Beginner’s Guide to SUP: Everything You Need to Know Before You Get on the Water

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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to SUP

paddle boarding

This is the Perfect Paddles beginner’s guide to SUP. In it you will learn everything you need to know about the activity of stand up paddle boarding even before you hit the water!

Over the course of the last decade there has been one sport that has grown in popularity over all others – stand up paddle boarding. 

The reasons for its meteoric rise are many. It offers a unique perspective on the water. It is beginner friendly with a low barrier of entry. And it gives the participant a fun way to do a full-body workout. 

Before you give it a try yourself, it is always a good idea to have a basic understanding of the fundamentals. With a solid foundation you will have a better time on the water. 

To provide you with this knowledge, the team at Perfect Paddles has put together a comprehensive beginner’s guide to stand up paddle boarding.

With a little guidance provided by a team of professionals, your first time on the water is guaranteed to be the best it can be. This is the Perfect Paddles beginner’s guide to SUP – let’s get started! 

What is SUP?

SUP stands for “stand up paddle boarding.” It originated in Hawaii and combines elements of both surfing and kayaking. 

Unlike on a kayak or surfboard though, a stand up paddle boarder takes an upright, standing posture. While on the water, paddlers use a single-blade paddle to propel themselves through the water. 

A paddle board can also be used in many different environments (rivers, oceans, bays, marinas, etc) and with many different activities (SUP surfing, SUP yoga, whitewater paddling, SUP racing, etc).

In addition, the United States Coast Guard considers a paddle board a vessel. And they require paddlers to have a life jacket on board or on the paddler in most instances. 

paddle boarding

Is it difficult? 

At first glance, SUP may appear to be difficult. It combines many athletic elements such as balance, coordination, strength, conditioning, proper reflexes, situational awareness, and eventually, the ability to read the water. 

Despite all of this though, SUP is very beginner friendly. Especially with the proper instructor with you on the water. 

If you come in with an understanding that you are entering a foreign environment, take your instructor’s guidance seriously, and have decent balance, then you will succeed at paddle boarding. 

The Beginner’s Guide to SUP Gear

Stand Up Paddle Board

When you begin your journey into SUP, you will most likely rent a board from an outfitter near you. The correct board should always correlate with your size, the environment you will be paddling in, and your skill level. As a beginner, the bigger the board, the easier it will be to balance on it. Always follow the recommendations of your instructor when first starting out. 


Paddle 

In SUP you always use a single blade with one flat side. Contrary to popular belief, the side you paddle with is the flat side, not the scooping side. This is a common mistake for beginners. To correctly measure your paddle size, lift your dominant hand in the air. The top of the paddle handle should land right underneath your palm. This is a great way to get an idea of what length will be comfortable for you. And can always be adjusted in the future. 


PFD

Personal Flotation Device. As we have already stated, the US Coast Guard classifies a paddle board as a vessel. Because of this, you must have a PFD on board the vessel if you are outside of a surfing zone. Adults are not required to wear the PFD when paddling but children must. 


Leash

A leash is what tethers you to your board when on the water. Typically they have one small velcro section that connects to a string on the back of your board and a large velcro section that can be attached to your leg. Your SUP is the largest flotation device you have on the water. It is always important to wear a leash and remain attached to your board at all times. If you fell in without a leash and it happened to be a windy day, you can quickly become separated from your board leaving you in a dangerous situation. As a beginner, always wear a leash. 


Safety Whistle and Flashlight

As an additional layer of safety, it is always a good idea to carry a safety whistle with you. If you do find yourself in a precarious situation, the sound of a whistle will often stand out much easier than your voice. And with a flashlight you can stay out to dusk and still let other vessels on the water know you are there.  


Cell Phone Dry Case

While having your phone with you on the water can be considered a luxury, it can also be a useful tool if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, or lost. The best way to keep your cell phone protected is with a dry case like those produced by Duk Gear. 


Basic Types of Paddle Boards

From a beginner’s perspective there are two main types of boards – inflatable and hardboard. 

Inflatable boards are boards that must be inflated with a hand pump or electric pump before use and deflated when stored. They are easy to store, transport, and are often more durable than hard boards. The best environments for inflatable boards are on white water rivers, lakes, or in the ocean. 

Hardboards are paddle boards that are shaped with a foam core and layered with fiberglass or carbon fiber. They are great for high performance paddling such as SUP surfing or SUP racing but they do require space for storage and car/truck racks for transport. 

There are many different hardboard models on the market, each specifically designed for the environment you want to paddle in and the activity you want to do. It is always a great idea to demo or rent a board before you buy it. That way you will know for certain it is the right fit for you. 

