What are Paddle Sports?
Anytime you’re in water and participating in a sport that involves a paddling motion to propel a vessel, you’re doing a Paddle Sport. The most well-known types of Paddle Sports are Kayaking and Canoeing. However, there are many other Paddle Sports. Some of them you may have heard of and others maybe not. For now, let’s reference Wikipedia to give us a clear definition of what a Paddle Sport is before we discuss the various types of Paddle Sports.
“Paddling with regard to watercraft is the act of manually propelling a boat using a paddle. The paddle, which consists of one or two blades joined to a shaft, is also used to steer the vessel. The paddle is not connected to the boat (unlike in rowing where the oar is connected to the boat).”
Why do Paddle Sports?
According to statistics Paddle Sports are on the rise in popularity over the last 5 to 10 years. However, aside from their recent increase in acclaim, there are lots of reasons to get out on the water.
If you enjoy the outdoors and you dabble in endurance sports, then the first time you do any form of Paddle Sport you’re going to wonder why you haven’t always partaken in them. They offer great low-impact cardiovascular benefits, engage your upper body and core muscle groups, and are easily adaptable for all fitness levels and ages.
If none of that appeals to you, then perhaps the thought of a day out on the river with a group of friends may sound more appealing. The group of you are just floating down the river, stopping periodically to swim, and if you get lucky you all may even find a rope swing. You’re just hanging out on a sandbar, sitting on the back of your boat, enjoying a sack lunch and your favorite “refreshment,” and all while watching one of your best friends fall off the rope swing and complete probably the greatest belly flop you’ve ever seen. If that doesn’t sound like a story you’ll all sit around a campfire and laugh about later, I don’t know what does.
Regardless of which group you fall into and above all else, Paddle Sports give you the ability to connect with the outdoors in a whole new way. So, find a local outfitter near you, rent some gear, and spend a day outdoors on the water.
“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” – John Muir
“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” – Michael Caine
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” – Loren Eiseley
Table of Contents
This list outlines some types of paddle sports that you may or may not have heard of, or perhaps you just know them by a different name? The list is certainly not definitive, just a guide to help paddlers (and future paddlers) understand the full breadth of paddle sports scenes that are available to them.
Types of Paddle Sports
- Standup Paddleboarding
- Dragon Boat Racing
Canoeing is an age-old sport that has been used for transportation, fishing, hunting, sport, and in more modern times recreation. Surprisingly, not much has changed about the design of a canoe over the thousands of years that they’ve been used. For a comprehensive explanation of Canoeing, the various types, and all that it entails, you can check out our Types of Canoeing page.
Kayaking is a watersport that involves paddling using a double-bladed oar and a small boat known as a kayak. Depending on where you’re going, you can get different types of kayaks to fit the environment and the obstacles you’ll be facing. For a comprehensive explanation of Kayaking, the various types, and all that it entails, you can check out our Types of Kayaking page.
“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” – Lynn Culbreath Noel
Based on the definition of Paddle Sports used above, Rowing probably shouldn’t be included on this page. That mostly stems from Paddle Sport purists that claim oars are not paddles. However, I wanted to make sure Rowing was included on this site and this seemed like the most logical place to put it.
Really and truly Rowing could probably have a page all to itself like Kayaking and Canoeing. However, at this time I’m going to refrain and just try to cover it here for now. However, in the future, that may change, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Now, with no further stalling, Rowing.
The main thing that separates Rowing from all these other types of paddle sports is that traditionally you are sitting and facing backward in the boat as you propel the vessel. The other difference is that Rowing is typically only done for the sport. Generally speaking, people just don’t have rowboats laying on the shore of their property to take out fishing or a leisurely stroll out on the lake. That just seems to be a picture from a forgotten yesteryear.
Rowing does come in many different forms. A few examples of various types of Rowing include but are certainly not limited to Surfboat Rowing, Sweep Rowing, Sculling Rowing, Coastal (Offshore) Rowing, and Ocean Rowing. If you’re curious to learn more about Rowing as a sport or just in general, then a good place to start is by checking out the information Wikipedia has documented. I’ve included the link below if you want to check it out.
