The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

How We Tested SUP Paddles

Wednesday May 27, 2020
A few of our many SUP test subjects from over the years.
A few of our many SUP test subjects from over the years.

To find out which stand up paddleboard paddle is truly the best of the best, we looked at dozens and dozens of different products then bought all the most promising paddles on the market and tested them side-by-side in our quest to find the best. We spent months comparing and scoring each of the products, testing them out in lakes, rivers, ponds, and any other body of water we could get a board in. We enlisted a panel of judges to rate not only the performance of each paddle but also their ease of adjustment and overall aesthetics. We divided up all the tests into five weighted rating metrics for each SUP paddle and scored their performance in each. After that, it was easy to see which paddles came out on top and which got swept away by the competition.

Performance


First and foremost, we ranked and scored how each of these paddles performed on the water. This is our most significant metric, and we tested this by — you guessed it — paddling with each paddle. A lot. We took these paddles all over, trying them out with different paddleboards and in different weather and water conditions, ranging from mirror-like to rough and wavy. We also had paddlers of all sorts of body types and skill levels take each paddle for a spin and aggregated their opinions when determining the final score. Specifically, we scored each SUP paddle on four things: paddle catch, power stroke, exit, and recovery.

As an assortment of different blade shapes and types.
As an assortment of different blade shapes and types.

Paddle Catch


When scoring how well each paddle caught the water, we were looking for paddles that cleanly and smoothly enter the water and set you up well for the power stroke. This is primarily dependent on the type and shape of the blade, whether it is a teardrop, scooped, or rectangular paddle and if it is flat, concave, or dihedral.

The shaft of the BPS tends to flex quite a bit when paddling hard.
The shaft of the BPS tends to flex quite a bit when paddling hard.

Power Stroke


This is the portion of your paddle stroke that actually propels you forward. We were looking for paddles that were stable while you pulled them through the water and efficiently transferred your energy into forward motion. We also scored paddles based on the amount of flutter they have, with less flutter scoring higher. Flutter is when the water shedding from the side of the paddle blade creates vortices and causes the blade to oscillate and shake as you pull it through the water, wasting energy and slowing you down.

The scooped blade of the Vibe easily catches the water.
The scooped blade of the Vibe easily catches the water.

Exit


How a paddle exits the water is probably the hardest part of paddling performance to judge, as there usually aren't marked differences between paddles. We awarded the most points to paddles that exited the water cleanly without a lot of excess splashing and didn't do anything weird to knock you off course.

We did like the blade shape of the BPS  with its scooped dihedral design catching the water easily and effectively.
We did like the blade shape of the BPS, with its scooped dihedral design catching the water easily and effectively.

Recovery


Recovery is the final aspect that we graded each paddle on. This is the part of the paddle stroke that is out of the water as you get set up for the next catch. The performance here is largely dependent on the weight and balance of each paddle, as well as the ergonomics of the grip. Ideal paddles are balanced in a way that they feel practically weightless but have enough heft in the blade to create momentum and help create an even cadence while paddling. When it came to the handle, we scored paddles that provide both a comfortable and secure grip the highest and deducted points from products that caused our hands to hurt or caused us to almost drop the paddle when switching hands or paddling intensely.

Weight


Our second metric focused on how much each of these adjustable SUP paddles weighs. While the pound and a half or so between the lightest and heaviest models might not seem like that much, you start to notice a difference during marathon paddling adventures. We awarded points almost exclusively on weight but we did take note if some of the heavier paddles are so well balanced that they conceal their bulk.

Ease of Adjustment


Next, we compared and scored how easy to adjust the length of each paddle is. In this metric, we looked at the overall difficulty of adjustment. However, we did exclude the locking mechanism's performance in this metric, as our subsequent metric is devoted entirely to that. Paddles that performed well are easy to slide and have graduations for the different heights for easy visual reference. The best paddles are so simple to adjust in length that you can easily do it on the water in even choppy conditions without issue, allowing you to fine-tune the length of your SUP paddle to match the current conditions.

Here are the inner workings of the Werner Trance LeverLock system.
The LeverLock adjustment system is straightforward.

Locking Mechanism


As mentioned above, we devoted an entire metric to the performance of the locking mechanism of each paddle, as it is such an integral part of each product. Our favorite locking mechanisms are ones that don't take a ton of effort to engage or release yet still hold the paddle shaft securely at the desired length. In general, adjustable SUP paddles use the LeverLock system, the TwinPin or push-button system, or a locking cam lever on the paddle's shaft.

The TwinPin collar in action.
The TwinPin collar in action.

Of these, we found the LeverLock to be the best, followed by pin or push-buttons, and then the locking lever on the shaft. The main reason the shaft locking lever scores the lowest is the need for a screwdriver to adjust the clamping pressure.

The less loved version of a "LeverLock" system.
The less loved version of a "LeverLock" system.

You should only have to do it once but we have had them loosen up on us on the water and nothing can ruin a day of SUPping faster than having a paddle that won't stay together.

SUP paddles- testing the Werner Trance 95  the Werner Vibe  the Bending Branches Balance 85  and the KIALOA Insanity.
SUP paddles- testing the Werner Trance 95, the Werner Vibe, the Bending Branches Balance 85, and the KIALOA Insanity.

Aesthetics


Finally, our last testing metric focused on how each board looked. While this is a subjective metric and doesn't necessarily correspond to how a paddle performed, we did find that we wanted to paddle more with the more stylish paddles. This metric only makes up a small fraction of each product's final score and you can discount it entirely if you don't care at all about style.

The Rush  Werner Vibe  and Kialoa Makai from left to right. Each has a slightly different blade design  and as a result  each performs differently.
The Rush, Werner Vibe, and Kialoa Makai from left to right. Each has a slightly different blade design, and as a result, each performs differently.

To score this, we had a panel of judges rate each paddle and then aggregated their results. In general, paddles with wood veneer scored highest, followed by composite models with appealing graphics or patterns, and completely plain paddles in muted colors bringing up the rear.