The Best Kayak Paddles of 2020
Best Overall Kayak Paddle
Wilderness Systems Pungo Glass
The Wilderness System Pungo Glass is a quality performance paddle that has the added benefit of being versatile. The mid-sized dihedral blade is designed to suit a variety of paddling styles and experience levels. We were instantly impressed with the unique lever lock connection system offering the paddle extra adjustability. Users can choose the blades' feather -and- the length of this dynamic paddle. More importantly, this feature continued to perform after extensive (ab)use.
This paddle is lightweight but effective, utilizing a carbon blend shaft and fiberglass blades. It was not too stiff on our joints but provided an effective transfer of power. The Pungo Glass was trumped in performance only by the most elite of full carbon models, which also retailed for considerably more. The Pungo is not only cost-effective, and high quality, but serves the most versatile kayak needs.
Read review: Wilderness System Pungo Glass
Performance Kayak Paddle
The Werner Kalliste took the lead for its exceptional performance, airy feel, and all-around high scores across all our testing metrics. The paddle boasts an ultra light-weight full carbon construction, coupled with the buoyant blade design. This winning combination makes it feel effortless to execute powerful, smooth paddle strokes, even after many miles of touring. The lightweight and efficient design will help you to save energy and keep you out on the water longer.
This paddle is worth treating well. It may well cost almost half as much as your kayak; however, if you take care of it, you will find that it is justifiable. This elite paddle is one that your skills will never outgrow. Beginners and experts alike will see an immediate difference in their kayaking style and enjoyment when using the Kalliste. The paddle is exquisitely balanced, encouraging a naturally smooth and powerful cadence in every stroke. The Kalliste is the type of paddle that makes you fall in love with kayaking all over again.
Read review: Werner Kalliste
Best Bang for your Buck Kayak Paddle
Carlisle Magic Plus
The Magic Plus is a reliable performer, even in rough conditions or clumsy hands. The fiberglass shaft and fiberglass-reinforced polypropylene blades deliver a sturdy paddle stroke and the blades do not flex under pressure, unlike other value models. The wrapped paddle shaft has a coarse texture providing a secure grip that testers appreciated, particularly if we had sunscreen on our hands. The fiberglass-reinforced polypropylene blades are very durable. We feel comfortable throwing this paddle in the back of a truck with our other gear without worrying about damaging the shaft or blades.
After using the paddle multiple times, we noticed that the two pieces of the paddle became challenging to dismantle or adjust. The snap button adjustment point is sensitive to any grit or sand and often jammed. We noticed this issue on all the paddles with a similar snap button locking system. Although this would not prevent us from using the Magic Plus, it is something to consider if you are expecting to dismantle it for travel regularly. Overall this paddle provided a solid performance for almost half the price of our top contenders. It's heavy, but if you are not concerned about additional weight and are looking for an affordable and reliable paddle, the Carlisle Magic Plus is the one for you.
Read review: Carlisle Magic Plus
Best Budget Buy Kayak Paddle
Bending Branches Whisper
We gave the Bending Branches Whisper our Best Budget Buy accolade as it is an exceptionally affordable paddle for new kayakers to get out on the water regardless of their budget. The polypropylene paddle blades are durable and will withstand significant use or abuse, even in rocky conditions. Despite the low price, we still felt this paddle delivered a dependable performance, and we would be happy to lend it to our friends for their first paddle outings.
The aluminum shaft made the Whisper paddle much heavier than the top-performing paddles. However, when compared against paddles of a similar cost, it actually would fall in the lighter category. The blade design is nothing to write home about, but your kayaking adventures still can be with this paddle. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts who want to get out on the water to explore, but are not concerned about having a performance paddle, will be grateful to have such an affordable option available.
