If you’re a fan of sun, surf, and adventure, then you’ve come to the right place.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) is a popular (and fun!) activity for outdoor enthusiasts who like to spend time out on the water.
This comprehensive beginner’s guide highlights everything you need to know about the popular sport, from the basics of standing and paddling to equipment options and additional resources.
Never ridden the waves before? No problem. This guide is ideal for the absolute beginner.
What is stand up paddle boarding?
Many folks confuse stand up paddle boarding with surfing, but the sports are actually quite different.
Stand up paddle boarders stand on the board and use a paddle to move through the water. While some stand up paddle board enthusiasts opt to paddle in choppy seas and oceans, many prefer calmer waters.
Surfers, on the other hand, sit or lie on their boards and wait for waves to come. In traditional paddle boarding, which is unique from both surfing and SUP, paddlers use their hands while kneeling on a board.
In all cases, boarding is an excellent full-body workout and a thoroughly exhilarating experience.
Why you’ll love stand up paddle boarding
If I’m being completely honest, SUP is downright gnarly.
It serves a variety of purposes, from fostering a sense of community among likeminded folks, to getting you in the great outdoors, to introducing fitness and recreation in a unique and fun way.
Plus, it’s an excellent way to tour beautiful locations around the world.
Varieties of stand up paddle boarding
Stand up paddle boarding doesn’t require multiple people; it’s ideal for solo enthusiasts, as well as small and large groups.
In addition to sightseeing and exploring just for fun, SUPs are used in a variety of ways:
With SUPs specifically designed for fishing, hobbyists can enjoy hours on the water and catch fish easily and effectively.
Unlike boats, SUPs allow for quick movement, allowing fishers to reach a location faster.
In addition, SUPs are relatively silent, so they don’t scare fish away. Plus, it’s often easier to see the water below you from a board than from a boat or dock.
SUPs provide an amazing full-body workout, making it ideal for yoga.
There are classes forming in virtually every location where stand up paddle boarding is popular, and for good reason. First of all, the core must be engaged to maintain the board’s stability. Second, yogis must remain mindful on their boards in order to achieve poses while keeping themselves afloat.
The sense of accomplishment after a SUP yoga workout is exhilarating, and keeps yogis coming back for more. Whether you’re hoping to test your balance or find a sense of calm, SUP yoga is ideal for you.
Every bit as exciting as it looks, stand up paddle board racing is quickly growing in popularity. And it’s not just advanced boarders who are diving in; the sport is drawing folks of all skill levels, thanks to its accessibility.
Unlike surfing, SUP racing doesn’t require boarders to master the sport completely before competing. These races draw people of all ages, making it a great intergenerational activity.
Staying safe on the water
As with any sport or activity, it’s important to pursue stand up paddle boarding with safety precautions in mind, whether you’re paddling for fun, fitness, or competition.
Personal flotation devices (PFDs)
In the United States, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are not required in surf zones. However, it’s important to be aware of any rules and regulations for the body of water where you plan to practice the sport. Moreover, there’s no harm donning a safety vest even in designated swimming and surfing zones.
What about outside of these zones? The U.S. Coast Guard categorizes stand up paddle boards as a vessel, similar to a canoe. Therefore, paddlers must wear a PFD outside of surf zones in many areas.
Check out this guide to choosing the right flotation device for you!
Some U.S. beaches require boarders to connect their boards to a leash. Whether it’s required or not, a SUP leash is a helpful safety tool.
As the name suggests, the leash tethers you to your board, preventing it from slipping away and out of your control if you take a spill. This is important both for your own convenience, and to prevent your runaway board from smacking into anyone else.
One important consideration if you’re paddling down a river or in an area with lots of branches: Choose a quick-release or breakaway model. If your leash becomes tangled up in branches, you may need to detach yourself quickly.
As with any outdoor activity, it’s important to pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t text and SUP! Act with courtesy and give other people their space.
It’s a good idea to check the forecast before heading out. If winds are high or a big storm is heading in, you’ll know to reschedule your SUP adventure. I’d also advise having a general awareness of sunset time so you can make it back in before dark.
Getting started: The basics
I encourage you to take your SUP journey one step at a time and enjoy the process. The following information will help get you started:
One thing I love about SUP is that it doesn’t require a lot of equipment. You’ll want to pick up the following items before hitting the water:
- Stand up paddle board: When getting acquainted with the sport, I recommend renting a board from a nearby SUP rental shop. The staff will fit you with a board that’s ideal for SUP beginners. Once you fall in love with the sport (and I’m fairly sure you will), it’ll be time to invest in your own board.
- Personal flotation device (PFD): If you plan to board outside of a surf area, take along a PFD, per U.S. Coast Guard regulations. All children must wear their flotation devices, while adults may simply have theirs on board with them. Note: I recommend wearing a vest regardless of age.
- Safety whistle: A whistle is required to warn others of your whereabouts and for emergencies, per U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
- Paddle: It’s important to pick the right paddle for your height. There are a few ways to do this, and different people have different preferences. One way: stand the the paddle vertically on the ground and stretch your arm overhead. The top of the paddle should fit into the natural bend of your wrist. Generally, the paddle should stand several inches higher than your head. Here’s a quick video guide to sizing your paddle.
