I remember the first time my husband suggested stand-up paddleboarding on a river together. An innate fear that had been ingrained in my brain since I was a young girl fueled an automatic response—rivers are dangerous. Stick to lakes and close to shore in the sound. Growing up on an island in the Puget Sound, lakes and the quiet waters near shore at our local beaches were where my friends and I recreated on our paddleboards. The thought of going on a river terrified me. The moving water and unknown hazards, honestly the list was never-ending in my mind.
Fast forward to now, and my husband and I pack our summer with whitewater SUPing, as well as coaching and teaching women how to safely and confidently SUP on mellow rivers all over the Pacific Northwest. But over the past few years, we’ve found that SUP expeditions take river adventures to the next level and it’s easy to find routes for all skill levels.
If you like to SUP, explore and camp along truly breathtaking and scenic rivers, this type of trip could be right up your alley. Ready to plan your own adventure? Here are some of my top tips to make your expedition a success.
To self-support or boat support?
There are two ways to approach SUP overnighters. There’s the minimalist, backpacker style where—like backpacking—you fit everything you need into a couple of bags and strap those bags to your board. Paddlers should pack only what they need and leave the rest at home. Packing is methodical and weight distribution on the board is crucial. Not surprisingly, this style of overnighter can be restrictive. Think: freeze-dried meals, bagged wine (if you’re desperate) and most likely sleeping out on top of your board(s).
The other option is to have gear support from a raft, canoe, cataraft [insert larger watercraft here]. For the specific expeditions we lead, each person carries a waterproof duffel bag on the front of their boards packed with all their personal gear—clothing, sleep kit and tent. Everyone also has a small dry bag on their board, the “day purse” as I like to call it. I personally fill this with snacks for the day, sunscreen, a sun shirt, bug spray, camera and any other items I may need to use while paddling between campsites or going on hikes along our journey.
We then hire an outfitter to haul the rest of the expedition gear. All of the potable water, food, camp chairs, cooking supplies and anything else we may need that doesn’t fit into our bags is rigged on the raft or canoe.
For those who don’t want the expense of hiring an outfitter but have a crew that also rafts, including a raft on the trip drastically reduces weight—and consequence—on SUP expeditions. For smaller groups, you can even eliminate putting much overnight gear on your boards. In this case, consider trading off days or miles on the paddleboard to give the boater a break from the oars (or canoe paddle).
Not all paddleboards (or paddles) are created equal.
The difference between a day trip and an overnighter will be felt in your shoulders, in your legs, in your feet. If you’re investing time in SUP expeditions, do your body a favor and invest in boards and paddles designed specifically for longer trips.
We prefer to use river SUP boards on our expeditions and on our river adventures in general, or larger, wider all-around boards. We’ve found that board stability, as well as ease of maneuverability, are both key to a good experience on the river.
In terms of paddles, I always recommend purchasing a higher-end paddle, too. If you opted for an inflatable board package, the included paddle is rarely a premium one. Cheap paddles tend to be heavier with too much flex and little to no adjustability—but they’re a perfect option for a back-up paddle or to use when you’re just paddling for the day for fun.
Higher-end paddles are lighter, yet stiffer, which increases efficiency in your strokes letting you paddle farther and longer without feeling fatigued. Additionally, most premium paddles have a travel option that lets the paddle break down into two or three pieces so that you can travel with them.
Just as in almost every other sport, the right gear for the job is going to make your experience and your personal growth in that sport easier and more efficient in every possible way. A little extra investment goes a long way.
Bugs: They could be non-existent—or not.
No matter who you are, I’m pretty sure that you don’t like being eaten by mosquitos or bitten by flies—am I right? Bugs are in nature, as we all know, but sometimes, we avoid certain trips or experiences for fear of bugs. We’ve embarked on river SUP expeditions that have been almost entirely bug-free and others where rabid mosquitos appeared once the sun went down. My advice? Prepare for the worst. I strive to always use natural bug sprays and wipes that are safe for me and the environment around me, but sometimes, spray or wipes containing Deet are the best choice.
