What you need to know to buy your first Stand Up Paddleboard

With all the sizes, colors, materials, and brands this can become a daunting task! But no worries, I’m here to guide you through picking out your first SUP board! Take it from a guy whose personally owned approximately 8 boards in 3 years. Believe me, I’ve made good choices, and some bad ones…

Disclaimer: Considering my current occupation, I will leave out brands and retailers.  Although I am exceptionally biased towards a certain retailer whose name is currently listed in your web browser….(insert shameless plug).   I DO NOT recommend shopping online for items like SUP boards. There is too much risk with the shipping and receiving, and far too many options on the Internet for you to make an appropriate decision. Stick to a trusted brick and mortar retailer who has been doing this for a long time, and can pick a broad selection for you to choose from based off of your geographic location.

Lets do some quick vocab:

Recreational Boards: Typically 10’-12’ in length.  “Rec” boards have a flat bottom, or “planing hull” and generally are recognized as looking like a large surfboard.  These are the most common boards on the water and the best for general use.  Great for families, beach trips, and booz cruising. Fiberglass is the most common material for rec boards. Most desirable width with these models is between 30”-34”. We highly recommend keeping these boards between 25 and 34 lbs. Anything more is a hassle, anything less becomes too fragile.

Touring boards: Usually 12’6”-14’ in length.  These boards have a pointed nose or a “displacement hull”, which make it glide through the water more efficiently (think of a kayak, canoe, motor boat, etc). Great for someone who wants to explore, paddle distances greater than 3 miles, and experiment with the fitness side of SUP!  The more narrow widths of 28”-32” also create less friction on the surface and make the board travel faster. You begin to see some boards made from carbon fiber in this world, but still mostly fiberglass.

Race boards: Always 12’6” OR 14’, never in between.  Race boards also have a displacement hull, but are generally more rounded on the bottom, and more narrow.  Women generally always stick to a 12’6” raceboard, while more competitive men will go with a 14’ board.  Now days, people are racing on boards that are as little as 22” wide, and as much as 29” wide.  These widths vary for different conditions, and different body types. I am 5’11”, and 175 lbs. I like to paddle a 14’ 23” wide board in flatwater, and a 26” wide board in wind and chop.  Carbon fiber is a popular choice due to its low weight. But be gentle with it!

Board Dimensions

Length: Most people tend to notice length first. Most SUP boards range from 9 feet to 14 feet in length, with an average of about 12 feet.  Conventional wisdom would tell us that a smaller person needs a shorter board, when in fact most small people (often times women) I know like to paddle longer boards! This compensates for a lack of strength and paddle reach. Longer equals faster and more efficient!   On the flip side, larger paddlers tend to think they need a longer board to compensate for their height or weight. But the overall width, and the shape of a board will affect its buoyancy far more than length will. Length is most important for the type of paddling you will be doing (recreational, competitive, surfing, booz cruising, etc). Short boards (9’-10’) will perform better surfing on a wave, as they are more maneuverable. Longer boards (12’6”-14’) are more appropriate for racing & touring. The longer the board, the faster and more efficient it will glide!  Average length boards (10’6”-12’) are most appropriate for the casual paddler.

Width: You can’t talk about length without the discussing the width! Sure a 14’ board might be quicker than 10’6”, but what if its only 23” wide and you spend more time “in” the water than “on” the water.  I’ve seen boards over the years range from 22”-36” wide, with an average of approximately 32”.  An average person will have zero problems standing on a 12’x32” wide recreational board. This is why these are the most popular. Almost anyone can do it!  For bigger people, start pumping up the width. But too much length and width can lead to too much weight!

Weight: Keep it between 25 and 34 lbs. simple.  In our experience, anything less will be too fragile, and anything more will ruin the joy of SUP!

Board Materials & Construction

Fiberglass: The most common and practical option. Fiberglass is quite strong for it’s weight, and easy to shape.  The weight of FG boards is right in the sweet spot at 25-34lbs.  Yes fiberglass is strong, but it can still crack! A hard impact on a rock or pavement will put a “ding” in the board. The good news is you can easily fix this yourself, or have a local SUP shop fix it for you.

Carbon Fiber: Carbon is usually the most desired due to it’s incredibly low weight an its rigidity, meaning it won’t flex. Yes, longer boards can and will flex whether you feel it or not!  Carbon is expensive, and only appropriate for serious paddlers. Look to save 5-8lbs when you go all carbon construction. I do not recommend this construction for your first board, unless you plan to dive straight into the high performance race or surf scene.

Plastic:  As mentioned in other parts of this article, I do not condone plastic boards. The weight & poor paddling capabilities makes this construction very undesirable while standing and paddling. Sure they might be bombproof, but they weight 65+ lbs and will ruin the joys of SUP.

