How Long Should a Canoe Paddle Be? (Sizing)


How Long Should a Canoe Paddle Be

Canoeing as a kid I never cared what length canoe paddle I had, but if you’ve ever used a canoe paddle that’s too short or too long you’ll know why figuring out how long a canoe paddle should be is as important as what canoe you’re paddling.

So I did a ton of research to figure out how to measure a canoe paddle and I boiled it all down to help you figure out what size canoe paddle you should buy.

How long should a canoe paddle be? A straight canoe paddle should be between 52″ and 60″ long. A bent-shaft canoe paddle should be between 48″ in 52″ long because of their shorter and wider blades. The most common canoe paddles are 57″, 60″, and 54″ long. Canoe paddles are usually available in length increments of 3 or 2 inches.

That being said there are several factors that go into choosing a canoe paddle that’s the right length for you.

How Long Should Your Canoe Paddle Be

There are more variations of canoe paddles available than you can imagine. So many that it can be intimidating to choose. But in general, you want to get the shortest paddle that lets you submerge the blade of your paddle into the water, without having to bend unnaturally to stroke and paddle.

More specifically, most people paddle with their upper grip hand at about chin to nose level. The quickest way to estimate the distance from your chin or nose to the throat of your paddle where it enters the water is to measure your torso length.

To do that sit in a chair and measure from the flat surface of the chair between your legs to your chin or nose, depending on if you want your hand a little lower in front of you when you paddle, or not.

Once you have that measurement, here’s a quick sizing guide for recreational paddle lengths.

Canoe Paddle Sizing Guide

TorsoStraight Paddle LengthBent Paddle Length
20″Youth 36″N/A
22″ Youth 42″ N/A
24″ Youth 48″ N/A
26″51″ or 52″48″
28″54″50″
30″56″ or 57″52″
32″57″ or 58″54″
34″60″56″
36″62″ N/A
38″64″ N/A

“Straight” paddle and “bent” paddle? We need to explain these and a few more terms before we forge ahead.

Parts of a Canoe Paddle

Parts of a Canoe Paddle
Parts of a Canoe Paddle

We’ve written a more detailed article about the parts of a canoe paddle. But basically there are 6 parts to a canoe paddle:

Grip

The grip is the top of the paddle where you grip with you upper hand.

There are 2 common types of canoe grips:

  1. Palm Grip – Shaped like a wedge or triangle, the palm grip is designed to fit nicely into your hand and be comfortable to paddle all day long and on multi-day expedition trips.
  2. T-Grip – The T-grip is shaped like a “T” and the defined shape allows you to better control the paddle for whitewater and hard paddling. It’s also a great youth grip.

Shaft

The long, skinny length of a canoe paddle that you grip with your lower paddling hand.

There are 2 main types of canoe shafts:

  1. Straight Shaft – Straight shaft canoe paddles are probably what you’re used to seeing. Summer camp, weekends at the lake, and just playing around canoeing. But modern straight shaft canoe paddles are meant for hard maneuvering and bracing strokes common in whitewater canoeing.
  2. Bent Shaft – Bent shaft canoe paddles have taken over recreational and touring canoeing. A bent shaft positions the blade of your paddle as close to vertically as possible during the most powerful part of your stroke. In doing this, they provide better efficiency and more power. In general, when choosing canoe paddles, bent shaft canoe paddles will be about 2″ shorter than straight shaft canoe paddles meant for the same person.

The diameter of the canoe paddle shaft can be either round or oval. Oval shafts allow you to grip the paddle much better and more firmly than a round shaft does.

Throat

The point where the shaft meets the blade.

Shoulder

The widening section between the throat and the main blade of the paddle.

Blade

The flat, wide lower section of a canoe paddle is the blade.

Canoe Paddle Blade Shapes

Canoe Paddle Shapes

There are three basic shapes of canoe paddle blades. Most other shapes are some variant of one of them.

