Stand Up Paddle Boarding on a River

Five Things to Know Before You SUP on Moving Water

If you have never attempted stand up paddle boarding on moving water, and technically a wind-swept lake doesn’t count, you can easily be classified as a beginner. Unlike a lot of sports, the classification of beginner paddle boarder is extensive in part because there is so much to learn to make the experience more fun. So I thought I’d discuss the five most important things you’ll need to have mastered before you take your SUP experience to the moving water. And, once we have discussed these must-know skills, we’ll move onto the complications that can arise once you do go beyond your flat water incubator.

One: Start on Flatwater.

You will be tempted to begin your paddleboarding experience by jumping in the nearest river, often at a point that looks slow moving and deep. Some SUP schools actually begin at that point, mostly for convenience. You should however, begin on a lake, a pond, or reservoir.

Tahoe Zephyr Touring SUP

Tahoe SUP Zephyr Touring Board – unlike the person in this picture, wear your PFD and a helmet, practice on flat water, and know the river.

The reason is straightforward: There is a great deal to get used to. You want to be able to balance on your board and be somewhat comfortable with that skill. And even more importantly, you need to be able to get back on your paddle board when you fall in. The ability to do this quickly, and get back to stable, takes practice.

Two: Get Used to Your Gear.

For most paddleboarders attempting the sport for the first (second or third) time, the right board will do wonders in getting you to a level of enjoyment and away from the frustration you are bound to encounter if you don’t take it slow. The Tahoe SUP Zephyr Sport 12’6’ Touring Board for instance has the right length and width (30”) to give you the stability you’ll need from your paddle board.

This time on the flat water will get you accustomed to more than just your board. It will also give you time to adjust to the helmet. Yes, you will need a helmet. Despite the pictures of people lazily floating along the Deschutes River through scenic downtown Bend, Oregon without anything but the clothes on their back, this is a must if you plan on taking the next step.  It will also get you acquainted with your PFD (personal floatation device), another item that also seems lack any photogenic appeal.

Three: Learn to Turn.

On a river, the ability to turn is essential. Unlike flatwater SUPing, and in those pictures and videos online, where SUPers always seem to be paddling leisurely, this is key to enjoying the river or any open water where waves, currents, and boats impact the space.

To get to a river-level skill set, you will need to know how to do a pivot turn (stepping back on the board, actually raising the nose and stroking on the opposite side of the board), the back paddle turn (the most widely used and slows the board using a paddle and adjusting the stroke as you make the turn), and a side step turn (the broadest turn of the three types and a good place to begin). During this process, you will get wet. So even if it looks odd, practice on flatwater.

Four: Know How to Self-Rescue.

Unlike canoes or kayaks, stand up paddle boards are actually safer. They don’t feel the impact of the wind and in most cases, because of the boards width, remain relatively stable in not-too-rough currents. If you fall off, grab the board with two hands and flip your leg over. If the paddle board itself flips, you might need help to get it righted. This is why a lengthy stretch of practice on flatwater is important. On a river, you will fall in more. And if you do fall in, rescue the board and let the paddle go. You’d be surprised how many people will attempt to swim with a paddle in hand as they try to catch up with their board.

Five: Know the River.

For some SUPers, the river will be your first introduction and many rivers, at the right time of season, can be smooth riding affairs. But not always. You should never paddle alone, at least in the beginning. Beginners should stick to a deep section of the river (with the assumption you can swim).

There are a whole host of river terms you need to understand. Terms such as eddies, strainers, and sieves, obstacles like rocks and pillows, low hanging branches, and pipelines as well as whole host of other river terms should be understood.

None of this is meant to discourage your river SUP experience. Just keep this in mind, if you get out of your comfort zone, get out of the water. If possible, paddle with someone who knows a little more than you do. Also, in a deep, slow moving river, a leash might be advisable. In a faster moving, shallower stretch, it may not be. Be sure to have a river knife with you in the event conditions change.

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