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Choosing the Right SUP Board for You

Whether you are new to paddling and purchasing your first board or an experienced paddler looking to upgrade, choosing the right board isn’t always easy and obvious. 

The first place to start is to ask yourself what you need or expect from your new board.  If you’re a new paddler, what type of water conditions are you looking to do most of your paddling in?  Are you interested in just getting out on the water with family or friends?  Or are you interested in using your new board for more serious fitness training or even racing?

If you’re a more experienced paddler using SUP for fitness, how do you think your new board might enhance your workouts?  What features in the board’s design or construction are going to help with that?  

If you’re a racer, what type of races are you focusing on?  What are you looking for in a board that is going to lead to improved performance?  And perhaps most importantly, how are you going to assess various board options to find out which is truly the best match for you and the way you paddle?

Let’s take a look at some of the decisions paddlers are faced with when considering purchasing new boards.  Let’s start with new paddlers buying their first board.

New paddlers

Purchasing the right board can be very difficult for new paddlers.  There is so much for a new paddler to learn about paddling, let alone boards, that the process of choosing the right board can be overwhelming.  The things to consider when it comes to boards are numerous.  Should you get a displacement or planing board?  Inflatable or hard board?  12’6” or 14’ or something shorter?  A recreational, touring or race board?  What about width?  Volume?  It all sounds so confusing.  Don’t worry.  We’re here to help you out.

Before you even begin looking at boards ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • What type of paddling do you want to do on your new board?  Workouts for fitness?  Racing?  Touring? Or just low-key recreational paddling, perhaps with your kids or your dog on the board with you?
  • What type of water do you plan to do most of your paddling on?  Small, sheltered rivers and lakes or large, open bodies of water like big rivers, the Great Lakes or the ocean?
  • What type of storage room do you have for your new board?  Do your own a car with roof racks to carry your board?

The answers to each of those questions are going to determine the type of board you need and should end up buying.  Let’s take a look at the different types of boards and choices you have before you.  If you’ve answered the questions above, you’ll pretty quickly be able to narrow down the most appropriate kind of board for you as we go through them.

Hard boards vs. inflatables

Hard boards are solid in construction and usually made from some type of composite material like fiberglass or carbon fiber covering a foam core.  Inflatables are soft and you inflate them with a pump before you paddle.  When you’re finished paddling, you deflate them, roll them up and can take them home in a backpack.  Here are the pros and cons of each:

Hard boards

Pros:

  • Do not require inflating before each use
  • Do not have seams that can leak
  • More rigid and therefore a little more stable and easier to paddle in rougher water
  • Hard boards are generally faster than inflatables in the same price range

Cons:

  • Lower end boards are often heavy
  • Most are heavier than inflatables
  • More likely to suffer damage in collisions with things like docks, obstacles in the water, or other boards
  • Require storage space and vehicle roof racks to safely transport

Inflatables

Pros:

  • Do not require much storage space.  Most can roll up into backpacks that are provided with the board at purchase. Great for people living in apartments/condos.
  • Easy to transport safely and great for traveling.  You can easily take them with you as checked baggage when traveling by air
  • Softer and quite durable in collisions with things like docks, water obstacles and other boards.  Sort of like bumper cars

Cons:

  • Require inflating and deflating with each use
  • Lower end boards may develop leaks along seams
  • Not as rigid as hard boards leading to vibration and shaking as you paddle in rougher water.  Lower end boards may be particularly “soft” compared to hard boards
  • Generally slower than hard boards

Displacement boards vs. planing boards

Displacement boards have thicker noses that are usually V-shaped, not unlike the bow of a boat.  They tend to sit a little deeper in the water and “displace” water as they move through it, again not unlike a boat.  Planing boards are flat bottomed from tail to nose, resembling a surf board, and tend to sit more on top of the water.

Photo: Paddleboard Specialists

Displacement boards

Pros:  

  • Faster and better suited for racing, touring and fitness
  • Easier to track straight
  • Come in touring, flat water and all-round models
  • Come in a variety of shapes and widths
  • Can be used for SUP surfing in modest conditions

Cons:

  • Less well suited for SUP surfing, yoga and taking kids and dogs paddling with you
  • Usually contain more material so are often more expensive

Planing boards

Pros:  

  • Usable in every condition
  • Particularly good for SUP surfing, yoga and paddling with kids and dogs 
  • Usually less expensive than displacement boards

Cons:

  • More difficult to track straight
  • Slower and less well suited for racing, touring and serious fitness

While these pros and cons may help you determine whether you’re looking for a displacement or planing board, there are MANY different options within both types.  If, for example, you’ve determined that you’re looking for a displacement board, there’s a lot of work left to do to determine what type of displacement board you’re looking for.  

