Why paddle boarding should be your new fave summer hobby
Join me out on the water.
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For a long time, I thought that stand-up paddle boarding was only for people who live near the ocean. That was until last summer, when I saw more and more people across the country paddling on other bodies of water and I realized my Midwest location and plentiful access to lakes and rivers would, in fact, allow me to try the sport. (And it didn’t hurt that my favorite influencer made it look so easy, either.)
This summer, I was determined to give stand-up paddle boarding (a.k.a stand-up paddling or SUP), a try when the water warmed up. Luckily, I got my chance—Retrospec sent me its inflatable Weekender paddle board to try and I spoke with Curt Devoir, director of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association (PSUPA), to learn about paddle board safety, techniques, and activities to test out (once I gain my balance). It’s not as easy as I expected, but I’m thoroughly hooked on it now.
What is stand-up paddle boarding?
Stand-up paddling is a slow, flat form of surfing where you propel and steer yourself with an oar. It’s a popular sport for those who live near water, whether it’s a lake or an ocean. You can SUP in still water or along with currents, as well as downwind-race, surf, fish, add a sail or kite, and even do yoga on the board (though paddling works the core well enough on its own, according to a study by the American Council on Exercise). The sport also gained a large following during the coronavirus pandemic because it takes place outdoors and allows people to distance themselves from one another—the PSUPA noticed an “explosion” of interest as COVID-19 restrictions began to ease up last August, according to Devoir.
Paddle boards come in solid and inflatable varieties. Solid SUPs are made of epoxy resin layers over hollow wood or foam cores or a polycarbonate shell and are best for surfing, racing, and yoga. Inflatable paddle boards are usually made of PVC plastic outer layers over an inflatable core material and are best for a variety of waterways and can be compacted down for portability. Regardless of the option you choose, most paddle boards are about 10 to 15 feet long. All boards have fins, a textured place to stand, an oar to paddle, and most also have bungee cords for storage, handles for carrying, and an ankle-strap tether for safety.
Both solid and inflatable boards function similarly, but you’ll want to consider storage and transportation. Do you have room in or on your car for a 10-foot, solid-material board? Can you fit it in your garage or do you need to carry it up several flights of stairs? These factors impact the decision of which board to get as much as what you want to do when you're on it. As for me, I’m fully committed to the inflatable style because it deflates and folds up to fit in my closet and my car, and I can carry it on my back in case we need to hike a short distance to the water’s edge.
Popular places to buy paddle boards include REI, Retrospec, Isle, and Dick's Sporting Goods. You can also check out any local outdoor supply stores close to you to see what they have to offer. You can expect to pay about $300 to $1,000 for a paddle board, with the solid versions usually being more expensive. For context, my inflatable Weekender board costs $350 on Retrospec's site (it's also available on Amazon, though it costs more there at $390) and a solid wood Pau Hana board costs $1,245 at REI.
How to get started with paddle boarding
People of all ages can enjoy paddle boarding, even kids—according to Devoir, their low center of gravity makes it easier for them to maintain balance. You can get out into the water by walking and carrying the board, then paddling on your stomach when it gets too deep for wading. Once your board is situated, get into a standing position by kneeling first, then raising your chest and straightening your legs. Devoir recommends taking a wide, relaxed, yet sturdy stance. “The wider your stance, the more stable you are," he says. "Relax your toes or your feet will cramp up. Use your legs to absorb shock, keep your hips and back relaxed." He also says to keep the paddle vertical to help prevent the board from "fishtailing," or waggling back and forth.
Paddling didn’t come naturally to me, so I asked Devoir for advice. He says a lot of people tend to hold the paddle backwards, which means that you can end up shoveling water in the wrong direction. His tip is to always paddle with the paddle’s logo facing forward, so the water moves behind you when you paddle. Finally, keep your eyes in front of you, not down at your feet—otherwise, you may lose your balance. “Keep your eyes up and you’ll stay up,” he says.
What precautions should you take when paddle boarding?
Like most water sports, it's vital to take safety measures before going out on the water. If possible, book an in-person training class with a professional. If that's not an option, it's still possible to learn the basics before you head out. “Don’t try and teach yourself. Get a 10-minute lesson or watch SUP tutorials on YouTube,” says Devoir. Although you can paddle in almost any water, it’s best to have at least five feet below you to protect you from falling into rocks and debris in shallow water. And when you do fall (and you will), “You’ll want to fall flat so you don’t land awkwardly and hit something under the water,” says Devoir. He even suggests belly-flopping to spread out the impact.
