It’s not a greeting. It’s stand up paddle boarding, one of the world’s fastest-growing water sports. Frequently referenced by its familiar three-letter acronym, stand up paddle boarding is a cross between kayaking and surfing. It’s suitable for virtually any water environment, from open ocean, to quiet lakes and estuaries.
Fitness buffs love SUP because it offers vigorous, whole-body exercise. Outdoorsy people love it because it’s a great way to see marine or riverine environments up close, without the distraction and environmental harm of a boat engine. And laid-back, low-impact types love it because, in many settings, it’s relaxing and meditative.
SUP might appeal to broad swathes of the active public, but it’s not the cheapest or most intuitive pursuit around. Before you can call yourself a paddle boarder, you need to learn the sport’s basic mechanisms, familiarize yourself with key pieces of equipment, and invest a significant amount of time and money in equipment, training, and personal comfort.
Whatever your SUP goals, the end result is sure to be worth it – as long as you don’t tear your hair out or bust your household budget in the meantime. Here’s what you need to know to get started smoothly and on the cheap.
Basic Paddle Boarding Equipment
The term “stand up paddle boarding” really captures SUP’s essence. Participants stand upright on oblong boards and use paddles to propel and maneuver along the surface of the water. Boards are similar in appearance to surfboards, but considerably thicker in the hull – roughly 10 feet long, 30 inches wide, and 5 inches thick, though exact dimensions vary by style. Boards generally have unobtrusive fins for ease of movement through the water, as well.
Paddle boards come in two forms: rigid and inflatable. Rigid paddle boards are made from a high-tech mix of foam, fiberglass, and epoxy. Their shape is fixed – they can’t be folded or broken down – and they’re easier to control and maneuver in rough water. Competitive paddle boarders and purists generally prefer rigid boards.
Inflatable paddle boards are made from a combination of durable fibers, such as polyester, and PVC or other resin-like coating (for strength and water resistance). They tend not to perform as well in rough water, though skilled paddle boarders can easily compensate. Inflatable boards are often cheaper than rigid boards, but both types have a wide range of price points based on factors such as quality of construction, brand, and size. New paddle board costs (at full price, not including merchant-specific discounts) range from as little as $300 or $400 to more than $2,000.
Paddles are long (or tall, depending on your perspective) and usually equipped with angled heads to improve leverage in the water – as opposed to shorter, non-angled kayak paddles. As a rule of thumb, paddles should be at least six inches taller than the paddler.
Physical Aspects of Paddle Boarding
Paddle boarding is an active sport that’s virtually guaranteed to get regular practitioners in better shape. While beginners don’t need to be super fit to have a good time, SUP can be tiring at first for people who don’t exercise regularly.
SUP’s basic physical competencies, which sharpen with repetition, include the following:
- Good upright balance on a potentially unsteady surface
- Upper body (arm and shoulder) stability and strength
- Core strength (critical for effective paddling)
- Leg strength
What You Can Do on a Paddle Board
SUP is a versatile pursuit. Casual paddle boarders seek a mixture of exercise, relaxation, and closeness to nature. They travel alone or in groups, moving anywhere from a few hundred yards to a few miles in the course of a session. Some laid-back paddle boarders even anchor their boards using rope weights and perform yoga or calisthenic exercises, either as part of a longer workout or as a low-impact, self-contained stretching session.
Avid paddle boarders often travel more deliberately, traversing impressive distances in high-impact, out-and-back or point-to-point workouts. Competitive paddle boarding is increasingly common as well, with races ranging from short-distance sprints to marathon-like journeys.
Some paddle boards are designed for stability and maneuverability on rough, open water, including breaking surf. Others are better at gliding easily in calm (flatwater) conditions common to slow-moving rivers and small lakes. For non-experts, SUP is not advisable in whitewater conditions where rocks, tree limbs, and other submerged obstacles may be present, nor in heavy surf near rocky shores.
