Tips for Stand Up Paddle Boarding in Chicago

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Chicago is a great beach town that offers plenty of opportunities for fun on the water.  Yes, you read that right - Chicago is a beach town!  I frequently hear locals talk about how they never go to the beach or take advantage of the lake and I'm thinking - you are missing out!  Lonely Planet listed Chicago as one of 10 lesser known beach cities in the world and The Discoverer Blog even selected Lake Michigan as one of 6 American lakes better than the beach!  Several beaches in Chicago are located along the Lakefront Trail just a couple miles from anywhere in the city, which makes stand up paddle boarding (SUP) on Lake Michigan very accessible!

I've written about my top 5 places to stand up paddle board in the city and I've received several questions about paddle boarding in Chicago.  Here are some helpful tips based on my experiences and I've also included a few resource links to check out before you get on the water.

Where can I launch my SUP in Chicago?

Monroe Harbor, Lake Michigan

Monroe Harbor, Lake Michigan

The Lake Michigan Water Trail runs along the coast of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.  There are designated launch points all along the trail where you can launch non-motorized watercraft.  This interactive map shows every launch point along with information such as parking, fees, and available facilities for each location.  In Chicago, the closest launch points in the city are 31st Street Beach, 12th Street Beach (provides alternate access to Monroe Harbor), North Avenue Beach, Diversey Harbor, Montrose Beach, Montrose Harbor and Osterman Beach.

If you'd like to paddle the Chicago River, check out the Chicago River Water Trail guide and this Chicago River Water Trail Map that identifies entry points for human-powered craft and notes high traffic areas of the river.  If you are a beginner, stay in the green zones until you become more comfortable paddling.

Where should I paddle in Chicago as a beginner?

I've received a lot of questions regarding paddling the Chicago River and although it's my top pick for places to SUP in Chicago, you do need a moderate amount of experience to paddle the high traffic areas of the river.  Although no wake is allowed in the Chicago River, you need the paddle skills to maneuver quickly and enough balance and comfort to always be aware of your surroundings and boat traffic.

Lake Michigan is a great place for beginners and I would suggest going to North Avenue, Diversey Harbor, Montrose Harbor, Montrose Beach, or Osterman Beach.  These areas have paddle boundaries and as always, the earlier the better. 

Do you have any trouble leaving your belongings at your launch point?

I have never had any trouble leaving my bag on the beach or at any other launch point.  I'll pack my clothes, shoes and pump inside my inflatable stand up paddle board backpack and leave it in a low traffic area on the beach or near a ladder in the harbors.  Always bring a dry bag for your valuable items, such as keys, phones, and cameras.  Do not leave these items in your bag on the beach.

Another option is to place the bag on your board secured by bungee cords.  Some paddle boards have a bungee system built into the boards, but you can also buy bungees and add them where needed.  I've done this a few times with no problem and it gives you a little flexibility in where you can paddle.  Be sure to bring a waterproof bag - even just a trash bag - to keep your clothes and shoes dry.  

Tips for paddling Lake Michigan/Chicago River

  • Check the weather - I've been following the National Weather Service Chicago on twitter for updates on weather and swim conditions.  A good rule of thumb I've followed is if the winds are over 10 mph, it might not be the best day to SUP on the lake.  You can also follow the local rental companies on social media to know when they are closed due to weather.  The same thought applies to the river.  It's not quite as bad as the wind on Lake Michigan, but a strong wind can make your paddle less enjoyable.

  • Go Early - If you begin your SUP adventure early in the day before all the jet skis and boats have churned up the water, you'll enjoy a more relaxing paddle. The water is calmest before noon on Lake Michigan. If you are just paddling at a beach within boundaries, you can go anytime, just know it might be choppier later in the day. If you are trying to paddle distance from one launch point to another - start early. It's best to get on the Chicago River by early morning, at the latest. I paddled Lake Michigan to Chinatown a few weeks ago and finished by 11:00 which seemed to be when traffic on the river was really ramping up.

  • Safety - Always be prepared when you go out on the water.  Make sure you have a personal flotation device (PFD), a whistle, and your board leash. 

Lake Michigan - Be aware of boat traffic and stay close to the coast if you are paddling distance.  Check out a map before you paddle any distance so you are aware of harbors, high boat traffic areas, and exit points.  If you are a beginner paddling at the beaches, stay within the paddle boundaries.  No matter what, always be alert.  I'm a huge fan of dropping the anchor and just floating, but make sure you are still aware of your surroundings and pick a safe place to anchor.  Also, keep your distance from break walls.  The waves will crash into these walls and back into the lake, which can easily knock you off a small vessel.  Check out more safety tips on the Lake Michigan Water Trail website.

Chicago River - As with the lake, be aware of the boat traffic on the river.  Tour boats may appear to be moving slowly, but can catch up faster than you think and it's much harder for them to see personsl watercraft, so you must be aware.  Stay to the right side of the river and if you must cross, make sure there is no boat traffic.  All other safety suggestions apply, even on the river.  Check out these safety tips from the City of Chicago.

Where can I rent an SUP board in Chicago?

If you don't have your own board or need one for a friend, there are several options in Chicago for SUP rentals.  Some companies offer tours and SUP fitness classes, too.  I've listed all the locations and rental companies available below!

Chicago Water Sport Rentals - 31st Street Beach

Urban Kayaks - Monroe Harbor

Chicago SUP -North Avenue Beach, Diversey Harbor, Ohio Street Beach, Hollywood Beach

Kayak Chicago - Montrose Beach

I hope all of these tips are helpful to get you and your board out on the water to explore Chicago's waterways.  See you on the water!