How to Paddle Against the Current

Paddling against the current

Whether you are in a kayak, a canoe or using a Jon boat without an outboard engine, there will come a time when you need to paddle upstream. Using the wrong technique to paddle against the current can be exhausting and even lead to injuries in the form of sprained and strained muscles.

How do you paddle against the current? Read the river and its speed. Identify the slower parts which are usually close to the banks but be aware of obstacles such as strainers and sweepers. Avoid the center of the river which has the fastest current. Paddle directly into the current. When you come across an eddy take a break. As you will use your core and upper body muscles more than normal it is a good idea to exercise those muscles regularly. 

Paddling upstream

There is a misconception among new boat users that paddling downstream is the best way to travel. There are advantages to paddling upstream. When paddling downstream the current can often take your vessel to areas where you don’t want it to go – often straight into the path of obstacles – and it can do it fast.

Strong and fast currents can be just as difficult to paddle downstream as they can to paddle upstream. In fact sometimes downstream paddling can be more difficult.

Paddling upstream eliminates the challenges that comes with shuttling your vessel downstream.

Paddling against the current actually gives you more control of the direction of your vessel.

You may think it is easier to paddle downstream and with the current, (which as we’ve seen is not always the case), and therefore intend to only paddle under those conditions but it is unlikely you will be able to avoid doing this if you regularly take to the water. Sometimes you just have to paddle upstream.

When you plan to go on boat camping trips, for example, it is unlikely you will be able to avoid upstream paddling.

Not to worry though, paddling against the current is not difficult when you know how to do it. This involves practicing your paddling techniques and gauging your personal core strength, which is needed for upstream paddling.

Practice your upstream paddling

It is a good idea to practice paddling against a current before you actually embark on a trip that involves extensive upstream paddling. This will not only allow you to prefect your paddling skills and gain some much needed experience paddling against the current but it will also allow you to determine you level of fitness.

It takes physical strength to paddle against the current and, obviously, some currents require more strength to paddle against than others.

Once you access your own strength levels you will better be able to determine if certain waters are unsuitable for you until you build up more muscle strength in your upper body and core (more on this below).

To practice upstream paddling choose a slow stretch of water that runs for about a mile or two and simply practice paddling upstream. Then allow the current to take you downstream before repeating your upstream paddle. This will allow you to hone your skills and determine your fitness levels before tackling faster water.

Challenges of paddling against the current

The truth is that paddling upstream, against the current, can be difficult and tiring.

Unlike common forms of boating that use outboard motors or sails for propulsion, paddling is much more physically demanding. This is even more so when you have to paddle against the current.

Paddling against the current requires you to use your core and upper body muscles more than you would paddling downstream.

Because paddling requires a certain amount of physical strength you would be wise to follow a regular keep-fit regime when not in the water. Make sure you target the correct muscle groups as outlined in the video below.

How to paddle against the current

There are certain things you can do to make paddling against the current easier and safer.

The first thing to do is to take stock of the conditions and environment in which you are paddling. This starts by planning your trip.

Plan your upstream paddling

When planning a paddling trip, which you know has an upstream part to it, try to structure your trip so that the upstream paddle is at the beginning of the trip. As best you can make sure the trip has the downstream paddling part at the very end of it.

This will eliminate the need for a physically demanding finish to your trip when you will likely be already tired.

Of course sometimes it is not possible to plan your upstream route especially if you are just exploring the waterways, but as much as possible you should try to plan ahead until you become proficient at paddling against the current.

Reading the river

The fundamentals of paddling upstream start by reading the river.

When you find yourself paddling upstream be sure to check the nearest river gauge that will tell you the speed of the water flow in the river. The speed of the water flow will determine how much strength you need to paddle against it – though the length of your vessel does have some affect.

Most people paddle at approximately 5 mph but don’t panic if the water is flowing faster than this; you can still paddle upstream against a faster flowing river but you will need to be smart about it if you want to beat the river.

Use the slower parts of the river

No matter what speed the gauge says a river is flowing at there will always be slower parts.

For the most rivers these slower areas will be along the edges near the banks. This is especially the case when it comes to fast bends where the slowest current flow will be at the banks.

However, be aware of obstacles in these areas such as strainers and sweepers (which we covered in our article about kayaking at night). It is all too easy to get tangled in obstacles near the banks of rivers and it can be difficult to get out especially if you are also fighting against the current.

By far the fastest part of the water will be in the center of the river you are paddling in. Therefore try to avoid centering yourself too much in the river as you will be battling against the strongest part of the current.

It is also usually easier to paddle upstream in wide rivers than narrow ones. Wider stretches of water in rivers tend move more slowly than narrower stretches. In narrow stretches there is higher pressure created as the water squeezes through the narrow space.

Be aware of potential dangers

When moving downstream if the water forms a “V” shape then this usually indicates deep fast moving water in the middle of the river with much slower water along the banks.

If moving upstream and the water is flowing in a “V” shape this is usually an indication that some obstacle is lying below the surface and forcing the water to flow around it. You can actually use this to your advantage as you’ll see later.

The best advice we can give you is to avoid obstacles as much as possible when paddling upstream. Although you should stick to slow moving areas as much as you can, such as close to the river bank, these areas can hide obstacles that are difficult to see. Obstacles like sweepers and strainers can lurk near river banks and they will trap your boat and may even capsize it.

Paddle into the current

When you need to paddle upstream the first thing to do is to identify the the area with the slowest current. As already mentioned this is usually near the edges of the river close to the river banks.

Once you’ve picked the path with the slowest current you simply start to paddle directly into it.

When you paddle directly into the current it will be the narrowest part of your vessel, the tip of the bow, that is going against the bulk of the water flow which thus creates the least amount of resistance to you when paddling. If you try to paddle against the current at an angle you are presenting more of your boat to the current and it will thus be much more difficult to paddle against it.

Take breaks

Paddling against the current can be more than tiring, it can be exhausting. So during your upstream paddle look for eddies where you can rest.

When you see “V” shapes in the water that are pointing upstream you will know that some obstacle, such as a large rock, is slowing down the water. This area is known as an eddy.

The water in an eddy generally flows in the opposite direction of the current or it can be almost still. This gives you an excellent place to pull in so you can give your muscles a rest.

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