While they might not seem like the most important piece of gear, canoe paddles are actually the engine that powers your watercraft. Picking out a high-quality paddle will allow you to comfortably paddle for longer while expending less energy with each stroke.
If you’re like me, you probably never gave much thought to canoe paddles. I grew up canoeing in a beat-up old aluminum canoe with ancient wooden paddles, which worked decently enough.
After getting the chance to test newer composite and layered wood paddles, I’m convinced that investing in a quality paddle is one of the best ways to step up your canoeing game.
The best paddles are made from laminated wood, fiberglass and carbon fiber. Many utilize some combination of the three to provide exceptional performance and durability while keeping the weight down. Cheaper options are often made from aluminum and plastic.
Canoe paddles come in a wide variety of lengths, weights and blade shapes/angles. I’ll break down the various canoe paddle types, review some of the best paddles, and explain how to pick the best one for your needs.
Quick Answer: 6 Best Canoe Paddles
- Best Overall: Bending Branches Beavertail Recreational Canoe Paddle
- Bent Shaft: Bending Branches BB Special Performance
- High Performance: Bending Branches Black Pearl II Carbon
- Plastic / Aluminum: Carlisle Standard Polyethylene Clad Aluminum Paddle
- Budget Pick: Caviness Marine Twin Stripe Paddle
- Hybrid Paddle: Bending Branches Sunburst ST Canoe Paddle
Top 6 Canoe Paddles
How to pick the best canoe paddle?
With all the paddle materials, shapes, and sizes out there, picking the right canoe paddle for your needs can seem like a daunting task. I’ll break down the important factors you need to consider when picking out a paddle.
The blade shape is an important consideration when picking out a canoe paddle.
Larger blades offer better propulsion and power but require more effort to paddle with. They’ll “bite” into the water more effectively than smaller paddles. You’ll tire yourself out faster paddling a larger blade than a slimmer one. This makes larger blades ideal for whitewater and paddling in strong current.
Smaller blades require less effort with each stroke but have less power and propulsion ability. These paddles are great for calmer lakes and rivers, where you don’t need to fight against strong current or wind. Their slim profile also means they won’t catch the wind the same way a larger blade does.
Common blade shapes:
Beavertail blades are long and slim and make excellent general use or ‘tripping’ paddles. These classic blades are slim and rounded, shaped like a beaver’s tail. The blade itself is long, which helps with deep water paddling and sweep strokes.
Ottertail blades are similar to beavertails but are narrower and more rounded towards the tip. They’re great for solo paddling, tripping, and deep-water use.
Both beavertail and ottertail blades allow for a quick, efficient stroke. Their rounded tips easily enter and exit the water without splashing, which makes them ideal for paddling in calmer conditions and getting close to wildlife without spooking them. This makes them ideal for canoe fishing.
Also, because they’re narrow towards the blade top, you can paddle close to the side of the canoe.
Teardrop shaped paddles are used with bent-shaft paddles. These blades enable you to paddle effectively in shallower water and provides a shorter, more efficient stroke. These paddles are the preferred choice for most marathon racers and are often made from high-end materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass.
Square tipped blades are wide and designed to provide maximum power and propulsion in whitewater and strong current. They’re not particularly efficient in the water and will tire you out if you paddle with them for prolonged periods. The square tip will splash as it enters and exits the water, making them less effective for calm water paddling.
Paddle length can refer to several things, but the most important consideration is shaft length. This refers to the shaft length only, not the entire paddle including the blade.
The shaft length should be roughly equal to the distance from your shoulder to the water when you’re seated inside a canoe.
This can be measured in several ways:
- With a paddle: Kneel down with your bottom about 6” off the ground. Hold the paddle upside down, with the grip on the floor. The shaft end should line up roughly with your nose.
- Without a paddle: Kneel down with your bottom 6” off the ground. Measure the distance between your nose and the ground. This is your ideal shaft length.
When buying a paddle, add the length of the blade (often 20”) to the shaft length calculated above. This is your ideal overall paddle length. Paddles are commonly sold in 3” increments, so round up or down to the nearest length.
If you’re planning to paddle solo or your canoe is on the wider side, add an extra 2” or so.
