What To Look For
Paddle length influences the speed of your paddle strokes, also known as cadence. Measuring paddle length by standing with one arm raised straight up above the head while cupping an imaginary paddle with the fingers used to be a standard method. This can be OK for general river kayaking, but for sea kayaking, more precise measurements based on a person's height have become standard. Choose a paddle that is 210 to 245 cm if you're less than 5 feet 4 inches, 215 to 250 cm if you're 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 9 inches (this is known as the average range) and 220 to 250 cm if you're 5 feet 9 inches or taller.
Don't just guess. Stand tall and straight against a wall and have a friend measure your height accurately with a tape measure if you do not already know your precise height. Try paddling with a few different sized paddles within the range noted for your height. You will notice that there is generally a 30- to 35-cm range even within each height category. This is because not everyone has the same length arms, and not everyone moves and paddles quite the same way. Also, it is standard for paddles to be marked in centimeters, so keep this in mind when browsing.
Where To Buy
EMS and REI are two very comparable stores when it comes to paddle selection and price. EMS is located on the East Coast and REI on the West Coast. The least expensive aluminum paddle at EMS was priced at $75, and its least expensive fiberglass paddle was priced at $109, as of March 2010. At REI, the least expensive aluminum paddle was $60, and the least expensive fiberglass paddle was $108, as of March 2010. Once you know your length, you can purchase paddles at a variety of online stores. NRSweb.com is the best place to start looking for quality paddles. L.L. Bean is also a fine place to shop on the Eeast Coast.
Kayak paddles range in price from approximately $50 for a beginner's anodized aluminum shaft paddle with plastic blades to $465 for a bent shaft carbon paddle for more experienced paddlers. At NRSweb.com, for example, the least expensive beginner's paddle with plastic blades was listed at $54.95 as of March 2010, but the least expensive performing paddles in carbon and fiberglass were $340 and $265, respectively, and the least expensive performing free-style paddles in carbon and fiberglass were $290 and $240, respectively.
Sizing whitewater paddles is slightly different than sizing sea kayak and touring paddles. According to the "AMC Whitewater Handbook," 3rd ed., by Bruce Lessels, "Paddle lengths of between 198 and 210 centimeters are most common for whitewater paddling." Though there are many factors besides the size of the paddler, such as how high she sits in the boat, how deep the water is and what type of whitewater boat is being used, the easiest way to size is to hold the paddle with your hands about 4 inches from the throat on either side. Put the paddle on top of your head without moving your hands. If your elbows make 90-degree angles, it is a good fit.