December 02, 2021 10 min read

How to Paddle Board On Rivers

Man on a gray shirt paddle boarding on river

Paddle boarding on rivers is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have with your SUP. Imagine launching into the water, following the bends and flow, heading towards the unknown with each stroke. The variety of conditions keep you on your toes, testing your stand up paddle board skill with eddies and rapids.

Paddle boarding on rivers can be great fun and a pleasant experience for most! But at the same time, it can be dangerous and challenging in places. Safety should be the main priority whenever you take out your SUP, even more so when out on rivers.

The most fundamental principle of how to stay safe is quite simple: know your river and trust your gear. We’re here to give you the best advice to get started with a river SUP session. 

These top tips and tricks will not only help you stay safe but also make your paddling experience more fun! Whether you need to learn the specific river terms or know the best river SUP gear, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to clue up on how to best paddle board on rivers.

Preparing To Paddle Board On A River

Inflatable paddle boards with gears

Preparation is the key to success for everything in life. That includes paddle boarding on a river! You need to think about some key aspects:

  • Skill– are you capable of paddling on a river?
  • SUP and equipment– is your gear suitable for river paddle boarding?
  • Terrain – what are the water conditions along the river you plan to paddle? 

Reliable and solid gear is a necessity for any paddle boarding experience. You may already have a paddle board. Or perhaps you’re looking to buy a SUP. Maybe you’re still renting while you figure out if paddle boarding is for you. That’s fine! (We won’t judge!)

Some paddle boards are specifically designed with rivers in mind. So, if you know you’re going to paddle in rivers a lot, then consider buying a river-specific SUP to get the best out of your paddling.

There are some key differences between paddling on rivers and other bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans. You might need to modify your paddle board gear to be suitable for the terrain.

Skill For Paddle Boarding On Rivers

Unlike flat water lakes and calm bays in the ocean, paddling on rivers poses a different challenge. The water moves! 

Ok, sure, the water can move slowly, which is great for beginner paddle boarders. However, at times rivers can move fast, especially after heavy rainfall. Fast-moving water means less reaction time for the rider. You have to be confident and competent in your paddling skills to handle rough conditions and keep your balance as you navigate the river.

We recommend real beginners and first-time paddle boarders stick to the lakes or other calm waters. Once you’ve mastered balancing and your paddle stroke technique, then you can think about trying out a river. 

To begin with, you want to hit a gentle and meandering river. After you’ve got the feel of it, then take it up a level, maybe even trying out some white water rapids to simulate SUP surfing on the ocean waves. 

Inflatable Paddle Boards

three inflatable paddle boards on a river

Inflatable paddle boards are significantly better for paddling on a river than a hardboard. An inflatable SUP can handle rough terrain and conditions much better. Where epoxy fiberglass could crack and ding, good quality inflatable paddle boards bounce off rocks, roots, and other obstacles.

The best river SUP has a rounded nose at the front. This gives you more maneuverability when navigating the river. The middle section of the paddle board needs to be nice and wide: 30-32” is a typical all-rounder width that is suitable for most river paddle board activities. However, if you need extra stability for whitewater rapids, maybe consider 35” width.

Finally, you need to consider the rocker. This is the upward curve of the nose above the water. A steep rocker is good for choppier conditions, giving you more stability, but it reduces your overall speed.

The GILI Air Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Board is perfect for paddle boarding on rivers. The dimensions are ideal for users of any skill level, and the shape can handle the changing conditions found on rivers. 

River Fins

Fins are fundamental. 

For paddle boarding on rivers, you need to reduce the height of each fin, to avoid hazards in shallow waters, but still use three fins to provide good tracking. Shorter river fins, also called skegs, are much safer to use than your average nine inch center fin.

Need some help finding a set of river fins? We’ve got you covered. Here are two excellent choices made with the same quality and standard as all other GILI SUP gear:

Both of these fins are significantly shorter than the stock fins. These still give you the maneuverability, but you won’t scrape the riverbed as often.

Many river fins are flexible and have some degree of bend in them. This is highly desirable so you can avoid damage to your fin box and fin when going through really shallow waters or waters with a lot of debris.

