One of the most important purchases in paddle sports, aside from the kayak, is the paddle. This is the one piece of gear that you will hold and use each time you are paddling. A hasty and uninformed purchase will come back to haunt you many times over on the water! Simply stated, a paddle can either "make" or "break" your enjoyment on the water. You should always seek out and work with a paddle sport expert to get "fitted properly" with a correct paddle. You should also arm yourself with good information before making that trip out to your local outfitter. Here are five basic tips to help you make the right choice next time you are shopping for a paddle.
Tip #1: Get one that feels right: This tip may seem simplistic, but let's face it. If the paddle is not the right diameter, length, weight, balance, or shape for either your body type and kayak cockpit dimensions, than it will be both awkward to use and tiring during paddling. You'll have less enjoyment and have to work "harder" during your paddle and who wants that kind of workout?
Tip #2: Less weight equals more price: Paddles are made from wood, fiberglass, aluminum, plastic, carbon, and other composite materials. Rule of thumb. The lighter the weight of a paddle, the larger the price tag. But, the lighter the paddle weight, the less arm and shoulder fatigue experienced by the paddler. Be careful of "kayak packages" that include inexpensive, aluminum paddles as part of the deal. Aluminum paddles are some of the heaviest paddles on the market and will quickly fatigue paddlers. I recommend that you always "upgrade" your paddle to the lightest one you can afford. Use the aluminum shaft paddle for a spare. Carbon shafts are a good compromise between weight and price tag. Carbon shafts weigh less than aluminum ones and can be purchased in the $100 price range. I don't fixate on the materials used in paddle construction. Wood is esthetically pleasing, but requires more upkeep. Aluminum is too heavy. Some of the composite materials can be rather fragile. Again, my main criteria is weight and the less it weighs, the better!
Tip #3: Length matters: Blade design and length, kayak beam or width, your size, and your paddling style will determine the length of the paddle shaft. Blade design and length can add several centimeters to the overall length of a paddle - even if the shafts have identical lengths. You need to be able to sit in your kayak cockpit and be able to comfortably submerge the blades with each forward stroke. Kayak beam and cockpit dimensions will also determine paddle shaft length. A 21 inch diameter cockpit will require a shorter length paddle than a 26 inch one. The paddle length should be long enough that the shaft does not scrape against the hull with each stroke. Your size will figure into shaft length too. You don't want to be dwarfed by your paddle and forced to leverage your entire body when paddling as it will quickly tire you out. Finally, your paddling style will impact shaft length. An aggressive, fast stroke paddler can get by with a shorter paddle while a more leisurely, cruising paddler may prefer a longer one.
Tip #4: Grip and shaft size matter too: You want a non-slip grip area where you commonly hold the paddle. Some paddle manufacturers will have indentations or slightly raised areas on the paddle shaft for your hands. You can also purchase rubberized grips that slide onto the paddle. I've used "Yakgripes" that provide both grip and comfort for my hands. Also, your fingers should comfortably grip and wrap around the paddle shaft, regardless of using a rubberized grip or not.
Tip #5: Two-piece or one?: Paddles may come as a one-piece or break down into two-piece (or more) sections. One-piece paddles have the advantage of a simple design and strength that comes with a non-sectional shaft. Disadvantage is that one-piece paddles can be awkward and difficult to transport in vehicles and in storing them. A two-piece (or more) sectional paddle has the advantage of being able to break down for transport and storage. I recommend that you not purchase a sectional paddle that uses a spring-loaded button to hold the sections together. The buttons tend to rust and the springs lose their "spring" qualities, especially if paddlers don't drain out water that may collect in the shafts after a paddling adventure or, as I've seen some folks do, store kayak gear unprotected outside or in poorly ventilated storage areas that can suffer from built-up moisture. A superior sectional design allows the two paddle shaft sections to slide together and lock tightly, without use of a spring-loaded button.
Other Stuff: I have highlighted some of the basics when considering a paddle purchase. I have not talked about Greenland paddles, blade design, or feathering, as these topics can be quite lengthy to cover and not readily fit into a basic primer for paddles.
Paddlers will not be steered wrong if they follow my five basic tips on what to look for when buying a kayak paddle. And always remember.... to take life one stroke at a time!