- Leash: A leash will ensure that your board is always with you, even after if you take a tumble.
- Light: Carry a light if you will be on the water after dark.
Other gear to consider
Below is a list of items you might want to bring along:
- Lip balm with sunscreen
- Water bottle
- Snacks or a meal
- Mini first-aid kit
If you bring your cell phone or camera, be sure to put it in a waterproof bag or case. The same goes for maps, charts, credit cards, and cash.
Dress for the weather…and the water.
Because you’ll be spending plenty of time both on the board and in the water, opt for a swimsuit, board shorts, or wetsuit, depending on your location and the temperature. Wear water shoes or sandals.
If you’re prone to sunburn, sun protective clothes are also an option. I also recommend sunglasses with a strap, along with sunscreen. A hat is optional, but recommended.
If you’re paddle boarding in a colder climate, you’ll need a neoprene shirt and shorts or a wetsuit. You’ll also want to pick up a pair of paddling gloves, and a hat and socks made from wool or synthetic fibers.
Let’s get moving
Now that you’re fully equipped and dressed for adventure, it’s time to get out on the water.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to launching and standing up on your board:
Step one: Launching
- Walk into the water while carrying your board.
- Once you are in knee-deep water, place your paddle across your board with the paddle in the water, and sit on your knees on the board.
- Practice paddling on your knees before navigating your way to deeper water. When you’re ready to try standing, begin to paddle faster on your knees.
Step two: Standing
As a note of caution, be sure to move to deeper water before attempting to stand. This is a safety measure: You don’t want to take a long fall into shallow water.
Once you’ve picked up speed on your knees, the following steps will have you standing in no time:
- Shift from your knees to your toes, one foot at a time, and hold your paddle across your board, placing your knuckles shoulder-length apart on the board.
- Place your feet on the board where your knees were, and raise your upper body until your back is straight. You should now be in a standing position.
Step three: Balancing
- Maintaining your balance will most likely be difficult at first. Keep your feet in line with the handle on top of the board.
- Bend your knees slightly and try to keep your feet in line with your hips. Tip: Angle your feet out 15 degrees from a parallel position for stability.
- Remember: It’s easier to stay balanced when your body is in motion, so try not to stop moving once you’re standing.
- If you feel off-balance, be sure to keep your paddle in the water, keeping the blade angled forward.
- With one hand, hold the grip at the top of your paddle. Your other hand should be near the middle of the shaft. Don’t grip too tightly.
- Check that your feet are in line with your hips.
- Look at the water in front of you, not at your feet. Looking straight ahead at the horizon will help keep you balanced.
- Don’t grip with your feet. The added effort will wear your feet out before you’re ready to get back to shore.
Step four: Paddling
There are some basic strokes you’ll want to learn to keep you moving. Remember, you don’t have to master these strokes immediately. Practice makes perfect.
To move forward, choose a side to paddle. If you opt to paddle on your right-hand side, place the left hand on the top of the paddle and your right hand on the shaft. For left paddlers, use the opposite hand position.
- Plunge the blade into the water approximately two feet in front of you, then bring the blade in line with your feet and out of the water. Repeat.
- Use your top hand to navigate the paddle, and remember to turn from the torso.
- Keep the paddle as vertical as possible to navigate in a straight line.
- Switch sides every few strokes, and don’t forget to switch hand positions each time you switch sides.
Learn to slow down, completely stop, or turn the direction of your board with this stroke.
- Simply choose a side and plunge the paddle into the water behind you, making sure the paddle is completely submerged. Bring the paddle straight and forward, then repeat. This motion on the right side of your board will turn the board to the right, just as the motion on the left side will turn the board to the left.
- Use your torso to turn and keep your arms straight, making sure to keep the paddle in a vertical position.
If you need to pull up next to a dock or boat, or maneuver in tight quarters, you’ll need to memorize the draw stroke.
- Plunge your paddle into the water on the side you want to move toward.
- The paddle should be parallel to the board.
- At this point, pull the paddle towards the board.
- Bring the paddle out of the water and repeat.
The sweep stroke allows you to turn your board from a stationary or moving position.
- For this stroke, you’ll want to place the top of your paddle just below the shoulders.
- Turn your shoulders to the side you are paddling, and bend the knees.
- If you’re paddling on the right, plunge the paddle into the water in front of you about a foot to the right. Simply reverse this motion to paddle on the left.
- Use a sweeping motion to bring the paddle through the water in an arched position from the top of the board to the tail. This motion on the right side will move the board to the left, and this movement on the left side will navigate the board to the right.
- Tip: Always turn from the torso and keep the knees bent for stability.
Cross bow stroke:
If you need to turn quickly, the cross bow stroke will come in handy.
- To turn right, place your paddle at the back of the left-hand side of the board. Plunge your paddle into the water, and make a sweeping motion from the starting position to the front of the board and around to the right-hand side.
- Continue this motion, bringing the paddle out of the water, if necessary.
