Take a Stand: Evaluating SUP Boards

June 27, 2017
SUP boards
Jerry and Marcy MonkmanA basic understanding of styles of SUP boards will help you decide which fits your needs.

I used to teach people how to stand-up paddleboard, and it remains one of the most satisfying classes I’ve ever led. Why? Most first-timers are anxious about staying upright on the board. Here’s the thing, though: It’s surprisingly easy to balance on most paddleboards—a fact that produced near-instant confidence, enthusiasm, and a sense of empowerment in my students. You, too, can experience this moment if you know the basics of stand-up paddleboard (SUP) designs.

Starter Specs
There’s something superhuman about standing on a paddleboard, as if you are standing on the water itself. This perspective not only provides you with an elevated view; it also sets you up for a full-body workout, exercising your core, arms, and legs.

If you’re just starting out, you’ll want a stable, all-purpose paddleboard that works well in a range of conditions. This type, sometimes referred to as a recreational or all-around SUP, tends to run 10 to 12 feet long, 30 to 34 inches wide, and 4 to 5 inches thick, typically with a rounded front end. As a general rule, wider boards are more stable; shorter boards are more maneuverable; and longer boards move more quickly and easily in a straight line.

Next, consider whether you prefer an inflatable or a solid SUP. The former is surprisingly durable and easier to store and transport, but it requires inflation and deflation with each use. The latter is generally faster and more stable, but it requires more space to transport and store. Inflatable SUPs work best in calm flatwater; rough water and waves will cause most inflatables to flex underfoot, and wind can push them around.

SUPs are rated for a maximum paddler weight, typically somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds. Weight limit is determined by the board’s overall volume—usually given in liters—rather than length. If you exceed the limit, the board will sit lower in the water and be more difficult to paddle.

Further Considerations
Solid and inflatable SUPs vary widely in price, with most models falling in the $750 to $1,250 range. Inexpensive solid models typically feature heavy-duty polyethylene (plastic) exteriors, which makes them very durable but also very heavy. Many styles tip the scales at 40-plus pounds. High-end solid models have a lighter-weight fiberglass and/or epoxy exterior, which cuts 10 or even 20 pounds. These are much more manageable to carry and to maneuver in the water, although they’re also more prone to damage.

Inflatable models are relatively lightweight (roughly 20 to 25 pounds); higher prices generally correlate with higher-quality construction and increased durability. You’ll also need to invest in a paddle ($75 to $200 and up) and a personal flotation device, or PFD, if you don’t have one ($40 to $150 and up).

The savvy paddler may want to rent before buying. Along the coast, most shops that rent surfboards also rent SUPs. Inland, an increasing number of canoe and kayak oufitters rent SUP options as well. Expect to pay between $10 and $20 per hour, or about $50 for the day. If possible, try out a couple of styles to gauge your personal preference.

Luxury Options
A variety of specialized designs are available for niche uses. SUPs for surfing are shorter, more maneuverable, and feature larger fins for increased turning control. Touring and racing models tend to be longer and narrower to cover distances faster and with less effort; most feature a pointed nose and a displacement hull, designed to move efficiently through the water in a straight line. SUPs for fishing and yoga tend to be extra-stable to accommodate a wider range of motion. Get on board!


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.