Difference in Board Size and Shape

It would be impossible to cover the specifics of each board on the market in this beginner’s guide to SUP. To avoid this, we will instead discuss a general overview of what the size and shape of boards will do for your paddling experience.

Length

The longer a board is the better it will track straight in the water. Tracking means how well a board will stay straight during one individual paddle stroke. On the contrary, the shorter a board is, the worse it will track. Instead of remaining straight in the water it will instead bob side-to-side. This is due to the decrease in surface area on the water. The longer a board is the better it will be for long distance paddling or racing, and the shorter a board is the better it will be for children or SUP surfing. 

Width

The wider a board is the easier it will be to stand on right away. If a board is built with more width it will increase the surface area in the water and will create more of a platform for the paddler to stand up right away and paddle. If you struggle with balance, always choose the widest board you can find until you feel comfortable on the water.

Thickness

The thicker a board is the more weight it can float in the water. Most boards average about 4”-6” of thickness on the rails. If you are bigger in size (190lbs+) we recommend stepping on a board that is at least 5” to start. 

paddle boarding

Difference in SUP Paddles

Just like there are different boards on the market, there are also many different paddles. In this beginner’s guide to SUP, we’ll first start with the basics.

Fixed v. Adjustable

 Paddles come in two basic varieties, fixed and adjustable. With a fixed blade, it is measured exactly to your size, cut, and permanently glued into place. An adjustable paddle has a latch that can be loosened to move the handle to wherever it is comfortable for you. How do you know which one is a fit for you?

If you are into high-performance SUP activities like SUP surfing and racing, or if you are the only one who is going to be using the paddle, then a fixed one is the way to go. However, if you are into cruising, relaxing, and want to share your board and paddle with your spouse, friends, or children, then an adjustable paddle will be the correct choice. This will allow others to comfortably paddle your equipment on the water. 

Construction

Paddles are made of three distinct materials all affecting the performance. The first is aluminum. Aluminum paddles are heavy. They don’t paddle particularly well. And they are often the first piece of equipment to be replaced by the paddler. However, they are great first paddles as they are cheap and durable.

The second material is fiberglass. These paddles are a little lighter than aluminum, often paddle really well, and can last quite a long time, though they are not as durable as an aluminum paddle. The last is carbon fiber. This is the top-of-the-line paddle. It is made with the highest-quality, lightest material on the market. If you purchase a carbon fiber paddle there is no need to upgrade in the future. 

Blade Size

Paddles also come in different blade sizes. The bigger the blade size the more water you will be able to move with each paddle stroke and the farther you will be able to glide. However, with a larger blade you will be putting more pressure on your shoulders and this can tire you out faster.

With a smaller blade, you will have an increase in rapidity between each stroke, you won’t be moving as much water, but you will also not have the same pressure on your shoulders over the long term. This can lead to longer outings on your board but you will not be able to push as much water with each stroke. 

How to Prepare for Your First Lesson

Before you decide to purchase a board, it is always a great idea to take a lesson. A SUP instructor will be able to correct your paddle stroke, walk you through standing up, and help you to understand the mechanics of the perfect paddle stroke. 

But before you get to the lesson site it is important you know how to prepare for your first outing.

Make sure the outfitter and instructor is well-qualified. It is always a good idea to see if they have been certified by a professional SUP instruction company. These can include certifications from PSUPA or Paddlefit (amongst others). Do some research on the outfitter you plan on taking a lesson with and see if they are qualified to teach you. 

Get proper sleep and bring water. SUP is fun, it’s exciting, and it’s a workout. In order to remain alert on the water, it is always a good idea to get adequate sleep and bring enough water for the duration of your lesson. 

Be mentally prepared to struggle. Standing on a board in the water is a foreign activity for most of us. This can lead to feelings of uncertainty and can result in you falling into the water. If it happens, don’t be embarrassed! Even the best paddlers in the world at one time were beginners. And yes, they too fell into the water. As long as you are prepared for this occurrence you will be able to mentally deal with it and recover with a smile on your face. 

beginner's guide to sup

How to Get Your Paddle Board on the Water

Now that you are prepared for your first lesson, let’s cover a few beginner tips on getting your board on the water. 

How to Carry Your SUP

When the first-gen paddle boards were created you had to carry the board on your head to and from the launch spot. Luckily, this is no longer the case. 

To properly carry your board, prop one side up on the rails. Then with your dominant hand, grab the board handle that is located in the middle and tuck the rail underneath your arm. With your free hand, grab your paddle. With careful attention to the wind so it doesn’t send the nose or tail flying into any obstacles, walk your board down to the launch point. 

