With endless contradictory advice, choosing a canoe paddle can be a confusing process. Bent or straight? Classic or modern? Wood or carbon? These decisions have fueled campfire debates for decades.

Before you buy a new paddle you should first demo several and try your friends’ blades. Most paddles work for most people, however, the gains afforded to the perfect match can be significant. “I ask customers, ‘Do you want speed, muscle or value?’” says Andrew Stern, marketing manager at Bending Branches. “Speed means a lightweight paddle for going fast and covering long distances. Muscle means a durable paddle for rocky rivers and shallow waters. Value means the price is most important. The more you spend on a paddle, the lighter or stronger the paddle is.”

Different blade styles of the canoe paddles

The blade is where the rubber meets the road. There are dozens of blade styles available and subtle differences in design can have a big impact on performance, especially after a few hundred thousand strokes.

Some of the most popular are the classic blade shapes, like the beavertail and Ottertail, which feel good in deep flat-water and are ideal for cruising and style paddling. More modern blade shapes, such as the spoon or flat, are semi-rectangular with flattish bottoms—these are the norm for moving water and expeditions.

 

Paddlers interested in more speed will opt for stout blades, like the Sugar Islet, as their short and squat stature allows the paddler a faster cadence.

Viewed from the side, most blades offer a straight profile, sometimes with a raised dihedral running vertically along the center of the blade face to enhance strength at the cost of minor turbulence. Scooped and curved blades appear bow-shaped from the side and are designed to pull more water, providing more power.

Canoe paddle shaft options

“Bent canoe paddles are more efficient than straight paddles,” says Bending Branches’ Stern. “Bent shaft paddles allow the blade to be kept vertical for a longer portion of the stroke, which is where the available power is greatest, moving more water with less effort.” The trade-off is that maneuvering strokes tend to be awkward with bent-shaft paddles.

Straight-shaft paddles are ideal in any condition, and best for paddlers interested in the most versatile tool. For whitewater or rough conditions, they are a must.

CHOOSING A MATERIAL

Some would never trade the look and feel of a classic wood paddle. Wood offers warmth and flex that is hard to replicate in composite materials. While 100-percent wooden paddles require maintenance, many are laminated to increase longevity and durability in shallower depths.

Composite fibers, like carbon, aramid and fiberglass, can be used to create paddles that are incredibly light and maintenance-free. Different material blends will define strength, weight and stiffness. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision, and you’ll only discover which you prefer by testing a variety of paddles.

Zand Martin is a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club and author of NOLS Canoeing. He has paddled across North America and Europe. 

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