and thus, they are also the most common. However, not all European-style kayak paddles are created equal. For instance, the most common difference is in the blades’ design, but they are also available with two different paddle shafts.
Bent Shafts vs. Straight Shafts
While paddle shaft design is not the most obvious difference when choosing a Euro paddle, it’s still relevant because it governs a paddler’s comfort level. For instance, European paddles feature either the more common straight shaft in which the paddle shaft is straight along its entire length from blade to blade.
Or they feature a so-called “bent shaft” in which a short section of the paddle shaft is angled to better align the paddler’s wrists due to the wide hand position. Bent shafts alleviate the pain that some paddlers experience when using straight shafts. Whenever possible, you should try both types of paddle shafts before making a choice.
On the other hand, when choosing a Euro blade, the first thing that you are likely to notice is that they are available both with different blade sizes and shapes. However, blade design is a somewhat complicated topic. Let’s examine blade size first.
So, when examining European-style kayak paddles, you will see that some are long and slim while others are short and wide and this difference determines the amount of propulsion power that the paddle provides. This difference is the very reason that European style kayak paddles were designed.
For instance, the shorter and broader blades of European style paddles provide a paddler with more “catch” which is the amount of resistance a paddler feels when they immerse the paddle blade in the water and then push or pull the blade with the paddle shaft.
Therefore, the larger the blade is, the more catch it will have; and the more power the paddler can transmit to the kayak to propel it. In turn, this added power can drive the kayak faster and make it easier to perform maneuvers such as the low brace, the high brace, sweeping, sculling, and rolling.
However, at the same time, larger kayak blades also require the paddler to expend more energy when using them. Larger blades are generally reserved for kayak surfing and playing in rock gardens because they provide more catch.
Consequently, most kayakers more interested in touring than surfing or playing prefer kayak blades with a longer, slimmer design. This type of paddle blade can still provide all of the power needed to propel a kayak and perform maneuvers, but they do not fatigue the paddler as fast as shorter and wider blades do because they have less catch.
Paddlers should be aware that even though Euro paddles are by far the most popular type of kayak paddle, the larger blades not only catch more water, they also catch more wind.
Due to their larger blades, the wind can literally rip the raised end of a Euro paddle out of a paddler’s hand. Most European style kayak paddles also feature “feathered” blades or a means of selecting between feathered and matched blades by twisting the shaft at the joint.
When a paddler holds a feathered kayak paddle with one blade face perpendicular to the water’s surface, the other face will be tilted forward, usually at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees, to prevent the wind from catching it.
This requires the paddler to twist the paddle’s shaft in their hand during each stroke to properly orient the blade as they dip their paddle into the water.
Some paddlers find this uncomfortable and, using a feathered kayak paddle over many hours can lead to chronic discomfort and eventually carpal tunnel syndrome.
A European style blade design, on the other hand, is a far more complicated topic than blade size but is also extremely important when choosing a kayak paddle. For instance, in addition to short and wide or long and slim, kayak paddle blades can also feature symmetric or asymmetric shapes, flat or spoon-shaped blades, and flat or dihedral blade faces.
By comparison, the Perception Universal blade is short and wide for flat waters, whereas the Werner Camano Straight is long and average width more nuance to tackle rivers of varied conditions.
Thus, the simplest type of blade design is symmetric with a flat blade and, the most complicated type of blade design has an asymmetric shape and a curved blade (called a spoon blade) with a dihedral ridge. So, what is the difference?
As a general rule, the simpler the blade design is, the less expensive the paddle is but, the less efficient it is. Therefore, while European style kayak paddles with symmetric blade shapes and flat blade faces will propel a kayak and enable the paddler to perform maneuvers, they provide less catch and, thus, less power. Therefore, this type of kayak paddle is best for use with recreational kayaks.
Asymmetric blade shapes, on the other hand, provide more catch. When a paddler immerses their paddle’s blade in the water, they must necessarily hold their paddle shaft at an angle. Thus, the asymmetric blade shape takes advantage of this fact by enabling the paddler to fully immerse the blade in the water rather than leaving a part of it exposed, as often happens with symmetric shapes.
In addition to asymmetric blades, most kayak paddles with this type of blade shape also feature a slight curve similar to that of a tablespoon, and thus, they are commonly called “spoon blades”. Like the asymmetric blade shape, spoon blades catch more water and so, spoon blades are also more efficient than flat blades because the water does not slide off of the end of the paddle as easily as it does on flat blade.
