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SUP Equipment: Choosing the Right Paddle

When we think of choosing the right equipment for SUP paddling we usually think of the board first.  While we certainly can’t paddle without a board, I would argue that your paddle is the most important first purchase.  

It’s almost a certainty that if you are going to paddle for more than just a season or two you’ll buy more than one board.  You might move from a recreational board to a fairly wide and stable race board.  Or maybe from a wide and stable race board to something narrower.  The more serious you get, the more likely you are to sell the board you have and purchase a new one as new models with different, faster or more stable shapes come to market.  I personally have gone through lots of boards over the last several seasons and so have many others that I can think of.  Yet in that time I have pretty much used only one paddle.  

When you stand on a board you feel it through your feet.  You feel the stability or lack of it, feel how it responds to your strokes and how it moves through the water.  As attached as you become to your board, you become even more attached to your paddle.  

You hold your paddle in your hands which are highly innervated and extremely sensitive.  We feel things much more with our hands that we ever will with our feet.  We’ll notice the tiniest differences between two different paddles whether they be weight, balance, shaft shape, thickness, texture, etc.  

While we move our board through the water, our paddle is the tool we use to move it through the water with.  When we’re paddling well, we make our paddle an extension of our body and actually feel the water we’re pulling against through it.  Feeling water load up onto the face of the blade as we gather water at the catch and feeling the tip of the blade find new, undisturbed water to work against through the pull is how we find and maintain the connection that we use to pull our board through the water.  It is the most important tool a paddler has, far more important that the board or boat the paddler is paddling in.  So, why is our choice of paddle too often a second thought after our board?  

With that said, here are some tips for choosing the right paddle for you and your needs.

Paddle length

Paddle length is critical.  If your paddle is too short, it compromises your ability to gather and hold water on your blade and you’ll end up bending over too much to try to do so.  This results in a less effective stroke and is likely to place unnecessary strain on your back. If your paddle is too long, your stroke is likely going to be too heavy and slow and you’ll be placing unnecessary strain on your top shoulder each stroke.  

There’s no shortage of advice available on paddle length, yet there isn’t a lot of consistency in that advice.  So, let me try to simplify things for you.  

A good place to start for most paddlers is to multiply your height by 1.1 to get an approximate paddle length.  So, for me, that is 72 inches tall x 1.1 = 79.2 inches paddle length.  I want to stress that this is a starting point, it’s not an exact science.  

Now, if you’re a little older, aren’t an avid racer or serious fitness trainer and perhaps have had some lower back issues, you should consider adding a little length to that.  Adding an inch is actually a lot.  This extra length will allow you to paddle with a reasonable stroke length, gather water on your blade effectively and comfortably engage your big muscles with good technique without having to bend over too much and place unnecessary strain on your lower back.  You’ll find your stroke is sustainable for long distances and you’re unlikely to put your top shoulder in a compromising position.   

If you’re an avid racer or fitness trainer, perhaps a little younger and have no low back issues you can consider going a little shorter.  You’ll have to bend your legs a little more and bend at the hips more to find the water at the front of the stroke necessary to load your paddle effectively during the pull, but you’ll be able to paddle much more easily with the faster stroke rate that racing or serious fitness training requires. You don’t have to go a lot shorter.  Again, an inch is plenty.  

At this point you can begin to consider some other factors:

  • If you paddle on a dugout board, you’re standing closer to the water surface and so you’ll likely find that you feel more comfortable with your paddle a little shorter.  If you paddle on a flat-decked board you’re probably standing about an inch higher than on a dugout.  You’ll feel that difference when you paddle.  The paddle I use on my dugout boards is about an inch shorter than the one I use on my flat decked boards.
  • If you’re racing sprint or technical races in the surf you’ll want to go shorter as you’ll find it easier to both hit the stroke rates required, accelerate quickly and use your paddle to control your board in turns and waves.
  • If you’re SUP surfing you’ll want a shorter paddle as it is easier to manage in surf and accelerate with.
  • If you’re racing very long-distance races, you might want to consider a paddle that is slightly longer so you can paddle just a little more upright without compromising your ability to gather water on the blade at the front of the stroke.  I’ve done this at several of the Chattajack races I’ve done as I’ve found the stroke just a bit more sustainable over long distances if I don’t have to lend over quite as much.  

There are two important things to emphasize here.  First, paddle length is a personal thing.  There is no simple formula for determining the optimal paddle size for every individual.  Whatever advice you are given with regards to paddle length is a starting point.  You then need to consider your experience level, your fitness level, the board you ride and the type of paddling you’re going to be doing and then adjust your paddle length accordingly.  

