A Beginner's Guide to Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Young woman kneeling on a paddle board
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Though stand-up paddleboarding began in Hawaii in the 18th century, it hasn’t been until the last 20 years that the sport experienced a boom nationally and globally. A low-impact workout, excellent for reducing stress, improving balance, and working the core, stand up paddle boarding (or SUP boarding) has a relatively low learning curve. Many people can learn how to do it in about 20 minutes, and even those that struggle can still enjoy paddling by sitting or kneeling while working on their balance. The following information can help inform you on the types of boards out there, how to choose a board, the gear and clothing you’ll need, and some safety and planning tips to get you out on the water.

Key Stand-Up Paddleboarding Terms

  • SUP: The acronym of "stand-up paddleboard."
  • Nose: The front of the board.
  • Tail: The back of the board.
  • Deck: The top part of the stand-up paddleboard. The deck can be domed or flat.
  • Deck pad: The rider stands on this part of the board. A pad made of EVA material that goes over the deck, providing traction and grip for the feet, as well as comfort when you have to paddle on your knees.
  • Handle: Found in the middle of the deck pad, the handle is used to flip a SUP on its side to carry it. When carrying, make sure that the bottom of the board is supported against the side of the boarder’s body.
  • Fin: This thin piece of curved plastic helps to give a stand-up paddleboard direction. Boards come with one to four fins on them, and they are all attached on the bottom near the tail of the board.
  • Leash: A chord attached to a Velcro anklet you use to attach yourself to the board.
  • Rocker: This refers to the measure of the curve of the board from the tip of the nose to the tail. Especially important in river or surf SUPing, a high curved rocker helps move the board through the water faster, while a low rocker makes the board more stable.
  • Rail: The side of the board from tip to tail. Lower volume rails make the board easier to maneuver, making them desirable for SUP surfing, while higher volume rails help with stability, making them more inviting to first-timers.
  • PFD: The acronym for a personal flotation device. A life vest is a specific type of PFD.
  • Fin box: The slot a fin slides into to attach it to the board.
  • Blade: The flat portion of a paddle.
  • Tracking: This refers to how well the board can go in a straight line. The higher the tracking, the straighter the board travels.
  • Glide: The ease with which a board can move in the water.
A shot of a paddleboard taken underwater.
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Types of Stand-Up Paddleboards

SUP boards come in a variety of shapes, densities, and materials. When deciding on one, consider what kind of SUPing you want to do (hour-long trips, fishing, surfing, or practicing yoga), where you might like to do it (lakes, rivers, bays, or oceans), and how much room you have to store the board.

  • Solid vs. Inflatable: Boards can be solid or inflatable. While solid boards are more specialized, inflatable boards are far easier to transport. To reach your paddleboarding spot, you can deflate the board and it in your car, rather than having to strap a board to the roof of your car or install a rack. Inflatable boards also tend to be cheaper than solid boards but can't be specialized.
  • All-Round: Thick, wide, and versatile, all-around boards are the most common types of stand-up paddleboards. They’re stable and range from about 32 to 35 inches wide and 4 to 6 inches thick. A solid choice for beginners, they work well in flat or choppy water.
  • Touring: Generally longer than all-round boards at 11 to 14 feet in length and 28 to 34 inches in width, touring boards are used for going long distances. They maneuver well in lakes, oceans, and bays, with the pointed nose aiding their glide. Beginner-friendly, Touring boards are beginner-friendly and are recommended for SUPers wanting a high-intensity workout.
  • Race: Made for speed and designed for racing, you’ll get a strong glide with these boards. Race boards are like touring boards, but narrower, only 27 to 28 inches wide, and not very beginner-friendly.
  • Specialty: Perhaps you want to do stand-up paddleboarding for a very specific activity like surfing, fishing, or yoga. Various companies make boards designed for these specific activities in mind with features to support and enhance them. Only get these if you plan on only doing that specific activity on your board, otherwise stick with an all-around or a touring board.