How to Launch

Once your board is in deep enough water where you won’t damage the fin, climb aboard, and start on your knees. From this position you can get a feel for how the board behaves in the water. Which way the wind is blowing. And if you are holding the paddle in the correct position. Being to slowly paddle the board towards a deeper part of the water and away from any obstacles before standing up. 

How to Stand Up 

Place your paddle across the front of your board horizontally, still hanging onto it with your hands. Come up into a table top position. Look straight ahead. And slowly bring one foot forward to where the handle is located on the board.

The handle is always marked as the center place of the board and your feet should always land on either side. Once your first foot is in position, remember to remain looking straight ahead as you bring your second foot forward. With knees bent, come into a strong standing position and immediately place your paddle in the water. Congratulations – you are now standing! 

How to Fall and Get Back On

If you feel like you are about to fall and cannot save yourself, make sure you fall away from your board and into open water. This will save your board from any damage, and more importantly, your body. 

To get back onto your board, first place your paddle horizontally on the front. Then take your dominant hand and reach across the board to the opposite rail. With your other hand, grab the center handle. Now, kick with your legs and pull yourself back onto your board in one motion. This can be a difficult part of SUP but with practice and patience you’ll be able to climb on and off your board with ease. 

Beginner’s Guide to SUP: Balance Tips 

Look Straight Ahead, Not Down 

There’s an old axiom- look where you want to go. If you keep your eyes on the water, chances are you will lose balance and fall straight in. To keep your upright posture, train your eyes on the horizon, to a spot you want to go to, and paddle with confidence. By keeping your eyes up you will be better able to balance on the water.

Feet Placement 

As mentioned before, your feet should be placed on the opposite sides of the center handle. One note – they should also be about hip-width apart. Too close together and you will lose balance, and too far apart and you will be standing on the rails with the same result. 

Use Your Paddle for Balance

The best way to maintain your balance on the water is by paddling. Just as in riding a bike, the forward momentum will keep you feeling confident as you glide. However, if you do feel like you may lose balance, you can always use your paddle as an anchor to keep yourself upright. Sometimes all it takes is to stick your paddle into the water to save your balance. With time, this motion will become much easier. 

What to do When You See a Wave/Wake 

The best way to not be affected by a wake or wave in the water is by paddling straight into it. It is much easier to balance front to back than side to side. 

beginner's guide to sup

Beginner’s Guide to SUP: The Paddle Strokes

Forward Stroke

This is the main stroke used to propel yourself through the water. 

  • Hinge at the hips
  • Reach your paddle forward towards the nose of the board keeping your arms straight
  • Sink your paddle all the way into the water (not just the tip of the blade)
  • Pull back

Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke is great for stopping your momentum and turning. The process is similar to the forward stroke but done in an opposite fashion. 

  • Reach behind you and sink your paddle towards the tail of your board
  • Keep your arms straight, twist from the torso, and pull your forward towards your feet
  • Performing the reverse stroke on the left side of your board will cause the nose to go left, and vice versa

Sweep Stroke

The sweep stroke is used for turning your board in a forward motion. 

  • Again, reach forward and submerge the entire paddle blade into the water
  • Sweep your paddle away from your board is a wide arch motion 
  • Performing the sweep stroke on the left side will cause your board to right and vice versa

Common Paddle Boarding Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

Paddling Solo

The water is a foreign environment for us. And with it come inherent dangers. Knowing this, it is always a good idea to paddle with a buddy. Especially if you are new to the sport. With an extra set of eyes and helping hands you are more likely to avoid any dangerous situations that can arise on the water. Until you are an expert in the sport of SUP, always paddle with a buddy. 

The best way to find someone to paddle with is through our Paddle Buddy Finer feature on Perfect Paddles! Connect with paddlers in your are and across the globe! Find out their skill levels, how long they have paddled, and where the best places to paddle are located near you! Check it out! 

Using the Wrong Gear

When we say using the wrong gear, we mean using a board or a paddle that is not fit for your size. If you are on a board that is too small for your body size and shape, you’re in for a miserable time. Instead of enjoying a relaxing paddle on the water, you are more likely to fall in, and fight your board. Not fun. Always make sure you have the correct board size and the paddle height before heading onto the water. 

Not Paying Attention to the Conditions

Always, always, always…check the weather! With special attention to the wind. Weather conditions can make or break your time on the water. Always be prepared by checking the forecast before you go. See if there is a chance for rain or thunderstorms. Take special note of the water temperature so that you can know how to dress appropriately.

