My gear reviews tend to get a lot of hits. That makes sense - people like to know what others think of specific gear. But the truth is, most people don't try to understand enough about gear in general. Instead of wondering if the Werner Shogun is the best paddle ever, you would be better off understanding how the different paddle attributes relate to what you paddle, how you paddle, and your goals as a paddler. So in that light, I want to talk about paddles in general (with some specific examples) so that people can make their own decisions instead of worrying so much about what other people think.
Like all paddling gear, paddles have competing characteristics. What makes it good at one aspect of paddling is exactly what makes it bad at another. So understanding what you want in a paddle is the first step in getting the correct paddle. I'm going to stick with the basics and the more common Euro paddles - I'll leave Greenland sticks and Wing paddles for another time.
Let's start with size since everyone know's that's what really matters :). Paddles come in different lengths. In general, taller people will want longer paddles. But ideal size depends a lot on technique and type of paddling. For dynamic paddling, whether in the ocean or on the river, most people use shorter paddles. Shorter paddles work better with more vertical strokes (which give more power but also use more energy). Longer paddles give more leverage and work better with lower angle technique. Shorter paddles give quicker acceleration while longer paddles often work better for maintaining speed. Bigger is not always better.
[I'm 6' tall with the same arm span. I use a 220cm paddle for touring, anything where I'm going to cover lots of distance and use mostly forward strokes. On the river I use a 197cm paddle. When I play in a sea kayak I use a 205cm paddle - sea kayaks often sit you up higher and don't respond as quickly as a WW boat, so the extra length helps out with leverage. For surfing I have a 193cm paddler, allows for a faster turnover rate and quick acceleration. For polo I use a 200cm paddle - it balances acceleration with the ability to block the goal if necessary.]
The other main size consideration is the blade size. I think most people use blades that are too large. A large blade really anchors in the water and it often feels like you get a good grip. But unless you have a lot of strength, or a lot of weight you need to push, that large blade is going to be much harder to pull on. It will accelerate slower and strain your body more. Don't judge a blade on how a few strokes feel - paddle with it for a day and see how your body feels at the end. Again, bigger not always better.
[I use a moderately large WW blade - I'm fairly strong and paddle a lot. I use a medium blade for most sea kayaking and a smaller blade for surfing. I don't have a lot of weight to pull through the water (170 lbs.) so I don't need the largest blades out there, even though I have the strength to use them. I can accelerate quicker and feel better using a medium blade for most things. I like a larger blade on the river so I can get max power out of it on those few occasions where it's really necessary. But I don't need it when teaching or running class IV or lower.]
|left: low angle touring|
right: downturned whitewater
There's also the blade shape to consider. Blade shape should match your paddling style and technique. The simplest way to break it down is that long and skinny blades work for low angle paddling, while shorter, fatter blades work for high angle styles. There has been a big trend for sea kayakers to use high angles paddles, especially those paddling more dynamic water. But the truth is that most of those people, most of the time, are still using a low angle paddling technique. Some paddles work okay for multiple angles, some are more specific in where they work. In whitewater it's almost all high angle designs, with the added option of downturned blades. Downturned blades come from the slalom world and work well for folks with good technique and very high angle strokes. To each their own.
[I like downturned blades for whitewater and surf - I have fairly good technique with lots of verticality in my strokes. For long distance paddles I definitely am a low angle paddler so I like a longer, skinnier blade.]
Paddles also come in different materials and different weights. The most important thing to understand is that lighter paddles are not as strong as heavier ones. You'd think that would be obvious, but people who snap ultra lightweight sea kayak paddles when playing among the rocks always seem so surprised. There's a reason that whitewater paddles weigh 50% more than sea kayak paddles in spite of being smaller. Carbon does give you a lighter weight for the same strength when compared to fiberglass, but it's also stiffer. A stiffer paddle can be more responsive but it also puts more stress on your joints. Wood is generally heavier than composites, but it also has more flex, more buoyancy in the water, and feels warmer in cold weather. Plastics are heavy and flexible, often to a degree that really impedes their performance. But plastic can be very durable and inexpensive, characteristics of importance to some folks. Lighter isn't always better.
[I use mostly carbon paddles. As I'm getting older (aren't we all) I find myself shifting away from the peak performance to find things that are easier on my body. I now use a wood shaft/carbon blade paddle for ocean play and will probably switch to that on the river soon. I use a light weight carbon paddle for touring and don't expect to change that - those ounces really add up over long distances.]
|Top to bottom:|
partial; full foam, no foam
Another material question is foam core blades. Foam cores give paddle blades more buoyancy and that results in a lighter swing weight (what you feel while paddling). They can also help (minimally) when rolling or bracing in aerated water. But the thicker blade does have a different feel in the water - I've found that they don't 'grip' as well until they're fully submerged. That's not an issue if you have good technique and are taking purposeful strokes, but that's not always the case in real dynamic environments. The other thing to be aware of is that foam cores are not quite as tough as solid composites - they can be punctured and while they are stiff they lose a little strength. Pick your poison.
|top: foam core; bottom: plain carbon|
[I now use a full foam core blade on whitewater and it took some getting used to. I appreciate the extra buoyancy and can still get what I need out of it but I have to be a little more careful to use good technique and fully engage the blade. For ocean play I use a partial foam core that has a thinner edge like a traditional paddle. I really like the combination of a little extra buoyancy with a nice sharp bite on the edge. I think foam core is the way to go for touring but the worries over durability have kept me away from them since I tend to to end up using my gear hard no matter what it's purpose.]
Between the blades lies the shaft. Lets talk about straight vs. bent. The idea behind bent shaft paddles is to put your wrists in a more neutral position. That's undoubtedly a good thing. If you have wrist or forearm problems, the bent shaft can reduce strain and ease carpal tunnel syndromes. But some people don't need it. A straight shaft is lighter and stronger (and cheaper). The main thing to know is that switching from one to the other will take some adjustment time. Give yourself several paddles to decide what works best. And realize that not all bent shafts are the same - some just feel better than others. Test 'em out to find your fit.
[I always try to use bent shaft. I paddle a lot and I type even more, so my wrists/forearms get a lot of stress. Bent shafts make a noticeable difference for me. The only straight shaft paddles I use are in polo - just too much moving the hands around and doing other things with the paddle to make a bent shaft work.]
Finally, lets talk thickness. My thoughts have evolved on this. Standard thought is that smaller hands should use a thinner shaft - less strain on the hand. But I had an interesting discussion with a paddle designer who said the research says there is less muscle strain when hands grip an object that fills up the hand compared to smaller diameters. After trying his paddle for a couple days (it being thicker than what I'm use to) I had to agree. I was surprised, but I actually felt less fatigue. This is another instance where first impressions often fail - the larger paddle always feels a little awkward when I first grab it, but after a few minutes of use I forget about it and at the end of the day my hands feel better. Don't be afraid of the large.
[I mostly use standard size paddle shafts even though my hands are on the small side. My newest paddle has a thicker shaft and I love it. One of my polo paddles has a thinner shaft and it always gave me more grip fatigue issues but I figured it was from the hard use or the straight shaft. I think I'll stick to thicker shafts from now on.]
There is more to talk about with paddles, more material/shape/swing-weight issues. But I've rambled enough. This should get you started. If you have any specific questions on paddle design please leave it in the comments. If you're curious, others out there will be as well.