Choosing a SUP
by Adam Kittell
If you live near flat or moving water then you've no doubt seen people out having a great time on standup paddleboards (or SUP as the cool kids are calling them). Whether you want to get some exercise, explore new areas, get your adrenaline pumping, fish previously unobtainable spots, put a new twist on your yoga practice, or just relax and cool off, owning a SUP can expand your options on a nice day.
I recommend you rent or borrow a SUP first to make sure it's the right activity for you and something you can see yourself doing at least semi-regularly. Package rentals that include everything you need to get out on the water can be picked up at many local outfitters for the cost of a decent dinner. The staff there should be able to fill you in on the basics you need to know so that you avoid some of the potential frustrations and embarrassments you might run into if you were to just buy a random board off the internet and head out.
So, you are hooked and have decided to pull the trigger on a board, but don't know where to begin because there are so many options? Most of the choosing can be narrowed down by answering a few questions based around how and when you plan on using the paddleboard, but the final choice may be based around actually getting out on the water with a few options to see which feels right for your wants and needs. Length, width, thickness, shape, hull style, volume, rocker, and construction materials are all factors to consider in your selection process. Some of that may look like a different language to you, but fear not because it will all be explained below.
CONSTRUCTION- A good starting point is the question of whether to get an inflatable (iSUP) or a rigid standup paddleboard. Each style has its pros and cons.
Rigid boards can be constructed of various materials such as bamboo, carbon fiber, or EPS foam wrapped with fiberglass and epoxy. There are also budget minded rigid boards constructed of plastic using a mold. These rotomolded boards have the benefit of being quite cheap and durable but at the cost of maneuverability, speed, and a considerably higher weight.
Higher quality inflatable boards are usually a PVC exterior with single or double layer dropstitch construction internally, creating an inner chamber(s) of air. If you want to learn more about the dropstitch technology you can find some videos online. Heat Bonded Technology is superior to single or double layer construction. This process eliminates any any opportunity for delamination and air leaking between layers or escaping through poor welds/gluing. It is perhaps the ultimate combination of strength, stiffness and a light weight. The quality of materials and the technologies used will play important factors in how high of an air pressure the board can be inflated to. Often times you would not need to inflate your board as high as the max pressure the vendor rates the board to, but this max psi is often a decent indicator of the baseline quality of the board.
One benefit of having a rigid board is that they are so stiff with no effort. It used to be that inflatable boards (even just a few years ago) could not reach high enough air pressures to keep them from sagging a bit in the middle under the weight of the rider. The sagging and flexing caused iSUPs (inflatable SUP) to get a tarnished name and to this day many people still swear you should only get a hard board because of the undependable rigidity of inflatables. With the latest technology we are seeing that high-end boards can be pumped to such high pressures that virtually all sagging and flex is eliminated. These days the gap in rigidity between the two board types has all but closed if you're buying a quality inflatable.
The amount of space you have to dedicate to the storage of your SUP and the means of transport you have for it are important factors in the decision between a rigid or inflatable paddleboard. Inflatables will roll up and can be stored in a closet or under a bed and they fit in the trunk of a sedan or even on some bike's racks. A rigid board, often around 11 or 12 feet long, is going to take up considerably more space in your home and will need to be kept safe and out of the way to protect your investment. With a rigid board, you will also need to have an external means of transport on your vehicle such as a dedicated SUP rack or a system of pads and straps on your roof. If space and transportation are not a problem, then the ability to go straight from your vehicle to the water and vice versa can be a huge plus over having to deal with inflation, deflation, drying, rolling, and packing away. The time and exertion of pumping an inflatable by hand are enough to cause many people to reconsider going out for a day on the water. Electric pumps can ease some of the pain by removing the physical aspect of inflation but the time factor for a board to reach the desired pressure is still something to consider. I've seen people stop at less than half the recommended pressure for their board and just go paddle on what looks like a banana once their weight is in the middle (and paddles about just as well) because they can't bring themselves to pump for any longer.
Inflatable SUPs are generally more durable than rigids since they bounce off most rocks and obstructions rather than cracking or obtaining holes that require intricate fiberglass repairs. Holes or leaks are certainly possible with inflatable boards, but usually these repairs can be made by the owner with a simple patch and adhesive repair kit. On open water is where a rigid board feels more at home, as opposed to in a river dodging obstacles that could inflict serious damage.
One more perk of having an inflatable board is the ability to take it out to adventurous locations more easily. Typically an inflatable SUP will come with a carrying backpack so you can throw it over your shoulders and hike it out to an alpine lake or carry it through the airport and stuff it in an overhead bin. The backpack that Jobe paddleboards come in is even a giant drybag, allowing you to throw all of your camping gear inside and strap it to your board for the ultimate island-hopping adventure.
