Pass/Fail: SUP Into Camp

It’s just like backpacking, but with a paddleboard instead of boots. Right?

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saw the photos in a magazine— an adventurer atop a stand-up paddleboard, her pack strapped at her feet, cruising across a calm lake to a secluded campsite. The realization hit me at once: I love backpacking and I live in Hawaii, where you can rent paddleboards on every corner. I thought of all the coves and secret beaches that are tough or impossible to reach on foot. I could kayak out, sure, but SUPing—that would be a novel adventure.

So I marked off an upcoming weekend and took to the Internet for advice. I learned that the average paddler covers 3 to 5 miles per hour in calm conditions. I had SUPed a few times. I was average.

On Friday, I rented a board from a surf shop and set it out on my living room floor. Strewn around were the things I normally bring backpacking—about 30 pounds of gear (I’m no minimalist). Looking at it all next to the board, it was clear I would have to cut down. And, because my adventure would take place on the ocean and not a calm lake, I had to be precise with how I balanced my gear. The best thing to do, I read, was to forgo one big pack in favor of two smaller dry sacks lashed to the front and back of the board.

I opted for my lightweight hammock over a tent and exchanged my stove, gas canister, and pot for bread, cheese, and snack bars. I packed clothes, a filter, and other necessities into the two dry sacks, keeping the weight equal in each.

I arrived at the beach before sunrise. My goal was a seldom-visited cove I’d heard about from a friend, a few miles from the Papohaku Beach Park on the western end of Moloka’i. I dropped my board on the sand and lashed on my gear with bungee cords I’d gotten from the rental shop. The wind was blowing in toward the coast, creating plenty of chop, and there were 5-foot waves breaking onshore. This was not quite the pretty, magazine-ready scene I’d pictured.

Paddling out in the shallow surf proved impossible, so I swam next to the board and pushed it. Kicking with all my strength, I fought to get out far enough to go up and over the waves. Though my load looked light for backpacking, it felt cumbersome here—angry swells of whitewater repeatedly rushed over the gear-weighted nose of the board. By the time I made it past the break and clambered onto my board, my enthusiasm and energy had all but vanished. And I hadn’t even picked up the paddle yet.

Nevertheless, I persevered and faced into the wind and oncoming chop. I still felt a hint of excitement at the thought of my secluded camp, but mostly I felt apprehension—I –was past the break, but the open ocean was no better. The weight of the board and bags made travel sluggish in the headwind and current. I adjusted my stance farther back, but nothing could keep the nose out of the water. It was like trying to pull a sled up a muddy hill. I slogged forward then drifted back, over and over.

After 20 minutes of hard paddling, I turned around to gauge my progress. I could almost still see my footprints in the half-mile distant sand. I did the math. At this pace it would take me 10 hours to reach my destination—woefully longer than the two hours I had planned. What more torture could the ocean hold in store? I glanced back longingly at the beautifully solid, unmoving dry land.

I paddled on for another 10 minutes, trying to turn a corner around the coast in hopes that the wind would be calmer there. But it wasn’t, and where the two currents converged, the waves only got bigger. I went up a large swell, then plunged back down. The sudden motion threw me off balance and I fell into the water, limbs flailing. Spitting saltwater, I floated with my hands on the board, trying to catch my breath, watching the land go by in the wrong direction. I quietly mumbled a couple of four letter words.

In that moment, I realized what an awful time I was having. It was like hiking during an earthquake—no stable ground and never in rhythm, the ocean constantly attacking me, no moment to stop and appreciate nature. What was the point? I let the current turn my board around and started back for shore.

I dragged my gear onto the beach feeling utterly defeated. I hope to one day become a better paddler and try again to explore some of Hawaii’s isolated coves. But for now, I think it’s best that I keep backpacking and ocean SUPing separate. Turns out, the whole isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts. 

The Verdict: Fail

It’s one thing to paddle in a calm bay or lake—it’s another to tackle the ocean with a full load. Optimistic planning and lack of experience left me at the mercy of the high seas.

Skill: Learn to SUP Camp

Opt for calm waters.
Sharpen your skills on flat lakes and bays. When you’re ready to graduate to the open ocean, avoid windy days, and be prepared to swim.

Go ultra-ultralight.
Even the bare minimum will weigh down your board, making it hard to steer. Pack gear in compact, watertight bags, and keep balance in mind when lashing them to the attachment points on your board.

Overestimate distance.
Wind, current, and weather can significantly slow your pace. Your first overnight route should have ample camping options so you can bail early if necessary, but still spend the night out.

Hone your technique.
Stand centered on the board with your feet hip-width apart. For max efficiency, engage your core as you pull back. Keep your head up and gaze forward—looking down makes it hard to stay balanced.