Two expert paddleboarders share their advice on the skills you need before taking to open waters and how to pack for SUP expeditions.
You don’t have to be an advanced paddler to learn from the experiences of Norm Hann and Bruce Kirkby. The duo has accumulated years of experience on the water — in sea kayaks and on standup paddleboards.
Whether you’re interested in taking your SUP skills to the next level or want gear advice for multiday paddleboarding trips, Hann and Kirkby gave us a lot of tips to start you down the right path.
And because they’re both Mustang Survival ambassadors, they told us some of their favorite pieces from the brand to wear during their trips.
SUP expeditions are for skilled paddlers who want to enjoy touring remote and hard-to-reach shorelines. It’s not something you just jump into, but learning the ropes on calmer waters is still a fun way to explore lakes and calmer waterways.
Both Hann and Kirkby have taken several expeditions and brought along guests to share in the fun. From their own trips and as SUP instructors, they let us in on some ways to quickly build confidence in your skills — and some packing pitfalls to avoid on multiday trips.
Why Standup Paddleboarding?
Kirkby is a veteran of all expeditions on water, up the tallest peaks, and across harsh landscapes. But he turns to SUPs to get a workout and clear his mind.
“What I found with standup paddling is that there’s this micro kind of proprioception of balance that allows so many of the other worldly things to fade away,” Kirkby said.
He also cites the improved view of the water, fish, and other wildlife when you stand above the water. Another perk is that SUPs are a travel-friendly option, as even inland towns often have lakes to paddle on.
The Deep End
Progressing from flatwater lakes to open seas is not something you can learn overnight. In short, you need to improve your paddling and your sea navigation knowledge, which is learned over time.
Hann and Kirkby came to standup paddling with decades of experience sea kayaking, working on the coast, and guiding expeditions in environments where currents and weather can rapidly change.
There are a lot of decision-making and navigation skills required to safely venture into big waters. Both paddlers got certified as sea kayakers and continue to pass on that knowledge.
“I would like to see people get better training, especially from a safety standpoint,” Hann said.
While you’re learning that, you can make quicker progress on your paddling skills. Hann recommends taking a class to work on things like footwork and forward stroke techniques before moving to larger lakes or rivers. Hann teaches a range of SUP courses for beginner paddlers to paddling guides.
From there, there are several river skills courses and certifications that should be the next step. Below, we go through how Hann and Kirkby pack for longer trips, which you can apply to your own multiday trip around a chain of lakes or down a river.
SUP Expedition: A Systems Approach
Hann and Kirkby take a systems approach to packing for a long paddling trip.
They tend to sort gear by its purpose, so paddling clothes are isolated from paddling equipment and safety equipment, and then camping gear and apparel are packed on their own. Likewise, food and water supplies, which are heavy, are packed separately.
For around camp, they pack as many synthetic clothes as they can because they don’t hold moisture like natural materials. The duo also packs rain jackets and pants because, once they’re on land, the goal is to remain dry.
The communications and navigation equipment are pretty straightforward, though Hann and Kirkby were adamant that you shouldn’t skimp on first-aid or repair kits. The remote locations mean you’ll need the gear and know-how to take care of yourself and your board.
What to Wear
Clothing is a big part of these experts’ system, and choosing layers is a balancing act of factors like comfort, safety, and breathability.
“It’s one of the biggest misses in our industry right now,” Hann said. “You see people either paddling in just board shorts and T-shirts or people ask about wetsuits and drysuits.”
Standup paddleboarding differs from kayaking in that you’re going to get out of the water and back onto the board quicker. You need clothes to offer some protection in case you get wet or cooler weather kicks in; yet, the wetsuits or drysuits can be cumbersome and also cause you to overheat.
As part of risk assessment based on their own skills and training, Hann and Kirkby bring drysuits for extreme cases (and rough conditions) along the Canadian coast they call home. However, they stick with their time-tested layering system most of the time.
