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buying advice

how to choose a whitewater kayak paddle

Video: Simon Coward | Words: Koby Trinker

Welcome to the whitewater kayak paddle buyers guide, AQ Outdoors edition. This is a complete guide to help you choose exactly the whitewater kayak paddle you need for your paddling style and river choice. There are many complex factors to consider, and no one would blame you for thinking they all look the same. Here, we break things down to make it easier for you.

Koby here from the AQ ambassador team, and I paddle a 201 R45 Werner Shogun. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, fear not, for today I’m going to guide you through the world of whitewater kayak paddles and how to choose the right one for you.

Whitewater Kayak Paddle Fundamentals

At the most basic level, whitewater kayak paddles are essentially just a stick with a large spoon on each end, but we refer to the stick as the paddle shaft, and the spoons as blades.

Whitewater paddles are incredibly specialized for the environment that they are used in. They are especially designed for toughness. They are designed to survive massive forces caused by river currents and withstand the abuse of being banged off rocks.

They also have specific lengths and shapes that give them the best performance possible on the river. For these reasons, it is important to have a whitewater specific kayak paddle on technical water.

When choosing a whitewater kayak paddle there are several main considerations. It's important to keep in mind that whatever whitewater kayak paddle you use will typically be the one you’re most comfortable with. Changing paddles can be a challenging experience. So, to reduce future challenges, I recommend anyone who is buying their first paddle to learn key terms to help understand important differences between paddles.

If someone recommended a straight shaft R30 (feather) at the manufacturer's recommended length for your height, and the blade shape/model that is designed for the type of whitewater you will be paddling most often, would you know what to say? Does this sound like witchcraft?!

You could honestly stop reading this here and I would hold no hard feelings towards you! But if you want to demystify the subtleties of whitewater paddles and make a truly informed decision, by all means read on…at the end that confusing sentence above will make sense!

What's your paddling style?

There are many different disciplines within the sport of whitewater kayaking, such as playboating, river running and creeking (for more information, check out my other article: Whitewater Kayaking: What's this Exciting Sport All About) and thus most brands offer paddles tailored to each discipline. The main difference between these paddles is typically the shape of the paddles blade. Virtually every paddle brand claims to have the most innovative or best blade shapes. Who actually has the best blade shapes is anyone’s guess, but it is ideal to have a paddle designed for the whitewater discipline it will be used for most often, although it isn’t essential. If you keep your eyes open on the river you’ll quickly notice playboating paddles are often used on creeks, and river-running and creeking paddles are used all the time for playboating.

Paddle Materials and Stiffness

Most whitewater kayak paddles are made of plastic, fibreglass or carbon fibre (or any combination of the three). The material used to make a paddle influences its price, durability, weight and stiffness.

To help understand why stiffness is important, imagine trying to use a pool noodle as a paddle. Nearly all the power you put into a paddle stroke is lost as pool noodle flexes, and you would quickly be wishing for something stiffer to use as a paddle to increase the efficiency of your strokes.

Plastic paddles are the cheapest, but also the heaviest, the least durable, and the least stiff. They are suitable for beginner paddlers or someone who only paddles easy whitewater occasionally. More proficient paddlers who paddle more often or more challenging whitewater should opt for something stronger and less flexible. Fibreglass whitewater kayak paddles occupy the middle price point and are an excellent balance of price, durability, weight and stiffness. For this reason, fibreglass is the best choice for most paddlers, and they are commonly used by both beginners and professionals alike.

Carbon fibre whitewater kayak paddles occupy the high-end category of whitewater paddles. They are light, stiff and durable, but they are also expensive. Some paddlers opt for carbon fibre because of how light and responsive they are, but for the average paddler who is on a budget, a fibreglass paddle is more than adequate.

brand and price options

Some paddle brands are more popular than others, and this often reflects the quality of their products. As opposed to just buying the cheapest paddle made of certain materials, it is wise to choose a brand that has been in business for a decent length of time and earned itself a good reputation.

It is important to note that as you learn how to paddle, it is entirely possible that you will lose a paddle down the river at some point. So if you're buying your first paddle, keep in mind you could lose it at some point. Write your name and contact information on the paddle!