Check out this video for a quick look at canoe paddle sizing:
When it comes to paddle materials, you’ll have a hard time beating the form and function of a classic wood paddle. Wood is not only light and aesthetically pleasing, it just feels right in your hand. Compared to the artificial feeling of plastic or aluminum, wood has an inherent warmth that puts a smile on your face.
Wood paddles are either a solid piece or laminated. Newer paddles often utilize a combination of woods, laminating both hardwood and softwood together, to create a lightweight and durable fusion. Lighter wood is often used for the core, while a heavier, durable wood is used around the edges.
While wood paddles are fairly lightweight – with higher-end models coming in at less than a pound – they’ll never be quite as light as carbon fiber. Wood also requires occasional upkeep to keep it in top shape, including occasional varnishing and sanding/refinishing in case of damage.
Composite paddles include fiberglass and carbon fiber. Fiberglass is somewhat rare outside of canoe racing and stand up paddleboarding.
Carbon fiber paddles are ultra-light, durable and virtually maintenance-free. While these paddles offer high-end performance, they cost a pretty penny.
Plastic and aluminum paddles are the least expensive material – but offer the worst overall performance. Plastic is typically used for the blade and grip, while the shaft is made from aluminum. These paddles are durable, low-maintenance and affordable. While I wouldn’t recommend plastic/aluminum for your main paddle, they do work well as a secondary paddle or backup for a trolling motor.
Weight is another key consideration when picking out a paddle. In general, the lighter your paddle is the better.
This is especially true for long treks or canoe camping. A lighter paddle will allow you to paddle for prolonged periods without tiring yourself out.
Typical wood canoe paddles weigh in at approximately 20 – 24 oz, although lighter ones are available. Plastic and aluminum paddles are significantly heavier, typically weighing 30 oz or more. The lightest paddles are made from fiberglass and carbon fiber, which can weigh in at less than a pound.
Bent vs. Straight Shaft
This one comes down to personal preference. Traditional straight shaft canoe paddles are versatile and perform well in a variety of conditions including rivers, whitewater, and general cruising.
Bent shaft paddles are intended for flat water cruising, as their design maximizes stroke efficiency. The angled blade results in a shorter, powerful stroke that keeps the blade vertical during the most powerful portion of the stroke.
If you’re only getting one paddle, I’d recommend going with a straight blade for general use. You can also get multiple paddles for different use cases (one for cruising, and one for steering/bracing).
Reinforced Blade Tip
A tough, reinforced blade tip is an important feature to look for in a canoe paddle. This is especially important when paddling in shallow, rocky waters.
Many wood paddles come with a fiberglass or lacquer coating surrounding the blade tip, which protects it from damage. This means you can push off rocks without worrying about damaging the blade. If you’re planning to paddle in seriously rocky environments, looks for a blade with rock protection around the entire edge.
Plastic and composite blades are inherently durable and can withstand a fair bit of abuse without damage.
While it might not seem that important, a paddle’s grip acts as the contact point between your palm and the fulcrum formed by your paddle. A solid, comfortable grip will enable you to paddle comfortably for longer, without discomfort or pain in your wrists.
There are two main grip types found in canoe paddles – palm grips and T-grips.
Palm grips are fan-shaped, ergonomic grips meant to conform to the shape of your palm. They’re comfortable, feel solid in your hand, and are perfect for longer, casual paddling.
T-shaped grips offer the highest degree of control over your paddle. Steering and bracing maneuvers are easier to perform with a T-grip.
When it comes to canoe paddles, you get what you pay for. Sure, you can go with a cheap plastic and aluminum paddle, but your paddling performance will suffer.
A well-made wood paddle is not just an efficient and effective means of propulsion. Many are absolutely beautiful – and look great mounted on your wall. A good paddle will make you want to get out and paddle more often!
If you’re an experienced paddler or you’re looking for absolute peak performance, then a composite paddle makes an excellent choice. While they’re not cheap, they’re ultra-light and durable and will last for years to come.
I’ve loved being in the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up fishing, canoeing, and camping throughout the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It’s what lead me to start this site and share my passions for fishing, diving, kayaking and more. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or (preferably!) preparing for my next outdoor adventure.