If you’re looking to SUP Florida and head out on a road trip with your besties, we’ve taken the hard part out of your journey and gone ahead and researched everything you need to know. We’ve got all the information you need to ensure your adventure goes smoothly and cover different regions, water types, equipment, skills, regulations and what to watch out for along the way, including wild animals.
The State of Florida is swamped with options and opportunities to SUP and experience stand up paddleboarding on different skill levels from complete beginner to more advanced riding. The bottom line: Florida has something for everyone.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the climate, geography, and wildlife of Florida and discuss the water options available.
Florida‘s climate is a true tropical climate with highs averaging in the 90s during summer and sitting mildly in the 40s throughout winter. One aspect of the climate to be aware of while you SUP Florida is that “the land of flowers” is also the lightning capital of the USA, with more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the country. Definitely something to pay attention to if you’re doing water sports!
Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent in most of the state from the beginning of spring to the end of autumn. It’s not unusual to start your day off waking up to sunshine and happy days, only for your plans and activities to be interrupted by the sudden doom and gloom of lightning, thunder, and a downpour of rain. If you’re smart, you’ll remember it’s also quite common for the weather to blow over quite fast, leaving you with a second gorgeous aspect to the day. Except on days when a tropical storm turns into a hurricane and the entire state has to be evacuated. Don’t ever take the elements of nature for granted, and always pay a healthy dose of respect to their unpredictability.
If you’re visiting Florida on vacation, be mindful that over the past century, the state has been hit by over 114 hurricanes, with more than 37 of them being category 3 and higher. The chances of a hurricane happening if you’re visiting over summer is high, and you should always hope for the best, but keep an ear to the local news and weather channels about anything brewing on the horizon. It’s rare for summer to pass without the state being affected by tropical storms.
The Sunshine State, as it’s fondly known, is the lowest laying region of the USA, and Britton Hill in northern Walton County is the highest part of Florida, laying at only 345 feet above sea level. Much of Florida has an elevation of fewer than 12 feet, so it’s no mystery why Florida offers such an abundance of water. The list is endless of how many types of water bodies the state contains but it includes many creeks, springs, rockpools, bayous, preserves, straits, inlets, lagoons, mangroves, backwaters, bays, keys, and many more. Many of them have been classified and are not usable to new activities that would lower the water quality or degrade it in any way. These have been classified as special ‘Oustanding Florida Waters’, and the extensive list is available online if you’d like to look up which ones you can access with your SUP. This list is far too vast to include in this article.
Each kind of water has its own qualities, benefits and challenges, and we’re going to present a few to you to make sure you know what you can do with them, especially if you’re a newbie on a SUP Florida mission.
A backwater is a portion of a river with little to no current. It can be part of a branch of a main river, which lies along and then rejoins it, or it can be part of a body of water in a main river, backed up by the tide or by an obstruction such as a dam. Secondary channels of the rivers can be termed backwaters too, and they can be shallower and often flow slower, if at all. Backwaters are magnificent for leisure activities such as kayaking, fishing, and SUPing. Naples, Tampa, and Miami have backwaters to explore if you’re not feeling too confident to adventure more remote locations just yet.
In May 1539, Conquistador Hernando de Soto skirted the coast of Florida searching for a deep harbor to land. He described seeing a thick wall of red mangroves spread mile after mile, some reaching as high as 70 feet, with intertwined and elevated roots making landing difficult. Today, if you SUP Florida’s coast, chances are, you’re not far from mangroves. They’re on the east coast, in the Blowing Rocks Preserve at Jupiter Island. They’re along the coast of Miami, and down south at the Florida Keys. Mangroves are up the west coast of the peninsula at Sarasota and St Petersburg, and they’re expanding (to everyone’s delight) on the Gulf Coast panhandle in Pensacola too. Amongst the mangroves, you can launch your SUP and paddle peacefully through the lush, dense vegetation on your own, with your friends, or as part of a guided group tour. On a guided tour you will learn about the ecosystems while you marvel at the abundance of wildlife that nest above and below the water. From exotic birds and monkeys to crabs and hundreds of fish species, the mangroves are a wealth of curious tunnels and pathways to discover. If you’re not entirely comfortable standing on your SUP yet, it’s quite possible to kneel and paddle your way through the water.
