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3 Different Types of Canoe Paddles

A woman canoeing with friends.

Choosing the right paddles is just as important as choosing the right canoe. Paddles come in various shapes and sizes and there are multiple factors to consider when you’re paddle shopping. The first consideration is the type of canoeing you’re planning to do.

Next, you need to look for the right size of paddles to ensure that you can paddle with comfort and efficiency. This is by no means where your choices end. Paddles are made from various materials and blades that come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

To help you get your head around all the paddle options, I’ve compiled a short overview.

Types of Canoeing

Before you start looking at paddle materials, sizes, and designs, you first need to decide on the type of canoeing you plan to do. Paddles for racing, for instance, are different from paddles for recreational canoeing.

Whereas some paddles are lightweight and ideal for long-distance canoeing, other paddles are able to move lots of water in one stroke so that you can maneuver quickly in the water. Here are some examples of the types of canoeing you can do and the paddles needed for each type:

Whitewater Canoeing

A man doing a whitewater canoeing.

Whitewater canoeing is when you’re paddling on moving water, which is typically the waters of a whitewater river. For this type of canoeing, you need straight-shaft canoe paddles and shorter, wider, and stiffer blades that will allow you to move through the water quickly.

However, you can expect to use a lot of energy with each stroke, more so than paddling with small, narrow blades, which are the blades you’ll choose when you want to canoe longer distances.

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While the blades are shorter for whitewater canoeing, the shafts are typically longer. Also, whitewater paddles normally come with T-shaped grips for improved leverage.

The paddles should be able to withstand contact with rocks and can be made from the following materials: wood, fiberglass, carbon, or Kevlar with metal or resin-reinforced tips.

Racing/Performance Canoeing

A photo of a canoe team in a distance.

If you plan to participate in canoe racing, you need paddles that are built for speed. When it comes to this type of canoeing, the weight and efficiency of the paddles are paramount. Such paddles will typically be more costly and will be made from composite materials, such as carbon or Kevlar, which are both light and strong.

Mostly, racing paddlers use bent-shaft paddles, since these paddles improve efficiency by increasing the forward power of every stroke.

The blades of racing paddles are typically wider and shorter than those of other types of paddles. Wide blades catch more water with every stroke, while the shortness of the blades allows for faster paddling.

Flatwater Canoeing

Flatwater canoeing typically entails longer distances. Paddles with a beavertail or ottertail blade shape are ideal for this type of canoeing since these types of blades tend to hold less water on the blade’s face than wider blades do.

For this reason, beavertail and ottertail blades make for easier and less strenuous paddling, which will allow you to paddle for longer periods of time.

Flatwater paddles are typically made from wood, mostly because of tradition and because wood paddles are aesthetically pleasing. One-piece laminated paddles that are made from woods such as maple, walnut, and mahogany are also light.

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However, wooden paddles require more maintenance and care than paddles made from different materials. When your paddles become dented or scratched, you will need to sand and varnish those areas to prevent splitting.

Recreational Canoeing

Two people having fun with canoeing.

If you like to take day trips every now and then and spend some time on the water in your canoe, recreational paddles will do just fine. These types of paddles are typically cheaper and are made from plastic, aluminum, or lower-quality woods.

Since functionality and affordability are the main priorities for recreational paddlers, these paddles are built to withstand a fair amount of abuse.

You can expect them to be lightweight and comfortable, although not nearly as lightweight as more costly performance paddles. Recreational paddles typically have shorter and wider blades, which can have a beavertail, square, or Sugar Island shape.

Correct Size

The next important factor when choosing canoe paddles is the correct size. Paddles that are incorrectly sized make for uncomfortable and inefficient paddling. A few variables will determine the ideal paddle size for you.

These include your canoe, how you sit in it, and your size and strength. Stronger and taller paddlers can typically handle larger paddle blades, whereas smaller paddlers should opt for smaller blades and narrower shafts.

An effective way to gauge the correct paddle length for you is to measure the length of your torso and then follow the chart below.

Torso size Straight Paddle Length Bent Paddle Length
26” 52” 48”
28” 54” 50”
30” 56” 52”
32” 58” 54”
34” 60” 56”
36” 62”
38” 64”
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Apart from using your torso size, you can also gauge paddle size by kneeling on the ground in a store and holding the paddle by its neck while the grip touches the floor in front of you. If your arm is horizontal, the paddle is the correct size for you.

