What is Paddle Boarding? (All About SUP)


What is Paddle Boarding

Ranging from relaxing fun to an intense workout, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is great for all types of participants. The sport can be practiced on many different types and bodies of water and is easy to learn compared to other water sports.

“SUP” has become increasingly popular now due to its versatility and increased access to equipment.   

But, what is paddle boarding? Stand up paddle boarding is an outdoor water sport where the participant stands up on a board (similar in appearance to a surfboard) and uses a paddle to steer and move them through the water. The sport was adapted from surfing and has evolved into a popular activity with varying levels of difficulty. 

This article covers everything you need to know about paddle boarding, including how to do it, what boards to use, as well as the history of the sport. Whether you are considering paddle boarding for the first time or have done it before, this article is an easy reference point for all things paddle boarding!   

What is Stand Up Paddle Boarding? 

Stand up paddle boarding, as we mention above, is a watersport in which one moves through the water by standing on a board and using a paddle for momentum. While it can be practiced in many bodies of water, the ideal body of water is one with minimal waves. The design of the SUP board helps for stability, but paddle boarding is typically a smooth water activity. 

Compared to other water sports, paddle boarding’s fairly easy to learn, which has allowed for its growth in popularity. The following sections further discuss how to paddle board as well as the benefits of the sport to get you ready and excited to try it. 

How To Stand Up Paddle Board

Learning how to stand up paddle board can be accomplished quickly, especially with the following tips in mind. Additional practice just serves to make you better and more comfortable paddling and holding your balance. If you already have a board and paddle ready to go, there are few other pieces of equipment that you’ll need while out on the water. 

Before you start paddle boarding, these are some of the items you should invest in: 

  • Personal flotation device (PFD): Any time you go out on the water, especially large bodies of water, using a life jacket is strongly recommended. This is especially true if you travel away from shore and into areas where larger boats travel. The state regulations for PFDs will vary depending on your state’s laws.
  • Sun protection: Whether it’s a hat, long-sleeved shirt, or sunscreen, you should protect your skin while in the sun to avoid burning as well as heat stroke. Your body works harder to keep itself cool when in the sun for extended periods.
  • Leash: These are sometimes sold separately, but should be considered a non-optional item for your paddle boarding adventures. A leash will keep you attached to the board if you fall off. This helps to avoid struggling and losing your board in windy or wavy conditions. Secure this to your ankle and hook it onto the board. 
  • Personal items: Place personal items in a waterproof bag if you choose to bring them. It’s important to have a time-tracking tool with you (cell phone, watch, etc.) and a way to contact someone in the event of an emergency (phone, walkie talkie, etc.).
  • Wetsuit/Drysuit: Paddle boarding is becoming more popular in the colder months, so look into wetsuits and/or a dry suit and feet protection when participating in winter. 

If you’re alone (we don’t recommend this), consider telling a friend that you will be out paddle boarding for the day. That way, if they don’t hear from you after a certain period or by an agreed upon time, they can take the necessary steps to look for you.

Once you have all of these items and steps taken care of, you’re ready to hop on your paddle board. Start your first paddle boarding adventure in smooth, shallow water where balancing is less challenging. 

Whether you’re new to the sport or need a refresher, these are the steps to take to successfully get on a paddle board and start moving through the water: 

  1. Place your paddle board in the water: You will want to make sure that the board is deep enough in the water to keep the fins off the bottom (which could scratch or damage them). This shouldn’t be more than knee-deep in the water. 
  2. Get onto the board: You should work your way onto the board by placing your knees on the board first. This will keep your center of gravity low and make it easier for you to get onto the board. While doing this, hold the paddle perpendicular to the board and place your weight against it for balance. 
  3. Stand on the paddle board: Once you’re on your hands and knees on the board, you’ll want to replace each foot slowly where your knees were. Do this one foot at a time and slowly raise your chest before extending your legs fully. 
  4. Find your balance on the board: The hardest part will be maintaining your balance, especially in windy conditions or with waves. There are a couple of key elements to remember: 
    1. Keep your weight centered on the board with equal footing.
    2. Maintain a slight bend with your knees.
    3. Keep your upper body straight.
    4. Maintain forward momentum.
  5. Begin paddling: Learning how to paddle can be a bit tricky at first but gets easier once you get the hang of it. 
    1. Once you’re balanced on your paddle board, hold the paddle properly. 
    2. Place the paddle into the water on one side of the board.
    3. Make sure your lower hand that is holding the shaft is the same as the side you are on. 
    4. Your opposite hand will hold the grip at the top of the paddle. 
    5. Switch hands as you paddle on both sides
  6. In case you fall off the board: From time to time, you’re going to lose your balance and fall off the board. With nothing to push off of besides the water, it can be challenging to get yourself back on the board. Get back on your board by holding onto one side of the board with your arm and then swinging a leg over when you are floating level with the board. You can easily retrieve your paddle after you get on the board for ease. 