  1. Beavertail Canoe Paddles – The blade gets wider from the throat to the tip. And these are the average length mentioned above.
  2. Ottertail Canoe Paddles – The blade starts out wider at the throat and then tapers off to a narrower tip. Ottertails tend to be longer overall than the other 2 types because of their longer and narrower blade.
  3. Square-tipped Canoe Paddles – Blocky shaped canoe tip with only slight rounding at the tip. These tend to be shorter than average due to the short stubby blade they have.

But describing those leads us to this question. Is it really overall paddle length that we’re concerned with when finding how long a canoe paddle should be? Because as you can see those types of canoe paddle blades above are all different lengths.

And that matters, because the ideal length for your paddle will allow you to comfortably paddle with the blade fully in the water, up to the throat.

Blade dimensions affect paddle length. Longer and narrower bladed paddles will require that your optimum paddle be longer in overall length. Shorter and wider paddle blades will require shorter overall canoe paddles in order to fit correctly.

Tip

The very bottom of a canoe paddle is called the tip. The shape of the tip affects how smoothly a paddle enters and exits the water.

It’s also worth noting that many people use the tip of a canoe paddle to shove off from shore or pole in shallow water. This is very rough on a canoe paddle and eventually leads to cracking, splitting, and a less efficient paddle.

Types of Canoe Paddles

Canoe paddles can also be broken down by purpose or type. Depending on how you’re going to use a canoe paddle, different types of paddles are designed to work best on certain types of water.

Recreational Paddles

Recreational paddles are meant for family canoeing, day trip paddling, or just leisurely exploring on flat calm waters. However, most recreational paddles are built well enough to be used for some overnight trips and light exploring.

If you’re a beginner or you plan to do mostly day paddling on flat calm waters, get a recreational paddle.

Touring Paddles

Touring paddles are designed to be a bit tougher than recreational paddles and provide a little more stroke efficiency. Good for cruising lakes and rivers for weekend and multi-day trips, touring paddles are rugged tools that can take long wilderness trip paddling.

For day-long or multi-day touring on clam lakes and lazy rivers use a good, quality, bent-shaft touring paddle.

Expedition Paddles

Expedition paddles are built specifically for long canoeing excursions into the wilderness or along long rivers. Even more ruggedly built than touring paddles, expedition paddles are designed with protected blade edges to stand up to day in and day out abuse.

For that once in a lifetime 10 day canoeing excursion where you’ll rely on your canoe paddle to get you there and back, get an expedition paddle.

Solo Paddles

Solo paddles are designed to get individuals out canoeing by themselves. Solo paddles resemble kayak paddles more than canoe paddles. This is so that a solo paddler can maintain hand position while alternating strokes to keep their canoe straight.

Whitewater Paddles

Whitewater paddles have short, square blades so they can be paddled quickly and powerfully in shallower water. T-grips help give whitewater canoe paddles more control and better maneuverability.

For paddling hard and fast on swift flowing rivers, get a whitewater canoe paddle.

How to Measure a Canoe Paddle

Researching the right canoe paddle size, I came across several methods and guidelines to help you find the right length. They’re all based on the goal of providing you with a paddle that will put the whole blade in the water during the power phase of your stroke while leaving your body in a comfortable upright paddling position.

This allows you to efficiently paddle your canoe through the water.

Try each one of these methods if you can. Then find the average of them before deciding which length canoe paddle to get.

Proper Grip

It’s worth mentioning that to properly grip a canoe paddle, take your upper hand and grasp the grip part of your canoe paddle. Your grip should have the palm of your hand on the wide part of the paddle grip and the joint between your palm and fingers on the very top of the paddle grip.

Then with your lower hand grip at a point on the shaft just above the throat of the canoe paddle.

How to Quickly Size a Canoe Paddle

Speaking of grip, here’s a fast way to size a canoe paddle to determine if it fits you.

