stand up paddleboard

How to choose a stand up paddleboard

A stand-up paddleboard (SUP) combines paddling with surfing. It gives you a fresh perspective, lets you look right down into the water, and feels like you’re walking on the surface. The upright position provides a full body workout, while the width of the board makes it is easy to balance.

When you’re choosing a paddleboard, you’ll want to think about:

  • Types of SUPs: Do you want to paddle on calm lakes, go surfing, touring or racing, or try SUP yoga or whitewater paddling?
  • Inflatable versus hard paddleboards: Learn the pros and cons of blow-up boards.
  • Hull shapes, lengths and fins: See how these factors affect your ride.
  • PFDs for paddleboarding: Yep, you need one – see what options exist.
  • Storing your SUP: A few tips once you bring your board home.

Types of paddleboards

Each SUP has its own shape and intended purpose. Select a shape that matches the conditions you want to paddle in, or the type of paddleboarding you’d like to do:

Flat water Paddling

All-around boards are the best way to start exploring the sport on flat water. These boards are great for paddling on calm lakes and the still water of inlets or bays, and are designed to feel stable. They’re relatively long and wide, so you have a good-sized platform to plant your feet, and most have a rounded nose. They have high volume, which makes them quite stable and allows you to bring your dog or attach some extra gear to the deck. You’ll get an excellent leg and core workout as you paddle.

All-around SUPs are best for:

  • Beginners
  • Calm lakes
  • Protected inlets

Surfing

Surfing on a SUP is easier to learn than a regular surf board because you’re already standing and balanced when the wave gets to you. These boards are a bit shorter and are tapered so they’re nimble and responsive in the waves. They often have an upward curve, or rocker, in the nose and tail to make them easier to pivot and turn. You’ll feel the difference if you take a surf SUP out for a longer paddle. It will be less efficient when you want to go straight line, and you’ll have to work hard to cover any distance.

Best for:

  • Advanced SUPers
  • Surfers

SUP yoga

Doing yoga on a paddleboard is a whole new yoga experience – the water adds an extra element of challenge and fresh air. While any flat-decked, relatively wide board works for SUP yoga, boards designed for doing yoga poses tend to be extra wide with blunt ends. They often have full-length pads (kind of like a yoga mat) on top for grip.

Best for:

  • Floating downward dogs
  • Adding a challenge to your yoga practice
  • Doing double-duty as a recreational board

Touring or racing

Paddleboarding with a mountain view

Paddling in the Kootenay region of BC. Photo by MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby.

Some serious SUP expeditions have been done on paddleboards, like the Inside Passage to Alaska and weeks-long journeys of remote northern rivers. To help paddlers travel as efficiently as possible on long-haul trips, SUP touring boards tend to be longer and slightly narrower than all-around boards.

Some have a displacement hull (more on hull types below) with a pointed nose and extra rocker to punch through chop and over swell. They also tend to be thicker to increase the volume and how much weight you can carry, and have bungies to lash dry bags to the deck.

Like touring boards, SUP racing boards are all about moving as quickly as possible in a straight line. There are 3 different length classes for SUP racing: 12ft.6in. (a.k.a., stock), 14ft., and unlimited (anything longer than 14ft.).

Touring and racing SUPs are best for:

  • Expeditions by paddleboard (touring boards)
  • Intermediate and advanced paddlers that want great open-water performance and efficiency
  • Races

Whitewater paddling

Sending an amazing rapid on the Mountain River, NWT, as part of a SUP expedition supported by MEC. Photo: Jimmy Martinello.

Yep, whitewater. And why not? Standing on a SUP gives paddlers a great view of what’s coming up on the river. For experienced kayakers, it’s also a way to give familiar runs a totally new feel.

There are two types of whitewater boards: river runners and river surfers. River runners tend to be a bit longer for speed and sometimes have bungies to attach gear for river tripping. River surfers are quite a bit shorter and more rockered so you can pivot on wave faces, and give you options for different fin set-ups.

Material-wise, you’ll see inflatable and polyethylene boards in this category since they need to handle bumps and rock impacts.