Hann and Kirkby wear surf-ski gear that offers some protection if they get wet without it being too prohibitive. With board shorts and a surf-ski layer working as a base, they keep a Mustang Survival hooded midlayer similar to this one and a rain jacket close by.
Keep your dry clothes dry and your wet clothes wet.
Kirkby described a common scenario he advises against, especially on long trips: “People wake up in the morning, their paddle clothes are wet, and maybe it’s chilly around camp, so they put on a layer of dry clothes. Sometimes they even leave them on underneath the wetsuits.”
By the end of a 5-day trip, their dry bag is empty and their wet clothes bag is full, he explained. “It’s crucial to delineate in your mind what you’re going to wear when you paddle and what you’ll wear when you camp. And those two don’t mix,” Kirkby continued.
That means changing out of your dry camping clothes and into your still-wet clothes before you get back on the water. We hear coffee helps, too.
While you build up skills for paddleboarding on larger bodies of water, this gear can help you stay comfortable longer so you can focus on the water and your surroundings.
A waterproof YKK AQUASEAL access zipper is the star and gatekeeper of this 35L deck bag. The bag’s walls are made from waterproof 420D Hypalon fabric, and its seams are fully welded.
Mustang Survival designed it with a rectangular shape so it would lie flat on your board. And it comes with tie-downs around the edges to help stow it. Lastly, there’s a removable shoulder strap for carrying while off the board.
“They’re incredible dek bags that have kind of revolutionized how we paddle,” Kirkby said. “They have an amazing zipper on them.”
Mustang Survival went with a dual flotation system that blends the security foam with the slim profile of an inflatable. That should keep the weight down and allow room for paddling. It uses an over-the-head entry and has adjustable shoulder and waist straps designed to give it a close-to-body fit. The vest has attachment points for a knife, strobe, or other gear.
The brand says this PFD can be rearmed by squeezing air out of the inflation cell and adding a new CO2 cylinder, which can be stored in the front pocket. When inflated, it provides 20.5 pounds of dual buoyancy.
The three-layer Hudson Dry Suit is made from waterproof-breathable Marinespec BP fabric and uses neoprene cuffs, waterproof zippers, and a Closed Comfort System (CCS) neck seal to keep water from coming in elsewhere.
It has reinforced sock soles and is shaped with articulated knees, which include removable knee pads and adjustable tabs for keeping them in place. Inside, the suit has suspenders to balance its weight.
While they don’t go on expeditions that could use these, both Kirkby and Hann wear them closer to home. Kirkby wears a Hudson in the spring and fall. He said it helps him extend his paddling for another 6 weeks in each season. Kirkby praised the suit’s warmth and the ease of getting in and out of it.
“The brushed fabric for the neck gasket — oh man, that is just money,” Hann said.
Callan Waterproof Pants & Shorts
Callan pants and shorts are made from seam-sealed three-layer Marinespec MP fabric to make them waterproof. They use four-way stretch and articulated knees (in the pant) and an adjustable hem. The reinforced seat, knees, and cuffs are abrasion-resistant.
But at first, Kirkby didn’t get it. What’s the big idea with waterproof shorts?
“It just didn’t make sense,” he said. “But you sit on wet logs, you sit on the beach, they block the wind. I’ve used them a ton.”
Save Room for Cushy Gear and Souvenirs
Modern gear is good enough that weight concerns don’t require counting grams. In fact, on SUP trips, the duo usually brings three dromedary bags that weigh about 20 pounds each.
So, we asked about any special luxuries or good luck charms they like to pack.
“The first time me and [Hann] went on a trip, he reached into his bag after he’d set up a tent and pulled out this pillow. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I just stuff up my jacket. And then I watched him with it the whole trip,” Kirkby laughed. “And it scrunches up so small. I’m a convert.”
Hann can find room to fit more than just a pillow, though.
“Where I tend to bring weight is with rocks,” he said. “And I always like bringing treasures back for my son … Out at the Helen Islands, there was a nice, really cool-looking rock. For all the weight savings of the little pillow and puffy jackets, I sort of blow it all when I grab a 20-pound rock.”