Whitewater Kayak Paddle Sizing
Picking the right size paddle can depend a bit on the type of paddling you do, a bit on your size and a bit on personal preference. Here are some tips to help you pick a paddle of the right length, blade size, shaft size, and considerations on what layup to pick and whether to go bent or straight. Keep in mind you should take this info with a grain of salt as each of us is slightly different in our paddling style and preferences.
Below is Werner’s general guide for picking a paddle by length.
This chart I think is generally helpful but I also think taking a moment to figure out how to spread out your hands should be on the paddle will help you pick accurately as well. After you have checked out the chart I suggest you get out your paddle or borrow a friends paddle (one of a known length preferably). Set the paddle on top of your head (horizontally). While grabbing the paddle in this position, spread out your arms on the shaft while positioning your elbows at 90-degree angles. Once your arms are at 90-degree angles have your buddy slide the paddle so through your hands without changing your position until you are equal distance from the blades. Bring the paddle down in front of you so you can see your hand position in relation to the blades. Ideally, your hands should be about a fists distance from the blades, if it is longer consider a shorter paddle if shorter consider a longer paddle. Not everyone keeps this wide stance when paddling so you should also consider where you do hold the paddle currently. Also, keep in mind if you are buying the paddle for playboating purposes a slightly shorter shaft length can give you a faster swing rate for surfing which can be a benefit.
Note: the benefit of using the wider stance where your arms are at 90-degree angles is it gives you a better position on the paddle to use your back muscles correctly rather than just your biceps. Allowing for stronger more efficient strokes.
Many manufacturers like Werner or AT generally only list up to 200 in length on their websites as a standard option but custom sizes are available. We still sell a fair amount of 202 lengths to taller folks so if you aren’t seeing the correct size consider special ordering.
SHAFT SIZE (Diameter)
Some manufacturers give you the option of a larger or smaller shaft for easier grip. We have a diagram at the shop from werner where they suggest that if your hand from the base of the palm to the fingertip is under 6.5″ that you should use their small shaft.
Anyone between 6.5″ and 7.5″should try both and anyone above should stay with the standard diameter. This however is just a reference, if you have the option to try out
different shaft sizes you should. I know several larger folk who prefer the smaller shaft and the opposite can be true as well. Many of us didn’t have the choice of a smaller shaft when we started out and have had no problems with the standard shaft size. Below are two good reasons to test out some different shaft sizes:
- Sore hands, fingers or elbows (often caused by gripping the paddle too hard) You may want to downsize if you don’t feel your hand goes around the shaft with a solid grip… or you may want to upsize as it may be your hand is cramping because it is bending too much. I find the larger shaft keeps my hands more open which for me prevents me from griping as hard relieving my tendonitis and carpal tunnel (But you may find the opposite).
- Paddle slips out of your hands (may want to downsize for better grip)
Lastly, on shaft sizes, there are some paddles which are known to have large shaft sizes including A.T.’s bent shafts & Saltwoods regular shaft. Both of these are considerably bigger and definitely are worth a try prior to purchase.
This will depend a bit on the type of paddling you enjoy… Creeking, Playboating, River Running etc… It also helps to think about these paddles
- River Runners & Creekers: Often are looking for a paddle that will have a strong
Once again this can be personal preference but here are some tips to figuring out what will work best for you. First of all consider the type of paddling you do the most commonly, Playboating, Creeking, River running??? Keep in mind the manufacturers would like you to have a paddle for each of these and YES there are some benefits to having a exclusive paddle for playboating and another for down river… However most of us don’t have the luxioury of multipule paddles and if we do often our spare is a breakdown. So consider what you do the most: IF you mostly playboat and only occationally river run I would put you in one catagory, if you mostly river run or creek and only occationally playboat I would put you in another.
So for purposes of explaning blade shapes lets consider two paddles of the same blade surface area. The blades may be different in shape but when the whole blade is submerged a equal amount of surface area is in contact with the water. Now imagine that only half the blade is going to be in contact with the water. IF the blades are of different shapes then if the paddle blade is possitioned horizontally or vertically into the water you will have a big difference on effectiveness of the stroke.
Playboating paddle Shape: These paddles often have the surface area oriented so that your stroke is more efficient when the paddle is on a horizontal axis. Imagine yourself taking lots of quick short forward strokes with the shaft horizontal like when you are catching a wave on the fly or trying to stay on a wave as you wash up to the top. The blade is hitting the water horizontally and may or may not be completely entering the water. Often in playboating, your blade is not completely in the water because it can be more important to get lots of little strokes in quickly rather than long deep strokes. Remember when the paddle is completely submerged the surface area is all effective but when you can only get half the paddle in then this paddle will outperform a paddle that is designed to give more surface area on a vertical axis.