How to Paddle Board – Basic Procedure for Beginners
If you’ve ever tried to stand on a boogie board, you probably wonder how it’s even possible to stand atop a paddle board long enough to get anywhere. Skepticism is healthy, but remember that a SUP is a high-tech piece of equipment that’s specifically designed to accommodate a standing human being in motion. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually quite easy to remain balanced – as long as you suppress or at least manage your fear of plunging into the water, a worry that’s remarkably effective at turning legs into jelly. Many experts actually recommend falling intentionally a few times to get a feel for what it’s like and how to avoid it under normal conditions.
If you’re a total novice with no prior board sports experience (no surfing, wakeboarding, or snowboarding, for instance), a starter lesson is likely worth the investment. SUP enthusiasts love welcoming newcomers to the sport, so look for a friend or acquaintance willing to show you the ropes in exchange for a future favor or small gift.
Failing that, research paddle boarding lessons in your area. Hour-long introductory group lessons cost as little as $15 or $20 for participants with their own boards. A board rental fee of $10 or $15 usually applies for board-less participants.
Transporting and Carrying Your Board
Transporting by Vehicle
If you live right on the water and are content to launch from the same spot every time you want to use your paddle board, you don’t have to worry about transporting your board by vehicle. However, if your SUP dalliance turns into a serious hobby, that’s likely to get boring after a while.
Transporting inflatable paddle boards is a straightforward proposition. When deflated, an inflatable board neatly folds into a package small enough to fit in a compact car’s trunk or back seat. It does take some time to inflate the board once you arrive at your destination, but this added step is offset by the time saved not strapping your board to (and unstrapping from) your roof rack.
Transporting rigid boards is more of a hassle, but certainly not insurmountable. If you have a relatively short board (probably less than 10 feet), a long vehicle (SUV or station wagon), and are driving solo or with one other passenger, you can likely fit your board in the back with the seats down. Likewise, pickup truck drivers can usually fit their boards in the bed, provided they secure them with rope through the handles and ensure that they’re not projecting too far out into traffic.
If you have a smaller car, your best bet is to strap your board onto the roof rack. For cars with existing roof racks, a cheap, DIY solution is simply to wrap the rack runners in towels to prevent board scratches, attach foam padding (or more towels) to the vehicle roof to prevent roof paint scratches, and secure everything with nylon ropes or heavy duty straps to the racks or through the vehicle windows.
For cars without existing roof racks, purchase soft crossbar pads that hold the board (as long as it’s properly secured with nylon rope or heavy duty straps) without scratching it or the vehicle roof. If you frequently paddle board with friends, consider a more sophisticated rack that can accommodate multiple boards. And, if your vehicle is tall or you’re short in stature, buy a folding stepladder (if you don’t already own one).
The cost of a safe, reliable vehicle attachment system varies widely. Simple one- or two-step folding stepladders go for less than $15 at discount big-box hardware stores. A bare-bones rooftop system involving towels and nylon rope costs a few bucks. A middle-of-the-road approach involving soft crossbar pads and heavy-duty straps runs roughly $50 to $100 new, while a fancier approach involving sophisticated roof racks and heavy duty ties can run north of $200. Yakima is indicative of companies that make board-specific vehicle roof attachments.
Carrying by Hand
SUPs are bulky, but not crushingly heavy. There are a few different ways to carry them:
- Handles: Some boards come with small handles in the midsection. If you’re strong enough to steadily carry the board like a suitcase (roughly waist- or thigh-high), this is the simplest option. Hold your paddle in your non-carrying hand.
- Shoulder: To shoulder-carry a board with or without handles, hold your paddle in your non-carrying (weak) hand. Gently place the board’s nose on the ground and lift up the tail, then move forward underneath the board, toward its midsection. When you reach the midsection, use your legs to shift the forward half of the board off the ground, balancing it on your head. Finally, shift the board to your carrying shoulder and support it with your carrying arm as you walk. To put the board back down, simply reverse these steps.
- Head: Follow the shoulder-carrying steps, but stop before you shift the board to your shoulder. If it feels unsteady to secure the board on your head with one hand, you can use your weak hand as a second contact point, holding the paddle flush against the top of the board.
Note that most group paddle boarding lessons focus on hand carrying procedures only, and do not include detailed guidance around vehicle transportation. If you don’t have an experienced friend who’s willing to help you get your board on and off your car, you’ll need to trust your own instincts – preferably with a spotter for safety.
