What is Paddle Boarding?

what is paddle boarding

Stand up paddle boarding, or SUP, has fully established itself as one of the most popular outdoor activities in the 21st century. Part of its appeal is the basic ideal blend of a physical workout with plenty of laidback relaxation going on as well, not to mention the fact that the sport is very accessible. A wonderfully wide range of ages and physical fitness levels can enjoy paddle boarding in calm water. The SUP experience can be as utterly relaxed and low-intensity or as high-octane and adrenaline-pumping as you wish.

But what exactly is this wildly popular activity? How does it work, and why are people so nuts about it? Let’s grab our paddles, attach our board leash, and dig into an introductory SUP survey!

What is Paddle Boarding?

Stand up paddle boarding is a hybrid of canoeing and surfing. The paddle board itself resembles a surfboard; the paddle employed looks something like a quirky canoe paddle. The sport is essentially spelled out in the name: The paddler stands upright atop the board and paddles to one side or another to propel the board and themselves around a body of water. 

When Did Paddle Boarding Start & Where Did it Originate?

The ultimate origins of standup paddle boarding are difficult to discern: a reflection of just how widespread—and just how ancient—the basic practice of standing up on an oblong craft and powering it with a paddle (or paddle-like object) is throughout human history.

As this SUP World magazine article notes, we’re talking thousands of years and many geographies, from Africa—where upright warriors would propel dugout canoes with spears—to South America, where Peruvian fishermen balanced on wobbly reed crafts called Caballitos de Totoras that they sometimes employed for surfing.


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Consider, too, that standup paddle boarding isn’t all that far off from one of the more iconic watercrafts in the world: the famous gondolas of Venice, steered through the canals by those singing (and standing) gondoliers with their long poles. 

But when we’re talking about the modern sport itself, the clearest SUP roots extend to Hawaii. Those roots are intertwined, unsurprisingly, with surfing, refined into a recreational pursuit from thousands of years of venerable Polynesian tradition. Some of the early Hawaiian surfboards were made from the wood of the native koa tree. These boards could be very large and riders often used paddles to access breaks. 

Some big names who helped popularize modern surfing in Hawaii in the 20th century, including Duke Kahanamoku and the Ah Choy family (John Ah Choy and his sons, Leroy and Bobby).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hawaiian surfers such as Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton majorly ramped up standup paddle boarding’s profile via extensive media exposure. It took off like wildfire soon thereafter: By 2009, it was the fastest-growing paddlesport in North America, and it’s become downright ubiquitous now, with SUP addicts taking to all sorts of waters all over the world. 

What Equipment Do You Need?

When it comes down to it, you don’t need a ton of equipment to get into SUP. It’s a barebones kind of watersport, which is probably part of its appeal as well. 

A Paddleboard

It goes without saying you need a paddle board. These come in a variety of different styles and construction materials, and you’ll be ultimately selecting one (or more) based on the kind of paddling you intend to do and your budget.

Materials range from wood (usually bamboo), plastic, and foam to fiberglass and carbon fiber. These would be materials for solid paddle boards. You could also opt to buy an inflatable paddle board. Inflatable paddle boards are made from drop-stitch PVC and have become increasingly popular since they’re easier to transport and store. Inflatable paddle boards pack into a fairly small bag so you don’t need to transport them on top of a vehicle when heading to the water.

Paddle boards vary in length, width, thickness, and shape. To generalize: Longer boards are faster and track better (that is, stick to a straight line); shorter boards are more maneuverable. Narrow boards give you better speed and tracking ability, while broader boards are more stable.

An important distinguishing characteristic is the form of the paddle board’s nose: a broad, flattish nose—or planing hull—provides more maneuverability, while a sharper-pointed, kayak-like nose—a displacement hull—boosts speed and tracking.

The number and arrangement of fins on the underside of the standup paddle board are another element to consider. Fins influence the tracking, speed, and maneuverability of a board.

