Standup paddling looks easy. Everybody doing it is smiling. So why are you having such a hard time with it? Because the guy who lent you his board is way smaller than you. And way more experienced. When you're just getting into the sport, equipment is absolutely everything, and it can be the determining factor between fun and falling. With the Holidays upon us, here are six essentials to remember if you’re a beginner looking for gear.
Be stable. Stability is your best friend and the bigger the board, the more stability. A board that's 28 inches wide and nine feet long will insure failure. A board that's 31 or 32 inches wide by 12 feet long will make you look like an expert. Ideally, if you're making your first purchase, you want to buy the biggest board possible. You may progress beyond it quickly and buy more boards but you'll keep that first one in your quiver to teach friends and family with. And standup is a sport enjoyed most when shared.
Think durability and convenience. When you first start, you're going to be tough on equipment. It's hard not to bump the tail or nose into the garage door. Dragging a board up and down a beach is like dragging your new iPad along a gravel drive way. A carrying handle is a small feature, but makes a big difference. Twelve-foot boards can be unruly because of their length and weight. Make sure your new board is outfitted with a good deck pad too. Most of these features come standard.
The paddle equals performance. When selling that first board, retailers will often entice you with a free paddle. This isn't a bad thing. Just make sure you don't get a plastic/aluminum, adjustable dog. Most—but not all—adjustable, aluminum paddles are junk. I'd recommend a shop staff member help size you for a custom-fit paddle. It'll make it easier for you to learn. As a general rule of thumb, with a casually extended, raised arm you should be able to get your palm on top of the handle. Another nice feature to add is a paddle guard, a piece of plastic that lines your blade. It'll prolong the life of your paddle (and board) as you learn. Once you stop whacking the rail of the board you can remove it.
Think about location. Specifically, where you'll be using the board. If you're going to be venturing into the surf at all, you'll want something 10-11 feet with a little more nose rocker to accommodate for making drops and then punching back out through the waves. If lakes or bays are your daily fare, it's less important. But if flatwater and distance is your thing then you'll benefit from keeping the length but going narrower, possibly sub-30 inches. This creates more speed.
Into racing? You'll need to decide between a 14-footer or 12'6", the most common race classes. Widths for race boards generally vary between 26" and 30". Your weight and ability will be the biggest determining factor here. Closer to 30 inches means more stability but less speed. Closer to 26" equals speed with much less stability.
Into whitewater? Try an inflatable for your first time. They're much more convenient to transport and bounce off rocks much better than fiberglass boards. In whitewater, it's important to remember board width because that equals stability (stay in the 30-inch range). You can actually go shorter with an inflatable as the more length you put into an inflatable, the more floppy the board.
Dave Kalama is a champion paddler, designer and one of the sport's pioneers (DavidKalama.com).
This piece originally ran in our 2013 Beginner’s Guide. Pick up more essential standup paddling skills here.