These are the steps you should take to get on your paddle board successfully. Balancing yourself will take practice and help you gain body awareness.  

Paddling Technique on a Paddle Board

Looking more closely at paddling technique will make you more efficient at moving through the water. You should practice paddling after you are comfortable with your balance skills. Paddling technique controls speed, direction, and steering. 

These are the most common strokes you will use while paddle boarding: 

  • Forward Stroke: This is the simplest stroke technique and the one that you’ll likely use the most. Place the paddle into the water slightly in front of you and pull back through the water to propel yourself forward. Once you’ve completed the stroke, remove the paddle from the water, and repeat. If you want to keep going straight ahead, you’ll need to alternate stroking on opposite sides of the SUP board. (from the left to right side of the board). 
  • Backward stroke: You can make the same motion in reverse by starting behind you and moving the paddle toward the front of the board. When you need to slow down or turn around, this motion will easily accomplish both. Instead of turning in a complete circle with forward paddling, this reverse motion quickly turns the back end of the board for easy directional changes. 

You can also use a variation of the forward stroke with a large arc to help you turn the board easily. To turn towards the right, you will want to place the paddle on the right side and do the same for the left if you want to go in the opposite direction. You can check out all of these techniques with an easy to follow video:

Your paddling technique is usually what makes the difference between a leisurely outing and an intense workout. In either case, your movements will be faster and smoother if you place the blade of the paddle into the water completely. This will also increase your power as you move more water in each stroke. 

For a harder workout, you will want to increase your stroke rate and use larger strokes with greater power. Pulling through the water with quickly and with more force will both move you faster and be more strenuous on your muscles. 

What Are The Benefits of Stand Up Paddle Boarding?

There are multiple reasons why someone would be interested in paddle boarding, including the health benefits and enjoyment of SUP boarding. 

These are the main benefits of stand up paddle boarding: 

  • Whole-body workout: All areas of the body are targeted when stand up paddle boarding, making participation great for maintaining and triggering muscles. Legs and abdominal muscles are required for stability, while arms and shoulders move you through the water. The combined movement and balance targets every major muscle group. It is important to note that higher intensity paddling will be required for this to be an effective muscle-building workout.
  • Emphasis on balance: One of the greatest benefits is increased body awareness and stability through balance. Balance exercises not only benefit athletic performance, but they are very useful for daily practicality. Most prominently, better balance prevents falling and injuries and improves your overall awareness and perception.
  • Stress-reducer: Paddling on calm water is not only fun, it’s also relaxing. Participating in stress-reducing activities is good for your body and mental health. It has become popular to meditate and even practice yoga on paddle boards for a quiet and peaceful experience. Having fun lowers stress by improving your mood and approaching situations with a more positive outlook.
  • Low-impact exercise: For injured athletes or those who cannot put physical stress on joints, paddle boarding gives you a great exercise opportunity without adding too much stress on the body. 
  • Gets you outside: Paddle boarding is just another reason you can spend time outside. Not only will it help you to have fun, but it increases your Vitamin D exposure from the sun. Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bone growth, preventing diabetes, and minimizing the risk of certain types of cancer.

Not only is paddle boarding a form of exercise that can be tailored to your desired level of intensity, but you can bring about positive mental health effects by enjoying your time outdoors. 

What is a SUP Board? 

