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Kayaking Upstream – 15 Tips & Techniques You Need To Know

Kayaking in rivers is a special kind of fun. But how much fun you have depends on the direction and strength of the currents. If the currents are on your side (downstream currents), you are in for a good time as you achieve higher speeds and rule the waters. But what if you are kayaking upstream? Paddling against the currents is a special kind of challenge since hydraulic force can be quite powerful.

Even two paddlers in a tandem kayak may have a hard time kayaking downstream especially if the currents are very strong. Kayaking upstream can be very fun if you have the necessary knowledge/technique and are on a river current you can handle.

How Hard Is It To Paddle Upstream?

Paddling upstream is a lot of work as the hydraulic force of a river can require significant effort to overcome. But kayaking upstream is doable if you trust your paddling skills, understand basic river flow, and know how to identify sections of the river where the current isn’t very strong.

The key to paddling upstream is to avoid the center of the river where the currents are at their strongest. Instead, paddle closer to the edge of the river where the currents are weaker. Also, you should avoid currents that are too strong for your level of fitness. For starters, avoid currents that exceed 3.5 mph since that’s the speed that the average paddler is estimated to achieve.

General tips to paddle upstream

15 Tips And Techniques To Paddle Upstream

General Tips

Kayak upstream first, then downstream

I believe you can see why it makes sense for you to kayak upstream first and then downstream. Paddling upstream requires a lot of effort and it makes sense to tackle it when you are fresh and high on energy. You’ll be able to take on the currents more comfortably and your return trip will be a lot easier despite the fact that you’d be low on energy.

But paddling downstream is a lot easier than paddling upstream. Some new kayakers make the mistake of kayaking downstream first. Some of them think it’s best to save the most challenging part of their expedition for last. But this is counterproductive since they are going to expend some energy no matter how easy it was for them to paddle downstream.

This means they won’t be at their best on their return trip when they have to paddle upstream. And they end up pushing themselves more than necessary to get back to shore. If Lady Luck isn’t on their side and the wind also blows in their face, they may be unable to get back to shore.

Choose an adapted kayak

Choosing the right kayak is key to successfully paddling upstream. The best type of kayak for upstream kayaking is a long and narrow kayak that has a streamlined desire and is easy to maneuver. Easy maneuverability is key to paddling against the currents.

Shorter and wider vessels aren’t suitable for upstream kayaking. As you know, there are different types of kayaks, and choosing the right kayak for the particular water condition you are paddling on is important for an enjoyable kayaking experience.

Take a sports car for example. A sports car will perform excellently on smooth, well-paved roads. Go off-road and a sports car becomes useless.

Your fitness levels

You have to be in great shape to overcome strong currents. Be honest about your current fitness levels and don’t handle currents more powerful than you can handle. If you are new to kayaking, you can start by paddling on gentler currents and mastering your padding.

Once you feel very comfortable on gentle currents, you can take on more powerful rapids and work your way up to your limits.

Pack light

Kayaking upstream is a difficult endeavor and you shouldn’t make things more difficult for yourself by packing unnecessary gear. When paddling against the currents, you need your vessel to be as light as possible and only the most important kayak accessories should be onboard. Your kayak should also be made of lightweight material and designed for upstream navigation (narrow and long as I described above).

If you go for a heavy kayak, you may find yourself going nowhere as far as upstream kayak navigation is concerned.

kayaking upstream - reading the water

Reading The Water

Water conditions and the nature of the river also affect the ease of paddling upstream.

Check the river’s flow speed before starting

Kayaking is fun only if you are on a waterbody within the limit of your skill or capability. Before you go paddling, do some research about the river’s condition. Find out how fast the river flows as some rivers are difficult to navigate even when you are paddling downstream. Imagine how difficult it will be for a paddler to navigate upstream in such a river.

The good news is that most popular paddling destinations have their waterways rated based on their difficulty. The gentlest waterways are usually rated class A. Destinations that feature fast-moving rapids that are difficult to navigate rate their waterways from Class I to Class VI with Class I being the easiest and Class VI the most difficult. If you intend to paddle on a river that hasn’t been rated, you can talk to local paddlers to find out what to expect on the river.

The river’s edge is the easiest place to paddle

The currents at the edges of a river as a rule of thumb are usually weaker than those at the center. Staying close to the edge of a river is a smart and efficient way to kayak upstream. You’ll experience stronger currents the closer you are to the center line of the river which will require you to expend more energy. You’ll tire out quickly as a result and your kayaking experience may not be what you pictured before getting on the water.

