Yeah…I’m big on safety. Fortunately, it’s not hard to practice safe paddling. Gear is an important part of safety, but so are attitude, situational awareness, and preparation.
Basic Gear for Safe Paddling
PFD: At bare minimum you should have a PFD. It’s illegal to paddle without one, though you don’t have to wear it. That being said, a PFD clipped to your board doesn’t do much good when you fall off your board. For river paddling, I wear a full, rescue PFD. For most lake paddles (and some really mellow rivers) I have an inflatable PFD that’s lightweight, comfortable, and easy to use.
Shoes: My buddies have all heard me say it time and again…wear closed-toe shoes while you’re on a river. Cobbles are slippery, boulders are hard, poison ivy is itchy. Closed-toe shoes keep toes unbruised, provide confidence when walking on slippery river banks, and work better if you do go for a swim. You don’t have plunk down $100 on fancy water shoes (though I do recommend some if you’re paddling a lot); an old pair of running shoes will work just as well. You can get away with bare feet or sandals on a lake if you’re so inclined.
Leash: Ahhh, the leash. This is probably the most incorrectly used piece of safety gear out there. NEVER attach a leash to your ankle or leg when paddling on a river. It can get caught up on a boulder or tree and drag you under the water. Use a quick release mechanism around your waist or attached to your PFD. If things go sideways, you can release the leash and swim to safety. For some rivers, like the Bitterroot, the North Fork of the Flathead, or the Gallatin leaving the leash in your car or truck is probably a good idea. It’s better to swim after your board (or retrieve it in an eddy) than to get your leash wrapped around a log or boulder.
ALWAYS wear a leash on lakes. Wind can whip up suddenly and if you topple, your board can go for a ride without you. It’s fine to strap the leash to your ankle on a lake. Just not on a river.
Helmet and Pads: If you’re running whitewater or paddling when river levels are low, a helmet and pads are great additions to your kit. Get a good fitting, river specific-helmet and WEAR IT! A helmet won’t help protect your brain bucket if it’s strapped to your board. Bike helmets can work in a pinch (something is better than nothing) but a river-specific helmet will provide more protection. Make sure it’s comfortable…you’re more likely to wear it. It can feel a bit goofy to be wearing a helmet while people are tubing the same stretch of river you’re paddling. But keep in mind your head is 5 or 6 feet above the water and that you’re on a tippy paddleboard. A slight loss of balance or a rock bump can send you head first into the water. That’s bad. You probably don’t need a helmet for lake paddling.
For rocky whitewater, pads are great. I use G-Form closed cell foam pads that cover my shins and knees. Elbow pads are nice too, though I don’t have a pair. Plastic pads work too, but they can tear drysuits and are more abrasive on boards, so I like the closed cell foam ones. There are some water-sports-specific pads out there, but motocross and biking pads (like the G-Form) can also work. Rocks are hard…I still have a small indentation in my shin from whacking a rock more than three years ago…and I’ve busted two fingers while paddling.
Gear Storage and Straps: Chances are you have a dry bag or two that you’ve strapped to your board. Be sure you have enough space to move around on the board and that you won’t whack your gear if you hit a rock or topple off the board. Hard sided coolers are nice for keeping beer cold, but not great if you hit them when falling. Same for Pelican boxes or other hard-sided cases. Bring ’em if you want, but be careful where you put them. If your board is laden with lots of gear, it won’t be as responsive as you’re used to and it will ride lower in the water. Be prepared for longer turn times and for harder paddling. I like to distribute large loads between two or more dry bags, with one on the front and one on the back. Put more weight up front so the board doesn’t try to spin in the current (the heavier part of a craft will want to point down current regardless of what type of craft it is).
Keep enough space at the center of your board for moving around. If you need to drop to your knees but don’t have enough space to do so, it can be a problem. Watch out for loose straps and other lines that might catch your feet and pin you under a board. In short, be smart and strategic when rigging your board.
Attitude and Conditions: Attitude isn’t a piece of gear, but it’s critically important. If you’re paddling with a group that’s not as experienced as you, don’t sand bag them by hitting a difficult stretch of water. Pick a stretch that the least experienced paddler can handle. Generally, paddling alone on difficult water is a bad idea. Have a partner. At the least, let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. If conditions are tough…windy, cold, fast water, smoky skies…you may want to scale down your objectives for the day. Check the weather report and be aware that wind can come up at any time of day, making an easy morning lake paddle an epic headwind battle later in the afternoon. Be especially aware of attitude and conditions early and late in the season. Spring floods are fast, cold, and dangerous. Sure, you may have cleaned a bouncy, whitewater stretch of river last August, but it’s probably not great idea to make it your shakedown cruise come May. Montana lakes are cold in the spring, so even if the weather is warm, be prepared for frigid water should you fall in.
Situational Awareness and Paddle Technique: When folks ask me for paddling tips, I stick to some tried and true recommendations:
- Keep your paddle in the water as much as possible. Your paddle blade is your only point of leverage. When it’s out of the water, you lose the one leverage point you have. Practice feathering your paddle through the water in wave trains. Practice bracing on both side of the board in calm and moving water. When things get bouncy, plant the blade in the water and keep it there as long as possible.
- Keep your eyes downriver. Like any gravity/flow sport (skiing, mountain biking, trail running), you want to be a couple moves ahead. Keeping your eyes downstream is a critical technique that will prepare you for what’s ahead. It takes some practice, but it’s a key skill to master. When you’re focused downstream, anticipating what’s coming, you’re ready and prepared. When you’re focused on the front of your board, it’s hard to know what’s coming next…logs, boulders and wave trains can sneak up you, so keep your eyes downstream!
- Know where you are. This ties into Tip 2, but can also be applied to where you are on the board and where you are in your paddle. Centering your feet over the carry strap is a good general spot to be. If you move forward the board will track a bit better but it won’t turn as quickly. If you move backward, it will turn more easily but will be less stable. Stepping forward can also raise the fins a bit in low water, which can help you slip over rocks. Just be sure to return to a good center position. Knowing where you are in your overall paddle is good too. It helps plan when to take breaks, grab some food, or stretch your legs. If you’ve still got a lot of paddling, maybe just eating on your board is a good call. If you’re twenty minutes to the takeout, maybe you can hold off on that last beer or bathroom break.
Standup Paddling can be safe and enjoyable for anyone. It can also be dangerous and terrifying. Pick the right float, know your gear and use it appropriately, limit alcohol consumption, drink water and eat food, stretch a bit before and during your paddle, and be prepared for conditions to change. Save a little in the tank for when the wind comes up late in the day and you’ve gotta get home. Now, go paddle!