Knowing When It’s Okay to Go Paddling: How to Improve your Skills Safely

How do we know when its okay to go paddling?

It’s raining. It’s kind of windy. There are whitecaps. The waves look big. How do I know if it’s safe for me to go paddling?

There is a fine line between testing yourself and progressing with your paddling and knowing when not to paddle. There is no single, perfect answer to the question “how do I know when I shouldn’t go out?” In a way, that’s like asking “when do I know if I am ready for the Black Diamond mountain bike trail or ski run?”

The answer is personal and individual.

One the one hand, if we don’t try more challenging conditions, we will never get better. Going out in stronger winds, rougher water, or bigger waves gives us confidence. Even though we may be slower, have a tougher time of it or wipe out a lot, we will learn from the experience. It can give us tremendous confidence. It is how we improve.

And we have a saying around here at Paddle Monster: Love the Conditions. One way to do that is to appreciate all that you will learn when the conditions aren’t easy.

That said, underestimating the conditions and overestimating your abilities can get you into trouble.

Here are some guidelines for making the call and deciding if its safe to paddle.

1. Know your limits. Have a realistic and honest assessment of your ability. If you lose your board, can you make the swim to shore? Is your endurance level up to the task of fighting a 15 mile an hour headwind? Have you handled similar albeit lesser conditions before? You get the picture.
2. Do it with a more experienced buddy who is willing and able to help and encourage you. Make sure it’s someone who knows the water and the area where you are paddling, can give you solid pointers and is able to help you in the event you get in trouble.
3. Give yourself permission to change your mind before you go out.

    •  Make your ultimate decision based on your comfort , fitness and health levels and what you know about your abilities – NOT on what you think others might think about you if you bail.
    • And don’t let anyone goad you into paddling out if you just aren’t feeling it.

4. Never, ever take weather conditions for granted. Knowing what the weather conditions are and if they will change, and your relationship to handling that variability is key. Do you know what to do in the event of a thunderstorm? Have you mastered the techniques for efficient paddling in rough water? How your board will react to the conditions?

General Weather Guidelines

  • Beginner paddlers will most likely be uncomfortable at best when wind speeds are between 10 and 15 mph. Wind over 15 miles mph will be extremely difficult for most novices.
  • Know what the wind is doing by checking a weather app or a wind app like Windy, Wind Alert, or Ventusky.
  • Inflatables are going to be less stable and harder to paddle in those kind of winds because of their design.
  • Heavier, all-around, planing shaped rigid boards might be more stable but are harder to move than displacement touring or race boards.
  • If you get caught in wind that makes it hard for you to paddle and you are feeling unsafe, unstable or you are repeatedly falling, sit down. Paddle back sitting on your board.
  • Consider paddling against the wind to start, so that you might have the wind at your back for the return trip. Sometimes that’s not possible, and in certain places, the wind is changeable. You can read more about understanding coastal winds here.
  • The onset of higher winds is often a precursor to a storm. Pay attention if the wind suddenly comes up.

A Special Word about Thunderstorms

  • If you live in an area prone to thunderstorms, look at the radar before you go out. Look at it several times.
  • Pay attention to the direction storms are tracking. Apps like Dark Skies and Weather Bug are extremely helpful, as well as local TV station weather apps. Learn how to use and read them. The Spark Lightening app, which is intergrated with Weather Bug can alert you to strikes close by.

  • Do not paddle out if there’s lightening within a 10 mile radius of you.
  • If you hear thunder, do not paddle out for 30 minutes. If you hear thunder during that time, start the clock over. And if you are on the water and hear thunder or see lightening, get off as quickly and safely as possible.


The more paddling you do, the more you understand how your board moves and the fitter you get on the water, the more you will be able to handle heavier conditions. Work your way up to it.

One excellent way to do that is to race. Here’s why:

1. Races usually have categories and courses appropriate for all levels of paddling.
2. Races almost always have safety patrols that keep an eye on all paddlers and can offer assistance if needed.
3. You most definitely are not paddling alone. Even in the entry level races, there will be more experienced paddlers ready to offer encouragement and help and advice.
4. The safety briefings will help you understand how water and wind, tide and current behave. You will accumulate this knowledge.
5. Local Knowledge – local paddlers are always keen to share information about their home turf to folks who come to their races. The more you know, the more you grow.
6. Racing forces you, in a generally controlled and safe environment, to love the conditions. So, you will be able to test yourself safely and learn how to paddle in all kinds of water.
7. Many races also hold skills clinics and taking these will also help. Here’s more on how.

How do we know when its okay to go paddling

One Last Thought on Safety

No matter whether you decide to test yourself in heavier conditions or if you are just going out for a paddle on calm water – do not forget your leash and lifejacket. Wearing these two items will keep you safe no matter what level paddler you are. Make using them a habit.

Always let someone know where and when you are paddling.  Here are some resources on how to use your smartphone to do that.