Different Materials

When it comes to the materials that paddles are made from, you can choose from the following:

Wooden Paddles

Wooden canoe paddles in a wood surface.

Traditionally, wooden paddles are regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing. They are also warm to the touch, which is pleasant in cold-water and cold-weather conditions. Of course, wooden paddles are made from different types of wood.

While ash, for instance, is durable and able to withstand rough conditions, maple is flexible and cherry wood is light.

Although wooden paddles are typically heavier than fiberglass or carbon paddles, they are generally more flexible and absorb shock well. Some wooden paddles come with fiberglass tips, which increases their durability.

You can also opt for paddles that are made from various types of wood that are laminated together.

Fiberglass/Carbon Paddles

If you want lightweight performance paddles, opt for composite materials, such as fiberglass or carbon. Paddles made from composite materials are typically stiffer and less flexible than paddles made from other types of materials.

However, they are the lightest paddles and also require little maintenance. In addition, manufacturers are able to make more complex blade shapes from composite materials than from wood. Compared to other types of paddles, though, these paddles are the most expensive.

Aluminum and Plastic

A photo of plastic canoe paddles.

Recreational paddles typically pair plastic blades with aluminum shafts. These types of paddles are tough and difficult to damage. However, they show wear and tear more quickly than paddles made from synthetic materials.

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Although they come at an affordable price, they are cumbersome and heavy and have very little flex. Once you start spending more time in your canoe, you’ll want to invest in more expensive paddles.

Two Main Grip Shapes

When it comes to grip, the guiding principle should be comfort. The wrong-sized grip can cause anything from cramping to blisters. Although there are many different shapes, the most popular shapes are the pear/palm grip and the T-grip.

Palm Grip

A palm grip is mostly used by flatwater paddlers since they fit comfortably in the hand and are better suited for longer distances. Most paddles come with this type of grip.

T-Grip

Whitewater paddles tend to come with T-shaped grips since they allow for a tight hold and increased control. These grips come with a longer horizontal section, which paddlers can grasp firmly between their fingers.

Two Types of Shafts

When it comes to the shaft of a paddle, you can choose between a straight and a bent shaft.

Straight

Traditionally, canoes come with straight shafts. For all-around paddling, paddles with straight shafts are the best. Whitewater canoeists also tend to go for straight shafts since they provide more maneuverability due to a longer reach.

This is important when you’re trying to steer around rocks or navigate rapids.

Bent

Since the 1970s, paddles with bent shifts have been available for canoeists. These types of paddles provide more efficient strokes because the blade remains vertical in the water for longer during the most powerful part of a stroke.

This results in the water moving more backwards and less upwards. Paddles with bent blades also enter and exit the water more smoothly. Because these paddles are more efficient, they are ideal for longer trips.

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The angle of bent paddles can range from 7 to 14 degrees. While a larger angle makes for the most efficient stroke, a smaller angle provides a wider variety of strokes. If you’re planning to go on long canoe trips, opt for a larger angle.

Blade Shape and Size

Blades come in a variety of shapes and sizes. When it comes to size, a bigger blade will provide you with more power. However, they are also more tiring to maneuver.

If you’re going to opt for long-distance canoeing, you’ll want paddles with smaller blades, which will allow for quick strokes. On the other hand, when you’re canoeing on white water, a bigger blade will provide you with more maneuverability.

Wide Blades

When you’re paddling on rivers, the water is bound to be shallow at some points and you’re also likely to encounter rocks. For these reasons, you’ll want to opt for paddles with short, wide blades.

The shortness of the blades means that you’re less likely to hit the surface, while the wider tips will resist any impacts more effectively. Wider blades also provide more powerful strokes and greater control in turbulent water.

Beavertail and Ottertail Blades

Beavertail and ottertail blades are longer and narrower and provide a smoother entry into the water. They are excellent for long-distance and flat-water paddling since they allow for quicker strokes and are less tiring than wide blades.

Stern paddlers tend to opt for ottertail blades, which are narrower towards the tip and shorter in shaft length. For general use, however, beavertail blades are more effective. These paddles have a rounded end, like a beaver’s tail, and are perfect for flat-water tripping.

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