Gear to Bring Stand-up Paddleboarding

When out on the water, you don’t need much more than the basics of a stand-up paddleboard, paddle, and PFD. Consider that the more you carry, the more things that could potentially fall into the water, and the more you’ll items you’ll have to organize on your board or throw in your waterproof bag. Here’s a checklist to consider, but try to keep it light:

  • Stand-Up Paddleboard: Whether you go inflatable or solid, all-around or activity-specific, a stand-up paddleboard is the first thing you'll need. Depending on your destination, it may be possible to rent a board from a watersports company.
  • Paddle: SUP paddles can be either fixed or adjustable. Adjustable paddles are the better option if you ever plan on sharing your paddle with someone else. To find a properly-sized paddle, hold it by your side with the blade side touching the ground. Reach your hand up and see whether your wrist can rest comfortably at the top of the paddle. If you can't you will need to size up or down, depending on the position of your wrist.
  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD): You should always have a PFD on board. The U.S. Coast Guard requires one if you are paddling outside of a surfing or swimming area. Per Coast Guard regulations, if a rider is 13 years old or older, the life vest must be on board, but not necessarily worn by the rider. If a rider is 12 years old or younger, they must be wearing the life vest.
  • Waterproof Bag: Though not necessary, consider getting a waterproof bag to protect your phone, wallet, and any other small items that you want to take with you on the water.
  • Sunblock: Slather yourself with sunblock and leave it onshore if you’ll only be out an hour. Otherwise, take it with you in a waterproof bag.
  • Water and Snacks: Bring a half-liter of water for an hour-long ride, or a full liter for a two-hour ride. Coconut water is also an excellent source of hydration during a ride. If you're going longer than an hour, consider bringing a snack to keep your energy up, like a meal bar or a small
    bag of nuts.
  • Rescue Whistle: The purpose for having a whistle is two-fold: to be able to communicate should you need to be rescued or to warn unaware boaters of your presence. The U.S. Coast Guard requires a whistle if you’re paddling at night outside swimming and surfing areas.
  • Headlamp or flashlight: Having a headlight isn't just a good idea if you’re out after sunset, it’s required by the US Coast Guard when paddling outside of swimming and surfing areas.
  • Pump: If you have an inflatable board, double-check that you’ve packed your pump in your car to ensure you don’t have to return home and lose time on the water.
Black woman with long dreadlocks in a bathing suit carrying sup board and looking at sea waves
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What to Wear Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Oftentimes, you can just wear your swimsuit, and a hat or sunglasses to go SUPing. Dress to the water temperature (as you might fall in) rather than the air temperature, and only wear quick-drying clothes. If you’ll be walking over a rocky beach, wear flip flops or water shoes, otherwise you
can go barefoot. If you’re in slightly cooler weather or if the sun is extraordinarily bright, you might want to wear a rashguard and some board shorts over your swim suit for some extra coverage. If the weather is cold, go for a wet suit and some paddling gloves.

How to Plan your Stand-Up Paddleboarding Trip

To plan your first SUPing trip, first, choose the type of water in which you want to paddle. Lakes, reservoirs, and calm bays with little to no wind will be beginner-friendly. Check the weather report before you go to verify wind speeds. Anything under 10 knots will be ideal paddling weather (a knot is 1.151 mph). Consider the type of terrain around the body of water as well. Walking a short distance from your car on a smooth surface like sand or concrete will be easier than walking along a rocky lake bed or beach.

Next, think about the time of year you want to go. In the Northern hemisphere, winter is the least pleasant (especially if you fall in the water), so keep water temperatures in mind. Even if your SUPing destination is super hot, you can always jump in the water to cool off. Just take plenty of sunscreen and protective sun gear to avoid sunburn.

While there’s likely a natural or man-made body of water close to you that you can SUP on, consider taking a trip to one of these locations to experience a wide variety of SUPing:

  • Austin, Texas: Urban, funky, and easy to access, Lady Bird Lake in the middle of Austin offers multiple spots to push off from, overhead bridges with graffiti art, and turtles swimming languidly.
  • Lake Tahoe, California: Clear, calm, and beautiful, here you’ll have your pick of glassy bays to paddle as you take in the mountain landscape.
  • Florida Keys: Enjoy marine life and calm ocean waters as you paddle around this archipelago.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding Safety Tips

  • Always wear a PFD, no matter your skill level
  • Go with a partner
  • Take a rescue whistle with you
  • If paddling at night, wear a headlamp as it gets incredibly dark on the water
  • Jump to the side of the board when you fall, so as not to fall on your board
  • Hold on to your paddle when you fall. Not only will you not have to swim extra to get it, but it will also be less likely for you to hit it—or for it to hit you—when you hit the water
Article Sources
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  1. World Paddle Association. "PFD Laws – SUP or Paddleboards Now Classified as Vessels." Dec. 30, 2010.

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