The 10 Best Kayak Paddles
How To Choose The Right Kayak Paddle
When in doubt, choose a slightly smaller paddle for use during whitewater kayaking.
At the very ends of many kayak paddle shafts you will find two discs called drip rings that help keep water from running down toward the paddler.
To the dedicated kayaker, the sport is not even called "kayaking," but rather is referred to as "paddling." Indeed, after the boat itself, the paddle is far and away the most essential piece of gear the paddler owns and uses. In tandem with your own muscles and motion, the kayak paddle is your propulsion system, your rudder for steering, and your best line of defense against rocks, hanging branches, floating debris, and any other obstacles that stand in your way during a paddling trip downriver or out on open water.
First, let's take a moment to cover the terminology used in discussing kayak paddles. The long central tube of the paddle is called the shaft, with the outer few inches of both sides of the shaft -- the parts that actually dip into the water -- known as the throat. Many paddlers refer to the sections of the shaft just inside the throats as the grips, as these are areas where your hands will wrap around the shaft.
At the very ends of many kayak paddle shafts you will find two discs called drip rings that help keep water from running down toward the paddler. And finally, at each end of a kayak paddle, you will find the all-important blades. These are the propellers and rudders of your swift, sleek craft, and are of the utmost importance. The vaguely concave side of the blade, the face that will push through the water, is known as the power face.
When choosing a kayak paddle, the primary concern for most paddlers is its overall length, the proper measure of which is determined relative to user height (or, for the more technically minded paddler, by torso length -- this level of specificity is hardly required, though). A paddler who is less than 5'5" should use a paddle measuring about 215cm or a bit less. A paddler who is between 5'5" and 5'11" will be best served by a kayak around 220 to 225cm. And a paddler who is 6' or taller should look for a paddle measuring 225 to 230cm or even slightly longer, depending on how and where it will be used.
Note that kayak paddles are always measured using the metric system, so don't confuse inches and centimeters.
When in doubt, choose a slightly smaller paddle for use during whitewater kayaking. The reduced length of the paddle will give you more room to maneuver it around your boat and the obstacles in the river, while the smaller blades won't much impact your forward motion, thanks to the rushing river's current carrying you along anyway.
If you are more of an open water kayaker, usually plying the swells of an ocean, bay, or lake, then it's a good idea to get a longer paddle with plenty of surface area on both blades. While a long, large paddle can be a liability when you are trying to deftly dodge and turn in the exciting environment of whitewater, on open water, there's plenty of room for your paddle on either side of the kayak, and the increased surface area of the blades means more propulsion through the water.
A Few Words On Proper Paddling Technique
Far too often, amateur kayakers tire themselves out (and risk back, shoulder, and arm strain) based on improper paddling technique. Proper paddling is more of a core exercise -- using the many strong muscles of your torso, chest, and abs working in concert -- than it is a burning workout for your biceps and deltoids.
Sit upright, keep your shoulders relaxed and fluid, and don't press against the backrest or the cockpit rim.
To paddle properly, first focus on posture. You should be facing directly forward in your boat, with your legs outstretched and your feet resting against the foot pegs or against the hull of the craft. Your knees should be bent slightly and never locked. Sit upright, keep your shoulders relaxed and fluid, and don't press against the backrest or the cockpit rim.
Next make sure you are gripping your paddle with your hands in the proper area of the shaft just inside from the throat sections. When paddling, one of your arms should be bent at around a fifty degree angle while the other is nearly straight, with this straight arm held forward and stabbing the blade into the water quickly.
Try to generate maximum force during the first few feet of each stroke, relaxing as the blade passes your body in the water and then removing it to dip and pull on the alternate side. With your legs bracing you in place and your core doing most of the work to move your arms past you, your arms should remain strong and relaxed even for long paddling sessions.
Turning a kayak is an easy and natural motion. Simply trail the paddle in the water on the side toward which you want to turn for a gentle shift, or paddle backward on that same side for a more dramatic tack.
A Few Facts About Paddling
A kayak is one of the fastest human-powered watercraft on earth. While covering flat water for shorter distances, a single rower in a skull can achieve faster speeds than most kayakers, kayaks are significantly faster than canoes. And given the ease with which a kayak can handle rough water conditions that would best any rowing boat and even most open canoes, kayaks come out on top for distance travel over choppy open water or down rivers with rapids.
While under most circumstances, the average cruising speed of a kayak is accepted to be three knots (newcomers to the hobby will likely paddle at close to two knots), the actual theoretical top speed of a kayak can be determined by a mathematical equation. By taking the square root of the kayak's hull length where it meets the waterline and multiplying it by 1.34, you can determine a boat's top speed. So an eighteen foot kayak with a waterline of sixteen feet would have a top speed of 5.36 knots. This is considered the top speed because above this pace, the kayak would begin to plane, rising out of the water and sacrificing speed and control.
Different kayak lengths and designs can buck this equation, though, in the hands of an expert. The current world record for distance covered by a kayaker in a single day is 155 miles and was achieved by Carter Jonson in 2013. His record indicates an average causing speed of 6.45 miles per hour, or almost twice the top speed of an amateur paddler.