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Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of Northern Minnesota

Choosing a Paddle

Saying a paddle is a paddle is like saying a lake is a lake, or one canoer is the same as all canoers.  Like lakes and canoers, all paddles have their own character.  Some consider choosing a paddle an “art”.  This article will hopefully help you navigate the waters of choosing the right paddle for you.

When choosing a paddle, there are three main considerations:

  1. How does the paddle feel?

  2. How does the paddle look?

  3. How is the paddle’s functionality?

These three considerations are all affected by the makeup of the paddle, mainly its shape and its material.  A fourth consideration would be the cost of the paddle and your budget.


There are three main material categories for paddles:  injection molded, composite, and wood.

Injection molded are generally the easiest to make as it is basically pouring a liquid plastic in a mold a popping out a paddle.  Injection molded paddles are also generally heavier than most other paddles.

Composite paddles are very popular with outfitters as they are also generally cheap and can be very light.  These paddles are made up usually of a combination of two or more of the following materials:  fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon, epoxy, and aluminum.  Of these, the carbon paddles are generally the lightest, but also the priciest.

Wooden paddles can be very beautiful and very comfortable.  Those who canoe the BWCA often, and are looking to purchase a paddle, will generally choose a handmade wooden paddle that when cared for can last the paddler’s lifetime.  To me the most beautiful paddle is a white cedar bent at the throat, however beauty is not the only consideration.

Blade Shape

As with the other parts of a paddle, the blade shapeComponents of a Canoe Paddle that you may choose is affected by your makeup.  How strong are you?  How conditioned are you?  The wider the blade, the more water you will be moving with each stroke, which provides faster acceleration and turns.  In turn, wide blades force your arms out further from the canoe and require greater strength and endurance.  Wide blades are ideal for shallow water and whitewater.

Narrower blades need to be longer to move as much water as their wider-bladed cousins.  The less blade surface there is, the lighter the paddle is and the easier it is to run through the water.  This requires a faster cadence and more strokes to cover the same distance.  Narrow blades tend to have a quieter entry than wider blades.  For longer trips, a long narrow blade is usually recommended.


The length of a paddle is very important for comfort and safety.  A paddle that is too long, adds extra weight and can cause shoulder injury.  A paddle that is too short can cause difficulty with some of the strokes.

To measure the proper length of a paddle for you, sit on a chair and measure from your nose, down to the seat of the chair.  This will give you the correct length from grip to throat of the paddle.


You will be spending a lot of time with your paddle, so it is imperative that your grip is comfortable.  Grips come in various shapes, such as t-shape, pear shape, straight (oar style), and ball shape.  For long canoe trips, I recommend a smooth pear shape.  As the grip controls the angle of the blade, I do not recommend the straight or ball grips.  Grips are often weighted to balance out the weight of the blade to add more comfort.

The feel of  of the paddle throat and shaft is also important.  It should be comfortable to hold and not too thick.  One who has smaller hands will need a shaft with less width.  Likewise, one with larger hands will need a thicker shaft for a comfortable paddle.


When traveling long distances, weight can play a big role in paddling efficiency.  A paddle weighing only an additional five ounces can add the equivalence of lifting 3750 pounds (nearly two tons) every fifteen miles.  Investing the extra dollar for a light weight paddle can save your body a lot of wear.

With all these factors to consider, one may be wise in going to an outfitter and renting a few paddles to try them out before making a choice.  It is also a good idea to bring a couple inexpensive wooden or composite backup paddles on a canoe trip.  

Choose a paddle you can be proud of, a paddle that will “meld with you” on your journeys.

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