Safety Considerations for River Stand Up Paddlers

With stand up paddling (SUP) booming in popularity, it was only a matter of time before a traditional surf sport started to make its way inland. Now, stand up paddleboards have made appearances in places where you’d have never expected them. From the Mississippi River to Lake Tahoe, there isn’t a place that holds water that’s off limits for the ever-popular SUP crowd.

With this popularity comes increased risk. The more inexperienced paddlers you put into the water, the more inherent risk that it carries for those that enter these waters. While SUPing is gaining a ton of steam, it only stands to reason that there are a great deal more of the self-trained paddlers that could be a danger to themselves and others. Like anything else, it’s best to learn from a professional; but if you are going to teach yourself, there are some valuable safety lessons that you should pick up along the way. This might save your life, or the life of another.


Photo courtesy of Legends SUP

Know Your Ability Level and The Limits of Your Equipment

The problem with most new stand up paddlers is that they don’t understand their own limits. Barreling down the Colorado River isn’t the same as the lesson that you took on Lake Tahoe last summer, and you need to understand that all stand up paddling isn’t created equal. Knowing your own ability level, and recognizing potential danger is key to remaining safe on your board. Work into the rapids, the shallows, and the rocks; you have to crawl before you walk.

Equipment is another factor to take into consideration. When I first walked into Legends SUP, a local shop specializing in SUP, the first question they asked me is how I wanted to use it. Knowing what type of board to use in different sorts of situations is what makes professionals invaluable as opposed to just purchasing a board online. Most novices probably aren’t even ware that boards exist for all sorts of applications. There are inflatables, flat waterboards, SUP surfboards, raceboards, boards made for women, those that carry gear, boards for more than one person, or even SUP boards made for those that use their board for yoga. Know your equipment and what the limitations are before you put yourself into a dangerous situation.


Photo courtesy of Legends SUP.

Understand and Use Safety Gear (When Needed)

I’m not suggesting that you strap on a coat of armor and head off to your local lake. Most flat water requires nothing more than good sunscreen, your board and a paddle. However, there are situations that call for more gear. Riding rapids, floodwater, or taking long trips on your board might require you to pack some extra safety equipment such as a helmet or a personal floatation device. In fact, although the board serves as a floatation device, it’s never a bad idea for a beginner to wear a life jacket.

Another common thread in freshwater paddling is whether or not to use the leash. Loose rope or straps have the potential to entangle on underwater trees or rocks, which had the potential to make the leash a safety hazard. On the other side of the equation, without a leash, it’s not only possible, but also probable, to lose your board in fast-moving water. In most cases, it’s just not necessary to use a leash. The exception to this rule would be on rivers with rather swift current. If you must use a leash, use a coiled leash with a quick release. The quick release allows you to release the leash in case of emergency, such as being hung up on a branch or underwater debris.

Dress for the Conditions

The sun and the elements are a real danger to freshwater paddlers. If you’re going out, make sure to wear at least an SPF 15 (preferably an SPF 30) as the water has a mirror effect on the suns rays and leads to severe burns. Better yet, don a rash guard or a long sleeve shirt and a cap to protect your skin from dangerous UV rays.

The same holds true for winter paddling, or cold water paddling. While you might be an experienced paddler who rarely takes a dip in the water, it’s always advisable to wear a wet suit in water that’s colder than 65 degrees. Just a few minutes in cold water with freezing temperatures outside could cause you to become hypothermic. This is a serious problem with life ending implications. Be safe and dress for the weather.

Photo courtesy of Legends SUP.

Photo courtesy of Legends SUP.

Use the Buddy System

When possible, never paddle alone. Even the most experienced paddler runs into under water debris from time to time. A simple slip and a knock to the head is a recipe for disaster that could easily be avoided if you were paddling with a partner.

Stand up paddling is remarkably safe and the chances for serious injury or death is decidedly low. That said, it could never hurt to brush up on a few safety guidelines before heading out for a day of fun on the water. Stay safe out there.

One thought on “Safety Considerations for River Stand Up Paddlers

  1. Thanks for sharing these great tips. As I am getting ready to start enjoying the idea of Stand Up Paddling, I am glad I have something like this to reference.

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