Kayaking Upstream – A How-To Guide & Tips For Paddling Against The Current

Launching your kayak into moving waters can be a blast, especially when you have the current on your side.

But what if you decide to go against the flow?

What are your chances against the sheer and, at times, flat-out scary power of moving waters?

I’ll be honest:

When it comes to kayaking upstream, you’re in for a challenge. And the second you start to hesitate, rivers can – and will – treat your ‘yak like a rag doll.

So, before jumping straight into the turmoil, check out this guide – because, yes, there’s an efficient way to paddle upstream!

Kayaking Upstream: Can You Paddle Upstream & How Hard Can It Be? 

women in red helmet upstream paddling in a orange kayak

Kayaking upstream is a lot – and I mean a lot – of work. Anyone who’s fought the current and went against the flow can confirm it. And I wouldn’t dare to suggest otherwise.

But – there’s always a “but” – while paddling upstream will undoubtedly push you to your limits, the truth is, it’s not impossible.

You have to trust your paddling abilities, understand what you’re getting yourself into, and read the waters, though, which brings me to my next point:

How do you know if you’re ready to tackle the currents head-on and kayak upstream? What are your chances of success? 

And, most importantly, are there any factors that might make the endeavor easier?

Counter Current Kayaking 101, Ep. 1 Intro

To answer your question, here are a few pointers on what to consider when you’re kayaking upstream:

  • With all its landforms and features, the river’s system – including the source and tributaries, steep, V-shaped valleys, waterfalls, rapids, gorges – will be a significant factor. “Bottlenecks,” or narrow sections of the river that may “concentrate” the current, are to be avoided. Likewise, objects or an obstacle in the river will cause the water to flow around them at a different rate, often faster, so care needs to be taken when navigating these.
  • Water conditions, mainly the river’s speed, is the single most crucial factor for someone kayaking upstream. A river’s velocity can be affected by the channel’s shape, the volume of water flowing through it, and the steepness of the slope. The speed varies along the river’s course and can get up to 7 miles per hour, especially in the upper reaches.
  • Strong winds can have a drastic effect on paddlers; the wind’s direction alone can make or break your outing and shouldn’t be overlooked. The force of currents and wind working together can be more than you can handle. But with strong winds at your back, paddling upstream might not be that hard.
  • Your fitness level and paddling skills have to match the occasion. Countercurrent kayaking makes one heck of an upper-body workout and can help you perfect your technique, provided that you already know the basics. Be realistic about your abilities and physical strength, and get used to gentler currents before entering more demanding waters.
  • Get the right type of kayak for river-running; it will make things a whole lot easier. You want a sturdy but agile, easily maneuverable, turn-on-a-dime kayak that falls on the shorter side, measuring 8 to 10 feet in length on average.

How To Kayak Upstream: Tips & Tricks For Going Against The Currents

upstream and downstream kayaking in red play boat

Outfitter Shuttle – The Easy Way Out 

Many people will forgo the need for upstream paddling, against a strong river current, by opting to use an outfitter shuttle service to ferry their kayak or canoe back to the starting point. Although this is a great option, especially if you’re on a time sensitive paddling trip or the water flow isn’t favorable, it’s not always possible as these services typically only exist in touristy areas. 

So, you will need to take on the challenges of mastering both upstream and downstream paddling – let me explain how.

Advice #1: Plan Your Paddling Trip Route & Read The Water

Do some research on the particular stretch you’ll be paddling, understand how the water flows and figure out where – and if – you’ll be able to take breaks. You’re going to need them.

Now, the thing with kayaking upstream is that the moment you stop to catch your breath is the moment you start drifting backward.

Eddies will be your best friend in that regard:

An eddy is a portion of the river where a rock – or any other obstruction – interrupts the current’s flow. The current in an eddy generally flows in the opposite direction. It may even appear as if the water isn’t moving at all. 

How to Kayak - What is an Eddy

That’s what makes eddies such an appealing resting spot for those who are making their way down whitewater rapids – or, in your case, kayaking upstream.

Keep in mind that eddy lines, where opposing currents meet, can be hard to cross; be careful when “peeling” in and out of them.

Whitewater Peel Out Stokes and Concepts

Advice #2: Learn How To Ferry & Cross The Current Without Losing Progress

As harsh as this might sound, you have no business trying to paddle upstream without proper paddling technique and experience.

One such skill that a beginner kayaker might not possess is crossing the current without drifting too far down. Ferrying is a fundamental river-running skill – and a crucial one for kayaking upstream. 