Narrower river passages make paddling upstream harder

Water tends to flow faster in narrow sections of rivers since the river is bottled up in these sections. This increases water pressure making currents stronger and it’ll require considerable effort to paddle against the powerful hydraulic forces that operate in narrow river passages.

If you don’t have much experience paddling upstream, I’d advise you not to paddle on rivers that have narrow passages. You may find the currents stopping you dead in your tracks.

Eddies can provide a brief respite from strong river currents

Eddies have a significant impact on how easy or difficult it will be to paddle upstream. If you are not familiar with eddies, they are parts of a river where the currents have been disrupted and slowed down by a rock or any other obstruction.

Eddies can occur as natural blockages in the rivers such as a pile of tree branches or a rock/boulder. They could also be man-made blockages of which docks and buoys are examples. Natural bends along a river also act as eddies slowing the flow of a river.

Experienced kayakers use eddies to their advantage when paddling upstream to save time and energy.

Avoid V-shaped formations in the water

V-shaped formations are a big no-no. There are both upstream and downstream V formations and both should be avoided. An upstream V-formation results as a result of a boulder, rock, or any other obstacle that forces the water to flow faster over it.

On the other hand, a downstream V-formation can result due to the water being funneled past obstacles. Both upstream and downstream Vs result in faster-flowing conditions and you should stay away from them.

kayaking upstream - weather


Wind direction can be your closest ally or worst enemy

Beginner kayakers tend to worry about the strength of currents and forget about the wind. The wind alone can determine whether it’ll be possible for you to kayak upstream or not. Strong winds in your face can make it completely impossible to paddle upstream.

You’ll be stopped dead in your tracks and can’t go forward. On the other hand, strong winds at your back can make kayaking upstream easier as the wind propels you, allowing you to achieve stronger and more efficient strokes to overcome the hydraulic force.

Check the weather forecast

The best weather condition for kayaking, especially for a beginner is when the weather is warm and dry. But weather conditions can change when you are on the water so it’s important you check forecasts before taking a kayak trip. If the weather is expected to change later, you should consider rescheduling your trip.

As a beginner, you should avoid windy weather (which makes it difficult to maneuver, you could be blown off course), rain, and fog (which reduces visibility). Weather forecasts also tell you about recent thunderstorms and heavy rains that can make the river more difficult to navigate due to the deposition of debris like branches in the river.

A Fundamental Technique – Learn To Ferry

Paddling upstream requires proper paddling technique. A fundamental technique that’s necessary for upstream navigation is the ferrying technique which allows you to cross currents without losing your progress. Imagine you want to cross to the other side of the river, which is your destination when navigating upstream.

Simply pointing or directing your kayak to your desired destination won’t work and the current will instead pull you downstream making you lose your progress. The ferrying technique involves angling your kayak at about 45 degrees to the river currents and maintaining it.

Of course, mastering how to properly angle the kayak is the trickiest part as all you need to maintain your vessel at the proper angle is firm but smooth strokes.

Kayaking upstream - safety


Wear a PFD

You have no business being on the water without a PFD. Check your PFD and ensure it fits well. If you have to remove your PFD for any reason, paddle to shore first. You should never remove your PFD on the water.

Don’t set foot on a river with strong currents

Setting foot on a river with strong currents could result in your foot getting stuck in plants or rocks. The force of the river can also pull you in with your feet stuck and you could drown. Drowning takes less than one minute and is very quiet.

Weather forecasts also tell you about recent thunderstorms and heavy rains that can make the river more difficult to navigate due to the deposition of debris like branches in the river.

Stay away from strainers, obstacles, and V-shaped formations

Check out my article on how to avoid strainers. You should also avoid V-shaped formations due to the reasons previously discussed, and low-head dams.

why choose to kayak upstream

Why Would You Choose To Paddle Upstream?

We’ve already established that paddling upstream is a lot of work. But then, why do a lot of paddlers choose to navigate upstream? The main reason why paddlers navigate upstream is because of the challenge itself. Going against the force of the river gets their blood pumping which has several fitness benefits.

Your strength and muscles benefit from the effort it takes to go upstream. Your paddling technique also improves when you navigate upstream consistently and you become a better and more experienced paddler. Some paddlers aren’t necessarily concerned about the fitness benefits of kayaking upstream and only want the satisfaction of conquering the force of nature.

Knowing how to navigate upstream can also save you the cost of an outfitter shuttle to take you upstream especially if you are on a tight budget. Even if you want to pay for an outfitter shuttle, they are not available at all kayaking destinations.

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