Secondly, be careful seeking advice on paddle length from the top pros.  They tend to use paddles that are considerably shorter than most, even when doing distance racing.  Remember, these athletes are generally young, incredibly well trained, and performing in events and at a level where a higher stroke rate is vitally important.  Their ability and what they require from their paddle is considerably different from that of the average paddler.  Hence, they are more likely to need a shorter paddle and be able to paddle effectively with it.  

If you’re concerned about paddle length and worried about making the right decision, or if you are on a budget and have a variety of needs for your paddle from touring to SUP surfing you can consider a high-quality adjustable paddle.  You’ll just want to carefully consider the quality of any adjustable paddle you’re looking at purchasing.  

Blade size

As with paddle length, the ideal blade size depends on your experience, your ability and what you plan on using your paddle for.  In general, a blade that is a little on the small side is preferable to one that is too big.  

If you paddle well, a small blade should not limit your ability to gather and hold water on your blade when paddling.  It is pure fiction that you need a big blade to have a powerful stroke.  If you paddle well and use your blade tip and the water column as you pull, you can have as heavily loaded a stroke as you want using a smaller blade without running the risk of using something that you aren’t strong enough to pull properly.  There is plenty of content on connection and paddling gears on the Paddle Monster website.  Just use the search function and you’ll find all the information you need to help you with advice on how to find effective connection.  Again, a big paddle blade isn’t the way to find better connection – paddling properly is.  

If you choose a blade that is too big for you, you might feel like you’ve got a better connection however this feeling is usually deceiving.  It’s likely that even though you feel like you have good connection with the big blade, you won’t be paddling well and engaging big muscles and body weight properly.  Furthermore, when you try to paddle faster you’re likely to find the blade too hard to pull at the stroke rate you want and will only be able to increase stroke rate by allowing water to slip off your blade as you attempt to raise the rate.  Again, the feeling of connection you get with a bigger blade is fool’s gold.  You’re not actually paddling better or connecting better.  It’s just a little harder to pull.  Rarely does using a blade that is too big allow you to paddle faster, even for short periods of time. 

A good blade size range for most paddlers to consider when is 76 – 96 sq. in.  In general, women and kids should consider blades in the lower end of that range, while stronger athletes can consider blades more towards the upper end.  Those racing distance races should consider blades in the middle to lower end of that range.  Those racing sprint races can consider blades in the middle to upper end of that range.  It’s possible for a well-trained paddler to pull a big blade effectively for a short period like a 200m sprint.  But anything beyond that is not usually sustainable.  Anything larger than 96 sq. in. is best left for powerful, experienced racers to use only in certain conditions.

Blade shape

There are more blade shapes on the market than I can describe here.  Some shapes have scoops and ridges on the blade that accentuate the way they grab and hold water.  Some shapes feel “grabbier” at the front of the stroke and others in the middle.  Again, the blade shape you select should be based on personal preference and the way that you paddle.

If you’ve got a little paddling experience and like the feeling of being really connected at the front of the stroke as you paddle, you’ll probably want a shape that accentuates this feeling.  If, on the other hand, you feel like your stroke bogs down too much when you try to get really “grabby” at the front of the stroke and tend to emphasize the second half of the stroke more instead, go with a shape that is a little less “grabby” at the catch.  A good paddle brand is going to provide information about their various blade shapes on their website and provide some advice on which shapes work best for which type of paddling.  Consider this information carefully and, if you are buying your paddle in a shop, as questions.  And of course, if you get the chance, try paddling with a couple of different shapes before you buy.

If you’re a new paddler and getting your first paddle, I’d recommend settling on a shape that isn’t too grabby at the catch, allowing you to gather water and pull fairly easily without the feeling of the stroke being too heavy.  This should allow you to paddle well more sustainably as you develop your technique and make your paddling more enjoyable.  

Shaft stiffness

One of the things that is often forgotten by people when shopping for a new paddle is the stiffness of the paddle shaft.  This can have a big impact on how the paddle performs for you and how well you’re able to use the paddle.  

Paddles come in a wide array of shaft stiffnesses, with the stiffer shafts flexing less when you pull and softer shafts feeling very flexy in your hands.  To a large degree, shaft stiffness is a function of the cost of the paddle you’re looking at purchasing.  Cheaper paddlers generally contain less material, or are made of inferior material, and are going to flex a lot more than a higher quality, more expensive paddle will.  I have picked up cheap paddles in big box stores and wondered how anyone is able to paddle with something that is so soft.  They don’t feel like they would stand up to a powerful, fully loaded pull let along support your body weight if you had to save your balance with a big brace.  This is one of the main reasons I suggest you look beyond the big box store when purchasing your first paddle and get something that’s a little higher quality.  

