What’s a SUP? And how to enjoy one in the DC Metro Area

By Angela Hazuda Meyers

The trendy sport known as stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) has been rowing into humans’ hearts for several years, but it’s also a way to spend a summer day with your dog. Not only can you get some quality outdoor time with your pooch, but you also get a solid workout (even if it looks a little passive at first glance). Here’s what this watery phenomenon has to offer:

Balance: Regular SUP-ing will give you and your dog better balance. It makes sense: the water under your feet will likely be moving in some direction, forcing you to make major or micro adjustments to stay upright. In general, the sport works key muscle groups like your abdominals and latissimus dorsi (mid-back muscles), which help you stabilize and maintain your center of gravity. Keep in mind that when you’re on the board, you’ll need to compensate for your dog’s movements, too. She won’t always stay perfectly still!

Stronger Core: You can get a real ab workout from SUP, especially if you focus on contracting your belly muscles as you paddle. Again, SUP-ing might look calm and easy from afar, but you’d surprised how sore your abs are after an afternoon on a board.

Arm and Leg Workout: When you’re using a paddle, it’s pretty obvious that your arms will be putting in work, biceps and triceps included. However, your legs are instrumental in paddling, too—not to mention keeping you stable. And when you add a slight bend in your knees, you’ll sneak in even more legwork.

Cardio: The amount of calories burned per hour can vary with SUP, given the body of water, the weather, your speed, and the dimensions of your board, but in general you might burn 400 an hour with light, consistent paddling. More intense styles, such as racing or touring, can push you past the 600 mark, with up to 1,000 calories per hour at a real racing pace. As always, keep an eye on your heart rate and don’t be afraid to take breaks if you get dizzy or dehydrated!

Swim Time: When you’ve had your fill of working the paddle, you can take a swim break and cool off in the water. You can learn more in the next section, but please don’t let your board float around freely in the water! You can easily lose it in running water, or it could potentially hurt you or someone else. If you’re going to swim, make sure you take your board ashore first. Also, please be careful if you’re swimming in lakes or rivers, as there might be submerged rocks, branches, and other objects. Lastly, always be mindful of currents.

The Basics:

Safety: SUP-ing is really fun, but it pays to be safe. After all, you’re dealing with Mother Nature and her whims! Start by getting a leash for your SUP—one that’s meant for you, not your dog. A SUP leash should be roughly a foot longer than your board; some attach to the ankle, others to the area below the knee, and others to the waist; some are straight, and others coil up. They all generally use a Velcro cuff. Wear the leash while you’re out SUP-ing, because it can save your life. (They may be legally required in a surf zone.) In the event of a crisis, you always want your board nearby, and the leash is the way to keep it with you. Not to mention, a loose board could fly off and hurt someone else. It’s better to keep your board and lose your paddle if it comes down to one or the other. Repeat after me: KEEP YOUR BOARD! Also, if you’re going to be river SUP-ing, get a quick-release or breakaway leash; otherwise, the leash might catch on something and tangle you up if you fall overboard, which can be dangerous. River leashes should also be worn around the waist. (Some recommend using no leash at all on the river, but if you do go with a leash, get a quick-release one.) Another smart safety move is to SUP with a human buddy, or at least tell someone else you’re going out to SUP. You can even leave a note on your vehicle’s dashboard with the time you left, a description of yourself and your boards, and how long you planned on being out. This might sound like paranoia, but it can come in handy if you find yourself in a tight spot all alone on the water! Remember to wear life jackets (personal floatation devices, PFDs) and follow all relevant laws.

Pick a Board: A SUP board’s length, width, material, shape, and thickness all impact how stable it will feel to you. In general, you have planing hulls and displacement hulls. Planing ones are good for beginners, as they’re flat and wide. Displacements might be better for fitness and racing. If you find a board with a rounded nose, it might give your dog some more space when she lies down, compared to the pointier styles. A board also needs to displace the right amount of water to offset the weight of you, your pooch, and any food or gear you’re bringing with you. The higher a paddle board’s “volume,” (measured in liters) the more weight the board can support. If you want to head out with your dog, it might be good to look at longer boards (11’+), which usually allow you to carry more on board. This is especially important if you have a medium- or large-sized dog like a German Shepherd or Newfoundland. Check to make sure your board’s maximum load can support you and your furry friend! Another rule of thumb is that a wider board is more stable than a skinnier one. (A wider board also gives you more storage space.) Most boards range from 2-3 feet in width. However, keep in mind that if you and your pooch lean more petite, a narrower or shorter board may be the way to go. If you’re too light for your board, you might not sink it into the water enough, which can make it harder to paddle or control. Smaller individuals might also want a thinner board (~4”) as well, while larger people may benefit from a thicker board (~6”) that can support more weight. Of course, materials also impact stability: solid SUPs are generally more stable than inflatable ones, and the most common are made of foam and fiberglass. Plastic ones are cheaper, but they can also be pretty heavy. Most boards come with one detachable fin on the bottom, and the same rule applies here: larger fins mean more stability. Hard core racers or surfers might want different configurations (like three fins). If you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to ask an expert!

Pick a Paddle: There are tons of different paddles out there, but try to think about length, material, and blade when you’re hunting for one. A well-sized paddle should be about 9-10 inches longer than your height. A solid beginner paddle is one with an aluminum shaft and plastic blades—they also tend to be cheaper. If you want to go fancy, you can look at fiberglass or carbon fiber models. In general, the larger you are, the larger your paddle’s blade can be. (Larger blades also = more power.)

