How to Choose a Stand-Up Paddleboard
Everything You Need to Know About Choosing a Stand-Up Paddleboard
On a hot, sunny summer day, nothing beats getting out on the water.
More and more, people are discovering stand-up paddleboarding, whether it’s as a new fitness or yoga medium, a new way to explore waterways, a new approach to surfing, an alternative to kayak fishing, or simply as a great way to enjoy warm weather. If this sounds appealing, here’s what you need to know to select a board and get started with stand-up paddleboarding.
When looking at boards, your first decision will necessarily be between inflatable and solid boards. Each have their advantages and disadvantages—it really comes down to how and where you intend to use your new board.
Inflatables run from affordably priced recreational boards to river running models with the same bombproof construction as expedition river rafts. They are generally made from heavy-duty PVC vinyl, usually with some system of internal support. Fins are removable for storage, and the board comes with a dedicated pump (usually a hand pump, but sometimes a car pump is included as well) and a storage bag with backpack straps for easy carrying.
Inflatables are ideal when:
- Storage space is an issue. Inflatables fold or roll up into fairly compact bundles, and fit inside an included carrying pack. This makes them ideal for city dwellers or those who or don’t have access to a garage or other appropriate storage space.
- You’re accessing water that’s more remote. A loaded carrying pack for an inflatable board can be heavy so you wouldn’t want to carry it too far, but if you’re heading to a high-alpine lake or remote river only accessible by trails, an inflatable is the only way to go.
- You’re taking it out on whitewater rivers. Inflatables are highly durable and can stand up to repeated contact with rocks and other river obstacles, so they’re perfect for river running.
- You want to bring it along on vacation: An inflatable packed in its carrying bag can be thrown in the back of a car, checked on a plane, or even brought along on a sailboat. If your vacation plans include playing around water, an inflatable can be a great way to get more enjoyment out of it.
Inflatable Board Pros and Cons:
As mentioned before, portability and durability are the greatest attractions of inflatables. On the other hand, they can be less stable if being used by a heavier paddler, since they aren’t as rigid as solid boards. They also ride higher in the water, so they are more susceptible to being pushed around by the wind.
Solid boards come in a variety of lengths, widths, and shapes, all designed for different purposes. The construction is similar to that of a surfboard, usually with a foam core (most often lightweight EPS) surrounded by layers of fiberglass―and sometimes carbon fiber or bamboo―bonded by epoxy resin. The boards will be reinforced around the edges for extra durability.
Some kayak companies like Jackson Kayak and Ocean Kayak also offer SUPs made out of the same materials as kayaks―rotomolded plastic. These boards, which often share some design features with kayaks, are generally wider and more stable than standard boards, and usually less expensive.
These boards, which feature kayak-like displacement hulls (see below), are particularly well-suited to fishing because of their stability and extreme durability, and the fact that the decks usually feature a lot of wells and fittings for gear. On the other hand, this type tends to be slower and much heavier (by at least a factor of two) than a standard SUP.
Solid Board Pros and Cons:
Solid boards are going to be more reliably rigid than inflatables, so even heavy riders will have a more stable platform; this is particularly important for those taking a board out to ride waves in the ocean. Because a standard (not plastic) solid board rides lower in the water, it will enjoy extra stability and a more aerodynamic profile, which will improve speed. Overall, you’ll find most higher-end ‘performance’ and racing boards in this category.
On the other hand, solid boards are more susceptible to dings and breakage than other types of boards. And with lengths between 8 and 12 feet, they are obviously going to be more difficult to transport and store.
Features to consider when Buying a Board
When thinking about board length, you’ll want to consider what the board’s primary use will be and who will be using it. Longer boards with lengths over 12 feet typically travel fast and straight, and the increased surface area leads to better buoyancy. Long boards can be great for touring, racing, or for beginners getting used to balancing on a SUP.
Medium-sized boards of 9-12 feet are great for all-around use. They work well on a variety of water types, for differing user abilities, and for activities as varied as yoga, fishing, and cruising the lake, thus making them a great choice for a shared family board. Another consideration is that medium-sized boards are easier to store and transport than longer boards, and they’re easier for children to paddle than their longer counterparts.
Short boards (under 9 feet) are the most maneuverable SUPs out there, which makes them great for surfing and playing in the waves. Their smaller size caters to experienced paddlers and smaller users.
