Different Strokes: Paddling Techniques For Hikers

For a different wilderness experience, try floating down the river in a kayak or canoe.

Master these paddling skills and follow the blue lines on your map to a new wilderness experience.

Sooner or later, every backpacker should "hike" a water trail. You can have the same kind of wilderness experience, minus the blistered heels and sore knees. Here are some tips to get you started.

Flatwater paddling

Wind, your biggest challenge when crossing a lake, kicks up waves and catches against the broad sides of your canoe, making straight-line travel difficult. Try these techniques:

  • Aim your bow slightly upwind of a point on the horizon, letting the breeze correct your course.
  • Stay close to shore, using the land's natural windbreaks to your advantage. Avoid rocky shorelines on choppy, gusty days.
  • Keep a low center of gravity; pack heavy items low and kneel while you paddle.
  • Travel early and late in the day, when winds are calmest. Take a hike if whitecaps come up.
  • Try a kayak on your next big-water trip. You'll have less leg and gear room, but these boats slice smoothly through wind and water.

Fastwater paddling

Learn to "read the river" by practicing these skills in gentle water (class II rapids or calmer).

  • Stick to the deepest, fastest water. On a straight river, that's usually in the middle. Around a bend, it's usually on the outside.
  • Avoid rocks by looking for V-shaped ripples in the current. If the V points upstream, go around it, because there's a rock at its apex. If the V points downstream, aim for the center to miss the rock that caps each arm.
  • Coordinate strokes with your partner and use your repertoire of draws and sweeps to avoid sweepers (fallen trees) and other large obstacles.
  • Avoid standing waves and holes created by a large volume of water flowing or dropping over a boulder or lip. When in doubt, portage.