If you’ve been to any public body of water in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a shift in popular watersports. It’s true that you can still find people enjoying kayaks, surfboards, and inflatable floaties all summer long. But stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) have exploded in popularity as of late.
The first time we saw people standing up while cruising around the lake, we just had to learn how to paddle board. Just from watching, it’s easy to see that paddleboarding is a lot of fun and a great workout.
But the idea of doing it yourself can be a little intimidating—especially if you don’t have much surfing or kayaking experience.
The good news is that paddleboarding is incredibly easy to learn and get comfortable with. By the end of this complete beginner’s guide article from Paddle Outside, you’ll know everything needed for your first SUP excursion.
How to Paddle Board: Body Positioning and Basic Form
Stand-up paddleboarding is a great way to improve your cardiovascular health, plus it boosts your psychological well-being too. (1) But to fully enjoy these benefits to your physical and mental health, you have to use proper form.
The important thing to remember when you’re learning the paddle board basics is that even small details matter.
The wrong stance or putting your feet in the wrong spot can lead to days of blisters and tight tendons. But don’t worry—we’ll cover everything from head to toe. Best of all, most of what you need to do is fairly intuitive.
“With very little gear, you’ll be able to glide across the surface of the water while standing at full height, giving you a unique vantage point and perspective.”
Before you ever set foot on your board, know that using your core is crucial to proper form.
According to expert stand-up paddleboarders, using these muscles is just as important as your paddling technique. (3) If you don’t, the rest of your muscles have to compensate. You’ll be winded and exhausted before you ever make it out of the shallows.
The next most important detail is the positioning of your knees or your feet. We recommend starting every SUP excursion on your knees until you get comfortable, then stand up all the way.
Keep a wide stance to keep your center of gravity lower. The closer together your feet are, the harder it’ll be to stay upright. Keep them at least shoulder-width apart for best results.
Once you transition from kneeling to standing up, try to always keep your knees slightly bent. A relaxed stance gives you a much wider range of motion, more power, and more stability.
Best of all, a lower center of gravity means your hands will be closer to both the paddle and the water. This adds even more power and control to every stroke of your paddle.
How to Stand Up on a SUP
Through our own trial and error, we think this is the best way to stand up on a SUP:
- First, stand next to your paddle board in water that’s about knee deep. The most important thing is to make sure your board’s fins don’t scrape the bottom here.
- Put one hand on each edge of the board. Now pick up one of your legs and place your knee near the center of your board.
- Carefully bring your second knee onto your board so you’re in a kneeling position, knees shoulder-width apart. Double-check that you’re still centered on the board. If the SUP has a carrying handle, it’s usually located in the center. Feel free to use this as a landmark while you get situated.
We suggest paddling in this position for at least the first few minutes, until you feel comfortable and balanced. Once you’re there, it’s important to stand up in one fluid motion.
Jerky movements are likely to make you fall in. Try lifting your chest and then extending your legs. As you get better at this motion, you’ll learn to pop up quickly while staying stable.
How to Stay Balanced on a SUP
Once you’re upright, the goal is to stay that way!
Balancing on the water’s surface usually takes a few minutes before you feel comfortable. The first step is to make sure your SUP is the right size based on your weight; too light of a paddle board, and you’ll sink. Too short or narrow of a board, and you’ll have difficulty balancing.
Here are a few tips to stay balanced on a SUP:
Keep your feet shoulder- or hip-width distance apart. Many beginners move their feet often to stay in control. Just try to quickly check every so often. Standing in the front or back of the board will make everything harder for you.
In addition to keeping your knees bent, your toes should point forward too. A straight back also helps with stability and can reduce muscle strain from paddling.
It’s fairly instinctual to move your head and shoulders as you paddle and stabilize. The thing is, this makes you much wobblier on the water.
Try to focus on having your shoulders and head steady, straight, and looking towards the horizon. Use your hips to shift your weight instead of your shoulders and upper body.
How to SUP: Paddling Technique
Form and body positioning both factor into your SUP success, but your paddling technique is just as important.
First, make sure you hold your paddle correctly. One hand goes on the T junction at the top, and your other hand goes on the paddle’s shaft. The closer you hold to the paddle’s blade, the less energy you’ll exert paddling.
