What’s SUP?

Stand-up paddleboarding, the closest thing Colorado’s got to surfing, is easy to learn and great exercise


EASY-PEASY Paddleboarding is simple to learn; even kids and first-timers can get up on boards on their first try. Photo by Daniel Milchev/Vail Resorts

Even well into my adulthood, I held most of my birthday parties at Water World, the water park in Federal Heights. The surf simulator and those giant ice cream cookie sandwiches? Yeah, they made all my birthday wishes come true.

As my 32nd birthday approached, my mom posed a gentle question: “Maybe you want to do something different this year?” That was only fair. She had done her time in the lazy river … and then some.

So I decided to move the party to the Boulder Reservoir, where we rented paddle boards. That’s when I became hooked, and, for the past three years, I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of the sport. It’s my favorite way to spend a sunny day in Colorado or to explore a new city. (Still love you, Water World!)

Since my maiden paddleboard voyage, I’ve taken SUP racing lessons in Gulf Shores, Alabama; practiced paddleboard yoga in Ibiza, Spain; and gone dolphin watching on a board in Panama City Beach, Florida. Next, I want to try fishing from one. I’ve also heard of boot camp-style fitness classes on boards.

For the uninitiated, stand-up paddleboarding (or SUP) is just what it sounds like: standing up on an oversized surfboard and using a paddle to propel yourself through the water.

Tracing SUP’s origins gets a little convoluted, though. You could take it back to ancient times, when fishermen stood up in their vessels and paddled to get around. Or point to Hawaiian surfers paddle-boarding in the 1940s. Surf legend Laird Hamilton might deserve a hat tip, too, as he helped put the sport on the map in the early 2000s—training on paddleboards when the surf was down. In a column for “Men’s Journal,” he wrote: “Paddleboarding is like walking on water.” So, wait, do we credit Jesus?

Regardless, the sport has taken off. In 2010, 1.1 million Americans tried out paddleboarding, according to the American Canoe Association. That rose to 2.8 million by 2014, the last time the group published statistics, so it has probably made another spike since then.

Outdoorsy Coloradans seem to especially love it.

“It’s growing in popularity very quickly,” says Andrew Bohnenkamp, owner of 5280 Paddle Sports, which has multiple outposts, including Chatfield Reservoir, Barr Lake and Aurora Reservoir. “I think that’s because, unlike skiing or surfing, paddleboarding is easy to learn.” Beginner paddleboarders, he says, can stand up and paddle their first time on the water.

Plus, it’s a darn good workout, Bohnenkamp adds. If you’re in the proper stance—bending at your knees and at your waist—each stroke can feel like a crunch, he explains. (Not to mention the arm-toning paddle motions.) Most activity calculators figure you can burn in the neighborhood of 430 calories per hour while paddleboarding.

Bohnenkamp—who is from Colorado, but enjoyed surfing in Hawaii during his youth— started the paddleboard business with his wife; 5280 Paddle Sports is among several outfitters in Colorado that offer lessons, paddleboard rentals and special events, such as paddleboard yoga. (Board rentals vary, but on average run $20 an hour, or $30 for two hours. Want to buy a board? They typically start around $700, and can go up to $2,500.)

“Stand-up paddleboarding is the closest thing you can do to surfing in Colorado,” Bohnenkamp says. “Why not take advantage of the lakes and dams and reservoirs out here?”


FEELING FRISKY? You can rent a paddleboard at the Frisco Marina to paddle in the 3,300-acre Lake Dillon. Photo by Todd Powell

1. THE GRAVEL POND AT CHATFIELD RESERVOIR: Yes, you can paddleboard at the reservoir, but the gravel pond is a bit of a hidden gem. During the golden hours, the water almost twinkles in the sun and you’ve got stunning, panoramic views of Waterton Canyon. Bonus: Dogs are allowed and 5280 Paddle Sports has special boards you can rent to let your four-legged friend join you on the water. This is my favorite place to “doggy paddle” with my Boston terrier, who, by the way, knows we’re headed to the res as soon as his lifejacket comes out of the closet. (Even though most dogs intuitively know how to swim, it’s a good idea to put them in a lifejacket because they can tire or panic. Plus, some breeds have lower body fat, which makes it harder for them to swim, and older dogs may be prone to hip dysplasia, which can make swimming especially difficult.)

2. BOULDER RESERVOIR: The Flatirons are a beautiful backdrop at this 700-acre reservoir. Here, you can rent from Rocky Mountain Paddleboards, which also offers lessons and paddleboard yoga sessions. Once you’ve finished up on the paddleboard, spend the day lazing at the swim beach since you’ve already paid an entry fee to get into the reservoir.

3. DILLON RESERVOIR: A 75-mile drive from Denver, Frisco is an ideal day trip or weekend getaway. Rent a paddleboard from the Frisco Marina or a local outfitter and paddle in Dillon Reservoir. You’ve got some room to explore here, as the 3,300-acre lake boasts 25 miles of shoreline. Once you return your paddleboard, you can walk over to Frisco’s Main Street, a popular host for concerts and festivals in the summer.

SUP in style with these items


Hala Gear “Rival Travel” paddle, $189


Blue Planet “Easy” stand-up paddleboard, $1,249


Sea to Summit deck bag, $60


Olukai women’s “Nakue” water sandals, $85


Astral men’s “Loyak” water shoes, $85, at rei.com

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