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Canoe Paddle Zizing: How to Size Your Canoe Paddle Correctly

canoe paddle featured
Neal Walker
Written by Neal Walker

Choosing the right sort of paddle can be a daunting experience, especially considering all the factors involved in making the right choice. But we’re here to help you out with a comprehensive guide regarding canoe paddle sizing because choosing a reliable paddle entails getting an appropriate length.

We’ll take you through many ways to measure your paddles, some may say too many. But that’s not because we’re pedantic, but because we want to help you be as precise as possible and take into account all the attributes that influence your calculations.

Traditional Ways of Measuring Your Paddle

Once upon a time, when most paddles were basically the same model, sizing them wasn’t much of an issue. And if you went to a camp, you probably learned some of this basic techniques:

The Ground to Eye method

  1. Place the paddle perpendicularly on the ground, blade down.
  2. Keep the shaft between your hands, straight.
  3. While keeping a straight posture, check where the tip of the shaft ends up.
  4. If the tip is somewhere between your eyes and your chin, the paddle is the right size.
  5. If the tip is below your chin, you have a small paddle.
  6. If the tip reaches above your eyes, your paddle is too

The Palm to Palm method

  1. Hold the paddle’s shaft with one hand and the blade with the other.
  2. Stretch your arms wide, shoulder level so they’re parallel to the ground.
  3. If the length of the paddle is bigger than your outstretched arms than your paddle is too big.
  4. If the length of the paddle is smaller than your outstretched arms, then your paddle is too small.
  5. If the length of the paddle is the same as your outstretched arms, then your paddle is just right.

These two methods were great when every paddle on the market had the same shaft and blade length, but now things are different. These methods are no longer reliable in giving you a precise measurement, however, they’re pretty good when it comes to approximations.

Shaft Length, Blade Length, Overall Length

Nowadays, things are different not only because of different shaft and blade lengths but also because of different blade shapes and shaft types. So a bent shaft will work differently than a straight one because it’s inclined at an angle which makes measuring it quite different.

Shaft Length, Blade Length, Overall Length

Besides, there’s a difference between:

  • Shaft length: the distance between the tip of your shaft and the point where the shaft meets the blade.
  • Overall length: the distance between the two ends of your paddle, meaning shaft length + blade length.

That means using the Ground to Eye method, you’ll have two paddles with different sizes, while actually, their shafts can be equal in length. The same goes for measuring overall length: a very short paddle may, in fact, have a very big shaft length.

So it all boils down to how big your blade is and what shape to get. And you should now know that:

  • Long, narrow blades are better suited for lakes and deepwater tripping.
  • Short, wide blades are better suited for rivers and whitewater.

Choosing the right sort of blade depends on your purpose, where you generally go canoeing. If you enjoy lakes, these are deeper waters and require a longer and narrower blade for your paddle in order to get enough speed.

On the other hand, rivers have rocks and other obstacles, which means you’ll need a shorter blade to avoid that. The blade should also be wider in order to paddle more water and gain a decent speed.

  • The average blade choice: Casual canoeists with some experience prefer a blade that’s 8 x 20 inches, which is the medium size. That means you can use it both in rivers and lakes, shallow or deeper waters alike.
  • The beginner blade choice: If you’re a beginner, the perfect blade for you should be an otter tail model that’s 5-6 inches wide. The main reason lies in its versatility and ability to adapt to your style and strokes. Plus they don’t send a lot of shock to your hands. That renders them more comfortable since your muscles don’t get easily tired, and your hands can hold a steadier grip.
  • So why is knowing the blade length good for sizing? You can use this piece of information, along with one of the traditional ways of measuring the total paddle length to determine with more accuracy if you’ve sized your paddle correctly.

Modern Ways of Measuring Your Paddle

There are, however, more precise ways of getting a paddle that’s the right size for you apart from the traditional methods, or the traditional methods plus blade length.

So how do you size your paddle?

In the water

Since you’re obviously going to use your canoe paddle in the water, that’s the perfect place for you to take your measurements.

Start with a basic forward stroke and analyze your position when you’re halfway through. At this point in time:

  • The blade should be underwater completely.
  • The shaft shouldn’t be in the water at all.
  • Your grip should be somewhere around your mouth area.

You’ll know the paddle is the wrong size if this isn’t how you hold your paddle when doing a forward stroke. So:

The paddle is too short if:

  • Some of the shaft gets underwater too.
  • Your grip is beneath your chin.

The paddle is too long if:

  • The blade isn’t completely submerged in the water.
  • The grip is above your nose.

Most stores won’t let you take the paddle for a test drive, though, which is why you won’t be able to apply this method.

That’s pretty unfortunate because correctly sizing your paddle depends on your paddling style too, as well as the canoe size. There are other factors involved here too, but we’ll discuss them all in a section below.

