Understanding Kayak Paddles (How-To Beginners Guide)

fiberglass whitewater kayak paddle with an oval shaft on a white background

If you’re looking to spend more time in the great outdoors, kayaking is a great way to do that. However, there is somewhat of a steep learning curve when learning to kayak, as you need to build up the significant upper body and core strength, learn the technique, and invest in some equipment. The hard part is deciding which equipment to buy, but when you don’t know about something, it can be challenging to pick the correct equipment. 

Here’s how to pick out a good kayak paddle:

  1. Consider the paddle length.
  2. Look at the blade materials.
  3. The shaft materials make a big difference.
  4. Consider the design of the shaft.
  5. Feather the paddle to see if it works well.

The rest of this article will go over the different features that kayak paddles can have as well as the different styles of kayaking that you can participate in. Let’s keep going, shall we?

1. Consider the Paddle Length

crossover kayak and long paddle isolated on white background

When you purchase or look at kayak paddles, you’ll notice that they come in many different sizes, which are meant to accommodate the differences in height as well as the width of the kayak you’ll be using. 

If you have a super narrow kayak, you’ll be able to use a shorter paddle, whereas if your kayak is on the wider side, you’ll need a longer paddle. 

If your paddle is not the right size for your kayak, you can find yourself expending excess energy reaching over the sides of the boat to make contact with the water and avoid damaging your boat. 

Just about every paddle manufacturer has a size chart on their website based on the height and width of your boat. Once you know the width of your boat and you’ve double-checked your height, you can use the chart to know which size will be the best for you. 

If you fall between sizes and are unsure which one to get, go with the shorter option. It’ll be easier for you to control, especially if you’re just starting out. 

2. Look at the Blade Materials

Kayak paddle blades can be made from various materials and were traditionally made from wood, although that is now an uncommon choice. 

The most common materials used in kayak paddle blades are: 

  • Plastic 
  • Fiberglass 
  • Carbon 

If you’re a beginner to kayaking and you don’t want to put a bunch of money into your kayaking equipment just yet, then plastic blades are an excellent option for you. 

They’re made to be extremely durable, which is good for when you inevitably smash your paddle into an obstacle that you didn’t see coming. They’re not known for being particularly speedy, but if you’re only kayaking recreationally and are on a budget, plastic blades are a fantastic choice. 

Plastic is also a great option if you plan on kayaking in rough waters, they’re less prone to breakage and are less expensive, so if you lose one to the rapids, it isn’t as big of a deal. 

Fiberglass and carbon are the more expensive options available and are typically reserved for those who have been kayaking for a long time and are willing to invest in their equipment. 

They are also made to be extremely durable, but the difference is that they’re incredibly lightweight, unlike the plastic blades. This allows the kayaker to keep paddling long after they would’ve stopped with plastic blades. 

Both materials are also more rigid than plastic, meaning they’ll create more resistance in the water, allowing you to move faster. 

3. The Shaft Materials Make a Big Difference

blue plastic old whitewater kayak with a yellow paddle for beginners

Just like the paddle blades, the paddle shafts can also come in different materials. The most common materials used are: 

  • Aluminum 
  • Carbon 
  • Fiberglass 

Aluminum is the most common material used in budget paddles, and it’s an excellent option for beginners or anyone who just wants to save some money. It is lightweight, which is great if you want to spend a lot of time kayaking. 

However, there are some downsides. 

Aluminum is technically metal, so it is sensitive to changes in temperature. If you’re kayaking in the heat or cold, the metal will take on the surrounding temperature. It can become so hot that it will actually burn your hands. 

So, if you’re planning on taking your aluminum paddle out on a hot or cold day, you may want to bring along some gloves, so you don’t injure your hands. 

Carbon and fiberglass shafts are the most expensive options for good reason. They don’t heat up or freeze the same way that aluminum does, and they’re extremely lightweight, making them ideal for kayaking long distances. 

They are the materials most commonly used in professional quality paddle shafts. 