Another option if you want bug protection and UPF? Many fishing and outdoor clothing companies design apparel (sun shirts, pants, leggings) that have bug deterrents in them as well as high UPF ratings.
Pre-plan for a good night’s rest.
Okay, I’ll state the obvious—when you’re on a SUP expedition, you’re floating on a pretty good sleeping pad. For those who opted to self-support, sleeping on your board under the stars or a tarp, depending on the weather, is a great way to avoid packing a pad and tent. Even for raft-supports, if you’re comfortable sleeping without a tent, a paddleboard makes a great sleeping pad. Just release a little air and roll your sleeping bag out on top.
If you aren’t keen on sleeping ‘out,’ I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a good sleeping pad—it will change your life. Most of us have slept on sleeping pads that basically feel like you’re sleeping on the ground — and if you’re a side sleeper like me, your hip bones will never forgive you. I’ve found that getting a sleeping pad that’s made for your type of sleeping position, as well as one that gives you the level of comfort that you need, to get a good night’s rest is important to a great camping trip. Also, a sleeping bag that’s so cozy you can’t wait to crawl into it at night is also a must. Being as comfortable as you can while being in the outdoors is always a great investment.
For mid-summer or desert expeditions, I always pack a twin-sized cotton sheet. When it’s too hot to sleep in your sleeping bag, the top sheet gives you an ultralight layer of protection between you and the bugs—if you’re sleeping out—or a just enough insulation for when the temps dip at midnight.
Don’t make it just about the paddle.
Stand-up paddling a river canyon and challenging yourself through rapids is only part of the fun of SUP expeditions. Don’t forget to explore beyond the water. From hot springs to hikes with breathtaking vistas, settler ruins to Native American pictographs and petroglyphs, there’s always something more to see. Some of the most amazing hikes I have done were at the campsites we stayed at along our expedition routes.
On our Green River trip in Utah, my favorite campsite was 10-Mile Bottom. After setting up camp, we hiked up to the top of Frog Head and then continued until we reached the tallest butte in the area. The expansive canyon landscape and the river, a thin thread snaking its way through the desert, took our breath away.
Additionally, after standing and paddling all day, it feels great to work out your other muscles—or soak the fatigued ones.
Ready to plan your SUP expedition? Here are two of my favorite rivers.
The Missouri River in Montana and the Green River in Utah are my favorite rivers for SUP expeditions. Both rivers offer a mellow section that’s just under 50 river miles with great camps and side hikes along the way.
The Missouri River features mellow waters, wide open meadows, fields of sage, Montana mountainscapes and river-side rock formations. I recommend paddling it in the summer months when days are more likely to be warm with cooler evenings that are comfortable for all ages. We paddled the Missouri at the beginning of July and most days, we paddled in shorts and sun shirts but snuggled down in pants and fleece at dusk and dawn.
The Green River features the most spectacular rock walls, canyons and campsites that I have ever paddled through. The section we paddle, Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom, is very calm and slow, like the Missouri, so paddlers of all levels should be comfortable. I recommend paddling it in the end of summer (mid-August through mid-September), when temperatures tend to cool off a bit in the evenings and the days aren’t as scorching hot as they can be mid-summer. We spend a lot of time swimming and cooling off in the river on this trip.
Paddlers looking for a more leisurely trip can complete either river in four or five days paddling two to four hours a day. Or pack it into a weekend with a little more time on the board each day.
My last piece of advice? Even if you have never been on an expedition before, or stand-up paddled on a river before, know that you are capable of this type of adventure with the proper guidance and support.
Guest Contributor Shannon Mahre is a photographer, writer, guide and coach based out of Naches, WA. Through her company, Girls with Grit, she gives women the skills and confidence they need to tackle rivers (SUP + fly fishing), ski slopes, trails (mountain biking + trail running) and beyond. When she’s not spreading her love for the outdoors you’ll most likely find her adventuring with her husband and two young boys.
Editor’s Note: Interested in the Missouri River? Read a little about its history here, why you might not want to plan a trip in May or during the the ‘elbow season.’ Leaning toward the Green River? Read about an ultralight SUP trip on down Labyrinth Canyon.