This is a tutorial where I share with you some tips on how to choose your SUP paddle like a professional.
I have interacted with many pros and other experienced paddlers with years of experience using multiple paddles and I have identified some of the key features they look out for in a SUP paddle before they buy one. I’ve narrowed the focus of this tutorial to some key features that will help you choose the best paddleboard paddles.
What The Pros Look For In A SUP Paddle
The two major factors that you want to consider when picking out a paddle are:
- The height of the paddle and
- The surface area of the blade or the size of the blade.
Picture for a minute how the gears of a car or a bicycle work and imagine the mechanics of paddling a standup paddleboard. There are similarities in how the mechanics of the gears of a car, bicycle or paddling a paddleboard.
If you have a taller paddle and a bigger blade it’s going to be like having a higher gear and you will be able to generate a better top speed while sacrificing the ability to generate acceleration.
In contrast, if you have a shorter paddle and a smaller blade then that’s going to be like being in a lower gear where acceleration is going to be much quicker and more efficient but you do come short at top speed.
It is also important to point out the cadence that you’re using when stroking your paddle. A smaller blade helps you get a higher cadence going because the blade can pull through the water a lot faster.
Conversely, with a bigger blade, you’re going to have to decrease your cadence (or the repetitions of stroke) because you have more surface area around the blade which means the paddle is going to pull slower through the water.
The original paddle designs were based off the Outrigger Canoe paddles with just an extended shaft. That’s really where the stand-up paddling industry was birthed from.
Over time the stand-up paddle board industry has realized that it needs to decrease the blade size relative to the sizes of canoe paddles, as well as shortening the height of the paddle relative to what some of the first stand-up paddleboard paddles were.
I’m going to talk a little bit more about the paddle length and the blade size features, what I personally use and what I recommend to others.
This is my personal paddle and this is what I use for racing and all-around use. I also use a shorter paddle for surfing occasionally.
My personal preference is to have my paddle reach below my wrist while standing straight with my hand stretched over my head. I also find that if my paddle is a little bit shorter, then it is easier on my shoulders.
I have a bad left shoulder so I am very mindful of this.
This paddle length also allows me to keep my elbow a little bit lower and below my shoulder level.
This reduces the stress on my shoulders while I’m able to generate more power, more acceleration when my top hands are a little bit lower.
SUP Paddle Blade Size
I have found that for shorter distance races, a bigger blade works well because you put more power on the blade.
However, as you get into longer distances, it’s nice to have a smaller blade because it feels less fatiguing. Recall the earlier discussion about having a higher cadence with a smaller blade, hence achieving a good speed with less energy.
By using a paddle with a smaller blade, you can have a higher cadence and keep it going at a comfortable speed without exerting yourself too much.
Furthermore, you can actually get quite a bit of power even on a very small blade. As long as it’s a good and efficient blade, you are able to get a nice catch in the water with the blade and, you’re patient without slipping the blade.
So it is not surprising to me to observe over the past two years that most people have been moving down to smaller blade sizes and shorter shafts.
Adjustable or Fixed Length SUP Paddles
If you are one of those paddlers with a bad shoulder, I highly recommend you consider using an adjustable SUP paddle.
Using a SUP paddle with a flexible shaft will reduce the impact of the paddle on your joints. It is, therefore, not surprising that many beginners of standup paddle boarding choose to go with an adjustable paddle as they are considered to be more convenient because one can change the height. This is often cited as the most compelling feature.
In addition, adjustable paddles are best if you’re sharing it with other people. For example, if you want to be able to let your kids and wife use share your paddle, rather than buying a kid’s sup paddle or a SUP paddle specially for women, you can just adjust the height and have it at whatever height your kid or wife needs it at.
Firstly, with the adjustable paddle, there is very high likelihood that you will lose more energy while paddling. That is why the pros who are serious about paddling, opt for fixed length SUP paddles.
The pros and very regular paddlers think they are the best. They should know.
Secondly, the adjustment systems on the shafts of the adjustable paddles usually have a bulky adjustment mechanism which forces you to occasionally let go of your grip on the shaft while sliding your palms up and down the shaft when paddling.
On a smooth shaft, however, you can just slide your thumb up and catch the handle on the other side when you are switching sides. This makes switching sides easier.
Thirdly, an adjustment system adds weight to the SUP paddles as you are effectively using a paddle with two shafts.
Fourthly, the part of the SUP paddle where the shafts are connected presents a weak spot where the paddle can break, especially if the adjustment system is not secured properly. It is advisable to grip the bottom part of the lower shaft of the adjustable paddle to avoid this.
Finally, you need to occasionally wash out the shafts of the adjustable paddle as water is likely to get into the bore of the shafts where they are connected. There can also be corrosion of some of the parts, so keep an eye out.
Despite these downsides of the adjustable paddle, it is not a bad idea when you’re starting out to use an adjustable SUP paddle.
It’s nice because it gives you a chance to experiment with different heights. So if you’re not sure what your personal preference is, it’s good to have a paddle that you can change the height.
There are different shapes of paddle blades that push the water as you paddle. The side of the paddle blade that is used to push the water while you’re paddling is called the “power face.”
The shape of the blade has a subtle but significant impact on the amount of power used to push the water when you’re paddling.
For example, the blade of this Kialoa paddle, has a flat surface. Among the advantages of a flat surface is that as the water hits it, it just grabs the water really well and pushes it well also.
With a flat blade, when you go in and out of the water the power face of the blade basically slices into the water sideways when you enter it or exit it.
So a flat power face will have the least amount of friction when you are sliding through the water. That is a key advantage of a flat surface paddle blade.
However, for extra comfort in a SUP paddle, having some kind of profile, called a dihedral, or the power face of the paddle blade makes paddling a lot smoother as it reduces the amount of flutter because the paddle doesn’t try to wander from side-to-side.