Swimming Capability: Even if your dog is a confident swimmer, using a doggie life jacket (PFD) is a great option—especially the first few times out. It’s not only a great safety precaution, but the handle on the PFD can be essential to getting your dog back on board if he jumps off, or if you decide to swim in deeper waters. While we’re on the topic, do stay alert in case your furry friend decides to take a flying leap—be ready to react to your dog’s movements, since you’re both sharing a limited space!

Canine Leash-Free Zone: Even though you’ll likely be leashing up, don’t leash your dog on a SUP. Dangling leashes can be hazardous to you and your dog, because they might catch on submerged objects like rocks and branches, especially in rivers and lakes. If your leashed dog leaps in the water, she can get tangled up, too, which is potentially fatal. This is sometimes a contentious topic, but the consensus seems to lean towards no leash for a pooch, and a leash for you!

Hydration: You might be paddling in plenty of water, but bring some fresh H2O for you and your canine. If your pup is hydrated, he’ll be less likely to want to try drinking from an ocean or lake! Even if you’ve heard it from your mom a million times, it bears repeating: stay hydrated while exercising.

Sun and Salt: Keep an eye on your dog when it comes to water (especially saltwater) exposure and sunlight. Use sunscreen liberally on your own skin, and potentially give your dogs a little dab on the ears, nose, or even belly. Consider Doggles, or doggie goggles, to protect your pup’s eyes. It also might be helpful to wash your dog down after they’ve been splashing around in the Potomac or Chesapeake.

Getting your Pup SUP-Ready:

If you have a SUP, you can do these activities at home and repeat them as needed. If you’re renting a SUP instead, just modify these exercises and try them on the dock or shore before you get in the water.

Introduce the SUP: First, keep your SUP in the house or on the front porch: someplace accessible so your dog can get familiar. Give your dog a treat on the SUP or place some of his favorite toys on it. If he’s still shy, you can sit on the SUP and have him come to you. Size permitting, have him sit on your lap so he can increase his comfort level and get used to being on the board.

Handle your Commands: Ensure your dog is comfortable with basic commands, such as “Sit” and “Stay.” It’s easy to see how these can come in handy when you’re in the middle of a river or lake and your dog starts getting antsy. You should also develop basic commands for SUP use only. “On,” “Off,” and “Jump” are great options for getting on the board, off the board, and jumping into the water to swim. Teach these commands with positive reinforcement like any other training. (You probably also want to practice a “Come” command, too, in case they head out too far!)

Get Comfy with the PFD: Let your dog practice wearing a life jacket on land for a little while, just for comfort purposes. Make sure it has a handle, so you can grab your pooch if you need to!

Give Her Some Traction: Give your pup better board traction by trimming her nails and the hair between her paw pads. Ideally, it helps to use a SUP with a built-in cushion mat, which makes standing a bit easier. Feel free to supplement with other non-slip traction appliques, available online and at marine stores—but in a pinch, spreading out a wet towel can do the job.

Tips for Your First Human-and-Dog Trip:

Practice Solo: Ideally, take a SUP out without your dog first, just to establish some basic comfort with it. That way, when you add in the additional (potentially rowdy) factor of your dog, you already have some confidence on the water. To increase balance and control, consider kneeling on your first adventure with your pooch.

Only One Pup: Some people feel comfortable bringing multiple dogs on their board, but keep it simple with one for now!

Keep it Short: Plan your first trip to be 30 minutes on the water so your dog can get a good first taste, but not get too tired or bored.

Easy On/Off: Choose a location that has easy water access such as a shoreline, ramp, or dock that is very close to the water. Easy access will make the best first experience for you and your dog.

Low-Key: Practice in calm, shallow waters with no rocks or hazards. Take your first trip on a low-wind day on a lake, or maybe a slow-moving, wide river or bay in shallow (3-4 feet deep) water. The calm waters are easiest for a dog to adjust to, and easiest for you to balance, paddle, and monitor. The shallowness will let you easily get on and off the board as needed to help your pup.

Gear: Don’t overpack. For your maiden voyage, just bring along the basics: sunscreen (for you and your dog—especially short-haired dogs), dry bag for your essentials, water, and water bowl. Don’t forget to bungee your gear to your board and bring along a few first aid supplies such as Band-Aids, an Ace bandage, antibacterial ointment for cuts, etc. 

End with a Treat: Use treats throughout the trip to reinforce training, and always reward your pooch at the end with a treat so they look forward to their next adventure!

Where to SUP:

If you need to rent a board, try out Boating in DC. As one of the only rental providers in the area that permits dogs and offers doggie life vests, it’s a solid choice for beginning paddlers. They have 8 locations throughout the DC metro, but only the ones below actually rent out SUPs. www.BoatinginDC.com

• The Wharf Boathouse

• Fletcher’s Boathouse

• Key Bridge Boathouse

• National Harbor

• Thompson Boat Center

If you already have a board, take a look at these possible SUP spots:

Pohick Bay: 10 miles South of Old Town Alexandria, off Rt. 1, easily accessible with parking, $5 Launch Fee, Park Entrance fee if not within jurisdiction: https://www.novaparks.com/parks/pohick-bay-regional-park

Belle Haven Marina: 1 mile south of Old Town Alexandria off the GW Parkway, $5 Launch Fee, easy access with parking. www.saildc.com/

Riverbend Park: Great Falls, 15 miles north of Old Town off the GW Parkway, $5 Launch Fee, easy access with parking. https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend/boating

Editor’s Note: Angela is not a professional SUP boarder—she’s a casual SUP enthusiast and dog lover. Always consult with an expert or experts if you have safety questions about SUP-ing, and please use caution when you’re on the water! It’s also good to check out the U.S. Coast Guard regulations for SUP-ing outside of a swimming or bathing area: https://www.nrs.com/learn/uscg-regulations-for-sup.asp.