And know what direction the wind is blowing and how hard. If the forecast calls for anything over 10-15mph winds, you may want to skp paddling for the day. However, if you do decide to go, always start by paddling into the wind on the way out and with the wind on the way back. By doing this you will have enough energy to return to your launch point with no problems. 

The best way to know the wind and the water conditions leads us into our next section of the beginner’s guide to SUP…

Know the Wind and Weather Conditions 

Luckily for us, we live in a time when the wind and weather reports are available at our fingertips. What follows is a list of the best ones available on the market today. Before you decide to head onto the water, check at least one of these apps to make sure the conditions are safe. 

NOAA Weather Radar App

The most basic of the weather apps on our list, the NOAA has real-time satellite images and can save your locations for future use. Use this app if you want basic information on the weather – fast.

Windy App from Windy Weather

This app is popular with pilots and storm chasers because of its ability to track wind, rain, temperatures, and humidity. For these reasons alone – it should be popular with the average SUP enthusiast as well!
Added bonus: The app utilizes webcams so you can zoom in on your exact location and see the conditions without ever leaving your house!

Weather Radar App

The Weather Radar App is a live radar weather station right in your palm. With real-time information based on your GPS location, you can find out the forecast or see any storm that might be forming on the horizon.

Wind Alert

Let’s face it – the one weather condition that will ruin any paddling excursion is the wind. For this reason alone, we highly recommend downloading the Wind Alert app from Weather Flow Inc. This app has the most accurate wind readings as it pulls in data from 50,000 wind stations from around the globe. Know the wind speed and direction before you head onto the water to make your paddle more enjoyable.

River App by Florian Bessiere

This last app is appropriate only for the river paddlers out there. But we wanted to include it because of its wealth of information and fast-tracking capabilities on river conditions. Rivers can be treacherous to paddle on so knowing as much as you can about a particular river before heading onto the water is paramount.

The app itself gives up-to-date information on water levels and river conditions on more than 20,000 sites in North America and Europe. In addition, it sends automatic notifications on changes in river levels. A must-have for any river paddler!

Know the Water Conditions

Besides the weather, it is also important to understand the subtleties of the water while paddling. By knowing what the water is doing, you are safer while spending time on your board, and can help others better understand the environment as well!

Tides

The regular upward and downward movement of the level of the ocean that is caused by the pull of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth. The flow of the ocean’s water as the tide rises or falls.

An incoming or outgoing tide can sometimes make paddling difficult. If you are in a marina, the easiest way to see if the tide is high or low is by looking at the boat slips. The piling sitting in the water will show you the water level and if it is high or low. Another great way is by using surfing apps and websites like Swellinfo or Magicseaweed. They will list the tide times in your area.

Waves

As a beginner, we highly recommend staying in flatwater before moving onto other environments. The ocean is a swirling, bumpy, and powerful body of water that presents many challenges for beginning paddlers. If you have no other choice but to head into the ocean, be sure to check the size of the waves. Anything over 1-2’ and you are best served to wait for another day. To know the size of the waves in your area, refer back to Swellinfo and Magicseaweed.

Currents 

A current, in a river or stream, is the flow of water influenced by gravity as the water moves downhill to reduce its potential energy. The current varies spatially as well as temporally within the stream, dependent upon the flow volume of water, stream gradient, and channel geometry.

Rivers are the body of water that has the most current. It is important to know how strong of a current the river has before getting on the water. To know this, refer to the river app previously mentioned or get into contact with a paddling professional in your area for local knowledge. To find a paddling pro near you, use our Search section on Perfect Paddles or our app.

Seasonal Changes

A change in season can bring with it a change in the water temperatures, wind strength, and other weather factors such as hurricanes, and other types of storms – all depending on where you live.

Always be prepared for the difference between paddling in the spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Each season you will have to wear different clothing, paddle at different times, and make sure you are safe doing it. Always refer to the weather apps and local pro knowledge to better understand the totality of your water environment.

beginner's guide to sup

How to Deal With Wildlife on the Water

Water environments around the world are full of a vast array of wildlife. On a paddle board you are likely to encounter all types ranging from the smallest fish to the biggest whales. As a general rule it is always best to avoid interaction with the wildlife. Leave a distance of at least 10-20 feet (if possible) between you and any creatures you may encounter. This will keep you safe and will allow them to not feel threatened while in their natural habitat. 