All of this comes down to the kind of action you’re intending to pursue: There are surfing paddle boards, whitewater boards, touring boards, racing boards, and any number of less-specialized, more general-purpose models. As a beginner, you’ll likely be gravitating toward the latter: an “all-around” or “recreational” paddle board. It’s wise to rent or borrow a SUP board before buying to get a feel for the sport in general and a particular style of paddle board.

A Paddle

SUP paddles have a single blade, offset in the forward direction, and a T-shaped handle or grip. It’s like a long canoe paddle as opposed to a double-sided kayak paddle.

Like boards, paddles come in different materials, including plastic, aluminum, wood, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. The main tradeoff is between weight and cost (lighter paddles are nice to have, but usually pricier than heavier ones).

Besides material, the main task in choosing a paddle is correctly sizing it to your body height. SUP paddles include both fixed- and adjustable-length shafts and can be specialized for particular kinds of paddling.

Safety Gear

Boards and paddles are the meat of the matter. Other equipment includes a leash to attach yourself to your board, helpful when you take a dunk; basic safety essentials, including a PFD (of course) and an emergency whistle; and the proper clothing, which can range from wetsuits or drysuits in cold conditions to nothing more than your swimwear of choice.

What is the Aim of Paddle Boarding?

People choose to paddle board for any number of reasons—the same with any sport or outdoor activity. Many do SUP for the sheer pleasure of it: the ability to get out on the water at a beachfront resort or down at the local lake and spend an hour or three on a leisurely cruise.

The healthy workout involved with paddling is another big attraction of SUP. You’re using muscles to balance yourself atop the board and in your paddling strokes, including obscure ones you may never have known existed (as in your feet, to maintain their grip). It’s a great core workout, even if you’re not doing anything particularly intense, and can also be a nice cardiovascular one.

On easy flatwater, SUP can be mastered by just about anybody, including young children. Some people even bring their dog along on the board as well, another bonus.

Paddleboarding may also allow you to access more out-of-the-way waves for surfing, cast for trophy fish in shallow, twisty backwaters inaccessible to deeper-drafted boats, or, with an inflatable board, get to (and get on) remote backcountry lakes miles from a road, maybe miles from a trail.

More specialized forms of SUP often appeal to the athletically competitive or adventurous: from SUP racing to multi-day, even multi-week, river expeditions.

Why Do People Like Paddle Boarding?

As we alluded to above, people gravitate toward SUP for any number of reasons. It may be an exercise thing: a more fun—and more scenic—way to work out than the neighborhood gym. Paddle boarding’s an awesome way to stay in shape on a waterfront resort getaway: Instead of just lounging on the sand, you can dig the same postcard-perfect beachfront while also working those muscles and honing your endurance.

Some use paddleboarding to keep not only their bodies limber and strong, but also calm their mind and center themselves: SUP yoga is hugely popular.

Competitive types may get into SUP for racing or surfing. Others may take advantage of paddle boarding as a means to an end: a versatile way to go fishing, for example, or a way to explore out-of-the-way places and obtain wilderness solitude along far flung oceanfronts, lakeshores, and riverbanks.

What Are the Challenges of Paddle Boarding?

Stand-up paddleboarding can be deceptively challenging from a physical standpoint. As we mentioned, after your first SUP experience, you’ll find yourself sore in brand-new places, including your feet, which will be gripping and straining to help you stay upright and balanced during your paddle.

To do any extended paddling, you’ll need to be a certain baseline level of fit—though there’s no more enjoyable way to get to that very obtainable level than with a few SUP outings!

More rigorous kinds of water, such as surf breaks, whitewater, and strong currents, will demand accordingly higher intensities of physical effort. So will SUP racing, of course, which is all about driving forward as fast as possible and making lightning-quick turns.

Simply staying balanced on your board is a basic but quickly surmounted challenge of SUP. All it takes, though, is a little practice, and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. Just be prepared to go overboard in the process!

Learning how to keep your board going straight will also require practice, given you need to get into the rhythm of switching your strokes from one side to the other in order to track along efficiently. But learning the SUP ropes on a friendly lake or warm lagoon is, when all is said and done, a pretty darn enjoyable use of time.

Is Paddle Boarding Difficult or Easy?