Standing Up On Your Board
Once you get your paddle board to a launching point, you need to get up on it. Follow this basic procedure to stand up on your board:
- Walk out into water, preferably calm, until you’re about up to your knees. Put the paddle horizontally across the board, roughly one foot in front of the center line.
- Straddle the board and face forward.
- Place your knees on either side of the board, still facing forward. Your knees should be about a foot apart, just ahead of the center line.
- Place your hands directly in front of your knees on the paddle shaft, fingers spread, exerting downward pressure on the paddle and board.
- Bring one foot forward directly behind the same hand, replacing the knee. Repeat on the other side.
- Rise into a squatting position, lifting the paddle with both hands as you go.
- Pause to assess your balance, then slowly rise into a standing position, lifting the paddle to balance your shifting weight. Keep your eyes fixed on a point in the middle distance or on the horizon.
- Slowly adjust your position so that your weight is centered and stable on the board.
- Dip your paddle in the water, touching (or at least temporarily establishing contact with) the bottom, with the bent face pointing forward. This should increase your stability and dispel any lingering unsteadiness, at least until you start moving.
Moving and Maneuvering
Up next: actually using your paddle board to get around. Here’s a basic, general step-by-step for moving and maneuvering on the water:
- Stand atop your board with the paddle in the water, your knees slightly bent, and your eyes fixed forward on the horizon. Your head and shoulders should be erect, forming a 90-degree angle through your hips to the board.
- Keeping your arms straight, but without locking your elbows, place one hand on your paddle’s grip (top) and the other approximately at the midpoint of the shaft. Your grip hand is always the hand opposite your paddling side – for instance, if you’re paddling on the right, grip with your left.
- Place the paddle in the water ahead of your feet with the bent face pointing forward. It should look like a forward-facing spoon with the entire blade submerged.
- Rotate your torso, engaging your core, as you move the paddle front to back in the water. The motion should keep the paddle parallel to your board, and your arms should remain straight. Your abdominal muscles are responsible for the lion’s share of the work – if you feel like you’re pulling with your arms, concentrate on keeping them fixed as you rotate your torso into your shoulders in a smooth chain of motion.
- At the end of each stroke, lift the blade all the way out of the water and bring back to the starting position and repeat. Shorter strokes tend to be more efficient than longer strokes.
- To maintain a straight heading, switch paddling sides frequently. If you paddle on one side for too long, your board will turn away from that side.
- To reverse direction, paddle from back to front using the same basic paddling motion. This also rotates the board in the direction of the paddling side.
- To turn your board faster, you can lift one foot, bring it back behind your body, and place a disproportionate amount of weight on it, adopting a more aggressive “ready” stance. This lifts the nose of your board out of the water a bit, reducing resistance and facilitating faster paddling turns. Keep in mind that this is an inherently less stable stance, so it’s best not to attempt until you’re comfortable on your board.
- If you fall, try to fall to the side, away from your board – not directly forward or backward. Falling directly on the board can be painful.
- Try to stay at least five feet from other paddlers to avoid collisions and interference with their paddling motions.
SUP Gear Requirements
Here’s a more detailed look at what you need to learn and enjoy stand up paddle boarding.
Paddle Board Types & Costs
Obviously, a paddle board is required gear for enterprising stand up paddle boarders. Below are the major paddle board types, with rough costs for new models.
Unless otherwise noted, inflatable versions come in at the lower ends of the stated price ranges. Also, pricing (even for new boards) can be affected by merchant-specific sales. Check online and brick-and-mortar clearance sale announcements for the best deals, which can occasionally be better than the lowest prices indicated here.
- All-Around & Touring Paddle Boards. Touring (or “all-around”) paddle boards are built for long excursions in flatwater conditions: slow rivers, lakes, and protected ocean bays and estuaries. They’re relatively long, with large surface area for stability and tapered hulls for ease of forward movement. If you plan to use your board to reach distant points of interest or isolated beachfront campsites, definitely consider a touring model. This board type is recommended for most beginners too. Cost: $400 to more than $2,000.
