Among outdoor recreation in general and watersports specifically, few activities have exploded in popularity as much as stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). This beginner-friendly mode of getting on the water has broad-based, all-ages appeal, and many who are introduced to it—say, via rentals at popular beachfronts or destination resorts—get altogether hooked and end up wanting to purchase their very own board.
As the sport has expanded—and as SUP practitioners have continued to push the limits of just where paddle boards can go and how long a paddleboarding outing can last—board technology has become more and more specialized for different types of paddling and different waters. These days, you’ll see paddle boarders on everything from flatwater lagoons and lakes to some surprisingly gnarly whitewater rivers and surf breaks. Anglers cast from paddle boards; SUP yoga enthusiasts strike poses along postcard-perfect beaches. Those natural-born competitive types can steer their way into the fast-paced thrill of SUP racing.
In short, the flowering of SUP has demonstrated not only that just about anybody can learn to master a paddle board, but also that these deceptively simple-looking, stripped-to-the-basics vessels can handle a wide variety of waters and whims.
Properties of Paddle Boards to Be Aware Of
The exact model of paddle board you choose depends on some obvious variables, namely the sort of paddling you see yourself doing most often and (naturally) the relative constraints of your budget. Ultimately you’ll boil down the decision-making to a particular type of paddle board made from a particular material.
We’ll drill down on paddle-board categories and construction a bit further along, but first let’s sketch out some of the main properties and design features that determine a paddle board’s performance.
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A longer paddle board is, generally speaking, a faster one, and it also tends to track better—that is, adhere more faithfully to a straight-line course. All else being equal, longer boards also float higher on the water. Shorter paddle boards, in turn, are much more maneuverable.
Narrower boards tend to be speedier, better-tracking, and more maneuverable, while wider boards provide greater stability and security at the sacrifice of speed.
Paddle boards may be solid or inflatable, and constructed from a number of different materials—from fiberglass (the most common) to wood and foam. We’ll get into board construction later in this article.
Hull (Nose Shape)
When scrutinizing the hull of a paddle board, you’ll definitely want to key into the profile of the bow—that is, the nose. Boards fall into two broad categories of nose shape: planing hulls and displacement hulls. Planing hulls are broader and blunter, offering high-riding, quick-turning forward motion. Displacement hulls are pointier, designed to slice knife-like through the water. Planing hulls deliver greater stability and maneuverability, while displacement hulls crank up a board’s speed, tracking, and efficiency.
One or more fins—usually detachable for solid boards, and either detachable or fixed for inflatables—improve a paddle board’s tracking and influence its speed, stability, and maneuverability. These attributes all depend to some degree on the size, shape, number, and configuration of fins. A single fin is most effective for better tracking, though if you place it closer to the nose of the board it’ll lend more maneuverability at the expense of course-faithfulness—a good choice for surfing. Multiple (often three or four) fins—for example, arranged in the so-called “thruster” configuration with a central fin flanked by side fins—can beef up tracking and directional control. Larger fins, generally speaking, support better tracking while smaller ones lend more maneuverability.
Focus on the thickness of a given paddle board as weighed against the length and width, as that helps determine the overall board volume. Those other variables being equal, a thicker board boasts greater volume and thus greater weight capacity.
Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Paddle Boards
Different expressions of the above variables—and in different combinations—characterize the specific types of paddle boards you’ll be choosing among. On this count, you’ll mainly be assessing your goals as a paddle boarder—the kind of paddling you want to do and where you want to do it—and your ability level.
There’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast taxonomy of paddle boards, though most can be lumped in one or another of a few major categories. Especially for newbies, it’s often more straightforward to think in terms of different paddle-board “use-cases,” which is how we’ll break things down here.
If your main SUP stomping “grounds” are going to take the form of lakes, bays, or gentle nearshore waters, a flatwater-style board is your best bet. In these settings, tracking is the chief consideration. Longer and narrower boards with a displacement hull will be most efficient in these settings, but a basic recreational “all-around” board with a planing hull can do just fine, especially with the right size and configuration of fins.
River SUP can look differently depending on the sort of flow you’re paddling. Indeed, there’s no more variable and dynamic a category of SUP waters than the alluvial realm. A broad, gentle river translates essentially to flatwater paddling. Whitewater is a whole other kettle of fish, to say the least, with maneuverability—and “surf-ability”—much more important than tracking or speed and thus shorter, stubbier boards with a pronounced rocker (upturned nose and tail) are more desirable. Many rivers, of course, present some combination of flatwater stretches, wildwater rodeo rides, and middle-ground reaches of riffles, shoals, and low-grade rapids. In those cases, selecting a board that’s long enough for decent tracking but short enough for easy turning—in other words, a wisely selected all-around or crossover/hybrid model—is the name of the game.
Touring boards are those best-suited for long-distance—even multiday—paddling, most of which will be on flatwater or at least mild water. These are thus generally the lengthiest boards for optimum tracking, buoyancy, and weight capacity, and they typically sport a displacement hull. Getting the most speed and straight-ahead momentum for your paddle stroke is key, as is adequate volume and capacity to haul gear.
A stand-up paddleboard can be an awesome angling vessel—offering ready access to non-motorized waterways, for example, plus quieter prowling and the added benefit of a full-body workout to your fishing. The exact shape and dimensions of your fishing-friendly board will depend somewhat on the physical nature of your fishing grounds—backcountry bay vs. beachfront surf, sluggish bayou vs. riffled trout steam—but in general you’ll want a broader-beamed board for greater stability and security while casting, and likely a shorter model for the most directional flexibility.
Designed with wave-riding in mind, surf paddle boards are highly specialized: short, planing-hulled, narrow, and decently rockered. Thruster or “2-plus-1” configurations of fins (with a big center fin and a pair of small flanking ones) are common in surf paddle boards.
Stand-up paddleboards have emerged as quite the popular platform for yoga routines—and, given the kinds of serene aquatic settings and sublime seascape scenery they provide access to, it’s really no surprise. Wide boards, delivering premium stability, are best suited for pursuing those offshore downward dogs, side angles, and corpse poses.
This isn’t a use-case but an actual design category of stand-up paddle board—and one of the most popular and accessible. Inflatable boards are nicely suited to less specialized SUP activities and—given their ruggedness and buoyancy—a top contender for whitewater. While they can’t quite match the peak performance of high-quality solid paddle boards, they offer some major advantages: You can transport them easily long-distance—including by airplane or train—and you can backpack them into remote lakes and rivers for some unbeatable wilderness SUP.
Inflatable boards can be quickly inflated with an electric SUP pump – no need to use your lungs.
All-around boards are your general-purpose SUP vessels, designed to provide maximum versatility for different settings and activities. They’re also the classic entry-level paddle board, about as beginner-friendly as you could ask for and offering quite a safety net for trial-and-error practicing.