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How to Paddle Board: SUP Beginners Guide

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on August 24, 2021. In

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So you want to try stand up paddle boarding. It’s a lot of fun and once you get into it you’re going to love it. But it can seem intimidating at first. And, if you tried it once and things didn’t go well, that can be a turn off. But no doubt you’ve seen a ton of other people loving it. If you want to give it a spin, we can walk you through the basics. It’s definitely worth learning and we’re sure you’ll want to keep at it. Let’s look over some of the basics to get you out on a paddle board.

Getting Started with Paddle Boarding

Not only is paddle boarding a lot of fun, it’s a good work out too. It’s also a great way to enjoy the beach and nature in general. So what do you need?

First and foremost, a paddle board. You can choose a wide array of stand up paddle boards these days. They come in multiple shapes and sizes depending on how you want to use it and your preferences.

For a beginner, you’re going to be most concerned with two types of paddle boards:

Hard Boards: Also known as epoxy boards. These are very much like surfboards. They’re made of fiberglass over an eps foam core. Some people will also make these from thin layers of wood and epoxy pressed together. Those are pretty fancy and pretty rare, though. A hard paddle board will typically offer a better performance overall. They can be up to 5% faster, too. But if you’re a beginner, you may not be super into that just yet.

Inflatable SUPs: These have been around for less than 10 years. Inflatable boards are easier to store and less expensive. Also, as weird as it sounds, they’re more durable. We think an inflatable paddle board is the best choice for someone new to the sport. They perform well, they’re cheaper, and they are more durable.

If you are new to paddle boarding, you want a bigger board all around with a large, round nose. That means wider, thicker, and longer. That will provide increased stability on the water.

As a beginner, you want to look for what’s called an All-Around Paddle Board. Once you get the hang of it and you like it, you can refine your choice. There are smaller boards designed for more speed and so on. But to start, as the name suggests, all around boards are good anywhere. You can try sup fishing, sup yoga, or any other sup adventure you can imagine.

Our recommendation is an 11 foot long board. You’ll want about 30 inches wide as well. This is a good size for a beginner to get used to for your first sup outing.

Other Types of Stand up Paddle Boards

So we recommend that all around sup for your first time. But there are also others out there for more specific uses.

Yoga SUP: Just like the name says, these designed these for doing yoga on the water. They provide a solid, stable surface for the movements.

Surfing SUP: If you like surfing the traditional way, this is a cool twist. These are super maneuverable but not very stable. Definitely not a beginner board. This has a more pointed nose. It’s designed to ride waves.

Touring SUP: These are longer boards. They’re for long distance paddling or racing. Advanced paddlers enjoy these. SUP touring is a more intense water sport.

Fishing SUP: These are wider to hold fishing gear and offer stability. They’re usually pretty easy to use. If you like kayak fishing, this is a very cool alternative.

SUP Boarding Gear

You’re not just hitting the water with you and a board. You need to be prepared. The basics things you want to have with you are:

SUP Paddles: You don’t want to use a canoe paddle here. Pick one at least 6 inches taller than you. There are a lot of styles to choose from. A lot of materials too like carbon fiber, aluminum, plastic, and so on. Cost is a big factor, but so is how you want to use them. Start out with something basic because that’s all you need.

PFD: Everyone should always have a personal flotation device when they’re out on the water. And especially if you’re trying something new like stand up paddle boarding. Once you get the hang of it, you might not need one. But to start out, stay safe. Also, the Coast Guard may require you to wear one even on a stand up paddle board. If you’re paddling outside of surfing and swimming areas, a paddle board is considered a vessel. That means it’s like a canoe or fishing boat. In those cases, you need a life jacket.

SUP Leash: You want to use a leash to keep track of your board. The leash hooks around your ankle. If you fall off, it’s easy to get back to the board. You wouldn’t want to lose it your first time out, after all.

Getting on Your SUP

OK, so you have a board now and it’s time. The first part is often the hardest for newcomers. That’s just standing up. Don’t feel embarrassed if it’s hard for you. Almost no one is good at anything the first time they try it, right? If it helps, try to practice in a lake or on a stretch of beach with no one around.

You want to start out in the calmest water you can. No need to tackle big waves and wind speed yet. This is why a lake on a calm day is ideal. You can practice standing and find your center point easier.

1. Attach the leash: Always your first step. Don’t forget!

2. Get in the water: You don’t need to be in the middle of the ocean. Knee deep water is fine. Just go out far enough that the fin isn’t hitting the bottom. Now you need to actually get yourself on the board.

