A SUP Crash Course: How to Get Started

Learn how to stand-up paddleboard with these simple tips. Credit: Colin Anderson / Getty Images

For the uninitiated, stand-up paddleboarding doesn’t take a lifetime to learn the basics. Plus, it offers a solid core workout and an entirely different view of your destination if you're doing it on vacation. “It’s something everyone can do,” says Jill Wheeler, a SUP yoga teacher at the Wellfit Institute in Naples, Florida. Unlike surfing, you can be up and paddling in a relatively short time. That’s good news for those of us who may not have the attention span for a long learning curve. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Prepare to Embrace the Water
It’s important to be comfortable in the water. That sounds obvious, but Wheeler says people she teaches are often not entirely honest about their abilities. “Freak storms can come up, waves come up, and you could be separated from your board,” she says. At minimum, you’ll want to be confident in the water and able to swim. For safety's sake, wear a PFD (personal floatation device) if you're not a strong swimmer. Otherwise at least keep the PFD available on the board. "Coast Guard–approved belt packs are also great," says Dave Figlioli, a team rider for Starboard paddleboards.

Know Your Surroundings, or Find Someone Who Does
Check the weather forecast before you head out. If you’re planning an ocean session, make sure there aren’t any advisories for high surf. If your entry and exit point is along a cliff or rocks, consult a tide chart to make certain low tide won't leave you stranded below your exit — a local shop can also advise on where to set out. And a guide can help you out with advice on currents and local water conditions. “Don’t be shy about hiring a guide,” Wheeler says. Locals can show you around, and you may get to see spots or learn new skills you wouldn't on your own.

Fit Your Paddle
Paddleboards come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Wheeler says not to worry. You can have fun your first time on just about any board. But look for a paddle that’s four to eight inches above your head, says Figlioli.

Start Low
Try starting on your knees. That’ll allow you to get a feel for your balance on the board, says Figlioli. If you’re tall, it may take longer to feel comfortable standing, because you’ll have a higher center of gravity. “Some guys kneel the entire first time they go,” Wheeler says. You’ll still get a good glute and core workout.

The SUP Stance
Unlike surfing or snowboarding, you stand on a paddleboard with both feet facing forward. SUP boards nearly always have a carrying handle built into the top. “That handle is right in the middle of the board,” Figlioli says. “Line up your feet with it, shoulder-width apart." If it feels more stable, you can always scoot them a bit wider. And never look down, it's a sure way to fall. “The best way to maintain balance is to look at the horizon,” Figlioli says. Stay relaxed and bend your knees slightly. The water is never totally smooth and you’ll need to be able to roll with the waves. A relaxed stance will make it easier.

Paddle Upright
Wheeler recommends keeping the paddle in a vertical position. Be sure to change your hand position when you switch sides with your paddle every four to eight strokes. Stay relaxed as you paddle, and don't dig your paddle in too deep — it’s easy to lose your balance. “You’re trying to reach as far as you can in front of you,” he says. Pull your paddle out of your water when it’s even with your feet. You lose efficiency once it passes behind you.

The angle your paddle blade enters the water determines how the board steers. A stroke that starts out perpendicular to the board and close to the rail will propel you in a straight line. "The more the blade is tweaked entering the water, the more the direction of the board will change,” says Figlioli.

Steering Made Easy
“Steering the board has everything to do with your paddle stroke and foot positioning. The best way to turn the board is to stroke on the opposite side that you want to turn.” Start as close to the front of the board as possible. Then turn the blade parallel with the board and push away from the board, says Figlioli. Shift your stance, so that one foot is behind the other. Imagine you’re on a skateboard or a snowboard. Your back foot should be close to the center of the board for added stability.

Tackle the Wind Head On
On a paddleboard, wind can be your friend — or your nemesis. “Paddling upwind is difficult, even for experienced paddlers,” Figlioli says. You may find it hard to make it home if the wind turns against you. “You’re basically just a human sailboat out there.” If you're facing a stiff breeze, turn your body slightly to the side and paddle directly into the wind. "A sidewind is even harder to paddle through," Figlioli says.

Abandon SUP
If you do start to lose your balance, jump away from your board. Remember that the board is solid — it’s like a small boat. One of the few ways to hurt yourself is to fall on the board, says Figlioli. Aim for the water, it’s much more forgiving.

Check the Local Rules
Stand-up paddleboards are typically required to follow the same rules as small boats, so you may need to carry a PFD (it's smart to carry one anyways). “Coast Guards are regulating that heavily, especially in harbors,” Figlioli says. Local regulations will vary. Wheeler says she was once stopped during a session in Colorado because she hadn’t written her name on her board. Checking in with a surf shop or guiding service ahead of time is a quick way to get oriented.