I moved to the Upper Arkansas River Valley in 1993 as an 18 year old right out of high school and immediately became a frothing, live-in-your-van-down-by-the-river, hard core, whitewater junkie. In the past 20 years I have gone through periods of being psychotically obsessed with almost every form of interacting with rivers. Freestyle kayaking, creek boating, squirt boating, slalom kayak racing, wildwater downriver racing, multi-day raft trips, fly-fishing…I just like being wet.
Since my partner in Badfish, Zack Hughes, and I started river surfing the new obsession has been stand up paddle boarding. Stand Up Paddling (SUP) has totally recharged my stoke for paddling on the river. It’s a great activity for my entire family (no longer living in the van) and a completely new perspective on river running.
SUP has also modified what I throw in my gear bag for paddling missions. SUP requires slightly different essential gear accessories from the standard 5 essentials of kayaking. For this post I am going to focus on the other pieces of gear you need to go stand up paddling . You already know what I think about boards…right? At Badfish SUP we spend a lot of time thinking about, designing and testing boards that will work better than standard paddle boards for river paddling. So I recommend checking out our website for more info on our quiver of boards.
Now that I have the shameless self-promotion out of the way, here are some of my favorite pieces of gear and accessories that I use when I am stand up paddle boarding on the river.
As a long time competitive kayaker I am picky about paddles. Anyone that comes to SUP from a kayaking background may have to figure out how to stand up while paddling down the river, but you already know what to do with the paddle. I use Werner Paddles. I particularly like the Fuse. I like a paddle that has a medium sized blade for a good blend of power, but too big a blade and I find that I can’t get the cadence I like in river surfing and whitewater situations. I also really like the Nitro which has a smaller blade for smaller paddlers or for situations where you value a higher cadence, like park and surf river surfing sessions. For people that don’t want a carbon paddle a more affordable option is the Carve. Very similar blade shape to the Fuse and absolutely bomber. This is the paddle I bought for both my kids.
Sizing a paddle is a bit of a personal choice, but for the river I like a paddle 8”-9” longer than my height (80”-81”). You can get an adjustable paddle and play around with sizing until you commit to a fixed length that you like.
Paddling on a river? Helmet is essential. I am a big fan of the helmets from WRSI. WRSI has put the research into their helmets to make sure they are some of the safest options on the market. I am not an expert in helmet technology, but I really like the fit and after years of having kayak helmets pushed off the back of my head while getting power douched in holes and big drops; I like to know my helmet is going anywhere. This is the helmet I put on my kid’s heads. I use the Trident, but I also own a Moment Full Face for running whitewater and my son loves the Current Pro.
What I have always looked for in a PFD is comfort and mobility. This is still true now that I am doing a lot of stand up paddle boarding, particularly because swimming is inevitably a part of the SUP experience whether you are running the river or river surfing. I wore the Astral YTV for a lot of my paddling this summer. I was really into the minimalist design and slim cut. Astral has always impressed me with their clean design and this PFD is definitely clean. The only downside is the lack of pockets and attachment points. If you are looking for PFD with more rescue vest lineage then I recommend the Green Jacket. The front pocket is a really clever design and a place to put an extra set of fins or a camera.
Dressing for stand up paddling has been the biggest change for me from kayaking. It’s really easy to get cold from swimming a lot, but it’s also easy to get hot if you are standing up tall over the water and paddling hard for a workout or just cruising easy water on a summer day. Here are some recommendations from the coldest days to the warmest.
Stand Up Paddling on a river equals some amount of swimming. If you are river surfing the swimming is a part of the experience like rolling your kayak when you are playboating. If you are running the river, even easy Class I-II, there will be some swimming as you improve your balance and technique. In either case being warm is not only about comfort, it’s an essential safety practice. For cold days in the winter and early spring there is no substitute for a Dry Suit. They are not cheap, but what’s the value of a session that’s an hour longer because you are comfortable or avoiding hypothermia on a chilly day on the river in early May? There are a lot of really high quality dry suits these days. They have gotten more comfortable and easier to get in and out of. Kokotat makes their suits in Northern California and I have been really impressed with their quality. My 11 year old son has had one for two seasons now and spends a lot of time in it…it’s no worse for wear despite his best efforts.
During less cold conditions, or when I am river surfing, I often wear a wetsuit instead of a drysuit. Wetsuits work when they are wet by warming up the water that is against your skin. I like the feel of a wetsuit when I am having to swim a lot, versus the inflated trash bag effect you can get swimming in a drysuit. A 3mm wetsuit like this one from NRS, will be plenty warm for most days outside of really extreme weather. Later in the summer I will forgo the full suit and go with a thermal neoprene top like this one. When it’s really warm I will just go with boardshorts and a sun layer. I really like all of the apparel from Season Five, another Colorado based company, like this top.
Dry suits are nice when the water or air is a little bit colder out.
*One quick fashion note…River paddling in Colorado we wear surf trunks over our wetsuits. Totally unnecessary and ocean based paddlers and surfers often mock the Colorado Kook style, but when wearing a PFD, if you don’t wear shorts, it looks like you aren’t wearing pants…you’re welcome.
I spent years throwing some haggard flip flops in the back of my kayak and paddling barefoot so I could cram my feet into tiny playboats. I have the mangled feet to prove it. SUP demands solid footwear, however I also like to feel my board under me especially when I am surfing. For park and surf sessions I prefer some wetsuit booties like these from NRS. For running the river I like something with a little more protection. I used the Teva Slimkosi last season, it seemed like a great compromise between a wetsuit bootie and river shoe with more protection. This season I have my eyes on the Astral Rassler high tops. Not just because I am a child of the 80’s; I like the idea of more ankle protection while crawling around on slippery riverside rocks.
I told you I was done with the self-promotion, but bear with me. If you are going to wear a leash, which is really handy when you are swimming a lot during a river surfing session or pushing your limits on downriver paddling, then you have got to wear a releasable leash system. My partner Zack came up with a really clever design that we all use called the Re’leash. Read more about how it works here and check out this video for more details.