Stand-up paddleboard shapes generally fall into one of two main categories: planing hulls or displacement hulls. Most boards fall into the planing hull category, which is also the most versatile. Wide and flat-bottomed, planing hull SUPs are shaped like typical surfboards. They offer good stability and perform well on flat water, in whitewater, and in waves.
With a bow shape similar to a canoe or kayak, displacement hull SUPs slice through the water efficiently, making them a great option for racing or for long tours. They are built for speed and are often narrow, making them less stable than planing hull boards, which makes them better suited for experienced paddlers.
Most stand-up paddleboards have a rockered profile, meaning that if you look at the board from the side, you see a curve. The tip and tail of the board are higher than the middle. Rocker allows for maneuverability and lets the board move forward, or up and down the face of waves, without the nose of the board diving into the water.
The amount of rocker varies significantly based on the designed purpose of the board. Boards built for touring and flat water don’t have much rocker, giving them better stability and letting them track well at speed in straight lines. Boards built for playful paddling, whitewater, and waves feature significant amounts of rocker, allowing a nimble and playful feel.
Fins allow stand-up paddleboards to track well and also add stability. There are several different fin configurations out there, though one-fin and three-fin are the most common. Single fin setups consist of one large fin in the middle of the board; this is excellent for straight tracking and for paddling on flat water. The fins of a three-fin setup are smaller than the fin of a one-fin setup, but their staggered pattern allows for excellent maneuverability while maintaining a stable paddling platform; this is excellent for surfing or for whitewater.
Fins are often made of fiberglass or nylon. Fiberglass fins are stiffer but can be damaged easier in rocky, shallow water than their nylon counterparts. Fins are typically removable and can be replaced if damaged, though some inflatable boards feature durable rubber fins that are not removable.
Whether your SUP plans include fun days at the lake with the family, multi-day unsupported whitewater trips, or fly angling for bonefish in the tropics, there are a variety of SUP features to look out for when selecting the right board. Among the most important of these are bungee cords, tie downs, and D-ring lash points that can allow you to bring anything from a spare jacket and water bottle to the gear needed for a week-long trip.
Other features to look out for are traction pads, which distribute weight and provide cushioned comfort and traction; some of these pads even include kick tails, which allow for great board control when surfing. Some boards have features like GoPro mounts, in-deck storage, and a variety of carry handles. Fishing-specific paddleboards often include rails for the mounting of rod holders and other accessories.
Choosing a Paddle
SUP paddles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There are several factors to think about when selecting a paddle:
Shaft & Blade Material
Economical paddles with aluminum shafts and plastic blades are durable and are a good choice for a recreational paddler or for a shared family paddle. Performance-oriented paddles incorporate materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass. These paddles have lower swing weights and stiffer blades, which allows for great efficiency when paddling, and they often have contoured grips for greater comfort. While carbon fiber paddles are more expensive, they are definitely a good investment for anyone planning to spend a lot of time on the water.
Blade Size & Shape
Smaller blades are ideal for surfing, whitewater, and other forms of paddling where maneuverability is key. They also reduce muscle and joint strain and fatigue, and they allow for a faster paddling cadence. Larger blades allow for greater water displacement, perfect for deliberate strokes. These larger blades are ideal for racing or flatwater touring.
Blade shape is also a consideration; long and narrow blades are ideal for racing and touring, providing the maximum power to effort ratio and allowing for high speed over long distance. These blades allow for an efficient paddling cadence. Broad-faced blades allow for the most powerful strokes but sacrifice some efficiency. This is ideal for waves and whitewater, which often call for urgent power strokes rather than an economical cadence. These wider paddles are also good for large and strong paddlers or for paddlers whose primary goal is fitness.
Paddle Height & Adjustability
The ideal paddle height is anywhere from 4-12in taller than the user. Surfers and whitewater paddlers generally prefer shorter paddles, while racers and paddlers of flat water generally prefer longer ones. Most paddles are adjustable, with the added benefit of being able to break down for easier transport. Paddles are typically one-, two-, or three-piece.
Many expert paddlers swear by one-piece paddles, as they tend to be most efficient when out on the water. These paddles come in a range of sizes, though many high-end carbon paddles come in a full-size length, which can then be custom cut and glued to suit each individual user. Two-piece paddles are good for car travel, while three-piece are ideal for air travel. Multi-piece paddles are typically also height adjustable, which makes them the norm as a shared or family paddle. If you plan to share the paddle with users of varying heights, be sure the adjustability range of your paddle is wide enough to suit everyone.