Searching for the best kayak paddle on the market? After researching the most popular options, we picked 17 to test side-by-side, spending over 200 hours paddling and inspecting every nook and cranny. We toured for many miles with these paddles, analyzing their feel, performance, and quality of construction. We ventured across lakes, meandered through meadows, and endured high winds and waves. We pushed these paddles to their limits (and slightly beyond) to identify the pros and cons of each design. We got to know them exceptionally well and pass on our findings to help you select the best paddle for your next kayaking adventure.Editor's Note: This review was updated on August 1, 2023, to add new options from Bending Branches, Overmont, and Sawyer to our lineup. We also tested updated versions of the Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon and Aqua-Bound Sting Ray FG and rested the Werner Camano in the new REI exclusive colorway.
|Price||$470.00 at REI|
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$349.99 at Amazon
|$224.95 at REI|
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|Pros||Featherweight, sleek blade design, enhanced paddling style||Lightweight, buoyant blades, easily adjustable on-the-fly||Reliable, lightweight, easy to adjust and extend||Very sturdy and durable locking mechanism, smooth blade performance, easy to adjust, lightweight||Hand crafted blade design, aesthetically pleasing|
|Cons||Very expensive, not for the careless user||Requires care, expensive||Interesting looking graphics||A bit pricey, only comes in plain black||Inconsistant construction quality, pricey|
|Bottom Line||A featherweight, fully carbon paddle engineered to provide you with an exceptionally smooth and powerful performance||For effortless strokes and maximum adjustability, this paddle will suit those looking for one high performance paddle to fit all their needs on the water||A versatile, lightweight, and reliable paddle that delivered a strong performance across all metrics||This enjoyable and effective paddle is a top performer across all metrics with a very approachable price point for carbon components||The construction quality of this beautiful paddle does not live up to its design or cost|
|Rating Categories||Werner Kalliste||Wilderness Systems...||Wilderness Systems...||Aqua-Bound Sting Ra...||Sawyer Station Sea...|
|Ease of Adjustment (20%)|
|Locking Mechanism Security (20%)|
|Quality of Construction (10%)|
|Specs||Werner Kalliste||Wilderness Systems...||Wilderness Systems...||Aqua-Bound Sting Ra...||Sawyer Station Sea...|
|Measured Weight||28.8 oz||34.3 oz||33.6 oz||30.1 oz||32.5 oz|
|Shaft Material||Carbon fiber||50% carbon, 50% fiberglass||50% carbon, 50% fiberglass||Carbon||Carbon fiber|
|Blade Material||Carbon fiber/foam core||Fiberglass, foam core with carbon reinforced edges||Fiberglass composite||abX Carbon reinforced nylon||Red Cedar, fiberglass|
|Blade Shape||Dihedral, asymmetrical||Asymmetrical||Asymmetrical||Dihedral, asymmetrical||Asymmetrical|
|Adjustment Style||Push button||Leverlock ferrule system||Leverlock ferrule system||Posi-Lok ferrule system||Adjustable feather ferrule|
|Blade Offset Settings||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R||Fully adjustable, infinite options||Fully adjustable, infinite options||0, 15, 30, 45, 60 L and R||Fully adjustable infinite options|
|Length Options||220, 230, 240cm||Adjustable: 205-225cm,
|Adjustable: 205-225 cm, 220-240 cm||200 to 260cm in 5cm increments||Straight shaft 220-230cm, 230-240cm and 240-250cm : Cranked Shaft 220-225cm, 230-235cm, 240-245cm or 250-255cm|
|Style||Low-angle||Low or high-angle||Low-angle||Low-angle||Low-angle|
Best Overall Kayak Paddle
Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon
The Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon is a high-quality 2-piece kayak paddle that stands out for its performance, ease of use, and durability. Utilizing a full carbon shaft and redesigned carbon-reinforced nylon blades, this paddle is well-balanced and delivers a powerful flutter-free stroke without putting excessive strain on your body. The mid-sized dihedral blades suit various paddling styles and experience levels, making the Sting Ray a popular choice among all our testers.
Press the orange buttons, and with a gentle twist, this secure paddle easily adjusts or dismantles. Testers agreed that the Aqua-Bound Posi-Lok connection system is the easiest join system we used, offering the most precise fit. In contrast to all the other paddles we reviewed, it has withstood the test of time well. To get a paddle that is any better than the Sting Ray, expect to pay quite a bit more. This is a high-value purchase that will serve you well.
Read more: Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon review
Best Bang for your Buck
Werner Skagit FG
The Werner Skagit FG follows Werner's well-established tradition of premium designed and constructed kayak paddles but uses more modest materials in the blades so they can deliver this at an introductory price. The fiberglass-reinforced injection molded nylon blades offer remarkable durability against impacts and wear. Unlike other blades constructed of similar materials we tested, the Skagit is not prone to flex or flutter, resulting in an efficient paddle stroke that is smooth regardless of the conditions.