4. Consider the Design Of the Shaft

There are two main shaft designs that you’ll see when looking for kayak paddles: 

  • Straight shafts
  • Bent shafts 

Straight shaft paddles are the most common paddle type, and many kayakers love them. They’re the easiest type to find, so you’ll get more options in terms of blade type and feathering if you go with a straight shaft paddle. 

Straight shaft paddles are also cheaper. 

Bent shaft paddles are pretty interesting-looking. I remember the first time I saw one as a kid I thought the person had broken their paddle. Then my parents told me it was supposed to be that way. 

These paddles are kinked near the middle where you are supposed to place your hands, which allows your hands to grip the paddle at an angle instead of keeping your wrists straight. The bent grip is supposed to keep your wrists in a more natural position to limit fatigue. 

They tend to be harder to find than straight shaft paddles and more expensive. Since they are harder to find, you may also be unable to find one with the other specifications that you desire. 

5. Feather the Paddle To See If It Works Well

When I was a kid, my sisters and I did rowing, which is the sport where you wear the unitards in what looks like an extra-long canoe. When you row, you have to do something called feathering. 

Feathering is a technique where you twist the oar, so when you bring it back to the front of the boat to enter the water again, the blade is parallel to the water. This allows you to exert less energy over time, as you don’t have to lift the blade as high to avoid catching the water, and it will enable the blade to cut through the air more quickly. 

To make this technique easier, some kayak paddles are made feathered, meaning that the blades are already set at a 90-degree angle from one another. So as you push one blade into the water and bring it toward the rear of your boat, the other blade will automatically be at a 90-degree angle as it is brought up the boat. 

You must exert more effort to bring the paddle high above the water in regular kayak paddles that are not feathered. 

If you paddle catches in the water, especially if you’re moving at high speeds, it can either spin you off course or, if you’re really speeding along, catching a blade can flip your boat. 

What Kayak Paddles Look Like

Kayaks are built for speed, which you can tell just by looking at the shell of a kayak. It is almost completely flat bottomed, which allows it to sit on the water’s surface. 

It is also completely enclosed, suggesting that it is made for more technical movements. Basically, if you flip your boat in a fast turn, it can flip right back over. To accommodate the speed and agility typical of kayaks, the paddles have to be made differently. 

When many people think of paddles, they think of a canoe paddle, which is a short wooden pole with a paddle on one side and a handle on the other. 

Kayak paddles are typically made from a combination of carbon, fiberglass, aluminum, and plastic. Their pole is long, and each end has a plastic paddle. This is because kayaks, as opposed to canoes, are meant to be operated by one person and one person only. 

In order to keep the kayak moving in a straight line, you must be able to paddle on both sides. 

With a blade on each end as opposed to just one, you are able to more easily tilt your paddle to paddle on each side instead of having to fully remove it from the water and switch sides.  Otherwise, this would become exhausting, and you would lose steam in the middle of the river or lake, or wherever you happen to be kayaking.

Kayak paddles can also be set at a 90-degree angle from one another. This helps cut down on wind resistance and makes the alternating from side to side more seamless. 

Types of Kayaking

So now that you know all the different aspects of kayak paddles, you may be feeling overwhelmed. How do you choose the right combination of features? All of that depends on what type of kayaking you’re going to be doing because each type has different needs and based on what you’re doing, you’ll want a specific type of paddle. 

The main styles of kayaking are: 

  • Recreational kayaking 
  • Sea kayaking 
  • Whitewater kayaking 
  • Kayak surfing 
  • Kayak fishing  

Let’s take a closer look at these types, and what kind of paddle you need with each.

Recreational Kayaking

Recreational kayaking is the kind of kayaking that you see families and groups of friends participating in on the weekends. You’ll either bring your own equipment, or lakes usually have an office where you can rent some, and relax on the water for a few hours. 

For this type of kayaking, you’re not going to need anything fancy. A simple aluminum and plastic oar will do. You’re not going to be paddling long distances or needing to go particularly fast, so go with the cheap option. 

