Marty Burke, Paddling Specialist Here at Great Blue Heron, we are quiet water enthusiasts, but there are as many paddling styles as there are bodies of water. I enjoy slowly paddling along the shoreline of the small lakes in our part of Kansas along with exploring the tributary arms of the larger lakes. Still, I don't limit myself to one style of paddling. On any given outing, I may be paddling anything from moderate whitewater to large rivers. As a result, I have a number of specialized paddles for different settings...but I could also enjoy paddling nearly as much if I only had a single paddle. The trick for me is simple; just go paddling. When someone tells me they want to take up paddling, whether it be canoeing, kayaking or stand up paddling (SUP), I recommend starting with a comfortable life jacket and a general purpose paddle sized to their physique. This will provide a comfortable base for trying out different paddle craft. We will look at canoe paddles here but look for upcoming articles about kayak paddles, materials and paddle strokes. I've been doing this for awhile and when I started out, I was told a paddle should reach the ground to the middle of your forehead when standing. For years I used paddles that were way too long for efficient paddling.
Sizing a Paddle
Proper sizing should take into account your torso length (your legs don't count when seated), the seat height above the water, and the length of the blade relative to the length of the paddle shaft. Great Blue Heron is a Bending Branches, Aqua Bound and Mohawk paddle dealer. On the Bending Branches website they describe a basic approach to sizing a paddle but that is just a starting point. It's important to find something that works for you and many experienced paddlers use paddles longer or shorter than the guidelines suggest. Bending Branches advises the shortest paddle that allows you to properly reach the water is best. You want to have the paddle blade fully immersed at the midpoint of the stroke to the point where the blade and shaft meet.
So, from Bending Branches, here is a simple way to size a canoe paddle. Sit up straight (don't slouch) on a firm chair or surface and place a tape measure between your legs. With the tape measure firmly against the seat, measure the distance from the seat to your nose.
Why your nose? When the paddle stroke is adjacent to your hip, most paddlers hold the grip so that their top hand is about the height of their nose and the point where the paddle blade meets the shaft (the throat or shoulder) is at the water line.
Straight Shaft vs. Bent Shaft Paddles
Other mechanics can play into the paddle stroke but this method works well for flat water lakes or slow current rivers. Here's where things get a little more complicated. Different paddle styles have different suggested lengths. First, there are straight shaft paddles. These are the most common and you can paddle with either side of the blade. Straight shaft paddles are good all-around paddles for lakes and rivers and they are preferred by whitewater paddlers for their efficiency in maneuvering strokes (more on strokes in an upcoming blog post). Bent shaft paddles have their origin in canoe racing and are used almost universally by racers. Canoe trippers crossing large bodies of water later discovered that bent shaft paddles transferred more power of the stroke into forward motion. This is due to the blade of the paddle (power face) being near vertical for more of the paddle stroke.
Bent shaft paddles can only be used (properly) in one orientation (bend forward). They typically have dedicated grips optimized for always paddling with the blade bending forward. While efficient, some paddlers prefer a straight blade when maneuvering around obstacles. Optimum bent-shaft length is always shorter than straight shaft. You can use this chart from Bending Branches to convert the chair to nose measurement into a paddle length:
Torso Length (chair to nose) Straight Shaft Bent Shaft
26" 52" 48"
28" 54" 50"
30" 56" 52"
32" 58" 54"
34" 60" 56"
Beaver Tail Paddles
There's one more paddle style to consider... the beaver tail paddle. These paddles have a much longer and narrower blade that require more length to have the throat at the water surface during the stroke. they are sized two to four inches longer than straight blades due to the longer blade and shorter shaft.
Okay, let's say you are renting a canoe or in some situation where there a bunch of
paddles around and you have to pick one. This is probably not a good time to pull out your tape measure. Fortunately there is a "quick and dirty" way to select a paddle. In this case, sit (up straight) and place the paddle grip on whatever you're sitting on. The throat of the on a straight shaft should be at your forehead and the shoulder on a bent shaft should be at your nose. An inch or two either way is fine for general paddling.
As mentioned at the beginning, it's more important to find something that works for you than what the formula suggests. Using the floor to forehead method, I used a 60" paddle. Going by the table above, I now use a 56" straight paddle and a 52" bent shaft. I recently paddled a river in Northern Wisconsin that had many shallow rapids involving a lot of rock dodging. I found that a 53' Mohawk paddle with a tough synthetic blade worked best in the shallows while I used my longer paddles in deeper water.
So, keep your paddle in the water and the dry side up.