How to Choose a Paddle Board
You have discovered a new love for stand up paddle boarding and you want to purchase a paddle board for yourself but there are so many choices. Let us walk you through the process methodically.
SUP paddle boarding is available to anyone in the world. Take some leisurely paddles on a calm lake. If you prefer to exercise on a stand up paddle yoga board and then try a speed-up paddle to improve your endurance, you will want a very specific board. Whatever discipline you want to participate in, you need the proper SUP. In this buying guide, we will review the most important aspects of choosing a board. With so many boards on the market, how do you find the proper board for you? Find a board that is suitable for you and suited to the kind of water you want to paddle.
Maybe you’ve gotten excited about stand up paddle boarding after renting a paddle board at your local lake and you want to purchase the right board for your lifestyle and paddling needs. Beginner paddlers, we will import some expert advice onto you. Even experienced paddlers will find some nuggets here.
To pick the right board for your needs, you will need to consider quite a few factors. Do you want an inflatable SUP board or a rigid shape? Do you plan on using it for riding waves or will you just be flatwater paddling? What size board are you going to need?
Inflatable paddle boards are generally preferred by beginner paddlers that may have space or transportation limitations. The board thickness of inflatable SUP boards also tends to give beginner paddlers a sense of confidence. Inflatable paddle boards with woven drop stitch construction are much more rigid than early inflatable paddle boards were.
The key is to invest in a quality inflatable because cheap boards will limit your performance and usually will not float properly. For a smooth ride that doesn’t feel like you are jumping in a bouncy house, you will want an inflatable SUP that has 3 to 4 layers of PVC and uses woven drop stitch construction as well as a PSI of 25. High end boards tend to be worth the extra investment.
Paddlers with plenty of storage room and a vehicle with a paddle board roof rack tend to forgo the inflatable board in favor of a rigid shape. Inflatable boards are fantastic for most paddle board disciplines but many purists still prefer a hard board.
Hard boards typically come with an EPS foam core that is covered with fiberglass and resin. Some paddle board brands use a roto molded plastic construction which adds quite a few pounds to the board’s weight when compared to boards that start with an EPS foam core. Most epoxy boards are fairly fragile which is why high end boards tend to have a tougher coating like a polymer that protects the outer shell.
One of the first considerations when selecting a paddle board is board size. Some of this will depend on the body weight of the paddler. When it comes to board length, most boards are between 10 and 14 feet in length. Most beginner boards usually are in the 10-to-11-foot range and are usually a wider board. Short boards in the 9-foot range do exist but are usually specific to paddle board surfing.
Short boards are easier to turn and maneuver as opposed to long boards which are usually more stable but will take longer to turn. Some of these boards come with three fins which is usually overkill unless you are a hard-core paddle board surfer. The tri fin setup is a fin forward in the center fin position and two on the sides below it.
A wider SUP can also be more difficult to turn but can add some stability to a shorter board. 10-foot wider boards tend to be used by those that practice SUP yoga. Keep in mind that with a wider SUP, you will have to reach out a little wider with your SUP paddle.
If you are a beginner and strictly want to size your stand up board by your size, we've got some quick math for you. First, figure out how much you weigh wearing your typical SUP gear and then also figure out what the weight of any items you might be carrying with you on your SUP. Now take the combined total weight in pounds and multiply it by between 1.1 and 1.4. For instance, if you weigh 165 lbs and you are carrying 15 lbs of gear, your total weight would be 180 lbs. If you were to multiply 180 by 1.3 you would want a board that has a minimum volume of 234 liters. So you would not want to buy a board that had a volume less than 234 liters.
It's perfectly fine to go above your minimum volume. In fact you may want to give yourself some wiggle room in case you end up carrying more gear than you planned on. You can never be too light for your SUP but if you are too heavy for it, you are going to run into some challenges getting it to properly float.
Intermediate and expert paddlers tend to prefer a longer board for flat water paddles. The difference here is that the longer boards they choose tend to be narrower boards which are built for more speed.