Next, make sure your paddle’s blade angles away from—not towards—you. Said another way, the paddle’s blade should angle towards the front of the board and away from you. Reach forward about two feet and plant your paddle into the water. Move it back toward your ankle by pushing with your top hand, then lift out of the water.
Keep in mind you’ll go straighter if you can keep your paddle mostly vertical.
This will feel un-intuitive the first time, but when the blade angles forward, you push water straight back and yourself straight forward.
To get momentum, push the same way you would with a cane or walking stick. You’re propelling yourself forward by pushing back against the water.
Alternating Your Paddle Board Stroke
Traveling in a straight line on a SUP requires alternating your stroke. You’ll bounce between paddling on the right side of your board and the left. Whenever you swap sides, you have to swap your grip too.
If you’re paddling on the right side of your board, your right hand should be on the paddle’s shaft and your left hand should be on the T-grip. When you start paddling on the left, swap each hand’s location.
As you’re learning how to paddle, you’ll get a better feel for when to alternate. There’s no strict number of strokes you should do per side before swapping. It all depends on the body of water and where you want to go.
Because of how often you alternate the stroke, it’s important to wear clothing or a swim suit that doesn’t chafe your underarms.
How to Turn a Paddle Board
There are several different strokes you can use for turning. You can master these as you get more comfortable paddle boarding. For beginners, our favorite turning method is this:
- Decide if you want to turn right or left. Place your paddle on the same side you want to turn.
- Reach back and plant your paddle towards the tail of your board, about 2 feet behind you. Make sure the entire blade is submerged underwater.
- Pull towards yourself—basically the opposite of what you do to move forward.
- As you pull, the nose of your board will turn towards the side you’re paddling on. Repeat this motion until you’re turned as far as you want to be and continue onwards!
You can use this same move to slow down or stop, making it a must-know paddle board technique for all beginners.
How to Paddle Board for the First Time
Those first few moments on the water can feel like an eternity. You might be nervous about falling in, excited to show off everything you’ve learned here, laser-focused on keeping your balance… or a combination of all 3.
That’s why we specifically wanted to talk about how to paddle board in those first few moments when it’s all brand-new.
First, we suggest starting out on your knees. It’s easier to get on your board this way and easier to keep your balance. Stand in water about knee-deep, hold onto the edges, and get onto the center of the board.
Don’t worry about getting to your feet as soon as possible, either. Feeling completely comfortable before you stand up means you’re less likely to fall in. This can take anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, in our experience.
And you can still easily get around and navigate before you stand up. Keep your head up and eyes forward while you paddle. Switch your hand positions whenever you switch the side you’re paddling on.
Falling Off Your Paddle Board the Right Way
The truth is, everybody falls off their paddle board at least once. And that’s okay! Even the most experienced paddlers take a dive now and then.
With the right paddle boarding gear – such as a leash and a personal flotation device or life jacket, you won’t have to worry about falling being dangerous.
All you need to do is remember a couple tricks, and you’ll be back to paddling in no time.
First, try to aim yourself off the side of your board when you start to fall. Landing on your board is a bit more likely to cause a bruise or injury than falling into the water, so aim for the water.
Second, even though falling can be a surprise, try to keep a grip on your paddle.
We’ve yet to encounter a SUP paddle that doesn’t float, but using your hands to paddle the board to it once you’re back on can still be annoying. It’s easier to just hang onto the paddle when you fall in.
Getting back on after you fall isn’t too difficult, either:
Position yourself just like you did when you first got on: alongside your board with one hand on each edge.
Then, allow your legs and feet to float up behind you so you’re almost laying on your belly.
Grab the handle in the center with one hand.
Then, gently kick your legs and pull on the handle simultaneously to lift yourself out of the water. You’ll quickly slide right back onto your board.
Is Stand-Up Paddle Boarding Safe?
Yes, research shows that stand-up paddle boarding is one of the safest watersports you can try.
In a recent study on paddle boarding injuries, every single reported injury was sustained while paddle surfing. (4) Paddle surfing is similar to surfing, except SUPs take the place of surf boards. The paddle boarding we’re talking about today refers to relatively flat waters in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Basically, even though safety measures like wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) are necessary, you’re very unlikely to get injured while paddle boarding.
