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Planning for a Paddle: an overview of preparing for SUP outings

Stand-up Paddle boarding (SUP) is a fun and exciting way that you can access the outdoors. There are different venues you can visit from lakes, rivers, and coastal environments. You can head out for a fitness, relaxation, or a social paddle with friends. Paddling an SUP is fairly intuitive in calm and protected waters, so it's easy to get started.

I have found SUP to be the paddlesport with the least restrictions to access for people looking to get out on the water. The basic equipment to get started is a board with a fin, a paddle, and a leash. In the USA, SUP's are considered vessels and require everyone to have a USCG approved life-jacket. Depending upon your location there may be different regulations, but I strongly encourage everyone to have and wear an appropriate life-jacket (i.e. PFD, BA, etc.). There are exceptions life-jackets for surf zones, where it can become a hazard, and some sanctioned competitions.

If you are currently looking at purchasing an SUP it's useful to get an idea of what type of board is right for you. Knowing the basic types of SUP boards and how to recognize them will also be useful if you are renting one. Aztron sports has a variety of SUP boards ranging in material, use, and price point to check out.

When I am planning to head out for a paddle, I use a series of questions as a framework and checklist to ensure that I am setting myself up to have a safe and enjoyable time out on the water. I have outlined mine below in a logical progression. When I am using them, I do not always start with the first question, and I tend to bounce back and forth between different ones. I do make sure that I have mentally covered and answered all of the questions. As a paddlesports instructor, I share this approach with beginner and novice paddlers, and I encourage them to adopt or develop their own framework to make sure their paddling trips are planned and prepared for. In the beginning it will require a lot of mental concentration from you. Over time you will find that it becomes easier to flow through this process as you gain more experience.

Why am I going?

Identifying the purpose or goal of your paddle will help in determining the location you head to, your paddling partners, and the types and amount of items you may be bringing along. If you are looking for an easy, relaxing paddle then you may choose a place that is always protected from the wind, unlikely to get crowds, and you head out with just one of your close paddling friends. Starting your planning process with a clear idea will help set you up for a successful paddle.

Where am I going?

The location you choose to go paddling at will be easier to determine now that you've got your goal in mind for the paddle. If you've decided you want a bit of a windy slog, then you start looking at the open water areas and spots you know tend to get lots of wind. It's helpful to have a backup location, especially if you haven't been to the spot you've chosen. That way if you arrive and it's too crowded or the conditions are not ideal, you've got another place lined up to set off towards.

When am I going?

The time of day, the day of the week, and the season that you head out will create drastically different circumstances and influence many elements of your plan. You will need to take a look at the weather forecast specific to the area and time frame you are heading out. If you are in coastal areas you will need to check out how tides and current may be effecting you. The length of daylight will be a factor, and the potential for crowds if it is a weekend and ideal time to head to the water. If it's nearing the Fall the air will start cool faster than the water, and the reverse happens in the Spring where the air warms up quicker. In the Spring you may experience fog, and it will require wearing paddle clothes for cold water for when you fall in, not if. Though it may mean you feel a bit too warm when paddling.

Who am I going with?

Paddling with others provides opportunities for shared memories, help in getting boards and equipment together, and someone to help out if an accident occurs. Paddling alone increases your exposure if things go sideways, and it's never as fun as paddling with others. It is important to choose your paddling partners based upon your goal, where you're heading, and the weather. You will also need to adjust these based upon the experience and skill of your partners. It is easy, and dangerous, to overestimate skills and abilities, which can lead to accidents. A better approach is to scale down with the option of paddlers being able to add challenge as they see fit.

What is my plan, and what am I bringing?

This is where most people tend to start their planning. They are thinking about the details of gear and equipment, the logistics of traveling, and specifics of the paddle. You can have some of these in mind, but I strongly encourage for these decisions to be made once you have been able to go through the above elements of why, where, when, and who. These elements of the planning framework are significant factors that will influence the details of your plan. If you already have these in mind you will be more effective and efficient in creating a successful plan, instead of having to go back and make lots of changes.

Your plan should be clear about the location you are paddling at, when you will set off and return, the intended route, and the identifiers of your paddling group. It is important to inform a responsible person of your plan that is not going on the paddling trip. They can reach out to emergency services if you have not returned within the timeframe you have told them. There are formal documents, referred to as float plans, that can be used to summarize your trip. Here is an example of a float plan from Sea Kayaker Magazine. Not all trips require formal documents. In many cases a phone call or text message with the details of the plan to your responsible person will suffice.

In figuring out what to bring on paddling trips, I always have the essentials that I bring on any trip. After that, I make decisions based around the weather, goals of the paddle, the people I am paddling with, and the area we are heading to. Anytime I am heading out I make sure I have these essentials:

  • Basic equipment (i.e. SUP, leash, paddle)

  • Life-jacket (i.e. PFD, BA, etc.) with exceptions to surfing, some competitions, etc.

  • Appropriate footwear

  • Water (even if I don't drink of any of it)

  • Communication devices (usually my phone in a waterproof case and a whistle)

  • Sun protection (hat, glasses, shirt, and suncream)

  • Clothing for when I fall in (considering water temperature and able to swim)

As a final note on planning for SUP trips, the length and complexity of the trip will be a determining factor in the time and details you need to cover. For simple and short trips, you may just need the basics and a quick text to your pal about the details, throw everything in your vehicle and then hit the road. If you are in doubt reach out to others who have more experience or look into taking a class. There is a lot of misleading and flawed information out on the internet.

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