Several factors come into play when choosing the proper paddle for your canoe, kayak or other paddle craft. Length, type of stroke you prefer and what blade dimensions (length, width, shape), weight, and even “feel” all play a role in selecting a paddle best suited to your style.
A critical starting point for developing your own padding style, is to learn and incorporate proper posture and procedure into your paddling routine. For kayakers, that includes incorporating torso twist when paddling using various body contact points and proper posture. Similarly for canoers, it means a well-positioned and executed paddle stroke from different positions in the canoe. Once you have developed an efficient paddling style, you can better determine which paddle attributes enable you to get the most out of your paddle - and your boat.
Nothing beats an actual on-water paddle test in your own boat or one with the same characteristics. Demo days are an excellent way to test different paddles to determine which combination of parameters (length, weight, etc.) work best.
For kayak paddles, a general land-based “proper length” determination is to stand with your hand raised high above your head (like you want to be called upon to answer a question) and casually wrap your extended fingers down over the tip of the paddle perpendicular with the other tip on the ground. If your elbow is obviously bent or you have to stretch to even tickle the top edge of the blade with your fingertips, you’ve got the wrong length paddle. The width of your kayak and whether you prefer a low-angle entry or a high-angle entry when paddling will also determine the proper length and reach of your paddle.
Canoers can assume a paddling position in the boat and hold the paddle vertically alongside the gunwales. The distance from your nose to the waterline should equal the distance of the shaft between the grip and the throat where the shaft meets the blade. On land, kneel with your butt about six inches above the ground, hold the paddle vertically with the grip touching the ground. The throat of the paddle shaft should be in line with the area between your chin and your nose.
Here are some of the many factors to consider when selecting the proper paddle for your canoe or kayak: