SUP FAQ for Beginners

In Fresh Content, Instructional, Spotlight by [email protected]

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SUP is still a relatively new sport. If you’ve never paddled before and want to start, you may have some questions before your first time on the water. 

Here is a list of frequently asked questions for first-time and beginner paddlers. Read through these before you head to the water and you’ll be better prepared for whatever may come. 

Let us know if you have any questions, need some advice, or any clarification. The team at Perfect Paddlers is always ready to guide you whether it be on or off the water. 

What does SUP stand for?

SUP stands for "stand up paddle board."

Do I need to take a SUP lesson?

Yes! The best way to understand the proper paddling technique, the environment you’re paddling in, have success standing up, and do it safely, is by being guided on the water by a qualified instructor. 

Always take a lesson before you decide to try SUP. 

Do I need to be able to swim and paddle board?

Yes! You should be a competent swimmer before trying to paddle board. The activity is relatively safe, especially with a proper life vest PFD. However, if you were to fall in, you need the proper skills and strength to swim in the water and climb back on your board. 

Plus, one of the surest ways to increase your danger on the water is by panicking. For people who do not know how to swim, the water can induce a serious panic attack. You should be comfortable in the water, and with swimming, before taking a paddle boarding lesson.

Do I need to be strong to paddle board?

It depends on the environment and conditions. 

For calm days on a flatwater lake or bay, SUP can be a relaxing activity that does not require strength. 

But on windy days, on rivers, or in the ocean, strength to get through the conditions is a must. It is always a great idea to check with a paddling professional or local instructor if you are unsure whether or not you will be successful on a paddle board. 

Can I just paddle on my knees?

Yes! One of the best ways to get comfortable on a board, and out of the windy conditions, is by starting on your knees. It’s not uncommon for beginners to paddle the entire time on their knees. Just keep in mind if you’re paddling with boat traffic you’ll be harder to see. So, make sure you paddle with other people.

And don’t feel embarrassed if this is where you start - every expert was always once a beginner! 

I’m afraid of deep water. Can I just paddle where it’s shallow?

Yes, you can. But not too shallow! In order to stay safe it is always a great idea to stay where you are most comfortable. Be aware - if you go too shallow you will end up hitting your fin on the bottom and you may get stuck or possibly damage your fin. Always make sure you are in deep enough water to maneuver your board, but shallow enough where you still feel comfortable. 

Is SUP easy?

It depends on your athletic ability, the abilities of your instructor, the size of your board, and the conditions of the day you decide to go. 

For most first-timers, you will be able to stand up right away and have success. Just make sure you consult with your paddling instructor to find the right size board for your body size and athletic ability. Remember - the thicker and wider the board, the easier it will be stand up right away. 

And always consider the weather and wind conditions before you go!

Can I fish from my stand up paddle board?

Yes! Fishing is a fun activity to do off of your stand up paddle board. 

Couple things to remember - make sure your board is thick enough to carry the extra weight of your gear/cooler. And watch out for the hook when reeling in your line. You don’t want to snag your board - especially if it's an inflatable! 

Is SUP dangerous?

It can be. But it also depends on the paddling environment and the weather. 

If you take the proper precautions - wearing a working PFD (personal flotation device), a leash to keep you tethered to your board, and know the wind and weather for the afternoon, SUP is a relatively safe activity (and a fun one too!) to do on the water.

And if you are brand-new to the sport, it is always a great idea to take a few beginner lessons until your instructor is confident of your ability to be by yourself on the water. 

Do people die paddle boarding?

While rare, it has happened. Like any outdoor activity, SUP has its inherent risks. You shouldn’t be afraid to go, but you should always take the (aforementioned) proper precautions before you do. 

Is a SUP and a surfboard the same thing?

It depends. In the surfzone the USCG considers a SUP a surfboard. It’s just a really big surfboard that also happens to be rated as a small vessel in interiors waterways. 