It's important that you don't pick out a board that is too heavy for you to transport. Remember that in most cases you will be carrying your board from your home to your vehicle and then you will most likely need to be able to lift it over your head to put it on a roof rack.
Once you have driven to your waterway of choice you will need to be able to lift it back down from the roof and you may have a bit of a hike carrying it from the parking lot to the water. The last thing you want to be is too tired from schlepping your board around to have an enjoyable paddle session.
Rounded Nose Boards
The original stand up paddle board shape was essentially your classic surfboard shape from the early days of surfing. The main difference being that the SUP was wider than a surfboard so it needed a handle in the middle of the board to carry it. Early SUP boards were also longer boards than your typical surf longboard.
Yoga SUP boards fall into this category because when you paddle your Yoga SUP out to meet with your class you aren't typically in a huge hurry as most yogi's are looking to find their zen. Some Yoga SUP boards do have a modified nose which makes it a bit easier to navigate them through chop.
Fishing boards also have a rounded nose as most anglers aren't trying to win any speed contests. They are typically just trying to sneak up on unsuspecting fish. What sets fishing SUPs apart from other SUPs is all of the scotty mounts that hold fishing poles, depth finders and other gear for the SUP angler.
All Around SUPs also fall into this category and are an excellent choice for beginners. We discuss those more further down in this article.
Displacement Hull Paddle boards
Touring SUPs tend to fit this description because they are used in long distance paddling. They also usually have displacement hulls (also known as planing hulls) to help cover long distances. The pointed nose on stand up paddle boards is the giveaway that it has a displacement hull. Most touring boards offer extra storage so that you can transport a sleeping bag and cooler.
When you plan to cover long distances on a touring board, you usually will mostly interested in flat water paddle sessions. The planing hull will help you to cover a lot of ground and will help you cut through any chop on the water.
Skinnier boards with a displacement hull are a challenge to maneuver in large wind waves that are associated with “downwinders” but they are typically the SUP shape of choice for this activity. Once you master this kind of wave riding, we promise that you will fall in love with downwinding although this activity is really geared for a more experienced paddler. Advanced paddlers tend to have more skills to get them through the potential dangers of paddling on a windy day. Just don’t forget your personal flotation device (PFD)! A personal flotation device can literally save your life when you are in extreme conditions.
Race SUP Boards
A race stand up paddle board tends to be an even narrower board than a touring board. It tends to have the same pointed nose as the touring paddle board because the displacement hull (or planing hull) sheds water quickly for the paddle board racer. It’s also usually a longer board. To increase speed, race SUP boards typically come with race fins and the racer uses a lighter carbon fiber paddle.
A planing hull is great for flat water but will not do you much good if you plan to use your board for paddle board surfing or whitewater SUP. When you choose a stand up paddle board for those activities you are going to want a board with a rounder nose. A displacement hull is the perfect tool for maintaining speed in flat water, but you don’t need that extra speed when riding a wave or navigating whitewater. What you need in those instances is maneuverability.
What Paddle Board is Right for You?
So how does one choose a stand up paddle board? Which board sizes are going to be best for a beginner? A board that is 10-12 feet long and 32 to 34 inches will work well for most beginners. It will give them a stable platform that is still relatively maneuverable.
Your most important consideration when mulling over what size and shape of SUP you will be buying is: what kind of waterways will you be using the SUP on? Ocean? River? Lake?
If you live near the ocean, you are going to want a SUP board that you can paddle past the breakers for your flat water paddle but you will probably want to try your hand at SUP surfing at some point. A more traditionally shaped surf shape would probably be advised here.
What if you live in an apartment but like to hike into the backcountry and paddle lakes? An inflatable board with a displacement hull would be optimal for this paddler. However, if you think the allure of a river paddle might be too much for you, you should consider inflatable SUP boards with rounded noses.