Best for:

  • Paddling whitewater river features.
  • Surfing stationary play waves.

Inflatable paddleboards

If you’re travelling, don’t have a lot of room to store a board, or want to transport your board by bike, public bus or airplane, an inflatable SUP is the right way to go. There are inflatable boards for every SUP scenario.

Inflatable paddleboards fit inside a carrying case that’s the size of a large backpack. With a hand pump, you can inflate it in 5 to 10 minutes or even faster if you use an electric or battery powered pump.

Pros of inflatable SUPs:

  • Super portable and easy to store.
  • Great for travelling (intriguing possibilities for remote lakes and rivers).
  • Extremely durable, which is great for whitewater paddling.
  • Flat bottoms and high-buoyancy helps with stability, so they’re friendly for new paddlers and SUP yoga.

Cons of inflatable SUPs:

  • Though they’re not much less stiff than hard boards, you may notice some flex when paddling – which means extra effort in each paddle stroke.
  • Some are quite thick, which may make you feel a bit higher up and “disconnected’ from the water.
  • If you’re looking for sophisticated rail and hull shapes, you likely won’t find it in an inflatable board (though pointed noses and rocker are now possible).

Hull shapes

The shape of the hull (the underside of the board) changes how it interacts with the water. Most SUPs (and all modern surfboards) have planing hull designs: smooth bottoms with a subtle convex shape. This hull shape skims on top of the water. Large-sized boards with planing hulls can be quite stable, so there are lots of boards geared to beginners with this design. They’re also great for surfing. But they’re not a good choice for touring or racing, since they’re not as efficient and don’t track straight as well.

Displacement hulls have hulls that go deeper underwater than planing hulls (similar to a sea kayak or canoe). This shape helps them slice through water efficiently when touring or racing. They also tend to track straighter and are more capable in the swell and chop of open water. The downsides? They can feel tippier, are trickier to turn and aren’t as great on breaking waves. Best for advanced riders.

Paddleboard length

The length of the board determines how fast it is and how responsive it is to turning and carving. Adding length to a board also increases its surface area, so longer boards are generally more buoyant and can handle some extra weight and cargo.

  • Short boards are great for surfing (under 9ft.)
  • Medium boards are great all-around boards (9–12ft.)
  • Long boards are great for racing or touring (12–14ft.)

Paddleboard fins

Fins help your board track (go in a straight line) and add stability. A fin can also add speed when you’re catching and riding waves. Sliding a fin forward makes the board easier to turn. Sliding it back makes it track straighter.

A 3-fin cluster gives you options to change the way your board tracks and turns. You can remove the centre fin, or both the side fins, or swap them out for different heights and shapes to tune the way your board responds when you’re racing in rougher waters or cutting across the face of a steep wave.

A quad is a 4-fin set-up for surfing, and creates a looser feeling when you’re turning on a wave compared to a 3-fin (“thruster”) configuration.

SUP storage and care

Extreme heat and cold can cause the board to expand and contract, possibly weakening it. Store it in a cool, shaded place when you’re not using it. If you’re leaving it out on the beach during a break, store it with the traction surface (the part you stand on) facing the ground. That way it won’t be frying hot when you step on it.

Do you need a PFD for paddleboarding?

Yes. Unlike surfboards, SUPs are considered nautical vessels like kayaks or canoes. So, when you ride one in Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) requires that you have a PFD with you. You don’t have to actually wear it, but it is to your benefit and safety if you do. An inflatable PFD worn on a belt around your waist is a common choice for SUP paddlers. It won’t interfere with your stroke and feels much less bulky than a vest-style flotation device.

What type of paddle?

Your paddle should be taller than you are by about 10–20cm, so you can stand up tall and straight when using it. You’ll likely prefer a relatively shorter paddle for surfing and whitewater, and a paddle on the longer side for touring or racing.

In general, a long, tapered blade suits cruising in flat water, and a shorter, wider blade will work better in choppier conditions, where you may want to put in quick, short strokes.

Paddleboard rentals

Interested in paddleboarding, but not quite ready to commit to your own board? Check out SUP rentals at your local MEC store to see what paddleboarding is all about.