Stand up paddle boards are different from other boards due to their shape and purpose. While one can use a surfboard or similar vessel for paddle boarding, the specific design of a SUP board allows for better movement through the water as well as greater stability. SUP boards are made from a variety of materials and different types that may be better suited for specific uses, sizes, as well as desired budgets. 

While there are multiple types of SUP boards depending on usage, there are also two major variations in material. These are divided into inflatable and epoxy boards and are typically chosen based on budgets as well as storage capabilities. If you are looking for a more budget-friendly option, the inflatable boards will be the best choice. 

Inflatable boards are also much easier to transport and store as they can be easily deflated and placed in small spaces. You don’t have this luxury with a hard epoxy board, but they do offer other benefits. Hard SUP boards are much more durable and offer better performance than inflatable ones. Overall, epoxy boards are deemed better, but both allow for good experiences and both have their specific uses. 

Choosing a type of SUP board will often be dependent on what kind of paddle boarding you want to do. Multiple choices are designed specifically for various bodies of water and performance outcomes: 

  • All-around: For relaxed paddle boarding and ease of use, the all-around boards are larger and have a wider surface area for increased stability. These are best if you want to do multiple types of paddle boarding, including open ocean water, flat water, and surfing. These boards are recommended for beginners as well as those who only want to invest in one type of board. 
  • Surfing: You can use these specific SUP boards to manage riding waves better. Using a paddle while surfing allows you to easily make your way onto a wave without the added effort of laying on a surfboard and paddling with your arms. Surf SUPs are less stable for paddling through flat water, so these boards are best for experienced users. 
  • Racing: SUP boards designed for racing are best for those looking for an intense workout. They work well for traveling far distances on flat water as well as downwind and open water environments. They are longer boards than all-arounds, making them more precise in cutting through the water but less stable due to their narrow width.

These are the most common variations in SUP boards, all serving a specific purpose and use. You can also find boards designed for fishing and yoga, but you can also do those on an all-around board. The primary difference would be greater width and length to carry more gear or further enhance the SUP’s stability. 

The final factor to consider in choosing a SUP board is the size, both for length and volume (surface area and displacement of the board). The size you choose depends on your body weight. The different types of boards will vary in their capacity, so make sure you are checking this out when making your choice. Give some wiggle room so you do not reach the capacity as performance may suffer. 

The History of Paddle Boarding

Before it was formally made into a sport, the practice of paddle boarding was around for thousands of years across the world. Standing on a board or similar vessel and paddling was a means of transportation, both for people and goods. This form of transportation was used for traveling, fishing, and even for attacking enemies quietly in war.

The following are some of the various groups in history that have used paddle boards or some variation of stand up paddling: 

  • Peruvians: Archaeologists have found evidence of boards being put together by reeds for surfing and paddle boarding as a pastime. This dates back as far as 3,000 years ago (Source: International Surfing AssociationOpens in a new tab.). 
  • Africans: Stand up paddle boards have also been used as a war tactic, where groups would sneak up on the opposition. The groups used boards as well as canoes that they would stand in (Source: The InertiaOpens in a new tab.). 
  • Italians: The gondolas were an early version of the concept, allowing for easy transportation of goods and people. Gondolas date back to the 16th century and were the primary transportation vessel for the canals of Venice, Italy (Source: Italy MagazineOpens in a new tab.). 
  • Israelis: Used by lifeguards to help struggling swimmers in Tel Aviv, the Israelis used boards called ‘hasehkeh’ for rescues (Source: Israel 21cOpens in a new tab.). Arabic groups also used a similar vessel for fishing and lifeguarding. 

These early practices were not the sport you see as it is today, but they do show that the idea of stand up paddle boarding was popular among different civilizations for practical means of transportation and survival. The following sections look at the more modern iterations of the sport. 

Hawaii – The Birthplace of Stand Up Paddle Boarding 

Stand up paddle boarding was born as a way to make surfing a bit easier and allow for surf instructors to watch over their students in Hawaii. Dating back to the 1940s, a group of Hawaiian surf instructors would use a paddle and stand up on their boards to easily power through waves, steer, and help instruct student surfers. 

