“What kind of stand up paddleboard should I get?” asked a friend a few months ago. Two days later, my brother emailed me. “Here’s a link to a SUP I’m thinking of buying. What do you think?”
Apparently, all of my excited chatter about paddling has turned me into an expert on choosing the right board, at least among my sailing friends. And I have done some research. After buying my first board on a whim because I liked its looks and light weight, I learned the hard way that SUPs are not nearly as simple as I first thought—though they are still way less complicated than any other boat I've ever owned. (For more detail about my first board, read Boats We Love – My Riviera 404 Stand Up Paddleboard.)
Designed for surfing, my first board was fine for learning and early morning paddles—though a less sexy-looking, less-expensive board probably would’ve been too. As I gained confidence, I wanted to go out in more wind and waves, and I also wanted to cover a little more ground. So before I bought my second board, I thought a lot (mostly while paddling board #1) about what would be right for me—and why. Then I did a lot of comparison-shopping. SUPs are an investment, so it’s worth spending some time to figure out the best option—especially since it's a very personal choice.
First, here's a glossary of basic board types, along with a quote from the manufacturer about the specific boards shown below.
"All-around” Stand Up Paddleboards
- Good beginner board
- Available for rent in many areas, so you can try before you buy
- May be a great deal at the end of a rental season, if you don't mind a few dings
- The Starboard Cruiser is the first SUP Starboard built. According to the company, it is "a proven classic all-rounder."
- Narrower than all-arounds
- "Boat bow" rather than a flat surfboard shape
- Ideal for straight-line paddling in a range of conditions
- Also called "fitness trainers" and sometimes "racing" boards
- The Boardworks Great Bear is designed to be "the ultimate tour and expedition board."
- Short, wide, and easy to turn, like boogie boards for grownups
- Ideal for stand-up paddle surfing
- The Surftech Generator provides "effortless maneuverability when riding waves."
- Made of hypalon (like a RIB)
- Easy to store, transport
- More rigid and more fun to paddle than you might think
- The Naish One has its own racing circuit. Naish calls it "the ultimate inflatable board for all-around cruising [and] long distance touring."
There are other categories too, and different models will vary in shape, weight, carrying capacity, construction, and detailing. So it's easy to understand why the choices look overwhelming at first.
The board my brother selected was a fiberglass open-water touring board, and it seemed like a good match for his weight and intended use. But my friend wasn't even sure how to begin the shopping process, so I sent her a list of questions—the same questions I'd asked myself before investing in a new board. Here's the list:
1. Will you be the only user and paddler?
If this is a board that only one person will use, you can narrow down the options to one that’s exactly right for your weight, height, and paddling style. If it will be shared by multiple people, compromise will be necessary.
2. What’s your max paddling weight?
Paddling weight includes you and anything you bring along: clothing, lifejacket, drinking water, paddle. Add it up, and then look for a board with that number toward the top of its recommended range. Paddling a board with a higher carrying capacity than you need increases windage, which will increase your paddling effort in all conditions. (And just to clarify, less carrying capacity doesn’t mean less stability.)
Another specification that’s very important (and easily overlooked) is the volume of a board. Volume affects windage, and windage is the enemy of a fun paddle. The simple thing to remember is “the less volume the better,” but how little you can get away with will depend on your paddling weight, intended use, and board style. Volume is listed as a single number (in liters), which makes it a great way to compare boards that show a similar range of paddler weights.
3. What do you plan to use it for?
Do you want a swim or yoga platform, or do you want to cover some distance and use it for fitness training? Or do you want to surf, or race? If your answer is “all of the above," you may need to consider more than one board. Open water paddling or racing on a play or surf board won’t be much fun, since those shapes don't like to go straight. Touring boards track well but aren't as maneuverable or as stable as wider boards. And despite their advertised prowess in "all conditions," "all-around" boards are much closer to the "play" end of the spectrum.
