A Beginner’s Guide to Stand Up Paddle Boarding

stand up paddle boarding

Ready to try the worlds fastest growing watersport? Sometimes delightfully slow and serene, and sometimes a wilfully focused dash across the finish line in a race, this sport is called Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP). According to a 2013 report, SUP was listed as the most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants. The report stated that the average age of a stand up paddle boarder was 28-years-old, with only one percent of all Americans stepping on a paddle board in 2014. Let’s take a look into its history, various styles and opportunities for getting started, with our beginners’ guide to Stand Up Paddle Boarding.

What Is SUP? (A Brief History)

Stand up paddle boarding is an offshoot of surfing, which supposedly originated in Africa centuries ago, and is also attributed to the Mayans and American Indians. These cultures used a more primitive paddle board than we use today. It’s generally not thought that our early ancestors had access to carbon fiber and plastic! The sport was supposedly documented in 2013, but like many modern ‘discoveries’, our ancestors seemed to have beaten us to it. It appears that it was in 1939 that SUP became a proper sport, attributed to surfing legend, Duke Kahanamoku, a guy famous for tweaking his board. He then encouraged his injured photographer/surfer friend, Bobby AhChoy, to join in. Sat on a chair on the SUP,  Bobby was able to get closer to the action to take photographs and shout tips to other surfers. The paddle board traces back thousands of years across many continents, but its modern form may have originated in none other than Hawaii in the 1900s. However, it’s recorded usage dates as early as 1,000 BC. 

After Hawaii, the paddle board gained its stylish popularity in California (where else?). This popularity catalyzed global accessibility, as Stand Up Paddle Boarding was mostly a surfing discipline that re-emerged in the 1960s when Duke gave Bobby a tip-off to try SUPing out, and then other photographers followed suit, using the technique to stay close to the action when out on the waves. One of these surfers was John Zapotocky, an athlete who fell in love with SUP after he moved to Hawaii in 1940. He paddled every day until his death in 2013, at the age of 95, and is widely considered the father of SUP. 

Over time people got creative, and stand up paddle boarding has diversified into racing, touring, river use, ocean use, yoga, fishing and even more, some of which we’ll look at in this article. Surfers also realized that paddling was a way to discover new bays, waves and spots, and also to get time on the water if the surf was flat. SUP boomed in 2009 and was the year of advancement in the sport. Business boomed to create new, lighter, and better-looking boards. 

As a beginner stand up paddle boarder, don’t be daunted, follow in the ancestors’ footsteps, and see the sport as something extremely simple, and enjoyable to get started with. It has a very flat learning curve and plenty of reward and variety.

So who adapted paddle boarding? 

I know we discussed the history of stand up paddle boarding, but people are picky! SUPing can also be attributed to the Waikiki beach boys of Oahu during the 1960s, with its main link being from outrigger canoeing, and the natural progression to a flat, portable and fun surfboard style of transport. For many locals in tribes, indigenous cultures, and cocktail laden beaches in Marbella in Spain, paddle boarding is a way of life – standing up, sitting down and even dancing around, paddle boards have played an integral part of lives for generations. Not just a great way to relax, it’s a way to get around!

stand up paddle boarding

What types of stand up paddle boarding styles there? And which one is right for me?

With SUP, the ocean is your oyster. With stand up paddle boarding, the options are endless, not just a sport like surfing, the paddle board can be used in a variety of ways, as both a sport and a tool, which perhaps explains why it’s the fastest growing watersport in the world, It’s incredibly versatile, and fun. To begin, flat water paddling purely for outdoor recreation would be a great start. It’s a fantastic way to get out and experience the calm of the water, and it’s the closest one can get to walking on it. Stand up paddle boarding is excellent for fitness and coordination, but serves as a useful tool for sightseeing coastlines, exploring large rivers and meandering down canals. As you progress, you may want to partake in the more sportlike SUP options, including racing on lakes, paddling on river rapids, and even fishing, or paddleboard yoga!