These instructors from Waikiki famously defined ‘Beach-Boy Surfing’ and represented the growth of both surfing and paddle boarding in Hawaii. Among them was Duke Kahanamoku, who is credited for making surfing a mainstream sport in Hawaii. More people began to take note of this standing variation, and it grew in popularity. 

John Zapotocky arrived in Hawaii around the time that the Waikiki Beach Boys (not to be confused with the band) were practicing stand up paddle boarding. He became friends with them and took an immediate interest in surfing and paddling. He is credited as a SUP pioneer for his consistent participation and spread of the sport.

Hawaii is considered the modern birthplace of both surfing and stand up paddle boarding as you know it today. The Waikiki Beach Boys helped to define the practices as well as establish them into modern culture. 

Stand Up Paddle Boarding as an Official Sport

The SUP boards used today are different than surfboards, allowing for greater balance and smoother movement through the water. This technology development is credited to Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton in the 1990s, who helped to develop various surfing and watercraft designs.

They specifically put their time and effort into the creation of the downwind board, which allowed you to surf longer waves without the nose tipping under the surface. This has become a staple feature in stand-up paddle boarding to keep it level with the water. After these technological advances were made, stand up paddle boarding gained popularity as a sport. 

The combination of ingenuity to make surfing more enjoyable and design for feasibility and ease of use has made it one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. since the mid-2000s (Source: Mountain Culture GroupOpens in a new tab.). 

Facts About Paddle Boarding 

Now that you know all you need to know about getting out on the water with your SUP board and the history of paddle boarding, here are some cool facts about the sport:

  1. The largest parade of stand up paddle boarders was 844 people: A SUP group broke a world record in 2017 for the largest group of stand up paddle boarders in Russia (Source: Guinness World RecordsOpens in a new tab.). 
  2. The longest SUP journey is 1,641.2 miles: Achieved by Shilpika Gautam on the Ganges River in India in 2017, he made the trip to raise awareness for clean water and the need for clean supplies and infrastructure (Source: Guinness World RecordsOpens in a new tab.). 
  3. Laird Hamilton took his SUP board out during a hurricane: In 2014, large waves were brought to Southern California shores thanks to Hurricane Marie. The notable Laird Hamilton (the same one who was pivotal in creating the sport) took his SUP board out for a surf and managed to help rescue someone from the surf during that same trip (Source: Huffington PostOpens in a new tab.). 
  4. SUP is a professional sport: There are competitions held all over the world with sponsored athletes competing. Events are held on varying bodies of water and consist of both distance and sprinting events (Source: Daily BurnOpens in a new tab.). There is an organization that is called the Professional Stand Up Paddle Boarding Association, and it offers opportunities for instructors by pros, community, and promotion of the sport (Source: PSUPAOpens in a new tab.). 
  5. SUP is one of the fastest-growing sports: Data is difficult to find for the most recent years, but SUP has seen yearly growth of up to 20% as of 2016. This likely puts participation at over 2 million people (Source: Channel SignalOpens in a new tab.). The sport has seen significant growth since the 1990s when it was formalized as a sport, with popularity increasing in the last decade specifically.
  6. Paddle boarding may become an Olympic sport: While it is currently not a sport offered at the Olympic Games, participants are hopeful that it will be included in the next decade. Because the sport is popular in California, its inclusion may take place at the Games hosted in Los Angeles in 2028 (Source: USA TodayOpens in a new tab.). 

These facts are not only fun, but they are also important because they show the growth and advancement of the sport. More people are becoming interested in participating both on a recreational and competitive level, as shown by the growth in numbers as well as the desire to add them to the Olympic Games! 

Trying Out Stand Up Paddle Boarding 

If you live near a body of water, you can easily access paddle boards, either for purchase or rent. If you’re constrained by a tight budget, renting a board will allow you to go out when you want and not have the responsibility of buying or storing the board. However, purchasing a paddle board allows you to become comfortable with a specific board much faster.

Paddle boarding is great for all paddlers of varying experience and athletic abilities, making it an excellent way to spend time with family and friends. SUP is also relatively easy to learn, with most users getting the hang of it on their first outing. Given these factors, stand up paddle boarding is a sport you should try at least once. But be warned, you’ll probably end up wanting to go again!

Steve W

I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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