DO IT YOURSELF

Canoe Paddle Sizing: Shoring up the Competition

Paddling a canoe
Jerry Mueller
Written by Jerry Mueller

Buying your own canoe is a great investment in a sport that gives so much back to you. Gliding silently across a lake, or down a river is a soothing and healthy way to spend your leisure time. And once you have a canoe you love, you are almost ready to go and start enjoying it.

But finding a good paddle is just as important as getting the right canoe, and making sure that the paddle fits you is everything.

When you start to look for paddles, remember that with a little bit of preparation canoe paddle sizing in easy, no matter what kind of circumstances you are in.

When you buy a paddle, you are probably going to be using it for years to come. That is why it is so important that you buy a paddle that fits you and your canoeing style. There are many differing opinions when it comes to how to size a paddle, and really, the most important thing is that you have a paddle that you like and fits your needs.

Wooden canoe paddles

When a paddle is the wrong size, you are not going to get the most out of your stroke, and your body is going to be uncomfortable, struggling all day long in your canoe. You can even strain your muscles if you are using a paddle that was poorly sized to your body, so take the time to size your paddle correctly, and have a great time out on the water.

What is the best way to size a canoe paddle?

The absolute best way to decide what paddle to buy is to take it, get in your canoe, and go out paddling on the water. Every person has a unique shape, and everyone has different needs and preferences when it comes to paddling. Until you get a paddle in your hands and are out on the water, you are not going to know for sure whether or not it is the paddle for you.

Every paddle is going to be a little bit different, and because we all use slightly different motions when we stroke, it is almost impossible to know if a paddle is right for you just by looking at some numbers, or handling it in a store.

Ok, but how do I size my paddle in real life?

In the real world, you will not always be able to try your prospective paddle out in a canoe, and that is ok, because there are some helpful tricks to help you size your paddle. The three scenarios below should cover you in just about any paddle sizing situation, and are a great place to start when you need to figure out what length of paddle to buy.

Sizing your paddle

Scenario One: You have a canoe, are on the water, and are trying to figure out what length of paddle to buy.

  • Take a measuring tape, or some other means of measuring distance, and measure the length from your nose to the waterline. This measurement is the length that the shaft of the paddle should be. Not the overall length, just from the grip to the throat of the paddle; where the blade meets the shaft. Add the length of the blade to the shaft measurement, and you have your overall paddle length. Simple!

Scenario Two: You are in a store with paddles, but there is no canoe or water.

  • This is easy, all you have to do is kneel with your bum about six inches off the ground (like you were sitting in your canoe), and hold the paddle upside down, with the handle touching the floor. The throat of the paddle (where the blade and shaft meet) should be between your nose and chin. Have a friend look for you if you have a hard time telling where the throat of the paddle lines up on your face.

Scenario Three: You are at home, and don’t have a paddle or anything else.

  • This is the least ideal scenario, but it is still doable. Kneel, again with your bum about six inches off the ground, and measure from the ground to your nose. Then all you have to do is add the length of the blade (the part that goes in the water) to your measurement, and you will know what size of paddle to order. Clearly, this third situation has the most room for error, and if you can, it would be better to get to a store where you can size a paddle in person, even if you end up buying one online.

Now I know what size to look for, what next?

Ok, now you have some idea of what length of paddle to buy, and this is great. When it comes to shopping for paddles, you might be surprised to know that paddles are not made in every size that exists. To further add to the fun, every manufacturer has their own ideas about what size of paddles to make, and what increments they are sized in.

Handcrafted canoe paddles

If your ideal paddle length is not made by a manufacturer, or the kind of paddle you want to buy is not made for you, you are going to have to compromise. In almost every case, you are going to want to buy a paddle that is the next larger size to your ideal length.

The reason for this is simple, if your paddle is too short you are going to be struggling with every stroke, and you are going to get sore and possibly strain a muscle. You will also be off-balance, and this is really not ideal in a canoe.