Most quality paddle brands have a range of paddles and their higher quality paddles are usually offered in various shaft stiffnesses.  So which shaft stiffness is right for you?

Conventional wisdom says that for more serious racers the stiffer the shaft the better.  After all, flex in the paddle shaft represents energy being lost between that which you exert and that which is actually applied to the water held on your paddle blade.  In theory, we want as much of the energy we expend as possible to be used to work against the water held on the blade as we move ourselves forward.  

The problem is, much like using a blade that is too large, if the paddle shaft is too stiff it can be too hard to pull effectively.  While a stiff shaft transmits more of the force you generate to the paddle blade, it also makes what is on the paddle blade feel heavier and harder to pull.  At some point it can make the load on the blade feel too heavy to pull effectively at the desired stroke rate.  This results in the paddler either paddling with a slower rate than desired or having to let water slip off the paddle as they pull.  Worse, it usually means that the paddler is unable to keep the blade properly secured in the water as they pull.  The blade feels like it is moving around slightly from side to side as they work against the water to pull themselves past the paddle.  This movement and inability to properly secure the blade in the water is a classic sign that either the paddle blade is too big or the paddle shaft is too stiff (or both).  This represents a loss of connection and loss of energy, and ultimately a loss of speed.  

The other issue with a paddle shaft that is too stiff is that it is much harder on your muscles and connective tissue.  From the perspective of your muscles, you’ll tire out more quickly working against a paddle shaft that has so little give in it that it is too hard to pull against sustainably.  From the perspective of your connective tissue (think of the tendons that attach muscles to bone across joints), stiffer paddle shafts with too little give place it under greater load which can result in sore, inflamed tendons and ultimately overuse conditions like tendonitis.  

If you’re an experienced racer, I’d definitely recommend you go with something stiffer than the softest shaft available.  But I would be very cautious about opting for the stiffest paddle shaft, especially in combination with a large, grabby blade.  I’d definitely want to try out a few paddles with various shaft stiffnesses before committing to buying one.  If your focus is primarily distance racing and you’re doing a lot of high-volume training, you might want to go with something less than the stiffest possible shaft as the volume you’re doing will put a lot of load on your connective tissue and you’ll risk developing sore shoulders and elbows.  If you’re racing sprints and can pull a stiffer shaft effectively you’ll also run the risk of sore elbows and shoulders.  If you’re really serious about racing and using a stiffer shaft you may want to get a training paddle with a softer shaft than you can use when your elbows start to get tender, rather than having to take time completely off.  

If you’re a new paddler purchasing your first paddle, I’d definitely opt for something stiffer than the cheap paddles you find in big box stores.  Though you may not be pulling as hard as racers you might still be putting just as much, if not more, body weight onto your paddle every time you brace to save your balance.  You want something that gives you the confidence it will support you when needed, but also provides you some room to grow into in terms of your pull.  If you opt for a paddle somewhere in the middle of the stiffness range you’re less likely to feel the need to go out and buy another when you advance from floating around on your board to pulling harder and perhaps doing some more serious fitness work.  In my opinion, paddles with super soft shafts are really only appropriate for younger kids.  

Balance

One of the things I look for whenever I pick up a paddle is the balance between the blade and the rest of the paddle.  In my opinion, no paddle should feel like a garden spade loaded with dirt, heavy at the blade end.  A paddle is what I would call “well balanced” when the blade end is only slightly heavier than the rest of the paddle when your hand is where your bottom hand is when paddling.  

Paddles with too much weight in the blade are poorly balanced and less comfortable to paddle with as you end up feeling like you’re doing more work with the blade out of the water than with a well-balanced paddle.  

When shopping for paddles don’t be afraid to pick them up and feel their balance.  Move the paddle around in your hands a bit to feel what the balance is like as the paddle moves.  Imagine yourself paddling with it, stroke after stroke for long periods of time. Trying a few different paddles will pretty quickly give you some idea of what feels good to you and what doesn’t.  

Shaft shape, shaft thickness and handles

Shaft shape, thickness and the type of handle (T-grip or palm grip) are really matters of preference and don’t have a lot to do with paddle performance.  Paddles that are made out of good material don’t need thick diameter shafts for strength, so thickness is more a question of what feels good in your hands than anything else.  

Similarly, shaft shape (round or oval) and taper are more about what feels good in your hand than anything to do with function.  I recommend a shaft that has some texture to it rather than one that has a perfectly smooth finish as this makes it just a little less slippery, especially with sweaty hands or in cold weather.  

Handles are a matter of preference as well.  For the first few years I paddled SUP I preferred a T-grip because that is what I used in canoe, however for the last several years I have used a palm grip and love it.  Quite frankly, in my opinion there is no appreciable difference between the two.  You just have to allow yourself to get used to what you are using.  

