Can You Kayak or Canoe Upstream? (All You Need to Know!)


One curiosity that I had as a paddling beginner that pertained to both of kayaking and canoeing concerned the viability of paddling upstream. After uncovering the real answer for myself, I quickly learned that this was a frequent question among paddling novices, so I decided to take it upon myself to address this topic of interest.

You can paddle upstream in a kayak or canoe, as long as the water is deep enough for your paddle blade and the current isn’t enough to overpower your paddling strength. Paddling upstream is more physically taxing, so expect to go about half the distance upstream as you would normally go downstream.

Below, we’ll discuss exactly why paddling counter-current is possible, as well as specific circumstances where paddling counter current is not achievable. Read until the end to discover exactly what actions to take in the event that you can no longer paddle upstream.

How Paddling a Canoe or Kayak Upstream is Possible

Some beginning paddlers are surprised to find that paddling upriver is a real possibility. Many first time paddlers are under the false impression that all currents are too overwhelming to handle. Fortunately for kayakers and canoeists, this is not the case.

Generating Enough Force to Paddle Counter-Current is Exhausting, But Doable

In most river conditions, the majority of kayakers and canoeists will able to overcome the strength of the current with their own physical force. Most novices underestimate their upper body strength. An individual that is physically fit and practices solid paddling fundamentals should be able to travel upstream in calm waterways.

Though moving upriver is possible, it certainly comes at a price, especially when compared to downstream paddling. Downstream paddlers have the benefit of floating downriver for brief stretches to catch their breath. Upstream paddlers, on the other hand, have no such luxury.

Kayakers and canoeists who choose to battle their way upstream do so at a great physical expense. To make good headway, paddlers must redouble their efforts to compensate for the water forces working against them.

As aforementioned, most paddlers travel about half the distance upstream that they would normally travel downstream. The longer you paddle, the more pronounced this discrepancy in distance becomes.

If you’re the type of person that needs to see something to believe it, check out the clip below to see a real live example of what’s it like to paddle upstream.

Eddies Offer a Brief Respite from Upstream Paddling

In addition, paddling upstream is made a lot easier due to the presence of eddies. As a quick reference, eddies are natural points in a waterway where the water flows against the main current. In other words, the water flows upstream at an eddy rather than downstream.

Eddies are often formed by natural obstructions in rivers, like boulders or dead logs. Experienced kayakers and canoeists develop an eye for eddies over time. It almost seems as though the water is not moving whatsoever on these specific sections on the river.

These eddies are more than an interesting phenomenon. They offer paddlers a place to rest and recuperate before resuming their upstream journey. Continuous paddling in a kayak or canoe can exact a heavy toll, no matter how physically fit the paddler is. These short paddling breaks are more valuable than most people would initially think.

For this reason, seasoned kayakers and canoeists have a tendency to “eddy hop.” Put simply, this is a paddling strategy where riders actively search out eddies in order to preserve the most energy possible. It takes time and experience to flesh out this strategy, but it can be extremely worthwhile in the long run.

Times Where You Can’t Paddle a Canoe or Kayak Upstream

Even though paddling upstream is possible under most conditions, there are a few circumstances where it cannot be done. It’s important to familiarize yourself with these various scenarios to have a better understanding of when to paddle upriver.

Waters that are Too Shallow to Get Sufficient Paddling Leverage

One circumstance that many kayakers and canoeists overlook when planning to paddle upriver is the depth of the water. Even though a kayak and canoe may be able to float on shallow water, that doesn’t necessarily mean that paddling upriver is feasible.

In extremely shallow waters that are less than a foot deep, the paddle blade will not be able to fully immerse itself in the water. You’ll be paddling more air than water, which is no help to thrusting the boat counter-current. The paddle simply won’t have the proper leverage to overcome the strength of the current and navigate upstream.

Plus, it’s important to bear in mind the potential risk of chipping or snapping your paddle in these shallow waters. Not only is the effort of paddling upstream futile, it’ll likely result in severe damage to your paddling gear.

River Currents that Move Faster than 3.5 mph

The second scenario where paddling upstream is not feasible is when the river current is traveling at a rate higher than 3.1 mph. The reason that this specific number is important is because the average paddler moves along the water at a speed of 3.1 mph (source).

If the current is moving at a speed that’s higher than a kayaker or canoeist can paddle, then they’re not going to progress upstream for a sustained period of time. The current will be too physically demanding of a task for them to take on.

Of course, there will be outliers that are more than equipped to handle these fast moving waters. To reach this superior level, however, it requires a great deal of paddling experience and fitness. If you consider yourself a recreational paddler—like most people—you’re better off not testing your luck in strong river currents.

For this reason, you should get into the habit of checking river current speeds before heading out onto the water. This way, you can get a better idea of exactly how rigorous the paddling trip will be.

One way to accomplish this is by downloading the RiverApp. This app shows practical information about popular waterways throughout the world, like numerical data on river levels, flows, and temperatures. It only takes a few minutes to access this useful data, so consider checking this app out next time you consider paddling upriver.

What to Do if You Can’t Paddle Upstream

So if you run into one of the problems above where you can’t go upriver, what do you do? The next couple paragraphs offer several effective solutions for handling this exact issue.