The sport of Paddleboarding has really taken off over the last decade. Formerly, you would usually only see people out Paddleboarding if you’re on vacation or you live near a beach. However, these days you’ll see people with a paddleboard strapped to the top of their vehicle in a landlocked state headed to the lake. Whereas people used to walk into an outdoor shop and say, “What is that?” Now, people are using paddleboards for all types of recreation. Paddleboarding has an appeal that is backed by the relaxing nature of the sport.
There are a couple of different types of Paddleboarding. The version most people recognize is Standup Paddleboarding, which is covered in the next section. However, here we think of Paddleboarding as propelling your paddleboard with a swimming motion while lying on the board or kneeling with a paddle and paddling to move the paddleboard. Champion paddlers can stroke for hours and a 20-mile (32 km) race is only a warm-up for well-trained paddlers.
People of all ages, shapes, and sizes are learning to paddleboard in just a few hours with proper instruction. Not only is Paddleboarding easy to learn but it’s fun, gets you outside, and is a great workout. There’s a very minimal level of balance and skill required as long as you’ve taken the time to pick out the right paddleboard. Then, before you know it, you’ll be cruising along on an evening paddle, catching an incoming swell, or competing in a local race. Paddleboarding can fit just about any lifestyle out there.
“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – Kenneth Grahame
While Standup Paddleboarding (SUP), also sometimes called Standup Paddle Surfing, has been rising in popularity over the past decade, it originated as an offshoot from surfing in Hawaii roughly 60 years ago, on the beaches of Oahu. However, according to some historians, it’s actually been used all over the world for thousands of years for all manner of things. Notably, Peruvian fisherman that would stand up in their small paddle boats as they used the power of the waves to propel them back to shore. Then, of course, who could forget about the gondoliers of Venice, Italy? Ultimately, there are records of forms of Standup Paddleboarding that date all the way back to 1000 B.C.
With all that said, what is Standup Paddleboarding exactly? I think you can infer what separates it from regular Paddleboarding. By definition, Standup Paddleboarding involves standing on your board and using a paddle to propel yourself and your board through the water. Stand up paddlers wear a variety of wet suits and other clothing, depending on water and air temperature, most of which are adopted from surfing. Furthermore, paddleboards can range anywhere from 7ft up to 20ft and can weigh between 20lbs and 40lbs. Similar to Kayaking, the type of paddleboard that you choose depends on the conditions you plan to use your paddleboard in/for.
Standup Paddleboarding offers a fun way to spend a day at the lake or beach, with the added benefit of a full-body workout. If you’re not sure whether or not Standup Paddleboarding is for you, try to find an outfitter near you where you can rent some gear and get out on the water for a paddle. On the other hand, if you’re past this point and you know Standup Paddleboarding is something you want to spend more time doing, but you’re not crazy about the price point of a new board, don’t be afraid to buy used gear. As with anything, just make sure you do your due diligence. Finally, if you’re new to the concept of Standup Paddleboarding altogether, then grab a buddy, buddies, or your better half and get out there and give it a try. What do you have to lose?
Rafting is a recreational outdoor activity that typically uses an inflatable raft and a single person or a team of individuals working to navigate a river or other body of water. The most common and well-known version of Rafting is Whitewater Rafting. Whitewater is measured in varying degrees of rough water, and the teamwork needed to successfully navigate a river tends to be part of the experience and enjoyment. However, Rafting can be accomplished by just a single individual using either a double-bladed paddle or a set of oars.
While most think of Rafting as an exciting activity that they will go to an outfitter and try once or a handful of times in their life, there is a whole other body of individuals that treat Rafting as the sport that it is. All Rafting races are performed on natural river courses leading through rapids and conducted in two different formats. The first is a sprint, which is done in either an individual team format or a head-to-head format in which riders have to complete the course through the best possible route. The second format is the slalom. In a slalom race, the course consists of slalom like turns and riders have to successfully navigate around them. All Rafting races are team races in which the teams consist of anywhere from 2 to 8 riders. However, regardless of the format of the race, the objective remains the same, to complete the course in the fastest time possible.
