Paddle vs. Oar: What Are the Differences?

Unsure about the differences between paddles and oars? Our guide covers their unique features, techniques, and uses in various watercraft.

Paddle vs Oar

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If you’re still trying to work out the difference between paddles and oars, don’t worry because you’re not alone. Plenty of beginner paddlers don’t know the difference. Even many experienced paddlers can’t explain what makes a paddle a paddle and an oar an oar. So instead, many paddlers use the words interchangeably.

If you’re only interested in the short answer: oars are used for rowing, while paddles are used for paddling. Oars also attach to the boat, and paddles don’t. 

However, there are also differences in the shape, purpose, technique, and the type of boat you would use it with. For anyone looking for a more detailed explanation, we’ve put together this guide to help resolve the paddle vs. oar discussion.

What is a Paddle?

Surftech Janitor FIB SUP/Kayak Paddle

Unlike an oar, a paddle can have one or two blades. Double-ended paddles – with a blade on either end of a shaft – are for kayaking. Meanwhile, single-ended paddles – one blade attached to the shaft with a handle at the opposite end – are for paddleboards, rafts, and canoes.

Also, unlike an oar, neither double-ended nor single-ended paddles are attached to the vessel. Instead, you hold the shaft with both hands and paddle on alternating sides. While using a paddle, you face the direction you want to travel and use a forward stroke to propel the vessel.

The key parts of any type of paddle include:

  • Paddle blade(s): The part that goes in the water. The blades have a power face – curved to catch the water on each stroke – and a back face – the opposite side of the paddle. The back face faces away from the paddler while the power face faces towards the paddler.
  • Grip: A place to hold onto the paddle. The grip is the t-shaped handle at the top of paddleboard and canoe paddles. On kayak paddles, a grippy material may be used on the shaft.
  • Shaft: A pole, usually made from aluminum or composite materials. It connects the blade to the grip on a single-ended paddle and the two paddle blades on a double-ended paddle.
  • Throat: The part that connects the shaft to the paddle blade.
  • Dip rings/drip guards: Rubber rings keep water from running down the shaft when the blades lift out of the water (common on kayak paddles).

What is an Oar?

Sawyer Square Top V-Lam Oar

Like a paddle, an oar will propel your boat, raft, or other vessels across the water. However, an oar rests in an oarlock which fixes it to the boat. You typically use an oar on wider vessels, such as rowing boats and sculls.

Additionally, the action of using an oar is rowing rather than paddling, and you face away from the direction you want to travel.

The key parts of an oar include:

  • Blade: The flat or spoon-shaped section at the end of the oar. This pushes against the water to move the boat.
  • Shaft/Loom: This connects the handle to the blade and makes up most of the oar’s length.
  • Handle: The part at the end of the shaft that you hold to operate the oar.
  • Sleeve: A durable material, usually plastic, rubber, or leather, that wraps around the top of the shaft. It cushions the shaft in the oarlock and prevents damage.
  • Collar/Button: A raised ring at the top of the sleeve. The collar keeps the oar from sliding out of the oarlock.

What Are the Differences Between Paddles and Oars?

Paddle vs Oar

There’s more separating oars and paddles than an oarlock. The blade shape, construction, and stroke technique also vary. Now that we’ve covered the basic features of paddles and oars, let’s dive into more specific differences. 

Boats They’re Used For

Both oars and paddles are suited to propelling small watercraft, but paddles are best for narrower vessels. For example, you would use a double-ended paddle for sit-inside or sit-on-top kayaks or a single-ended paddle for canoes, rafts, or paddleboards.

On the other hand, you would use a pair of oars for slightly wider vessels, such as sweep-oar boats, sculls, and rowing boats.

Technique and Muscles Used

Rowing and paddling might look like very similar motions; however, they require completely different techniques and a separate set of muscles.

  • Paddling propels a vessel by pulling the water towards you. Because you’re facing the direction of travel, most paddle strokes start at the vessel’s front and end when the paddle blade is in line with your body.

    When kayaking, paddle strokes start from your feet and end at your hip. The same applies to paddling a canoe, paddleboard, or raft. You would only start a paddle stroke from the back to reverse or assist a turn. Unlike an oar, you hold the paddle with both hands, and the pivoting action comes from your torso.

    Furthermore, while paddling a kayak, your legs help to stabilize and control the boat, but most of the power comes from your arms and torso – specifically your core muscles. Paddling uses a rotating upper body movement rather than the more visible forward-back rowing movement.
  • While rowing, you have one oar on either side of the boat. You only need one hand on each oar grip to propel a small boat or two hands when two rowers sit side-by-side in a larger vessel. Instead of paddling on alternating sides, you use both oars together to row on both sides unless turning.

    Unlike paddling, you sit facing the back of the vessel. Each stroke starts behind you and finishes in front of you. Because you can’t see where you’re going, rowing teams usually have a non-rowing team member called the coxswain. The coxswain sits in the stern seat facing the rowers. It’s the coxswain’s job to shout directions and instructions.

    Most of the oar is outside the boat when rowing, and the weight rests on the oarlock. Therefore, the rowing action requires a lot more movement. Rowers need to lean forwards, pivot the oar, and pull backward. Alternatively, modern rowing boats have sliding seats.

    Essentially, you propel a rowboat or scull by pushing the water. The action mainly works your leg, back, and arm muscles. Although it still activates your core to a degree.

Types of Water and Activity

Another key difference is the type of trip you would use a paddle vs. an oar. Because of the forward-facing paddling position, paddles are better suited to river running, recreational paddling, and exploring. 

For the same reason, paddle-operated vessels are practical for areas with a lot of water traffic. In contrast, oar-operated boats are better suited to large lakes and wide rivers, where you can paddle in a straight line over a longer distance.  

Blade Shape

Paddles and oars both offer a wide variety of blade shapes. That said, most oars have a type of flat blade that is much longer than a paddle blade. Meanwhile, paddle blades are often asymmetrical and curved, allowing the paddler to pull the water more efficiently. 


As we mentioned above, paddles don’t attach to the boat. You can use a paddle leash to stop your paddle and boat from separating after a capsize. But it doesn’t take any of the paddle’s weight or assist with the paddle technique. A paddle is independent of the boat.

Whereas an oar fits into an oarlock which takes most of its weight and contributes to the rowing technique.

Weight & Materials 

Paddles are usually lighter than oars. This is because the paddler needs to hold the entire weight while oars rest on an oarlock. For this reason, paddle shafts are made from lightweight materials such as aluminum, carbon fiber, and fiberglass.

Cheaper paddles tend to have plastic blades, while pricier models feature blades made with lightweight composite materials. Canoe paddles, which are much shorter and single-ended, might be made of hardwood or a combination of plastic and aluminum.

Traditional rowing oars are made from hardwood, and their length makes them much heavier. However, most modern oars use lightweight composite materials or aluminum.