Not all paddles are equal when it comes to how they feel in your hands.  Even amongst the reputable brands, there are ones that I prefer and find my more comfortable to hold than others.  This is where going to a shop to buy your paddle is important.  If you can’t actually demo the paddle you’re thinking of buying, at least go to a shop and pick it up.  Swing it around a little and see what it feels like in your hands.  Pick up a few different paddles and see what they feel like in your hands as well.  If all other things like balance, stiffness, blade shape and size, and quality of construction are equal then go with the one that feels the best when you’re holding it.  

Material

Any of the really good options in front of you will be made of carbon fiber.  You are not going to find a lighter, stronger material.  This is especially true for the paddle shaft.  Aluminum, fiberglass and kelvar shafts will not be strong enough and will be heavier.  Unless you are buying a paddle for a kid, I’d strongly suggest you stay away from shafts constructed with these materials.  

Paddle blades made from carbon fiber are the preferred choice as well.  They’ll be stronger, stiffer and lighter, but some fiberglass and Kevlar blades can fit the needs of less serious paddlers quite well.  Stay away from plastic blades unless you’re buying a paddle for a child or for friends to putter around with at the cottage.  If you’re buying a paddle for regular personal use, don’t cheap out on the material.  Get something that you enjoy holding in your hands and have confidence in in terms of strength and its ability to support your body weight.  

Adjustable and travel paddles

If you’re buying a paddle for the entire family to use you’ll want to get an adjustable paddle.  Adjustable paddles are also a great idea if your budget doesn’t permit you to buy multiple paddles and you plan on doing a variety of paddling types from long distance to SUP surfing.  

When purchasing an adjustable paddle, all the things we’ve discussed here already still apply.  An adjustable paddle doesn’t have to be lower in quality, softer, less well balanced and less comfortable in your hands.  A good quality adjustable paddle should check all the same boxes as any other paddle you’d purchase, with the only difference being it’s adjustable.  

Unfortunately, a lot of adjustable paddles are very low quality as they’re marketed in big box stores as “one paddle fits all”.  Avoid these and instead buy an adjustable paddle from a reputable brand.  

There are numerous mechanisms used to adjust the paddle length, usually located high in the paddle shaft, just below the handle.  Some allow for finer adjustments in height than others.  Some weigh more than others and affect the paddle’s balance more.  And some are stronger and more durable than others.  Do your research and find the one from a reputable brand that feels best in your hands, seems most durable, and best meets your needs.  

Travel paddles are a variation on the idea of adjustable paddles and are basically paddles that can be broken down into two, three, or more pieces to more easily travel with and can be especially useful if you do a lot of air travel.  If you travel with an inflatable board you’ll probably want to invest in a travel paddle.  

Quality is really important in a travel paddle as a paddle that can be broken down into component pieces can be pretty seriously compromised in terms of strength and shaft stiffness if not well constructed.  Reputable paddle brands known for high quality paddles offer the best bet.  Stay away from any others as they’ll invariably offer you a much less enjoyable experience than your regular paddle and are much more likely to let you down by breaking.  

Do your research

In the last two issues of The Catch we’ve published articles about choosing the right board.  Doing some research rather than buying the first board you see was an important part of that process.  It’s no different when choosing a paddle.

The first thing you should do is learn what is available.  Google “SUP paddles” and start learning what is available.  Go to the manufacturers’ web pages first and get to know the different brands and their product ranges.  Understand the price range from lowest to highest end.  If nothing else, this will help you realize that the $70 plastic piece of junk that they are selling in the local big box store is not the best choice.  

If you’re new to paddling, do a few rental paddles before making any decisions about purchasing a board or a paddle.  You’ll likely get a chance to try a couple of different paddles in this process.  Trying more than one gives you some context and allows you to start making comparisons.  Remember what each of these paddles feels like in your hands, even when you are not taking a stroke. This is important as it will give you something to compare things to when you walk into a shop and start holding paddles you’re considering buying.  

If you’re more experienced you probably know some other paddlers.  Ask them what they like about their paddles.  If your paddles are similar in length, ask a friend to let you try their paddle.  The more you can do this, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to try paddles with different blade shapes, blade sizes, shaft shapes and stiffnesses, and handles, and the better you’ll be able to learn what you like and what you don’t like. 

Taking the time to do this kind of research and trying before you buy is going to help prevent you throwing money away on something that is really low quality, or finding out down the road that you don’t like your paddle nearly as much as your friend’s.  

If you take care of it, a good paddle should last you for years, even with high use.  Take the process of choosing your new paddle seriously and you won’t be disappointed in what you buy.  You’ll enjoy having it in your hands and it will meet your needs perfectly.  

Happy paddling!

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