Upstream Kayaking: 4 Tips for Kayaking against Currents

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Upstream Kayaking: 4 Tips for Kayaking against Currents

Mann kämpf im Kajak gegen Strömung.

Rivers are among the best places for kayaking. There are few waves and trees and bushes on the shore protect you from the wind. Instead of sweating all day in the blazing sun, the vegetation at the edge of the river provides plenty of shade. A river also offers many entry possibilities, but also a current that can push you forward in a relaxed way.

The current is not a huge problem per se and definitely makes a kayak tour more exciting. However, this brings with it some challenges and dangers that need to be understood before you jump right into the turmoil.

Anyone who has ever paddled against the current in a kayak will know what we are talking about. New paddlers, on the other hand, are often surprised by the power of water. Even a two-person kayak with adults on board can be quickly transformed into a play ball by the current.

If you are planning tours in river waters, you should not be surprised by the current. Before you set off on your first trip, it is important to understand the current and how to hold your own in the water. We have packed the necessary knowledge for such tours in four important tips.

Tip #1: Avoid the dangers of kayaking in watercourses

With the current in your back you can drive well, of course, but be careful here. In flowing waters, solid obstacles are often the greatest danger. The water flows straight ahead until it hits the rock or the tree trunk and then bounces off the object. Who becomes uncontrolled part of the current, follows this distance inevitably. For the kayak and your own health this is of course not the right way. Driving blind and without control downstream is therefore dangerous.

Many people, when asked about dangers in river waters, only think of the already mentioned rocks. In fact, fallen tree trunks are the much bigger source of danger. After storms or heavy thunderstorms, tree trunks are often found on the shore, protrude into the water or are even washed away by the river. The problem is that the trees become a kind of rake. The water is let through, but everything else is stopped.

If you discover a tree trunk while driving in the direction of the current, you should be very careful. The current pulls in the direction of the obstacle. In the worst case, kayakers can be held between the water and the obstacle. To avoid this, a timely evasion is necessary. It is wise to moor in front of the danger area and check whether a passage is possible.

If only thin branches and smaller branches protrude into the water, the place can be passed easily. If, on the other hand, an entire tree trunk blocks the lane, this is not possible. In the case of a passable place you only have to retract your head and let the current carry you past the obstacle. Don’t hold on to branches or push them aside with the paddle. This could lead to the paddle being torn out of your hand or, in the worst case, to the kayak capsizing.

Another danger is dams, which cause a countercurrent. With the kayak you are confronted with currents that push in opposite directions. This can quickly cause the kayak to capsize.

Tip #2: Drive safely in watercourses

There are special driving techniques for driving in watercourses. Especially kayakers who travel in rivers with higher flow speeds have to master them. One of the most important techniques is the so-called rope ferry. The technique is used to cross a watercourse.

If you want to get from one shore to the other or from an area with swept water (almost currentless water that forms in the shadow of a large obstacle) to the next, you can use the rope ferry. If the kayak turns upriver when leaving the swell (or shore). Turn an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. Paddle vigorously to maintain the angle and not lose height. The current will do the rest for you. The masses of water push against the side of the boat and push it sideways over the river. You also have to make sure that the kayak is bent up against the current.

Tip #3: Safety tips for swimming in river waters

A small swim as part of a real kayak adventure is a great thing. However, if you are on the move in flowing waters, you should also deal with the dangers. The power of the water often makes fighting impossible.

Depending on the flow velocity, however, even knee- to hip-high water can be a danger. Many rivers are lined with stones and populated by underwater plants. If your foot gets caught in a plant or if you get it stuck in a crevice, this is a life-threatening situation. If you can’t free yourself, the masses of water will quickly push you underwater. Even in shallow waters this can lead to drowning.

The simple solution is: Don’t step on the ground in waters with strong currents. Instead, just swim away to reduce the risk of getting caught in the ground. Swim quietly all the way to the shore. It’s better to bump your knee instead of risking your life.

Tip #4: Going upstream with a kayak

An important finding that every kayaker has to make is that currents unfortunately do not flow in both directions. If you get in at one point, you have to return to it. This means that you paddle in one direction with the current, but on the way back you have to fight against the current with the kayak.

The good news first: Yes, you can kayak against the current.

It’s not easy, but you should be optimistic about the situation. Kayaking against the current is an excellent training for the upper body muscles and a great way to perfect your paddling technique. If you paddle upstream, you should consider the following.

Flow velocity

  • First check the river speed of the water. The average kayaker reaches 5 km/h. If the river speed is within this range or even higher, the average padder will hardly be able to make any progress against the current direction.
  • The river speed varies between different sections. The water can flow slower in some areas and faster in others.
  • At the edge of the water the current is often weaker than in the middle of the river. If you want to paddle upstream, you should therefore drive at the edge.
  • If the course of the river narrows, this increases the river speed. This should be taken into account when paddling upstream.

First tour with countercurrent

  • If you have never paddled on watercourses before, you should get in with a calm water. Get used to currents and countercurrents before entering more demanding waters.
  • On the first tours in waters with currents you should paddle against the current first. Only later will you return to your starting point with the current in your back. With this procedure you don’t run the risk of losing your strength on the way back.

Reading the water

  • Sweeping water forms in the protection of obstacles. If a stone blocks the course of a river, a slight countercurrent is created in its shadow, which flows in the direction of the object. The sweeping water can be used for breathing.
  • Watch out for V-shaped formations in the water. If the “V” points upstream, this means that an obstacle forces the water to flow quickly over it. A downstream pointing “V” can indicate an obstacle that acts like a funnel. On the way back, the greatest care must be taken at this point. The current flow will pull you towards this obstacle. It becomes really dangerous when the current flows under water. The water would then also pull you under water.


Depending on the speed of the river, kayaking in river waters is still a challenge for experienced kayakers. Beginners in kayaking should start slowly. For the beginning, leisurely canals are perfectly sufficient. Nobody should plunge into the raging rivers right away, instead you can choose more and more demanding routes over time.

Rides in flowing waters are definitely challenging. Countercurrent kayaking is an unbelievably strenuous activity, and when you go downstream, you always have to keep your eyes open for obstacles and suspicious formations in the water in order to identify dangerous spots early on.

If you do this, internalize our tips and learn more about paddling techniques in flowing waters and concrete stretches, you are ideally suited for your first adventures in moving water!

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I'm a writer who focuses on the outdoors and travel. I share my time between Alaska and Colorado, where, when I'm not writing, I enjoy camping, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and skiing (often with dogs in tow). My byline may also be seen in publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and others.


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