Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUP): How to Choose
Once you’ve been bitten by the stand up paddle boarding (SUP) bug, you’ll soon want to buy your own SUP. To find the right one, think about the type of paddle boarding you'll be doing:
Fun and fitness: This includes leisurely outings and fitness sessions on flat water and catching small- to medium-size waves in the ocean. Most beginners will fall into this category.
Your primary considerations when choosing a SUP for all-around use and surfing are stability and maneuverability.
Touring or racing: This type of paddling involves covering long distances and reaching high speeds. Your primary considerations when choosing a SUP for racing/touring are speed and efficiency in the water.
Hull type, volume, length, width, core materials and fins all affect a board's stability, maneuverability, speed and efficiency. These features are detailed below to help you choose the right SUP.
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Video: How to Choose Stand Up Paddle Boards
SUP Hull Types
The hull, or body, of a paddle board plays a major role in determining how the paddle board performs in the water. SUPs have one of two hull types: planing or displacement.
Best for anyone who wants one board to do it all.
A planing hull is flat and wide, similar to a surfboard. It is designed to ride on top of the water and performs great in ocean waves. Many beginner paddle boarders start on boards with planing hulls because they tend to be stable and are versatile for recreational paddling and surfing.
Best for paddling long distances and racing.
These have a pointed nose or bow (front end) similar to that of a kayak or canoe. A displacement hull slices through water, pushing the water around the nose to the sides of the SUP to improve efficiency. In order to push the least amount of water possible, SUPs with displacement hulls are usually longer and narrower than SUPs with planing hulls. This makes them faster, but they can also be tippier.
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SUP Volume and Weight Capacity
A SUP board must work for your size. If the board doesn’t displace the correct amount of water for your weight, you won’t be supported. Board volume and weight capacity are two important factors to consider.
Volume: A paddle board's volume, expressed in liters, gives an indication of the board’s ability to float with weight on it. The higher the volume, the more weight the board can support.
A short board can have a high volume if it is wide and thick. Likewise, a long board can have a low volume if it is narrow and thin. This means that a person weighing 200 lbs. who wants to ride his or her SUP in surf will look for a short, maneuverable board with a high volume.
Weight capacity: Each paddle board has a rider weight capacity, which is listed in pounds on the specs tab on REI.com. Knowing weight capacity is important because if you’re too heavy for a board, it will ride lower in the water and be difficult to paddle.
When choosing the length of a paddle board, think about where you want to paddle. Riding waves in the ocean and racing on a calm lake are very different styles of paddle boarding and require different length boards for the best performance.
Consider, too, board length in regards to your type of car, home storage situation and length of walk to the beach or shore (longer boards are more difficult to carry, especially in windy places).
Short boards (under 9'): Great for surfing. Short boards are more maneuverable than long boards. Boards designed specifically for kids are typically around 8' long.
Medium boards (9' to 12'): Ideal for all-around use on calm lakes and in the surf.
Long boards (12.6' or 14'): Great for racing or touring. Long boards are faster than short and medium boards and they tend to track straighter. If you’re interested in racing or touring, you’ll need a long board to either keep up with the competition or to paddle several miles to your campsite.
Board width is an important factor in determining stability. SUPs are made up to 36" wide to accommodate a variety of body types.
Wide boards (about 31" or wider): Wide boards are more stable than narrow boards, making them easier to stand on. However, they are slower than narrow boards.
Narrow boards (29" to 30"): Narrow boards are faster than wide boards, however, they can be less stable.
SUP Core Materials
EPS foam: A foam core wrapped with fiberglass and epoxy is the most common board type. Carbon fiber and plastic are also used for board exteriors. Board weight varies based on construction technique.
Hollow core: Some mid-range plastic boards have hollow cores due to the manufacturing process. Other high-end boards have hollow cores to save weight and increase performance.
Polyurethane foam: Heavier than EPS foam, polyurethane is used on entry-level boards.
Inflatables: Inflatable SUPs feature PVC exteriors with drop-stitch construction that create an air core. Inflatable boards are very durable, light to carry and easy to store.
Fins add tracking and stability to a paddle board. Variations include:
Large single fin: This is placed in a finbox and secured with a nut and screw. The finbox has a channel for the fin to slide back and forth in.
3-fin setup: Also called a thruster, this setup promotes straight tracking on flatwater and offers good control in surf.
Race fins: These straighter, stiffer fins are best for downwind runs because they help longer boards (up to 14') track easier in large wind waves or rolling swell.
Fins for inflatable SUPs: Inflatable SUPs feature either flexible rubber fins attached to the board or detachable semi-rigid fins that can be removed.
After purchasing a board, you need just a few more key pieces of equipment to enjoy paddle boarding.
Paddle: Stand up paddles have an angle or “elbow” in the shaft for maximum efficiency. Choose a paddle that’s roughly 6" to 8" taller than you are (note: some manufacturers recommend an 8" to 10" differential).
PFD (Personal Flotation Device): The U.S. Coast Guard classifies stand up paddle boards as vessels (when used outside the narrow limits of swimming or surfing areas), so it is required that you wear a PFD. An inflatable PFD is a popular option because it is lightweight and compact until it is inflated. (The regulations also require you to carry a safety whistle and have a light available if you are paddling after sunset.)
Proper clothing: For cool conditions where hypothermia is a concern, wear a wetsuit or dry suit. In milder conditions, wear shorts and a T-shirt or bathing suit—something that moves with you and can get wet.
Leash: Typically sold separately, a leash tethers your SUP to you, keeping it close by if you fall off. Your SUP is a large flotation device, so being attached to it can be important for your safety. There are leashes designed specifically for surf, flatwater and rivers; be sure to purchase the correct one for your intended use.
Car rack: Unless you have an inflatable SUP, you need a way to transport your board on your vehicle. There are specific SUP racks designed to go on the crossbars of your roof rack, or you can use padding, such as foam blocks, and utility straps to secure the board to the roof of your vehicle.
For more information about transporting and using your SUP, see our Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) Basics article.
Sun protection: Wear sunscreen and sunglasses.
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