10 Beginner Stand Up Paddle Boarding Tips
Now that you know the mechanics of how to paddle board, we’ve got some takeaway paddle boarding tips for you. Though stand-up paddle boarding is one of the newer watersports, it’s still been popular for over a decade.
This is great news for beginners because there’s lots of expert wisdom already out there. You see, you need to know more than just how to SUP. There’s some basic etiquette and a few standard safety measures you’re expected to follow on the water.
Below, you’ll find our 10 must-know tips for anyone new to paddle boarding. With your new how-to knowledge and these tips, you’ll be completely prepared for an awesome SUP experience.
1. Use a Leash
A paddle board leash can be your lifeline in an emergency. When you fall, it’s crucial that you can quickly get back on your board.
A leash helps you stay oriented the right way and keeps you close to your board if you fall into the water. Most rental paddle boards include one. But if you’re buying a SUP, the leash is sometimes sold separately.
2. Find a Good Spot to Launch
If you go through a paddle board rental shop, they usually have a specific area for you to launch from. But if you’re setting out with your own gear, it’s on you to find the best spot.
Particularly if you’re a beginner, launching from the shallows of a calm, sandy beach is the best way to start.
3. Know How to Swim
It’s true that using a leash makes getting out of the water pretty quick and easy. It’s also true that you’ll be wearing a PFD.
The thing is, you still need to know how to swim. If you don’t, falling into the water is terrifying—even with safety measures in place. Knowing how to swim helps you relax, stay safe, and have fun while paddling.
4. Practice on Solid Ground
Keeping your balance on the water is a little tricky at first. You’ll adjust faster if you get a feel for the board before you launch.
While your board is on the ground, practice moving from your knees to standing on your feet. Get a feel for everything before you’re also focused on staying balanced.
5. Start on Your Knees
Start on your knees during your launch and spend a little while getting comfortable.
Paddling from this position puts your center of gravity closer to the board, making it easier to stay upright. Get familiar with paddling and turning before standing all the way up.
6. Make Sure Your Paddle Faces the Right Way
Most people’s first instinct on how to hold the paddle is wrong. You’ll probably want to angle the paddle’s blade towards you and the tail of your board, but you should do the opposite.
The face of the paddle’s blade should be forward. Keep one hand on the T-grip at the top. Grab the paddle’s shaft with your other hand. Swap your hand positions every time you swap the side you’re paddling on.
7. Double-Check That You’re Facing the Right Way Too
It’s also common to get confused about which way to face on your paddle board. Don’t feel bad if you get a little disoriented.
The easiest way to straighten yourself out is by checking for the board’s fins, which are on the back. If the fins are in front of you, you’re facing the wrong way.
8. Use Your Core to Paddle
Your core muscles add more power to every motion you make. This is especially true on a SUP. If you don’t engage your core while you paddle, you’ll exert far more energy—and be far less efficient.
As the strongest part of your body, using these muscles will make paddling easier and give you a great full-body workout.
9. Look at the Horizon
No matter where you are paddling, keep your eyes looking towards the horizon as much as possible. Keeping your eyes focused ahead this way makes staying upright much easier.
The more you look down at your board and your feet, the more off-balance you’re likely to feel.
10. Stay Out of the Way
When you’re a beginner, you’ve got a lot of things to focus on. You want to stay upright and control the direction you go in. Just don’t get so focused on yourself that you ignore your surroundings.
Always be aware of where you can paddle, who’s around you, and any motorized vessels that might be on the water with you. When we all look out for each other, it’s easy to avoid accidents and just have fun on the water.
That covers our beginner’s guide basic paddle board mechanics. You now know absolutely everything you need to stay safe while having a great time paddling.
Most people go for about an hour during their first SUP excursion, but the more you do it, the longer you’ll be able to paddle without getting sore or tired.
It’s a great low-impact workout for your entire body!
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1. National Library of Medicine, The Physiological, Musculoskeletal and Psychological Effects of Stand Up Paddle Boarding
2. Forbes, Four Ways To Take Your Workouts Outside This Summer
3. YouTube, Stand Up Paddleboard Stance and Body Positioning
4. National Library of Medicine, Paddle Boarding: Fun, New Sport or an Accident Waiting to Happen?