The Kayak Ferry - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

You can’t “point” your ‘yak to the desired destination on the other side of the river and paddle to it; the current will pull you downstream. Instead, you’ll have to angle your kayak – typically at about 45 degrees to the current – and maintain it.

The key to success can be summed up in a few “simple” steps:

  • Setting a proper angle and maintaining it
  • Being in control when breaking the eddy line
  • Holding a steady edge as you ferry across
  • Maintaining momentum with firm but smooth strokes
  • Switching edges as you break through the opposite eddy line 

Advice #3: Pack Light To Shed Some Pounds

This one should be a no-brainer. Kayaking against moving water won’t exactly be a walk in the park. It’s strenuous enough as is; don’t make things any harder

One way to ensure that is to pack light.

If it doesn’t count as essential boating equipment, you likely won’t need it – and you might want to leave it at home.

And it goes without saying, make sure your kayak is made of lightweight material and designed for river running – trying to travel upstream in a heavy fishing ‘yak is the slow road to nowhere.

If upstream paddling is going to be a regular pursuit then I suggest investing in a good quality river kayak – it will make the world of difference.

Advice #4: Check The Weather Report 

Strong winds can be your best friend – or your worst enemy – when you’re kayaking upstream. It all depends on the direction of the wind and whether it’s working with or against you.

That’s not the only reason to check the weather forecast, though.

Besides knowing the weather conditions on the actual day of the trip, you want to check what it was like a few days before, too. That’s because heavy downpours and storms usually bring about large amounts of debris and potential obstructions in the river.

And obstacles such as hidden tree trunks can spell disaster when kayaking – upstream or not. 

Advice #5: Stay Near The Edge & Paddle In “Weaker” Current

women in white helmet upstream kayaking in pink river boat

Making any upstream progress generally depends on conserving your energy and sticking it out. 

It’s okay to choose your battles and take the easy route sometimes.

As a rule of thumb, currents tend to be “weaker” at the edges than toward the river’s center. So, it makes sense to stay as close to the river’s edge as you can, as this allows you to maintain your pace and stay safe doing it.

Also, keep in mind that the narrower the river, the stronger the current.

And if this is your first time at paddling upstream, sticking to wider, slow-moving currents becomes even more crucial. 

Bonus Tip:

It’s easy to get your kayak paddle tangled up and damaged when kayaking near the shore. Keep an eye on natural obstructions, rocks, and tree branches in the water – and watch out for wildlife while you’re at it, too – a face to face encounter with an alligator is not recommended.

Advice #6: Check The Flow Speed Before You Head Out

The thing is, even experienced paddlers would be able to maintain a speed of around 3 miles per hour – and that’s in average conditions. Some might pull off 5 to 6 miles per hour in a top-of-the-line kayak, but that’s about it.

You’re trying to paddle upstream, though – and choosing a stretch to paddle blindly will likely come back to bite you.

Paddling against the too-strong current

Your three-miles-per-hour tempo won’t mean much if you’re going up against currents that flow faster than you can paddle. It’s as simple as that.

So, before pitting your strength against the river flow, do some research on what you’re getting yourself into there. Check the river gauge near your route to see how fast the river’s flowing.  

Advice #7: Paddle Upstream First, Float Back Down Second

Kayaking upstream requires you to put in a lot more effort than when kayaking downstream; it makes sense to tackle it first. That way, when you’re already low on energy, you can wrap it up by floating back to your put-in spot.

Don’t make the beginner’s mistake of saving the most challenging part of the trip – the one that involves paddling upstream – for last. Otherwise, you might find that you don’t have enough strength and energy left to power your way back up the river.

If that happens, you’re risking overexerting yourself and still ending up further downstream than you planned, incapable of reaching your final destination. 

Advice #8: Wear Your Safety Gear

man demonstrating upstream paddling safety equipment

Bruises, blisters, cuts and scrapes, and, for the unlucky few, even head injury, are all real risks for someone who prefers river-running – let alone paddling upstream.

Having the right whitewater safety gear is an absolute, non-negotiable must.

With that in mind, here’s what you’ll need safety-wise:

That would be the bare minimum as far as whitewater safety gear goes. You’re welcome to add other stuff, like a throw bag, a river knife, and an emergency whistle, too. 

Kayaking Upstream – A Quick Summary of Paddling Upstream

Yes, kayaking upstream can be challenging. But the good news is, as long as you remain close to the sides of the river, avoiding fast-moving sections, and use eddies to your advantage, it can be done. You’ll paddle at a speed of around 3 miles per hour; don’t go against currents that move faster than that.