Second only to the kayak itself, the kayak paddle is widely considered to be one of the most essential pieces of equipment for those who enjoy kayaking. In addition to being the only feasible means for propelling the kayak through the water, the kayak paddle also can greatly affect the paddling experience. Among the best features to look for in a kayak paddle are weight, ergonomics, and length. Kayak paddles are typically double-bladed and made from lightweight materials such as aluminum, plastic, wood, fiberglass, and carbon fiber.
Aluminum and plastic paddles are usually the cheapest and also the heaviest. Even though they are cheap and durable, most serious paddlers have upgraded from plastic and aluminum paddles because they weigh so much. As very paddler knows, the weight of the paddle is extremely important because the paddle must be moved repeatedly and continuously during paddling. Thus, the amount of work done by the paddler increases by the additional weight multiplied by the number of strokes the paddler takes using the heavier paddle. This can add up quite quickly! However, because they are cheap and sometimes come with the kayak anyway, a lot of paddlers keep their aluminum or plastic paddles around as spares in case they lose their primary paddle.
Wood or fiberglass paddles are very popular among kayakers because they are lightweight and only moderately expensive. They are also strong and rigid materials that can take a lot of abuse. Wood paddles are a little less common than fiberglass ones, but can cost about the same. In addition to being a little more rare, wood paddles also have a pleasing appearance which some prefer over the look of fiberglass paddles. Fiberglass is also an excellent material from which to make kayaking paddles. Fiberglass itself consists of woven sheets of fabric that are soaked in resin and then formed against a mold. When the resin hardens, the fiberglass retains the shape of the mold. The woven fibers give strength to the finished product.
Carbon fiber paddles are less commonly seen on the water than fiberglass paddles, but are still popular because of their light weight. If you are used to handling heavier paddles, you may be surprised the first time you pick up a carbon fiber paddle. Some carbon fiber paddles can be a few ounces less than similarly sized fiberglass paddles, which are already pretty light. A few ounces may not sound like much when you are handling these paddles in a kayak store, but remember that the difference in weight is multiplied over thousands of strokes over the course of a kayaking trip. A typical carbon fiber paddle can weigh as little as 26 ounces. The trade off is that carbon fiber kayak paddles can be double or triple the price of otherwise comparable fiberglass paddles.
As with many things, a good rule for kayak paddles is to buy the best one that you can reasonably afford. Since the paddle is so important, you probably don’t want to settle for a sub-standard one just to save a few bucks. When allocating your budget, save money on other non-critical gear items where cost is not so correlated to performance.