So, you’re ready to buy a paddleboard.
The explosive growth and relative infancy of SUP means there are dozens of companies out there, each offering an assortment of boards. The choice can be overwhelming—there are more than a hundred new boards and accessories listed in the 2019 Paddling Buyers Guide.
Buying a standup paddleboard doesn’t have to be confusing. Choosing is as simple as determining the type of paddling you want to do, finding a board the right size, and then fine-tuning your choice based on features and price. Use this step-by-step guide to decode the categories, and find what’s right for you. Let’s get started.
Types of Paddleboards
3 Basic SUP Styles
Begin narrowing down your board options by deciding what type of paddling you plan to do. At the most simplistic level, paddleboards are designed for one of three purposes: surf, recreation or touring and racing. In other words: playing on waves, hanging out and having fun on the water, or hustling from A to B.
Picture a continuum of board shapes from the shortest to the longest, with surf boards on the extreme left end, race boards on the far right, and recreational boards spread across the middle. What you want to do on the water determines the right board style for you.
Paddleboards for Recreational Use:
The all-around board or recreational SUP is the most popular category on the market. It’s an amorphous shape because it blends characteristics from both surf and touring designs.
The versatile all-arounder is what you’ll find at most rental shops, big box retailers and cottage docks. It’s what most people think of when they picture a standup paddleboard. A board built like a surfboard but longer, thicker and wider, between nine and 11.5 feet long and over 30 inches wide. As you’d expect, you can do just about anything on all-around boards—yoga, surfing, fishing, suntanning, or just paddling around, and with the kids or the family hound along for the ride.
Niche categories of all-around boards have become more common as the sport develops and have specialized characteristics of their own. A couple of the most popular are:
Somebody discovered doing yoga poses and boot camp exercises on a paddleboard added a cool balance challenge to their routine, with the added therapeutic benefits of being outside and on the water. SUP yoga quickly became a thing. You can do yoga on literally any SUP, but yoga-specific boards typically have a planing hull and are extra-wide—which means more stable—and feature generously cushioned deck pads to make a perfect fitness platform. Literally, it’s a floating yoga mat.
SUP fishing is taking off, especially in the southern states. Fishing-specific boards are blowing up. Anglers will want to look for a model with lots of tie-down points for gear, attachment points for rod holders and extra width to provide a stable platform. Many fishing boards are 34 inches or more to provide extra stability when it counts.
River paddleboarding combines exploration with playing in river features, like waves and eddies. Whitewater boards are manufactured along the surf-to-touring continuum; the board you choose will depend on how much wave riding versus downriver paddling you want to do. What all whitewater boards share is durability to withstand banging into rocks and scraping on shallow river bottoms. Most whitewater boards are inflatables, with the same durable properties as traditional whitewater rafts, or polyethylene plastic. Robust gear tie-downs are a must for river trips.
Paddleboards for Surfing:
These are classic surfboard-style paddleboards designed primarily for ripping up ocean waves. Characteristics of these boards include a planing hull, pointy noses and tails, and lots of rocker for maneuverability and to keep the ends from catching water. Surf SUPs are narrower and shorter, about nine feet or less, than all-around boards for quick rail-to-rail responsiveness and maneuverability, with tapered ends and rails to cut unnecessary volume. While nimble on a wave, on flatwater you’ll likely find these boards slow and unstable.
Paddleboards for Racing and Touring:
These are paddleboards for going places—either extended day trips, overnight expeditions, as fast as possible on race courses, or downwinding, which is chasing and riding wind waves on open water.
What boards in this category all have in common is their greater length, usually 12 feet or more, and displacement hull shapes. They also have pointed noses for cutting through the water more efficiently. There are a variety of boards that fit into this category for different purposes.
Paddleboard Shape & Sizing
After narrowing down the board type that fits you best, it’s time to geek out on design specs. Length, width, thickness and taper, rail shape, hull shape, rocker, fin types, oh my! It’s enough to leave anyone’s head spinning. Rest assured most of these factors will be informed by the decisions you’ve already made—primarily, what you’ll use your board for, and then how it feels when you take it for a test paddle.
Size & Volume
Within any given board category, there will be a range of board sizes with different volumes that correspond to different rider weights. This is because taller and heavier paddlers will need a higher volume board for float and stability, which at some point will mean going to longer or wider dimensions. Men, with their higher centers of gravity, will generally also need slightly larger boards than women. It’s better to err on the side of a bigger board than to get a board too small, which would sink more beneath you and feel less stable, particularly in rough conditions. If you’re buying a board that will be shared, get the size fitting the largest person who will use it.
The length of your board will largely be decided for you by how you’re planning to use it and how big you are. Generally, surf SUPs are nine feet or shorter, recreational sups are nine to 12 feet, and touring SUPs are 12 feet and up. Narrow down the model of board based on how you’re going to use it and then fine-tune the length based on your size. For example, the same all-around board may be available in a 10’6” or an 11’6” length, with the longer one designed for riders over 200 pounds. For racing or touring, a smaller paddler would select a 12’6” board while a larger paddler would opt for a 14 footer.
Generally, wider boards will be more stable. Wider boards suit less experienced riders and activities that favor stability over speed, like fishing, yoga, all-around recreational use and learning to surf. Wide boards also suit larger riders. Most recreational and beginner boards are 28 to 36 inches wide. Anything narrower is usually a race or surf-specific board.
Kids can play around with any recreational board but when it comes to paddling it effectively, it’s better to have something their own size. Some manufacturers make kid-specific sizes in their surf, all-around, or touring and race boards designs.
Hard Or Inflatable Paddleboards?
can decide between a hard board or an inflatable board. Although hard boards are far more common, the balance is shifting with the advent of high-performance inflatable SUPs.
While competitive wave surfers and race paddlers have always opted for the performance of a hard board, for many recreational users, a high quality inflatable suits them nearly as well.
“You’re not losing anything, but you’re gaining quite a lot,” says Andrew Meakin of the inflatable manufacturer Red Paddle Co. “You’re getting 90 to 99 percent of the same experience these days because today’s technology is so good.”
If you paddle rough and rocky rivers, you want a soft board for playing and climbing around on or even for sleeping on when camping. Particularly if you want to be able to pack your board on your back, in the trunk of a car, on a bus or a plane, or don’t have the storage space for a hard board, then an inflatable is the best choice for you. Then just pick a basic board type and limit your search to the inflatable options in that category.
Planing v.s. Displacement Hulls
Paddleboards are usually described as coming in two basic hull shapes, planing hulls and displacement hulls. Planing hulls refer to the flat bottom of a traditional surfboard designed to plane or skim across the surface of a wave at high speed and spin on a dime. Displacement hulls refer to something with a deep V-shaped cross section and a sharp, keeled nose for slicing through the water for greater gliding efficiency and better tracking.
All other things being equal— like overall board size and volume—planing hulls will feel more stable than their displacement cousins. They’re popular for beginner and all-around boards but they are slower and harder to paddle in a straight line.
SUPs on the surf side of the spectrum have planing hulls, while strict touring and race boards typically have displacement hulls. Recreational boards can go either way, depending what type of performance you want to emphasize. Do you want to play around or cruise? Your riding style will dictate the right hull shape for you.