4. What kind of conditions will you paddle in?
My first board was really intended for surfing, so paddling it in a straight line was a challenge even in flat water. As soon as the wind was strong enough to create waves, it was a constant battle to steer and make forward progress—except downwind, when I felt like a windblown leaf. My second board has much less windage and handles small wind chop much better, so I'm able to go where I want with a lot less effort and aggravation. Conclusion: paddling in waves and wind is a lot more fun on a board that's intended for it.
5. How long a board do you want?
Most SUPs are between 10 and 14 feet long—though specialized boards are available from 8-19 feet. 12’6” and 14’ are the two class lengths for racing. What length is right for you will depend primarily on your size, strength, and paddling style, but there are a few other considerations too. A longer board will be faster than a shorter one; it will also be heavier and harder to launch, retrieve, and handle on and off a car. And a shorter board of the same construction will be cheaper. The shortest board that matches your size and strength to your desired speed and usage will be the best one for you.
6. What construction is right for you?
Construction methods vary from rotomolded plastic (heavy, but affordable) to high end epoxy boards (light, but expensive) to inflatables. Most rigid boards have a core of closed-cell foam, though a few specialty boards are hollow to save weight. The board "sandwich" (layers from core to exterior) varies quite a bit between manufacturers and might include any combination of wood, fiberglass, carbon, plastic, bamboo, PVC, rigid foam, or even coconut husks. For more detail (with a slight sales slant), read Stand Up Paddleboard Construction on the Isle Surf and SUP site.
7. Should you buy the lightest board you can afford?
In theory, yes. Lighter boards will be more fun to paddle, and also easier to unload and carry. But lower weight comes at a cost—not just in dollars, but also in reduced durability and the increased attention required. In order to save weight, the board's sandwich will be thinner and hence more delicate. You'll also have to be more careful about where you store it, and you'll want to invest in a cover if it is going to live outside. (Don't even think about leaving an epoxy board on the roof of your car.)
8. How’s your balance?
Your stability and confidence will improve every time you go out, so don't be afraid to buy a board that feels a little tippy the first few times you try it. Boards vary in max width from about 25” (high end race boards) to 31” barges. Narrower boards are more fun to paddle and maneuver better, though they are not as stable for swimming or yoga. And one point that's easy to miss: board shape (especially how round the rails are) has almost as much impact on stability as the max width. So two boards with similar dimensions might feel completely different.
9. How hard do you want to work while paddling?
Is the goal to improve your fitness, tour your local harbor, or just enjoy being on the water at a leisurely pace? You can achieve all three of these goals on any board, but identifying the primary reason you want to buy a SUP will help determine how specialized your board should be.
10. Where will you store your SUP?
If your answer is “I don’t know,” maybe you should consider an inflatable board. Epoxy-based boards should be stored out of the sun, or at least in a cover that reflects the worst of UV and heat. Leaving any board on top of a car for the entire summer will probably change its shape, and probably not symmetrically.
Find the Perfect Stand Up Paddleboard
Okay, now that you’ve narrowed down the right SUP for you, how do you go about finding that perfect stand up paddleboard? The best thing to do is to try before you buy. SUPs vary quite a bit in tracking, stability, speed, and glide; try a few different styles, and you’ll quickly feel the difference. Most retail stores have a demo day or two throughout the season and some may let you try a few boards on other days as well with a little advance notice, especially if you seem like a serious shopper.
Answering these ten questions helped me find the perfect board for my use and size. My friend is also happy with the board she bought. Hopefully this list helps you too, so you don't go buy the first board to catch your eye in a local shop like I did the first time. Best of all, the next time I get another email from a friend or sibling asking for help selecting the right board, I can just send along the link to this post.
Good luck and good SUP!
Read more about Stand Up Paddling:
- Why SUP: Top 10 Reasons To Go Paddleboarding
- Stand Up and Paddle: 10 Tips for Fun and Fitness
- Boats We Love – My Riviera 404 Stand Up Paddleboard