The carbon blend shaft is the same as you will find in Werner's higher-end models, as is the Smart View adjustable ferrule. This Werner patented join offers a precise fit, and testers agreed it gives the solid feel of a 1-piece paddle. If you struggle with dexterity, the Smart View system can be challenging, particularly in cold conditions. However, this is superior to the common snap button system on most introductory-priced paddles. Robust, durable, and delivering smooth, stable strokes, the Werner Skagit paddle should keep you happy on the water for years to come.
Read more: Werner Skagit FG review
Best on a Tight Budget
Bending Branches Whisper
The Bending Branches Whisper stands out as a robust and economical paddle that can get aspiring kayakers out on the water regardless of their budget. The polypropylene paddle blades are durable and can withstand significant use and abuse, even in rocky conditions. Despite the low price point, we still felt this paddle delivered a dependable performance and would be a great option for a friend getting into water sports.
The aluminum shaft of the Whisper makes it much heavier than top-performing paddles. However, it falls in the lighter category compared to paddles of a similar price bracket. The flex in the plastic blades results in a less efficient transfer of power, which the performance athletes in our testing group noticed. Overall, the design is nothing to write home about, but this paddle is still great for basic kayaking adventures. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts looking to get out and explore and who do not need a performance paddle will be grateful for such an affordable option.
Read more: Bending Branches Whisper review
High Value and Bomber Construction
Carlisle Magic Plus
The Carlisle 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 unlike other value models, the blades do not flex under pressure. The wrapped paddle shaft has a coarse texture, providing a secure grip that most testers appreciated, particularly if we had sunscreen on our hands. The reinforced blades were also 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 this paddle multiple times, we noticed that the two pieces became challenging to dismantle and adjust. The snap button adjustment point was often jammed and is sensitive to any grit or sand. 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 disassemble it regularly for travel. Overall, this paddle offers solid performance for considerably less than our top contenders. It's heavy, but if you are not concerned about additional weight and are looking for a reliable and affordable paddle, this might be the one for you.
Read more: Carlisle Magic Plus review
The Werner Kalliste rose to the tippy top of our lineup for its exceptional performance, airy feel, and all-around high scores across all our testing metrics. This paddle boasts an ultra-lightweight and full-carbon construction coupled with a buoyant blade design. With this winning combination, it feels effortless to execute powerful, smooth paddle strokes, even after many miles of touring. The lightweight and efficient design will save energy and keep you out on the water longer.
This paddle is worth treating well. Though the carbon construction is durable, it's not immune to the impact of blunt force trauma. Used as intended, this can be the last paddle you ever purchase. It may almost cost half the price of your kayak, but with proper maintenance, the paddle's longevity will justify the price. 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 paddle that will make you fall in love with kayaking all over again.
Read more: Werner Kalliste review
Excellent Ultralight Performance
The Werner Camano stands out for its lightweight performance. The carbon blend shaft delivers a perfect balance of power and flex, resulting in a smooth and stable cadence. The translucent fiberglass laminate blades are mid-sized and are well integrated into the shaft, reflecting the superior engineering Werner paddles are well known for. At just 27.2 ounces, this is currently the lightest paddle in our lineup.
Repeated exposure to abrasive conditions (i.e., sand, rocks, shale ) may lead to gradual wear on fiberglass blades, and extreme blunt force impacts may also chip small corners. However, don't expect one bump to knock you out of the game, as this paddle will continue to deliver power even as it ages. For those that can take care of their paddle, particularly during transport, the Camano will deliver outstanding performance at a great weight and — while still expensive — it comes in at a significantly more reasonable price than many others of similar caliber.
Read more: Werner Camano review
Why You Should Trust Us
We research the most promising kayak touring paddles each year and purchase the best to put to the test. Since 2018, we have tested dozens of different kayak paddles, categorizing our testing data and observations into five different performance metrics, staying as consistent and objective as possible. For example, we tested locking mechanism security by handing paddles to blindfolded paddlers and allowing them to handle and use them without touching the center of the shaft: the paddles that felt like one piece scored higher.Our testing of kayak paddles is divided into five key metrics:
- Performance (30% of overall score weighting)
- Ease of Adjustment (20% weighting)
- Locking Mechanism Security (20% weighting)
- Weight (20% weighting)
- Quality of Construction (10% weighting)
This review was headed up by multi-discipline paddler, coach, and educator Sara James. Sara is a well-rounded adventurer with a 20+ year background in paddle sports, including touring kayaking, Class V whitewater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and squirt boating. She has covered thousands of miles in different kayaks worldwide, including guiding and safety kayaking on river trips in France, Nepal, California, and Zambia. Her other passion is education, and on top of working as a high school teacher, she is an instructor 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 elite kayaking professionals. Sara also tests kayaks, SUPs, life jackets, and dry bags for GearLab.
