Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) Basics
Stand up paddle boards (SUP) offer a fun, relaxing way to play on the water. With a minimum of gear, you can paddle ocean surf or placid lakes and rivers.
Paddle boarding delivers a full-body workout and thus has become a popular cross-training activity. And since you stand at your full height, you can enjoy unique views of everything from sea creatures to what’s on the horizon.
To get started, you just need some basic SUP gear and techniques.
Good news: You need just a few key pieces of equipment to enjoy SUP.
Stand up paddle board: This is by far your most significant gear investment. Your board choice is determined by a combination of paddler weight and skill, your intended use and the local conditions. See the REI Expert Advice article, Stand Up Paddle Boards: How to Choose, for details.
Paddle: Stand up paddles have an angle or “elbow” in the shaft for maximum efficiency. Choose a paddle that’s roughly 6" to 8" taller than you are (note: some manufacturers recommend an 8" to 10" differential).
PFD (Personal Flotation Device): The U.S. Coast Guard classifies stand up paddleboards as vessels, so always wear a PFD. (You should also carry a safety whistle and use a light if you are paddling after sunset).
Proper clothing: For cool conditions where hypothermia is a concern, wear a wetsuit or dry suit. In milder conditions, wear shorts and a T-shirt or bathing suit—something that moves with you and can get wet.
Leash: Typically sold separately, a leash tethers your SUP to you, keeping it close by if you fall off. Your SUP is a large flotation device, so being attached to it can be important for your safety. There are leashes designed specifically for surf, flatwater and rivers; be sure to purchase the correct one for your intended use.
Sun protection: Wear sunscreen and sunglasses.
Shop REI's selection of paddle boarding gear.
Transporting Your Stand Up Paddle Board
How do you transport a SUP board (or boards) on your vehicle? Our video gives you the basics.
Video: Carrying Your SUP to Your Car
Carrying Your SUP to the Water
Most SUPs have a built-in handle. Just lean the board on its rail (edge), reach for the handle (a grip in the middle of the board) and tuck the board under one arm. Carry the paddle with your other hand.
For longer distances—or if your board has no handle—carry your paddle board on your head. Here’s how:
- Stand the board on its tail (end) with the deck (top of the board) facing you.
- Lay your paddle on the ground within easy reach.
- Grasp the rails (the edges of the board) with both hands.
- Walk yourself under the board so that your head is about midway between the nose (front) and the tail.
- Stand upright with the board overhead, still holding it by its rails.
- Bend down to pick up your paddle and head for the water.
SUP Techniques on the Water
Standing Up on Your SUP
When you’re new to the sport, it’s best to start out in flat, calm water that’s free of obstacles like boats and buoys.
At first, you may find it easier to kneel on the board rather than to stand upright. Here are the steps to get you started:
- Standing alongside the board in shallow water, place your paddle across the deck of the board and use it as an outrigger. The paddle grip is on the rail (edge) of the board; the blade rests on the water.
- Hold the board by the rails. One hand will also be holding the paddle grip.
- Climb onto the board in a kneeling position, just behind the center point of the board.
- From that kneeling position, get a feel for the balance point of the board. The nose shouldn’t pop up out of the water and the tail shouldn’t dig in.
- Keep your hands on either side of the board to stabilize it.
- Once you’re ready, stand up on the board one foot at a time. Place your feet where your knees were. You might also bring a friend to help stabilize the board as you get the hang of standing on it.
To maintain your balance as you stand upright on the board:
- Your feet should be parallel, about hip-width distance apart, centered between the board rails (edges). Don’t stand on the rails.
- Keep toes pointed forward, knees bent and your back straight.
- Balance with your hips—not your upper body.
- Keep your head and shoulders steady and upright, and shift your weight by moving your hips.
- Your gaze should be level at the horizon. Avoid staring at your feet.
- Much like bicycling, when your forward momentum increases, your stability increases as well.
Once you’re comfortable balancing on the board in flat water, it's time to take off on a longer excursion—where the real fun begins.
Video: How to Paddle Straight
Some pointers about the basic paddle boarding stroke:
- If you’re paddling on the right, your right hand is lower and on the paddle shaft. Your top (left) hand is on the top of the grip.
- The elbow (angle) of the paddle faces away from you. This may look and feel counterintuitive at first.
- Keep your arms straight and twist from your torso as you paddle. Think of using your torso to paddle rather than your arms. You have more strength in your abdominal muscles than in your arms.
- Push down on the paddle grip with your top hand.
- Plant the paddle by pushing the blade all the way under the surface, pull it back to your ankle, then out of the water.
- At first, keep your strokes fairly short and close alongside the board. No need to overpower it.
- A small draw stroke at the beginning of the paddle stroke will keep you going forward.
- To go in a reasonably straight line, paddle about 4 or 5 strokes on one side, then switch to the other.
- When you switch sides, you’ll reverse hand positions.
Video: Paddle Reach Tips
There are several easy ways to turn a paddleboard.
- Sidestroke: One way is to simply paddle on one side until the nose turns in the direction you want to go. Want to turn right? Paddle on the left. Headed to the left? Paddle on the right. This will make a long arcing turn.
- Backpaddle: A faster way to turn or reverse direction is to simply drag the paddle or paddle backwards on either side of the board.
- Sweep stroke: Plant your paddle towards the front of the board and take a long sweeping stroke away from the board and towards the tail. Your board will turn to the opposite side of the stroke.
- Stepping back on the board or looking over your shoulder to the direction of your turn also helps in making a turn.
- Another turn that works well, especially in surf, is to paddle on your dominant side (i.e., if you’re right-handed, put your left foot forward and paddle on your right side). Really bend your knees and put more weight on your back foot. This allows the board to pivot and turn quickly.
When You Fall
Stand up paddle boarding is relatively easy to learn, but expect to take the occasional fall as you’re gaining skills. For those inevitable times you lose your balance:
- Aim yourself to the side, so that you fall into the water and not onto the board. Falling onto the board is more likely to cause an injury.
- If you get separated from your paddle and your board, get your board first, then paddle it to retrieve the paddle.
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