The first time Katie Vincent, 33, stood on a paddleboard, it was for a yoga class. The water at Green Lake in Seattle was frigid and surrounded by a walking path of gawking strangers. Rather than finding any kind of flow, Vincent fell into the water several times while other students were doing headstands.
“I kind of felt like I could never do this,” said Vincent, an ecological gardening coach who uses the pronoun they. “I will never be as good as the other people.”
Vincent considered the activity a one-off thing. But a few years later, their brother invited them to paddleboard in southern Utah. Soon, they’d mastered the basic skills and began paddling around southwest rivers. In 2020, they went on a four-day trip down the Green River in Colorado switching between a pack raft and paddleboard, and in 2021 they backpacked six miles to an alpine lake at 10,000 feet — and then turned around to do it again, hauling 30-pound inflatable boards.
“It just like clicked for me,” they said. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP, for short) has likely existed for thousands of years. Ancient cultures in South America and Africa stood on small boats with long paddles to travel, fish or go to war. Polynesians surfed waves using paddles. Most historians agree its modern form took shape thanks to Hawaiian surf instructors like Duke Kahanamoku, who in the 1940s would stand on his board to get a better view of his students.
The sport was brought from Hawaii to California by the paddle surfer Rick Thomas in the early 2000s and quickly took off. It’s now a competitive sport with races in Spain, Japan, Korea, France and Italy and an official Special Olympics event. And, like so many outdoor activities, SUPs flew off the shelves during the pandemic.
“We’ve had paddlers range in age from five to 82,” said Curt Devoir, director of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association. “Last August-September, when Covid restrictions started lifting in the States, our requests for instructor training just exploded.” Then he added, “people were all over it because they figured out it was the perfect social distancing activity.”
Still, for those of us with less-than-impeccable balance, the sport can seem intimidating. Here’s what you need to know to get started stand-up paddleboarding.
Standing and paddling is a full-body workout.
You might think paddling and expect upper body workout. But SUPing targets muscles all over the body. “If only your arms hurt, then you weren’t doing it right,” Mr. Devoir said.
Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, said SUP “is what I would call a combo workout.” Balance and stability are especially challenged, and your upper body builds strength and endurance, too. It’s also pretty decent cardio.
But it might take a while before you work up a sweat as you master staying on the board and paddling efficiently. On a recent SUP trip, I was surprised how quickly my feet grew sore from balancing (my instructor said wiggling your toes to make sure they’re not over-clenching helps, but mine still ached). And Mr. Bryant said beginners work their legs extra hard to stay upright. Experienced paddleboarders, who have the skill to go faster, paddle longer and take on rougher waters, tend get more cardio benefits.
Standing on a board takes practice.
Before you get in the water, size your paddle and board appropriately. Mr. Devoir recommended paddleboards that are about 32 inches wide for most novices and perhaps 10 to 12 and a half feet, which will be easy to maneuver but still stable.
For the paddle, stretch your arm straight above your shoulder and let your hand flop. Adjust the handle so that the grip rests at your wrist. Tilt the angled paddle blade forward in the water — the opposite of how most beginners intuitively position it.
Next, to stand on the paddleboard, Mr. Devoir said place your feet on either side of the handle, which is the board’s center. “The wider your stance on the board with your feet, the more stable you’re going to be,” Mr. Devoir added. Pro tip: Don’t look down. “Eyes up, stay up,” he said. As soon as you’re standing, start paddling, which helps to stabilize the board.
“Plant the paddle into the water, pulling it back to get it back to about where your feet are,” Mr. Devoir said. Keep the paddle vertical in the water and parallel to your board, which will help you move in a straight line. Swap sides when your arms tire. Experiment with other strokes that allow you to reverse, turn, or move sideways. An instructor can help.
Standing up isn’t required. Falling should be expected.
Just because stand up is in the name doesn’t mean you’re standing the whole time — or that you have to stand at all. Christopher J. Read is the program director at the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colo., which takes people with disabilities out on the water. Participants in their program may stand or sit on the board or a seat (or a wheelchair) connected to the board.
A combination of sitting and standing is common for abled people, too. Beginners and pros sit or kneel while they get used to the board, when they get tired or if the water gets rough. But no matter how skilled you are, you’ll still probably go ker-splash at some point. A good dunking can be “part of the learning curve,” Mr. Read said.
Getting back on can be tricky. The easiest method is from the side of the board, pulling yourself up with one hand on the handle and the other on the opposite edge until your upper body is on the board (picture a beached seal), then swinging your lower body on. If you know your body won’t allow for this, like if you have an injury or upper body weakness, make a plan beforehand for how to get out of the water. A safety stirrup, which creates a step out of a leash, may be helpful. Otherwise, stay close to shore or paddle with people who can help you.
Folks for whom it would be dangerous to fall in the water, such as those who may struggle to float in the face up position, should consider an extra-wide board or attaching an outrigger, Mr. Read said.
Basic water safety skills are necessary.
Any water-based activity comes with risk, and a few basic skills can help keep you safe. Always have — and preferably wear — a personal flotation device like a life jacket. The U.S. Coast Guard also requires paddlers to have a whistle or other noise maker to warn boats.
For each trip, leave behind a “float plan” with a friend or relative that details your intended route, timeline, what your SUPs look like, everyone in your party and the safety gear you’re carrying.
In most circumstances, connect your SUP leash to your ankle so that you aren’t separated from your board, Mr. Devoir said. (If you’re traveling rivers where your leash might get snagged, use a quick-release system around your waist instead of an ankle leash so it can be removed fast by either hand.)
Check the tides and weather forecast and be prepared for water temperatures. Many areas in the northern states have dangerously cold water (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round that may require wet suits or dry suits. Ask local outfitters for advice about water conditions.
Last, wear bright clothing and stay clear of boats, jet skiers and other fast-moving watercraft. Right of way varies based on location, so best assume they won’t move for you.
It’s about more than exercise.
Yes, paddleboarding is good for you because you’re moving your body. Those who want an extra workout can try adding yoga poses like side planks or sun salutations, gym moves like squats or Russian twists or raise their heart rate with HIIT intervals of fast paddling.
But more than exercise, Vincent said paddling trips deepened their understanding of the natural world. Great blue heron, bighorn sheep and wild donkeys all joined as they paddled through Utah. Once in the northwest, they saw an ocean seal out of place in a freshwater river, likely chasing its dinner. “There’s something so intimate about just your feet right on the water and really feeling the flow.”
Colleen Stinchcombe is a freelance writer and editor focused on health, outdoor recreation, and travel.