Perhaps you live by a large lake and think that you mainly be doing flat water paddle boarding, a touring SUP may be just the ticket for you. The challenge with these paddle boards is that because they are narrower than your standard all purpose SUP, they are more difficult for beginners to master. Just remember that you're not going to be a beginner for very long and if your lake doesn't have a lot of boat wakes or wind chop, you will probably pick up the skills quicker than you think.
All Around SUPs
There is a case to be made for an "all purpose" paddle board whether it's rigid or inflatable. All purpose boards are essentially the Swiss Army knives of stand up paddle boarding. They can be long boards or you can choose a shorter SUP. They allow the paddler to become a jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none as they figure what they like to do on a SUP. This speaks to the versatility of SUP.
An all purpose SUP length of 10 or 11 feet will work well for a SUP yoga practice as you will only lose about 2 inches of the width that a SUP yoga specific board would have. It will make your yoga or fitness practice a bit more challenging but isn't that the whole point of working out on unsteady boards?
That same SUP board will work well for charging down rivers. Granted the rigid board won't be as thick as a rigid river SUP but if you go with an inflatable sup board, it most likely will be. The benefit of thinner river boards is that if you happen upon a standing river wave which offers the opportunity of a perpetual surf session, a thinner board will be much easier to make cuts on the wave.
The all purpose board will work just fine at the ocean as well. Because they are typically an old school surf shape you can surf waves much like long board surfers in the sixties. You can even try your hand at "walking the nose" (recommended for more experienced paddlers). If the surf is flat, it's not a problem, just head out past those baby breakers and get in some flatwater paddling.
Fins matter when Paddle Boarding
Most paddle boards come standard with a center fin slot and the fins that are included are usually detachable semi rigid fins. These are fine for most waterways but if you are planning on taking your SUP board down a river you will want to invest in flexible rubber fins. When you have flexible rubber fins attached you run far less risk of catching the center fin on a rock and sending yourself tumbling off the board. Worse yet, you run the risk of ripping your entire fin box out of the SUP.
We only recommend that more experienced paddlers try their hand at whitewater SUP. Even experienced paddlers shouldn’t take on the idiosyncrasies of the river without the proper safety gear. There are just too many changes in the river flow and too many hidden obstacles that can cause a novice paddler harm.
Deck Pads Matter Too
When purchasing a stand up paddle board, most people give the deck pad zero consideration. Deck pads can make the difference between a great paddle boarding experience and a marginal one. Some SUP brands use deck pads with little nodules on them that they claim help your feet grip to the deck pad. These little nodes can actually become torture on your feet during a long paddle boarding session.
A full length, UV resistant, flat deck pad is our recommendation. A faded pad can make your board look prematurely worn out. This recommendation holds whether you are looking at a rigid or inflatable SUP. Having a pad that covers the full length of the board is especially nice on longer boards so that your child or dog can sit comfortably on the nose of the board.
Most buyers think mainly about board length when buying a SUP but profile is an important feature of paddle boards. You have probably heard the term "rocker" in regards to SUPs and weren't sure what that meant. Rocker refers to the curvature of the nose and tail of the board. Picture a banana to get an idea of what extreme rocker would look like in a SUP. Rocker in SUPs runs the gamut from completely flat to bordering on that banana shape.
Paddle boards with no rocker tend to be faster and track in a straight line more adeptly than boards with extreme rocker. The are meant to be paddled in flat water with very little chop and tend to take longer to turn. Race SUPs and most touring boards would be in this category.
Boards that have more of a banana rocker would be your all around, surf and river SUPs. These boards are going to be slower in flat water and will not stay in a straight line as well as the rocker-free boards but once you get into waves or rapids you will appreciate how maneuverable the rocker makes your SUP!
As you now know, if you've made it this far, there are many factors that go into buying a SUP. For starters, figure out if your living and transportation situation is more conducive to an inflatable or rigid SUP.
Then use our formula to determine how much volume your SUP will need to have to support you and your gear. One of the most important considerations, will be your experience level now and where you expect it to be in a year or two.
Lastly, you will want to figure out which SUP disciplines you will be participating in the most. Once you have checked all of those boxes, you can find the perfect board for your needs.