River Running/Creek Boating Paddle Shape: These paddles often have the surface area oriented so that your stroke is more efficient when the paddle is on a vertical axis. Imagine yourself taking a boof stroke, bow draw, or one or two strokes to get up to speed after being swirled on an eddy line. The blade is hitting the water fairly vertical, ideally, it is most of the way in the water giving us a good purchase. However often the water isn’t deep, or you may have miss timed your stroke and not all of the blade enters the water. When this happens a paddle whose blade design is most efficient on a vertical axis is going to perform most effectively.
Blade size has a lot to do with your personal physical fitness and condition. A general starting point for everyone would also be to consider how big you are. A person who is smaller says 5’2 120 is not (generally) going to be as strong as a person who is 6’5 220. A smaller person may want to consider a smaller blade, a larger person a larger blade… BUT there are always exceptions to the rule.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having a larger blade or smaller blade.
Big Blade = Potentially more Powerful Stoke (for you)
Big Blad = Potentially more harmful to the body when placed carelessly or poor technique is used.
Small Blade = Potentially easier to swing, lighter easier on the body when good technique used.
Small Blade = Potentially less powerful stroke (for you)
I use the word potentially because I think it is important to note technique, a great technique will make a small blade as or more effective than a large blade when a poor technique is used. It is really important to think about the paddling you do, how efficient your strokes are and whether you need a bigger or smaller blade. It is also important here to think about your physical condition, are you in good paddling shape, do you have existing injuries to your wrists, elbows or shoulders. As another generalty: If you are in good physical condition no injuries you could consider any size blade, If you are in poor physical condition and or have injuries you should consider medium to smaller blades to reduce risk on injury. I know folks who have shoulder problems who prefer a small or medium-sized blade because it is easier on their body. I also know folks who are tiny and love there full sized blade because of the power it gives them on their boof stoke or playboating move. Your paddle has the Potential to put A LOT of stress on your joints it only takes a pound of pressure at the wrong angle to dislocate a shoulder, so technique and correct paddle blade size should be a big part of your consideration when you purchase a paddle. If you aren’t sure what type of technique you have you have and don’t have any existing injuries on your shoulders you should consider testing out several size blades in a variety of paddling circumstances. If you are only going to get one blade then remember to test it in multiple paddling situations. For example, test the paddle both playboating and river running you may find your technique varies within the types of paddling you do and this may give you a better idea of what size blade you should consider. For folks with shoulder injuries, I would also suggest you try out different paddle blade sizes but err on the side of caution when you get to the bigger blades as the potential is much greater for injury.
Paddle Construction: SHAFT
Wood: Pros: Mid to High Flex (easier on joints), Warm (winter paddling wood warms unlike fiberglass or carbon that do not). Cons: Flex (less power on stroke), some can be heavy
Fiberglass: Pros: Mid to High Flex (easier on joints), Cold Cons: Flex, can be heavy (less power on stroke), heavier than carbon.
Fiberglass Carbon Mix: More carbon = less flex More Fiberglass = more flex Many AT paddles use a mix for strength and flex.
Carbon: Pros: Low Flex (more power behind stroke), light, Cold Cons: Low Flex (harder on joints)
Paddle Construction: Blades
One of the really important things to understand when looking at blade construction is “Swing weight”: this is how heavy the blades when you are swinging the paddle around paddling. Heavy swing weight causes fatigue and can add to wrist and elbow injuries from repetitive motion. Other factors to consider are flex, or stiffness many flexible shaft options use stiff blade options to help give a little more power to the paddle. The last factor is durability, does the blade degrade (get smaller) over time due to chipping. In my opinion, all of them do well on durability on breakage they all hold up well to regular paddling use. I also believe and have seen all of them break when put under undue pressure like getting stuck between rocks, dropping a heavy object on it (like your boat) or hitting a rock at just the wrong angle. Below is a sum up of blade construction materials and some pros and cons.
Wood: Pros: Durable (generally has a piece of nylon rope around blade edge making it very durable against cracks & chips, Aesthetics, Flex, Blade Floats Cons: Heaviest swing weight,
Plastic Fiberglass Mix: Pros: Durable against chipping, Cons Heaviest Swing Weight,
Plastic Carbon Mix: Pros: Durable against chipping, Cons Heavier swing weight then Fiberglass or Carbon Sheet layups.