Inflatables:  I could spend hours talking about inflatables… I like them. I don’t love them. Inflatable boards have their use, and are getting better every year, but I do not recommend them for a first time SUP buyer! That sexy glide feeling we all love, that feeling that got us hooked on SUP to begin with…well you’re not going to feel that quite as much with an inflatable.  The materials are quite strong and they do roll into a small bag or backpack, making transporting and checking on an airplane very desirable. But the longevity isn’t quite there… I am yet to see an inflatable last longer than 2 years.  Careful with the fins, and don’t break your pump!

How much is this thing going to cost me?

Another subject I could spend hours on…Lets keep it short and sweet.  Remember, this is a first time buyer’s guide…

$1,000-$2,000 bucks.  I know, I know…That’s a huge window.  Anything less than a grand is probably going to be a “sucker” board. the poor construction of these models will last you 6-12 months, ultimately causing you buy another board in the very near future. Anything over $2,000 probably has a ton of awesome features, but will be useless to a first time buyer.

Of course, this price guide does not take into account sale items!  A $1k board at a modest 10 discount is $100 in savings! thats significant. This is when I think it’s all good to spend less.  50% off? Probably a piece of crap…  Look for a little deal around the holidays! 20% off is not out the question for some boards at your local SUP shop.

Whose board is this?

Who is this board for? Is it for you, or for the family lakehouse? Will this board be your “mid-life crisis sports car”, or the village bike for everyone to ride? These questions will quickly decide on length and width, as well as material.

If this is the family board:

Typically a larger and more durable rec board is the best option.  Staying in the 12’x32” range will generally paddle well for riders with from 90lbs up to 240lbs.  This should cover the majority of future paddlers.

Fiberglass construction will always be the most desirable for a family board, due to its strength-to-weight ratio and overall appearance. Plastic is an absolute nightmare to paddle long distance and load on and off your car, but it’s damn near bomb proof! For the sake of brevity, I will go ahead and say I do not condone plastic boards, and will remove them from this article. Inflatable boards are great and have their uses, but I do not recommend them as a primary board! They will leave too much to be desired on the water, and the durability is often questionable. While they may not crack like fiberglass and carbon, they won’t last nearly as long! Expect to get a solid 2 years out of an inflatable! 3-4 if you’re really nice to it! Go with an inflatable if you like to travel with your gear, and already own a carbon fiber or fiberglass board. For a family board, Go with fiberglass, keep it out the sun while storing, and watch out for rocks and docks! You will love it!

Lets face it. If its a family board, your going to end up with two. Sorry, but it’s true. No one like paddling alone. Go ahead and get the 12′ rec board for the family, with a solid fiberglass construction. Have a little fun with it. then get your 2nd board as either an identical model (to avoid fighting over the “better” board) or an inflatable! Something you can take on the next family vacay! Or, even better, get the “you” board. The fancy-pants sports car that only the priveleged can paddle!

If it is “your board”:

you can begin to explore the differences in styles (rec, touring, racing).  The next question is what do you want to do?  Paddling long distances with speed and fitness in mind? Maybe taking it the beach in search for some over head waves? How about fishing? Or maybe you just want to get some R&R while hanging on the lake.

For paddling 3+ miles at a time, stick to racing or touring. These boards are everyone’s favorite to paddle due to the glide! It’s a killer feeling taking a stroke and feeling the board slide across the water. While a rec board generally glides 10 ft per stroke, race/touring boards glide almost 20ft.  If it’s speed you are after, get it narrow! While this isn’t a great option for a first time buyer, just know that it’s what you will upgrade too in the near future! I am a flat water paddler primarily. The race boards I am seeing more of are between 23” and 26” in width. If you don’t want shaky knees after an hour on the water, keep it between 26” and 30”.  Remember, for racing, women should stick with 12’6”, and men will typically go 14’.  For touring, I really like 12’6” as a unisex size.

If it’s surfing you’re into, try boards 9’-10’6”.  Anything longer becomes dangerous and difficult in the waves.  Anything shorter, and you are probably shopping for your 3rd or 4th board by now. Your 12′ rec board will absolutely surf on a wave. In fact it will surf like a dream! Just don’t expect to do any dynamic moves while sliding down the face. Keep those waves hip-height or lower, and watch out for swimmers! 12 feet of fiberglass is a lot to throw around at your local beach!

For fishing and booz cruising, stick to rec boards as you will be comfortable all day on the water! Some will have extra mounts for gear and rods, but make sure you find one within the reccomended weight range. Extra features can often times lead to an increase in weight, meaning a decrease in paddling capabilites.  You want to catch fish on a SUP? Paddle further than everyone else does!

Thanks for reading and hope you feel more comfortable when picking out your first Standup Paddleboard! Hope we can paddle together and share some stories in the near future! -John S.