- Start on the right-hand side of the board to turn your board to the left.
Standing up after a fall
Falls are bound to happen, and standing back up doesn’t have to be difficult. Below I’ll describe how to fall correctly and share some tried-and-true tips to get you back on your board quickly.
- If you have time to prepare for your fall, try to fall far away from the board.
- Fall flat on your back or stomach when possible.
- If you can, hold onto your paddle.
- Get back to your board as quickly as possible.
- If you need to retrieve your paddle, lie on your belly on your board, and use your hands to navigate to your paddle.
Standing back up
- To get back on your board, grab the handle and pull yourself up with your elbows until you can reach your other hand to the opposite side of the board.
- At this point, you’ll need to kick your legs to bring the board under the body all in one motion.
- Paddle with your knees for a while, then shift from your knees to your toes, one foot at a time, and hold the paddle across the board.
- Place the feet on the board, and raise the upper body until you are in a standing position.
Where to go: The top 5 SUP locations in the U.S.
Whether you’re lucky enough to live near one of the top SUP locations, or you’re planning a trip to test your new skills, the following U.S. locations are known for being SUP-friendly:
1) Lake Tahoe, California
Beautifully clear waters and the picturesque Sierra Nevada Mountains draw SUP lovers to Lake Tahoe and keep them coming back.
Because the water is so clear, boarders can see up to 70 feet below. Paddle out to Fannette Island and get acquainted with beavers, bears, eagles and other local wildlife.
2) Kauai, Hawaii
Enjoy the sport in the state where the SUP craze began. Kauai’s Wailua River offers stunningly beautiful views of Nounou Mountain, better known as the Sleeping Giant.
Best of all? Tours are available on some of the island’s gorgeous rivers.
3) Key West, Florida
Relax and enjoy while navigating the peaceful paradise that is Key West.
Schedule a SUP tour, and be a rebel by sneaking a peek at the ocean life below. You’re bound to spot a manatee or stingray along the way.
4) Seattle, Washington
With its many bodies of water and serene backdrops, Seattle is the perfect place to tour on your board.
You’ll find fellow boarders on Puget Sound and Lake Washington, among many other waterways.
Take in the city views and learn about the location on one of Seattle’s SUP tours.
5) Santa Cruz, California
Our top pick for Northern California boarding, Santa Cruz offers ideal conditions for SUP beginners.
Lessons and guided tours are available, and there are plenty of areas to practice the sport in Santa Cruz Harbor.
Buying a board
So, I’ve covered the basics. You’ve learned what you need to get started, and maybe you’ve even tried on SUP on your last vacation! Now what if you’re getting super into the sport and want to take it to the next level?
It’s time to talk about specific boards and which type you might want to buy.
Below is a brief summary of board types and what they’re generally used for:
All-around stand up paddle boards
If you’re new to the sport, an all-around SUP is an excellent way to go. There are inflatable and non-inflatable options, and the boards are designed with beginners in mind.
Many boarders find all-around boards more stable than other versions, thanks to their width.These boards are ideal if you plan to stay in calm, flat water. Because of this, they are my top pick for new boarders.
Make sure you check out my guide to the best inflatable stand up paddle boards for beginners.
Surf stand up paddle boards
If you’re ready to dive in and start riding some waves, you might opt for a surf SUP, which is ideal if you plan to spend your time in the surf zone.
Shorter and narrower than all-around boards, surf SUPs are also much lighter in weight. Because of the lack of stability, this type of board isn’t a great choice for newbies.
Racing stand up paddle boards
When you’ve learned the basics and are ready to race, a racing SUP is the perfect pick. This type of board is narrow and long, and is specifically designed for speed. I don’t recommend racing SUPs for beginners, as they have a learning curve beyond the traditional all-around board.
Where to shop
While online shops are great, the best place to scope out a board is at your local SUP retailer. The staff will help you choose a board type that’s the perfect fit for your individual needs. When deciding on a board, be sure to ask questions and explain that you’re new to the sport. The perfect board will undoubtedly make you fall in love with the sport even more.
Storing your board
Now that you have your own board, it’s important to store it correctly when you’re not on the water.
Keep your board inside, if at all possible. At the very least, keep it away from the elements and protect it from the sun.
The best ways to store your board are:
- Leaning: Perhaps the easiest way to store a board is leaning against a wall. SUPs are very tall, so storing it on its side is probably the best option. Be sure the board is stable, and protect it by placing padding between the board and the floor. Consider using a strap to secure the board to a sturdy object.
- Suspended: Hanging your board from the ceiling is a great way to save space and keep your board safe. There are suspension kits available that make installation quick and easy.
- Racked: Placing your board on a cushioned rack, or a rack with straps, is another great storage solution. There are countless options to choose from, including wall racks, suspended racks, and freestanding racks.
If you weren’t convinced before that SUP is the hobby for you, I hope that now you’ll give it a try!
Whether you plan to board for fun or fitness, or you’re eager to explore other sports via SUP, these beginner tips should launch you into a new adventure you’ll enjoy for years to come.
With a little practice, you’ll be a SUP pro in no time.