Wade Through Shallow Waters with Your Kayak or Canoe in Tow

If the water is too shallow for paddling, you can wade through the water and lug your boat behind you. You should only do this in calm, shallow waters since fast-moving, shallow whitewater may conceal foot entrapments.

Foot entrapments are awfully dangerous because they can prevent you from escaping the river current. It’s tough to discern what lies beneath the water’s surface, especially in murky rivers. If you get your foot lodged in between a few rocks, extricating your foot from this snare can prove problematic.

Needless to say, you should exercise caution if you choose to implement the wading strategy.

Portage Your Kayak or Canoe Past the Point of Difficulty

In the event that you encounter a choke point in the river where the current is too strong for you to handle, you may have to resort to portaging. As a quick reference, portaging refers to the act of physically lifting and carrying a boat over land from one body of water to the next (source).

With deeper waters, portaging is the only viable option to move past points on the river where the current is overwhelmingly strong. Portaging may not be the most appealing option on this list, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil to make proper headway upstream.

Fortunately, lifting and carrying a kayak or canoe on your own is not as difficult as it would appear.

For one, canoes are equipped with carrying yokes. For those of you that do not know, the term yoke refers to the crossbeam at the canoe’s center that features a rounded notch. This rounded notch is designed to fit over the neck of a paddler so that they can easily portage the canoe over land (source).

You can portage a kayak as well, but it’s a bit more difficult to do since there’s no yoke on a kayak. Lofting the kayak overhead and carrying it in this manner overland may be slightly more uncomfortable, but certainly manageable.

Call for a Shuttle to Transport You and Your Boat Upstream

If you have no interest in dealing with the burdens of portaging, you could consider organizing a shuttle to carry your boat and gear upstream for you.

At most popular paddling destinations, there are numerous shuttling services available to take you, your kayak or canoe, and your gear upstream to the put-in. This way, you won’t ever have to deal with paddling upstream. Instead, you’ll have the luxury of paddling downstream for the entirety of the trip.

Although this is a very convenient option, it also adds some extra financial strain to your paddling trip. Unfortunately, these shuttling services aren’t offered for free. Shuttle services can cost around $10 to $15 per person, depending on the river you’ve chosen to paddle at (source).

Consider “Poling” Instead of “Paddling” Upstream

Another overlooked option to move upriver is to pole instead of paddle. These methodologies sound similar, but they’re slightly different means of traveling along the water.

Essentially, push poling is a means by which kayakers and canoeists navigate through shallow waters. They use a lengthy pole to contact the bottom surface of the water and push the kayak or canoe in whatever direction they intend to go.

As aforementioned, shallow waters are not conducive to moving upstream because the paddle blade won’t have enough leverage to generate adequate stroke power to counter the current. Push poles, on the other hand, are designed specifically for navigation through shallow waters. For this reason, you won’t have to stop and get out of your boat to wade if the water is less than a foot deep.

To get a better idea of exactly how push poling works, watch the brief video below!

Tips on How to Paddle Upstream Effectively

Now that you know that paddling upstream is within the realm of possibility, you probably want to know how to do so in an efficient manner. There are a lot of potential ways that you can go wrong paddling upstream, but learning these few tips will definitely set you on the right course.

Paddle Upstream First, Downstream Second

If you haven’t noticed the common thread already, proper planning is absolutely vital to a successful paddling trip. Something as simple as ordering the upstream and downstream legs of your trip may seem insignificant from an outside perspective, but it can have noteworthy implications later on.

As a general rule of thumb, you should always prioritize the upstream leg of your paddling journey first. Above, we discussed at great length that the upstream portion is considerably more taxing on the body. I could probably guess what’s going through your mind now. You’re probably wondering, “Why put the most strenuous part of the paddling journey earlier in the trip?”

Think about it this way. If you were to paddle downstream first, you would expend all of your energy on the easiest part of the trip. You would likely overestimate your upstream paddling capabilities and travel considerably farther downstream. By the time you would have to paddle back the way you came, you wouldn’t have enough energy in reserve to reach your starting point.

Recall that you’ll travel only about half the distance upstream as you would normally go downstream. Most people neglect this fact when they paddle downstream first, which ultimately results in a much longer paddling excursion than they intended.

Stay Close to the River’s Edge

Lastly, you should always be cognizant of where your kayak or canoe is in relation to the shore. Straying too far into the middle of the river is a recipe for disaster, since the middle of the river is where the current is strongest (source).

Maintaining a safe distance from shore throughout the paddling trip is a smart idea. Not only will it save you energy in the long run, it will also minimize the distance you might have to swim in the event of a capsize. Plus, the waters are less deep closer to shore, which grants you the opportunity to use the shallows as further leverage to make it onto land.

Just be careful of where you place your paddle though, because paddles can snap or chip if they hit the bottom with excessive power.

The Bottom Line

Kayakers and canoeists paddle upstream all the time. Although there are moments where paddlers must improvise to circumvent particularly strong river currents, this is something that paddlers are accustomed to. After all, natural blockages—like dead logs for instance—are a common occurrence in waterways.

So if you haven’t paddled upstream, give it a try! It’s a great way to get in touch with nature while exercising your upper body.

Sources: 1 2 3 4

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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