In a store

We’ll take you through four such methods of measuring the paddle when you’re in a store, but you should first know that none of them is 100%  foolproof.

Sizing paddle

That’s because there’s no such thing as an ideal situation when you can disregard your body type and proportions. On the other hand, these methods are way better than the traditional ones, as they take more factors into account. For more tips on how to paddle a canoe, see our article on this topic.

The shoulder press position

  1. Take the paddle over your head, as if doing a shoulder press.
  2. Place one arm on the grip of the paddle – this is your fixed point.
  3. Place the middle point of the shaft on your head.
  4. Your forearms and upper arms should form a 90° angle at the elbow.

At this point, the paddle is:

  • The correct size if your other hand is at the throat.
  • Too small if your other hand is on the shaft.
  • Too big if your other hand is on the blade.

The seated position

  1. Have a sit on a straight, level surface. Choose a hard surface bench, not a couch.
  2. Place the paddle’s grip next to your hip.
  3. Sit up straight.

At this point, the paddle is:

  • The correct size if the throat of the paddle is between your cheekbone and your eye.
  • Too small if the throat is below your cheekbone.
  • Too big if the throat is above your eye level.

The armpit position

  1. Take the paddle’s grip with one of your armpits.
  2. Keep this arm straight.
  3. Take a hold of the shaft using the same arm.
  4. Place your other hand on the shaft right beneath the first.
  5. Make a mark.

At this point, the paddle is:

  • The correct size if there are about 10 inches between the mark made at step 5 and the paddle’s throat.
  • Too small if the distance between the mark and the throat is less than 10 inches.
  • Too big if the distance between the mark and the throat is more than 10 inches.

The pretend position

  1. Crouch down on the floor, mimicking how you sit in a canoe.
  2. Don’t sit down completely, keep a few inches worth of distance between your bum and the floor.
  3. Place the grip of the paddle on the floor.

At this point, the paddle is:

  • The correct size if its throat is between your chin and nose.
  • Too small if its throat is below your chin.
  • Too big if its throat is above your nose.

At home

With the evolution of modern technology and so many shopping being done on the Internet, there are a lot of canoeists who acquire their paddles online.

Choose the right size of paddle at home

If that’s the case for you too, use a variation of the Pretend position we’ve discussed above:

  1. Crouch down on the floor, mimicking how you sit in a canoe.
  2. Don’t sit down completely, keep a few inches worth of distance between your bum and the floor.
  3. Measure the distance from the floor to your nose.
  4. Measure the distance from the floor to your chin.

At this point, the paddle you’ve found online is:

  • The correct size if its length fits between the interval given by the measurements registered at steps 3 and 4.
  • Too small if its length is smaller than the number found at step 4.
  • Too big if its length is bigger than the number found at step 3.

Other Factors that Influence The Size of Your Paddle

All these above methods are pretty reliable. But what if you’re still not sure about getting the right size for you? Well, that depends on:

The shape of your shaft

There are two main shaft shapes you can choose from.

The straight one is:

  • Extremely versatile, since it can accommodate all sorts of paddling styles.
  • Better on rivers because of the way you can handle it and execute brace strokes.
  • The favorite choice of whitewater canoeists.

The bent one is:

  • More appropriate for flatwater and cruising styles.
  • Better at giving more speed and efficiency to the blade, keeping it perpendicular to the water surface.
  • Advantageous when it comes to penetrating the water surface.
  • Generally found in angles between 7-14 degrees.
  • Good in a smaller angle if you value versatility of strokes over efficiency.
  • Good in a bigger angle if you value utility over the ability to adopt various styles.

That being said, you should know how the shape of your shaft influences the size of your paddle.

Straight shaft

Most adults need a paddle that’s between 50 and 60 inches in length, and two consecutive sizes have a difference of 2 inches between them. Most likely, you can find out which size a paddle is from the product description.

Bent shaft

Because of the angle, these sorts of shafts are shorter. They also have shorter blades, which decrease their overall length, so the most common choice length-wise for canoeists that prefer these types of paddles ranges between 48 to 54 inches.

Bent shaft

Image credit: gear-report.com

You should also know that the methods above are better suited for straight-shafted paddles. If you’re looking at a bent shaft, you should choose one that’s 2 inches less than the size you already calculated.

See also: DIY Canoe Stabilizer: Tips for Not Tipping Over

However, that’s just the general idea. Some canoeists prefer longer paddles even with bent shafts, so it all depends on you.

The shape of your canoe

If your canoe is larger, the paddle should be longer too. Same goes if it has higher seats. That’s because it needs to be the right size so the blade is submerged in water, without you leaning in too much. So add a couple of inches to the above measurements for that.