What’s SUP? Too cool for school or too school for cool?

So who’s Paddleboarding? In a UK interview with Jason, an ex-surfer and stand up paddle boarder, he says “People who look down on SUP are daft, what does it matter what kind of watercraft you use? Whether it’s a kiteboard, windsurf, canoe or waveski – or yes, a surfboard – anything that gets people in the water is good.” And SUP is an awesome intro to all these. Many surfers feel that paddle boards are as cool as bird spotting; however, it’s enough for some celebrities. You may or may not be Jennifer Aniston or James Bond’s Pierce Brosnan on the water – famous SUP sightings – but you can join in the fun, and If all else fails, you can always get down and do an Orlando Bloom, by getting your kit off and baring all for the cameras. Oh, and don’t forget to call it ‘SUP’, when out on the water, all the pro’s are doing it.

Reasons to try paddle boarding

According to the book, ‘Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do’ by Wallace J. Nichols, play on the water affects our minds and bodies to a remarkable level. Playing with water is incredibly soothing, it reduces stress and calms the spirit, and stroking with the paddle increases muscle endurance much like a workout.

Some great reasons to take up the sport include: SUPing is a lot like surfing, so if you’ve had any interest in surfing, stand up paddle boarding is a great way to expand your horizons. It’s not even remotely difficult, anyone can do it (there are no hours of learning, torcher or pain involved) and it’s a relaxing segway into surfing, or racing, if that’s your thing. But fear not, as a hobby you can make of it what you will, and it can be adapted to your heart’s content. If you’re into canoeing, surfing, racing, white water rafting, all these can be supplemented with stand up paddle boarding. Also, it’s got heritage, so when on the water, you can imagine yourself as an indigenous tribesman, or surfer in the ’60s, or Orlando Bloom.

stand up paddle boarding

What in the world is SUP yoga?

Have you ever tried yoga? If you have, you’ll know that there’s probably only one way you could add to the serenity and the balancing act of stand up paddle boarding. Exactly, you know where we’re heading, it’s by moving your yoga practice to a 9ft inflatable plank and sticking it in the middle of an ocean or lake. What better way is there to wind down on the water? Just don’t fall in!

How to choose a paddle board, and things to know before investing in a SUP

A stand up paddle board is generally longer than 9 feet (except for the wave riding SUPs with the high-performance boards coming in as short as 7’7), and can be longer than 12 feet. Paddle boards are longer than the average surfboard, all to ensure a finer balance – you won’t be falling as much as a SUPer – stand up paddle boards have padded decks, and concave hulls, and are basically oversized surfboards made of carbon fiber, epoxy or foam.

If you’re feeling brave, you can still catch a wave like a surfer, and you can mostly expect the same surf-stoke as a standard surfboard too. You should probably invest in a quality paddle at an affordable price; that is lightweight and made from carbon fiber. It assists with paddling and is much stronger than the fiberglass options. If you’re not at a point where you’re sure you want to invest, you can certainly rent a paddle wherever you are.

If you’re in Florida or Cape Town, get in touch with Vanhunks Boarding, and we’ll recommend the best option for where you’re there. Inflatable boards are also hugely beneficial, especially for travel. They can be deflated and inflated whenever required. But a full-size paddle board is what the Pro’s would use. 

Let’s go through some different types of boards

-There is the all-rounder, great for first-timers and beginners, it’s versatile and can work in all conditions, most common being on lakes and in the flat ocean. Shop our Impi all rounder SUP here

-You may opt for the surf style, this would be for intermediate to advanced, and perhaps someone that can already surf, and would like more action from their Stand Up Paddle Board. These are less stable on water, but maneuverable and have more shredding capability.  Shop our Afro Surf SUP here

-There’s also the touring option. Hands up serious paddlers with interest in high-intensity workouts, long distances on flat water, maximum glide and efficiency. These boards have a wide and stable base, and are great for exploring and moving about on flat water. Shop our Spear touring SUP here

-The race option is great for flat water or ocean competitions. These boards possess extra length and extra width, and can give a fast speed, long glide, but may be challenging for beginners. 