Board length:

Boards come in a variety of lengths, mostly 10 feet and longer unless you’re looking at more advanced SUP surf boards which can be considerably shorter.  In general, the longer the board, the faster it will go and the larger the paddler it will support.  For our purposes here, we’ll consider boards under 12’6” in length, 12’6” boards and 14’ boards.  

Under 12’6”

Pros:

  • Easier to store and transport than longer boards
  • Great for kids 

Cons:

  • Slower and more difficult to track straight than longer boards
  • May lack sufficient volume to float heavier paddlers 
  • Few choices available in displacement boards
  • If used to race usually must race in “12’6” and under” class. Is at a competitive disadvantage against longer boards

12’6”

Pros:

  • Faster than shorter boards and generally easier to track straight
  • More volume than shorter boards so more likely to float moderately heavy paddlers
  • If used for racing has its own class in most races
  • Easier to store than 14’ boards

Cons:

  • More difficult to store than shorter boards
  • May still lack sufficient volume to float heaviest paddlers
  • Slower than 14’ boards

14’

Pros:

  • Faster than shorter boards
  • Generally easiest to track straight
  • Usually higher volume than 12’6” and can float the heaviest paddlers
  • Races in its own class

Cons:

  • Extra length makes them more difficult to store than shorter boards
  • Not as easy for smaller paddlers/kids to paddle and control

Recreational, touring or race board?

Recreational boards

Recreational boards are generally planing boards suitable for paddling in a variety of conditions but not specialized for any.  Generally, they are 12’6” in length or shorter and are wider and more stable than touring and especially race boards.  They are the boards best suited to paddling with your kids or dogs on the board with you, doing yoga or enjoying for fun and fitness for those that don’t paddle often

Race boards

 

Race boards are a pretty broad class of boards that come in widths from 28” down to under 20”.  Obviously, stability improves with width but also with other characteristics like rail shape, flat deck or dugout, and bottom shape, all of which we’ll look at more closely in our next post.  These boards are all displacement boards except for some that are specialized downwind boards. 

Don’t let the name fool you.  Race boards aren’t just for racers. They are probably the best choice for those that are interested in using SUP for serious fitness training.  However, these boards can be highly specialized which needs to be considered when purchasing.  Flat water boards are the fastest boards with longer waterlines and less rocker but they can be less stable and difficult to paddle in smaller chop, let alone rough, open water.  All-round boards are usually still pretty fast in the flats but better suited to big water as well.  Downwind boards are really only ideal for big downwind conditions and their shape makes them pretty slow in flat water.  

If you’re leaning towards a race board, whether for fitness training or racing, you’ll really need to consider the conditions you are most frequently paddling in.  If 90% of your paddling is going to be done in flat water, get a flat-water board.  If you’re going to do most of your paddling across a variety of conditions, get an all-round board.  

As far as width is concerned, if you’re looking at your first board, err on the side of wider rather than narrower.  A wider board is going to be more stable which means that while you’ll give away a bit of speed in the flats you’ll be able to have much more fun in rougher water and more easily learn to paddle well in all conditions.  Narrow boards are hard to learn to paddle on and most people who choose a board that is too narrow end up struggling to learn how to paddle well, even in flat water.  They tend to too often paddle tentatively and defensively, afraid to fall in and thus reluctant to get body weight off their board and onto their paddle.  This limits their ability to work as hard as they’d like to, which in turn limits their ability to both get a good workout or go fast if they race.  Ultimately it limits their ability to improve as paddlers.  

Touring boards

Some (but sadly not all) brands offer touring boards which are usually displacement boards that are more or less hybrids between racing and recreational boards.  Touring boards are usually designed to provide more stability than race boards while giving up as little speed as possible.  They’re also designed to carry stuff while most race boards aren’t.  These are great options for someone who wants to use their board for things like camping but is also serious about fitness training and may even do the occasional race.  

Volume

You may hear the word “volume” used when somebody is telling you about the features of the board you’re looking at.  So, what is volume and how should if affect your board choice?

The volume of a board is simply the amount of volumetric space the board occupies, measured in litres.  If the volume of a soda bottle is 2L then imagine my 14’ x 23” Starboard All Star holding 303L.  Generally speaking, the chunkier a board looks, the greater its volume.  

Volume becomes a consideration when we start looking at the size of the paddler the board will float.  If you’re big, you’re going to need a higher volume board to float you.  If you’re small and not particularly strong, you’ll want a lower volume board as all the extra volume in a high-volume board is going to be a lot of extra board that you have to control and move around.  Volume can also be useful in big water, with boards of greater volume sitting higher in the waves, keeping the top of the board drier while you paddle.

Most board brands give suggested weight ranges for riders on their boards of various lengths, widths and volumes.  While experienced paddlers may do well on boards that are recommended for those either lighter or heavier than them, these suggested ranges are worth paying attention to for less experienced paddlers.  

