Will Rogers famously said that “good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Fortunately, you don’t need to have a terrible time on the water to experience a teachable moment—you can simply learn a lesson from mine.

Below are ten paddling lessons I learned the hard way over more than two decades of kayak and stand-up paddleboard guiding.

Paddling a kayak
Credit: Luke Foley

10 Paddling Lessons Learned from Experience

1. Wear Shoes: It’s understandable to want to go barefoot—it’s summer, it’s hot, and shoes are often annoying. That said, every year I see people ruin their trips, vacations, and days by stepping on something in the water.

I’m not immune to the allure of paddling barefoot. A few years ago, I took my shoes off for a quick paddle before a demo day, stepped on a piece of glass, and ended up working the entire day with my foot taped shut. I made it to the emergency room eight hours later and received ten stitches. It wasn’t fun!

2. Wear Your PFD: Life jacket, personal flotation device, PFD, call it whatever you like, just make sure you wear one. A PFD that’s on your boat, but not on you, isn’t doing much good. For example, in the event of an actual emergency (like your kayak flipping), the last thing you need to worry about is where your PFD is and how you’re going to get it on.

3. Sunscreen: When you’re on the water, there’s nowhere to hide from the sun—and the sun’s reflection on the water can make its rays even stronger. Apply sunscreen liberally before leaving land and reapply every few hours if out for an extended paddle.

Believe me, a painful sunburn isn’t the memory you want to make on the water.

4. Cover Up: Sunscreen is great but it works even better when paired with a long-sleeve, hooded sun shirt like the Cotopaxi Sombra (men’s/women’s). Unlike sunscreen, sun hoodies won’t wash or wear off, making them ideal for all-day adventures on and off the water.

5. Leave Your Keys on Land: There’s no good reason to bring your keys on the water with you. Trust me, the overwhelming majority of experienced paddlers hide their keys on shore, on or around their vehicles. Paddling with your keys is courting two bad outcomes: either dropping them and watching them sink to the bottom, or getting them wet and ruining their electronics.

6. Store Your Phone Properly: Make sure to put your phone in a waterproof bag or box that floats. Last summer, I dropped my phone into the Namequoit River. The good news is that it was in a waterproof case and wasn’t damaged. The bad news is that I spent the next six hours trying to find it at the bottom of the river.

7. Secure Your Sunglasses: You’re going to want sunglasses while out on the water. A good pair of polarized shades protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays and against sand, wind, water, and other debris. Make sure to attach your sunglasses to you—they’re easy to drop and hard to recover. Croakies work great, but a thin piece of cord will work in a pinch.

8. Use a SUP Leash: If you’re paddling a SUP, make sure to wear a leash—it keeps you connected to the board and makes sure it stays with you in the event of an accident/emergency.

9. Pack Food and Water: Stash a bottle of water in a bulkhead, dry bag, or secure it under a bungee and tuck an energy bar or two into a pocket of your PFD. Bonking on the water sucks and if you need either of them, you won’t care that the bottled water is warm or that the bar is a season (or two, or three…) old.

10. Wear footwear: I can’t remember if I said this already, but wear footwear! What I do remember is the doctor digging glass out of my foot and flushing it out in the ER. I also recall that I never want to go through that again.

SUP river paddling
Credit: Luke Foley

Over the years, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes on the water. You don’t have to. Remember the paddling lessons above and save yourself from a painful ER visit, a wicked sunburn, and hours spent trying to fish your keys/phone/sunglasses out of the water or stuck in a store trying to replace them.

Do you have a paddling lesson you had to learn the hard way? If so, let us know in the comments and help someone avoid making the same mistake.