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Choosing the Best Adjustable SUP Paddle

The KIAOLA model  on the far left  is the only non-adjustable model in the fleet. All of the other six paddles have an adjustment mechanism
Friday July 6, 2018

So you bought a stand-up paddleboard, but now you need a paddle. Which one should you buy? With all the options on the market, it can be overwhelming to decide. Blades and shafts are constructed from many different materials and come in different sizes and shapes. There are also different types of adjustment systems and locking mechanisms. Plus, what is the difference between a $30 paddle and one that sells for $300? We tested seven adjustable paddles this summer to gain insight. You can find their reviews here here.

First, figure out what your desired height and price range are and then decide what construction materials will be best for your wallet and your body. Lastly, take some time when deciding which adjustment/locking mechanism will work for you. We walk you through it below.

Selecting the Right Product


Before you purchase a SUP paddle, you need to determine the right size paddle for you. As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to use the paddle for surfing or in whitewater, you should add 4" to 8" to your height. If you're going to be touring or paddling for fitness or yoga, you should add 6" to 10" to your height to determine the right length for your paddle.

A good resource is available from KIALOA, which will allow you to identify factors to consider when determining a more exact size paddle length. Things like posture, paddling style, shoulder and arm size, strength, board size and average water conditions can all affect which product is right for you.

Sides of the blade.
Sides of the blade.

Next, it is important to understand the geometry of SUP paddles. Each model has two faces: a power face and a non-power face. The power face is the scooped side of the blade that does the pulling. It should be facing your body when you are paddling. If the blade has an arc, the rounded part of the arc should be facing away from your legs. If the blade has a dihedral groove, the pointiest part of the groove should be facing your legs.

The non-power face or the back face is the side of the paddle that faces away from you, and it is responsible for pushing and powering the reverse stroke. It is also the least pointy side of a blade that has a dihedral groove and the most rounded part of the blade if it has an arc shape.

Paddle Shafts


Paddle blades can be colorful and flashy, but the staff connecting it to your hands is important too.

Materials


Paddle shafts are constructed from a variety of materials, and each has its pros and cons. Most common paddle shafts (and the models we tested) are constructed from aluminum, fiberglass or carbon. They can also be made from Kevlar. Aluminum paddles are the least expensive, the heaviest and don't have a lot of flex, so they can be harder on your muscles and joints.

Fiberglass or carbon wrapped fiberglass composite shafts are lighter than aluminum, have a nice soft flex and aren't too hard on your pocketbook. Carbon constructions were the lightest models we tested. They have the most flex and a very nice feel to them but they are not cheap. If you're purchasing a product for surfing, you will want it to have a bit of flex so it's easier on your muscles and elbows. Kevlar has more flex than carbon and can reduce wear and tear on your body.
  • Carbon — Both the Aqua-Bound Challenge and the Werner Trance are built with a carbon shaft. These shafts are sleek, comfortable and smooth.
  • Fiberglass — Fiberglass shafts are marginally heavier than carbon while maintaining the same sleek, comfortable feel and adding durability. The KIALOA Makai, Werner Vibe, and NRS Rush represent the fiberglass shaft in this year's test.
  • Aluminum — Aluminum shafts feel and sound like metal and get both hot and cold easily. They are also more durable, but also heavier. The BPS, Super Paddle, and Own the Wave models are made from aluminum.

Shape


There are a variety of shaft shapes, each is optimized for a different situation.
  • Straight — A straight shaft paddle can be adjustable or non-adjustable (which is also called "fixed"). All of the paddles we tested have straight shafts, none are fixed.
  • Bent — A bend in the shaft adds a leverage point to increase comfort (especially in the wrist), control and cadence. None of the paddles in this review featured this construction.
  • Travel — A travel paddle breaks down into three smaller pieces, allowing it to easily fit in your car or as a piece of checked luggage. The Super Paddle and iGK models are all travel paddles.

Pros and Cons of Adjustable vs. Fixed Length Paddles


There are many nice things about adjustable paddles. You can share them with your friends and family, which makes them a great option for families with paddlers of different heights. They're also a good choice if you are new to paddleboarding and not certain what length paddle you are most comfortable with. If you prefer a shorter length for choppy weather or surf paddling but a longer length for casual touring, you can do that with an adjustable model. Also, adjustable paddles are much easier to transport. All those things support having an adjustable paddle.

So what are the downsides of this kind of paddle? Adjustment systems increase paddle weight and often wear out. Once the clamping mechanism wears out, the paddle will no longer lock in at the intended length.

Paddle Blades


In this review, we tested several different kinds of blade shapes and sizes, here's a summary of what you need to know.

Material


The paddles we tested have blades constructed from carbon, nylon or polycarbonate and fiberglass. Carbon is a common material that is light and cuts through water softly, but carbon paddles can be expensive. Nylon blades are a little more sluggish cutting through the water, but they cost less and are virtually indestructible. You don't have to worry about nicks, dings or scratches. Fiberglass blades are strong, light and cut through the surface of the water cleanly and easily, but they are relatively thin and can get nicked easily. Fiberglass models are usually priced reasonably. Carbon models are generally the most expensive but also the lightest.

