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Kayaking Upstream – How To Guide

Mark Armstrong
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Kayaking upstream can be difficult but the good news is that it can be done. It can also offer you a more challenging workout to boost your upper body strength and perfect your paddling technique.

You might be wondering if there’s a special technique or a more efficient way to paddle upstream. So, to help you out we’ve put together this simple guide.

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Can I Paddle My Kayak Upstream? If So, Tell Me How!

Do Your Research

First, learn the basics of paddling.

Then, before you start kayaking upstream it is beneficial to check out the river conditions to see if it’s manageable. The river gauges will tell you how fast the river is flowing.

An average kayaker can travel around 3 miles per hour with a maximum speed of around 5 or 6 miles per hour in average conditions, so keep that in mind when you read the river.

Even when you read the speed of the river on the gauge, there should be areas of the river that won’t be flowing as fast, and of course, areas that may be flowing faster.

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Obstacles And Currents

There are several portions of a river that can either be useful or a hindrance to paddling upstream. Eddies, for example, can be helpful when you need to take a break from paddling.

An eddy is a part of the river where the current has been blocked or slowed down by a rock or obstruction and generally flows in the opposite direction or can be almost still.

Another thing to look for is the V shaped flows. There are both upstream and downstream Vs which can add extra challenges to paddling upstream. An upstream V, where the V is pointing up the river, could mean there’s a rock or obstacle that’s forcing the water to flow faster over it. A downstream V can mean that water is being funneled past objects, which can mean fast flowing water.

Both V shaped flows should generally be avoided when you’re paddling upstream because of the faster flowing conditions.

Stick To The Edges

The currents at the sides of a river can often be weaker than closer to the center. So for the most efficient upstream kayaking, it can be a good idea to stay as close to the edges as you can.

As rivers narrow they are likely to have a stronger, faster flowing current as the water has a smaller space to fill. So this can cause problems for you if you’re trying to paddle against it.

It’s also possible to paddle from eddy to eddy. To cross to the other side of the river it can be useful to keep the bow of your yak facing upstream but at a slight angle, similar to the 11 o’clock or 1 o’clock hands. This can help to ensure you’re facing in the right direction but are also angled towards the side of the river you want to get to and the eddy you want to reach.

Start In A Calm Section

If you’re paddling upstream for the first time you might want to try it in a slow moving, wide river. This will give you the time to practice in calm waters before you try to navigate faster flowing sections.

Be aware that paddling upstream will likely take a lot more of your energy than flatwater paddling. So if you plan to paddle both upstream and downstream on the same trip, it might be best to paddle upstream first and downstream on your return. Otherwise you may find you don’t have the energy to power you back up the river if you’ve already paddled a distance.


As you’ve now learned, kayaking upstream is possible. You just have to know your river and your own abilities. Remember to watch out for obstacles and fast flowing current and try to stay facing upstream.

We’d love to hear your experiences of upstream paddling or if you have any questions, let us know. If you want to help out your fellow paddlers just share this article with them.

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