You’ll want to be prepared when you set out paddling as well. Wear a life jacket and an ankle leash (which should be attached to the paddle board) so you can pull the board back to you when you're in the water, as it can shoot out from under you when you fall. It’s also a good idea to wear a whistle if you’ll be in a crowded area or among boats and motor vehicles and you need to get attention. Finally, don’t forget the essentials: a waterproof phone case, a sun-blocking hat, and sunscreen.
How to set up an inflatable paddle board
I found the inflatable Retrospec Weekender surprisingly easy to set up even on the first use, despite its 10-foot size. It comes folded up in a backpack that also contains an air pump with a hose, the board’s three fins, an ankle tether, an oar, a waterproof phone case attached to a string to put around your neck, and hardware for putting certain components together. It has a suggested weight limit of 275 pounds, which is average for 10-foot inflatable boards but on the low-end compared to solid boards.
The board itself starts deflated and folded end over end, so the first step is unfolding the board and laying it flat and with the standing deck facing up. The hose is then attached to the air pump and then to the air valve on the board; you’ll want to make sure everything is attached properly and tightly by giving it a pump and listening to ensure no air is escaping. I also had to wiggle the valve around to get it to lock into place and had originally attached the tube to the wrong end of the air pump—oops! One end of the pump has the letters “out,” so make sure to not attach the hose to that hole.
Once you’re set with the pump, start pumping. I found it easier to push up and down than filling my bike tires, but you’ll want to be sure you’re doing full pumps, as the instructions say it will take between 250 and 300 pumps, and you want your count to be accurate. Alternatively, you may pump until the pressure gauge reaches between 12 and 15 psi—the gauge is color-coded, so you’ll want to go until the needle is in the green range. When the SUP is full, quickly detach the hose from the air valve and shut the valve. I timed and counted during the setup and it took me 325 pumps, and 7 minutes and 47 seconds to do the full setup (thanks in large part to my good buddies Claire and David who helped me).
Next, you’ll turn the board over to attach the fins, which was one of the easiest parts of setting up because they slid and clicked into place. The final steps are attaching the ankle tether to the board (and then your ankle, if you’re getting right on) and screwing the oar pieces together tightly. If you need to carry your board to the water it has a handle to make it easy. At 17 pounds, the board is lightweight enough to carry, though it feels solid once it’s fully inflated.
Now that I’ve used the board a few times, I’m in love with the sport. The board itself is durable, high quality, and I’m pretty convinced to buy myself one to keep and another so I can take friends out on the water with me.
What it's like to go stand-up paddle boarding
My two takeaways after my first time paddle boarding were: Is this what flying feels like?! and How do people do yoga on this?! Saying I enjoyed my first venture at paddle boarding would be an understatement. I loved being on the water; it was calming, warm, and satisfying to paddle around the lake. It was breezy, so I really had to work to stay near the dock and my friends who were floating nearby, but it was a blast.
I got on the board by sitting on the edge of the dock and then kneeling onto the grip pad of my board. I paddled out into the open water from my knees and once I’d spent some time getting used to the board below me I tried to stand up. I felt like a newborn calf, shaky and unsteady. After speaking with Devoir, I now know that this was partially due to me looking down at my feet instead of out ahead of me. The next time I went out on the water, I remembered to gaze outward, which worked much better. I also found it easier to stand up when my feet were wider on the board, as Devoir suggested.
After riding on the board for about 20 minutes, I traded off with friends to see them paddle around. Some had a knack for balancing and paddling where they wanted to go, and others fell into the water a lot and had to climb back on like I did. On the whole, you could say it's a work in progress—but a very fun one at that.
How to pack up an inflatable paddle board
Deflating and packing up the Weekender was even easier than the setup. Once I was done for the day, I pulled the board out of the water and laid it on a flat patch of grass to dry off in the shade. It was a hot day, so it didn’t take long. I removed the fins from the bottom of the board and flipped it over. Then I followed the directions that came with the board and opened the valve, and slowly pressed around the board to encourage the air to flow out, like you would with an air mattress.
With the air expelled, I rolled the board up the same way you might fold the end of a tube of toothpaste. As I went, I wiped off any lingering moisture with a towel to prevent mold or bacteria from gathering while the board was in its backpack in my closet. I disassembled the rowing oar, packed everything into the backpack, and loaded it into my car for the drive home. The deflating and packing process took less than 10 minutes once the board was dry.
Should you get a paddle board?
All in all, I’ve found a new source of joy when paddle boarding. I enjoyed the balance challenge when standing, but sitting on the board and floating is just as nice. Paddling offers a way to connect to nature while being active, which I think just about anyone could fall in love with. But before you go out and buy one, you may want to rent a board to see how you like it first. If you love it as much as I do, take the plunge and buy a board of your own—you won't regret it.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.