But if the question is asking whether you can use a surfboard as a SUP, then the answer must be…

No. A stand up paddle board is shaped similar to a surfboard but a SUP is much longer, thicker, and wider to handle the weight of a paddler standing on the board at all times while a surfboard is much smaller and cannot handle the weight of a surfer standing on it while on flatwater. 

An average SUP board measures 10’6’tallx32’’wide while a typical surfboard can be anywhere from 9’ long down to 5’ and much more narrow and thin. 

Why do they call SUP a sport? 

The definition of a sport can be a bit tricky - does it require a defense? If so, surfing and sailing wouldn’t be considered a sport. With so many SUP disciplines the real answer is…

It depends. Are you SUP surfing? Or maybe SUP racing? Then it’s a sport. 

However, as most of the activities done on a SUP are largely recreational and touring based then it’s probably not considered a sport. The extra tricky bit is that the skills you use in SUP surfing, racing, and downwinding are the same skills you might need to call upon to get home in the wind or get back through coastal waves. 

So, while you may engage in SUP recreationally, it’s probably a good idea to get a lesson or two in order to practice the “sport” aspects of it so you can stay safe when the conditions require

Is a paddle board like a canoe or a kayak?

While they do share some similarities in the water, a paddle board is very different from a canoe and a kayak.

In a canoe and kayak a paddler is sitting with a hulled vessel. With a kayak the paddle has two blades. 

On a SUP, paddlers are standing on a flat board with a single blade paddle. 

A few additional water-sport vessels include...

Prone boards - these you lay down on and paddle with your hands.

Outrigger canoes - similar to an average canoe but they have an extension in the water to keep it upright in the wind and waves. In outrigger canoes you also sit.

Foil boards - these are shaped like a surf board but have an extension that sits extends into the water to create lift when under speed.

All of these vessels are great ways to enjoy the water with each one having its own benefits and drawbacks. 

Is a SUP a small boat?

Yes. According to the US Coast Guard, SUP boards operated outside a surfing, swimming or bathing area are “vessels” under USCG regulations. 

Do I need to get registration for my SUP like a boat?

Nope. The only thing you need that is similar to your boat is a PFD, and whistle (and a flashlight for paddling at night)  on board for the paddlers and/or passengers. 

Can I launch a paddle board anywhere I want?

No. Always follow local ordinances when launching your SUP. The best places are at public boat ramps, marinas, parks, etc. Or you can find launch locations at Perfect Paddles under our SUP Search feature. 

If a SUP is considered a vessel how come it’s allowed in a surfzone and other boats are not?

It is only considered a vessel when it is outside the surfzone. Paddle boarding has its origins in the surf and definitely can be surfed - believe it or not but the average SUP board used to be a lot bigger. When paddle boards are launched in the ocean with the intent to surf the waves offshore, they are considered the same as surfboards in this environment. 

Do I need to add running lights to my SUP if I want to paddle board at night?

Yes. If you are paddling in a flatwater zone, your SUP is again considered a vessel and would need the proper lighting to signal to other crafts on the water that you are there. Plus, it’s much safer!

How do I get my SUP on my car if I’m small and have short arms?

Make friends with someone who is tall and has long arms! 

But if that isn’t an option, you can use a stool to boost yourself higher in the air when placing your board on your car. Or you can use a different type of method…

With your board underneath your arm, place it on a soft piece of grass near your. Position the board so that it is in the correct direction you want it on your car - fin upside down and forward. Grab your board and bring the fin side to the back of your car and place it on the back car rack. Walk to the backside of your car and grab the nose. Then, walk forward pushing your board at the same time so that it now sits correctly on the top of your car. 

Is an inflatable SUP better than a hard, rigid SUP?

It depends on your usage and storage. 

For high performance activities like SUP surfing and SUP racing, a hardboard is probably the better choice. The stiffness of the board and shape will increase your maneuverability in the water (especially on waves) and your speed when it comes to SUP racing. 