- Surf Paddle Boards. Surf paddle boards, sometimes known as freestyle paddle boards, are built to perform in rough water and breaking surf. They’re lighter, shorter, narrower, more sharply tapered, and generally more maneuverable than touring boards. Skilled boarders use surf paddle boards to jaunt short distances out beyond the surf zone and ride waves back in. Because they’re not as stable as touring boards, surf paddle boards aren’t recommended for long-distance excursions on calm water. They’re also not recommended for beginners who lack prior surfing experience – which is a shame, because they’re often cheaper than touring boards. Cost: $300 to more than $1,000.
- Racing Paddle Boards. Racing paddle boards are long, light, and narrow, with sharply tapered hulls designed to cut through flat or choppy water at high speeds. They’re less stable than touring boards, particularly at low speeds, and are therefore not recommended for beginners. Most racing boards are rigid. Cost: $700 to more than $1,500. Professional-grade boards made with carbon fiber and other high-performance materials can cost more than $3,000.
- Yoga Paddle Boards. Yoga boards serve a specific, but increasingly popular, SUP niche: paddle boarders who enjoy pairing vigorous upper-body workouts with relaxing yoga practice. Designed for stability in calm water, yoga boards are wide, rounded, and on the short side. They can be anchored with a tethered weight to prevent drifting during practice. Yoga boards are suitable for beginners, but aren’t recommended for long-distance travel. Cost: $500 to $1,500.
Other Recommended/Required Gear and Costs
These items are required, highly recommended, or (at the very least) useful for stand up paddle board beginners. Unless otherwise indicated, costs pertain to new equipment:
- Paddles. Paddles come in fiberglass or aluminum, rarely other materials. There’s no significant cost difference between the two materials. Remember, aim for a paddle at least six inches taller than you. You only need one. Cost: $35 to more than $80 alone, but sometimes included with new paddle boards.
- Life Jackets. In most jurisdictions, life jackets (personal flotation devices, or PFDs) are required under a certain age – often 14 to 16. In some places, they may be required for adults too. If you’re not sure, check with your home city or state’s marine authorities. In any event, even if you’re comfortable on the water and consider yourself a strong swimmer, life jackets are highly recommended and could literally save your life in rough or isolated water. Cost: Less than $10 to $100, depending on brand, quality, and fit. Outdoor sports companies such as Bass Pro Shops typically have a wide selection to choose from.
- Safety Whistle and Light: In an emergency situation, a safety whistle alerts faraway or out-of-sight observers to your plight. It’s especially useful at night, in open water, and in rugged, isolated coastal areas with limited sight lines. Paddling in total darkness is not recommended, but if you do go out at night, pair your whistle with a safety light. Whistles usually attach to your person, while lights can attach to your person or board.Cost: $3 to $10 for a whistle, $10 to $20 for a light.
- Leash: A paddle board leash keeps you tethered securely to your board in the event of a fall or wipe out. It’s especially helpful in rough surf or violent wipe outs, when untethered boards are apt to drift away faster than they can be caught. Cost: $10 to $30.
- Proper Attire: In warm water, SUP requires nothing more than a comfortable bathing suit. However, when the water is cooler than 65 degrees, even temporary exposure can be uncomfortable. In such conditions, consider an insulated wetsuit, particularly if you expect to fall frequently and don’t want to be exposed to cold wind. In water temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees or below, drysuits are strongly encouraged, as water exposure can quickly lead to hypothermia. Cost: Light-duty adult wetsuits typically cost $50 to $100, while heavier-duty wetsuits can cost $100 to $300 (sometimes more, depending on brand and quality). Drysuits are much more expensive – minimum $250, and more frequently north of $500.
- Sun Protection: Like any water sport, SUP is dangerous for the sunburn-prone. If you have fair skin, lather up your entire body before hitting the water, and consider wearing a wide-brimmed hat as an extra precaution. For long trips or excursions likely to involve submersion, bring a small, waterproof satchel with extra sunblock. Cost: Variable depending on conditions and personal needs/preferences.