Size


Blades generally come in a large ( ~ 91 sq in.) or small ( ~ 83 sq in.) size and either a teardrop or rectangular blade shape. Long rectangular blade designs are known to have a more gentle catch that is easier on the body.

Offset


While researching the many types of paddles available, you might stumble across something called the
blade-to-shaft offset. This keeps the blade in a vertical position and in the power position longer, which increases paddling efficiency. The angle to which the blade is offset can vary between manufacturers. In our review, the Aqua-Bound and Werner models have the most offset, followed by the BPS and Own the Wave models. The iGK and Super Paddle products have the least offset.

Dihedral


A blade dihedral is a vertical ridge running down the length
Diagram showing a blade dihedral. It is the vertical ridge running down the length of the blade on the power face.
of the blade on the power face. It forces the water off of the blade evenly for smoother paddling.

Sizing



Shaft


As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to use your paddle for surfing or whitewater, you should add 6" to 10" to your height. If you're going to be doing yoga, touring or just paddling for fitness, add 6" to 10".

Adjustable paddles have different height adjustment ranges. The models we tested have anywhere from 8" to 18" of range. Make sure that the paddle you buy can be adjusted to a range of 6" to 10" taller than your height. If you will be surfing or racing, you'll want a shorter length than if you are going to be touring or doing yoga.

Keep in mind that there is no exact sizing; it all depends on personal preference. So get out there and try some different adjustments to determine the best height for you. Also, note that some companies offer paddles with smaller handles and slimmer shaft diameters.

Diagram demonstrating the three pieces of a travel SUP paddle.
Diagram demonstrating the three pieces of a travel SUP paddle.

Blade


Blades generally come in small, medium and large/full sizes. Small blades are for smaller persons, medium blades will do well for those of an average build, and a large blade is meant for those who are larger and well conditioned. The larger you are, the larger blade you should handle. Keep in mind that the larger the blade, the heavier the paddle will be but the more forward motion you will achieve. The smaller the blade, the easier it will be on your joints. These shorter blades also enable you to paddle with a quicker cadence.

Blade shape can be long and rectangular or rounded and more teardrop shaped. A long, slender rectangular shaped blade may have a softer feel and be easier on the body and joints, but a wider blade can put more power into your stroke, especially if you tend to paddle at a slower cadence.


If the blade is canted or has an offset, make sure to face the canted side or the non-power face forward. A canted blade or paddle that has a blade-to-shaft offset enables you to get the most energy from your paddle and blade when it is in the power part of your stroke. This can help you conserve energy.

Diagram showing a blade dihedral. It is the vertical ridge running down the length of the blade on the power face.
Diagram showing a blade dihedral. It is the vertical ridge running down the length of the blade on the power face.

A blade that has a dihedral scoop or ridge running down the length of the blade pushes water off the blade evenly on both sides and can help the blade travel through the water more smoothly.

Locking/Adjustment Mechanism


The Lever Lock adjustment system of the Super Paddle
The Lever Lock adjustment system of the Super Paddle

LeverLock


This system uses a locking mechanism that is a handle-like device, which allows for super quick adjustments. You simply lift up on the handle, which releases the tension on the blade, allowing you to adjust. The handle itself is flush with the handle of the paddle, which makes this locking mechanism extremely low-profile. Additionally, this mechanism has no visible screws and does not need to be tightened out of the box.

The LeverLock locking mechanism of the Kialoa Makai.
The LeverLock locking mechanism of the Kialoa Makai.

Family Adjustable


With the Family Adjustable, you pull the lever up, and it releases the tension, allowing you to move the handle up and down for adjustment. After you adjust your paddle to the desired length, you need to make sure that the blade is aligned with the handle grip. This system is nice because it usually has a straight line on one end of the shaft and an arrow on the other, making it easy to line up the handle with the blade. But note that there are moving parts to this system that could eventually break, and the measurement and line and arrow printing could eventually wear off.

The TwinPin adjustment of the Own the Wave
The TwinPin adjustment of the Own the Wave

TwinPin / Collar Clamp


To adjust the TwinPin, pull the collar out that releases the adjustment pin so you can adjust the length. This system is nice because you don't have to worry about aligning the handle with the blade after you adjust the height. The downsides are that it can be heavy and it's hard to see where the pin is going, which can cause scratching to the paint on the shaft.

Performance adjustment systems. The Aqua-Bound paddle is the top one in the photo.
Performance adjustment systems. The Aqua-Bound paddle is the top one in the photo.

Performance Adjustable


With this system, simply push in the stainless steel pin and move the handle end to your desired height. This simple system is easy to use, automatically lines up the handle with the blade and is lightweight.

Conclusion


In summation, there are tons of configurations out there, and we know it can get confusing. If you're getting overwhelmed, just go back to the basics. Generally, beginners benefit from a paddle that is their height plus nine inches. So if you're 5'9", you should have a paddle that is about 6'6". And for beginners, think about a stronger construction (like fiberglass) with a blade size that correlates to your size (a larger paddler should go for a blade with more surface area). Remember that onshore isn't the only time you will be adjusting your paddle. When you're on the river about to hit some rapids or running into some foul weather on the lake, you need to be able to adjust your paddle quickly and easily. Have fun and safe paddling!


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