Why Every Paddler Needs to Practice the Back Stroke


When was the last time you practiced paddling backwards?  If you’re like most paddlers you probably don’t remember or have never worked on your back stroke.  That’s because it feels challenging and the benefits of back paddling aren’t always given the respect that they deserve.

There are many reasons why you should spend time on this stroke and perhaps the most obvious one is that you never know when you’ll end up getting turned around and having to run a rapid backwards.  When my good friends Andrew Holcombe and Clay Wright teach creeking clinics they talk about the importance of being comfortable with all possible consequences when challenging yourself to paddle hard whitewater.  Clay likes to talk about how he practices going off of smaller drops backwards if he’s training for a big drop that he may get turned around on.  Even though you may not aspire to paddle class V whitewater chances are you’ll end up backwards in a class III rapid at some point in your paddling career.  The more comfortable you are paddling backwards the calmer you’ll remain.

Practicing back ferries, peel outs and eddy turns are  important if you consider yourself an intermediate paddler.  The first time you try a back ferry you’ll probably feel wobbly and confused about what edge to lift and what angle to set.  Just remember that it’s exactly the same angles and edges as when you do it going forwards, just reversed.  If you have a piece of easy whitewater near where you live and you’re looking for ways to spice it up this is the perfect practice!  It will help you build better edge control, balance and a deeper understanding of the current.  If you want to improve your whitewater kayaking skills then challenge yourself to paddle rapids backwards and make some moves.

The backstroke is also important if you’re an avid freestyle kayaker.  To avoid flushing out of a hole after a trick back paddling is often required.  If you watch really good freestyle boaters you’ll notice that they have a bomber back stroke that they can call on to keep them in the hole for the duration of their competition ride.

One of the most important reasons for practicing the back stroke is to maintain shoulder health and strength.  If we only paddle forwards our shoulders get tight and pulled forward. Paddling backwards counteracts that forward pull, allows the front of the shoulders to open up and works parts of the shoulder muscles that normally get neglected.  If you feel really stiff in the shoulders after paddling try finishing off your day with at least 30 back strokes.  You can do this during or after the last rapid or if there is some calm water just before the take out.  You’re body will thank you!

Here are the body mechanics of the back stroke:

To start the back stroke wind up your body by twisting your belly button back toward the side of your kayak where you’re going to initiate your stroke.  Your paddle won’t be as vertical as the forward stroke, but it will be much more vertical than in the back sweep.  Remember that you’re using the backside of your paddle blade to initiate this stroke.

Once you reach back and plant the paddle behind your hip, unwind your torso, pushing the blade forward to your feet.  Release the paddle blade from the water as it reaches your feet. If you’re using your core you ‘ll feel like you’re doing a twisting sit-up.

Tip:  You don’t need to lean back to initiate the back stroke.  Rotating back instead of leaning back will help you to maintain good posture and balance and will give you more power in your stroke. And don’t forget to look behind you to where you’re going when you’re practicing

Happy Back Paddling!