Beginner’s Guide to SUP: Important Safety Tips

PFD

Personal flotation device. We’ve already covered that it is required to be on your SUP when on the water. But it is also important to know how to use a PFD, especially if it is of the belt variety. Before you head onto the water, make sure you have a proper c02 cartridge in the belt. Know where the pull handle is and how much pressure it takes to pull and inflate. By becoming familiar with your equipment before you get into any trouble can make the difference between a dangerous situation and a good story.

Paddle Buddy

The best way to remain safe while on your SUP is by paddling with a friend. They can watch our back on the water. And increase our level of safety. However, our friends may not be into the same activities we are. Or they may not be available when we want to go. The best way to find someone to paddle with is through our Paddle Buddy Finder feature on Perfect Paddles.

Local Knowledge

It is always best to contact a paddling progressional in order to get an in-depth understanding of the environments you are paddling. In the past, this meant you had to find a local shop and see if the people working there knew enough to guide you.

This is no longer the case. With Perfect Paddles you can contact a local paddling professional with ease. Use our features to pick their brain and receive a full rundown of any local paddling environment. Armed with this insightful knowledge you will be prepared for whatever lies ahead.

USCG SUP rules http://rbsafety.d11nuscgaux.info/ve/docs/SUP.pdf

Find and Join Your Local SUP Community

As a beginner, the best way to expand your knowledge on the sport and increase your experience is by joining a local SUP community. The best way to inject yourself into any local community is through online resources like Perfect Paddles.  With Perfect Paddles you have three areas of focus on SUP that will help guide you into your SUP journey.

Trip Planning Tools

We’ve created enhanced tools to plan your next paddling trip including regional SUP hubs for more direct searches in your area. 

Community and Networking

This is the big one. Perfect Paddles has dedicated SUP social networking features including a Paddle Buddy Finder, direct connection with paddling pros across the world, and online discussion forums to connect with paddlers in your area nad beyond!

Knowledge and Resources

And we have curated SUP resources and knowledge from professionals specifically on paddling technique, information on different types of boards, equipment reviews, workouts, meal plans, and more!

beginner's guide to sup

Quick Tips for a Great First Outing on Your SUP

Always begin on a calm body of water. The best choices are a lake, bay, or even a marina (if it isn’t too busy). You want to avoid any moving bodies of water when you first start out. It’s difficult enough to stand on your board on flat water, no need to involve waves, currents, or high amounts of boat traffic as a beginner!

Choose a sandy beach, safe dock, or other easy launch point. If you can wade your board from shallow to deep water, this will be the easiest way to climb aboard your SUP without the dangers of hitting anything should you fall off. Look for a wide-open area for your first few launches. 

Look for a sunny day with light wind. The best thing you can do is to avoid any rough conditions your first few times on your board. If you can go early in the morning or in the evening, these are the best times as the wind is usually low and the conditions have flattened out to make for an ideal place to paddle.

Plan to paddle for an hour at the most your first time. Anything more than an hour and your body might not be in shape enough to handle it. It’s always best to work up to an extended amount of time and effort on the water. Especially if you are new to the sport.

Important Reminders Before You Get Started

These important reminders are worth repeating in our beginner’s guide to SUP as they can be the difference between a fun-filled afternoon on the water or a dangerous situation where you might need help to get back to safety. If there is anything that you take away from this beginner’s guide it should be these three things…

Weather

Always check the weather before getting on the water! Pay special attention to any storms that might be rolling through. If it is just rain you should be okay as long as you are comfortable getting wet. Be sure the air and water temperatures are warm enough to paddle in just trunks or a bathing suit. If not, alter your clothing to keep your body warm and safe on the water.

Wind

Check the wind strength and direction. If it is anywhere above 15+ mph, choose another day. If you feel confident you can paddle in higher winds, always make sure to paddle against the wind on the way out. And with the wind on the way back to your launch point.

Paddling Alone

If you are completely new to SUP, never paddle alone. Water environments are often very foreign to beginners. Things like the currents, wind, weather, and even boat traffic, can create situations that can turn from fun to dangerous – in an instant. To better protect yourself and avoid any situations that might require help, always paddle with a (preferably experienced) buddy.

beginner's guide to sup

Ready to Start Your SUP Journey?

Ready to get started? Join the world’s largest online SUP Community at Perfect Paddles! Connect with other beginners, paddling pros, and find the information you need to succeed on your SUP. As you gain experience and connect with others, you will be amazed at the opportunities SUP has to offer. Especially when it comes to creating friendships and experiencing some of the best adventures of your life. 

About the Author

Daniel

Daniel is a travelling author with a passion for exploring new waterways and sharing his experiences with the world.