Read review: Bending Branches Whisper
Why You Should Trust Us
Multi-discipline paddler, coach, and educator Sara James authored this review. With a 15 year background in everything from white water kayaking, touring, and SUP, to freestyle and slalom, she is a well-rounded paddler. Sara has covered thousands of miles in different kayaks over the last 15 years, including guiding and safety kayaking on river trips in France, Nepal, California, and on the Zambezi. Her other passion is Education and she uses her Master's degree in Teaching to share her love for outdoor adventure by working at an Expeditionary Learning school in the Sierra foothills. A qualified British Canoe Union Coach, in her 'free time' she continues to teach kayaking. Having watched hundreds of kayakers learn this sport she is confident she has an eye for what works. She supplements her expertise with the insights of a variety of elite kayaking professionals from around the world, along with feedback from her adult and youth kayaking students.
We identified five critical metrics by which to grade these paddles - Performance, Ease of Adjustment, Locking Mechanism Security, Weight, and Durability. For each parameter, the testing protocol varied to ensure we provided the most accurate objective analysis of each. For example, Locking Mechanism Security was tested by handing paddles to blindfolded paddlers and allowing them to handle and use the paddles without touching the center of the shaft; those paddles that felt like one piece scored higher.
Related: How We Tested Kayak Paddles
Analysis and Test Results
To formulate a well-rounded view of each product, we tested the paddles with different types of kayakers, ranging from novices to professionals. We also used the paddles in a variety of conditions, including glassy flat water touring sessions and multi-day trips with windy, choppy conditions. We used these paddles for hours on end to get a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each paddle for different types of users and situations.
Related: Buying Advice for Kayak Paddles
In our gear reviews, one of the metrics that we don't quantitatively score for, but do consider, is the overall value of a product. We are always trying to find the best products possible; however, we recognize that this isn't going to work for everyone's budget, as sometimes the best products are also the most expensive.
The Wilderness System Pungo Glass, uses high-end materials including durable fiberglass composite blades and a carbon blend shaft to deliver an excellent product, but that comes with a decent price tag. The Performance award winner, the Werner Kalliste is even more challenging on the budget, but utilizing the highest quality design and materials, it delivers unrivaled performance and an exceptional feel in exchange. If you need an option that will get you out on the water without making that big of a dent in your wallet, look to our Best Buy winner, the Carlisle Magic Plus, or the Bending Branches Whisper, winner of the Best Buy award.
We based 40% of each paddle's score on paddle performance, making it our most heavily weighted testing metric. If you are a beginner kayaker or using your kayak as a means to enjoy another hobby such as birdwatching or fishing, this metric may not be as relevant to you as weight or ease of adjustment. However, as you spend more time in your kayak, you will quickly feel the difference between a high-performance paddle and a budget option.
We evaluated the paddles' performance in four key areas — the catch (blade's ability to slice into the water and grab a wedge of water), the power (the pull of the blade in the water), the flutter of the blade (how much it moved laterally during the pull), and the feel of the shaft (including how it feels to grip and if there is any flex under pressure). We switched from one paddle to another, ran timed sprint laps, and launched off gravel bars to test the blades' flex, power transfer, and how it succumbed to wear and tear.
The design of the dihedral blades and high-end materials used in the Werner Kalliste, Aqua-Bound, and Werner Camano helped these paddles perform exceptionally well in our tests. The Kaliste stood out for its ultralight carbon construction and buoyant blade design. None of these blades flexed in use under pressure, providing an efficient transfer of power for the paddler. Other paddles tested in this review (such as the Whisper and Sea Extreme) have basic plastic blades, which although durable, flex under pressure and deliver a less efficient power stroke.
Although flex in the paddle blade does not equate with higher performance, a slight flex in the shaft delivers a more comfortable stroke and improved efficiency. Therefore we prefer paddles with a carbon or fiberglass shaft over those that used a more rigid aluminum shaft.
Ease of adjustment
Each paddle we purchased is adjustable, but some paddles sport a greater degree of options than others. All the paddles we purchased offer the opportunity to adjust the feather of the paddle blades to suit a left-handed paddler, right-handed paddler, or neutral. Some paddles offer a greater degree of options for the more discerning paddler. The Werner System paddles take this adjustability to another dimension with its additional feature of allowing paddlers to alter the length of the paddle. When considering how easy each paddle is to adjust, we also factor in how easy it is to dismantle the paddle, experimenting with cold hands and under pressure (in choppy, white cap conditions when we really did not want to capsize).