The good news is that for the vast majority of canoe users, if you have to buy a paddle that is just a little too long for you, it is no big deal. We are talking about an inch or two, and unless you are doing a lot of paddling in really shallow water, that extra length is not going to make much difference at all.

For example, if your ideal measurement it 55 inches, and you have to choose between a 53 inch paddle and a 56 inch model, you would want to buy the 56 inch paddle. The reason for this is that when the paddle is slightly too long, you will still be able to balance yourself correctly, and also stroke in the way that is ideal for you.

The downside to a longer than ideal paddle is that in shallow water, you may scrape it against the bottom of the lake, and also it may be slightly heavier than your ideal paddle would be.

Bent shaft paddle sizing

If you want to try out a bent shaft paddle, the sizing requirements are just a little bit different. What “bent shaft” refers to is not actually the shaft itself, but where the blade meets the shaft.

Bent shaft canoe paddles

A bent shaft paddle is ideal for flatwater paddling, and if you don’t plan on doing anything besides paddling around a nice lake on a pretty day, or cruising up and down a lazy river, you should really consider a bent shaft paddle.

The blade of the paddle is manufactured at an angle, usually between 7 and 14 degrees, and this allows you to keep the paddle at a near-vertical position at all times. The bent blade also allows you to maximize your power transfer, and get the  most out of every stroke, giving you more endurance and creating less fatigue.

When looking at bent shaft paddle sizes, you will want to add 2 to 3 inches to the overall length (shaft plus blade) that you would normally buy, if you were sizing a standard paddle.

Other factors to consider

Once you have decided on the length of your paddle, the real fun begins! There are a lot of options for you to choose from in terms of paddle design, and they will all make a difference in how your new paddle handles. One of the most important things to consider is the weight of the paddle, and the kind of material you choose is going to influence how heavy your paddle is.

Material

Wooden

A wooden canoe paddle is a classic piece of gear, and they are beautiful to see and handle. Usually they are made from laminated layers, which allows the paddle maker to use a mix of woods and take advantage of their different characteristics. While they are wonderful to use, they will require more up-keep, like sanding and sealing, so know that when you buy one you are committing to servicing it every year or so.

Paddles made from wood

Another thing to consider is that wood is somewhat more fragile, so look for one that has a blade that has been reinforced to prevent wear. Wooden paddles tend to be a bit heavier than the other options, but many people prefer their feel and look, and don’t mind the extra weight.

Aluminum and plastic

Generally this type of paddle has a plastic grip and blade, and aluminum shaft. The upside to this design is that they are much cheaper, and very rugged as well. People tend not to feel as drawn to these paddles, but they are a great inexpensive option, and it never hurts to keep one in your canoe as a back-up! They never need maintenance, and the plastic blade is far more resilient to damage than a wooden one.

Fiberglass

While fiberglass canoes are pretty common, fiberglass paddles are not. You are probably not going to see many out on the lake, and they are certainly a rarity. Fiberglass paddles are generally used by people who need a tough, light and rigid paddle, and don’t mind paying for one.

Fiber glass paddles

They are more expensive, and really are made for whitewater canoeing. Like the aluminum and plastic paddles, they are maintenance free, and unless seriously abused, will last a very long time.

Shaft Diameter

One feature that you should be aware of is the shape of the paddle shaft. While most people think of a canoe paddle as having a round shaft, it is actually better to have an oval shaft. The oval shape is easier for your had to grip, and many paddles that are not oval over the entire length have a section that is oval, for the canoeist to use for their grip.

If you plan on being out in your canoe a lot, looking for a paddle with an oval shaft is a good idea. While they generally cost a bit more, your hands will thank you for spending the extra money, and you are less likely to experience any kind of cramping and fatigue.

Paddle shaft diameter

Many of the higher end wooden paddles have shafts that are milled to a specific oval shape, and this is really ideal. This design feature comes at a price of course, so be ready to pay more if you want an ideal shaft on your paddle.

