Sometimes when you think of trying a new sport, one of the real barriers is all of the necessary gear. You look at a picture of a rock climber, a kite-surfer, a para-glider, and think; wow, I know NOTHING about that gear, what would I need to rent before a lesson, what would I need to buy if I wanted to go try it with my friends this weekend? You may think the same as you watch our standup paddle movie. Don’t worry, it’s pretty simple stuff and we’ll break it down for you.
Now, mind you, this perspective is for stand up paddle surfing. There’s a whole other debate about short board river surfers that prefer not to wear flotation devices. We’ll leave that discussion for another day. That being said, the #1 most important piece of gear you could have is your PFD. No, not PDF like the file, this is Personal Flotation Device and it’s tech talk for life jacket. It is WAY harder than most people realize to swim in a river, even a slow flowing one that appears benign is a killer without proper flotation. The coast guard rates PFDs on a scale of type 1-5. Many of the ones that we river rats use are type 3, but many people have type 5 “rescue” vests with extra attachments in case they choose to participate in a rescue. Now days several companies make these PFDs with a lot of style and as low profile as is safe. To work properly, these vests always have to be fully zipped, buckled and fitted snug. If you find yourself getting sucked under in fast water, there are many swirling currents that would love to keep you down for much longer than your oxygen supply would prefer. A good PFD will pop you to the surface quickly and they save countless lives.
Next, depending on water and air temp, you’re going to want some warm and protective clothing for SUP surfing. There are plenty of rocks to loose skin on and your core temp drops fast when you are immersed, so covering up and keeping warm is key. Many of us follow a rule that we don’t paddle unless the air temp plus the water temp equals 100 degrees. Since much of the year, our rivers are in the 40s and 50s, this means the air has to be at least 50 degrees for the majority of people to stand up paddle on the river. During most of our standup paddle movie, we were well above that mark. Here’s our usual get-up per time of the year:
Winter or Spring – cold water, often cold air = dry suit.
Early Summer – waters still cold, airs hot = full wetsuit (4/3mm if you run cold or 3/2mm).
Late Summer – warmer water and hot air = neoprene top and board shorts or a “farmer john” (sleeveless wetsuit) or neoprene pants and lighter top.
Dry suits are full body suits that have tight rubber neck and wrist gaskets and boots that are an extension of the pants, so the idea is NO water gets to your body. Wetsuits are usually made of neoprene and are thick tight suits with lots of tiny pores. The suit is supposed to maintain the same temp as your body, lock heat in the material even when it is wet. Both are great pieces of gear to have depending on where you are going to be river surfing and how cold/hot your body runs.
Tied for most important with flotation while surfing or stand up paddling on the river is a helmet. Rocks are hard. Your brain is soft. Cover your head! Again, an area of debate with some ocean-surfers who’ve come inland to river surf. Amazing swimmers that are comfortable in violent water may convince me they don’t need a PFD at a very familiar mellow wave, but it’s hard to predict when you might hit a rock while getting tossed under water, when your board might pop up and then violently come down or when you may slip getting out of the river on slippery rocks. The cons are so low and the pros of wearing helmet are so big, that we strongly recommend having one. You’ll notice in our standup paddle movie, we always wore helmets when on the river. There are river specific helmets made by a number of companies, they are light weight, various shapes for various heads and actually, they look pretty damn cool.
The board and paddle are obviously important. Selecting the right board and paddle for you is another discussion coming down the pipe.
The last piece of gear to mention is the leash. And surprise, surprise, there is a TON of debate and down right contention on this topic. There have been deaths while river stand up paddle boarding and river surfing from people wearing leashes and suspected deaths from not having one and getting separated from your board and being overtaken by waters too difficult to swim. Nadia had a rough swim in our standup paddle movie while were surfing in Wyoming and she got separated from her board. Generally, we think the quick-release leash is the best of both worlds. They work by providing an easily grab-able, brightly colored ball or gadget that is attached near the body and can be easily located and pulled to release you from your leash. So if you did become entangled, the idea is to get away quickly.
Nothing is perfect, it’s an extreme sport after all, but having the right gear and spending lots of time practicing with more experienced paddlers are two ways to keep it safe and fun.