At first glance, the conventional snap button system (also referred to as a push button) is obvious and easy to use. However, after repeated use in sandy conditions, it's quick to jam and becomes difficult to adjust without help. In cold conditions, when we start to lose coordination and strength in our fingers, the snap button systems can be very difficult to use.
The Werner Skagit and the Camano use a Smart-view adjustment system for their paddle connection. This is easier to adjust than the snap button systems, especially under pressure or with cold hands. In addition, the clear marking system makes it easy to identify the correct feather and right or left-handedness of the paddle. This feature is useful if you intend to share the paddle with other kayakers who have different blade angle preferences, or if you expect to change the feather angle during paddling sessions.
Aqua-Bound offers some of their touring paddles with the Snap Button option, or, for a little extra, you can get the significantly superior Posi-Lok system, which is considerably more secure and easy to operate. It is easily justifiable to spend the extra ten dollars when this option is available.
Locking Mechanism Security
The adjustment systems that are easiest to use also feel the most secure to paddle with. Good design can make a product user-friendly and improve performance. The security of each paddle's locking mechanism counted for 20% of its score.
Aqua-Bound's Posi-Lok mechanism and Wilderness System's Lever Lock provided the most secure feel of all the options. Under blind testing, paddlers identified each of these as a one-piece paddle. No one noticed -any- rotational or horizontal give. These systems maintained the securing over time.
The Skagit and Camano also scored well in this metric. Their Smart View internal locking mechanism provides a secure feel, resulting in no rotational movement in the paddle while paddling. We did notice that out of the water, a horizontal pull resulted in some give, but we hardly ever felt this when using the paddle in the water.
The snap button system used by the Bending Branches, Sea Extreme, and Carlisle Magic Plus allowed the most give when paddling. After extensive use, these paddles tended to become even less secure over time.
At first, kayakers may not notice the impact of the weight differences between paddles. However, once you are a mile into your journey, your arms will notice the extra weight. A lighter paddle also helps paddlers to maintain their form as they fatigue less quickly. This further enhances their overall performance as paddlers can maximize the efficiency of each of their strokes.
Those looking to enjoy extended journeys in their kayak will want to consider the lightweight Kalliste, Pungo, or Camano. With the Kalliste standing out in this field. These paddles are significantly lighter than other kayak paddles in this review fleet. They are also more expensive. Heavier paddles tend to be more affordable, making them better choices for short, casual kayak tours.
We noted wear and tear to each paddle during testing to get a sense of its durability over time. In particular, we focused on the durability of the blades and the joint. Your paddle is of no use to you if you can't put it together.
Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon was a top performer in this metric. The polished finish of the Posi-Lok's internal shaft meant that it's not prone to collecting sand or grit. It was consistently easy to use. The abX Carbon Reinforced Nylon blades of the String Ray Carbon withstood use in rocky and sandy conditions, with no evidence of wear on the blades. The fiberglass Camano and carbon Kalliste blades were not found to be as durable, and users should be considerate with how they store and travel with these delicate paddles.
The fiberglass infused nylon and polypropylene blades fared well in the gravel tests, showing how these materials can withstand quite a battering. However, the snap button system in the paddle's shaft lowered their overall durability scores, as they are prone to jamming. Luckily, a frequent rinse and monthly application of silicone lubricant should help you extend the life of this component. Also, proper storage and transport will considerably extend the life of all paddles. Those that invest a couple of hundreds of dollars in a paddle may also consider obtaining a travel bag.
Although the smart view system used in the Skagit and Camano was not immune to jamming with sand or grit, we found that it withstood these conditions better than the snap button system. It was also easier to use with cold hands.
We enjoyed the opportunity to put this range of quality paddles to the test in a variety of conditions. Testing this range of quality paddles side by side is a stark reminder of how much difference a nice paddle can make for your kayaking experience. Despite testers having different paddling backgrounds and experience levels, we were in unanimous agreement about our award winners. If you want to hit the water in your recreational touring kayak, we are confident that our review will help you select the best paddle to suit your needs.
— Sara James