Best Kayak Paddle of 2021
|Price||$314.99 at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Reliable, lightweight, easy to adjust and extend||Very sturdy and durable locking mechanism, smooth blade performance, easy to adjust, lightweight||Featherweight, sleek blade design, enhanced paddling style||Light weight, secure locking mechanism, high performance blades||Secure locking mechanism, light weight carbon blend shaft|
|Cons||Interesting looking graphics||In the more expensive range||Expensive, not for the careless user||Expensive, blades prone to wear if not treated well, locking mechanism can get sticky||Heavier than some models available, locking system can become stiff to adjust|
|Bottom Line||A versatile, lightweight, and reliable paddle that delivered a strong performance across all metrics||This paddle consistently was a top performer across all metrics and it was not hard to select this paddle as a winner||A featherweight full carbon paddle engineered to provide you with an exceptionally smooth but powerful performance||This paddle is designed for those looking for a higher performance option||Don’t be fooled by the bland rental paddle look, the Skagit FG has premium quality features and is able to perform|
|Rating Categories||Wilderness Systems...||Aqua-Bound Sting Ra...||Werner Kalliste||Werner Camano||Werner Skagit FG|
|Ease Of Adjustment (20%)|
|Locking Mechanism Security (15%)|
|Specs||Wilderness Systems...||Aqua-Bound Sting Ra...||Werner Kalliste||Werner Camano||Werner Skagit FG|
|Measured Weight||970 g||850 g||816 g||820 g||1000 g|
|Shaft Material||50% carbon/50% fiberglass||Carbon||Carbon fiber||Carbon blend||Carbon blend|
|Blade Material||Fiberglass composite||abX Carbon reinforced nylon||Carbon fiber/foam core||Fiberglass laminate||Fiberglass reinforced nylon|
|Blade Shape||Asymmetrical||Dihedral, asymmetrical||Dihedral, asymmetrical||Dihedral, asymmetrical||Dihedral, asymmetrical|
|Adjustment Style||Rock-solid Leverlock® ferrule system||Posi-Lok® ferrule system||Push button||Smart View Adjustable||Smart View Adjustable|
|Blade Offset Settings||Fully adjustable, infinity options||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R|
|Length Options||Adjustable: 205-225 cm, 220 - 240 cm||210, 220, 230, 240, 250 cm||220, 230, 240 cm||205 to 260 cm in 5 cm increments||205 to 260 cm in 5 cm increments|
Best Overall Kayak Paddle
Wilderness Systems Pungo Glass
The Wilderness System Pungo Glass is a quality performance paddle with the added benefit of being exceptionally easy to adjust. We were instantly impressed with the unique lever lock connection system, offering the paddle extra adjustability. Users can choose the length of the shaft AND the feather of the blades. More importantly, this feature continued to perform after extensive (ab)use. The mid-sized dihedral blade suits various paddling styles and experience levels, making this paddle a popular choice among all our testers.
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 upstaged in performance only by the most elite full carbon models, which also retailed for considerably more. The Pungo is cost-effective, high quality, and serves the most versatile of kayaking needs.
Read review: Wilderness System Pungo Glass
Best Bang for your Buck
The Werner Baja pleasantly surprised our testers as we were not expecting such a well-designed paddle to be available at such an affordable price. Incorporating design aspects of their premium models, the Baja uses more modest materials including a fiberglass shaft and fiberglass reinforced polypropylene blades. Unlike other blades we tested of similar materials, the Baja is not prone to flex or flutter, resulting in an efficient paddle strong regardless of the conditions.
The fiberglass shaft is heavier than the carbon fiber option used in more expensive models, however, it still weighs less than most other paddles in this budget price bracket. The giveaway that this is a budget paddle is the snap button locking system. Although functional, this mechanism produces some play in the paddle shaft and is prone to jamming if not cleaning frequently. Robust, durable, and highly effective, with some basic care, this paddle should keep you happy on the water for years to come.
Read review: Werner Baja
Best Budget Buy
Bending Branches Whisper
We gave the Bending Branches Whisper accolades as an economical paddle for aspiring 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 price bracket, it actually would fall in the lighter category. The flex in the plastic blades resulted in a less efficient transfer of power, which concerned the performance athletes in our testing group. Overall the design is nothing to write home about; however, it is sufficient enough that 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.
Read review: Bending Branches Whisper
Best Ultralight High-Performance 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-lightweight full carbon construction, coupled with a 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. The carbon construction is durable but not immune to the impact of blunt force trauma. Used as intended, this can be the last paddle you ever purchase. 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. 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 for Durability
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 were some of the most durable we tested. 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 is 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 expect 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 a reliable and affordable paddle, the Carlisle Magic Plus is the one for you.
Read review: Carlisle Magic Plus
Why You Should Trust Us
Multi-discipline paddler, coach, and educator Sara James authored this review. She is a well-rounded adventurer with a 15+ year background in paddle sports, including touring kayaking, Class V whitewater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and squirt boating. Sara has covered thousands of miles in different kayaks around the world, including guiding and safety kayaking on river trips in France, Nepal, California, and on the Zambezi. Her other passion is Education, and on top of working as a high school teacher, she instructs for California Watersports Collective. Having watched hundreds of kayakers learn to paddle, she is confident she has an eye for what works. She supplements her expertise with feedback from her adult and youth students and a variety of elite kayaking professionals.
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 various 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 crystal clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each paddle for different types of users and demands.
Related: Buying Advice for Kayak Paddles
In our gear reviews, one of the metrics that we consider but don't quantitatively score for 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 engineered with 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 the Werner Baja, Carlisle Magic Plus or the Bending Branches Whisper. The Baja wins are Budget award for outstanding value coupled with a solid performance across metrics.
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 using the paddle to push ourselves, all in order 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, the Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon, and the Werner Camano helped these paddles perform exceptionally well in our tests. The Kalliste 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. In addition, their materials provide the paddler with an extra assist to help you float across the water. Other paddles tested in this review (such as the Whisper Sea Extreme and Poseidon ) 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 Wilderness System Pungo takes this adjustability to another dimension with its additional feature of allowing paddlers to alter the paddle length. 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, testers repeatedly found that this system is quick to jam after repeated use in sandy conditions, 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.
Offering the option to adjust the feather of the blades AND length of the paddle, Wilderness Systems provides the ultimate adjustment system. The LeverLock employs a simple lever lock mechanism that is adequately sized so that no paddler should struggle to use it, even when their dexterity is challenged. This system enables the paddler to release a plunger washer that keeps the paddle pieces locked tight together when tightened. The result is a paddle performance that feels uncompromised and exceptionally secure.
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 Baja, Poisedon, Whisper, 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.
The Carlisle Magic Plus is a top performer when it comes to durability. The fiberglass-reinforced blades will handle anything you throw them, are not prone to dings, scratches, or dents like some paddles made of more fragile materials.
The Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon was also 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 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 these paddles to the test in a wide variety of conditions. Testing this range of quality paddles side by side is a stark reminder of how much difference a good paddle can make for your kayaking experience. Despite testers having different paddling backgrounds and experience levels, we unanimously agreed 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