Kayaker's Thumb: What it is and What to Do About it

Pain in your thumb while kayaking is a common experience that every kayaker experiences at least once. Because of this, paddlers have even given it a name: Kayaker’s thumb. But, if you’re kayaking a lot, you probably don’t want to deal with a lot of pain. So you may be wondering what causes kayaker’s thumb and what can I do about it?

Kayaker’s thumb is the name given to the common blisters that can form on the thumb after paddling. Sometimes, these blisters are normal for building up the strength of your hands. However, your paddling technique and choice of paddle may be making your kayaker’s thumb worse than normal. 

Below I’ll discuss what causes kayaker’s thumb and give you some helpful tips for improving grip technique and adding small additions to your paddle that can help improve and maybe even eliminate your kayaker’s thumb pain altogether. 

two women kayaking. One in orange kayak and one in blue kayak: image for kayakers thumb

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What Causes Kayaker's Thumb

Kayaker’s thumb is another name for the blisters that develop on your thumb due to kayaking. These blisters can develop anywhere on your thumb, and some people even develop them in the skin between their thumb and first finger. So, what causes those blisters?

Like all blisters, kayaker’s thumb is caused from excessive rubbing on the skin that forms an open wound. 

But, not everyone develops kayaker’s thumb – so, what’s the difference between those who develop the blisters and those who don’t? 

It’s their grip. 

If you’re holding the paddle too tightly, or you’re not holding the paddle with the right technique, you’re going to develop kayaker’s thumb. Wet paddles can also make this worse, so drip guards are important to use no matter where you’re paddling. 

That’s why we’ll discuss the changes you can make to your grip below so you can work to prevent these blisters from forming. 

How Can I Prevent Kayaker's Thumb?

If you’re experiencing kayakers thumb, then you’re probably looking for ways to prevent it from happening next time you paddle. No one wants to always experience thumb pain when kayaking, and that’s why it’s important to learn how to stop kayaker’s thumb so you can paddle pain free. 

The three ways of preventing kayakers thumb include changing your grip, adding accessories to your paddle, and if you can’t solve it through those methods, then you’ll need to invest in a new paddle. 

Let’s look into each of these individually so you can find the best solution that will work for you. 

1. Change Your Grip or Paddling Technique

If you’re kayaking and find yourself holding the paddle with a death grip, then that’s the first sign something is wrong. A kayak paddle should be held with a light grip, mostly with your thumb and first finger. 

This is because tight grips cause your wrist to bend, which isn’t good for paddling. Tight grips also lead to blisters, another thing we don’t want while paddling. 

When you’re holding the paddle you want your knuckles lined up with the edge of the kayak’s blade. If you’re using a feathered paddle (more on that below), then you’ll line up your knuckles with the right blade, while the left hand has a looser grip than the right. 

Another way to check your grip is to look at your wrist placement. The wrist should twist outward (but not bend), so your thumb is closer to you. This reduces pressure on the thumb and will help reduce the chance for blisters. 

If you’re developing kayaker’s thumb, try switching up the grip and see if that will reduce the pain and blisters. 

unclose image of man holding a paddle while kayaking. knuckle pavement is aligned with paddle to prevent kayakers thumb

2. Add Paddling Accessories to Your Paddle

If your grip is good, but you’re still experiencing kayakers thumb blisters, then it may be time to add some accessories to help you out. 

There are a multitude of add-ons you can add to your paddling routine, but not everything works for everyone. It’s a good idea to try a few of them in order to find one that works for you to eliminate the pain. 

  • Paddler's Wax

    Paddler's wax is actually designed for use on paddle boards. But, when applied to a paddle it can add some traction to the paddle and prevent your hands from sliding around. If your hands move less, then you're less likely to develop blisters from rubbing.

  • Gloves

    Kayaking gloves are specifically made to withstand the rigors of paddling. They're waterproof, allow you to grip the paddle better, and conform to your hand. Wearing form-fitting kayaking gloves can help prevent blisters by giving you a better grip and protecting your hands from the water and weather while kayaking.

  • Paddle Grips

    Paddle grips are small grips you slide onto your paddle to protect your hands from the paddle. They have the same benefit as the gloves, without the restrictiveness of wearing gloves (which some people don't like). These grips help repel water and give you a strong grip on the paddle to help reduce blisters.

  • Electrical Tape

    This is a bit of a non-traditional solution, but a technique that's often discussed on paddler forums. For this you wrap your paddle in electrical tape where your hands will sit, and this gives it a waterproof grip similar to that of paddle grips, but without the extra bulk.

All of these options will work for someone. It’s up to you to try them and determine which one (or which combination) works best for you to relieve your kayakers thumb pain. 

3. Get a Different Paddle

Getting a new paddle is a last-ditch solution after trying new grips and paddle add-ons. Kayaking paddles can be expensive, and investing in a new one should only be done if you think it’s the only way to prevent kayakers thumb. 

There are many different types of paddles, and everyone has their own preference depending on where they like to kayak, the size of their yak, and their own height. 

Choosing the right paddle for you is it’s own article, as it’s quite a lengthy topic. But, for reducing kayakers thumb pain you may want to consider the following options: 

Bent Shaft vs. Straight Shaft Paddle

Most new kayakers will have a straight shaft paddle. They’re more affordable and require less technique than the bent shaft paddles, so most newbies will choose them over other types.

But, if you’re experiencing paddling pain because of kayakers thumb or because of your wrist, a bent shaft paddle may be for you.  

Due to it’s shape, a bent shaft paddle (sometimes called a crank shaft paddle) helps kayakers find the proper hand placement and places your wrist a more natural position. This will allow your stroke to be more efficient and put less pressure on your wrist. In turn, this is going to reduce the pressure you may feel to grip the paddle too tightly, thus reducing blisters. 

Although the grip is slightly different for bent-shaft paddles, when you learn it you may find that the switch really helps reduce paddling pain in your hands. 

Feathered vs. Non-Feathered Paddles

Feathering describes the angle of your kayak blades. Some paddles are created feathered, but others have the option to turn a non-feathered kayak to a feathered one. 

Feathering again is all about wrist positioning, which if aligned correctly can reduce the pressure on your hands and potentially reduce blistering. It also helps you kayak in windy conditions or in high-angling paddling. A common degree of feathering is 60 degrees, but if you have a paddle that can change into multiple degrees try them all out and see which you like best. 

If you’re not sure which paddle to try out, head to your local REI. Some local REIs allow you to rent paddles for an affordable price so you can try out all the different options and find one that works for you. 

Kayaker’s Thumb is never fun to experience, especially if you’re new to kayaking. Hopefully you’ve learned some helpful tips and tricks to get you paddling again pain free!

For other tips like these check out our kayaking tips page so you can be even more confident getting on the water. 

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