However, if you don’t have the storage space to put a large hardboard or no way of transporting it to and from a launch location, the ease of use when it comes to an inflatable board is undeniable. They fit into a convenient carrying case after deflation and can be thrown in your trunk or the bed of your pickup. They can even be checked baggage at the airport to bring with you on your next vacation so if you embrace SUP because it allows you easy access to the world’s waterways then an iSUP should definitely be in your quiver! 

For more information and a complete rundown of the differences between the two, consult our article entitled, “The Great Debate: Inflatable Boards v. Hardboards.”

My friend wants to teach me how to paddle, is that okay?

If your friend is a certified SUP instructor, then yes, of course! If not, it is always a better idea to be taught the ins and outs of SUP from a professional. 

This is the best way to learn everything there is to know about SUP in a safe environment. 

What’s the difference between a certified SUP instructor and one who isn’t certified?

It’s simple - one has been certified by an internationally recognized organization that runs training to create highly qualified SUP instructors ready to provide top-level instruction to would-be paddlers. And the other might be a decent SUP instructor but without the certification, it’s impossible to assess what they know about the SUP and what they can teach you. 

When trying to find an instructor or outfitter for your beginner lesson, always make sure they are certified by a real organization. 

Can I take my SUP on a plane?

Yes! If it’s an inflatable board the process is simple and easy. For larger hardboards, if you pack it really well to avoid damage (think bubble wrap and cardboard) , have the stamina and strength to carry it through the airport, and trust the airline employees to handle it gently, then go for it! 

In either case, it is always a good idea to consult your airline before you decide to bring it - ask them about their weight and size regulations. And how much it will cost! 

Do I need a leash for my board?

Yes. Always, always, always, wear a leash on the water. Most times it may seem unnecessary but your SUP is your biggest flotation device on the water. By being tethered to it, you will always have something that will keep you afloat on the water. 

What do I do if I drop my paddle and I’m far from shore?

Hopefully your paddle is one that floats! However, in a worst case scenario where you are completely separated from your paddle and there isn’t anyone else on the water with you and you have no way of contacting anyone - you can always paddle your board in a prone position like a surfer would do. 

Lay flat on your belly or upright on your knees. Use both hands on either side of the board and push yourself through the water by using your hands as your paddles. This may tire you out quickly so always remain calm, breath, and take breaks when you need to. 

Are SUP fins really necessary?

Yes! Without a fin, your board would spin in circles. You need the fin to help guide the board in the water and create a straight line while paddling. Don’t believe us? Give it a try! But don’t tell us we didn’t warn you. 

What’s the difference in all the SUP fins?

The fins you see on the market today do vary quite a bit in size and shape. And it can be confusing. 

To briefly explain, the different shapes and sizes will have an impact on certain paddling attributes of your board. Each size and shape is crafted to increase your performance in the water. 

The longer the fin, the deeper it extends into the water, the better the tracking it provides a paddler. (Tracking is how straight a board will move in the water through each paddle stroke.)

The shorter the fin, the worse your tracking will be, but the better your maneuverability will be. Shorter fins are great for SUP surfing and river SUP. 

To get a complete understanding of fin size, shape, and placement, check out our post entitled, “Fin Size, Shape, and Position, Explained.

Why do some SUP boards have more fins than others?

Typically, your average SUP board will have just a center fin, with what are called “side bites” as an option. On some occasions, like with inflatable boards, these side bites can also be built right into the board. 

Side bites give paddlers more maneuverability while riding waves and can be used with the absence of a center fin to get into shallow water while still allowing the board to track fairly straight. 

If you plan on paddling flatwater only, you don’t have to worry about having the extra fins. However, if you’re looking to participate in high-performance paddling like SUP surfing to whitewater river paddling, having the option is always the better way to go. 

Can I take my SUP yoga board and surf a wave with it?

