Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) offers something for everyone. You can head out for a relaxing paddle on a calm lake or catch waves in the ocean. Or maybe you’d like to do SUP yoga or go for a fast-paced paddle to get a workout. Whatever your ambitions, having the right board is key to your enjoyment.
To find the right stand up paddle board for you, consider how you're going to use it, how it will fit your body and how you want it to handle in the water.
Here are the key decision points:
- Hull type: Your two main choices are a planing hull and a displacement hull; the type you choose will be based on the type of paddling you plan to do.
- Solid or inflatable: Do you want a solid board or an inflatable one? Your answer will be based on things like board performance, portability and your storage options.
- Volume and weight capacity: You want to pick a board with the volume and weight capacity that’s right for your height and weight to ensure good stability and paddling performance.
- Length, width and thickness: The dimensions of a SUP play a big role in determining how it handles on the water.
From there, you’ll consider a board’s fins and any extras or accessories that work for you.
Solid vs. Inflatable SUPs
Planing hull and displacement hull SUPs are available in two different general construction styles: solid or inflatable.
Most solid boards have an EPS foam core that’s wrapped with fiberglass and epoxy. This is a fairly lightweight, durable and affordable construction. Carbon fiber is a lighter and stiffer option, but it’s also more expensive. Plastic SUPs are more affordable, but they are very heavy and lack the performance of other materials. Some SUPs incorporate lightweight wood for a beautiful appearance.
Why get a solid SUP:
- Performance is your priority: Solid boards offer the best performance on the water. They travel faster, smoother and with less effort than an inflatable. If paddling fast and far are your priorities, a solid SUP is for you.
- For a perfect fit: Solid SUPs are available in a larger variety of sizes and finely tuned shapes than inflatable SUPs, so you’re more likely to find one that fits you just right.
- Stability is important: A solid board is a tad more rigid than an inflatable board, which can provide a more stable feel, especially when riding waves. Solid boards also tend to ride lower in the water, which can also create a more stable feel.
- You have a place to store it: Solid SUPs can take up a lot of space. If you have ample room in your garage and a vehicle that can transport it, then a solid SUP is a fine choice.
Inflatable SUPs feature PVC exteriors with drop-stitch construction that create an air core. They come with a pump for inflating the board and a storage bag for when it’s not in use. A quality inflatable SUP is designed to be inflated to 12–15 pounds per square inch and should feel very rigid when fully inflated.
Why get an inflatable SUP:
- You have limited storage space: If you live in a small house, condo or apartment, you may not have room for a large solid board. Inflatable SUPs are compact when deflated and can easily be stowed in small spaces, like a closet or the trunk of a car.
- You’re traveling: If you’re taking a road trip or hopping on a plane, you can bring along your inflatable SUP and do some paddling when you reach your destination. Packed away in its storage bag, an inflatable can be checked on an airplane or stowed in a train, bus or car. Most storage bags have backpack straps for easy carrying.
- You’re hiking to a lake: If you’re headed to an alpine lake and want to paddle, you certainly cannot carry a solid board. An inflatable stowed in its storage bag is still heavy, but it’s pretty much your only option.
- You’re paddling whitewater: Like a raft or inflatable kayak, an inflatable SUP is better suited to handle bumps up against rocks and logs than a solid board.
- You like SUP yoga: You don’t have to get an inflatable for SUP yoga, but they tend to be a bit softer than solid boards, making them more comfortable for yoga poses.
SUP Volume and Weight Capacity
A SUP board must work for your size. If the board doesn’t displace the correct amount of water for your weight, you won’t be supported well and the board may feel unstable. Board volume and weight capacity are two factors that affect how stable you will feel and how well the board will travel through the water.
Volume and weight capacity are determined by the length, width and thickness of the board. SUP manufacturers combine these three dimensions in different ways to achieve different performance characteristics (see the SUP Length, SUP Width and SUP Thickness sections of this article to learn more).
Volume: A paddle board's volume, expressed in liters, gives an indication of the board’s ability to float with weight on it. The higher the volume, the more weight the board can support. You can find volume for a SUP listed in the specs on REI.com.
Weight capacity: Each paddle board has a rider weight capacity, which is listed in pounds in the specs on REI.com. Knowing weight capacity is important because if you’re too heavy for a board, it will ride lower in the water and be inefficient to paddle. When thinking about weight capacity, consider the total amount of weight you will put on the board, including your body weight and the weight of any gear, food and drinking water that you’ll be taking with you.
Volume and weight capacity as it relates to hull type: Most planing-hull boards are very forgiving, so as long as you’re below the weight capacity, the board will perform well for you. However, with displacement-hull SUPs, volume and weight capacity are more significant. SUP makers spend a lot of time determining the most efficient position for displacement boards to be in the water. If you overweight a displacement board and cause it to sink too low, it will drag and feel slow. If you’re too light for a board, you won’t sink it enough and the board will feel heavy and difficult to control.
The length of a board plays a major role in determining how the board handles. In general, longer boards are faster than shorter boards, but shorter boards are more maneuverable. Keep in mind your intended use when deciding what length SUP to buy:
- Short boards (under 10’): Great for surfing and/or kids. These boards almost always have a planing hull. Short boards are more maneuverable than long boards, making them great for surfing waves. Boards designed specifically for kids are typically around 8’ long.
- Medium boards (10’ to 12’): Ideal for all-around use and for SUP yoga. Most of these boards have planing hulls, but sometime you’ll find a displacement-hull SUP at this length.
- Long boards (12’6” and above): Great for fast paddling and long-distance touring. The majority of boards in this size range are displacement-hull SUPs. They’re faster than short and medium boards and they tend to track straighter. If you’re interested in paddling fast or touring long distances, you’ll want a long board.
When choosing a length, it’s helpful to understand how it relates to volume and weight capacity. A longer board can increase the volume and capacity, which can make it feel more stable and allow you to carry more on the board (width and thickness are also factors in volume and capacity; see the SUP Width and SUP Thickness sections of this article).
Consider, too, board length in regards to your type of car, home storage situation and length of walk to the beach or shore (longer boards are more difficult to carry, especially in windy places).
Width is another important factor that affects how the board handles. A wider board will always be more stable than a skinny board, but keep in mind that a wide board can be slower and, if the board is too wide for you, difficult to paddle. SUPs are made in widths ranging from about 25 inches up to 36 inches to accommodate a variety of needs.
When choosing how wide your SUP should be, think about the type of paddling you do, your body type and ability level:
- Type of paddling: If you’re going on long tours that require you to carry extra gear, like a cooler of food and a tent, choose a wider board in order to have more storage space. The same is true if you’re doing SUP yoga; a board that is 31 inches wide or more will give you space and stability for doing poses. Narrower boards, on the other hand, are faster and more maneuverable, making them the choice among racers and surfers.
- Body type: Try to match the width of the SUP to your body type. In general, if you’re a small person, go with a narrower board and if you’re a big person, go with a wider board. This is because a smaller person can generally find their balance on a narrow board, whereas a bigger person may struggle to do so. Also, if you put a smaller person on a board that is too big for them, they have to awkwardly reach out to the side to get their paddle in the water, resulting in an inefficient stroke.
- Ability level: If you’ve paddled a lot, you may be comfortable on a narrower, faster SUP. However, someone brand new to SUP, might prefer a little extra width to help them feel more secure.
As with length, width affects the overall volume and weight capacity, so you can select a width with this in mind. For example, if you’ve determined the length you want based on the type of paddling you want to do, you can choose a width (and/or thickness; see the SUP Thickness section of this article) that gives you the appropriate board volume and weight capacity.