SIZE- The length, width, and height of a SUP play huge factors in how the board handles and what uses it is best for.
Generally speaking, a longer board (12+ feet) is going to be faster and hold a straight line better. Boards that are 9-12 feet long are usually more family friendly and better for all-around versatility. Anything under 9 feet is going to be tailored either towards children or towards river and/or ocean surfing. This short length allows for maximum maneuverability.
A wider board is usually going to be more stable, while a narrow board is going to cut through the water faster. A larger person may like the extra width since it can help their body find balance. Someone who wants extra room for children, pets, or more gear might also like a wider board. A smaller person might want a bit more narrow of a board so that they can paddle to the side without having to lean over and put strain on their shoulder, instead of engaging their core. A wide board is also likely to be more heavy and someone with shorter arms may not be able to reach around the side of the board to the center handle for carrying it properly. Yoga on SUPs is becoming more popular, and a board that is 31+ inches wide provides a more stable platform for yoga poses. Yoga specific boards tend to have a large and comfortable pad so that more of the surface area can be used during your yoga practice.
The thickness of a SUP affects how high the user will ride up out of the water. You and your gear sitting higher up, along with the side of the board sticking up further out of the water, can mean that the wind may push you around some and make it harder to go fast or track straight in some conditions. A thicker board of the same length and width will have more volume than its thinner counterpart. A paddle board's volume (expressed in liters) gives an indication of the board’s ability to float with weight on it. The higher the volume, the more weight it can support. If the board doesn’t displace the correct amount of water for your weight, you won’t be supported well and the board may feel unstable or sluggish. Make sure you factor in the weight of your gear or passengers because if the weight exceeds the volume of the board it will sit low in the water and be more difficult to paddle.
SHAPE- The shape of a board will have a dramatic effect on the way it handles.
The shape of the board's nose can typically be generalized as either wide or narrow. The larger surface area of a wide nose makes it easier to catch waves, and its extra volume is also helpful for keeping the weight of riders and gear up out of the water. A narrow or pointed nose cuts through the water as opposed to riding over it. Race and cruise boards rely on the pointed nose, especially in rough water.
Tail shapes of standup paddleboards can be traced back to the design of surfboard tails. Rounded tails will give smooth turns while more angular ones will give sharper turns.
When discussing the shape of SUP board the term "rocker" often comes up. The amount of rocker a board has is basically the amount it curves up at the tip and tail. This curvature keeps the nose from dipping into the waves and allows the board to be more maneuverable across the water. This is especially useful in rough water, rapids, or waves. A board with less rocker (a flatter shape) is not going to be as maneuverable, which in turn means it will track better (hold a straight line more easily).
FINS- There are many configurations, lengths, and materials of fins on the market. Some are a permanent part of the board, and some can be removed and replaced to suit your needs.
One long fin with a wide base is used for tracking and flat water, while three fins, often staggered positions and lengths, are used for maneuverability in waves. These are the most common but some manufacturers make two, four, or some other combination of fins and lengths. Fiberglass fins will be stiffer, nylon ones will be more durable while still relatively stiff, and rubber fins will be the most durable yet least stiff. Shorter fins are good for avoiding rocks in shallow water.
CONCLUSION- Selecting a standup paddleboard to purchase may seem daunting at first, but hopefully with the information you've been given you can start to compare the options on the market and decide which best suits your needs. You might be best just going with an all-around board if you think you will do a mix of activities on it. Keep in mind though that a "Jack of all trades" is a master of none, so if there is one activity you think you will spend most of your time using the board for then you may want to go with the SUP that best fits that need. Traction pads, D-rings, bungees, handles, carry straps, fishing mounts, paddle holders and the other bells and whistles can all play a role in how enjoyable your time on the water is and should also be considered.
by Adam Kittell-
Adam has worked in the outdoor industry for a few years as a merchandise specialist, buyer, and most recently in marketing. Prior to that he was a guide at multiple wilderness therapy companies. He has spent weeks at a time living out of a backpack starting at a young age and later living out of a Honda Element. He has guided extended trips backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and canyoneering all over the United States. Some say he has an obsession with gear, and he does not disagree with them.
All images were provided by Jobe Sports and are copywrited.
Liberty Mountain is the US Distributor of Jobe paddleboards and accessories in the outdoor industry. The content in this article was created by the author based on personal experiences and knowledge gained through his time as a watersports buyer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jobe Sports or Liberty Mountain.