Where are the best rivers for kayaking in the UK? That’s the question. And it’s the natural question to ask once you’ve got a taste for kayaking or canoeing. It’s also an awfully big question. After all, there are a lot of rivers in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
The United Kingdom truly does have fantastic options for every level of paddler. Which feels only appropriate given the regularity of the rain across the UK. There have certainly been a few occasions in the past few years where kayaking or canoeing down to do the weekly grocery shop at Tesco might have actually been safer than walking or driving.
As well as the damp conditions though, the United Kingdom is also blessed with a whole lot of beautiful backcountry, from the rolling hills of England to the staunch mountains of Wales and Scotland and the remarkable coastlines of Northern Ireland.
All of these are also threaded with rivers, and where there’s a river, or water of any kind for that matter, there’s an opportunity to kayak or canoe. With the possible exception of your bathtub or kitchen sink, that is. Don’t try to kayak in your bathtub. The kayak probably won’t fit.
In this feature, we’re going to give you an introduction to a handful of the best rivers to kayak in the UK, as well as some other beginner knowledge to get you started.
What’s the Difference Between a Kayak and a Canoe?
A bit off topic, but this is a question that comes up a lot, so we thought we’d answer it real quick. A canoe has an open deck, higher sides and you kneel or sit (elevated) in it while rowing with a one-bladed paddle. A kayak has a closed deck with only one entry point. You sit on your backside inside it with your legs stretched out in front of you, and paddle with a double-bladed paddle. Read our full article on the difference between a kayak and a canoe.
Canoeing and Kayaking License for the UK
Kayak Licenses in Scotland and N. Ireland
In Scotland, the beloved 2003 land reform act (the same one which responsible for the “right to roam”) means that “everyone has statutory access rights to most of Scotland’s outdoors, if these rights are exercised responsibly, with respect for people’s privacy, safety and livelihoods, and for Scotland’s environment.” This includes waterways, largely thanks to the work of the Scottish Canoe Association. Hurrah!
The Paddlers’ Access Code, which revolves around care for others, the environment and responsibility for your actions, must be followed of course, and you will also need a license to dock your kayak or canoe in certain places, and for using locks on the Scottish canals.
Similarly to Scotland, no license is needed to paddle on the waterways of Northern Ireland. For information on Northern Ireland, head to the The Canoe Association of Northern Ireland.
Kayak Licenses in England and Wales
In England and Wales, the easiest way to get past license issues is to join the British Canoe Union (BCU) or Canoe Wales (CW), after which you will automatically receive a license for many rivers. As the BCU state on their website: “an individual Membership of British Canoeing includes a licence to paddle over 4,500km of river navigations and canals.”
Joining the BCU or CW costs £45, whereas purchasing an individual license for the specific waterway nearest you, or which you wish to use, will cost from £35, so it’s pretty good value for money too. And you also get access to insurance, competitions and coaching qualifications for those looking to take their kayaking and canoeing more seriously. There are certain UK rivers not covered in the license of the BCU or CW however.
The BCU is specifically for canoe or kayakers based in England, the CW for those in Wales.
Right. Well, that got awful admin-y for a while didn’t it? A bit like when you want to go out and play with your mates but your mum keeps lecturing you about safety and permits for Welsh and English waterways. But we’re done now. So now onto those UK rivers!
Kayak UK | The Best Rivers to Kayak or Canoe in Scotland
The River Tay is the longest river in Scotland and can be canoed in sections or – if you’ve got a good bit of time on your hands – in its entirety. It runs from slopes of Ben Lui in the west of the country across to Loch Tay, where the river then starts proper, and from there it runs over to the east coast at Dundee where it joins the sea via the Firth of Tay. Aberfeldy, not far from Loch Tay, is a particularly popular spot for kayaking, with beginner options on the loch itself and rapids also nearby. Scotland’s slalom course from Grandtully to Strathtay can also be found on the Tay, and offers grade three river rapids. Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery is the perfect way to cap off a day on the water, too.
The Spey runs from a little east of Elgin up through the Cairngorm mountains. Those fond of a tipple will recognise the name. Speyside is famous for its whisky distilleries. The region produces more whisky than any other, and it does it well. It’s home to big hitters like Glen Livet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and an abundance more. The river is also renowned for the quality of its salmon and fishing and, yup, it’s not so bad for kayaking either.
The River Spey isn’t a particularly technical river, but there are a selection of Grade 2 rapids. The water levels are reliable throughout the year. Newtonmore is the highest common starting point, and there’s a wealth more information on the route on the Canoe Scotland website. This is a beauty of a river, with all the typical Highland views that come with a river that runs through the Cairngorms. Plus, you know the food and drink won’t be half bad after.
The Caledonian Canal
The detectives among you will have worked out that the Caledonian Canal is not actually a river. It’s a canal. The first clue was in the name. But we thought it was worthy of a mention on this list since it grants access to the Great Glen Canoe Trail – a beauty of a kayak trip. On an 100km paddle, you can travel from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east – traversing the legendary Loch Ness and Loch Lochy along the way. While we appreciate the latter loch may sound like it was named by a three year-old, we assure you Loch Lochy is just as beautiful as the one with the monster in it just up the road. Perfect for a paddle.
