Welcome to another BLISTER Symposium, where we present a topic to several of our reviewers for discussion, then encourage you to weigh in on the debate.
It’s not easy choosing the right paddle. There are many options on the market, and prices vary from under $50 to well over $400. And which material should you go with? Fiberglass, foam core, plastic or carbon?
Then you need to decide wether you want a bent shaft or a straight one, and choose an appropriate angle of feather. And should you use different paddles for creeking and playboating?
Is there a science to getting the right paddle, or does it all come down to personal preference and experience?
Blister paddle sports reviewers weigh in on this topic, and offer some solid advice for people—be it the novice paddler or the experienced whitewater pro—looking to increase their performance and comfort on the water.
Ok, paddlers. First off, why the debate surrounding paddles?
David: If you’ve been boating for a long time, then the right paddle for you is likely the one that you are used to. Unless you are experiencing specific problems with your paddle (durability, injuries, strokes feeling off), then stick with the proven winner.
If you’re just getting into boating, then it is important to think about what you will be doing on the water before jumping into a specific model or choosing length, feather, and material.
Tom: I actually think about this a little differently. There is some truth to the saying that the right paddle is the one you already have, but you never know if you’d prefer a different paddle without trying something else out.
I always test new paddles when I get a chance, and as a result I have found that what I thought was the best performing paddle for me, (the Werner Powerhouse straight shaft), was actually not the paddle I enjoyed the most.
I think the debate surrounding paddles comes from the fact that there are a number of different types of paddles out there, all of which perform differently. And then there’s the reality of which paddles fit in your budget.
It’s all about finding a paddle that works best for you AND fits within your price range.
Jane: When it comes to choosing a paddle, the choices can be overwhelming. Since paddles are made from so many different materials and with so many different blade cuts or shaft shapes, it can be hard to choose the right one.
I think, as is the case with a lot of outdoor gear, it comes down to personal preference. I have used the the same paddle for the last four years and, since I’ve been perfectly happy with it, I haven’t branched out. That said, as I begin to think about purchasing a new paddle, I have made an effort to test out other paddles when I can to ensure I know what I like and why.
Lets go over some of the specific questions buyers should think about before choosing a paddle.
First, which is better—a bent or a straight shaft?
David: Personally, I prefer a paddle with a bent shaft for a few reasons.
First of all, it allows for endless dirty jokes. Second, the curved part of the shaft lets you know where to keep your hands (See? Dirty jokes…) so that you always keep an even grip on the paddle.
When paddling with a straight shaft paddle, I’ll often end up holding it in the wrong place if I’m not careful. This can be annoying in the middle of a rapid or when pulling out of a tight eddy.
The second reason why I love paddling a bent shaft is that I think it’s easier on my wrists and elbows. While this is a widely repeated phenomenon, I’ve never seen any scientific evidence to prove it. I just feel like I have fewer tendon problems when I use a bent shaft.
Finally, it’s what I’m used to. I’ve been using bent shaft Werners since I was 14 years old, so my strokes always feel a bit off when I use anything else.
Of course, there are a few huge advantages to a straight shaft:
1) Price. You’ll save yourself ~$100/paddle if you go for a straight shaft. If you’re someone who loses or breaks a lot of paddles, this is an important consideration.
2) Most breakdown paddles are straight shaft. So if / when you lose a paddle in the middle of a run, you won’t feel out of your element when you switch to your straight shaft spare.
Tom: David makes a good point that’s often overlooked. If your spare paddle is a cheap piece of plastic, you’re going to be in a world of hurt when you break or lose your carbon foam core primary.
This is based off the assumption that you are much more likely to break / lose a paddle on a challenging run than an easy one, and so you will have to learn how to use a crappy paddle on a difficult river.
I personally prefer a straight shaft (Note: you can still make jokes about your friend’s bent shaft…).
The big reason I prefer a straight shaft is because of the flex. I think your paddle shaft should have consistent, moderate flex when you take a paddle stroke. (And it’s important to note that blade flex is a sign of a low-quality paddle and will result in a loss of power.)
Straight shafts are the best for consistent flex since they don’t have stiff and flexible sections like a carbon or fiberglass bent shaft. The AT Flexi paddle comes close to achieving this consistent flex, but I’m not a huge fan of the AT paddle blade, for reasons I will get into shortly.
And unlike David, I actually prefer a straight shaft paddle because I like the option of having my hands anywhere on the paddle, and I often move my grip around while paddling. It is slightly harder to find the sweet spot, but I prefer having the ability to grab it wherever I want and still have a predictable grip.
Jane: While I find a bent shaft more comfortable to paddle with, I don’t think it is necessarily better. Granted, I’ve heard it is better for your wrists.
For those just starting their paddling career, a bent shaft might feel a little funny, but it can also be helpful when figuring out where your hands go. As David pointed out, the bent shaft indicates right where to put your hands.
The other debate is small or regular shaft (Go ahead, insert the next joke). I used to find the regular was too big and would give me blisters. It’s now what I am used to, and I’ve built up calluses on the insides of my thumbs.
What length of paddle should you be looking for? Do you use different lengths for playboating and creeking?
David: I use the same length for both purposes, and I tend to like paddles on the short side. This is partly because of what I’m used to—I grew up as a playboater—and partly because I spend a lot of time paddling the shallow creeks of Colorado, where you can’t take super deep strokes.
I am 5’10’’ with a wingspan of ~5’11’’ and I use a 194cm. Conventional wisdom would say that I should be using a 197 paddle for creeking/river running, but I like having the blades a bit closer to my hands to give me a more precise stroke. If you live in a place where you will be paddling a lot of deep rivers, then a longer paddle might make sense and provide you with more power.
Tom: There are charts that show you this info, but I find they’re not always very useful.
I had no clue what length I wanted or needed when I purchased my first two paddles. For someone like David, who spends nearly equal time (and possesses equal skill) playboating and creeking, I think it makes sense to stick to one paddle length. You cut down on cost, and you don’t have to adapt between disciplines.
For someone like me, who spends 90% of his time in a creek boat and 10% of his time in a playboat, I select the best paddle for creeking, and then either use an old, shorter paddle for playboating, or tough it out with my long creek paddle.
In general, you want a slightly longer paddle for creeks and a slightly shorter paddle for playboating. The longer paddle gives you more power behind each stroke (important on creeks), as well as keeps your hands farther from rocks bent on ruining your hands. The shorter paddle makes for fewer blade hang ups and the faster side-to-side transitions needed to perform tricks.
When you are first choosing a paddle, I think it’s okay to refer to the sizing chart, but don’t be afraid to deviate. I am 6’2” with a more or less equal wingspan, and I paddle a 200 cm paddle for everything.
Four or five years ago when I playboated most of the time, I paddled a 194 and loved it. Charts told me it wasn’t the right size, but I found the paddle to be quite comfortable. The moral of this story? Guidelines are good, but preference (based on testing a few paddles) trumps them.
On to materials: fiberglass or carbon? Foam core? Plastic?