Photo: Dan Holz/TandemStock

How to Buy The Right Standup Paddleboard

How to Buy The Right Standup Paddleboard

With standup paddleboards now specialized for every type of waterway from open oceans to wild rivers, choosing between options can seem daunting. Even all-around SUPs come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and construction layups. Fortunately, narrowing down your on-water needs will simplify your choices and help you find the best board, whether it’s a flatwater cruiser, a wave surfer, a SUP yoga platform, or a high-speed touring machine. 

Ask Yourself These Questions

Start by determining your desired use. Visualize how and where your board will take you—and how you will get it to and from the water as well. 

Do you plan to ever use your board to surf waves in the ocean? 

Consider an all-around SUP made with a solid construction that features a planing hull and more rounded nose that you could learn to surf with, but that you can still use to comfortably tour flatwater. If you’re only thinking about surfing, consider a shorter board (under 10 to 11 feet) with reduced volume, a more specialized tail profile and fin configuration.

And how about use on whitewater rivers? 

An inflatable, all-around board that can withstand some abuse is the safest bet, as it offers increased volume, with enough length and width for proper stability to learn in moving water.

Just want to paddle on multiple types of calmer water? 

A touring board at a longer length (over 10 to 11 feet) with a displacing hull should serve any skill-level paddler well for day-paddling excursions across lakes, protected ocean waters, and mild rivers. Better customize your needs by selecting board width, volume, as well as features below (like how much additional gear or fishing equipment you need to haul).

Looking to make serious miles, or enter a race?

You’ll definitely want a displacing hull on the longest, skinniest solid board that you’re comfortable on. For the most efficient paddling, consider the board’s layup material—reducing weight will add cost but pay off on any distance efforts.

Do you have a car rack or vehicle that allows you to easily transport a board? 

If not, going with an inflatable board could solve your needs for getting on the water—as well as storing it after. 

Types of SUPs

Once you’ve determined your target waters, pick a board type from these main categories.

All-around SUPs: A medium-length jack of all trades typically integrating a planing hull, perfect for everyday use on different bodies of water, including mild surf. Ideal fit for SUP yoga, with great options in both inflatable and solid-construction layups.

Pros: Easy to paddle, stable, forgiving in rough water and capable on the flats. 

Cons: Not as responsive in waves as a dedicated surfer; won’t track as straight or be as efficient for long paddles; limited extras for extended tours.

Touring SUPs: Often with a displacement hull, these are designed for going longer distances with larger loads.

Pros: Less steering required for long paddles; more efficient per stroke, and can carry overnight loads.

Cons: Not as maneuverable; larger and heavier to carry and store.

Racing SUPs: Best for training and fitness, these offer lightweight performance with a sleek, narrow displacing hull featuring sharp entry to cut through the water and increase the board’s glide. 

Pros: Less weight and more speed means more distance with less energy. 

Cons: Less stability; higher price tag for composite layup materials; harder to transport and store. 

Fishing SUPs: Drop a line from these do-it-all mobile docks

Pros: Wide and stable fishing platform that allows you to cast comfortably and can carry a lot of gear.

Cons: Width and weight slow you down; reduced ability to track or maneuver; harder to haul and load.

Whitewater SUPs: These typically inflatable boards are best for paddling for shallow, rocky rivers, as well as navigating swift rapids and surfing river waves. 

Pros: Super maneuverable; supremely stable; easy to turn; durable for shallower water and years of abuse.

Cons: Won’t track as straight; won’t translate to best use on flatwater. 

Photo: Dan Holz/TandemStock

Board Dimensions

Length: In general, the longer a standup paddleboard, the straighter it tracks and easier it glides through the water (a better option for distance tours, races, or downwind runs). Shorter SUPs (under 10 feet) offer more stability and more nimble turns, which is why you’ll see them in whitewater and in the surf zone. Most general, flatwater touring paddlers will choose a board in the 10- to 12-foot range that offers a stable, but still maneuverable platform—think small lakes, protected ocean waters, and SUP yoga. Long-distance and faster tourers will want a board over 12 feet, which will keep them tracking straighter and more efficiently. 

Width: is similar: Wider boards are more stable, making them ideal for newer paddlers or more casual users, though they move more slowly. A paddler’s body size is important here: Larger adult users will need a wider board (over 30 inches) to find their balance, while smaller paddlers can more easily find the balance point of a narrower board.

