Along with your boat and life jacket, your paddle is one of the “big three” pieces of equipment that will determine your experience on the water. Solo packrafts are almost exclusively paddled with double-bladed kayak-style paddles. Packrafting paddles are often characterized by a high degree of packability, light weight, and reliability for paddling in remote locations. The ideal paddle is dependent on packraft type, conditions, user, and user preferences.
What is a “Packrafting Paddle?”
Some paddlers and writers have attempted to carve out a definitional niche for what counts as a “packraft paddle.” These definitions often demand that the paddle can be broken down into four pieces: two separable shaft segments and separable paddle blades. This makes the paddle easy to pack into an overnight pack without any protruding pieces. Some definitions of what makes a “packraft paddle” also include stipulations for weight, durability, and/or paddle length.
At the end of the day, though, there’s really no such thing as a “packraft paddle.” The vast majority of “packraft paddles” are borrowed from river or ocean kayaking lines from popular paddle manufacturers. The best paddle for you will depend on who you are and how you plan to use it. For example, if you are a running bony Class IV rapids in an Alpacalypse you may want a stiff, powerful whitewater paddle with large blades. If you want to hike twenty miles and mosey across the toe of a mountain lake in a Supai Flatwater, you may be able to get by with featherweight carbon blades that attach to your trekking poles.
One, two, three, four…
The first decision you’ll likely make is whether you want a one-piece, two-piece, or four-piece packraft paddle. Four-piece paddles have detachable paddle blades and a shaft that separates into two pieces in the middle. Three-piece paddles usually have removable blades and a solid shaft. Two-piece paddles generally separate in the middle, and a one-piece paddle will have no separation points. Many popular paddles come in one, two, three, or four-piece configurations, and some expensive paddles (such as those from Werner) can be custom-ordered in different configurations.
A four-piece paddle will be easy to pack completely inside a backpacking backpack and is an obvious first choice for most packrafters. Four-piece paddles are much easier to fly with than other configurations, since the sections can be well-protected inside checkable bags. However, designing a paddle to break into multiple sections does entail some structural compromises. The hardware to make the sections attach tightly adds weight, which is especially important at the ends of the paddle. Attachment points and hardware are subject to wear from sand, water, and grit, and most joints will develop some amount of play over time. Generally speaking, a single-piece paddle may feel slightly more solid, weigh less than, and will likely outlast an equivalently-designed four-piece paddle. However, packing a single-piece paddle on a backpack is ridiculous, and carrying one through heavy brush would be a nightmare.
For many paddlers and trips, a two-piece paddle may be a worthwhile compromise between the packability of a four-piece paddle and the lightness and durability of a one-piece. Two-piece paddles will keep added weight from an attachment point away from the blades, and will be easy to carry on a backpack in most conditions (except for heavy brush). Many high-end paddles, especially those oriented toward sea kayaking, are only available in one or two-piece configurations, and two-piece options are much more plentiful than four-piece.
I generally avoid three-piece paddles for packrafting because they tend to combine the worst attributes of other paddle configurations. The one-piece shaft is long and awkward to pack, and the attachment points at the paddle blades are located exactly where you don’t want added weight and wear.
Whatever configuration you choose, remember to always fully separate your paddle to dry after use. Water left between paddle segments can corrode metal attachment parts and cause fiberglass to swell, making the joint very difficult to separate later.
There are a nearly infinite number of paddle blade shapes, from the svelte traditional Greenland paddle to stubby computer-optimized whitewater paddles, but most designs fall into one of two broad categories: low-angle paddles and high-angle paddles.
High-angle paddles tend to have shorter shafts that require a more vertical stroke. Their large blades maximize power and prevent the paddle from snagging on obstacles. High-angle designs are generally preferred by powerful paddlers in challenging water–think whitewater kayaker maneuvering around rocks in a Class III canyon–and are correspondingly often built tougher in order to handle collisions with obstacles. The vast majority of paddles marketed as “packraft paddles” fall into the high-angle category. These paddles are a good starting point because they provide the durability and power to run rapids or scrape against rocks in shallow creeks, while also working reasonably well for slow-moving river and lakes.
Low-angle paddles tend to have long shafts and long, thin blades that encourage a sweeping stroke. Low-angle paddles require less upper-body motion than a high-angle paddle, so they are preferred by sea kayakers putting in long days on relatively calm water. Because low-angle paddles prioritize efficiency over power, they tend to be built from lightweight materials that aren’t designed to encounter many obstacles. Though low-angle paddles are rarely marketed to packrafters, they are a great choice for those who primarily spend their time on lakes or gentle rivers. Low-angle touring paddles are often harder to find in four-piece configurations and are not designed to be roughhoused in creeks. But they will more than make up for their deficiencies on flatwater with their feathery weight and efficient stroke.
Packrafts are almost always wider than both river kayaks and sea kayaks, so the ideal paddles for packrafting tend to be longer so they can clear the tubes. Alpacka recommends a 210mm paddle for general/creeking use, and my experience is that this is spot on for most people, most of the time. For whitewater and creeking a slightly shorter (190-205mm) paddle may be ideal since it will make it easier to drive the paddle vertically, and avoid obstacles. For flatwater a longer low-angle paddle (220-230mm) will provide more leverage and comfort because the additional length allows you to keep the paddle at a shallower angle. Don’t go too long though. Packrafts don’t have a keel, and the wide, sweeping stroke from a long paddle will make it harder to stay pointed straight.
A small number of paddles–most notably the Werner/Alpacka collaboration “Pack-Tour M” paddle–allow a paddler to adjust shaft length.
Powerful paddlers may tend to prefer larger, longer paddles, while smaller paddles may prefer smaller paddles.
Mid- to high-end paddles are made out of composite materials, including fiberglass, nylon, and/or carbon fiber. It can be difficult or impossible to determine the exact proportion of materials in a paddle, especially due to vague or misleading marketing. For example, carbon fiber is exceptionally light and stiff (and expensive), and high-end paddles may be labeled “100% carbon” or “100% carbon shaft”. However, this only refers to the fabric underlying the composite and not to the resin that saturates the fabric and makes up the bulk of the finished product. Any material can be engineered toward light weight, durability, or any other goal. Design, construction quality, and material quality are much more important than the name of the material in marketing copy. Each paddle should be evaluated on its individual merits.
The only material to avoid in paddles categorically is metal, which is heavy and conducts heat away from your hands. Avoid cheap paddles from stores like Sportsman’s Warehouse or WalMart–these “oversized spatulas” are heavy, flexy, and unreliable.
“So what’s the best all-around packraft paddle?”
As discussed above the answer depends on your strength, paddling style, boat, and other factors. However, most people will be well-served by adhering to a few starting guidelines: look for a four-piece high-angle composite paddle of approximately 210cm. A paddle in this range will be packable, light, and of an appropriate length for most creeking and flatwater. As of this writing, the Manta Ray Fiberglass (4-piece) paddle dominates this niche, and my anecdotal experience is that at least half of the packrafts on the water today are being driven by this yellow-orange workhorse. The Manta Ray is also available in a more expensive carbon fiber variant. Werner makes excellent four-piece all-around/whitewater paddles, including the Shuna and Sherpa.
For flatwater and big, wide rivers I am very happy with the Werner Camano at 220cm.
As you gain more experience paddling, try using as many paddles as you can. You might be surprised by how well (or how poorly) some paddles perfrom with your boat and paddling style. Over time you’ll figure out exactly what paddle is best for you.