Where you’re paddling from

If you’re not solo paddling and you’ve taken the rear seat, you also need a longer paddle. The methods we’ve discussed above are better intended for solo paddling, so if you’re sitting in the back you need to add some length to make sure the throat of your paddle reaches the water surface. A few inches, not more than 2 or 3, should do the trick.

Your body type

When it comes to body shape and type, the things that matter most are:

Age

In general, kids need different paddles than adults. So take a few inches off the size you’ve calculated based on their height because they have better control over a shorter paddle. Unless you have a really strong kid.

Proportions

Let’s take a practical example because someone with very long or very short arms may be faced with some problems. How do you know if that’s the case for you?

  1. Measure your height from your tippy toes to the tip of your head.
  2. Stand with your arms parallel to the ground.
  3. Measure the distance between the fingertips of your two middle fingers, that’s your arm span.
  4. If your arm span is about the same as your height, your arms are considered proportional to the body.
  5. A smaller arm span means you have shorter arms.
  6. A bigger arm span means you have bigger arms.

How do you get a correct measure of your paddle if your arms are too short or too big in relation to your height?

  1. Size your paddle by using the methods above.
  2. Get an average of these measurements: that’s your ideal paddle size.

The paddling style

The recommended lengths in regards to different styles are:

  • Shorter for classic solo.
  • Longer for American freestyle, whitewater, and tandem.

Getting The Wrong Size

But it all boils down to your preference. When you become a more experienced canoeist, you’ll probably disregard most of these indications. But beginners find them useful since they’re the starting point that helps them find their own style.

Getting The Wrong Size

So basically you can get a longer or shorter paddle than recommended, and still do great because that’s your style.

What happens if you get an inappropriate size, though?

If it’s too long

The first thing that happens is that the paddle will be submerged in the water, above the throat. That means:

  • An extended reach.
  • More strength.
  • It’s better suited for whitewater.
  • The perpendicular stroke is harder to achieve.
  • You’ll have to do more effort with your up and down movements.
  • Both penetrating the water surface and getting out of the water is harder.
  • You can hit the bottom and damage your blade if the water is shallow.

Another thing that can happen is that your grip will be higher, which entails:

  • A bad body posture.
  • Less efficiency paddling.
  • Backaches and the possibility of developing other posture-related issues.

If it’s too short

The first issue associated with a short paddle regards the blade not being fully submerged in the water until the throat, which entails:

  • Less of a reach.
  • Less strength and momentum.
  • Can be of some use for kids.
  • Can be good in shallow or rapid-moving water.
  • More effort for paddling, because getting in and out of the water is too easy.
  • Can’t be used for whitewater.
  • Really inefficient in lakes or deeper water.

The second issue regards a grip that’s too low on the shaft, which leads to the same bad consequences as in the case of too long paddles:

  • Bad posture.
  • Inefficiency.
  • Posture-related problems.

Sizing and Other Issues

That being said, consider that the length of your paddle isn’t the only thing that matters when buying one. You should always check to see if it fits your strength level and your purposes, as well as if it’s manufactured from sturdy, yet light materials, providing a steady grip.

Before heading out on your next canoe expedition, check out our tips on how to select the top canoe paddle to give you a great experience.

Canoe paddle

So tell us if this article helped you in any way. What sort of paddles do you prefer, longer or shorter? Have we missed anything? The comments are right below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neal Walker
Neal Walker

Neal Walker started fishing when he was 4. His father took him to the fishing trips all over USA and Canada. Later he took Angling Education Program at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but most of his knowledge comes from experience. Now he takes his sons with him to share his passion.

  • Oscar Martin

    The following works for me and it worked for most of my friends: I sit in the canoe just like when I’m paddling. I hold the paddle so that only the shaft is out of the water. The blade is completely in the water. The ideal position of the tee grip should be between eyes and the chin. The best option is to borrow several different-sized paddles and try them out. If you cut a paddle, only cut it in smaller pieces so that you don’t shorten it too much.

    • Neal Walker

      This practice allows great estimation when it comes to getting the most compatible dimensions for your paddle. I always recommend estimating and emulating how a canoe user would use his canoe and paddle because this establishes the closest dimension that he would need. Thank for sharing, Oscar.

  • George Lewis

    Nothing is better than getting into a canoe and figuring out the paddle size. It needs to be your canoe and you need to paddle in your own style. So, you use the exact body position and movements you are always using. If it happens that one day you decide to change your style of paddling, it’s very likely that you will need a different-sized paddle.

    • Neal Walker

      I agree, George. Sometimes this costs more, but the accuracy of sizing pays for itself. A great way to start your canoeing experience is investing in great canoeing gear, and this is one of the best ways to do it.

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