Where to buy your board

Boards are not inexpensive and obviously, like with anything else, you’ll want to pay as little as you can for the board that best meets your needs. This temptation to look for economy may drive you to the internet or to a big box store to purchase your board.  While we’re not saying that you can’t get a great board at a big box store or through the internet, we suggest you be careful and stick to well known brands.  Unfortunately, a lot of the board offerings through these sales outlets are lower in quality and may not be as enjoyable to paddle or as durable.  Like most other things, you get what you pay for.  Cost cutting can backfire if it leads you to purchase a lower quality board that results in you eventually having to buy another board to better meet your needs.  

The best place to buy a board is from a local board shop that specializes in SUP boards.  They’ll likely have a range of board choices available from reputable brands that make quality products.  They should be able to give you some good advice on which boards will best meet your needs and often have demo boards that you can try.  They’ll also be able to outfit you with all the accessories you need which are essential, like a leash and a PFD, and they’ll be available to support you with advice and perhaps even repair as you move forward with your paddling.  You might end up paying a little more, but you’re less likely to end up dissatisfied with your purchase.  

Try before you buy

The best thing to do before purchasing your first board is try it before you buy it.  Ideally this would involve demoing the specific board you are considering, although that is not always possible.  

The most important thing is to have some paddling experience behind you before you make your first purchase.  Try not to buy your first board without ever having gone paddling before.  Instead, take a few lessons, rent a board and go paddling a few times, or go and paddle with some friends on a borrowed board before you start shopping for a board of your own.  Just this limited amount of paddling experience will go a very long way towards helping you better understand what you are getting into and what you’ll most likely be using your new board for, and this will help you make much better decisions about your impending purchase. 

Used boards

With current supply chain issues, new boards can be hard to come by.   Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be the in-stock selection in most stores that there was pre-pandemic.  New boards have also gotten more expensive.  While new boards are great if you can find the right one and are certain of the purchase you’re making, sometimes the best value for your money comes from a used board.  If you are looking at purchasing your first board this is a great way to get in the game without spending as much as you would on a new board.  You can use your used board for a while and once you’ve learned more about paddling and different boards you can start shopping for a new board that will be ideal for you and that you’ll keep much longer.  If you take care of whatever board you purchase first, when upgrading you should be able to recover a lot of what you put into your first board as the resale market is very healthy.

There are classifieds for boards and paddles, including here at Paddle Monster, where used boards are advertised and sold.  Keeping your eye on these classifieds may just help you find a board that fits your needs and saves you money.  

When buying a used board, look for something that has good photos and that you can see in person if possible.  You’ll want to assess the board’s condition with your own eyes before making an offer on it.

More on Race boards

Hopefully what we’ve shared here will help new paddlers purchase the right board so they get off to a good start in the sport.  But what about more experienced paddlers who are looking to use SUP for pretty serious fitness training or are interested in racing?  

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to race boards, so much so that we’re going to save it for our next issue.  Here’s a brief list of some of the many things you’ll need to consider and that we’ll look at next time:

  • Board length
  • Width
  • Volume
  • Shape
  • Dugout vs. flat deck
  • Construction material
  • Weight
  • Purpose (flat water vs. all-round vs. downwind)

Ultimately what you are really looking for is a board that not only excels in the conditions that you are planning to use it in, but that suits the way you paddle.  

We’re all different and therefore we all paddle differently in terms of technique, rhythm and the “gear” that we like to paddle in.  At the same time, many boards seem to respond differently depending on how they are paddled.  What we really should be looking for is a board fits our unique paddling style and the conditions we plan to do our paddling in.  Some boards are going to do that better than others, and the board that works best for you might not necessarily be the one that works best for someone else.  Trying before you buy becomes even more important the more advanced you are and the higher your expectations are of the board you’re going purchase.  Fortunately, there are usually lots of opportunities to try different boards at races, whether in prearranged demo sessions or simply by asking someone if you can take their board for a spin.  Most paddlers are pretty good about letting others try their boards for short demos.  

In our next issue I’ll take a look at purchasing a race board in more detail and share some ideas on a testing protocol you can use when demoing boards to get objective information about which board performs best for you.  Taking that approach can really help ensure you make the best decision about which board to buy.

Do your research

The most important thing you can do when planning to purchase a new board is research your choices.  We’ve given you some things to consider here, but the answer to which board is best for you is still out there for you to find.  Be prepared to do some research so you can determine the full range of choices you have available.  Talk to others about their boards and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Try different boards if you possibly can, and keep some notes about what you liked and didn’t like about the boards you’ve tried.  Learn what works best for you and rank your options accordingly.  Then consider price.  In this way you should be able to determine the board that offers you the best value for what you can afford to pay.

Here’s wishing you the best in the board shopping process!  See you on the water!

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