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What Length Should my Kayaking Paddle Be?
Kayaking - Kayaking Equipment

What Length Should my Kayaking Paddle Be?

Mostly Touring Paddles:
For any kayak paddle, shorter gives (within limits) more power, longer conserves energy. The limit for the best paddle length for you is dependent on several different variables. The width of the boat you paddle is probably the single most important factor. Paddling style would be second, and then your body size would be third.

Narrower boats like most conventional "hard-shell" "sit-in" kayaks require the least paddle length. Most inflatable kayaks are pretty wide and require a significantly longer paddle. The width of folding boats and "sit-on-tops" is usually

somewhere between wide inflatable’s and narrow hard-shells. There is an obvious width range within each style boat, probably enough to require some overlap between the different styles. For example, a really wide folder might require a longer paddle than a narrow inflatable.

The seat height of your boat might cause minor length changes, too. A higher seat would mean your hands are farther from the water for a given paddling style, dictating a paddle longer by approximately

twice the seat height (half for each side of the boat). For instance, if you sat on a foot-high
stool, you'd need a paddle two feet longer than you would if you sat on the bottom. (That's a gross exaggeration, but it should make you more easily
understand my point.)

Paddling style also makes a difference in paddle length. "High angle" paddlers, those who hold their upper hand farther above the boat deck and paddle with a closer to vertical shaft angle, can use a shorter paddle than a "low angle" paddler, one who holds his upper hand low, closer to the boat deck. I know, it sounds like it should be the opposite of that because both hands are closer to the water. However, a more horizontal shaft angle and a wide boat means that the shaft meets the water much farther from the boat, so it takes a longer shaft to get the blade into the water. Low angle paddling is a common sea touring style, but not found much in white water because of the basic inefficiency problems it causes in that paddling discipline.

The terms high angle and low angle come from the angle of the shaft in relation to the water surface. The high angle shaft is steeper, resulting from the higher upper hand position. The lower hand of both paddlers is about the same position, but the shaft length between the hand and the blade must be longer to get the whole blade under water. The blade is farther from the boat which turns the boat a little with every stroke and therefore requires more work in steering compensation.

A paddlers body dimensions actually have only a minor bearing on paddle length. A tall paddler sitting on the floor can reach it with his hands just as well as a short person. The only reason a taller paddler might want a little longer paddle is because a narrow hand-spread is awkward for them, and that doesn't require much additional length -- maybe eight inches from the shortest to the tallest in adults. Most paddles sold are actually within about a four inch range (but, so are most people).

The seats in a kayak are usually pretty low, but they can vary. Just an inch or two can make a noticeable difference in stroke mechanics with the wrong paddle length.

The above tells us that someone paddling a wide inflatable using a low angle paddling style needs a longer paddle than a high angle paddler in a narrow little hard-shell whitewater boat. Paddlers in other boats would be somewhere in between the two extremes. Varying seat heights just add a little complexity. You would be better off choosing a required paddle SHAFT length than an overall paddle length because blade lengths vary as much as 8 inches between brands and models. Given a blade length of around 17-18 inches, the next paragraph will give you some quick and dirty rules of thumb for overall paddle length.

I would recommend the average paddler using high angle style in a relatively narrow hard shell sea kayak try a paddle about 220 cm (86 inches) long, for starters. Taller or smaller paddlers go an inch or two longer or shorter, but don't be afraid to try even shorter than that. Average paddlers in wider boats, including most sit-on-top singles, might want to try a 230 cm (89 inches) or so paddle. Wider doubles and inflatable’s might try a 240 cm (90 inches) or so. Those using a low angle paddling style will probably need to up their paddle length some. Try about 10 to 15 cm (2 to 3 inches) longer on each of the above categories as a start. I can't imagine the boat / style / person combination that would require anything longer than 250 cm (98 inches).

The typical sea kayaker uses a paddle that is too long for decent efficiency. Don't make extra work for yourself. Learn efficient technique using properly designed and sized paddles, and your boating fun will increase enormously. You will be much less tired at the end of a long day's paddle, especially into the wind.

White Water Paddles:
The recommendation for white water kayak paddles is the same. The shorter the better, within limits. Much of the above sea kayak length information is also relative to white water, except that white water paddlers use much shorter paddles, and few, if any, use a low angle paddling style. That keeps the length range differences down and makes length selection much easier. Most white water kayakers use paddles in the 198 to 204 cm range, only a little over a two inch difference in length. The actual range is probably about 190 to about 210 cm, or still less than eight inches. Those on white water or sea kayak sit-on-tops will probably want something around 210 to 215 cm, and inflatable paddlers might need a bit more length, say 220 to 230 cm, or so.

Again, boat width and seat height are more of a factor than the paddler's body dimensions. I know kayakers who are relatively tall (6'- 3") who use short (195cm) paddles for white water. They claim it works for them, and they do very well with their short paddles, indeed.