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How to Choose a Stand Up Paddle Board

How do you pick the perfect SUP? We are here to help!
By Marissa Fox ⋅ Review Editor
Monday July 10, 2017
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Becoming incredibly popular in the past few years, stand up paddleboards (aka paddle boards, aka SUPs) have become a familiar sight almost everywhere there is water. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a body of water on a calm day that doesn't have some people paddling their boards around.

You've probably seen them around or rented/borrowed a board from someone, and are considering purchasing your own. However, it can be quite confusing when you start looking at rigid or inflatable models or comparing touring, surfing, racing, or all-around boards, with a vast range of prices and features. In this article, we break down the ins and outs of purchasing a board, what you should look for, and what type of board would best match your needs. Keep reading to find out more!

This group of boards -- an all-around  surfing  and touring model -- all performed very differently in our maneuverability tests.
This group of boards -- an all-around, surfing, and touring model -- all performed very differently in our maneuverability tests.

Why Buy A Stand Up Paddleboard? What Can You Do With It?

A SUP is a great way to get out and enjoy the water without a ton of work. These boards can usually be carried and launched by a single person, as well as transported by most cars. Many of the more beginner-friendly have practically zero learning curve and will have novice paddlers cruising around within an hour or so. Touring and race models have excellent glide performance, allowing you to travel surprisingly long distances, while some models of the models are highly maneuverable, making them suitable for surfing. SUPs are a great way to make the most of your day out on the lake or ocean.

The BIC was the most stable of the entire group  making it the top choice for transporting toddlers.
The BIC was the most stable of the entire group, making it the top choice for transporting toddlers.

However, these boards don't handle rough waters and high winds all that well, meaning that beginners should stick to flat waters and calm days when starting out and always wear a lifejacket or other Personal Floatation Device (PFD). Speaking of PFD's, it's also a prudent idea to check local laws and regulations for your area to see which may apply to your new SUP. You may be obliged to wear or carry a PFD, light, or whistle, and to avoid specific areas. Paddleboards do count as a vessel in most jurisdictions, so you are usually bound by the safety regulations relevant to boating. Now that you are set on getting a paddleboard, it's time to narrow down the fleet of possible choices to the type that will best suit you.

The SUP's length makes it a bit cumbersome to carry.
Here you'll see many of the competitors in our fleet. The top row bags belong to the following boards  from left to right: PEAK Inflatable  Xterra  Airis. And the bottom row  from left to right: Red Paddle  NRS  Isle  iRocker.

Step 1: Inflatable Or Rigid?

The first question that comes to mind when attempting to pick out a board is deciding between an inflatable or a rigid model. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages, and we will outline some of them for each board below.

Inflatable boards are usually lighter than their fiberglass or hard plastic counterparts and are generally more portable. These boards also tend to be a more economical option and are an excellent option for someone who doesn't have the room to store a full-size board at their home or a convenient method of transporting one. However, while these boards are much more portable than rigid models, they aren't convenient to carry for long distances. Walking less than a mile to the beach is usually fine but don't count on hiking several miles through the backcountry to an alpine lake. Also, hitting a sharp stick or pointy obstacle can end in catastrophic failure if the hull is punctured. It does take some considerable force, and the hulls can usually withstand minor scrapes and scuffs without an issue.

Unfortunately, inflatable models do have some distinct disadvantages. There are generally more parts to keep track of, such as the pump or inflator and removable fins. Setup can take 5-10 minutes, with the stability of the board directly dependent on hitting the necessary pressure — a surprisingly difficult task. These boards are also generally much slower and less stable than rigid models. However, you shouldn't take this as a condemnation of inflatable models. We have had fantastic days on the lake on both rigid and inflatable models. If you are leaning towards an inflatable version, take a read through our comprehensive review here.