If recreational kayaking is your jam, you don’t have to splurge on all the fancy equipment. Just keep it to the basics and remember to have fun. 

Sea Kayaking

If you’ve ever seen a group of people heading down a river in some very long kayaks, then they’re doing what’s called sea kayaking or touring. 

The goal of sea kayaking is to travel long distances over the course of several hours or even days. That’s one reason the kayaks used for sea kayaking are so long, as they need to be more stable, so you don’t accidentally flip them when you become fatigued. 

They also need to be big enough to support the additional weight of the supplies that you’ll need to bring along with you. 

When you’re sea kayaking, the most important thing is preserving your energy, and you’ll need to think about that when you’re picking your paddle. This is one of the cases where you’re going to want to invest in the more expensive materials. 

Although an aluminum and plastic paddle may not feel heavy after a couple of hours floating around on the lake, it’ll quickly feel like lead in your hand after a long day touring. 

So, you’re going to want to get the lightest materials, which is likely going to be a combination of fiberglass and carbon. These materials also help you to move more efficiently. You’ll also want to get a feathered paddle and a bent shaft. 

The feathered blades will help you save energy by not having to lift the paddle as high, and the bent shaft will keep your hands in a more comfortable position. 

Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is one of my personal favorites. With the roaring water and sudden drops, it’s ideal for the adrenaline junkie. 

For whitewater kayaking, you’re going to want a more specific combination of features in your paddle. For one, you’re going to want your paddle to be on the shorter side. Whitewater kayaks are also typically very short, almost stubby-looking. This is so they can easily fit between the rocks and other obstacles. 

You’ll want the same with your paddle. 

If your paddle is too long, it can easily become stuck between obstacles and get ripped out of your hands. In treacherous waters, that’s the last thing you want. 

Even if you have the budget to go for more expensive blades, you’ll probably want to go for plastic blades if you’re whitewater kayaking. Plastic is the least rigid material that you can use for your blade. 

When your paddle inevitably slams into a rock or a tree branch, you want the blade to bend, not break. 

It’s also recommended that you go with a bent shaft, which will help you keep a better grip, especially when things get slippery. It’s far easier for a straight shaft to slip right out of your hands and into the water, leaving you floating solo. 

Kayak Surfing

Kayak surfing is one of the more uncommon types of kayaking. 

As a matter of fact, I’ve only seen one or two people kayak surfing in my lifetime. In kayak surfing, you kayak out into the ocean waves and ride them just like you do if you have a surfboard.

This is a super fun activity if you’re not afraid of getting a little sandy and getting some saltwater up your nose. 

In terms of paddles, almost all the rules for whitewater kayaking hold true. You’ll want a shorter paddle to help with agility and a bent grip to help you keep a firmer grip on your paddle. 

The one difference is that aluminum is not a good shaft material for kayak surfing. 

Aluminum is a metal, and as such, it is prone to rust when exposed to saltwater. If you want your kayak surfing paddle to last as long as possible, you’d be better off going with a fiberglass or carbon shaft to prevent rust. 

Kayak Fishing

If you love kayaking and you love fishing, kayak fishing is the perfect combination. 

Kayak fishing is another calm watersport, or at least it’s calm until you hook a huge bass that starts dragging your kayak across the lake, which is enjoyed by many. 

There aren’t many specific features that you’ll need on your paddle for kayak fishing. Just make sure it’s one that you like and are comfortable using. However, there is one cool feature that some paddles have that’s ideal for kayak fishing. 

Some paddle blades are now made with line cutters on the blade. So if you hook a big fish and you know you can’t get it in without flipping the kayak, you can simply reach out with your paddle and cut through the line. 


Kayaking is a great sport, but it can have a steep learning curve. Deciding which equipment is right for you can be overwhelming. Fortunately, as long as you can answer a few simple questions regarding where you plan on kayaking and what type you want to engage in, this guide should help you pick your ideal type of paddle.

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