October 13, 2022 8 min read

Do you need to know how to swim to paddle board?

Parents helping their children to get on board

Paddle boarding is one of the hottest sports in the world at the moment. Just about everyone is getting involved, including the kids and dogs! But what about non-swimmers?

Even if you don’t swim, you may still appreciate the sense of adventure out on the water. A stand-up paddle board may just be the thing that allows you to join in with the fun with everyone else!

So if you are sitting on the beach asking the question, “do you need to know how to swim to paddle board?”, then make sure you read this Non-Swimmers SUP Guide. While being able to swim is advised in case of emergencies, there are ways you can learn paddle board basics and still stay safe even if you cannot swim. 

From water depths to the best locations, we have compiled all the important details to make paddle boarding accessible for non-swimmers. So if this is you, what are you waiting for? Grab your paddle, and your life jacket, and get out there for a SUP session! 

Water Depths For Paddle Boarding

Man paddle boarding in ocean

One of the biggest challenges for non-swimmers is the water depth. Deep waters can be scary for many people regardless of their swimming skills. While you can go shallower, there are some restrictions when it comes to paddle boarding. 

When you begin to paddle board rivers more, you will quickly get clued up on changing water depths and how you may need to adjust your technique. 

Shallow Water

10 - 20 inches

While shallow water may be good for getting your feet wet, it is not ideal for paddle boards. 

At 10” deep, the fins will be digging into the sand (or rocks, depending on where you are paddling). Beginners could start off in 20” of water, sitting or kneeling on the board, as they begin to get the feeling right. 

Paddle boarding in shallow water will feel safe for anyone nervous to go out of their depth. However, ankle-deep water is actually more dangerous than safe as you can easily twist your ankle falling off the board.

Waist Deep

30 inches

Waist deep waters, roughly 30”, are a safe depth to get out on a paddle board. Just be aware that the fins could still come into contact with seaweed depending on the location.

This is probably the most preferred water depth for non-swimmers to paddle board. It is important to learn how to fall off your SUP safely. There are two techniques:

  1. Starfish! This is by far the safest way to fall off a board. Simply fall backwards, away from your board and spread your limbs out like a starfish. This will soften your fall in the shallowest of waters and keep you away from getting hit by the board. 
  2. Slowly lower to the deck, hands-on each rail, and hop off the board with your feet together. A lower center of gravity and feet together will reduce the risk of twisting an ankle if the bottom is uneven.

Chest/Over Head Deep

40 - 50 inches

Chest deep and over headwaters makes for the best paddle board location and conditions. However, as you get out this deep, elements of swimming may be required if you fall off your SUP. 

When you start paddling out this far, it is important to remember that your SUP is your main floatation device and your lifeline in case you fall in. Try to remain calm and maintain your balance. Our GILI inflatable paddle boards are great under these conditions as they are super stable under foot.

Deep Water

60 - 70+ inches

The opportunity to paddle in deep water could arise off the coast or on a large lake. It is generally advised that stand-up paddle boarding in deep water is reserved for those that are comfortable swimming. While there is gear to keep you safe, like PFDs or SUP leashes, these can fail and it’s important that the paddler can keep themselves safe until help arrives.

If you are a non-swimmer, we do not recommend you take on the challenge of paddle boarding in deep water.

Dangers and Risks For Non-Swimmer Paddle Boarders

Man paddle boarding on ocean with currents and rips

Besides varying water depths, there are other points of concern non-swimmer paddle boarders need to be aware of in order to stay safe while out on the water. 

  • Currents and rips – if you are taking the SUP out on the beach then you may come across currents/rips. These are nothing to be afraid of. A current is just the point where water is returning back out to sea after coming in as a wave. Make sure you know what to do if you get caught in a rip on your SUP.
  • Other people– be conscious of other people out in the water with you.
  • Rocks and underwater hazards– as a non-swimmer, you are more likely to stick to shallower water. Just be careful of what is under the water before you jump off.
  • Wind and weather conditions– this is a danger/risk for every paddle boarder. However, a non-swimmer should be extra conscious of gusty winds as this could lead to a loss of balance. 
  • Sun and heat exposure– prepare yourself on a SUP experience for sun protection. Chances are you won’t be jumping in the water to cool down mid-paddle, so be sure to have enough water on board to stay cool as well as hydrated.

Best Locations For Non-Swimmers To Practice Paddle Boarding

Weak swimmers and non-swimmers don’t have to sit on the sand all the time. Make sure you choose the best location possible and you may just find yourself feeling the urge to give paddle boarding a try.