Analysis and Test Results
To formulate a well-rounded view of each product, we tested these kayak paddles with varying levels 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 waves. We used these paddles for hours on end to get a crystal-clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses for different types of users and demands.
In our gear reviews, one of the things that we consider and compare but don't quantitatively score is the product's overall value. We always try to find the best paddle products possible; however, we recognize that some won't work for everyone's budget, as sometimes the best products are also the most expensive.
If within your budget, there are some notable products to mention on the pricier side. The Wilderness System Pungo Glass has high-end materials, including durable fiberglass composite blades and a carbon-blend shaft, resulting in an excellent product at a fair price for these materials. The impeccable Werner Kalliste is even more taxing on the budget but engineered with the highest quality design and materials. In exchange, it delivers unrivaled performance and an exceptional feel. If taken care of, it will last you for years, a consideration when assessing long-term value. These stunners aside, there are several great options if you need a product that will get you out on the water without making a big dent in your wallet. The Werner Skagit stands out for its outstanding value and solid performance across all metrics. If you need to spend even less, the Carlisle Magic Plus, Bending Branches Whisper, Bending Branches Bounce X-Grip, and Badfish Custom all offer competitive value. But the best balance of price and performance in our current lineup is the Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon. It rose to the top, performing stunningly well across the board for a price we could hardly believe.
We based 30% of each paddle's score on performance, making it our most heavily weighted testing metric. If you are a beginner kayaker or use your kayak 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 lower-budget option.
We evaluated each paddle's performance in four key areas — catch (the blade's ability to slice into the water and grab a wedge of water), 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 felt to grip and if there was 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 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 Sting Ray Carbon, Sawyer Station Sea Feather V-LAM, and Werner Camano enabled these paddles to perform exceptionally well in our tests. The Kalliste stood out for its ultralight carbon construction and buoyant blade design. None of these blades flex under pressure, which provides an efficient power transfer for the paddler. In addition, the materials provide the paddler with extra assistance to help them float across the water. While durable, paddles with basic plastic blades flex under pressure and deliver a less efficient power stroke.
Although flex in a kayak 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 with a more rigid aluminum shaft. The Wilderness Systems Apex FG and Wilderness Systems Pungo Glass both have a 50/50 carbon and fiberglass shaft. The Apex is perfectly stiff, delivering an excellent power transfer with each stroke, and the foam core inside the blades (which have carbon-reinforced edges and a fiberglass outer) provides a nice buoyancy. The Pungo offers excellent adjustability, and the gentle curve of the blades aides with smooth and flutter-free strokes.
Ease of Adjustment
All the paddles we purchased offer the opportunity to adjust the feather of the blades to suit a left-handed, right-handed, or neutral paddle position. Some have a greater degree of options for the more discerning user, and some make this task much simpler than others.
The Wilderness Systems paddles take adjustability to another level, with the additional feature of allowing paddlers to adjust the paddle length. The system employs a simple lever-lock mechanism that is adequately sized and easy for paddlers to use, even if their dexterity or hand strength is challenged. This system lets the user release a plunger washer that keeps the paddle pieces locked tightly together when tightened. The result is an adjustability performance that feels uncompromised and exceptionally secure.
Similarly, for an additional cost, you can upgrade most Aqua-Bound bound paddles to the Versa-Lok ferrule system, which also allows you to add up to 15cm onto the length of your paddle. Aqua-Bound's Posi-Lok ferrule (which we tested on the Sting Ray Carbon) is slightly cheaper but does not compromise on quality; we found this system one of the easiest to use when we had cold hands, and we also found it to perform consistently despite years of use.
The Perception Outlaw stood out in this metric due to its unique ability to convert to a SUP paddle. When considering how easy each paddle is to adjust, we also factor in how easy it is to dismantle, experimenting with cold hands and under pressure (in choppy, white cap conditions when we really did not want to capsize).
The Werner Kalliste, Skagit FG, and Camano use a Smart-View adjustment system for their paddle connection that 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 paddle's correct feather and right or left-handedness. This feature is helpful if you intend to share your paddle with other kayakers with different blade-angle preferences or expect to change the feather angle during paddling sessions. As with all of these, if you want this system to stay in tip-top shape, some basic maintenance is highly recommended.
At first glance, the conventional snap-button system (also called a push button) is obvious and easy to use. However, testers repeatedly found that this system quickly jams after repeated use in sandy conditions and therefore becomes difficult to adjust without help. In cold conditions, when you start to lose coordination and strength in your fingers, the snap-button systems can be exceptionally difficult to use. If you buy a paddle with this locking system, you will need to clean it out frequently.