However, kayak paddle blades with flat surfaces tend to flutter as the paddler pulls against the water because the water not only slides off the end of the blade it also slides off of both sides. Tilting the blade slightly when paddling will cause the water to slide off of one side of the paddle blade faster than the other. This tilting creates a vortex of low pressure behind the blade, which then causes it to tilt in the opposite direction. This action then creates a low pressure vortex on the opposite side, which causes the paddle to oscillate from side to side which the paddler experiences as a flutter.
So, to minimize flutter, the most sophisticated kayak paddle blade designs feature a dihedral ridge that runs along the center of the paddle blade in addition to an asymmetric spoon shape.
For example, the Aqua-Bound Tango blade is a slightly more expensive option that provides significantly more performance for all the reasons mentioned above.
Thus, a dihedral paddle blade will have a pronounced ridge at or near the blade’s center with a gently curved slope to either side, preventing the blade from fluttering.
Greenland Style Paddles
Next, we will examine the features of Greenland style paddles. Although Greenland style kayak paddles are not as popular as European style kayak paddles, some feel that they provide significant advantages over European style kayak paddles due to their long, slim blades and their shorter looms (shafts).
For instance, one of the most notable features of the Greenland style kayak paddle is that they feature exceptionally long, slim blades compared to European style kayak paddles, which necessarily reduces the length of their looms. Therefore, to provide the same degree of catch as that of a European style kayak paddle, a Greenland style kayak paddle must be immersed much deeper into the water during the paddle stroke–sometimes all the way up to the blade’s shoulder. Thus, the longer a Greenland style kayak paddle’s blades are, the more catch the paddle will have and the same is true of its width.
Most Greenland style paddles feature blades that measure a mere 3 to 3.5 inches in width. Because Greenland style kayak paddles allow the paddler to slide their hand onto the paddle’s blade to make the paddle effectively longer, they provide more leverage when performing sweeps and rolls.
In addition, due to their much longer blades, Greenland style kayak paddles also have much shorter looms and thus, a paddler’s hands are much closer together than when using a European style kayak paddle.
While this more narrow hand position does provide less leverage than the much wider hand position used with European style kayak paddles, it also provides a much more natural alignment of the paddler’s wrists. Thus, there is no need for a bent shaft. Also, due to the significantly more narrow blades, when a paddler needs more leverage, they can simply slide one hand onto the blade and then slide their other hand to the opposite side of the loom to create a longer lever.
Furthermore, the more narrow blades of Greenland style kayak paddles significantly reduce the wind they catch. A Greenland style paddle will not get caught by the wind the same way that a European style kayak paddle can.
Lastly, the narrow blades featured on a Greenland style kayak paddle also feature a gentle arc on their surface. A design that serves the same purpose as a dihedral ridge on a European style kayak paddle to prevent the blade from fluttering.
So, once you have decided whether you prefer a European or Greenland style kayak paddle, the next step is to determine what length of paddle you prefer. There’s a table below that works in general after taking some considerations into account.
The traditional method of choosing the proper length kayak paddle is to stand with your feet flat on the floor or ground and then measure the distance from the floor or ground to the center of your palm.
However, while this is a good general rule, choosing the proper length kayak paddle depends not only on the paddler’s height but also on the width of their kayak, preferred paddle angle, and preferred paddle cadence.
Therefore, while shorter paddlers generally prefer shorter paddles and taller paddlers generally prefer longer paddles, this is not always the case. For instance, most recreational and touring kayakers prefer a low paddle angle, which means holding their paddle shafts or looms relatively close to their waists.
The Bending Branches paddle is a good example of an affordable base model made for kayakers that take low angle strokes. It’s a beginner’s paddle for shorter distances.
They require a longer paddle to reach over the kayak’s gunwale and immerse the paddle’s blade in the water, which places the paddle blade farther from the side of the kayak. But, this paddle position provides very little leverage.
Similarly, paddlers who paddle wide kayaks such as sit-on-tops or recreational kayaks also require a longer kayak paddle so that they too can reach over the gunwale and fully immerse their paddle blades in the water.
On the other hand, most kayak surfers and those who like to play in rock gardens prefer to hold their paddles closer to their chest, so their paddle blades are in the water immediately adjacent to the side of their kayak, giving more leverage. That way, they can provide more power to their kayak. Therefore, they generally prefer a shorter kayak paddle.
Yet another factor that affects the length of the kayak paddle you choose is whether you prefer a slow or fast paddle cadence. For instance, a slow paddle cadence means that a paddler dips their paddle’s blades into the water fewer times per minute than a fast paddle cadence. Therefore, a slow paddle cadence produces slower speeds while a fast paddle cadence produces higher speeds. Thus, paddlers who prefer faster speeds generally prefer shorter paddles, while paddlers who prefer slower speeds generally prefer longer paddles.