Grip Shape

The top of the paddle, or the end opposite the blade, is the grip. There are two main styles of paddle grips, and you should familiarize yourself with them before you buy a paddle.

  • Palm Grip. This grip shape is the most common form that you will find for canoe paddle grips, and is also called a “pear” or “teardrop” grip. It is large, and gives the paddler a comfortable grip that is great if you are going to be out for a day trip on flatwater. It rests well in the palm, and you can grip it many different ways, depending on your needs.
  • T-Grip. This form of grip is less common, and is designed for those paddlers who need to keep a tight grip on their paddle, and exercise precise control. This type is more common on whitewater or adventure paddles, and it is not ideal for flatwater conditions, and is not as comfortable in the hand.

Intended Use

Now that you know how to size a paddle, and what options are available, you can begin looking for a paddle that fits you best.

If you plan on being in your canoe a lot, paddling for hours or even touring, it makes sense to invest in a really nice paddle that you can use for years to come, and will be easy to handle when you are out on the water.

Paddling canoe on lake

If you are more of an Sunday afternoon paddler, and you are going to go out with the kids for an hour or two before the bonfire, you really don’t need to spend a fortune on paddles, especially for the kids. A set of plastic paddles will be more than enough, and if they get dropped into the river and lost, you won’t be out much money.

If at all possible, it makes sense to go to a store to handle the paddles you are interested in, as there is no better way to get a feel for a paddle. And if at all possible, take a paddle out in your canoe, and see if it works for you.

Above all, enjoy your time out on the water, and happy paddling.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Mueller
Jerry Mueller

Jerry ‘Boy Scout’ Mueller spends 99% of his time camping or teaching others how to live in the wild. He became an Eagle Scout which is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting division when he was 17 and after that he still lives the scout life. Jerry always plans neatly every trip, takes leadership very seriously and if you listen to his tips and stories, you can learn tons of useful things.

  • Greg Abbot

    This article is super helpful. I thought that I had been figuring out what size I needed fine, but there are factors to take into here that I had never even thought about, such as the shaft diameter. Will most types and lengths of paddle be offered in both regular and oval shapes, or do oval diameters tend to be used in specific types?

  • Jerry Mueller

    I think Greg you must take into consideration your particular need. Oval shafts are better and easier to use, with some paddles which are not oval in shape have a section that is oval for better grip. When you plan to be out on your canoe a lot – and paddling for hours, then oval shapes are your best option – try it out!

  • Tyler LeBlanc

    I remember my first time trying to paddle a canoe I was pretty awkward but once I got it down, it was really pretty fun. I enjoy canoeing,I could probably do it all day. Except I have to work and stuff. Always getting in the way of having fun! And I agree, Greg, the oval shape is best.

  • Josephine Charles

    Canoeing is really relaxing. I found that once I was able to pick a good size and shape paddle for my grip I was able to go for hours and hours, a couple days in a row. It was really good exercise and very relaxing. It’s something I could probably do daily if I lived on a lake. Absolutely love canoeing.

  • Jerry Mueller

    It’s a great workout – your arms and abs will thank you for it! I also love the scenery and peacefulness of just rowing your way on the water. My brother lives near a magnificent lake and the view is majestic! I often see him as often as I can.
    He also made me a canoe paddle as one of his DIY projects and it was amazingly good! Of course, he has to sand it and seal it once a year or so but it’s a classic piece of gear!

    I also love canoeing and good company! If we all live near a lake, we’ll all be happy and relaxed. 🙂

  • Jerry Mueller

    Hi Tyler! It seems a lot of users prefer the oval shape since it can be handled with ease. When you’re a newbie, paddling takes a little getting used to, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.

    The right shape will also help you get accustomed to the rhythm faster. My brother used to say that rowing is just like dancing. You need to find your groove, improve on it and just dance ( in this case paddle up!).

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