Paddle choice is an very personal and subjective matter. People get used to a particular style of paddle, and they grow to love their paddles. Ask for a reason that their style of paddle is the best to use, and prepare to sit back for a fifteen-minute lecture while they expound on the virtues of their particular paddle choice.

There are a bewildering number of paddle styles to choose from. Prices range from a $15 model from a department store to specialized models costing hundreds of dollars. Materials include hardwood, laminated softwood, aluminum-plastic combinations and specialized composite materials.

Blades come either straight or in a variety of bent-shaft styles. We also have a range of lengths and blade sizes to consider.

How do we start to sort all of this information out?


The first thing we have to understand is that overall paddle length doesn't mean as much as the distance from the grip to the throat - the shaft length. This length determines how far apart our hands will be as we paddle. The length of the blade beyond this shaft (as long as it's reasonable) doesn't really matter.

There are only about three hundred different systems for determining the proper length of a paddle, most of them relating paddle length to specific body dimensions. One of the more common methods is the "toes to nose" system, but this doesn't relate shaft length to overall paddle length. The best system? Sit on a chair, turn the paddle upside down and sit the grip of the paddle on the chair between your legs. You should be looking at the blade just above the throat of the paddle. Beyond this general guideline, the paddle should be a length that feels comfortable, which is a length we determine by trying different paddles.


Aluminum/plastic combinations are tough, but they can be cold and slippery.  They're a good choice for whitewater paddling where you're going to subject the paddle to a lot of abuse; or for a spare paddle.

Aluminum / Plastic Paddle

Wood is still considered the best all-around choice. Generally this means a blade laminated from softwood, which are lighter than solid wood. One-piece hardwood paddles are available, but they can be heavier. Does a few ounces of extra weight matter? Consider that at a rate of 40 strokes per minute, we will be lifting that paddle a total of 14,400 times in a six-hour paddling day. Three extra ounces lifted that many times equates to lifting an additional 2,700 lb a day.

Still, there are some well-made solid wood paddles that are very efficient.  The quality of workmanship and the efficiency of the blade makes them a worthwhile choice to consider.

Most wilderness paddlers use a paddle with a rectangular-shaped blade. Those with rounded corners or an oval (beaver tail) shape are slightly less efficient but quieter. An optimal blade width seems to be in the range of 7 1/2" to 8".

How about straight-shaft vs. bent shaft? Bent shaft paddles are designed under on the premise that when we are at the most important part of our stroke (the power portion), we are actually beginning to bring the paddle shaft back past vertical. If this is the case, we are lifting water at that point when we use a straight shaft paddle.

A bent-shaft paddle has the blade sloped off between 7 and 14 degrees from the shaft, and the blade is theoretically vertical during the power part of the stroke. There is no doubt that bent-shaft paddles are more efficient. The same amount of work will take us further if we use one. There are disadvantages, however. A bent-shaft paddle is difficult to use for J-strokes and other steering maneuvers. It is also not as responsive in a whitewater situation. For dead-ahead distance paddling, there is no match to the bent-shaft.

Although we never look to abuse our favourite paddle, there are times that we have to do some prying and paddling with it. It makes sense to either look for a paddle with a phenolic (plastic) tip, or to reinforce the tip of the blade with fiberglass.

The bottom line summary?

  • A wood paddle with a blade 7 1/2" to 8" wide
  • A reinforced tip
  • A non-laminated shaft (solid wood has a bit more "spring" to it)

We should also always have extra paddles available - at least one per canoe and even one extra per paddler is not overkill. 


We always used to operate just with a few extra paddles per group, which meant that some canoes did not have an extra paddle at hand. That practice changed as I was putting in after a portage into fast current on the French River one time. We pushed off from the shore and "dug in" to enter the fast current and get away from the top of the rapid. At that instant, the shaft of my paddle snapped completely through and I stared in bewilderment at my blade floating down the rapid and the useless shaft that remained in my hands. 


My bow paddler, facing the possibility of a backwards journey down the rapid, paddled like a demon, and managed to at least slow down our inevitable dunking. Fortunately another person from our group was still lingering on the shoreline next to top of the rapid and managed to throw me his paddle. We managed to crawl our way to an eddy, all the while considering how convenient it would have been to have a spare paddle in our canoe.