How Hard Is It to Paddle Upstream? (Kayaking & Canoeing 101)


Rivers are popular destinations for paddling sports like kayaking and canoeing. There’s always an upstream portion and a downstream portion with every river. For inexperienced paddlers, paddling upstream can be problematic, which is why many ask as to how difficult paddling upstream really is.

Paddling upstream in a kayak or canoe is not that difficult, so long as the paddler avoids the fast-moving middle sections and stays close to the river’s edge. The average paddler moves at about 3.5 mph, so it’s best to avoid currents that exceed this speed to start off.

Although kayaking and canoeing share many similarities, there are a few subtle distinctions between these two forms of paddling that must be taken into account when considering paddling difficulty. For this reason, we’ll take a look at the general difficulty level of paddling upstream, then compare and contrast the explicit difficulties of kayaking upstream versus canoeing upstream afterwards.

The Difficulty Level of Paddling Upstream

Paddling upstream in a kayak or canoe is certainly doable, if you understand basic river flow and how to identify sections where the current isn’t so strong.

Just keep in mind that paddling upstream will always be tougher than paddling downstream. Over the course of an extended paddling trip, you should expect to go about half the distance upstream that you would normally go downstream.

The River’s Edge is the Easiest Place to Paddle

As a general rule of thumb, the borders of a river have the slowest current. The closer you paddle toward the centerline of the river, the stronger the current will be.

If you choose to kayak or canoe in these middle sections, the difficulty level will go up markedly. You will tire quickly since additional force will be needed with every paddle stroke.

Narrower River Passages Make Paddling Upstream Harder

In addition, narrow river sections are much harder to navigate upstream as the water flows faster in these particular segments. Since the river is bottled up in these narrow sections, the higher water pressure causes the water to flow at a much higher velocity.

If you’re new to paddling upstream, it’s best to minimize the difficulty of paddling upstream by exploring rivers that lack narrow passages. Otherwise, the strength of the current may be too hard to properly control.

Eddies Can Provide a Brief Respite from Strong River Currents

Another big determinant of paddling upstream difficulty is the presence of eddies. For those of you that don’t know, an eddy is a river segment that disrupts the primary water flow, going in the opposite direction of the natural current (source).

There are a number of ways that eddies can form. The most notable causes are listed below:

  • Natural blockages in the water, such as a boulder or a pile-up of tree branches.
  • Man-made blockages in the water, such as a dock or a buoy
  • Natural bends along the river

Eddies are rather common and can be used to your advantage to get upstream without heavy muscle exertion, as eddies will help to carry you upstream for a short stretch.

Most experienced paddlers have learned how to exploit eddies to save themselves time and energy. In order to reduce the difficulty of kayaking or canoeing upstream, this knowledge is essential.

For beginners, it’s hard to know that the strength of the current varies throughout the river just from a short glance. After accruing more paddling experience, however, you will develop an instinctual feel for staying at the river’s edge and identifying eddies that are conducive to paddling.

Wind Direction Can Have a Big Impact on Paddling Difficulty

A factor that’s commonly overlooked by paddling novices is the potentially drastic effects of the wind. Many paddlers get caught up in analyzing the strength of the current and the openness of the waterway. Unfortunately, few paddlers pay close attention to how the wind may affect their kayaking or canoeing outing.

When there are strong winds present, paddling upstream can be a lot easier or a lot harder. If there are strong winds blowing with you, paddling upstream at a steady pace may not be that difficult to achieve. On the other hand, if there are strong winds blowing directly into your face, the combination of wind and current may be too much to handle.

Kayaking Upstream vs. Canoeing Upstream

Kayaking upstream and canoeing upstream are fairly similar in difficulty, but there are a few subtle details to keep in mind. Whether you prefer to kayak or canoe, knowing these sport-specific details can provide a better understanding of how hard paddling upstream is for each respective activity.

Kayak Paddles are More Likely to Club Debris than Canoe Paddles

An argument can be made that kayaking upstream is harder than canoeing upstream in that the average kayak paddle is longer and heavier than a standard canoe paddle.

