Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUPs): How to Choose
Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) offers something for everyone. You can head out for a relaxing paddle on a calm lake or catch waves in the ocean. Or maybe you’d like to do SUP yoga or go for a fast-paced paddle to get a workout. Whatever your ambitions, having the right board is key to your enjoyment. To find the right SUP, here’s what you need to consider:
Hull type: Your two main choices are a planing hull and a displacement hull; the type you choose will be based on the type of paddling you expect to do.
Construction: Do you want an inflatable board or solid one? The board construction affects weight, performance, price, portability and your storage options.
Volume and weight capacity: Pick a board with the volume and weight capacity that’s right for your height and weight to ensure optimum stability.
Length: Different styles of paddle boarding require different length boards. Length also affects stability and maneuverability, and how easy it is to store a SUP in your home.
Width: Board width primarily affects stability
Thickness: Board thickness also plays a role in stability.
Fins: Fins add tracking and stability to a paddle board.
Extras and Accessories: Some boards include extras like bungee straps and tie-down points for stowing gear. After purchasing a board, there are certain accessories you’ll need, like a paddle, PFD and leash.
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. Most SUPs have one of two hull types: planing or displacement. There are a handful with a hybrid design that combine the best attributes of the planing and displacement hulls. Most paddlers choose the hull type based on how they plan to use the paddle board.
A planing hull is flat and wide, similar to a surfboard. It is designed to ride on top of the water and be very maneuverable. Boards with planing hulls are versatile, making them a good choice for:
- SUP yoga
- Recreational paddling
SUPs with displacement hulls have a pointed nose or bow (front end) similar to that of a kayak or canoe. The hull slices through water, pushing the water around the nose to the sides of the SUP to improve efficiency and create a fast, smooth ride. The efficiency of a displacement hull requires less effort than a planing hull to paddle, allowing you to go longer distances at faster speeds. They also track nice and straight but are generally a bit less maneuverable than planing hulls.
Paddlers choose displacement hulls for a wide variety applications, but always with an eye toward paddling efficiency. Some applications include:
- SUP touring/camping
- Fitness paddling
- Recreational paddling
When thinking about SUP construction there are two main choices: inflatable and solid.
Inflatable SUPs feature PVC exteriors with drop-stitch construction that create an air core. They come with a pump for inflating the board and a storage bag for when it’s not in use. While inflatables are easier to store and transport, they tend to ride higher in the water and have a bit more flex than solid boards, which give some paddlers a less stable feel.
Why get an inflatable SUP:
- You have limited storage space: If you live in a small house, condo or apartment, you may not have room for a large solid board. Inflatable SUPs are compact when deflated and can easily be stowed in small spaces, like a closet or the trunk of a car.
- You’re traveling: If your travels take you to a lake or the sea, bring along an inflatable SUP. Packed away in its storage bag, an inflatable can be checked on an airplane or stowed in a train, bus or car. Most storage bags have backpack straps for easy carrying.
- You’re hiking to a lake: If you’re headed to an alpine lake and want to paddle, you certainly cannot carry a solid board. An inflatable stowed in its storage bag is still heavy, but it’s pretty much your only option.
- You’re paddling whitewater: Like a raft or inflatable kayak, an inflatable SUP is better suited to handle bumps up against rocks and logs than a solid board.
- You like SUP yoga: You don’t have to get an inflatable for SUP yoga, but they tend to be a bit softer than solid boards, making them more comfortable for yoga poses.
These are the original SUPs. They’re usually made with foam cores that are surrounded by layers of fiberglass. They are typically regarded as being more rigid than inflatables, which can make them feel more stable, especially in choppy water or when paddled by heavier people.
Most solid boards have an EPS foam core that’s wrapped with fiberglass and epoxy. Carbon fiber and plastic are also used for board exteriors.
Why get a solid SUP:
- Stability is important: A solid board is a tad more rigid than an inflatable board, which can provide a more stable feel, especially when riding waves. Solid boards also tend to ride lower in the water, which can also create a more stable feel.
- You want to travel fast and far: Solid boards tend to have a bit less drag than inflatables. This means they can be faster and more efficient when paddling long distances.
- You have a place to store it: Solid SUPs can take up a lot of space. If you have ample room in your garage and a vehicle that can transport it, then a solid SUP is a fine choice.
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 well and the board may feel unstable. Board volume and weight capacity are two important factors that affect how stable you will feel.
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. You can find volume for a SUP listed on the specs tab on REI.com.
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. You can't really be too light for a board, so as long as you weigh less than the weight capacity, you're good to go.
Riding waves in the ocean and paddling fast on a calm lake are very different styles of paddle boarding that require different length boards for the best performance. In general, longer boards are faster than shorter boards, but shorter boards are more maneuverable. It’s helpful to understand how length relates to volume and weight capacity. A longer board can increase the volume and capacity, which can make it feel more stable (width and thickness are also factors in volume and capacity; see the SUP Width and SUP Thickness sections of this article).
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 ft.): Great for surfing and/or kids. Short boards are more maneuverable than long boards, making them great for surfing waves. Boards designed specifically for kids are typically around 8 ft. long.
Medium boards (9 ft. to 12 ft.): Ideal for all-around use on calm lakes and in the surf.
Long boards (12.6 ft. or 14 ft.): Great for fast paddling and long-distance touring. Long boards are faster than short and medium boards and they tend to track straighter. If you’re interested in paddling fast or touring long distances, consider a long board. Longer boards also give you more room for storing gear when you’re touring.
Board width is another 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.
The thickness of a SUP also affects the stability. In general, a thicker board will be more stable, but also less responsive, than a thinner board. If you’re a beginner paddler, you may want to choose a thicker board.
You can find the thickness of a SUP listed on the specs tab on REI.com.
Fins add tracking and stability to a paddle board. In general, larger fins with wider bases and longer front edges will track straighter and provide more stability than smaller fins. On the other hand, a smaller fin provides better maneuverability. There are many different options for how fins are configured on the bottom of your SUP. Some popular configurations include:
Single fin: Many SUPs include a single fin 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. The single fin provides good tracking and minimal drag, making it a good choice for flatwater paddling.
3-fin setup: Also called a thruster, this setup promotes straight tracking on flatwater and offers good control in surf. All three fins are usually about the same size.
2+1 setup: This configuration includes a larger center fin with a smaller fin on each side of it. This is a common setup on SUPs designed for surfing.
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 can have any of the fin configurations already listed. What sets them apart is that they feature either flexible rubber fins attached to the board or detachable semi-rigid fins that can be removed so that the SUP will fit neatly into its storage bag when not in use.
SUP Extras and Accessories
Depending on how you plan to use your SUP, you might want to look for a board with extra features, such as:
Bungee straps/tie down: Sometimes located on the front and/or rear of the board, these stretchy straps or tie-down spots are great for securing dry bags, clothing and coolers.
Attachment points: Some boards have specific attachment points for fishing-rod holders, seats, cameras and more. These accessories are typically sold separately.
After purchasing a board, you need just a few more key pieces of equipment to enjoy paddle boarding. These include:
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). You hold the paddle so that the blade slopes away from you. Learn more about choosing a SUP paddle in our article, SUP Paddles: How to Choose.
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. Learn how to choose the right PFD for you in our article, PFDs: How to Choose. Note that 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 and dries quickly.
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.
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