That being said, if you are committed to paddling whitewater, I recommend investing at least enough money to buy a fibreglass paddle. This will ensure you have a paddle that is enjoyable to use, durable, and has good resale potential if kayaking isn’t for you.

What paddle length do you need?

Whitewater paddles are slightly shorter than other kayak paddles. Why? A whitewater paddle needs to be short enough to remain nimble but long enough to reach the water and make power during your paddle stroke. Paddle length is measured from one end of the paddle to the other, and the magic range of paddle length for whitewater is from 193cm (short) to 203cm (long). What the best length for you is based on your height, and all manufactures provide sizing charts to guide your length decision.

Straight or bent shaft?

Straight shaft paddles are, well, straight, while bent shaft paddles (aka crank or ergo paddles) have a bend in the shaft that allows a more natural hand and wrist position.

If you’re prone to tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, a bent shaft is a very good idea. Apart from that it comes down to personal preference, but for most a straight shaft is more than adequate and has some good things going for it. Below is a very brief list of a few benefits of each.

  • Cheaper (by usually $100 +)
  • Allows free hand positioning (variable grip width)
  • Better torque when pulling hard boof strokes
  • If you start with a straight shaft you will learn to intuitively keep track of where your hands are on the paddle…
  • Everyone else will know you’re a baller as these paddles are more expensive
  • Increased ergonomics can reduce fatigue and stress on joints
  • Easier to keep track of where your hands are on the paddle (requires no learning)

What paddle feather do i need?

Looking down the paddle shaft with the right blade vertical shows you the feather on the left blade

Feather is how straight your blades are attached to the paddle shaft in respect to each other and is measured in degrees. Feather results in how much the paddle needs to be rotated between a paddle stroke on your right and left side. This affects wind resistance on the paddle blade when it’s in the air, and the general feel of the paddle.

Common feather amounts are between 0 and 45 degrees and are listed as R or L for right-or left-hand control (the hand that stays gripped to and rotates the paddle). There is a ton of debate in the Whitewater Community regarding what the best feather is, but I always recommend someone starts out with R30 (right hand control with 30 degrees of feather). It’s a nice medium and the most common paddle on the market.

If you’re left-handed you might think to buy a left-hand control paddle, but if you learn with a left-hand control paddle it will be burned into your muscle memory forever.

Then some unfortunate but inevitable day in the future you will lose or break your custom ordered left handed paddle (they are very rare) and be in a position where you have to use a right hand control paddle for the rest of your journey down a potentially gnarly canyon, and likely for a few months while a new one gets made for you at the factory. Or you fly home from your international paddling trip to the stash of left-handed paddles in your garage.

For your safety and the ease of your paddling career my left-handed friend, just learn with the right-hand control paddle, and you might even get better at using the scissors and can opener while you’re at it…

What paddle offset do i need?

This one’s easy, it’s simply if/how far the blade is in front or behind of the paddles shaft. See the image below for clarification. The most recent trend in paddles is forward offset (seen on the massively popular Werner Surge and Strike paddles).

Advanced paddlers often like forward offset as it gives more power at the start of a paddle stroke, and a beginner might benefit as it arguably makes it slightly easier for you to roll by putting the paddle blade closer to the surface. The trade-off comes from bracing and playboating where the forward offset might lead to slightly less predictability.

Ultimately, offset is personal preference for anyone from beginner to expert, and only essential for the most competitive racers.

Regular or skinny shaft?

Think skinny stick or regular stick. Some whitewater kayak paddle companies give you an option of the two because smaller hands are often happier gripping a smaller shaft. That said, I’ve never met anyone with hands so small they are incapable of gripping a regular diameter shaft.

Thus, for most this is likely not essential but if you have them little paws you might enjoy a small diameter shaft and find it reduces grip fatigue. One trade-off to consider is smaller diameter shafts are less stiff and slightly weaker, but with good construction materials (fiberglass/carbon) and regular paddling conditions (not dropping giant waterfalls) this difference is most likely negligible.

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