-If you’re the more angling inclined water sportsman, you may opt for the fishing stand up paddle boarding variety. This board would serve more as a tool, than a sport or practice. These paddle boards have the most volume so you can stay dry and out of the water. Pre-installed mounts let the user personalize their experience and have the option to add rod holders, fish finders and anything they need for expedition or day out. 

-And finally, the yoga paddle board, these paddle boards are designed specifically for yoga, paddling, and fitness. They would be great for a beginner, as they are constructed for stability, with a large deck pad for yoga, but all the functions of an all-rounder and touring style stand up paddle board.

stand up paddle boarding

What size stand up paddle board do you need?

The broader and longer boards will be more stable, and perhaps better for a beginner unless you’re feeling daring! Asses what you’re after too (visit the Vanhunks paddle boarding size & weight guide), where you can check out what board length is right for you. Beginners will most likely want a paddle board with more volume because it provides additional stability and can support more weight – you also won’t fall in – so can enjoy the experience to it’s full. 

Difference between inflatable and epoxy stand up paddle boards

Epoxy paddle boards generally surpass inflatable SUPs (iSUPs), for now, but are better for more advanced, and more serious riders. First-time riders could probably use an inflatable as it is ideal for all conditions; it’s portable and can be used in a variety of environments. 

The benefits of iSUPs

Inflatables are effortless to transport compared to epoxy and other hard paddle boards. Inflatables deflate and roll up to the size of a sleeping bag. With an epoxy stand up paddle board you’ll need a vehicle rack to transport it, or soft roof racks if you’re not traveling too far and fast on the roads. As for storage, inflatable paddle boards are perfect for people short on space – and for the general user – because regardless of the size you can deflate it and take it on the move.

Epoxy paddle boards are usually 9ft and above, so if you have that space for storage and transport, it may please you to get the best. But know that inflatable boards are gaining popularity, and are a great option for a beginner getting started with the sport. Of course, paddle boards can be rented from various places, on seashores and lakes, but it’s nice to know the details, and if you’d like to continue the sport investing in your own SUP can be a real money saver in the long run.

Also, having your own paddle board can enhance and personalize the experience each time you go out. If you opt for a ‘hard board’ you’d need a board bag to transport it around in, and you must keep it out of sunlight. There are different board bags for all of the above styles, and they all fit in the boot of a car. Paddle boards are endless fun (especially if you live near water). It’s akin to owning a picnic basket/blanket if you live near a park, or a set of ski’s if you live on a mountain. They provide hours of play and exploration as they are very durable. Shop our inflatable SUPs here

Ouch! Safety: What to wear?

If you’ve seen the celebrities getting involved with stand up paddle boarding, you’ll see a variety of styles, from wetsuit-clad Catwomen and Batmen braving the colder waters, to the ‘bare all’ freedom of Orlando Bloom taking a short paddle with Katy Perry. Many recommend wetsuits and other UV-protective clothing, but depending on the weather the options are all yours. 