One of Scotland’s classic white water rivers, the Findhorn can be found in the north east of the country, flowing into the Moray firth. It attracts paddlers from around the country with rapids ranging from Grade 2 to Grade 5. Particularly past the point of Randolph’s Leap – a viewpoint with a nice bit of Scottish folklore behind it – there’s great kayaking opportunities.
For more information on Scottish kayaking head to the Scottish Canoe Association.
Kayak UK | The Best Rivers to Kayak or Canoe in Northern Ireland
The River Blackwater Canoe Trail stretches 20km through the countryside of Armagh and Tyrone, finishing in Lough Neagh. There’s plenty of places to stop off for a cup of tea or a bite to eat on the way too – from The Argory to Bond’s Bridge or early on in Blackwatertown itself. It’s worth noting that Lough Neagh, where this 20km finishes, is also one end of the Canoe Trail of the Lower Bann, which runs 58km through Portglenone, Drumaheglis and Coleraine to Portstewart and the Atlantic Ocean. So you could even combine these two tours over a few days for a bigger canoe trail on the beautiful rivers of Northern Ireland.
Dipping in and out of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Foyle Canoe Trail runs 53km long, starting from Lifford, travelling through both countryside and city (the historic city of Derry/Londonderry) and bringing you out at the Atlantic Ocean. Canoe NI also write that “since the trail is tidal – the river section can even be paddled upstream!”
The Coastline Canoe Trails
Okay, so we’re cheating here. We know, sea kayaking is an entirely different ballgame, and an article about the best rivers to kayak in the United Kingdom really shouldn’t include the ocean. But… particularly in Northern Ireland… it’s just so darn pretty! There are North Coast, East Coast and South East Coast Canoe Trails all well documented on the Canoe NI website, and what trails they are – rugged cliff faces, ocean waves and the famous Giant’s Causeway. Then back to Portstewart for a Guinness and a packet of Tayto crisps.
For more information on Scottish kayaking head to Canoe Northern Ireland.
Kayak UK | The Best Rivers to Kayak or Canoe in Wales
The River Usk (Beacons Water Trail)
The Beacons Water Trail is an established canoeing trail in Wales. It uses the River Usk and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. The trail was launched back in 2011 by the Brecon Beacons National Park and Brecon Canoe Club to encourage canoe touring on the aforementioned River Usk and canal. The cool thing about this tour is that you can actually paddle down to Brynich Aqueduct, then change from the river to the canal and paddle back, making your return trip on a completely different stretch of water. A great option for those who want to try out canoeing or kayaking, and take in plenty of views on the way.
Brecon Promenade is the best known access point on the River Usk.
The River Wye runs from Plnlimon in mid Wales to the Severn estuary, much of the time forming the border between England and Wales. The Wye Valley has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so you know the surroundings are going to look good on your Instagram. The 100-mile segment of the River Wye from Hay-on-Wye to the Bristol Channel is renowned for canoe and kayak touring. Elsewhere on the Wye, access is as set by Wye and Usk Foundation, so you need to check up and make sure you’re not trespassing.
Mawddach Estuary is where the River Mawddach meets the sea – and it’s also a great kayaking route through Snowdonia. You won’t get any rapids here but due to the close proximity to the sea, there is a possibility of waves, and if you fancy going for a paddle on the ocean, this is a great gateway, too.
For more information on Scottish kayaking head to Canoe Wales.
Kayak UK | The Best Rivers to Kayak or Canoe in England
In the borderlands of Essex and Suffolk, you’ll find The Stour. This is a great river for beginners and an incredibly scenic paddle as well. The river is incredibly accessible, and you can paddle through Stodmarsh Nature Reserve – a unique area of wetland with marshes, reedbeds, lakes and woodland. This is an incredibly relaxing, idyllic canoe or kayak tour, and you’ve got some good chances of seeing rare wildlife (in particular water birds).
River Allen can be found in Northumberland and is one of the best rivers in England for white water rafting. Because of all those rapids though, the River Allen isn’t perhaps the best for beginners. The rapids are often Grade 3, up to Grade 4. There isn’t an awful lot of flat water on which to get your composure. There’s a boulder garden early on to test if you’re up to it, and it doesn’t let up much from there.
The River Thames is probably the most famous river in the United Kingdom. Though many people don’t give much thought to where it leads after or before London. From the origins in the Cotswolds, right out to the ocean, it’s actually a beautiful 184 mile route through the English countryside. Canoeing from Oxford to Windsor is possibly one of the most scenic sections, coming in at around 65 miles overall with camping options available along the way.
Rising high in Exmoor in the county of Somerset, the East Lyn is a river which flows through the East Lyn Valley in Devon. In kayaking terms, it’s not an easy paddle. This, not unlike the Allen, is one for those who have spent a good few years in a kayak. With grade three rapids and plenty of demanding segments, this makes for a great kayak for those after a challenge. And the fact you can go from the source to the sea makes it all the more appetising.
If it’s a particular part of the United Kingdom you’re after, we’d recommend checking out the UK Rivers Guidebook, who have a detailed website full of information on rivers in Scotland, England and Wales, or check out the British Canoe Union for more in England.
Inspired? Check out our range of kayak holidays in the UK.