Volume: factors the paddleboard’s overall length, width, and thickness, and is usually measured in liters. The higher the volume, the more weight that the board can carry (and, depending on its shape, the more exertion it will take to propel it). Almost all boards should list a weight capacity. That’s worth note while you’re shopping, especially if you’re factoring additional gear (from extra layers and life jackets to fishing or overnight gear), or additional passengers (children or pets).

Board Design

Flipping a SUP over, most are going to have one of two easily distinguishable hull profiles. 

  • A planing hull is what most people imagine when they think “paddleboard.” The bottom is mostly flat, similar to a surfboard. That broader surface area is designed to move more of the board on top of the water, making them more maneuverable and stable. Planing boards are ideal for recreational paddling, SUP yoga, river running and surfing.
  • A displacement hull has a pointed nose and a slight keel along the centerline under the SUP. Like a kayak, these slice through the water, rather than sitting on top, making them more efficient to paddle, which means you can go farther, faster. They also track straighter over distance. If you’re going on longer overnight trips, using your SUP as a fitness tool, or racing it, a displacement hull is the way to go. 

Board Construction and Materials

Most paddleboards today are either constructed one of two ways: solid for maximum performance and versatility, or inflatable for maximum portability and durability.  

  • Solid SUPs are typically made from a shaped foam core and a composite of epoxy-resinated outer layers of fabric (like fiberglass, Kevlar or carbon fiber), wood, or even plastic materials. They can range from high-end custom builds to more affordable mass-produced factory designs. If you can store and transport a solid board, the enhanced levels of rigidity offer the benefits of uncompromised glide, stability, and responsiveness.
  • Inflatable SUPs are typically made with drop-stitched layers of PVC, and are obviously easier to transport to the water, to store when not in use, or to travel with—whether as checked luggage or carried into a backcountry lake. But when fully inflated, they’re also surprisingly rigid and make ideal platforms for SUP yoga considering their slightly softer and more forgiving decks. Their increased ability to take dings without cracking also makes them better for running rocky rivers.
  • Soft-top SUPs offer a middle ground. Though made solid by a foam core, these paddleboards feature soft exterior rails and decks made from rigid foam like EVA, a durable, grippy, and comfy surface that makes them both great learning and everyday platforms for kids, families, yoga, and pet passengers. The foam combo creates a lighter, more buoyant, and often far less expensive board, though often at the cost of sacrificing performance with speed and tracking.

Fins

The fin(s) on the bottom tail of your paddleboard helps with tracking and stability, though there are a couple basic variations and options. In general, the larger the board, the larger the fin, the straighter your SUP will track, while smaller fins offer greater maneuverability. They can range from high-end composites to more basic plastic options. Most fins are removable and replaceable (especially on inflatable boards that roll up), configured in a few common ways:

  • Most touring SUPs have a single fin that slides into a center finbox slot and locks in place with a screw and small metal plate. These are a good choice for flatwater paddling, offering decent tracking with minimal drag. Longer, straighter single fins can boost tracking as you progress to rougher waters.
  • Many all-around SUPs have three fins where the center one is larger, called a 2+1 configuration also favored for surfing. Many SUPs feature three fins of roughly the same size, called a thruster configuration, which increases tracking and boosts turning control in surf.
  • Some advanced surf-specific SUPs feature a twin, or quad fin configuration with, respectively, two or four smaller matching fins on either side of the tail that can increase speed, stability, and turning response. SUPs used for paddling whitewater rivers also often feature twin fin setups, sometimes utilizing flexible fins and retracting center fins that could otherwise get hit or damaged over shallow rocks.

Decks

Many all-around touring SUPs come with extra rigging points on the nose deck (and sometimes the tail) for lashing down dry bags and other day-paddling accessories with straps or included bungees. Some fishing-specific models even come with recesses for coolers, optional seats, and rod-holder attachments.

The board’s main carrying recess or handle is usually located in the thickest part of the mid-board where you would most often find yourself paddling. Check to make sure you can comfortably grab the handle and hoist the weight of the board on your own. Most boards should also have a tail hole or rigging point for anchoring a leash. (Always paddle with a leash or life jacket; it’s the law on many U.S. waterways.). 

Finally, though most boards come with a partial deck pad, if you plan on spending a lot of time on your board, whether it’s doing yoga or bringing your dog along, you might need more traction and grip; consider a board with a full-length deck pad. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

MORE STORIES