stand up paddle boarding

I paddled there! Best places in the world to paddle board

  • Key West, Florida: With warm weather, clear waters, and a laid back atmosphere, what better place is there to paddle. Paddlers can use the trade winds to cover long distances, or mangrove forests and spot interesting marine life. Florida paddleboarding is great for beginners and advanced riders alike. Get in touch with Vanhunks Boarding for more info.
  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Regularly referred to as “Venice of the East’, Fort Lauderdale has dozens of winding waterways with reduced speed limits, great for a relaxing paddle. Many of the beautiful mansions are all coastal, so you may make some friends along your journey. In the winter the waters are home to the Florida manatee, so keep an eye out for the gentle giant.
  • Sunset Beach, Hawaii: The surfing and SUP mecca. In the summer you can paddle the four miles to Waimea Bay. Sunset beach is great for beginners and advanced paddle boarders alike.
  • Santa Cruz, California: One of the best places in Northern California, but the water can be a bit cold, so you may need a wetsuit at any time of year. Beginners should check out the wharf, the harbor, and Steamer Lane.
  • Lake Tahoe, California: Tranquil and with glassy waters with a 72-mile border. Winds are usually light and would be an excellent place for beginner paddle boarders.
  • Perth, Australia: With New South Wales commonly regarded as the best place for surf in Australia. Perth is widely considered as the best place for SUP. It is the largest city in Western Australia, and the beautiful flat waters are great for beginners.
  • Bahamas: 120 miles of shoreline and roughly 700 islands. You could get lost paddle boarding across the calm, clear blue waters.
  • Costa Rica: Abundances of marine life and a surfer’s haven, what more can you ask for in a watersports location?
  • Cape Town, South Africa: With its beautiful scenery and creative, cultural atmosphere, Cape Town is becoming a favorite spot for people of all walks of life. SUP is gaining popularity with its options for both flat paddling, and surfing waves. Although, first-time paddlers might want to head to the calm waters of Langebaan Lagoon, which lays an hour north of Cape Town. You’re definitely going to want a wetsuit for Cape Town as the cold Benguela current and icy winds from the south pole can frequently cause ‘brain freeze’.
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands: You may be surprised to see Amsterdam on this list, but with it’s winding canals that combine to roughly 60 miles, it’s a great way to get around and get a clear look at the leaning buildings and cobbled streets. Just don’t expect tropical waters!
  • Puerta Vallarta, Mexico: Puerta Vallarta is great for paddle boarders of all skill levels. The waters are clear and calm, hosting an array of marine life such as sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.
  • Bali, Indonesia: What more is there to be said? All year round paddle boarding for beginners and advanced paddlers. 

Other great spots include Fiji, Lisbon (Europe’s paddle boarding capital), Malibu, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and San Diego.

So hop on board and get exploring!

stand up paddle boarding

Golden rules of stand up paddle boarding

Despite the sport being very accessible and relatively simple, developing technique is still important. The four golden rules of SUP are as follows:

  1. Plant your blade fully in the water before you start to pull. It stabilizes you and gives you the most power.
  2. Always assume the ready position when paddling. Feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, and back straight. Think of yourself and just having landed a jump. Your bent knees will act as shock absorbers and will keep you balanced, and your straight back will allow you to activate your core.
  3. Use your core muscles whenever you’re paddling. Most beginner paddlers use only their arms and they tire quickly. You should feel it in your abs and your lats. Think of your body as three primary power sources, your arms, your core, and your legs. 
  4. Keep your board as still as possible. You will be more balanced and your board will be most efficient on the water if you think about engaging the muscles in your feet and lower legs.

Why kids and toddlers should start SUPing

These days, many pro watersports men and women get riding before they can even walk. Why not give your kid a fun intro to surfing and watersports with SUP, you never know, they may grow up with gratitude for the early opportunity. SUP is also great fun to bring all the family together, as an explorative and healthy way to get out on the water and promote the whole fam’s health and wellbeing. Also, who doesn’t want to be free on the water to explore caves, bays and marine wildlife? It will improve their balance, strength, build their confidence, and will connect them with nature.

For when you’re not on the water

There is historically a popular culture surrounding surfing, but did you know there is a burgeoning scene for SUP? Some great films to watch would be ‘Destination 3 Degree’s’, ‘Given’, and of course, ‘The SUP Movie’. If you’re getting interested in the explorative side of the sport, books like ‘Barbarian Days’, ‘A Surfing Life’, and ‘Captain Zero’ will make great reading for a keen sea, surf, paddle board explorer. Websites and magazines to read when you’re not gliding across the water include supthemag.com, supworldmag.com, and standuppaddlemagazine.com. Also, check out Vanhunks’ Blog for all your boarding needs.