Researching The Terrain

Rivers are different from lakes and oceans. You need to consider different hazards before launching your SUP, so researching the terrain is a MUST! 

Things you need to know include:

  • Launch and exit points
  • Speed the water is flowing
  • Calm water or rapids
  • Changes in the current (direction of water)
  • Eddies (a section of water moving in the opposite direction, usually caused by a rock underneath)
  • Forks in the river, directions you need to take
  • Water depth
  • Tree branches above or tree roots below
  • Wildlife 
  • Other boats and river users

At the end of the day, we all want to get back home safely. Preparation is key, so you don’t end up in a one-way paddle!

Stand Up Paddle Board Safety Equipment

Man and woman on inflatable stand up paddle boards

Staying safe on the water is our main prerogative. Some vital stand-up paddle board equipment can increase your safety and personal protection while paddling on rivers. Make sure your SUP gear includes the following kit.

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

PFDs, also known as life jackets, are incredibly important. In some states they are even mandatory! It’s recommended to wear a life jacket at all times when paddling down a river. You never know when you may fall off and end up needing one. 

There are different types of PFDs. The best life jackets for river paddle boarding are lightweight and non-restrictive, allowing you to paddle each stroke continuously. 

Dry Bag 

Dry bags are great at keeping your gear together and, of course, dry. Maybe you like to paddle with a towel, or perhaps you’ve got some snacks for those longer tours. Regardless of what you want to carry, a dry bag is the best way to go. 

Make sure you use bungee cords to secure your bag to the nose or tail of your board. You need to distribute weight evenly across the SUP to maintain stability while out on the water. 

Floating Keyrings

In addition to dry bags, a top tip for paddle boarding on rivers is to use a floating keyring, just in case your keys fall from your bag! 

Waterproof Phone Case

A waterproof phone case is a simple piece of kit that can help save the day. If you get into any trouble while paddle boarding rivers, you’ll need to be able to call for help. 

And what’s more, you can use a lanyard to keep your phone accessible around your neck, so you can also snap some shots for the IG grid along the way.

Appropriate Clothing

Make sure you dress appropriately for the weather, water temperature, and condition of the river. Paddle board clothing is an important and necessary step.

For calm rivers, you can dress as you would for lake paddle boarding. However, as things ramp up, you need to wear durable water shoes. These will help you avoid scrapes on sharp rocks, while also giving you a grip on slippery surfaces.

You may also want to use more advanced protective equipment, like helmets and pads. This is always recommended for whitewater paddle boarding to protect you from falling onto rocks.

SUP Leash

When paddling a river, we recommend NOT wearing a leash. In recent years, there have been fatalities of paddlers getting their leash caught underneath on a log, keeping their heads underwater. 

If you do decide to use a SUP leash, make sure it’s a coiled leash with a fast-release cuff so you can detach yourself from the board quickly in the event of an emergency.

Types of River Paddling

Rivers bend and curve, snaking across the landscape in a natural flow. Along the way, the course of the river can alter. It’s good to do a dry run reccy and prepare yourself for what’s up ahead before hitting the water.

There are three main types of river paddling you will encounter: 

  • Whitewater rapids
  • Calm and slow
  • Fast flowing

You may only experience one of these in a session, or you may get a taste of all three down one stretch of your chosen river. Stay alert and prepare well!

River Running Hazards

River between rocky mountains

As previously mentioned, rivers are a lot different from paddling in lakes or on the ocean. Sure, there are some crossovers and similarities. However, the hazards are particular when paddle boarding on rivers.


Rapids and eddies are caused by what lies beneath the water. Similar to breaking waves in the ocean, whitewater on rivers means shallow underneath. There are varying degrees of rapids, some you can easily navigate through or even surf! Talk to the locals and suss out what’s the best way to go. 

This is where inflatable paddle boards come into their element. The rigid bottom can handle bumping into rocks or fallen trees with little concern for damage. 


Just like any body of water, currents play a big role in paddling. Currents on rivers can be extremely strong, perhaps the main reason why some aren’t suitable to be paddled on.

Currents can push you in one direction with a force that's difficult to paddle against. It's important to always ask the locals or guides what the river is like and how it runs.

