Standup Paddleboarding 101

Photo: Aaron Schmidt/TandemStock

Standup Paddleboarding 101: What You Need To Know To Launch Your SUP

For all that standup paddleboarding has grown in the last 15 years, it’s easy to forget the sport’s humble and storied origins, not least in the surf of the Hawaiin Islands. At its core, the act itself—standing on a craft for increased paddle leverage and vantage over the water—is pretty simple. But with the sport’s more recent global expansion, there are now more ways than ever to experience different bodies of water on a standup paddleboard, each with variations of a few fundamental techniques, tips, and gear necessities. So no matter where you’re hoping to launch your new SUP, keep in mind a handful of key factors before you hop on board. 

Gear Essentials

Once you’ve picked the right paddleboard, you’re 90 percent of the way to hitting the water, but there are a couple other obvious needs:

  • SUP Paddle: A good paddle can make all the difference between effortlessly cruising across the water and coming home sore. For starters, choose one that’s the right length. To test it, place the paddle blade at your feet. Reach up and see where the handle T-grip lines up on your arm—it should sit about at your wrist. Consider an adjustable paddle if more than one person plans to use it. Plastic and aluminum paddles are cheap and durable while composite (fiberglass and especially carbon fiber) paddles are lighter but more expensive. Finally, think about blade size: A larger blade face will generate more power (like the highest gear on a bike), which is best for bigger paddlers. Smaller blades are more efficient for smaller paddlers. 
  • PFD: Regardless of your comfort level swimming or falling off the board, a personal floatation device (PFD) is still a critical, life-saving piece of gear—if you wear it. Wearing one is also federal law for children under 13, whereas adults must at least carry one on their board outside of surfing or swimming areas. PFDs that can be CO2-activated or inflated from inside a waist park are a popular, low-profile option for standup paddlers wanting unobstructed paddle strokes. Children and paddlers on rougher, moving waters should consider a traditional vest-style, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket that does not require activation in an accident.
  • Leash: Unlike heavier canoes or kayaks, if you slip off your paddleboard, there’s a good chance (especially in high wind) that the entire board could skip away from you and coast out of reach. A leash is an important tool to prevent you from losing your best source of floatation: your board. It typically attaches your ankle to the end of your SUP to keep it within arm’s reach if you go for a swim. Standup paddlers floating downriver should use specialized leashes that can quick-release in the event of a snag. 
  • Outerwear: Like any paddling activity, it’s important to have light, wicking, and sun-protective clothing for a summer day on your SUP. Because paddleboarding regularly goes hand-in-hand with swimming or wading in the water, always dress for the temperature of the water, not the air. That means adding layers that can shed water, dry fast, or still insulate when wet—and considering a full wetsuit in cooler climes. For footwear, think quick-drying water shoes, sandals or booties that will provide ready traction on slippery, muddy shores.
  • Dry Bags: If you plan on bringing any other day-paddling essentials (and especially any electronics), use a waterproof dry bag to seal anything you don’t want getting wet. Look for a paddleboard with bungee straps or attachment points to keep it or any other loose items secured to the deck. 
A female paddlboarder on Lake Dillon in Summit County, Colorado in the early morning. Photo: Lisa Seaman/TandemStock


For your first outing, find a gentle shoreline with calm water and carry your paddleboard out until it’s knee-deep; any shallower and you risk hitting the fin(s) on the ground when you climb on. Attach your leash, then grab your paddle with both hands and place it across the width of the board, with your hands pushing down onto the deck. Slowly place one knee at a time onto the middle of the board, focusing on keeping your balance. Start paddling from your knees until you get a feel for the board. (You can always return here if you lose balance standing or need to make progress on particularly rough or windy days.) 

Getting On Your Feet

  1. Find the handle—almost always located in the center of the board where it’s easiest to balance—and place your knees shoulder-width apart on either side. 
  2. Hold the paddle on the board horizontally in front of you, like when you first got on the board. Shift your weight evenly onto your hands and slowly bring each leg up, one at a time, so your feet are under you on the board. 
  3. Now stand up. Think about a squat motion, pushing through your heels without leaning forward or back. Keep your weight over that handle. 
  4. Look up at the horizon to maintain balance and start paddling. Your hands should be “field goal arms”-distance apart (one hand on the T-grip handle and the other roughly on the middle of the shaft). 

Paddling Techniques

On a standup paddleboard, your forward stroke acts as an additional pillar (third leg, if you will) to maintain balance on the board. However, you’re paddling without a partner to immediately counter your strokes on the opposite side and keep you tracking straight. So, having strong paddling technique with every stroke will keep you both balanced and moving efficiently. Follow these tips:

  • Make sure you’re holding the paddle so the blade, which is angled forward relative to the shaft, points in the right direction: ahead. The idea is to extend your reach out. If the blade is angled toward you, flip it around to the correct side. 
  • Bend forward at the waist with both arms straight to reach out and plant the blade in the water along the rail of your board. Push down with your top hand to sink the blade and “catch” the most water possible. Pull your chest back along with your bottom hand so the blade runs parallel to the rail in a straight front-to-back line until it’s next to your feet (extending your blade too far out from the rail will cause you to turn). 
  • Aim for three to five strokes on each side before needing to switch. Much less than that and you’re probably turning too much with each stroke. Think about keeping your paddle close to the board, vertical, and strokes in line with your direction of travel. 
  • Switch hands every time your switch sides—don’t cross your arms while paddling. 
  • To hit the brakes, plant the paddle blade closer to the tail of your board. 
  • To turn, place your blade in the water ahead, on the side you want to turn away from, then make a big, wide C-shaped stroke, sweeping from front to back. 

Getting Back on Your Board

Whether you meant to go for a quick swim or you lost your balance, you’ll eventually fall off your board and need to get back on. To do this, focus on your body first (your paddle floats, so go back for it if you need to). On all but the smallest-volume SUPs, it’s easier to swim to the side of the SUP (vs the tail where you’re leashed) and reach for the grab handle in the middle. Place your hands as close to the center of the board as possible then push down, leaning forward and kicking your legs to get your weight up on the board and over your hands. Flop down on your chest on the center of the board, then rotate your body so it’s facing forward. Use your hands to get to your paddle, if necessary, then work your way back onto your knees and feet. 

SUP Yoga

Practicing yoga on your standup paddleboard is as much a fun way to connect with nature as it is an added challenge—not to mention a good way to laugh at yourself or cool down, as falling is often a part of the deal. On a paddleboard, you’ll need to make your transitions between poses slower and smoother, and possibly shorten your normal stances. Keep your breathing steady and use your eyes to focus out at shore or the horizon to help maintain balance. Remember where that handle is—keep your center of gravity as close to it as possible. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.