When I first started guiding in 2009, I bought my first paddle. I’m glad I did because I ended up using that paddle for a minimum of 2,000 miles of wilderness canoe travel in the BWCA and Quetico. That being said, here are my thoughts on selecting a canoe paddle on materials, style, and sizing and what might work for you, depending on how you want to use it.
Select Purposeful Canoe Paddle Materials
If you have ever gone canoeing, you have probably used a plastic paddle, likely with an aluminum shaft and a t-shaped grip, just guessing. Candidly those are tough as nails and do the job. If you are renting, this is probably what you got. If you are looking to buy a paddle for the cabin, one for the kids to use, one to lend out, and not worry about, the plastic/aluminum paddle is probably just fine.
Now, if you’re looking for an upgraded wood is the way to go. Unless you have the extra money to throw around, you can go with carbon fiber. The only folks I know who use carbon fiber are racers and old-timers, maybe some soloists. Not all wood paddles are created equal, though. There are some Walmart wood paddles where the sticker price looks good but expect to need to refinish/replace and likely want something better; those won’t last as the plastic ones will and, in my experience, are uncomfortable in your hands.
Choose the Best Paddle Brand
I have 9 wood paddles (unless I have forgotten a few). The price for those range from $80-$200 a paddle. These are all finished with some varnish or oil to prevent rot from the water. There are several brands that I am familiar with and know some good things about. I have mostly XY paddle brand made by a fella named Spence Meany, who lives in Atikokan Ontario and makes them all by hand. They are tough, light, feel good in your hands, and frankly quite beautiful. I use mine in the BWCA and Quetico, though, so they definitely get beat up, not to mention I have mostly used aluminum canoes for travel. I have lots of nicks in the shaft from hitting the gunnel of the canoe, and the tip gets a bit chewed up from me pushing off rocks (I think Spencer would rather like to take me out back and shoot me for doing that, but it’s a thing I do [also I wouldn’t recommend pushing off rocks…its bad for the tip]). Long story short, I have to refinish the paddles every time and again, so the purely wood paddles allow for this.
Style and Shape of an Ideal Paddle
There are really two kinds of paddles in my mind: a straight shaft and a bent shaft. There is way more to it than that, but I will put off a discussion of the finer details and say that I love both. However, if you put a gun to my head, I would blurt out, “bent shaft, I prefer bent shaft!” They are supposedly more efficient, but if you use one, make sure you’re using it correctly. The number of folks I have seen using these backward is unfortunate.
Paddle Size Is Important
The old school of thought was that the longer the paddle, the better. Well, no. There is a reason racers use short paddles. Now I know not everyone is going for speed, but there’s a lot of sense to this, and it has to do with the ease at which you can move the paddle through the water. Your bottom hand is the fulcrum, and the top hand operates the lever. The closer your hand is to the blade, the easier this becomes. I’m definitely oversimplifying technique and form here, but the baseline is to know that based on what we know now, the paddle length appropriate for most is shorter than the metric we used to go with. To check a paddle for you, put your arms at your sides like you are doing at-pose, then turn your arms at 90 degrees. On the one hand, you should have the handle placed as though you were going to use it, and the other should grip the shaft. The paddle blade should be within a couple of inches of the outside hand, gripping the shaft. If it is more than a couple, I would recommend sizing down; if your hand is on the blade, size up.