My wife and I were a couple of hours into our 50-mile self-support SUP trip when we passed small, flat-nosed skiffs zooming up and down each side of the river, their wakes bobbing us gently on the flat water. Shirtless bros or cammo-clad dads gripped the tillers, slowing down and flashing a quick wave as they passed us. We were paddling the Congaree River Blue Trail, starting in Columbia, South Carolina and taking out just past Congaree National Park, about 25 air miles from the city. It was Chrissy’s first self-supported SUP trip and I knew it had to go pretty well if there was any chance of us doing another one together.
Chrissy is a seasoned camper and a good paddler, but she’s not especially hard-core. She doesn’t want or need to be. She loves being active outside and can handle long days and inclement weather without complaint, but alpine starts, 14-hour slogs or sufferfests aren’t her bag. Who can blame her for wanting to relax and enjoy a second cup of coffee in a gorgeous backcountry campsite? I, on the other hand, love Type Two fun and even a bit of Type Three. But after ten years of marriage and countless misadventures, I’ve learned a thing or two about striking the right balance when planning our joint adventures. I’ve also learned a lot about travelling on a standup paddleboard for several days at a time.
Our trip started in a gravel parking lot. I parked near the ramp, and although it was still morning, the sultry southern air felt thick and hot when we stepped out of the rental car. I popped the rear door and stared at the mounds of gear I was supposed to pack into six medium-sized dry bags. I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead and started untangling the brightly colored equipment.
I humped the inflatable boards to the grass where there was a thin strip of shade. Chrissy grabbed the small pump and threaded it onto the Earl’s valve. I returned to the car and stood for a moment, staring indecisively at the pile. Where to start first?
Know your gear and leave most of it at home.
Multi-day, self-supported standup trips are totally doable—if you change your mindset from paddling to backpacking. Don’t skip the essentials (enough water or a filter, first aid kit, emergency fire starter, dry clothes, etc), but do pack as light and efficient as possible. Think like a thru-hiker, not a rafter.
This means dehydrated backpacker meals not frozen steaks or sausages, a barely there backpacking stove instead of the trusty Coleman two burner, instant coffee and not the French Press, a small flask of whiskey and not a cooler of beer. All easy choices, but different from how you might approach a canoe or raft trip.
I started with the essentials: food, tent, stove, cookset, sleeping kits, clothes, carefully checking and rechecking that I packed each item. If you’re relying on backpacker meals and you forget the stove fuel, it’s going to be a long trip. Once I had those packed, I briefly considered other items before realizing we didn’t need an extra pair of shoes or a cotton sweatshirt, despite how nice they might be in camp.
For this trip, we’d brought our inflatable standup paddleboards, a NRS Czar for Chrissy and the NRS Earl for me, both six inches thick for maximum gear-hauling capabilities while still keeping the deck out of the water. We rented paddles, and could have rented hard boards, but we were familiar with the inflatables. They fit in our checked luggage and were already rigged to tie down our gear. I knew that they’d ride high enough in the water for us to stay dry and that they were long enough to be efficient, yet stable enough for long days on the water. In short, I knew the boards and how they performed. The shop’s boards may have worked out great, but I didn’t want to risk it and was happy to save some cash by bringing the boards we owned, used and knew.
The sun was low in the horizon and we guessed we had about an hour and a half of light left when we pulled off the river that first night. Wordlessly, we each tackled our self-assigned camp chores: Chrissy pitching the tent and pulling out sleeping bags and pads, while I started boiling water for dinner and organizing gear for the night.
It had been a full and exciting day, complete with a couple of heart-racing moments (like when I realized I forgot a lighter for the stove but then remembered I had plenty of safety matches in the first aid kit) but not an epic day by any means. We had indulged in a long lunch in the shade with a swim afterwards. In the late afternoon, I had paddled over to Chrissy, dropped to my butt and stretched out my legs, resting them on her board. For nearly an hour, our flotilla of two swirled in the current letting the river do the work.