In our opinion, the best paddle boarding locations for those that do not swim need to tick some of these boxes:

  • Safe and easy launch and exit point
  • Calm waters
  • Sandy bottom
  • No rocks
  • Gradual water depth
  • Not crowded
  • Lifeguard on duty

Interested in discovering new places to paddle board near you? Check out our SUP location guides!

Best SUP Gear For Non-Swimmers

Man wearing a life jacket carrying his inflatable paddle board

If you do not know how to swim, then you should consider adding some key pieces of safety equipment into your kit bag. 

Beginner Paddle Boards

To stay safe in the water, we recommend sticking to using beginner paddle boards if you are not comfortable swimming. 

This is not to say you cannot improve your SUP experience level if you cannot swim. It is just that beginner SUPs are wider and more stable, therefore reducing the risk of you falling in and panicking. 

SUP Leash

An ankle leash is an important piece of equipment regardless of your swimming capabilities. In case of the event that you fall in, the SUP leash will keep you attached to your board and stop it from drifting away. 

If you do fall in, then you will not have to swim to catch your SUP. You just need to pull on the SUP leash and the board will come to you!

Life Jacket

A PFD – a personal floatation device – is highly recommended for anyone that is nervous in water but still wants to enjoy paddle boarding. A life jacket will help you stay afloat if you did fall into the water and could not retrieve your SUP. 

The best life jackets for paddle boarding are non-restrictive and lightweight. Most are brightly colored, or have a flashlight attached to them, to help with visibility if you require a rescue in a worst-case scenario. They should also be fitted out with an emergency whistle to help gain attention if needed. 

5 Top Tips For Non-Swimmers Who Want To Learn How To Paddle Board

Woman paddle boarding on lake

Here are some top tips for non-swimmers who want to learn how to paddle board besides getting some basic swimming skills under their belt.

  1. Learn how to tread water
  2. Take a paddle board lesson with a qualified instructor
  3. Master your SUP technique and balance
  4. Remain calm if you do fall in 
  5. Remember to breathe

Treading Water

Treading water is a simple swimming technique that could help save your life if you get caught in a sticky situation in deep water. 

Keep your body upright in the water with your head high and looking out to the horizon if possible. You then need to move your arms back and forth horizontally to keep your upper body afloat. Your legs need to move around in a circular motion and keep your feet stiff for best results.

SUP Lessons

Most outfitters require a prerequisite that you have to have basic swimming skills to rent a SUP. However, some may offer beginner lessons for those nervous in the water and who are not strong swimmers. 

If you take a SUP lesson, be sure to let the instructor know about your swimming skill level so they can keep an eye on you throughout the lesson. 

Final Thoughts: Do You Need To Know How To Swim To Paddle Board?

While it is possible to paddle board as a non-swimmer, we do highly recommend you get some basic level of swimming in before heading out on an epic SUP adventure. If you plan to stay in the shallows and are comfortable with waist-deep water, then there is nothing stopping you from joining in with some of the fun!


🏆 Can you stand up paddle board if you can't swim?

Yes, you can stand up paddle board even if you cannot swim. However, it is highly recommended that you can swim at least 50 meters unassisted for safety purposes. If you are joining a group lesson, make sure you inform the instructor about your swimming skills.

👍 What is the safest method to learn how to paddle board if you can not swim?

Ensure you have all the correct equipment and safety gear before heading out on the water. Start off in shallow water to waist deep and begin with paddling from your knees to get a feel for how to balance on the SUP. We recommend you take a SUP lesson to learn the basic skills.

🏝️ Do I have to wear a life jacket while paddle boarding if I cannot swim?

Life jackets are highly recommended for non-swimmer paddle boarders. In some locations, PFDs are a legal requirement, even for strong swimmers. A life jacket is one of the most important pieces of equipment for non-swimmers.

❓ What is the best stand-up paddle board for beginners that cannot swim?

The SUP board needs to be wide and stable for beginners that cannot swim. The bigger the board, the more comfortable you will feel paddling. The GILI Air Inflatable Paddle Board is a great option for beginners.

📦 Do you need lessons to use a paddle board?

Lessons are advised for beginners to learn the proper technique with a qualified instructor. Taking lessons will avoid you from picking up bad habits. It is also the safest way to get out on the water and feel safe if you are nervous.

📦 Do you have to be strong to paddle board?

Paddle boarding requires a certain degree of strength in the upper body. However, you do not need to be the strongest person in the world to be able to paddle yourself across calm waters.

📦 Can you paddle board in shallow water?

Shallow water can be dangerous to paddle board. Anything shallower than waist-deep could lead to twisted ankles or dangers of hitting the bottom if you fall in. The best water depth for people who don’t want to go out of their depth while paddle boarding is waist to chest high.

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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