Yes, but with one caveat - your performance in the waves might be limited. Of course, this depends on the size and shape of your board. 

If your SUP yoga board is designed to be a platform in the water for your poses, then don’t expect to carve up any waves. Instead, use the board to ride waves straight into the shore. While not as exciting, it is still a fun activity! 

Remember, the longer, thicker, and wider a board is, the less maneuverability you will have in the water.  

Do people who do overnight paddles on their board sleep on it?

No. This would be ill advised given the unpredictable nature of the weather and water currents. People who participate in overnight paddles will camp on the shore at night and start paddling early in the morning. 

What is SUP yoga?

Put simply - it is practicing yoga, on the water, guided by an instructor, while on a SUP board. It is becoming one of the most popular activities to practice on a SUP and for good reason - it’s a great challenge and very fun! 

Who started SUP yoga?

It’s not very clear who first began SUP yoga. From its origins, yoga has always been practiced outdoors. As the practice grew in popularity around the world, yogis sought interesting ways to reconnect their practice to its roots - the outdoors. Since SUP boards make a fantastic platform in the water, it was only natural to give yoga a try on the water. 

Who started SUP?

Again, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact location or time period. 

It has been argued natives on the Hawaiian islands were the first to stand on an oversized board and use an oar or a paddle to move along their abundant waterways. 

Others believe the modern conception of SUP started in California. It is possible it rose from the unique surfing culture that boomed during the 1950s and 60s. 

And yet still, the idea of SUP can also be traced as far back as 3,000 B.C.E. to the coastal regions of Peru and parts of Africa. In Peru, fishermen from the coast would use a watercraft called a Caballitos de Totora.

For a complete understanding on the history of SUP check out our article entitled, “Stand Up Paddle Boarding History and Heroes.”

Who is the first person to catch a wave on a SUP?

There are arguments to be made about the ancient peoples previously mentioned being the first to catch a wave on a SUP. But two of the most notable people to do so have to Duke “The Duke” Kahanamoku and John “Pops” Ah Choy. For more information check out our Stand Up Paddle Boarding History and Heroes article.

Can I bring my dog on board with me?

Yes! Most dogs love going for a ride on a SUP. A couple words of caution - first make sure your dog likes the water. Let them become comfortable with the idea of paddling by introducing it to them in shallow water. Always start slow. And grab a pup PFD (personal flotation device) before you go to keep you and your pup safe on the water. 

For more information on getting started, check out our article entitled, “How to Paddle Board With Your Pup.

Can I bring my friend on board?

Yes! As long as your board can hold both of your weight combined, they have a PFD either on board or on themselves, and can swim. And as always, be mindful of the wind and weather - especially with having to paddle the extra weight on board. 

Can I paddle with my child on board?

Yes! Just make sure to always adhere to the safety protocols mentioned throughout - make sure they know how to swim, are wearing a PFD, and the body of water you plan on paddling is calm and safe (free of boat traffic). 

I have bad knees. Is paddle boarding a good sport for me?

It sure is! Due to the unique nature of being able to stand on water, SUP is a low impact sport. Meaning, it won’t wear on your joints like other exercises such as running or weight lifting. 

Of course, you should always be sure you can move from your knees to a standing position comfortably before giving it a try. 

My arms aren't very strong. Is SUP a good sport for me?

Yes! SUP is a great way to increase the strength in your arms through paddling. However, for your first few times on the water, you want to make sure the wind and the weather are calm. If you don’t have the required upper body strength to make it back to your launch location during a windy day, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation. 

It is always best to stick to a calm location or under the guidance of an instructor until you increase your strength and become a better paddler. 

Can I wear my prescription glasses on my SUP?

You can, but you want to make sure you are supremely confident in your balancing ability. Especially in saltwater. To avoid any damage to your property when you’re first starting out, it is always a good idea to leave anything you don’t want to risk damaging back on shore. 

Can I still go paddle boarding if I’m pregnant?