So, while the chart shown below serves as a good general rule for choosing the proper length kayak paddle, paddlers should adjust the paddle length that they choose to accommodate their height, preferred paddle angle, and the width of their kayak.
In addition, paddlers should be aware that European style kayak paddles are for either a low paddle angle or a high paddle angle. Thus, you must choose a paddle design that is appropriate for your desired paddle angle. But, since most paddlers prefer a low paddle angle, the chart below is meant for paddles designed for a low paddle angle.
Paddler Height Kayak Width
________________ Under 23” 23” to 28” 28” to 32” Over 32”
Under 5’ tall 210 cm 220 cm 230 cm 240 cm
5’ to 5’6” tall 215 cm 220 cm 230 cm 240 cm
5’6” to 6’ tall 220 cm 225 cm 230 cm 250 cm
Over 6’ tall 225 cm 230 cm 240 cm 250 cm
Last, note that while European style kayak paddles are commonly measured in centimeters, Greenland style kayak paddles are measured in inches. In addition, most Greenland style paddlers prefer their paddles to be 2 to 4 inches shorter than the recommended length for European style paddles.
But, most Greenland style paddle manufacturers also recommend that Greenland style paddles be no shorter than 82 inches (208 cm) regardless of the paddler’s height or the width of their kayak; otherwise, the loom becomes too short for the paddle to be comfortable.
The last determining factor when choosing a kayak paddle is, of course, its cost. However, as a general rule, a kayak paddle’s cost is equal to its performance. Therefore, low performance kayak paddles are generally the least expensive, while high performance kayak paddles usually are the most expensive.
Aluminum and Plastic
When purchasing a recreational sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak, many paddlers are inclined to buy an inexpensive European style paddle. Thus, the least expensive type of European kayak paddle is one with an aluminum shaft and flat, symmetric, plastic or nylon blades.
While European paddles will enable paddlers to propel their kayak and perform maneuvers, they are relatively heavy compared to paddles made from wood, fiberglass, and carbon. Flat, plastic, blades also provide significantly less catch than those with an asymmetric spoon blade.
In addition, they are also prone to flex in the water, and thus, they are far less efficient than paddles made from better quality materials. Plus, the aluminum shafts can be uncomfortable to hold on hot or cold days.
Wood kayak paddles are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they also provide far better performance than those made from aluminum and plastic. Yet, they are generally less expensive than those made from fiberglass or carbon. Plus, wood paddle shafts are always warm in the paddler’s hand and, due to the greater flexibility of their shafts, some paddlers find them more comfortable than fiberglass or carbon paddles.
However, wood kayak paddles are also generally heavier than their fiberglass or carbon cousins and thus, they require more effort from the paddler when paddling over long distances.
Fiberglass kayak paddles are the most popular kayak paddle among day touring and expedition kayakers because they provide the same degree of performance as a carbon kayak paddle but cost considerably less.
In addition, they are often significantly lighter than wood kayak paddles but are seldom as light as a comparable carbon kayak paddle. Plus, fiberglass blades are generally more durable than carbon blades and thus, they are an excellent choice for paddlers who like to play in the surf zone or rock gardens. Last, some manufacturers offer hybrid models with carbon shafts and fiberglass blades for the best of both worlds.
Carbon kayak paddles represent the pinnacle of kayak paddle performance because they are the lightest of all construction materials. However, they are also the most expensive while being the least durable. Thus, due to their light weight, carbon kayak paddles require the paddler’s least effort but also require the most care in their use.
Carbon paddles are the best choice when paddling over long distances in open water. However, they are not the best choice for playing in the surf zone or rock gardens because they are more prone to break when subjected to a stress or when impacted against rocks.
As the name implies, foam core kayak paddles feature blades with a shaped foam core laminated with fiberglass or carbon. Thus, foam core paddle blades can be formed into far more sophisticated shapes than those without a foam core and therefore, they provide a higher degree of performance.
Consequently, most dihedral paddle blades feature a foam core.
So, when choosing a kayak paddle, the first step is to choose between a European style paddle and a Greenland style paddle. Then, you will need to choose the appropriate paddle length for your height and the width of your kayak.
If it’s a European style paddle, you will need to decide whether you prefer a high or low paddle angle. Then select your blade design accordingly. Last, you will need to choose between aluminum and plastic, wood, fiberglass, or carbon construction, depending on the degree of performance that you prefer.
Thus, while choosing the right kayak paddle can be every bit as complicated as choosing the right kayak, following the guide above will make your choice less difficult.