Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is one of the most populat watersports in America as reported by the Outdoor Foundation. An offshoot of surfing, stand-up paddleboarding is a more accessible sport: No ocean necessary. No waves. No experience required. Whether you’re an avid kayaker who is looking for a full-body workout or a nature enthusiast who wants to expand the outdoor experience to the water, stand-up paddleboarding is a watercraft for people of all ages and fitness levels. The only things first-timers need to get started are a few basic pieces of equipment.
Before you can learn how to paddleboard, you need to acquire a few key pieces of gear: a SUP board, a paddle, Personal Floatation Device (PFD) and a leash.
Paddleboards come in all shapes and sizes and the one you choose will depend on your weight and skill level, where you plan on using it and the type of paddling you expect to do.
The best paddleboard for beginners is one that is suited for all-around use. Look for a 9 to 12 foot SUP paddleboard that is stable and easy to maneuver. All-around boards are not activity specific and are a good starting point for exploring the SUP experience. There are also SUP paddleboards designed for specific activities, such as surfing, SUP yoga, fishing, touring, racing and fitness paddling.
When choosing a board, it’s also important to think about how you’re going to transport and store your SUP paddleboard. Hard boards, (sometimes referred to as rigid stand-up paddleboards are a good choice for beginners as many models are offered at low prices. Most SUP paddleboarders transport their boards on top of their car with racks and straps. If you have limited storage space, plan to fly with your board, or drive a vehicle unsuitable for carrying a hard board, consider getting an inflatable SUP paddleboard. Inflatable boards have the advantage of bouncing if dropped, though no paddleboard should be run into rocks or dragged across a parking lot. With paddleboards you get what you pay for. More expensive boards utilize better materials, construction methods, are more durable, and often lighter in weight.
A beginning paddleboarder should test or buy an adjustable paddle for their first attempts. Experimentation and personalization are part of the formula for the beginner, and an adjustable paddle will allow the equipment to adapt to the user. As far as paddle length, 6"-10" plus the paddler's height is the general rule for paddle length. An adjustable paddle helps the novice dial in the exact length. All paddles should float. A paddle that sinks is a hazard to the paddler and will litter our waterways. Low price paddles and paddles with holes on the shaft for length adjustment often sink.
A reasonable starting point for blade surface area is 90 or less square inch. Surface area and blade design are important for racers and sport specific SUPers, less so for recreational use and beginners. Buy something that fits your level of use and budget.
Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
A PFD is not a substitute for the ability to swim. Freestyling like an Olympian is not necessary, but all participants in water-based activities should be comfortable in the water and be able to swim. On many bodies of water, a PFD is required by local laws. If you do not want to wear a PFD or have one attached to your paddle board, check your local ordinance to check if this is allowed before doing so to avoid a hefty fine.
Many good vest style PFDs are available for the motion of paddling. Designed specifically for paddling, they are comfortable and will not restrict movement. Inflatable PFDs are also available. Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions on maintenance as it may save your life. Having a PFD tethered to your board will comply with the law, wearing your PFD while paddling may save your life.
A leash helps keep your SUP paddleboard from floating away in the event of a fall. Leashes commonly attach at the ankle, calf or waist. Just like the boards, leashes are designed specifically for use in surf, flatwater or rivers, so choose one based on where you will paddle. Leashes should only be used on bodies of water free of underwater snagging hazards. While a leash is designed to keep your board with you, there are conditions and situations which require a quick release of the leash.
When you’re new to SUP, the best way to learn how to paddleboard is on flat, calm water. Climb onto the mid-point of the length of the board and start in a kneeling position. If you’re wobbly, stay there until you get a feel for the balance.
When you’re ready, slowly stand up one foot at a time. Keep your feet parallel, about shoulder-width apart, and keep a slight bend in your knees. Keep your gaze up and look ahead. Picking a point in the distance will help balance and navigation. Like riding a bike, the eyes scan near and far. Resist the temptation to look at your feet.
Once you’re comfortable standing, you can practice the basic forward stroke.
You don’t have to be particularly strong to enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, but do you have to master stand-up paddling technique. A lot of beginners unknowingly hold the paddle backward. If you have a bent shaft paddle where the blade is offset at an angle to the shaft, the blade angle faces forward. Another indicator of the direction of the paddle is the manufacturer's logo. They are on the front side of the blade. Look for the big flashy logo if there are multiple emblems. To hold the paddle correctly, place one hand on the T-top of the paddle and the other hand on the paddle shaft. You will paddle on the side of the bottom hand. A good starting point for the distance between the hands, or grip width, is slightly wider than shoulder width. Learn to paddle with a relaxed hand grip. Very little hand squeeze is required to remain in secure contact with the paddle.
When you’re paddleboarding, the bottom arm should be extended in a comfortable straight position. The top arm should have a slight bend in the elbow. This position is maintained through the power phase of the forward stroke. The paddling stroke is a full body motion which starts with the feet. The paddle is an anchoring point in the water and you are pulling yourself to that anchoring point. Stroke technique is a life-long pursuit and beyond the scope of this primer. Devote as much or as little time to it as you see fit.
SUP paddlers navigate left and right by switching the side on which they are paddling. Strokes on the left side turn the board to the right. Strokes on the right turn the board left. Alternate the paddling side as much or as little as necessary to maintain your course.
There are several stand-up paddling techniques you can use to maneuver your SUP paddleboard. The most basic strokes beyond the forward stroke, are the sidestroke, back paddle and the sweep stroke. When you’re just getting your feet wet, try turning with the forward sweep stroke and the back paddle.
For the side stroke, place the blade into the water approximately 3 feet away from the rail of the board. This stroke is most effective the closer to the bow the blade is placed. Pull yourself to the paddle.
For the sweep stroke, place your paddle in the water close to the rail near the bow and take a long sweeping stroke away from the board ending toward the stern. The path of the blade in the water resembles a "C". You should feel the board turn to the opposite side of the stroke. In essence, the board is being pushed away from the paddle blade.
To back paddle, place your paddle behind your body, and stroke towards the bow. It is the reverse of the forward stroke.
There are many ways you can use your stand-up paddleboard. The vast majority of paddlers choose SUP to get outside to exercise. But a lot are also motivated by the chance to be with family and friends and to observe the scenic beauty and be close to nature.
Whether you want to go on a relaxing paddle around a calm lake at sunset, surf in the ocean, practice your Downward-facing Dog or do fast sprints to get a hardcore workout, stand-up paddleboarding offers something for everyone.
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