Updated: Jan 24
Knowing what equipment is right for you can be a minefield, and with innovations and more choices across product ranges every year, it's indeed not becoming any easier. Whilst it's true to say that with experience comes an understanding of the kit you need, we still need to consider the basics when selecting our kit, even if we want the one with the coolest design or pretty colours.
This blog aims to give you the basics of kit selection and setup with a nod towards the Head of the Dart challenge and covering longer distances and flatwater paddling.
Try Different Kit Setups
When it comes to a particular kit setup, there are so many options, even with a basic beginner package at the market's budget end. Whilst your equipment may come as a complete setup, you can modify or change most items to suit you better. This could be an entirely new paddle, adding tie-down points to your board, or changing the leash and fin to suit you and your paddling environment better. Its therefore worth experimenting with different products to see what suits you best, even if you borrow a paddle from a friend or visit your local demo centre to try out something different, Demo centres and experienced paddlers can give you their first-hand experience of what works and what might suit you best so don't be afraid to ask them.
The World Of Paddles
By far, your most important piece of kit to invest in and get right is your paddle. It connects you to the water and is how you transfer your energy into paddling motion. A good paddle will stay with you for several years, helping you progress and take on new challenges.
When you are thinking of a new paddle, be sure you try it through a demo centre. That way, you can try different shapes, sizes, and lengths so you can be sure it suits your paddling and, most importantly, avoid getting injured.
Paddle Blade Size
One of the more complex areas to understand is blade sizing, as each style of the paddle will likely have a recommendation based on your paddling ability and personal attributes. However, a good rule of thumb is to go on the smaller side when starting to progress your paddling, so you avoid overstraining your joints as you build up paddling strength. A smaller paddler will also allow you to reduce fatigue over long distances and when paddling on consecutive days. However, larger paddles do have their place for those with more experience and power, and what size works for you is something of a personal preference at the end of the day.
Getting your paddle to the right length isn't always as easy as matching it to your height. A paddles handle, blade and style will all play a part, as well as what board you are paddling. A good example is moving from a 6" thick isup to a dugout race board. The height difference you need from your paddle could be as much as 4 or 5 inches. If you ask an experienced paddler about their paddles, they will likely have two to three to choose from, depending on what they are doing.
SUP Scotty with his paddle quiver
Using an adjustable paddle will allow you to change your paddle length and find what works for you depending on what paddling you are doing, but where do you start and what about if you invest in a fixed-length paddle? Whenever I've sized up my own or a customers paddle, I start with a sizing chart to get a good starting point.
A secondary check is where the top hand is during the paddle stroke's midpoint so the shoulders are protected, or the paddle is not too short overall. Your top hand should be around your eye line at the mid-point of the stroke, as you will see in the below picture.
Lesley Hodge with a perfectly sized paddle
Paddling For Distance
As you look to complete longer distances, you may find your paddling technique could change in a couple of ways. You might adopt a more bent over stroke style as you begin to paddle harder, so a shorter paddle might be required. However, bending over too much can cause poor form, leading to lower back issues, so be careful here and seek some coaching to ensure your technique will not hold you back or cause injury.
You might also go for a longer paddle as you look for a more efficient stroke. Typically we see beginners using quite short paddles, so lengthening the paddle can give a better catch and give you more glide from the board. It also stops you from bending over so much, protecting your lower back; you use less energy throughout your stroke as well. You have to be mindful of longer paddles putting strain through the shoulders and risking injury to your rotator cuffs, so again, check in with a coach to make sure you are on point with your technique.
Check out this guide to picking your paddle from Black Project SUP - it's a handy insight into paddle selection and what you should be considering when picking your next paddle.
Your leash is your primary piece of safety equipment and something you should always use when paddling. It connects you to your board which is your primary floating device and stops it from being blown away from you in windy conditions if you fall off. There are now many leash options, and using the correct one for the water and activity you are doing is essential. The wrong leash can be more dangerous than not having one at all. If you are ever in doubt about what leash to use, please seek advice, and if you have the wrong leash for the conditions - especially on moving water, don't go out.
I've witnessed on two separate occasions near-drownings in strong tidal flows where the paddler has been swept downstream with either their board being pulled under or around a stationary object. Both paddlers had straight 'surf' leashes on with ankle cuff attachments, and both were unable to release their leash - thankfully there were rescued without harm.
Different Leashes & When To Use Them?
If we take the above example of the two paddlers in tidal flows, they would have potentially been able to self rescue themselves with either a knee cuff or, even better, a waist leash with a quick release. This is because when in flowing water, if you become trapped around an object, it really doesn't take much force for you to be unable to reach your legs - imagine trying to do a sit-up with someone sitting on your chest; it's basically impossible. They were also using straight leashes - sometimes called surf leashes, which increase the possibility of becoming snagged on objects, so here a coiled leash would have been a better option as well.
For most recreational, flatwater paddling (and including open ocean), a coiled leash is usually the best bet. If you are in relativity open water such as lakes, the sea or wide rivers, which are slow-moving, then a standard cuff on the ankle or knee is usually fine. If it's a fast-flowing tidal region or a fast-flowing river, avoid ankle cuffs as the bare minimum; a leash with a quick-release attachment on the knee or waist leash is a much better option.
What Are The Different Leash Types
Straight or Surf Leashes - typically 8' or more in length with various cuff options, both ankle and knee, now normally used just for surfing. They have a straight cord to allow the board to move far enough away from you in a wipeout. Not recommended for moving water. Often with beginner packages and should be replaced by a coiled leash for flatwater paddling immediately.
Coiled Leashes - usually 8 or 10' in length with a coiled cord and various cuff options, most typically ankle or knee cuffs. Recommended for flatwater and ocean paddling or on slow-moving rivers when used without a quick release system. The coiled leash should sit on your board, reducing the possibility of dragging in the water or catching objects.
Waist Leashes - Can be a complete leash or add-on to your normal leash using a belt system. Usually found with a quick release and recommended especially for flatwater paddling and flowing or tidal waters. Experienced paddlers will often favour a waist leash, primarily because it will stay completely clear of the boards' deck, allowing you to move around the board with complete freedom.
Do's and Don'ts With Leashes
Do - Check your leash regularly for signs of wear and fatigue.
Do - Use the right leash for the conditions you are paddling.
Don't - Buy a cheap leash. Buy from a reputable brand so you can rely on the leash to be secure if things go wrong.
Don't - Paddle without a leash.
Don't - Paddle with the wrong type of leash.
Don't - Use a damaged leash.
Do Fins Make A Difference?
Perhaps the most underrated piece of equipment is the fin. More often than not, entry-level boards and budget options come with a very basic fin. Depending on the attachment solution, it might not be possible to replace it with an aftermarket alternative or another brand if you lose yours. Whilst we won't go into fin types today as you will still be here next week while we cover the different options, it's worth saying that the larger the fin, the more stable it is, and the smaller the fin, the more reactive it is.
A good quality fin will do several things to help your paddling, and whilst the advantages might not seem obvious at first, upgrading your fin can make a huge difference, such as:
Better tracking - A good fin will keep you going straighter, so you travel further over a shorter time frame.
More control - When stepping back to buoy turn or steering the board with your feet.
Shedding weed - Particular handy in rivers and lakes wi