How to Reduce Paddle Boarding Costs
Like many hobbies, paddle boarding requires upfront and ongoing investment. Through advance planning and sensible decision-making, it’s possible to reduce paddle boarding’s total cost to the point that the sport is financially within reach – even if your household runs on a tight budget.
Start with these money-saving paddle boarding tips:
1. Don’t Buy a Board Right Away
Buying a paddle board doesn’t require quite the same level of commitment as buying a new car, but it’s still a significant investment. Unless you can find a well cared-for used board for a song, hold off on buying a board until you’re comfortable on your feet and reasonably certain you’ll stick with the hobby long-term. Apply the same logic to your kids, making it clear that you’ll spring for a board only if and when they’ve demonstrated commitment to the pursuit.
Until you’re ready to buy, rent a board each time you hit the water. Rentals can cost as little as $10 or $15 apiece.
2. Look for Paddle Board Packages
Once you do commit to buying a board, look for paddle board packages that include boards, paddles, and accessories such as life jackets and whistles. For example, the 10 Six Soft Stand Up Paddle Board Package from California Board Company includes a board, paddle, and leash.
3. Look for Gently Used Boards and Equipment
The paddle board itself is the single biggest SUP expense. Unsurprisingly, many cost-conscious beginners opt for gently used boards, especially if they’re not certain they’ll follow through with the hobby.
Used inflatable boards are especially budget-friendly, as it’s possible to find a good-condition specimen for less than $200, in some cases. Used rigid boards are still relatively affordable: $500 or less is not out of the question, even for high-quality models. Private sellers on Craigslist, local media classifieds, and resale websites offer the best deals. Look for motivated sellers, such as people who need to unload their boards before moving or downsizing.
4. Use an Inflatable Board
If your living situation precludes at-home board storage, and your only realistic option for housing a rigid board is to pay for off-site storage, strongly consider getting an inflatable board that you can stuff into a closet or your car’s trunk whenever necessary. You could end up paying less for the board itself, as inflatables tend to be cheaper than high-end rigid boards – as little as $250 to $500 for a new inflatable, compared with $700 or more for a new rigid board at full price. Any compromises in performance may be worth the savings, and you can always trade up to a rigid board if performance becomes a bigger priority or you move into a new neighborhood with more space.
5. Ask a More Experienced Friend to Show the Ropes
Learning SUP basics with a friend is cheaper – not to mention more fun – than taking lessons from professionals, no matter how skilled or affordable they are. Ask your friend to accompany you on a trial run, where you learn the basics of getting up and moving around. If you’re interested in progressing, see if your friend (or multiple friends, if you’re so lucky) is interested in a weekly or semi-weekly arrangement. Compensate them with a free lunch, money for gas, or in-kind favors.
6. Consider Group Lessons
If you don’t know any active paddle boarders, or you feel more comfortable learning how to board from people who get paid to teach the sport, look into group lessons in your area. Private lessons can cost $50 or more per hour – and often much more in areas where SUP is popular. Group lessons frequently cost less than half that. Though they’re obviously not as personalized, group lessons offer the added benefit of learning by observation – you can glean new techniques simply by watching your fellow novices’ attempts.
7. Snag Social Deals and Coupons Whenever Possible
Many SUP companies participate in social coupons and group discounts, such as Groupon and Living Social, for private or semi-private instruction, excursions and guided tours, and special activities (for instance, paddle board yoga). These social coupon deals can easily knock 50% off the full cost of these activities, potentially bringing them within financial reach.
If you think a private lesson or excursion would make you a better paddle boarder or add value to your life in general, get in the habit of checking social sites regularly. Established SUP companies, such as Florida-based Urban Kai, post deals direct to their social media properties too.
SUP’s star has risen quickly in recent years, but it’s not the only water sport worth looking into. More traditional pursuits such as surfing, kayaking, and snorkeling remain individual and family favorites. Then again, all require at least some upfront investment in equipment, attire, accessories, and possibly lessons or curated group events. If you’re looking for a truly low-cost water hobby, consider the most traditional option of all: heading to the beach with a towel, swim trunks, and the confidence to navigate the waves using only your arms and legs.
Do you own a paddle board? Have you ever tried paddle boarding?