Now, the art of paddleboarding often isn’t intuitive, and there are a few hints, tricks, tips and lessons that can take the experience from pleasant to positively prodigious. I’ve been dipping my paddle since 2013, plying the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, California and the San Juan Islands and on to rivers, lakes, and ponds in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, New Hampshire and beyond.
Here you will find paddleboarding tips gleaned from masters or honed from my own experiences gone awry. This article is for the beginner, novice or even expert paddleboarder who wants to refine their technique, glide with elegance or just paddle in bliss. I’m always learning and tweaking my methods and madness so if you have any paddle tricks, be sure to post them in a comment below! And when you've finished, check out some of my favorite spots to paddleboard around Utah.
FIND THE PRIME TIME
As a general rule, mornings and evenings tend to offer calmer weather than midday or afternoon. Having suffered through one too many misadventures, I always check the forecast for wind and skip out if the breezes top 12 knots or so. Anything stronger than 12 knots—wind traveling around 14 mph—is going to be challenging and potentially dangerous for beginning paddleboarders.
A great resource for checking wind can be found here. It’s best to compare a few different reports and there are great apps from the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, and Windy. Checking the weather should be another pretty obvious step. Thunderstorms can rear up quickly in mountainous terrain so make a habit to always check the forecast before heading out.
EARLY BIRD...BLAH BLAH BLAH
As much as I disdain the fact, the best paddling truly happens early in the morning. You have a greater shot at spotting wildlife, the sunrise can be dramatic and the water is typically calmer before the wind kicks up. I also enjoy paddling around the sunset hour as it's also less crowded and the views can be amazing.
STRAP IT UP
Invest in a few NRS straps to make transport of your board a breeze. These multi-use wonder straps can be used to tightly secure your craft to a roof rack, to lasso multiple crafts together on the water, or to create an anchor with a rock. The NRS strap is the Voile strap of the river people. They are incredibly versatile, helpful and can accomplish quite a bit when you find yourself in a pickle.
PACK IT IN & PACK IT OUT
DON'T BE AN AIRHEAD
SUN SAFETY IS SMART
Also consider how sensitive many of our ecological habitats are. The chemicals in sunscreen are often terrible for fish and aquatic life. I’ve switched to a reef-safe sunscreen made in Maui and won’t be looking back. It’s called One Love Body Soul. It contains no harmful chemicals, it smells nice and I can take pride in knowing my skincare routine isn’t compromising the health of the ecosystem with gnarly chemicals or plastic packaging.
If possible, I suggest investing in a good quality, adjustable paddle. Serious boarders will probably not prefer adjustable, but a well-made one works great and allows you to lend your board out to friends or family members of wildly different heights. I have a Bending Branches adjustable paddle made in the USA that I adore. The difference in performance between the cheapest paddle and something a little higher in quality is worth saving up for. When paddling with others, ask to test their paddle. You’ll quickly see that, like skis or a snowboard, they all feel a little different to handle.
Also, make sure you are correctly orienting your paddle. The way that paddleboard paddles are shaped, people often intuitively place the paddle in the water backwards. The forward-leaning angle in the blade helps with efficiency and gives you more power. Be sure the words on your blade are facing forward and the angulated blade is facing the front of the board.
It’s best to consider appropriate footwear before heading out, especially when paddling on rivers. Fast moving water, slimy rocks and uneven surfaces are worthy adversaries for flip-flops. Consider something with a rugged sole, good grip and secure straps or webbing. There have been many times where I’ve realized far too late that flip-flops weren’t the best bet. Water shoes are not the most glamorous part of your kit, but don't underestimate their utility.
On bodies of water that move, areas with boat traffic or in windy conditions it’s great to have a surf leash. This will help you retrieve your board should you fall off or want to take a dip. If you do become separated from your board in fast-moving water, do not try to stand up. Lay on your back and point your feet downstream in an effort to avoid bashing off rocks. You’re wearing a life jacket, right? Things can go from bad to truly awful if you’re in swift or cold water without a life vest. The line between catastrophe and chillin’ is thinner than a lot of people realize. It is not recommended to head out on a river without a guide or teacher on your first go.
LIVE IT UP WITH A LIFE JACKET
Local regulations regarding life jacket requirements can vary widely from state to state. Generally, it’s against the law for children to be on a watercraft without a certified life jacket. Some states require adults to wear life jackets, others just require a life jacket to be on the craft. It may also depend on the body of water or the length of watercraft. Always check local regulations before heading out. The best life jacket is the life jacket you’ll actually wear. Purchase a life vest that fits, feels comfortable and is properly rated. Then do yourself a favor, and actually wear it!