A hoot owl called from the far side of the river, breaking my reverie. I pulled a sleeping-pad-chair-converter out of the dry bag and wandered over to the tent in search of the pad. Chrissy looked up. “Oh you brought my chair,” she exclaimed, smiling. “That’s awesome.”
We lounged contentedly as we waited for our rehydrated meals to cool. Golden sunlight cast long shadows on the soft sand and peepers and bullfrogs started to sign their evening chorus. Tentatively at first, but then without abandon, we shoved sporkfuls of still-hot shepherd’s pie and vegetarian chili into our mouths. By the time Orion and the Big Dipper appeared in the inky sky, we had sealed our empty meal pouches and retreated into our tent to drift to sleep as lightning bugs flashed for mates in the distance.
At the end of the day, it is a vacation.
Yes, it’s an adventure. But it’s also a vacation. Yes, it’s going to be active and outdoors, but at the end of the day it’s still a time to relax and chill out. Maybe spending 10 hours standing on a paddleboard is the way you recharge, but for someone else, that may be four hours too long. Be honest with your partner (and yourself) about what you think each day will be like.
On this trip, I planned to do 50 miles in three days. It was a lot, borderline too much, but I had done enough research to know that we’d be able to pull it off. I also knew the second day was going to be the longest, and I communicated that to Chrissy. We could have made more progress that first day, but it wasn’t worth it. Relaxed but steady progress was the right call. Pulling off the river well before dark so that we could take an extra 30 minutes to chill out was a no-brainer. So was packing Chrissy’s camp chair, an amenity we bring even when we’re traveling light.
“Y’all are doing what?” The pontoon boat pulled up next to us, slowing to an idle in the late afternoon heat. The driver wasn’t quite sure what to make of the couple on two paddleboards, colorful dry bags ballooning from the bows and sterns. “All the way to the 601 bridge? Man, that’s something.”
“Well, we’re camping for two nights and taking our time.”
“Y’all got a gun? You better watch out for alligators out there in the swamp. And bug spray. Ya’ll got bug spray? The mosquitoes are thick out there.”
“Thanks. We don’t have a gun. We’ll be careful.” I smiled and bent into my paddle stroke, anxious to make some more progress and get out of earshot of this erstwhile provider of unsolicited advice. I hoped Chrissy hadn’t heard him. She had.
“I thought you said there weren’t any alligators on this river,” she said curtly a few moments later.
Do your research…then do more.
One way to ramp up the fun quotient for the more experienced half of the party while making sure everyone can enjoy the trip is to go somewhere new. That way, everyone is getting a new experience, and no one is bored because they did the same stretch the summer before. But, getting good beta is key to this strategy.
For our trip, I picked a blue trail that had been established ten years ago. Enough time for the local community to get used to paddlers on the river, but not so much time that campsites would be full every night. Designated trips (like blue trails or marine trails) also tend to have more of a presence on the Internet, and local shops usually have trail-specific info readily available. In this case, the shop that coordinated our shuttle and rented us paddles offered a free waterproof map that proved super helpful.
I spoke with the shop guys twice, picking their collective brains about the trip, the state of the river and any key safety concerns. I knew the paddling itself wasn’t going to be especially exciting—all flatwater—but learning about the river, the watershed, the wildlife we’d see increased my overall enjoyment of the trip. Yes, I did ask about alligators. No, we did not see any.
As our second day started to wind down, dark clouds made it seem later than my watch showed. My hands were sore and my feet ached. I clumsily stepped off the board onto the muddy bank. The thin strip of muck that extended from the dark, impenetrable vegetation to the river’s edge didn’t seem an ideal place for camp.
“Let’s head downstream another five or ten minutes and see if there’ s a better option. Have you figured out where we are?” Chrissy asked, her voice tired but lacking any anger or resentment.
Our GPS was tracking time but stuck on our previous location. We slipped through the mud and stepped back onto the boards. The rain had stopped, but we could still hear the low rumble of distant thunder. I recalled the shop owner’s counsel that we couldn’t go too far on this second day or we’d run out of sand bars for camping and either have to scramble up the ten-foot bank into the forest or paddle all the way to the takeout.