Inland at spots like Ginnie Springs, the water is crystal clear and the rock pools and clusters below the water bring a spectacular 3D element to your SUP Florida experience. The inland springs are as much fun to visit as the tropical ocean water sites, and taking your snorkel and goggles in your wet bag will reward you even further on your day out.
The Florida Keys is a coral clay archipelago that lies off the southern coast of the state. They begin around 15 miles south of Miami and spread out in a gentle south south-west curve and then to the west, with Key West being the westernmost of the inhabited islands, and Dry Tortugas being the furthest of the uninhabited islands. The islands rest along the Florida Straits and divide the Atlantic ocean on the east from the Gulf Of Mexico on the northwest. Coconut palms are endemic and can reach massive heights and sizes across the islands. The environment is spilling from its brim with rich and diverse natural heritage. We’re talking tropical island life here with idyllic turquoise water, conch shells, starfish and coral reefs all teeming with vitality beneath the water surface.
Identifying creeks from rivers can be a little tricky because both are nearly identical. A creek is generally a smaller and narrower river or rivulet, and the slim channels flanked by islands can also be termed a ‘creek’. Creeks also don’t flow out into new channels or form new branches or tributaries like rivers are more likely to have. One of the best creeks to SUP Florida has to be Holmes Creek in Washington County. The waterways that flow through ‘The Panhandle’ form a state-wide network named Greenways and Trails. They’re mostly protected and are a source of great joy for standup paddleboarders who can expect to encounter something new around every corner. Holme’s Creek changes its appearance at several places, and goes from high, sandy banks and low-lying swamps, to crystal clear cold springs as it makes its way to the Gulf.
Bayous are typically flat, low-lying bodies of water and can take form in slow-moving streams and rivers, or marshy wetlands and lakes. Bayous can also refer to creeks whose current reverses daily due to tides and contain brackish water high conducive to fish life and plankton. Bayous are common in the Gulf Coast Area and are home to alligators, crocodiles, toads, frogs, snakes, turtles, leeches and many other critters. Definitely for the more daring adventurist! Survival does not have to be an extreme sport.
They are what it says they are. They preserve and protect sensitive marine habitats. Shell Key Preserve in Pinellas County, for example, is one of Florida’s most important areas for shorebird nesting and wintering as it’s an important study area for the species who make their home there. This preserve is also an important area for recreation, and a balance was established by restricting public use to the northern and southern ends of the island. The central core is closed to the public.
Geologists from the Department of Environmental Protection claim that the Sunshine State may well have the most substantial convergence of freshwater springs on the planet. To date, there are over 700 hydrological springs that occur naturally where water flows from underground to the surface, and the springs are located in 21 Florida State Parks. Many of the springs in Florida as crystal clear and for SUPing, they’re a dream to paddle on. Our favorite Florida spring has to be Ginnie Springs, located on the Sante Fe River in a privately owned park in Gilchrest County. We love setting up camp and enjoying our days SUPing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. There’s endless amounts of playtime to be had in the water there.
As diverse as Florida is with its spoils of water and plant life, so too does it explode with an incredible abundance of wildlife. Marine mammals calling Florida home, that you stand a high chance of encountering as you SUP Florida include bottlenose dolphins, short-finned pilot whales, North Atlantic right whale, and the West Indian Manatee. On land, if you’re lucky you could spot the elusive and shy Florida panther along with the northern river otter, mink, eastern cottontail rabbit, marsh rabbit raccoon, striped skunk, squirrel, white-tailed deer, Key deer, bobcats, red fox, gray fox, coyote, wild boar, Florida black bear, nine-banded armadillos, and possums. Florida definitely has its share of reptile critters too, and the following are common to see hanging out in the Sunshine State’s lush moist climate: eastern diamondback and pygmy rattlesnakes, gopher tortoise, green and leatherback sea turtles, and eastern indigo snake.
There are currently over 1,25 million alligators and 1500 crocodiles occupying the waterways throughout Florida. They live in freshwater environments such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, swamps and other brackish environments. Large male alligators are solitary, territorial animals, with the largest of the species defending the favorite turf fiercely. The smaller guys and girls often all hang out together in large numbers and in close proximity to each other. For some reason, smaller-sized allis have a higher tolerance for their kin than the big guns do. During breeding season, the females build nests made from vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a protected area that’s not vulnerable to predators who would eat their eggs, including the other allis.