The extra weight and reach of the kayak paddle makes it far more likely for kayakers to stumble upon natural obstructions in the water, especially when paddling near land. There are plenty of loose rocks and fallen tree branches where kayakers can get their paddle tangled up.

Not to mention that the kayak paddle is double-bladed, so it’s harder to evade physical debris since there’s almost always at least one blade in the water at any given point in time.

Since canoe paddles are lighter, shorter, and single-bladed, the canoeists don’t run into these problems nearly as often.

Kayaks are Better Suited to Paddle Straight into the Current

Although canoes might have a slight edge in the paddle category, kayaks possess an advantage in maneuverability.

When a kayak or canoe is turned sideways so that the current is hitting its broadside, the watercraft is at a much greater risk for capsizing. Kayaks and canoes were not built to withstand a tremendous amount of pressure coming from its broadside.

Fortunately, kayaks are designed to be more streamlined and mobile in the water, so they can easily be turned to head into the current straight on. This ease of maneuverability comes in handy when the current is threatening to disorient the kayak.

Canoes, on the other hand, are heavier and bulkier than a kayak. They’re not as nearly as easy to steer as a kayak because of its cumbersome design. So when a canoe has its broadside facing toward the current, it’s much more challenging to steer the canoe back upstream to avoid swamping.

Tips on How to Paddle Upstream Effectively

There’s no doubt that paddling upstream takes time and patience. It’s easy to grasp the basic fundamentals, but attaining a level of mastery in this area requires hundreds upon thousands of paddling repetitions.

To help you get you to this point faster, I compiled a few tips for you to implement to improve the quality of your upstream paddling experience.

Paddle Upstream First, Float Downstream Second

First, you should plan out your trip so that you paddle upstream during the initial leg of the trip, then float downstream for the last leg of the trip.

The reason for this is that paddling upstream requires considerably more effort than paddling downstream. By knocking out the hardest leg of the trip first, it’s easier to have enough energy in reserve to last the entire paddling expedition.

Occasionally, novices make the mistake of pushing the toughest part of the trip—the upstream portion—to the last rung of the expedition. Many beginners regret this move later down the road when they lack the energy necessary to reach their final destination.

Gauge the River Speed Before You Head Out

In addition, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the water terrain before committing to the water.

Blindly choosing a waterway for a kayaking or canoeing expedition could come back to bite you. Some rivers have rapids that are extremely difficult to navigate through, even while moving downstream. If it’s hard to go downstream, you can bet that paddling upstream will be a very strenuous endeavor.

Luckily, many popular paddling destinations specifically rate their waterways according to their level of difficulty. Calm waters, such as lake water, are the easiest to navigate. These waters are labeled as Class A. In contrast, waterways that feature violent, steep rapids that are awfully difficult to navigate are considered Class VI (source).

Look for these markings before deciding on which waterway best suits your ability and goals. It’s good to challenge yourself, but not to the point where you jeopardize your own safety.

The Size and Shape of the Watercraft Can Make a Big Difference

Sometimes, novice paddlers are the ones at fault when things go awry paddling upstream. Other times, it’s the watercraft that’s to blame.

If you intend on traveling upstream on a consistent basis, it’s in your best interest to invest in a narrower, longer boat. This sleeker, streamlined design is more conducive to upstream paddling since it’s easier to control under duress.

There’s a vast selection of kayaks and canoes that are specifically tailored toward different types of water conditions. If you intend to test your limits and see how far you can push yourself paddling upstream, getting the right sized kayak or canoe is crucial.

Take sports cars for example. Although sports cars are strikingly fast on paved roadways where the surface is flat and smooth, you would never take it off-roading because it’s not designed for that terrain. The same general concept applies to kayaks and canoes.

Some kayaks and canoes are built for whitewater, while others are more catered toward leisurely tours around a lake. Depending on what sort of conditions you want to paddle upstream, you’ll have to make a decision on what type of kayak or canoe best suits the job.

Learn the Basics of How to Ferry

Ferrying is crucial to the overall success of paddling upstream, but the problem is that many beginners don’t understand what this paddling technique is or what sort of mechanics it entails.