WATCH THE CLOCK
Twilight can stretch late into the evening in the summer months. Keep this in mind if you’re paddling on a river, as water will typically be moving at a far lower flow rate in late summer than what you’ll see in May-June. You can always check flow rates using this handy website: USGS Current Water Data for Utah. If you are floating downriver, be sure to give yourself enough daylight to complete the float! I have made this mistake before, and it ended up in a bevy of friends running barefoot across thorny fields avoiding cattle in the pitch darkness. It was certainly memorable, but it wasn’t fun.
DOG DAYS OF SUMMER
I’m no dog training expert, but I have read that if you are hoping to bring your pooch along for a paddle it’s awesome to start with a few training exercises on dry land first. Set your board on the ground sans fins and practice basic commands like sit, stay and lay down with both of you atop the board. Add the paddle and practice stroking with the dog nearby. Helping familiarize your pup with your equipment will go a long way if you practice these steps before adding water. There are great resources out there on this topic so this is just a tip to get you thinking and planning.
It is worth noting that you shouldn’t take your dog paddleboarding without investing in a properly fitting life vest. All good quality life jackets for dogs will come with a sturdy handle which is instrumental in helping your dog climb back aboard without capsizing your board. This is even more important should the water get rough or if your dog becomes scared or panics. You’ll be much better prepared to handle unexpected movements or haul your dog back on the board if he or she is sporting a life vest. Just trust me on this one!
BRING THE BINOS!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paddled upon a moose, an osprey, an owl or a great blue heron only to realize I’ve left my binoculars at home. A set with a lanyard for your neck is great, and you can maintain a safe distance while closely observing neat wildlife. In fact, don’t forget to check our Wildlife Guide before you paddle out!
On another note, never approach wildlife. It disrupts their behavior and can cause them to expend valuable energy that they should be dedicating to eating and foraging as they fatten up and prepare for winter. Give critters ample space, and observe from a distance with a quiet voice. Be sure to check out our Utah Wildlife Guide here.
HIGH & DRY
Some bodies of water—especially rivers in Utah—run shallow. If your board has replaceable fins, it’s possible to get a shorter or smaller set of fins. This means your fins won’t be dragging and hitting rocks or the river bottom when the water runs low. Though longer fins provide better tracking and stability, I switch to short fins in July and August once the water levels drop.
SHAKE YOUR FANNY (PACK)
If you’ve been living in a hole then perhaps you missed the glorious resurgence of the fanny pack. Colorful, versatile, convenient and cool, this essential carry-all was practically made for paddleboarding. Keep your phone, snacks, binoculars or beer handy by eliminating the need to bend over or sit down to retrieve your essentials. Not all fanny packs are created equal, some have special pouches for adult beverages or bubble water, some are waterproof and others are not. Choose wisely!
HOLD MY BEER...WATCH THIS!
My life changed the day I discovered the ‘Lil Sucker’. It is a thin floppy disc of neoprene shaped like a doughnut. Once wet, the amazing power of suction kicks in and it can be fitted around your drink or thermos and affixed to any flat surface like a paddleboard deck, the top of your cooler, the side of a raft, a boat bench, etc. Alternatively, if you don’t like bending over, consider one of those necklaces with a built in koozie.
On occasions when I’ve taken a snorkel mask or swim goggles to take a peep below the surface, I haven’t regretted it. You can see some pretty neat stuff in bodies of water with good visibility. Knowing about and witnessing the creatures in an aquatic habitat helps you better understand the ecosystems around you and how important it is to maintain good water quality and respectful habits.
If you have an inflatable board, it can be unwieldy when deflated and even more difficult to stuff the thing into its standard-issue sack or duffle. Here’s an awesome trick I learned to avoid the bag battle that feels much like wrestling a toothless crocodile. Many air pups also have a reverse suction feature! After removing the pin and allowing most of the air to escape, stick that sucker on the opening and suck as much air out as you can then plug it up. At this point you’ll have a much easier time rolling up your board and stashing it away, since it’ll take up much less space.
If possible, store your board in a cool, dark and dry place. Inflatable boards made of rubber can degrade over time, so I always try to store my board indoors away from extreme heat and cold and out of the sunlight. Note that some bodies of water have campaigns to stop aquatic hitchhikers and the spread of invasive species. For this reason, I always try to rinse my board off on the grass with a high-pressured hose and allow it to dry in the hot sun. Regulations will vary, so check with your local authorities. I keep all my accessories (life jacket, extra fins, leash, dry bags, etc.) in a large bin in the garage. That way, everything is all in one place, and I don’t forget something on my next outing.
I hope these points take your paddling to the next level. If you’ve got any great pointers, hacks, tricks or tips to share, please post them in the comments below!
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