Whether you’re a weekend warrior, expert athlete, or just testing the waters of adventure sports, regardless of your skill level there’s one activity waiting for you, Rafting. There are tons of outfitters available throughout the country, and each has expert guides eager to take you down the river. In the southeast region of the country where I grew up, the Ocoee River seems to be a part of every individual’s life at some point along the way. Perception vs. reality may be due to the company that I keep. However, the main thing that I have personally noticed is that I have never met a single person that came back from a trip down the Ocoee that did not say it was awesome and followed that up by highly recommending it. That cannot be a coincidence. So, regardless of your physical stature, any fears you might have, or you’re not sure if Rafting is for you, next time you hear about a group taking a Rafting trip down a river not too far away, do yourself a favor and throw your hat in the ring. Go Rafting.
“I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water… has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.” – Roderick Haig-Brown
Surfing is a surface water sport that involves a surfer riding a board on the forward face of a moving wave. Surfers typically ride a wave in the upright position and continue riding it until the surfer either wipes out or until the wave breaks and loses its energy. Ideally, the wave will carry the surfer back towards shore. Typically, waves that are suitable for Surfing are found in the ocean. However, you can find waves for Surfing in lakes and rivers in the form of a standing wave or tidal bore. Many Surfing competitions these days even use man-made waves to keep the competition even.
Now, as much as I’m sure you appreciate me providing a quick explanation of what Surfing is. I have a feeling the main question on your mind is, “What is Surfing doing here under types of Paddle Sports?” If this doesn’t make sense to you, then that is how I know you’ve never been Surfing. Photographers and videographers only ever show the glamor shots of a surfer dropping into a wave, followed by miraculously emerging from the pipe of a wave, and finally pulling out of the wave under their own power. However, none of them show the countless hours of paddling that go into catching all those waves.
I know to purists, Surfing doesn’t belong on this page at all. Some would probably even accept Rowing before Surfing. At least Rowing uses something that resembles a couple of single-bladed paddles, right?. However, if you’re a doubter, I challenge you to complete just one paddle out on a longboard. My roommate in college was from Charleston, SC, and he was really big into Surfing. I remember asking him why surfers were always so ripped? In my mind, growing up many hours from an ocean, I just always thought surfers were meatheads. His response caught me off guard. He gave me a funny look and said, “What do you mean? They just surf.” That response made no sense to me until months later he talked me into driving over to Charleston for spring break. By the time I finished my first Surfing session, my arms were so tense from all of the paddling that I had to do, I couldn’t straighten them out all the way. It was hands down one of the most intense upper body workouts I’ve ever done. If you ever get the chance to try Surfing, do yourself a favor and get out there and give it a go. You’re likely going to be terrible at it like I was, but it will be one of the most fun things you ever try.
Playboating is a whitewater sport in which athletes perform various moves in a fixed place called the Playspot. Typically, these athletes use specialized or customized kayaks and canoes called Playboats to complete the tricks and moves involved as part of a run. However, any boat can technically be used for Playing. The moves and tricks performed often resemble those done by snowboarders, surfers or skaters, where an athlete completes a combination of various moves. Some Paddlers even get themselves and their Playboats completely airborne, while performing particular tricks.
As with any sport, Playboating has its version of a battlefield. Playspots are typically stationary features on rivers. They usually consist of some combination of standing waves, hydraulic jumps, holes/stoppers, or eddy lines. While most Playboaters paddle just for recreation’s sake, some take it more seriously. For those that are more passionate, “Rodeos”, or Playboating competitions, are not hard to find in the United States.
For these Playboating competitions, Paddlers are given a fixed time limit in which they perform as many moves as possible. The moves performed are judged and then awarded points based on the rules of the International Canoe Federation. However, Paddlers can be rewarded with additional points based on style. Examples of tricks commonly performed include flips, blunts, cartwheels, spins, front-surfing, back-surfing, stalls, and getting airborne. The complexity of a trick can be increased by combining a number of these moves into a single trick. As with any sport, the goal is always safety first. So, if you’re thinking about trying Playboating, make sure you crawl before you walk. Try to find someone a bit seasoned in Playboating.
“Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every river is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.” – Bob Marshall
Dragon Boat Racing
The sport of Dragon Boat Racing is rooted in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers, which dates back over 2000 years throughout southern China, and even further to the original games of Olympia in ancient Greece. However, in more modern times, Dragon Boat Racing was revived and became a modern international sport in Hong Kong in 1976. For competition events, Dragon Boats are generally rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails, and teams typically consist of 18-20 people in a standard boat, and 8-10 in a small boat, not including the steersperson at the helm and the drummer.
In 1991, the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) was established along with a set of institutional rules and regulations governing the sport. Now, Dragon Boat Racing is practiced in over sixty countries around the world, including China, which boasts 50 million dragon boaters. These days the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival draws thousands of athletes from different countries every summer. Accompanying federations include the European Dragon Boat Federation (EDBF) and the Asian Dragon Boat Federation (ADBF).
In America, the official Dragon Boat Race distances recognized by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) are 200 or 250m, 500m and 2000m. The 2000m is conducted as a pursuit race with two laps of the 500m course completed incorporating three turns. Events are held for men’s teams, women’s teams and mixed teams. The mixed team must include a minimum of eight women for standard boats and four women in the 10-seater class.
The growth in the Dragon Boat Festival Racing scene has been enormous. For example, there are now event organizing companies worldwide whose sole purpose is to organize Dragon Boat Festival races each year. This is particularly true in Canada and the USA, where Sport Racing Crews also race in the Festival Races. Likely, one of the main contributing factors to the growth of popularity in Dragon Boat Racing is there is no other paddle sport in which 22 people can work together to create a team result rewarded through the efforts of the whole crew, rather than a few individual performances.
Packrafting involves taking a small, lightweight inflatable boat on an adventure that will likely involve amphibious travel. Normal modes of transportation for a Packraft can include anything such as a rucksack/backpack, bike, or just a duffle bag. For a boat to be considered a Packraft, it is typically less than ten pounds and large enough for just a single person. Also, along with a Packraft’s propulsion system and safety equipment, the entire package is designed to be light and compact enough for an individual to negotiate rough terrain while carrying the rafting equipment together with supplies, shelter, and other survival or backcountry equipment.
Explorers have been using small packable rafts since the 1950s, and in the ’80s and ’90s, there was even a bit of a Packrafting scene in Alaska, as people would take their lightweight boats to access hard to get to places in the bush. However, the Packraft world really took off in the early 2000s, when Sheri Tingey built a boat for her son Thor, and Alpacka Rafts was born. The American Packrafting Association formed in 2012 and began holding yearly gatherings, to galvanize the community and run rivers together.
The adventures you can accomplish by taking advantage of a Packraft are only limited by your imagination. While they’re great for leisurely days of paddling on a local lake or gently flowing river, people have used them to link up trails and rivers on hardcore journeys through Alaska and across Iceland. Quite often, people will use a Packraft to make a loop out of a linear trail. You can hike in for several hours, or several days, and then float your way back to the trailhead on a river. By harnessing the power and speed of rivers, you can cover distance more quickly and possibly reach areas you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
“The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.” -from Illusions by Richard Bach
All types of Paddle Sports have grown in popularity during recent years due to their accessibility, affordability, and approachability. They provide a way for people to get out on the water, without having to sink a lot of money and storage space into a boat. People looking for a change from normal sports tend to find Paddle Sports as a welcoming change. They provide a nice change of pace to get some exercise, as well as a new perspective to experience nature. When trying to figure out which Paddle Sport is right for you, it’s best to find outfitters near you, rent some gear, and just give them all a try. Using someone else’s gear allows you to try out different types of equipment and figure out what fits you best, all while not spending an arm and a leg. However, the most important thing is just getting out on the water in whatever form appeals to you the most.