Before you get too discouraged, keep in mind that general-purpose SUP is really a very easy and broadly accessible kind of activity, requiring few specialized skills and welcoming participants of a wide range of physical ability and ambition. An afternoon paddle on a summer lake or placid coastal bay doesn’t have to be challenging at all, and you can go at your own pace. 

Consider this, too: Unlike in a sit-in cockpit-style kayak, where learning to roll is essential for safety, getting wet on a SUP outing is a low-stress affair. You’re going to fall off your paddleboard as you learn, but all that means is a refreshing dunk.

Obviously specialized SUP, such as paddle-board surfing or whitewater-running, is a different affair: more challenging activities requiring plenty of practice and honing of skills. But that’s the beauty of standup paddle boarding: It encompasses a broad spectrum of intensity, and newbies have a generous safety net as they learn the ropes of easy flatwater paddling.

Remember this, too: Many SUP practitioners never go beyond the very casual, completely pleasure-focused, flatwater-exclusive end of things, and that’s completely fine.

What Are the Health Benefits of Paddle Boarding?

As we’ve mentioned, paddle boarding is a nice full-body workout, whether it’s of the low-grade variety (a simple paddle along the beach) or the relatively hardcore variety (a day of surfing, a weeklong SUP tour). It’s an excellent form of exercise, whether pursued on a daily basis at your local river, lake, or ocean beach or during an otherwise semi-slothful (hey, you deserve it!) vacation.

Keep in mind you want to enjoy those SUP health benefits while protecting yourself from the sun. Wear sunscreen for sure, sun-protective clothing if you want to be most careful, and remember that there’s plenty of glare off the water hitting you from below and all around.

Is Paddle Boarding Expensive?

Paddle boarding involves an upfront cost, no question. But let’s note again that you can easily explore the sport via a rental or introductory class for a nominal fee, so you don’t have to commit to purchasing your own SUP kit right off the bat. (And hey, if you’ve got a friend who’s into paddle boarding, see if you can borrow a board for free!)

The variety of materials used to produce paddle boards translates to quite the range of SUP prices, which is a good thing. You can always start on the budget side of things, then upgrade when you can afford to if you’re really into SUP. 

Foam, plastic, and low-end inflatable boards may put you out only a couple of hundred dollars. High-end fiberglass or carbon-fiber models can run north of $2,000. If you’ve got the itch for SUP after taking a class or renting a board, consider your budget and shoot for the best setup you can without breaking the bank. You can land yourself a higher-quality mid-range board for $700 or $800.

Paddles range widely in price too, depending on their construction and weight: You can get a low-end one for $20 or $30, or shell out more than $200 for a top-quality carbon-fiber paddle.

Is Paddle Boarding Dangerous?

Paddle boarding doesn’t have to be a dangerous pursuit, although let’s note that any watersport involves an element of risk given the whole we-can’t-breathe-underwater deal. If you’re wearing a PFD and doing your paddling on calm, accessible waters, it’s quite a safe sport. A SUP leash keeps you connected to your board, which offers a platform that’s easy to get back onto if (when) you end up in the water and a nice place to kneel or sit on if you need a break from exertion.

Obviously, SUP surfing or running rapids ups the danger level, just because of the nature of the wildwater you’re dealing with. 

Anybody getting in the water—whether they’re boating, surfing, rafting, or just swimming—should practice common sense and understand basic aquatic safety. If you’re paddling a river, know how to read the current and key into hazards such as holes and strainers. Ocean SUP paddlers should know about rip currents and other fundamental dangers. 

Is Paddle Boarding Harder Than Kayaking?

The short answer is no. Paddle boarding presents the unique challenge of balancing upright as you ride the water, and your legs will get a different kind of workout (though, of course, legs are involved in kayaking as well). 

But from achieving the right balance and honing those core muscles a bit to learning the basic strokes and board control, entry-level SUP isn’t really any harder than figuring out how to control a basic sit-on-top kayak. As we’ve alluded to, learning to safely use a sit-in cockpit kayak takes considerably more instruction and practice than getting the hang of a standup paddle board.

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