Fiberglass Sheet layup: Pros: Lighter then Plastic and wood on swing weight. Durable more durable than carbon on chipping and flexible, Flex Cons: Heavier then Carbon Sheet, Flex
Foam Core Carbon Sheet layup: Pros: lighter than Fiberglass Sheet layup, Durable (edge of paddle doesn’t chip because of nylon rope protecting it), Blade floats. Cons: Stroke is different some folks love it others don’t.
Carbon Sheet layup: Pros: Lightest option for swing weight, Stiff, Cons: Less durable prone to chipping more easily than fiberglass, Stiff (can be harder on joints)
BENT or STRAIGHT
Whether to go with a straight shaft or a bent… this is one of the most common questions I get here at the shop when folks are paddle hunting. Here are some things to consider:
- Can be lighter then Bent when made of fiberglass or carbon, bent shafts are a bit heavier in the middle of the shaft where the who pieces are put together (one exception to this is Saltwood which makes its bent shafts in two hollowed-out lengthwise strips and glues them together)
- Stronger, there is no additional join in the middle of the paddle so these paddles are generally stronger then bent shaft paddles.
- Can be ergonomic IF YOU grip the paddle lightly, and use good technique.
- Not ergonomic IF YOU grip the paddle tightly, your wrist gets a little bent and for some folks the repetitive pulling at that angle can cause unhappy wrist problems.
Neutral Ergonomic Bent Shaft:
- Ergonomically possitions your hands so that even if you grip the paddle like a mad man you have a better wrist position reducing injuries caused by the repetitive pulling motion on your wrists.
- Hand Placement guide, Some folks like to have the bend because it reminds them of where to place their hands to keep a wider stance on their paddle.
- Can be heavier then a straight shaft as there is a added piece of shaft in the middle where the paddle is joined.
- Hand placement can be off for some folks giving you a narrower stance which can reduce how much back muscle vs. bicep you use to pull your paddle through the water. This happens because the manufacturers have a average paddler height/wing span they use for each length of paddle they make. So someone who is taller who wants to use a shorter paddle then what the manufacturer recommends may find themselves gripping the paddle where the bend is, not nessessarily where they should be holding it to get best muscle use.
Bent “Crank Shaft” Designs:
- Better reach! This paddle is not designed for better ergonomics but instead it puts the blade out in front of where you are grabbing it extending your reach into the water. This can give you a longer paddle stroke adding to your speed, and power behind your stroke.
- Can be ergonomic IF YOU grip the paddle lightly and use good techinique.
- Not ergonomic IF YOU grip the paddle tightly, your wrist gets a little bent and for some folks the repetitive pulling at that angle can cause unhappy wrist problems.
- Can give folks a little trouble initially when switching over since the blade is in a different position then they are used to this trouble does fade with use.
Feather (Blade Angle)
Blade angle has been a discussion for a long time for folks on how much or little they need what is the perfect amount ergonomically and practically for the conditions you want to paddle. Initially feather came from paddling against wind in flatter calmer conditions and the blades were offset so that one blade could be grabbing in the water while the other held no resistance against the wind. You could get the paddle either with a right hand controled feather or a left hand controled feather and you would use a twisting motion of the wrist to aline the paddle stroke tot the water. Originally 90 degree feathers were pretty common even in whitewater as it would be the most effective against the wind. Over time whitewater kayakers realized that wind wasn’t as great of a issue when the water is moving you along with it and that there were some ergonomic disadvantages to having a higher feather angle, causing much twisting on the wrist. Because of this the feather over time moved from 90 to 60 to 45 down to 15 & zero, then back up again to 30 & 45 degree becoming the standard options. Although some folks consider less to be better for the body ergonomics it turns out, that many of the draw strokes that whitewater and slalom kayakers use to manuver their boats are not as dynamic once you reduce your blade angle below 30 degrees (some would even argue 60 or 45 degree blades create a better dufek). Most paddles for whitewater these days will be either 30 degree or 45 both work well, and most folks won’t notice the difference after af few strokes. If you are curious about the draw strokes and considering slalom paddling you can custom order any feather you would like.
As for the ergonomic issues for the wrist most of those issues can completely be eliminated once you get down to a 45 or 30 degree angle if you do the following things. Have a loose grip on the paddle, and use your elbow to do the rotational motion rather then your wrist. You will find almost all the twisting of the wrist can be eliminated with rethinking your paddling stroke using your elbow rather then the wrist as the axis for rotation. By picking a 30 to 45 degree paddle you get some of the benefits of the feather, less resistance from wind.. which does happen occationally on the river, better stroke efficency then a zero offset for draw strokes, and still good ergonomics if you rethink your stroke.