Moving on to rigid models, there is no denying that these are more cumbersome to carry, as a 9-12' board tends to be more difficult to move than an inflatable model rolled up into a backpack. These boards also are a little more fragile in a sense, as small collisions or improper handling can crack or scratch away the gel coat, causing cracks and damage to propagate over time.

Some of the damage sustained by the Kraken throughout testing.
Some of the damage sustained by the Kraken throughout testing.

However, these boards thoroughly outperform their inflatable counterparts once in the water. They are much much faster — smashing an inflatable model in a head-to-head race. Rigid boards also handle a little better — tracking in a straight line while paddling — and are usually more stable. As this review is for rigid boards, we will continue under the assumption that you have settled on this model. If that isn't the case, then you will be better served by our inflatable SUP buying advice guide .

Step 2: Baffled By Board Type?

As you start shopping for rigid SUP's, you will notice that there are several types of boards advertised, predominantly boiling down into three types: all-around, touring/race, and surfing. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you can split these types into even more niche categories, but these three types are where most people will start looking.

The Naish Mana  a surfing oriented board.
The Naish Mana, a surfing oriented board.


These top of the line, performance boards are much longer than the previous two types of boards, offering an unparalleled glide performance. Touring boards are slightly wider, giving you more stability and are designed for endurance paddles, usually accounting for the fact that you will have some gear with you. Racing boards are slightly longer and narrower than touring board, sacrificing some stability for increased speed. While racing and touring boards are fast and track well, both types sacrifice stability and maneuverability when compared to an all-around board. These boards also tend to be on the pricey side and aren't the best bet for beginner paddlers.

All-Around Boards

These boards are the jack-of-all-trades of the SUP world, usually wider, thicker, and larger than surfing models but shorter than racing or touring boards. A fantastic choice for beginning and intermediate paddlers, these boards do an alright job at pretty much everything. They have decent glide performance, track reasonably well, and have enough rocker to deal with choppier conditions.

Our lead canine tester  Chewy  was a bit apprehensive about the BIC at first  but warmed up to it quite quickly.
Our lead canine tester, Chewy, was a bit apprehensive about the BIC at first, but warmed up to it quite quickly.

These are good family boards, as you can usually carry a child, cooler, or canine companion without too much difficulty. These models also are generally in the middle of the price range, being a little more on the palatable side.

The Surftech Saber is a solid touring/racing board.
The Surftech Saber is a solid touring/racing board.


Surfing boards are generally on the shorter and smaller side when compared to the all-around or touring boards. These have a design similar to a standard surfboard, simply scaled up. SUP's that are designed for surfing or lean toward surfing aren't the most stable and don't excel at glide performance, but they are very maneuverable. These models also have narrow rails to cut into the face of the wave.

The Isle Versa  one of our budget picks.
The Isle Versa, one of our budget picks.

Step 3: Just Starting Out? Carrying Cargo Or Yearning For Yoga?

Now that you have settled on the class of board that is the best fit for you, it's time to look at what makes a board fit you. Every board will have a maximum weight capacity listed, but it's prudent to stay well below that. Beginners should look for a board that has a displacement or maximum weight limit about double your weight, to ensure the most stable ride. Intermediate paddlers can get away with a displacement of about 170% of their weight, and advanced paddlers can even get as low as 130% of their weight. This usually translates to a longer board for a larger paddler.

In addition to looking at your weight, it's important to take into account what you will be carrying, who else will be on the board, or what you are planning on doing. Those looking to paddle with a child or canine companion should always go for the wider board when picking between models, even if it is only by an inch or so — it can make a surprising difference, especially in choppy water. The same goes for those that are hoping to do yoga on the board.

The BIC was also stable enough for yoga.
The BIC was also stable enough for yoga.


Hopefully, this article helped you on your journey to pick the perfect paddleboard for your next excursion. For more info on how specific models stacked up, consult our comprehensive side-by-side review here, or for more information on how we came to our conclusions, take a read through our How We Test article for a breakdown of our testing procedures and processes.

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