Whatever water you’re breaking, from calm multi-day tours to frothy, mad-dashes through boulder gardens and big drops, a kayaker’s best friend is her paddle. As with any gear purchase, zero in on the kind of adventure you’re expecting: Paddle size and material both depend on it.
Paddles generally range between 220 to 255 centimeters. A decent way to establish your baseline paddle length is to center the paddle above your head, and with hands clenched around the shaft, elbows at roughly 90 degrees, the blades should be four to five inches away.
Another general size principle is that tall people need longer paddles, and short people shorter ones. However, if your torso length goes against your height— a short person with a longer torso, or vice versa— the opposite is true.
Style also factors in. If you have faster strokes, a shorter paddle increases efficiency. If you prefer to hang back, a longer paddle means less effort.
A well-fitting form generally means your torso sides shouldn’t be knocking against the kayak’s sides as you cut into the water. Depending on the width of your kayak— tandem kayaks, for example, tend to be fatter across— you may have to fiddle with a variety of sizes at the store to find the best fit.
As for materials: two major considerations are weight and strength. For whitewater and the like, durability is a must, but may weigh you down. For touring journeys look to a lighter-weight to ease on your endurance.
Wood has high aesthetic value and holds its warmth well—an important consideration in cold water—but may require a bit of maintenance from time to time. However, many wooden paddles nowadays are coated in preserving synthetics to help cut down on upkeep. All-natural shafts are also pricy.
Fiberglass is by far the most popular, mid-price choice. It’s lightweight, sturdy, and easy to care for. Carbon fiber will cost a little extra, and what it lacks in durability, compared to fiberglass, it makes up for as the lightest material on the market. Aluminum and plastic blades are the cheapest; they’re durable, but heavy. Many kayakers prefer this class as a backup paddle (and unless you want to experience the old adage about being up a creek, every paddler should carry a spare).
Shafts are either oval or round, the former providing a more comfortable grip. Take-apart shafts are great as spares, or touring paddles, and also allow for customizable feathering (blades angled in such a manner that while the aqua-slicing end is at work, the other slices the air more ergonomically). One-piece shafts are intrinsically hardier, and take a beating better.
Symmetrically shaped blades propel more powerfully than their asymmetrical brethren, but require more effort. Asymmetrical blades use up less energy. As to the swing weight, lightweight blades with heavy shafts feel lighter than paddles with heavier blades.
Experienced paddlers can make the gliding look simple, but chances are they experimented quite a bit until they found the right fit. To avoid the sometimes overwhelming river of options, visit your nearest retailer with a few factors in mind, and take a couple dry strokes in-store before making a splash.