What You Need | Essential SUP Gear For the River

Paddling and exploring the San Juan River in southern Utah. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

What You Need | Essential SUP Gear For the River

There’s no two ways around it, heading out on the river for the first time is intimidating.

Even for paddlers with extensive experience on flatwater or surf, there’s nothing to truly prepare you for running your first rapid. However, you can set yourself up for success by showing up with the proper gear.

More so than any other discipline, having the right river gear can make the difference between life and death. Below you will find a detailed list with some obvious (and not so obvious) tools of river trade.

Inflatable SUP – Ideally you’ll want an eight- to nine-foot inflatable board. While river specific boards are obviously more equipped to handle the abuse of the river, most heavy duty inflatables should do fine. What won’t do fine is an oversized fin. Especially in a shallow river, having the wrong fins can ruin your entire trip. Ideally, opt for four inch rubber or plastic fins in a quad setup.

Coiled Leash – This is the most important item when it comes to staying safe on the river. You’ll want a detachable coiled leash in the nine or 10 feet range. The key here is that it’s detachable, as leashes have a tendency to get snagged and leave paddlers struggling frantically underwater to free themselves. To avoid this, your leash should attach to your PFD vest with a quick-release device. Also make sure to test this on land first to ensure you don’t have any problems detaching on a moments notice.

PFD (Life Vest) – Just like you would never going paddling without a paddle, you should never go on the river without a PFD. A basic PFD belt won’t cut it either, for the river you’ll want a full vest that’s US Coast Guard approved. As an added safety precaution, you may want to consider keeping a knife in your vest in case you need to cut your leash to free yourself from a precarious position.

Durable Paddle – Pro tip: Don’t bring your finest paddle with you to the river, it will get wrecked. Carbon fiber may be light, but it’s also fragile. For the rough and tumble rapids, you’ll want a plastic or fiberglass paddle that can take a beating. Many paddlers also prefer to bring adjustable or shorter paddles they can maneuver quickly.

Clothing – Rocks and noggins aren’t friends so you’ll want a helmet. Also considering that snowmelt is the primary source of many rivers, the water temperature is frigid. A dry suit is a good option for the coldest rivers, while a thicker wetsuit will do for cool rivers in warmer climates. Lastly, you’ll want to wear close-toed river shoes to protect your feet and toes from rocks, sharp logs and cold water. As an added precaution on shallow rivers, you may also want to strap on some body armor for those dreaded tumbles onto the rocks.

Dry Bag – If you plan on bringing anything besides yourself and a board on the river, you’ll need a dry bag. Just as the name suggest, this bag will keep your items dry even if the bag is submerged in water.

Buddies – The river is a dangerous place and you should always use the buddy system. Especially if you’re new to the river, having a friend to teach you about the currents and hazards to watch out for is huge. Plus paddling with others is always more fun!


How to choose the proper leash for either river, downwind, surf or racing.

More SUP safety tips.

The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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