3. Get oriented on the board: You stand up paddle board should have a handle in the center of it. This is greater for carrying but also finding your balance. Keep the handle between your knees. When you stand, keep it between your feet. This should help maintain balance.

4. Kneel: Get in a kneeling position on the board. You can rest your hands across the handle of the paddle. Let yourself get comfortable. Get a feel for how the board balances with you on it. Feel free to try leaning a little bit to one side and the other to see how it responds. Don’t go too far or too fast, just shift your body weight a little.

5. Paddle: Stay on your knees and try paddling a bit. Try it on both sides of the board to see how it responds. This is all about you getting a feel for the board and how it works on the water with you on it. It’s like riding a bike. You need to understand how you balance on it to make it work.

6. Rise up: It’s time to try standing up. Start with one foot. Keep yourself straight and balanced as best you can. You don’t want to leave the center of the board. Bring that one foot up so it’s firmly planted where your knees used to be. Keep your shoulders steady. Keep paddling, just one or two strokes on either side. Feel how you’re balanced and get comfortable.

7. Next foot: Get that second foot under you. Keep your knees slightly bent, don’t try to stand up straight right away. Keep your feet parallel to the center of the board. Keep yourself centered and balanced as best as you can. Stay low at first if you need to. Slowly stand until you feel secure and balanced.

8. Straighten up: It’s actually best to straighten out sooner rather than later. Don’t keep those knees bent forever. Your body has a natural balance to it when it’s straight. Plus it allows you to straighten your head and look forward. Believe it or not, this really helps you find your balance. If you’re looking down at the water you will have a harder time getting balanced and will be more likely to fall.

9. Make adjustments: Two things are going to happen right now. Either you’re standing on the board or you fell in the water. Both are OK! If you fell off, climb back on and try it again. Try to think about how that first try went wrong. Did you lean one way or the other? Did the board feel like it was dipping to the side? Were your feet evenly balanced and parallel? Try to work it out and get back on your feet. Even if it takes a few tries, don’t get discouraged. Humans were not really designed to stand on water. This isn’t exactly natural, so it can take practice.

When you do get it sorted, congratulations! You are now halfway to stand up paddle boarding. You have the first half done. You are standing up. We just need to work on the paddling boarding half.

Paddling your Stand Up Paddle Board

There’s no need to rush this step. Make sure you feel comfortable before you try to navigate around on the water. You need your sea legs. You want to be at a point where you feel confident you are not going to fall in the water at any moment. If you have that, it’s time to paddle.

You hold your paddle in two hands and each hand has a purpose. The hand on top is where the power comes from. That’s going to move the board forward. The other arm is a pivot. It will help you maneuver. You want that bottom arm to be relatively stable for a good paddle technique.

1. Hands on: Keep one hand on top of the paddle. This is your power hand that will provide the force. The other hand can grip the pole about half way down. This is the pivot that guides the stroke. Switch sides, going back and forth.

2. Holding the paddle: There is an angle to the paddle blade. Don’t angle it towards yourself. A lot of paddle boarders do this and it’s incorrect. Hold the paddle so the blade is angled forward and away. This is because it gives you the most lift. If the blade is angled towards you, you end up scooping water. This slows you down.

3. Paddle at the right angle: It’s very tempting to place the paddle in the water on a diagonal. This will turn your board more than move it forward. To get going smoothly and quickly, holding the paddle straight up and down. Pull it back towards you in a straight line. This ensures you’re actually going forward.

4. Dig into the water: You want to reach forward with your paddle and dig the blade into the water. It’s like a sweep stroke. Reach the blade forward as far as possible. Don’t lean forward or go off balance to do it, though. Fully immerse the blade. You don’t want to just use part of the blade. That wastes its potential and your energy. You also don’t need to go super far down the pole, either. That is also unnecessary.

5. Pull: Pull the paddle back towards your body. Pull in a straight line down the side of the board. Once your paddle has come back to being parallel with your feet, start to pull it out. Twist your wrist to allow the blade to slip up and out of the water easily.

6. Moving forward: Paddle one or two strokes on each side of the board in this manner. This will move you forward. Alternate back and forth to keep going in a straight line. If you find yourself turning, pay attention to your strokes. Is your paddle at an angle? Are you keeping your hand spacing the same from left to right?

Maneuvering Your Stand Up Paddle Board

Moving straight is one thing, but how do you turn? The process is pretty simple but, again. Can take practice. The thing about water is it really likes to play with momentum. You can start a turn and then just keep spinning. If you’re new to it, this can be frustrating to work out.

1. Pick a direction: Let’s say you want to take a right turn. You need to exert some force on the left side of the board. Turn your torso to face the direction you want to go. Don’t move your feet, just your body. So you want your body turned to the right.