Also, consider the seasons. If you live in a place with a lot of large elevation changes, the spring can lead to stronger currents with heavier rainfalls.

Sweepers And Strainers

Sweepers and strainers are terms used by all paddlers, including kayakers and canoers. A sweeper is a low-hanging branch that can ‘sweep’ a paddler off the board. A strainer refers to any branches under the water that act like a ‘sieve’, keeping the paddler from passing through.


Depth varies from river to river. Some rivers are naturally shallow, while others are always deep enough for you to paddle in. Other times, river levels can vary between seasons and rainfall. 

There are some things you can do to help you with shallow waters, such as getting a board with a shorter fin. Always be sure to check with the locals.

Changing Tides

Not all rivers are tidal. But if your river is an estuary, or nearby to the ocean, the water levels will be tidal. Tides are important to consider because they can assist you as much as they can hinder you. Knowing how long you’re going to paddle allows you to optimize your paddling around the local tidal changes.

What To Do In An Emergency

Emergencies do happen. It doesn’t matter how good you are at paddle boarding, or how much you have prepared, accidents can happen. Another good thing to prepare is what to do in the event of an emergency. 

The first thing to do is to remain calm. Regardless of how severe the situation is, keeping a level head is important to any emergency. 

A PFD is an immediate response to a water emergency. Some inflate upon impact to water, while others need a manual tab pulling or are permanently buoyant. Helmets and pads are also another important part of PPE, providing immediate protection.

Keeping a phone in a waterproof pouch on your body is also a very good idea. This allows you to call for help if you lose your SUP and gear. 

Always make sure you tell someone on the land about your paddling plans. And what’s even better, take friends along for the adventure! Safety is always in numbers. 

Top Tips For River SUP Paddling

Man and his dog wearing life jackets on a paddle board

Need some top tips to get you started for river SUP paddling? Here are GILI’s top 10 tips and tricks to help you on the way.

  1. Check your equipment
  2. Check yourself
  3. Study the terrain
  4. Wear a PFD
  5. Take a phone
  6. Check the forecast in detail
  7. Local knowledge
  8. Paddle with a buddy
  9. Practice makes perfect
  10. Keep calm

Wrap Up: How To Paddle Board On Rivers

So there’s everything you need to know about how to paddle board on rivers! There’s nothing stopping you now. Remember to keep safe and have fun. Your river adventure is waiting for you! 


🏆 Can you SUP on a river?

Yes! You’ll have to make a few considerations: your ability, your knowledge of the river, and your gear. You will need the skill to turn quickly when on a river, and having adequate knowledge of the river’s characteristics will allow you to paddle safely. You can also buy river-specific gear to optimize the experience.

👍 How to paddle board on a river?

Paddle boarding on a river is essentially the same as paddling on the ocean or on a lake. However, rivers can have strong currents, debris, rocks, and other hazards that are not present in open waters. When planning to paddle a river, the key thing to do is to research the area and prepare your SUP gear accordingly.

🏝️ Is it hard to paddle board on a river?

Rivers vary in paddling difficulty. Some are extremely gentle and slow, ideal for beginner paddle boarding to learn the basics and master their balance. But then there are other rivers that pose more challenges, such as eddies and rapids, along with branches and debris. 

❓ Can you paddle board through rapids?

Yes, it is possible to paddle board through rapids and it’s best to use an iSUP. It’s always a good idea to check with the local riders how shallow the water is first. Some rapids simulate a similar experience to surfing waves in the ocean! 

Remember to prepare the correct gear. You will need river fins and a durable inflatable paddle board for the best combo. It’s also good to wear water shoes, a helmet, and maybe even pads for the best protection. 

📦 Am I ready to paddle board on rivers?

Rivers vary in difficulty, however, ideally you need to be able to keep your balance and turn the board sufficiently. Sweep turns and cross-bow turns are helpful to know. Being able to shift your weight around is also important should you need to turn sharply suddenly. Can you go from square to hybrid to surf stance? If yes, then you’re ready to get paddle boarding on rivers!

Abi Leach
Abi Leach

Surfer, paddle boarder, and ocean lover. She loves traveling and discovering new destinations all across the world. When she's not writing, she's exploring the outdoors and enjoying fresh air.

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