Yes you can! As long as you have prior paddling experience. And be sure to always know the limits of your own body. You don’t want to go out in wicked wind or weather conditions, in the ocean where falls are expected to happen, or down whitewater rapids (even class I). 

The best practice is to consult with your physician before undertaking any strenuous exercise while pregnant. 

Can I paddle in the winter?

Yes! Winter paddling is a great way to connect with nature and get your exercise in during the colder months. Just make sure you are wearing the proper clothing and take the proper precautions before heading out! 

Winter paddling, while fun, is more dangerous due to the water and air temperatures. For a complete rundown on what you should expect and what you should wear while paddling in the winter, consult our article entitled, “What to Wear for Fall and Cold Weather Paddling.”

What should I wear to paddle in the winter?

The choices can vary depending on where you are located, water temperatures, and the activity you plan on participating in. 

For a complete answer check out our article entitled, “What to Wear for Fall and Cold Weather Paddling.”

Hint: If you are a SUP surfer, a thick wetsuit is your friend! For flatwater paddlers, think drysuit! 

When did stand up paddle boarding start?

The act of standing on a paddle board and paddling most likely began thousands of years ago. However, as we understand it now, the activity really began to gain popularity in the early 2000’s with a massive resurgence due to surfing legends like Laird Hamilton. 

Why do my legs shake and how do I get them to stop?

It’s because you're tense! Your legs will begin to shake while on your SUP due to you remaining static in your lower body in order to overcompensate for your balance. 

For most people, standing on a board and using the balance receptors in your lower body is a completely new activity. Not only are you using muscles that you’ve never used before, but your brain is firing new neurons in response to the new muscle activation. Once you paddle a few times in a row, these motions (and neurons) are quickly remembered by your body and brain allowing you to relax your lower half and reduce the shaking. 

Is SUP low impact?

Yes! Due to it taking place on the water, SUP has a low impact on your joints, especially your knees. That is, at least until you are standing. 

Can I paddle if I don’t have good balance?

Of course! But do expect a challenge. If you are certain you don’t have good balance your best bet is to consult a paddling professional or instructor in your area on the best board you can use to get started. 

For your own information purposes though, the wider a board is (33”+), the thicker it is (5”+) and the longer it is (11’+), the easier it will be to balance on. When first starting out, opt for the biggest board possible until your balance improves. 

What should I know before my first paddle?

You should take into account who your instructor is - are they well qualified, do they run you through a detailed lesson that will adequately prepare you, what have other students said about them?  

You should know the environment you’ll be paddling in. 

Does it get windy? Is it a bay, ocean, river, marina, etc? Are there wildlife in the location you might encounter?

And you should know that you might fall in - and that’s okay! Even the best paddlers in the world still fall in from time to time. 

Is paddle boarding hard?

It can be. It depends on your athletic ability, your instructors abilities to convey paddling tips, whether you have prior experience in the water (surfing, boating, etc), the wind and weather of the particular day you plan on going, and if the board you are on is the correct size for your body type. 

Under the right conditions, paddle boarding can be easy for some beginners. 

How is SUP different from kayaking?

On a SUP you stand straight up on a flat board and use a single blade paddle to propel yourself through the water. 

On a kayak, you sit in a hulled vessel and use a double bladed paddle to propel yourself through the water. 

Is paddle boarding good exercise?

Most certainly! SUP works every major muscle group, in addition to increasing your balance and cardiovascular output. 

Can I paddle alone?

Only if you are experienced, take the proper precautions with regards to wearing a leash and PFD, have a way to signal to others if you need help (bring a cell phone in a waterproof case), and know the wind and weather reports for the day. 

If you plan accordingly, SUP can be a great way to get away from it all. 

About the Author

[email protected]

I'm an outdoors enthusiast with a passion for water and snow sports. If I'm not at my desk making the world a better place for paddle boarders, I'm outside somewhere.

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