If you've ever dreamed of walking on water, try standup paddleboarding--a unique way to glide over lakes and rivers.
When a hand injury forced Kim Thomas to take a break from yoga in 2010, the Stillwater area resident looked for other ways to stay active. A friend introduced Thomas to standup paddleboarding (SUP), which, as its name implies, involves standing on what looks like an oversize surfboard and propelling oneself through the water with a paddle.
“It was an amazing feeling, being on a board that first time,” says Thomas. “I thought, ‘This is going to blow up.’”
She was right. In the past decade, the sport—which has roots in Hawaiian surf culture—has exploded in popularity. According to a Statista study, the number of paddleboarders in the United States grew from 1.15 million in 2011 to more than 3.5 million in 2019. Now a certified SUP instructor who teaches through her Stillwater-based Brown Dog Paddleboard Co., Thomas attributes the activity’s rise in popularity to its relatively shallow learning curve and fervent embrace among yoga practitioners, who like the challenge of striking a pose on the water.
“Paddleboarding is an awesome way to get out in nature,” Thomas says. “And we’re lucky that Minnesota has great waters for paddling.”
Here, Thomas guides us through the basics of the sport—though she stresses that all newbies should take a lesson. “I tell students, ‘You’re the captain of this vessel. You need to be fully responsible, physically capable, and in command.’”
Types of Paddleboards. Paddleboards come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. Many solid boards are made of layers of foam, fiberglass, and epoxy resin, resulting in a relatively light and stable setup. High-end boards are sometimes constructed from light, strong carbon fiber, while ultra-portable inflatable boards are made of flexible PVC.
Among board styles, the recreation board (2) is an ideal option for beginners, says Thomas. “These boards are generally 11 or 12 feet long, super stable, and track really well, meaning they keep a straight line in the water.”
For comparison, three other board types are shown above, each designed for a specific use: the touring board (1), meant for long paddle trips; the short, agile surf board (3) for paddling in waves; and the wide, rapids-ready whitewater board (4).
Thomas favors fiberglass paddles over the less expensive but heavier aluminum ones. Super-light carbon fiber paddles are another option but tend to be less durable than other paddle types.
When teaching, Thomas uses adjustable paddles, which can be shortened and lengthened to fit the height of the paddler. When sizing the paddle to the student, Thomas has students raise an arm straight overhead, bicep by ear, then adjust the paddle to come to the bottom heel of the hand (A).
Other Equipment + Gear. Always paddle with a leash, which prevents the board from floating away should you fall in the water. One end of the leash wraps around your ankle—either leg is fine—while the other end attaches to the back of the board.
Rounding out your SUP setup should be a U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket and a dry bag for storing your phone, water, snacks, sunscreen, etc.
Before hitting the water for the first time, determine where to place your hands on the paddle. To do so, hold the T-grip on the end of the paddle with one hand and with your other hand grab the shaft of the paddle. Lift the paddle above your head, then adjust the hand on the shaft so that both arms form 90-degree angles at the elbows. This is where you want your hands positioned while paddling.
Important: If your paddle blade is angled, be sure it angles away from you. “Nine times out of 10 when I’m out on the lake, people are holding their paddles backwards,” says Thomas.
Mounting and Standing on Your Board
- Stand beside the board in water just deep enough that the board’s fin doesn’t hit bottom.
- Hold the board by the edges and work your way onto the middle of the craft in a kneeling position.
- While still kneeling, start paddling to stabilize the board before you stand up.
- To stand, hold the paddle perpendicular to the board.
- Raise your chest up while keeping your knees bent. Once your chest is vertical, extend your legs to stand up.
- Looking forward, stand in the middle of the board (over the carrying handle on most boards) with your knees slightly bent and your legs shoulder width apart.
Forward Stroke. This stroke propels your board forward through the water.
- Plant your paddle in the water by reaching as far forward as you can and pushing the blade all the way under the surface. Finish the stroke by bringing the paddle back to your ankle and out of the water.
Tip: Keep your arms nearly straight and hinge at the waist, using the weight of your body as leverage on the paddle blade. This will power you forward.
Reverse Stroke. Used for slowing down, stopping, and turning.
- As with the forward stroke, keep your arms straight and twist from your torso rather than pulling the blade forward with your arms.
Forward Sweep Stroke. Useful for turning your board while standing still or moving. Doing the sweep stroke on the right side of your board will turn the board to the left (and vice versa on the other side).
- Bend your knees slightly more than you would for the forward stroke and lower your arms a bit so the T-grip on the paddle is just below shoulder height.
- Reach forward and plant your paddle in the water, submerging the entire blade so it’s perpendicular to your board.
- Sweep the paddle away from the board in a big arcing motion from the nose of the board to the tail by rotating your torso, hips, and legs.
Where to Begin?
Three destinations for the novice paddleboarder
Tight motor boat restrictions, including a no-wake zone around shore, make Square Lake ideal for beginner boarders. Bonus: The Washington County lake is one of the cleanest lakes in the east metro.
Minneapolis Chain of Lakes
This iconic chain is the beating heart of Minnesota’s SUP culture thanks to its five paddler-friendly lakes and rule against using gas-powered boat motors. It gets crazy-busy in the summer, though, so if crowds aren’t your thing, visit on a weekday or early morning on the weekend.
McCarthy Beach State Park
Located on Sturgeon Lake about 20 miles north of Hibbing, McCarthy Beach State Park is renowned for its shallow, sandy beach, which just so happens to be the perfect training ground for rookie paddleboarders. McCarthy is one of more than 10 Minnesota state parks to offer SUP rentals.
For more on paddleboarding in Minnesota, including rules, regulations, and safety tips, visit mndnr.gov/watertrails/paddleboard.html.