How to Choose Your First Paddleboard: A Beginner’s Primer

How to choose your first paddleboard

How to choose your first paddleboard

Paddling season is here!  Maybe you tried SUP last year and have decided it’s time to take the plunge and get your own board. Maybe you just think it looks fun and cool and you want to give it a go.  Yay!!! Here are some things to think about when deciding how to choose your first paddleboard.

Questions to ask yourself first about Paddleboard Selection

Not all paddle boards are alike.  In fact, the choices can be overwhelming.  Think about what you want to do with that board.  Answer these questions first, before you whip out the plastic or the checkbook:

  1. Where am I going to paddle most of the time?  Are you going to paddle on a flat, calm lake most of the time? Will you ever paddle in the ocean? Do you want to paddle surf?  If lakes and wide, calm rivers are likely to be your paddle places, then you probably want a displacement hull board (think more like a kayak shape) since they are more efficient on flat water.  If you want something just to tool around on or to take in the surf, consider a planing hull (more like a surfboard with a rounded nose.)
  2. Why am I going to paddle? Just for recreation? Is it for fitness? For yoga? Touring? Racing? Fishing? With the whole family? All of the above? If touring and racing are in your future, then consider a displacement hull board – again for efficiency.  Yoga and recreational paddling, then perhaps an all-around planing hull board. Fishing? A wider, flatter fishing-specific board (yes, that’s a thing!) If this is going to be a family activity, then inflatables, soft tops, or tough polymer boards might be the way to go, as opposed to more expensive and fragile composite boards made of fiberglass or carbon.
  3. Where will I store it? Do you have a garage? Does it have to go under the deck or even in the house? Uh, you have no room? If inside a garage or house isn’t feasible, then look for a board with a more durable composition.  If you have zero space, then look at inflatables. 
Photo: Paddleboard Specialists

Demo, demo, demo!

We can’t say this enough. Try it before you buy it. Get a sense of how stable boards are, how easy they seem to be to paddle, and how comfortable you feel on a given board.  Most local board shops have some sort of demo program.  Or take some classes and try out different boards that way.  And do the same thing with paddles!!!

What Length Should I Get?

Boards come in the following size ranges:

  • 9 -10’6”: Usually used for paddle surfing, general recreation, and whitewater sup
  • 11’6”: Yoga, fitness, recreational boards, surfing
  • 12’6”: Racing and touring
  • 14’: Racing, touring, down winding
  • Unlimited: Anything longer than 14’ – usually custom racing, touring, down winding

Remember: the shorter the board, the easier it is to turn, but the harder it is to paddle any distance.  The longer the board, the easier it is to paddle distance but is not quite as maneuverable.   Wider is more stable but slower.

Don’t get caught in the trap of buying a shorter board because you want to save money or because of your size. Remember how you answered those questions above. If you want to learn how to surf, then start with a wider, more stable board.  If you want to race, don’t buy anything less than a 12’6” displacement board. Touring your goal, then consider a longer, and slightly wider board outfitted for that purpose – with bungee attachments built into the deck for gear storage.

Ladies – don’t think you have to have a shorter board just because you are a woman and are smaller. Make the size determination based on what you want to do with that board. It needs to have enough volume (in general, thickness) to support your weight, and, if it’s a displacement hull, you have to be heavy enough to make sure the nose of the board will sit low enough in the water to cut through it.  Plenty of women paddlers of all sizes paddle 14-foot boards, and they do it well! 

If you are buying your first race board, a wise man once told me the fastest board is the one you can stay on! You might be tempted, especially if you’ve paddled a fair amount already and are wanting to take it to the next level, to buy the narrowest, sleekest board on the rack.  But if you are spending a lot of time swimming and climbing back on, or even working hard to avoid falling because it’s tippy, then…well it’s not going to help you too much when the starting horn goes off.  Go wider, then work on your skills, and upgrade when you’re ready.

A note on weight

Think about how heavy the boards are.  That’s important when you think about transporting it.  Can you easily get the board on and off your car alone (both because of its weight and length?)  Can you handle the board walking back to the car on a windy day? Lighter boards are going to be made of carbon and fiberglass.  The trade-off there can some times be durability and the price. The lighter, the more expensive.   More durable boards are oftentimes much heavier.  Heavier boards can sometimes be a bit harder to paddle. So, it’s important to know how you intend to use the board, who you might use it with, and how you are going to store it.

Taking boards for a test drive allows you to figure out what boards work well with your body type and your paddling goals.  Reputable shops can help make sure the fit is right for you. Again, demo, demo, demo!

What Else do I need?

If you’ve just dropped a chunk of change on a decent board, it’s really tempting to skip some of the essentials that go along with paddling.  Or to skimp on the paddle and go cheap.  Some things though, you just don’t want to pass on, because they are CRITICAL to safety.

LEASH:  The leash is a coiled or straight pliable but strong cord that attaches to the tail of the board and then to you via a velcro cuff worn either on the ankle or calf. Surfers use them, boogie boarders use them.  SUP paddlers use them.  They keep you and the board connected. If you fall, especially in windy or conditions with a strong current, wearing the leash means you can always get back to your board. It can be the difference between life and death. Most fatal paddleboard accidents could have been prevented if the paddler had been wearing a leash or a Personal Flotation Device (PFD.)  If you plan to paddle surf, get a straight leash.  Coiled if you are on flat water.

PFD: A PFD is the other thing you should NOT pass on when you get your board.  First of all, the US Coast Guard requires you have one.  You could get a ticket if you don’t.  Second, read the above paragraph.  Even though the Coast Guard does not require you to wear the PFD, it cannot save you if you don’t.  Buy one.  Wear it.  Along with the leash.

The Paddle: Good paddles are expensive.  But shoulder surgery is more so.  Do yourself a favor and budget in enough to purchase a decent, lightweight, ergonomically designed paddle. Your shoulders will thank you.  You are also far more likely to hang on to that paddle for some time, whereas you might sell your board and upgrade as you improve.  Start with a decent paddle and it can last you a good long time, as long as you take care of it. Adjustable paddles are a good option for families sharing a board.  They can be heavier so keep that in mind.

Where do I go to get one?

If you need help making the decision, then find a local paddleboard shop near you. Those folks know their product as well as the local conditions you are going to be paddling in.  And more often than not, they love the sport as much as you do and are eager to pass on the stoke! They can help you find places to paddle and maybe even people to do it with.  Don’t have one near you? Reputable outfitter stores may have a good selection of gear to choose from, with knowledgeable staff as well.  Just like buying a bike from a big box discount store has its pitfalls, so it also goes with paddleboards. The price tag might be right, but the board might be heavy, flimsy, and hard to paddle. And it may not last. 

Classified ads are also good options to pick up a good board at a great price.  Sometimes shops will sell their demo boards at a discount as well.

So…do the soul searching, do some research, demo, and ask lots of questions….then get out on the water and have fun!!

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