Mating season is mid-April through May, and there are around 20-50 eggs in each clutch. While they are dangerous predators and the idea of being in a body of water filled with these ferocious, aggressive reptiles may give you the hibby jibbies, it’s extremely rare for an alli to eat humans. Alligator attacks are slightly more common than death by alligator! Despite their abundance, attacks are rare. Typically, this boogyman is more afraid of us than we are of it, which seems impossible considering its hardcore appearance.
Crocodiles, however, are a whole other story. Eight of the 23 species are known to launch unprovoked attacks on humans. Death rates by alligator sit at 6% in comparison to the 63% clocked up by the Nile crocodile, and 25-50% for the saltwater croc. Apparently, alligators have higher standards than crocs and are more selective about their prey, while crocodiles will eat anything that moves. Allis predominantly eat fish, birds, other reptiles and small mammals.
How to spot the difference between an alli and a croc… the chances of you running into one of them are high while you SUP Florida.
Initially, you’re just going to see sharp, ragged teeth and it’ll scare the daylights out of you, but if you calm down to a slow panic, you can take note of the following to tell the difference:
- Snout shape: Alligators have a wider, U-shaped snout while crocs noses are more pointed and V-shaped.
- Toothy grin: When their mouths are closed, crocs look like they’re giving you an evil grin. The four teeth on each side of the lower jaw sticks out over the upper lip. An alli’s upper jaw is wider than the lower one so when their mouth is closed, all their teeth are hidden.
- Habitat: Crocs dig saltwater environments while alligators hang out in freshwater bodies of water.
Regardless of which one it is, here are some extra safety measures you can take should you cross paths with some scaly beasts while you SUP Florida:
- Do not feed them. Ever. At all.
- Do not approach them. At all. Ever.
- Don’t swim or wade where they are. Ever.
- Don’t tease or agitate them. Don’t be a dumbass!
- Don’t let your kids or pets go near them either.
- Don’t explore an alligator’s nest.
If you hear an alligator hissing, you’re too close for comfort. Back away slowly. Retreat and stay at least 30 feet away from them. If one pops up next to you, paddle away from it calmly. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or sounds that could put the beast in flight or flight mode. They can easily swim and run faster than you can paddle, so easy and slowly does it. Despite how fast your heart might be racing. Also, don’t ever try and pick a baby alli up. The adults are incredibly protective of their young. Definitely don’t continue hanging out where you are if you notice an alli has taken an interest in you. Go somewhere else.
SUP Florida Buying Guide
Finally, we get to the actual SUP portion of the post! In case you are new to the sport and weren’t aware: standup paddle boarding is a combination of kayaking and surfing, with the boards available being longer and wider than a standard surfboard, making them more stable and buoyant for you to balance on. The most common SUP boards available on the market today are flatwater, race, all-round, and surf SUPs.
Flatwater standup paddleboards are generally longer than the other boards with the nose designed for cutting through the water to optimize the glide and assist the board navigating straight. The sides are rounded for glide and speed, and the extra width allows for more stability, so flatwater boards are great options if you’re a beginner.
Raceboards are part of the flatwater SUP genre but are narrower in width to allow for enhanced speed, but this makes balancing a bit more challenging and is not recommended for beginners. The Vanhunks Induna 10’6 polyplastic board is our flatwater board. Induna comes in a selection of fun, bright colors and has been used by adults and children alike.
These SUPs usually are wider than the other boards and are versatile in flats or waves. The all-round boards are a smart choice for a first time board because the design allows you to ride flat water as well as take on smaller size waves. They’re incredibly stable and have fully decent glide and tracking for flatwater or open ocean touring. There’s also enough of a rocker and sidecut for when you’re in the mood to try out surf SUPing. You can even pimp your board with foot straps and mast foot fitting to add a windsurf element to your riding.
The surf SUPs are shorter and have a much narrower nose and tail to the other boards, which makes the board more maneuverable to carve and track on waves. In addition, the nose has a more pronounced rocker to slow you down. The curvature of the board creates a drag under the water and acts as a sort of a break when the waves get steeper. The surf SUPs are slower boards and don’t glide in a straight line on flat water, so unless you’re comfortable steering the board with your heels and toes stood sideways, you’ll want to stick to a flatwater or all-round board first.
Inflatable or Solid Board?