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 mentioned above, which is considerably more secure and easy to operate. Based on our testing experience, spending just a little more is easily justifiable when this option is available.
Locking Mechanism Security
Having a two-piece paddle has benefits for transportation purposes, but it does cause a weak point in the shaft. Depending on the locking mechanism and how secure it feels, this may or may not impact the paddle's performance. The easiest adjustment systems to use also feel the most secure to paddle with. Good design can make a product user-friendly and improve performance.
When new, the joining mechanisms on the Aqua-Bound Sting Ray, Wilderness Systems Apex, and Wilderness Systems Pungo provided the most secure feel of all the paddles we tested. Under blind testing, paddlers identified all of these as one-piece paddles. No one noticed any rotational or horizontal give. The Aqua-Bound paddles maintained this high level of performance over time, but the Wilderness System's Leverlock became less effective as the paddle got used.
The Werner Kalliste, Skagit, and Camano also performed very well in this metric. Their Smart View internal locking mechanism provides a secure feel, with no rotational movement in the paddle while kayaking. We noticed that out of the water, a horizontal pull resulted in some give, but we hardly felt this when using the paddle in the water.
For its price point, the Perception Outlaw deserves mention, outperforming many more expensive paddles in this metric. Other paddles of a similar price point typically use a snap button system, which has a lot of give when paddling. And, after extensive use, snap button systems tend to become even less secure, resulting in reduced efficiency and an overall less enjoyable paddling experience. The system on the Outlaw is impressively solid.
At first, kayakers may not notice the impact of weight between paddles. However, once you are a mile into your journey, your arms will feel the extra weight. A lighter paddle also helps to maintain form and ward off fatigue. This further enhances overall performance, as paddlers can maximize the efficiency of each stroke. While lighter paddles are often more expensive, you might find it worth it if you plan to go on longer ventures or are prone to joint pain.
Those looking to enjoy extended journeys in their kayak will want to consider the lightweight Camano or Kalliste. These paddles are significantly lighter than others in this review fleet — but they are also more expensive. Heavier paddles tend to be more affordable, making them ideal for short, casual kayak tours when weight doesn't matter so much.
The Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon offers the best weight-to-value ratio in our lineup — it is considerably lighter than other paddles in a similar price bracket. Typically, heavier paddles are also more durable. However, the Sting Ray Carbon stands out for maintaining high durability and low weight.
Quality of Construction
While we can't use every product for years, we assess each paddle's wear and tear during testing to get a sense of its durability over time. In particular, we focus on the construction quality of the blades, where these join the shaft, and the ferrule between the two pieces of the paddle. Your paddle is useless if you can't assemble it or if the blades fall off.
The Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon is a top performer in this metric. The polished finish of the Posi-Lok's internal shaft isn't prone to collecting sand or grit and was consistently easy to use. The abX carbon-reinforced nylon blades withstood use in rocky and sandy conditions with no evidence of wear. Additionally, though the Smart View system used on the Werner Kalliste, Skagit, and Camano was not immune to jamming with sand or grit, we found that it withstood these conditions better than any snap button system and was easier to use with cold hands.
The kayak paddles with fiberglass-infused nylon and polypropylene blades fared well in our tests, showing how these materials can withstand quite a battering. Despite this durability, those with a snap-button system on the paddles' shaft received lower overall quality 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 a paddle's life. Those that invest a couple of hundred dollars in a paddle may also consider obtaining a travel bag, as it aids in the longevity of your purchase.
The Carlisle Magic Plus doesn't have an elite blade design but stands out for the durability of its materials and the resulting quality of construction. The fiberglass-reinforced blades are securely attached to the shaft, and this robust paddle can handle anything you throw at it. It's made of thicker plastic than almost all the other paddles we tested and is not easily susceptible to dings, scratches, or dents like those made of more fragile materials. Similarly, despite its slightly below-average blade design, we felt the Perception Outlaw was noteworthy for its robust construction, particularly given its price point.
We relished the opportunity to put these paddles to the test in a wide variety of conditions. Using paddles ranging in quality side by side is a stark reminder of how a good paddle can make a big difference in your kayaking experience. Despite testers having different paddling backgrounds and experience levels, we unanimously agreed on all our award winners for this review. If you want to hit the water in your recreational touring kayak, our write-up will help you select the very best paddle to suit your needs. See all our top-rated paddles for all your water sports needs.
If you love getting out on the water, check out our water gear list, which features paddling gear and more. We've field-tested the best PFDs, and we've also put several types of water vessels to the test, from the best kayaks to SUPs and more transportable options like the best inflatable SUPs and inflatable kayaks. Grab your favorite life jacket, be safe, and have fun!
— Sara James