  • Grab the paddle by the grip with one hand
  • Then grab the shaft of the paddle just above the throat with your other hand
  • Put the paddle over your head with the shaft section centered above you
  • Then lower the paddle shaft onto your head
  • Look at the angle of your arms at the elbow
  • Both of your arms/elbows should be at 90º angles

Smaller than 90º angle means the paddle’s too short. More than 90º angle means it’s too long.

How to Size a Canoe Paddle on the Water

The best way to size a canoe paddle would be to try the paddle out in the canoe and on the water you plan to paddle. If you can do that, you’ll get a much more accurate idea of the correct canoe paddle length for you.

How to Measure

  • Sit in your canoe
  • Measure the distance from your nose to the waterline. (The vertical distance)
  • This measurement is the length you want a paddle to be from the grip to the throat
  • Now paddle naturally for a while
  • Pay attention to where your top grip hand is while you paddle

You’ll want this hand even with your shoulder throughout your paddle stroke. If your hand drops below horizontal with your shoulder during your stroke, your paddle’s too short. If your hand goes above your shoulder and then dips back down to horizontal with your shoulder, you need a shorter paddle. 

How to Size a Canoe Paddle in a Store

Obviously, when you’re shopping for paddles in a store it’s tough to dip the blade in the water or measure it by sitting in a canoe. So instead do this:

  • Get on your knees with your butt raised up about 6″ off the floor to simulate what height your canoe seat would be at.
  • Turn the paddle upside down and put the grip on the floor.
  • Ideally, the paddle’s throat should be between your chin and your nose.

Sizing Without a Canoe Paddle

Another way of estimating canoe paddle length is based on you being seated on a flat chair. Then measuring from between your legs on the chair to a point on your face.

In all my research, I’ve seen that distance measured to your chin, to your nose, or even to your eyes. So, we’re not talking about exact science here. More like expert opinion combined with personal preference.

So, using this method, here are the steps to estimate what length paddle you should get:

  • Sit on a flat chair and measure from the flat surface of the chair to your chin. (I prefer the chin measurement, because I don’t want the grip of my paddle in front of my eyes when I stroke. As I mentioned above, I want the paddle at shoulder height throughout my stroke) I’m 5’9″ and my measurement to my chin is 31″
  • Add the distance from your boat seat to the water. If you don’t know what that is, use 6″ as the most common average distance.
  • Now, add the length of the paddle’s blade. Because, as we mentioned, paddle blade lengths vary from type to shape of paddle and this will cause the paddle you need to vary from one type of paddle to another.

Canoe Paddle Blade Length Example

Let’s use the BB Traveler canoe paddle, a great recreational touring paddle, as an example for blade length.

Bending Branches Traveler Canoe Paddle – Blade Dimensions (6.75 x 19 in / 17 x 48 cm)

Adding our torso measurement of 31″, plus our seat height of 6″, plus the BB Traveler’s blade length of 19″ gives us 56″. This is a measurement right in the middle of our straight canoe paddle sizes above, so it makes sense.

Now, since the Traveler comes in 3″ increments from 51″ to 60″, the closest one to my length is 57″, so that’s the paddle I should choose. (Coincidentally, 57″ canoe paddles are the most popular length.)

Another Paddle-less Sizing Method

  • Pick a paddle you like online and find it’s measurement specifications.
  • Get on your knees with your butt about 6″ off the floor, simulating the height of a canoe seat
  • Measure from the floor to your chin or nose, whichever you prefer
  • Add this measurement to the blade length you got from the specifications page above

And finally…

Sizing a Bent Shaft Canoe Paddle 

The best way to size a bent shaft paddle is just like a straight shaft—get out on the water and demo a few bent shaft paddles.

If you can’t do that, then do this:

  • Sit upright in a chair, keeping your back straight.
  • Turn the paddle upside down between your legs and on the seat of the chair.
  • Hold the shaft in front of your face.
  • The throat of the shaft should come to just about eye-level.
  • This should be the right size canoe paddle for you.

The most common overall lengths of bent shaft paddles is 50” and 52”.

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