How to Choose a Paddle Board

choose a paddle board

Stand Up Paddle Boarding (or SUP) has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Paddle boarding continues to gain traction as a unique way to get outside and explore your local waters, or have a unique excursion during your family vacation. Combine a unique vantage point with a full body workout, and you can see why SUP is addictive and easy to fall in love with!

While there is a bit of a learning curve to find your balance and rhythm on a stand up paddle board, even beginners are out having fun in no time. Our goal with the following information is to help simplify the choices in paddle boards and help get you on the water soon.

Choose the Right Paddle Board

The choices, and sometimes the lingo of SUP can be overwhelming. Inflatable vs. solid, planing vs. displacement hulls, budget vs. beginner…. With so many paddle board options, how do you decide on the right paddle board for YOU?

Your first stand up paddle board might be a hand me down or a Craiglist find. Or maybe a loaner from a friend. Don’t worry about the type and just go with it! Once you’re hooked to SUP and want to find a board best suited to your needs, then start researching to help choose the best paddle board.

What is a Stand Up Paddle Board?

First things first, what exactly is a paddle board? A stand up paddle board, “SUP”, or simply “paddle board” on a basic level is like an overgrown surf board. The wider board is stable enough to easily stand on while floating, and you power through the water using a long paddle.

Even more so than surfboards, the variety of paddle board activities and their associated styles is extensive. Flat water, long distance, surfing, and yoga styles of SUP are just a handful of fun times that can be enjoyed.

Of course the details of paddle boards are as complicated as you would like them to be. Follow along if you want the nitty gritty detailed below, or…

If you want to dive into the world of stand up paddle boarding and skip technical stuff, jump over to our Beginner Paddle Boarding Guide.

To find the best fit board for you, figuring out what types of activities you will use your SUP with will help you choose the ideal stand up paddle board. Couple this with your height and weight will find the best fit paddle board.

Inflatable Paddle Board vs. Solid

There is one great debate when it comes to choosing a stand up paddle board: inflatable or solid. Inflatable paddle boards are comprised of thick layers of PVC skin that can be blown up like a river raft. Solid paddle boards do not require inflation and can be made of a variety of materials that affects the price, weight, and long term performance.

Both types of boards come in a variety of hull shapes for all types of paddle board activities.

Inflatable SUP

Inflatable paddle boards have definitely increased the popularity in the sport. With inflatables you no longer need a vehicle that can accommodate your 10+ foot board or have a specialty paddle shop within driving distance. Plus many inflatable stand up paddle boards come with a backpack style carry bag, meaning you can even hike in to a remote lake and set up your paddle board.

Inflatable paddle boards are easily shipped to your home from the manufacturer and fold back into the storage bag between uses. The initial price investments is general less than a solid paddle board.

The negatives of blow up paddle boards is that they will not last as long as their solid hulled counterparts. While you can patch a small hole in the body, the catastrophic failures occur when the seams blow out. While the failures are inevitable, if you can invest in high quality brains with multi-year warranties then you will have gotten your moneys worth once they fail.

View our recommendations for the 5 best inflatable paddle boards.

Solid SUP

Do you have a vehicle with roof racks or a truck bed, OR do you live within walking distance of the beach? Have a place to store your SUP at home and out of the sun? If yes, then a solid hulled stand up paddle board is likely the right choice for you.

Solid hulled paddle boards are made from a variety of materials to meet the needs of entry level to advance paddlers. Plastic hulls are very durable and less expensive, but also extremely heavy.

Mid grade fiberglass hulls are standard and with care remain stiff for many years. They do require repair of dings to keep moisture out of the hull that leads to softening.

High end carbon fiber hulls are the perfect combination of light weight, stiff and long lasting but with a high end price tag.

Paddle Board Designs

There are two mains types of paddle boards: displacement hulls vs. planing hulls. The hulls are the body of the paddle board, that makes up the bulk of the board.

The main type of hull in entry level and/or beginner paddle boards is a planing hull. Most likely you won’t consider a displacement hull until you’ve gotten your feet wet in the world of SUP.

There is no one best paddle board type as the best paddle board is the one that fits both you and your needs and goals. Those needs and goals might also change as you get more experience stand up paddling!

Planing Hull Paddle Board

A planing hull has a round, bull nose front to the board. Planing hulls are meant to give a smooth ride on top of the water, and be able to turn and respond quickly and easily to the paddler. These hulls are wider, making them very stable and comfortable for those new or unsteady while paddling. Even beyond beginner SUP, planing hulls are used and enjoyed while leisure paddling.

Beginner paddle boards will all be designed as planing hulls for easy recreational paddling, but they are also appropriate for surfing. You can also take planing hulls on long distance paddles, but these SUPs will take more effort to keep on a straight track than a displacement hull.

Displacement Hull Paddle Board

A displacement hull has a V nose at the front of paddle board, allowing the board to slice through the water quickly and more efficiently than a planing hull. That water slicing also helps the SUP lock into a straight path, making these hulls track straight on their own, meaning you can put your effort into paddling harder or for longer distances instead of constantly steering.

