Best boat type for upstream paddling

I’m curious if a canoe or kayak would be better for paddling up currents, sometimes in shallow waters.

How does the shape of the boat and its hull affect its ability to move upstream?

poling a canoe NM

There’s no single answer

– Last Updated: Jul-26-15 11:35 PM EST –

In general, a faster boat is best for going upstream. A slight speed difference between two boats becomes a greater difference, percentage-wise, when there's an opposing current. In other words, the actual speed difference won't be any greater when going upstream, but since you are now going slower to begin with, whatever speed difference there is makes a proportionally bigger difference than it would on still water, and especially compared to going downstream.

On the other hand, in swift, turbulent water, a faster boat (which in most cases tracks harder) will be "grabby" in differential currents and harder to control. Even for fairly easy upstream travel but when the creek is crooked or there are lots of obstacles, there may be times when a more maneuverable boat (which is generally slower) will be easier to paddle just because of the reduced effort in making turns.

In shallow water where it's hard to get the whole paddle blade in the water, a double-blade paddle may be better, but a rugged single-blade used in a modified poling action, or just using a pole, may be best of all.

As far as kayak or canoe, pick whichever one you like better, or whichever one you can paddle faster, or whichever one you can paddle more easily in differential currents or during whatever maneuvering is required.

The only consistent answer is probably "it depends".

How Fast Of A Current
How big of a river?

I paddle into swift current quire a bit. I use my 16’ Tarpon rather than my 14’ Illusion.

What’s interesting is when wind driven waves, on the lake, meets river current from the north. Waves come at you from three directions. They can suddenly appear too.

In general, a kayak or pack canoe
at least if we are talking about paddling.

Double blade paddlers can generally maintain a higher stroke cadence and do not need to utilize as much correction to maintain heading as single-bladers do. If you have any difficulty keeping a canoe on course with a single-bladed paddle on flat water or when moving downstream with the current, you will find the difficulty magnified when attempting to attain upstream.

When moving upstream the bow end of the boat is relatively “pinned” in the current. Without good correction strokes, as soon as the hull angles much off the direction of current flow, water will tend to grab the bow and spin it downstream. But if you rely on a lot of stern correction strokes like long J strokes, stern pries and stern ruddering your stroke cadence will be so low as to make moving upstream difficult or impossible. To move upstream in strong current with a single blade will often require a “hit and switch” technique, or the use of a lot of cross-forward strokes.

Double blade paddlers have a great advantage in that the symmetry of their forward strokes tends to balance out the turning effect of the stroke, and they do not need to be crossing over the hull with the paddle.

The advantage becomes even greater in shallow water in which it is only possible to submerge a fraction of the blade. With a single bladed paddle it often becomes necessary to use a very horizontal paddle shaft angle so that the stroke becomes more of a sweep than a power stroke. The same thing happens with a double bladed paddle but the turning effect of the sweep is balanced out by having a blade on both sides. You might be able to push off the bottom with a canoe paddle as Eric suggests (if you are willing to do that) but that often does not work well at all if the bottom is soft and mucky or if there is a lot of weed or watercress growth.

Hull shape definitely has an effect on the efficiency of paddling upstream or in the shallows. Hulls with a lot of rocker that extends well toward amidships invariably tend to draw more water than straighter-keeled hulls of similar length and beam. They tend to hang up amidships in the shallows when going either upstream or downstream. In general, a hull that is more efficient to paddle on flat water is going to be more efficient paddling upstream against the current. Since kayaks typically have narrower water line beams than open boats, again they will generally have the advantage.

In the shallows, water tends to get compressed between the stream bottom and the hull bottom greatly increasing frictional resistance. It is said that asymmetrical Swede-form hulls tend to do better as the more buoyant stern tends to squat less. I have heard racers claim that hulls with a more rounded or elliptical hull cross section maintain speed better in the shallows than those with relatively flatter bottoms and sharper chines, possibly because the compressed water can flow up around the rounded hull contour better.

I paddle both canoes and kayaks
and in the same river conditions I will go faster up stream in my sea kayak

Jack L

I paddle alone quite a bit
So I paddle up stream to avoid shuttle vehicle issues. I have become a huge fan of “play” boats, with rocker in them. My typical go to boats for upstream paddling are WS zephyr or Valley Avocet. They both have the maneuverability to deal with currents in either direction without getting locked into the directional flow of the river like some hard tracking boats can do.

Poling canoe.

And a P&H Delphin is even better :slight_smile:

– Last Updated: Jul-30-15 7:06 PM EST –

Having paddled the WS Zephyr and some others and the P&H Delphin attaining the same class 1-3 whitewater, the Delphin is better - even less affected by the current due to its flat planing hull, plus higher initial stability and higher top speed than the Zephyr. But 10lb heavier...

As others mentioned, 2 blades are better than 1 when you can get enough purchase on the water. Never tried polling, but I'll take their word for it that in shallow water it will work better than a paddle that does not work at all ;). And also as mentioned: fast is better than slow, maneuverable is better than stiff-tracking, planing hull is better than round or v-shaped. Of course, I'm talking about technical attainments, not just powering straight upstream some flat wide river or tidal race, where speed and good tracking are the obvious choices...

Words in our mouths?
Paddles not working at all are beside the point. If your pole reaches anything hard, it’s better than any paddle. That includes way deeper water than the point of paddle grinding.