The dihedral in the middle of the power face effectively directs water left and right, thus making the power face smoother and allows you to pull the paddle straight back without much side-to-side flutter.
One advantage of the flat blade over the profiled blade is that a flat blade grabs all the water as you paddle through but the profiled blade will push the water a little bit to the side and you’ll lose a little bit of energy in terms of the amount of water that stays on the blade itself.
I consider this important for performance thus, I try to make the power face of my blade really smooth and streamlined so that it allows the paddle to avoid having any turbulence because turbulence is what creates air bubbles which will then flow down the back of the paddle and create more slippage thus forcing you to expend more power.
However, if your goal is to challenge yourself to improve your overall fitness through stand-up paddleboarding, then you might be less concerned about expending more power and thus the shape of your power face.
By making the blade really streamlined you will find it will improve the hold of the paddle and very importantly, it doesn’t slip as easily.
Then we have some paddles that have a little V at the top of the blade, basically a single concave, so it goes from a single concave into a double concave at the bottom of the blade where it connects with the shaft of the paddle.
This single concave in the tip of the blade and the kind of a pointy tip at the very top, allows the paddle to pierce and break the surface tension of the water easily and then get a good quantity of the water as soon as you enter the paddle into the water.
Picture yourself swimming in water and grabbing the water when you put your arm into the water. You use the hand to grab the water but also your whole forearm to pull on the water and that’s the same concept as your paddle entering the water and the blade grabbing some of the water.
Yet another important feature of a very good paddle is the weight of the SUP paddle.
A carbon paddle is a lot lighter than a fiberglass paddle. A fiberglass paddle is, in turn, lighter than an aluminum paddle.
The weight of the paddle is quite important because for some people when they’re paddling, with the board sitting on the water, they can’t feel the weight of the board and it can affect the performance of the paddling.
A light board is nice but with a light paddle, you feel it with every stroke as you’re lifting the paddle up at the end of every stroke. So every ounce of weight that you save will reduce the amount of power or energy you need to lift up that paddle.
For example, if over an hour of paddling you take about one hundred (100) strokes an hour and you save like one ounce per stroke because you are using a lighter paddle, then that is a difference of about one hundred (100) ounces in an hour.
You will agree with me that’s quite some extra weight that you’re not lifting up every stroke thus enabling you to go faster for longer.
That said, if you are a strong paddler, you should be careful with some paddles that are in my opinion too light and not suitable for strong paddlers as they can break very easily. Use your judgment here.
I recommend avoiding a paddle that is too light. Instead, go for a paddle with a good combination of weight and strength. Yes, the strength is very important as well.
Another personal preference item on paddles is like the shape of the shaft, so what you want to do is kind of match your hand size and your preference to the shaft, so there are different kinds of shapes of shafts like rounded or oval and tapered, though those are just a few.
So depending on if you have smaller hands or your personal preference is a smaller shaft, these smaller oval shafts will feel more comfortable in your hand.
I have big hands but I still like the smaller diameter oval shafts; it’s just more comfortable and it takes less gripping than a bigger shaft. I feel like on a bigger shaft my fingers work harder to hold it.
So another thing that impacts both the blade size and the shaft size is the weight and strength of the paddler.
A stronger paddler will be able to handle a bigger and more powerful blade versus a lighter person, a kid or a petite woman. They will be better off with a smaller blade and in matching the strength and weight of the person.
Another impact of not just the materials but also the shape is an oval shape paddle. It will make the paddle more rigid in the lengthwise direction.
Having an oval shaft will make your paddle more rigid versus a round shaft as it has more flex. You generally want more flex in your paddle.
I personally like fibreglass paddles. Carbon makes the paddle a lot stiffer than fibreglass.
If you want something with a lot of flex, a fibreglass shaft will be a little bit heavier but offers a lot more flex which is then makes it stronger than carbon fibre paddle.
Carbon fibre is very stiff and strong but at some point, it gets brittle and will crack. If bent too far, carbon will eventually break. In contrast, fiberglass will just keep bending and will not break as easily as carbon as it’s not as brittle.
Other Features to Help You Choose Your SUP Paddle Like a Pro
It is important to also touch on some of the other features like ABS edges.
Some paddles will have a built-in ABS edge which is like a thin white part you can see going around the edge of the blade. It’s like a plastic inserted into the blade that makes it stronger and reduces the amount of chipping.
Carbon fibre is kind of brittle so it’ll chip easily if you hit a rock or a reef. So this ABS edge makes the paddle a lot stronger.
Also, what’s inside the blade matters. There are different kinds of foams that are used in the blade. There’s PU foam and there’s PVC foam, so the big difference is in quality.
Finally, while not directly a feature of a paddle, another important aspect to consider also is the thickness of your paddle board because when you’re paddleboarding and if you’re into high-performance standup paddling, you’re going to have a really low volume board.
This means your feet are either at water level or maybe even a little bit below water level.
In situations where the board appears to be sinking (but not really), you’re going to be really low into the water. And if you have your knees bent to get more balance, then you’re further positioned a lot lower and closer to the water than when you’re standing. When standing on a board such as a tall stand-up paddle race board with thick rails, you’re going to be several inches higher off the water.
In effect, when you’re using a fat race SUP board, you’re going to need a longer paddle than if you have a race board that has a really sunk deck.
When you’re at water level it can mean several inches of difference in terms of height off the water and acceleration to catch a wave will be easier with a shorter length paddle.
Consequently, some paddlers have been opting for paddles that are as short/tall as their head height.
I like mine still a little bit overhead and I think a couple inches over my head is my ideal paddle height for paddling out.
So I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on how you can choose your SUP paddle as shared from SUP pros. Now go have some safe, wet fun in the water.