2. Paddle in: Put the paddle in the water on the opposite side. So in our example we’re turning right. That means you put the paddle in the water on the left side. Unlike a forward stroke, you’re not putting it as far forward as you can. Instead, you want to put the paddle near the tail.

3. Bend a little: A slight bend in the knees makes this maneuver much easier.

4. Pull from the tail forward: Pull the paddle forward. So this is the reverse stroke to what you have done before. The paddle in the water near the tail and you’re pulling toward this time. Going from the tail up towards the front of the board.

5. Get the board straight: Switch the paddle to the other side and paddle as normal. Reach forward and pull back to get on the straight and narrow again. If you want to do a full 180 turn to the opposite direction, then you may need to repeat the process once more. Pull from the tail towards the nose. You can use the paddle on the opposite side to stop the spin and get even once more.

This is the basic method for turning and moving forward. Of course there are some cooler paddling techniques you can learn as you go. There are times when you can shift your weight and stand near the tail to allow for a faster pivot turn. There are techniques for getting more speed as well. Like we have said, it all depends on what you want to do with your stand up paddle board. If you want, you can rent gear and different boards to try other techniques.

Paddle Boarding Tips for Beginners

There are a handful of ways you can make stand up paddle boarding easier. And more fun. Let’s take a look at a few tips that can improve your overall experience.

Choose the best board: There’s a reason we started this with choosing a board rather than instructions. The board can make or break your experience. Some boards will be almost impossible for a beginner to use. A surfing SUP or a touring SUP are not meant for newcomers to the sport.

We tried to recommend the best board we could. But if you are having issues with balance, make a tweak. The wider the board the more balance you’ll have. If falling is a problem, switch to a wider base. Even an inch of width can make a huge difference in terms of balance.

Switch hand positions: When you move the paddle from left to right, make sure you move those hands. Bottom hand on the left becomes the top hand on the right and so on. And keep the distances between your hands identical. If you paddle on the right with a foot between your hands, carry that over. If you paddle on the left with a foot and a half your movements are not smooth. This will cause you to turn more rather than accelerate forward.

Get comfortable with your hands: Hand positioning can be tricky for beginners. You want to avoid having both hands on the shaft of the paddle. Always keep one on top. This ensures power in your paddle strokes.

Paddle grip: If you’re not sure where to hold your paddle, lift it over your head. With one hand on the top, see where the other hand naturally falls. With your arms straight, this is an ideal grip. Your hands are now shoulder width apart. This will offer you the most powerful stroke.

Don’t paddle behind you: Think of your body as a dividing line. The water in front of you is where the power is. Put the sup paddle in front and pull back to your side. That will move you forward. Some beginners will put the paddle at their side and push back behind them. You lose so much power this way. You will barely move forward and simply waste energy.

Learn to control your power: You know how they say you need to lift heavy boxes with your legs? You need to paddle board with your back. As tough as your arm muscles may be, they get worn out fast. This can be a full body workout. It’ll test your core strength for sure. Your shoulders and back should be helping.

Keep the paddle in the water: A lot of first timers will hold the paddle out of the water. Keeping it in the water improves your balance. Just hold it steady with the blade in the water even if you aren’t paddling. Water may not be as solid as sand, but it still offers stability and balance.

Mind your stance: Beginners are often unsure of how to stand. Your mind may make you want to stand sideways, like a surfer. This looks cool, and it’s great for surfing. It’s not great for stand up paddle boarding. It’s harder to balance and harder to paddle in this stance. Remember, feet parallel to the center and balanced. Keep your toes pointed forward and your heels flat.

Inflate it: An inflatable paddle board needs to be inflated. That’s a no-brainer. But just like car tires it can lose pressure sometimes. Make sure you have it inflated to the recommended PSI before heading out. It won’t respond the way you want it to if it’s starting to lose pressure.

An inflatable paddle board should be inflated to 12 PSI. Always check the board’s instructions to be sure, though.

Store it: Take care when you store your board. A board bag is a good start. Hard boards and inflatable paddle boards need to be stored safely and properly. Damage during storage will definitely ruin your fun next time you hit the water.

The Bottom Line

The best way to do something is by doing it. Your best bet is to get out there and try stand up paddling boarding for yourself. Get in the water and get wet. If you fall, it’ll teach you a valuable lesson and maybe you’ll have a good laugh over it.

Follow our tips and you’ll be sure to make the most of your next paddle boarding trip. Once you get the hang of it you can move on to the more unique and exciting kinds of paddle boarding. As always, stay safe and have fun.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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