You may have seen people pumping up their SUPs and wondered what the difference is between an inflatable and solid SUP. For starters, they are made of different materials. Solid boards are made from foam, fiberglass, epoxy, kevlar, plastics, and wood. Epoxy boards are extremely popular and are made from a foam core laminated with layers of fiberglass for strength and rigidity. Solid boards also have an air vent installed on the deck to prevent delamination of the epoxy resin from the EPS foam core. The advantages of a solid SUP are:
- You don’t need to inflate them, which will leave you with more energy and muscle power for your paddling while you’re on the water.
- They’re super stable and deal well with strong wind and choppier water.
- If you’re racing or doing tricks, they have great speed and agility.
Of course, inflatable SUPs have their own advantages. Primarily that they don’t need as much storage space.
- Deflate them and pop them back in the backpack it came in.
- It’s easier to get away with taking an inflatable SUP on an airplane when you’re traveling. They’re lighter than solid boards, and the packed dimensions are much smaller than a solid board. You can take them on your island vacation easily these days!
- You can carry the inflatable in its backpack on your shoulders and walk/hike through to where you want to launch. A much better option for when you want to ride somewhere you can’t reach by car!
- Also, an inflatable’s price point is often more affordable than a solid SUP. They’re also less delicate than the solid boards.
Inflatable boards are manufactured using layers of marine-grade PVC plastic with woven fibers connecting the top and bottom of the board on the inside. Inflatables, once pumped up, are surprisingly rigid and durable. They handle dings much better and are easy to chuck in the trunk if you’re heading on a road trip. You don’t need to have roof racks to transport them, which is a big plus if you’re on a budget.
The bigger the board, the more stable it’s going to be. If the board is too small, it’s going to create drag and not glide forward as easy, so you want to make sure you get a board that’s in proportion to your body. You can use the following formula to determine what size board is right for you:
Beginners: your weight in Kg x2 = the literage you should look for.
Intermediates: Your weight in Kg x1.7 = the right literage for you.
Advanced: Your weight in Kg x1.3 = the best literage for you.
In general, if you’re 50 to 180 lb, a 9’1-10’6 board will work well for you while a 10’7-11’6 is the better length to go if you’re 180 to 250 lb. Above and beyond 250 lb will require a board 11’7 to 12’6 in length to make sure you’re cruising comfortably.
Paddle Blade Width
We get a lot of questions regarding the blade width on the paddles. The choice is yours, but to begin with, you’re not going to want a blade that’s too wide, or it may put strain on your shoulders, especially if you’ve got a smaller frame to your body. Smaller blade width is recommended in surf conditions as well as with those seeking a more leisurely experience. Larger blades are great for distance and downwind paddling.
You definitely want to get your paddle height right. It is going to make or break or enjoyment and performance on the water. Too short or too long is going to be uncomfortable for your body in one way or another. Typically, for surf SUPing, you’ll want your paddle to be 6-8 inches taller than you. For flatwater SUPing, 8-10 inches taller than you are going to work best, and for racing, 10-12 inches is going to ensure max reach and power in each stroke.
Should you be planning on developing more than one style of SUPing, you can either get two fixed-shaft paddles or one adjustable paddle.
- Last but not least, a personal floatation device (PFD) should be invested in. It’s Coast Guard Regulation and mandatory to have one ready and available should you find yourself in a pickle or a tough tide.
- Leashes are not always necessary but are recommended in the event that you fall off in choppy water or somewhere with a fast current. These boards travel faster than you can swim, and you wouldn’t want to lose your new favorite toy because it wasn’t attached to you. Leashes should be the same length as your board, or a foot shorter. Longer leashes reduce the chances of the board hitting you if you fall off, while shorter leashes keep the board in close proximity to you. Shorter leashes are advised for flatter water.
- Finally, if you get super hooked on SUPing, you’ll not be happy to sit out over winter, so you could eventually look at investing in a wetsuit to keep you warm in the icy water over the colder seasons.
And there you have it, all you need to know about SUPing in Florida! I know the hurricane and alligator portions were a bit intimidating, but I’d rather overshare on info to ensure you’re safe and know how to help yourself if you find yourself suddenly looking one straight in the eye up close. I’m not even going to think about someone not being aware of an approaching hurricane and getting in the water with a SUP… let’s leave riding hurricane’s to the kiteboarders, shall we? Florida has so many amazing aspects to it for watersports, and SUPing your way around the Sunshine State is just one way to make the most of your time.