With the increased efficiency in the water, you will find displacement hulls on long distance SUPs and racing SUPs. They are not a good choice for young paddlers due to being less maneuverable.

Hybrid

Hybrid hull paddle boards are a blend of displacement and planing hulls meant to achieve an all around board. Overall hybrids are long and wide but still have a slightly pointed nose to assist with straight tracking in the water.

SUP hull types
Displacement Hull (left) Planing Hull (right)

How to Choose a Paddle Board Size

At the very least, a paddle board needs to be big enough for you to keep you happily floating above the water. Additionally, if you can get a board that isn’t too huge and clunky then you are more likely to enjoy the maneuverability and thus have more fun. Obviously there is a ton of wiggle room between those two extremes, but rest assured that you will still have fun even if your first paddle board is not the most perfect fit.

So how do we find the elusive perfect fit? Knowing a little more about the different dimensions of a paddle board will help you make the right choice.

Weight Capacity and Hull Displacement

Start off by looking at the weight capacity listed in the specs of all paddle boards. Staying below the maximum weight should keep you floating, but butting up too close to the weight capacity of the board will likely feel unstable.

If you are a slight paddler, you will want to look for a board with a smaller max weight as the bigger boards will likely feel cumbersome.

Next, take a look at the Volume of your prospective paddle boards. The volume (in liters) is the amount of space the board takes up. The larger the volume, the more stable the board. If you are an agile person then a lower volume will be fine, but if you are constantly joking that you’re a clutz, then go with the higher volume to start.

When figuring out your Paddle Board Length, consider who, where and how you’ll be using your SUP.

  • Kids paddle boards are best between 8 to 9 feet.
  • Surf paddle boards are under 10 feet.
  • 10 to 12 foot boards are good for recreational paddling and yoga. If you plan to have a younger child or your dog ride double, aim for between 11 and 12 feet.
  • Longer than 12 foot and your paddle board is great for long distance paddling instead of quick maneuvers.

Going hand in hand with length, is the Paddle Board Width. Again consider your activities, but also your body type. The wider boards are the most stable, but do you have narrow shoulders? Differences in types of hulls will naturally pre-determine width parameters with displacement hulls being narrower, but there is still a range of widths in each category.

The final parameter in paddle board sizing is Thickness of the board. Consider the thickness when you are narrowing down your decisions. A thicker board will be best if you are at the upper limits of the weight capacity as it will still keep you up above the water. In contrary, a thicker board will not be a responsive to a slighter framed person.

Feeling ready to check out types of paddle boards? We’ve outlined our 10 favorite SUPs, both inflatable and solid, here.

Still trying to pick a paddle board size?

Still feeling overwhelming with choices? The quick synopsis is:

If you are a beginner paddler or want to SUP for general recreational purposes, then aim for a paddle board around 11 feet long.  If you are hoping to add in some stand up surfing, then choose a board closer to 10 feet long.

If you are looking to specialize in long distance SUP touring, look into the longer 12 foot + displacement boards.

choosing your best SUP

Choosing Your SUP – FAQs

  • Can you use a surfboard as a paddle board?

Technically yes you can use some longer surf boards as paddle boards if you are a youth or smaller adult.  While surfboards are buoyant enough for surfers to stand, they are not stable enough to stand on for any length of time for stand up paddle boarding.

SUPs are wider and generally longer than surfboards, meaning extra stability for paddle boarding and far less effort at keeping the paddler comfortably standing.

  • How hard is paddle boarding?

For most adults used to physical fitness, you will be stand up and paddling your board during your first session out on the water.  Getting more comfortable with balance and strokes generally takes a few more sessions.  If the water conditions are windy/choppy, it will take even more time.

Paddle board is definitely exercise!  In addition to the upper body workout, your core and leg muscles will also be engaged to keep your balance resulting in a full body workout.

  • Is paddle boarding dangerous?

Any water sport is inherently dangerous.  The list of reasons of how bodies of water (rivers, lakes, oceans) can be unsafe is infinitely long.  Before departing for any off shore excursion, familiarize yourself with the local dangers (i.e. rip currents, weather patterns, etc).

While learning to paddle board, also learn how to fall when you feel like you are losing your balance so as not to hit the board and injure yourself.

  • Do you need a life jacket to paddle board?

The US Coast Guard classifies stand up paddle boards or SUPs as “vessels”, meaning if you are navigating them outside of designated swimming, bathing or surfing areas then you are required to wear a life jacket or PFD (personal flotation devise).

Additionally, check your local laws before leaving shore for any additional local regulations. Of course there is your personal safety to think about when using a SUP, so if in doubt, wear a life jacket.

About the Author Manda Jackson

Hey, I'm Manda - one of the contributing authors at Watercraft Watch. I've always been drawn to the water in many different types of water sports, and those sports have helped me travel throughout the world. For many years in high school and college I was a competitive rower, and escaped to the backcountry for canoe and kayak trips each summer. Now you can find me mostly on a paddle board or outrigger canoe. When not on the water myself, you can find me assisting with my kids' sailing team or hiking the trails. I hope you find my articles useful and inspiring to both you and your families!

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