We stopped again a few minutes further but deemed that campsite a bad option as well. Still on shore and racing the gathering darkness, I rebooted the GPS app on my phone. Finally, the location icon moved from where it had been frozen and I matched our location to the map.
“Phone’s working,” I called out to Chrissy just down shore. “I think there are two more sand bars down stream, and then we’re out of luck.”
The next bar proved spacious and flat and we gratefully pulled the boards up on the sand. In moments, we’d donned headlamps and fell into our well-choreographed campsite dance. It had been a long day: nine hours of paddling split by two hours of hiking through Congaree National Park. As we drifted into a well-deserved slumber, the rain began in earnest. Two hours later, we held each other as the most intense lightning storm either of us had ever experienced raged around us. The tent leaked. The wind whipped the rain into a tempest; lightning and thunder roared continuously. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
There will be challenges.
Of course we’d checked the weather prior to embarking. And we even had cell service, so I’d been able to get updates during the trip itself. But for the past 15 years, we’d been living in the northern Rockies, where thunderstorms move quickly and don’t build to such ferocious intensity. We knew that storms were forecasted but what materialized was legitimately scary.
Fortunately, we survived. But the storm made the trip seem far more intense and adventurous. And it gave us an experience on which to reflect and learn from. The following day, we talked through the evening and tried to assess what, if anything, we could have done differently.
My swimsuit was still drying after our quick post-lunch dip. We’d only been paddling a few hours, but the warm sunshine and the lush riverbank vegetation still felt exotic and welcomed after the long Montana winter. We paddled steadily, but not hard, still getting a feel for the river.
A couple of skiffs came up the far side, giving us wide berth on the 150-yard-wide river. I watched them absentmindedly as they cut small wakes through the slow-moving water. My attention drifted for a moment until I heard a loud thunk, someone shout “Ohhh, fuck,” and a splash.
My head snapped up. One of the skiffs was driving erratically, careening across the left side of the river without a driver, still going full throttle but without anyone holding on to the tiller. I looked for Chrissy and saw her just a few strokes behind me. We furiously paddled to shore, which was only twenty feet away or so, but thick vegetation made it difficult, if not impossible to actually reach land.
Meanwhile, the boat was circling in tighter donuts, running full throttle and taking on a bit of water every couple of laps. By now, the first boat had realized what was happening, turned back, and in a fit of confused indecision, plucked the ejected driver from his precarious situation in the water. But they couldn’t figure out how to stop the donutting skiff.
Progress felt imperceptibly slow, but a few strokes helped distance us from the mayhem. In what seemed like a half hour, but was probably three minutes, the boat throttled down and came to a stop, sitting low in the river. The driver climbed back in and started bailing as his two buddies made their way over to us.
Don’t get complacent just because the paddling is easy.
Even the most placid lake or river can turn dangerous in a moment, and standup paddleboards aren’t the most maneuverable craft, especially laden with gear and drinking water. Add in people and motors and things can get exciting fast.
I was glad that Chrissy and I were close together, allowing easy communication and coordination, something to consider on long trips when it’s easy to drift apart. I had paid special attention to gear placement, making sure that the weight we were carrying was evenly distributed bow to stern. That way, we wouldn’t be fighting the current, which wants to put the heavier end of a boat downstream. Having our gear well balanced, keeping close for easy communication and paddling deliberately and carefully helped keep the situation funny and not tragic.
Fat raindrops pelted us. Daytime lightning flashed through the dark clouds and rumbling thunder rolled across the river. We’d weathered worse the day before and with takeout just around the next bend, we bent into our paddles, anxious to be done with the rain and the wind and the storms. We were tired, soaked, dirty and beyond ready for a beer and a shower when the bridge finally appeared through the driving rain. But we were also confident, strong and connected—to the river and each other—in ways we hadn’t been three days prior. In other words, we were perfect.