At its essence, ferrying is the paddling technique that kayakers and canoeists utilize to cross current from one side to the other. It allows paddlers to cross current without having to sacrifice too much of their upstream progress.

There will be times where you’ll have to cross current while paddling upstream. Although honing in on this skill may seem intimidating, being persistent with your efforts will eventually pay off.

If you would like to learn the nuances of ferrying, watch the clip below. This instructor takes you step-by-step through what sort of boating angle you should take along with tips on how to avoid flipping.

Is It Worth It to Paddle Upstream Despite the Added Difficulty?

With all this information in mind, you may be wondering if it’s worth the trouble of paddling upstream. After all, paddlers do have the choice of forgoing this option entirely if they choose to do so.

Like the answer to most things, the answer is that it depends. The answer varies from person to person, as everyone has their own individual goals and contrasting levels of experience.

So although you’ll have to come up with this answer on your own, I can help to lead you in the right direction by offering the most notable pros and cons of paddling upstream.

Pros

Paddling Upstream Offers Greater Fitness Benefits – For one, paddling upstream will drastically improve your strength and endurance. While traveling downstream, it can be tempting to just float along and allow the current to do the majority of the work for you.

With upstream paddling, this isn’t an option. You have to work hard to paddle against the natural flow of the water in order to get to your intended destination. Otherwise, you’ll end up being carried away from where you want to go.

Not only does paddling upstream force your body to actively engage its stabilizing muscles, it also forces you to become a better paddler in general. You will strengthen all of the areas in your body that need improvement in order to handle rougher water terrains. This physical improvement is accompanied by a rapid boost in paddling confidence, something that’s highly sought after in kayaking and canoeing.

At the end of the day, paddling is a great workout in and of itself. But if you want to kick the exercise up a notch, paddling upstream is the next step up the ladder.

Saves You From Paying Shuttling Costs – Another major benefit to consider is the money saved from paddling upstream. In order to avoid the upstream leg of a paddling trip, you’ll have to pay an outfitter shuttle to take you upstream.

If you’re already on a tight budget, adding these unneeded costs to your paddling trip could get real expensive, real quick. The rental of a kayak or canoe alone already costs a decent sum of money. Why not save the extra money and paddle both upstream and downstream?

You came out to the water to paddle anyways. You might as well get the most bang for your buck!

Cons

Too Physically Demanding for Inexperienced Paddlers – As far as the negatives go, the most glaring issues is the physical exhaustion that accompanies an upstream paddling strip.

Don’t get me wrong, paddling upstream is certainly doable. But if you’re spending all day out on the water paddling, the extra little bit of energy that you need to spend on each paddle stroke adds up over time. This compounded exhaustion can exact a heavy toll on someone who hasn’t yet been exposed to the rigors of paddling.

In the case of first time paddlers, it’s best to gain experience while exclusively paddling downstream to get a feel for how the kayak or canoe moves along the water. Once they have an adequate amount of experience under their belt, then they can progress to paddling upstream.

Paddling upstream too early may ruin a first timer’s experience, causing them to abandon paddling altogether. This is obviously something we want to avoid.

May Reach a Point Where Paddling Upstream is Not Possible – Another thing to consider is that you may reach a section on the river where the current is too strong for you to handle.

Rivers can have highly variable conditions. Even though popular paddling destinations do their best to classify waterways based on difficulty, there’s only so much they can do. There may be times where there may be an unexpected amount of fallen debris or an extreme narrowing of the channel, resulting in an acute strengthening of the river current.

Under these circumstances, you may have to forgo paddling upstream completely and seek out an alternative option to get to where you need to go. Nobody wants to put an abrupt halt to their paddling trip, but sometimes it’s necessary.

The Bottom Line

Paddling upstream is very doable. Paddlers just need to recognize the movement patterns of the waterway in order to take the most optimal, energy efficient route. Failing to do so will only result in over-exhaustion.

The best way to learn river movement patterns is by experience… so get out there and paddle!

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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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