HOW TO CHOOSE A STAND-UP PADDLE BOARD
It’s hot, it’s humid, and you’ve had a long day at the office. So, you head down to the water, unload your STAND-UP PADDLE BOARD, and in just minutes, you’re enjoying a cool breeze. Your upright position gives you great views into the water, where you see minnows dart under your board. Feeling refreshed, you pick up the pace and paddle away from the shore. Now, you can feel your calves and quads doing some work; your midsection and arms are feeling strong, too.
Welcome to the world of stand-up paddling, a fantastic way to get out on the water.
WHERE DID STAND-UP PADDLING START?
Stand-up paddling (SUP) has been practiced in one form or another since the inception of surfing in Hawaii. In fact, surf instructors have often used the stand-up position to keep an eye on their clients. Laird Hamilton is one of the iconic surfers attributed with bringing SUP into a category of its own, when he used SUP boards to access waves out of reach to prone-paddling surfers.
SO, HOW DO I START?
The great part about this activity is that you need only a board and PADDLE. If you decide to venture into the surf zone, you’ll also need a LEASH and, depending on your swimming ability and proximity to shore, a PFD. Take time and make a point to try several types of boards with varying lengths and widths. As your stability and confidence increase, so will your ability to feel comfortable on a greater range of models.
If you’re looking for instruction, check in with one of our qualified guides for an INTRO TO STAND-UP PADDLING session. The most important thing is to determine the right board for you.
Where can I paddle?
For starters, let’s say that anywhere you can paddle a kayak or canoe, you can take an SUP board. This includes inland lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, bays, and estuaries. Surf zones and beaches are great places, too. A stand-up paddle board has the advantage of being light and easy to transport, so you can access water that boats can’t.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
Stand-up paddling doesn’t require much gear, but it can be a fairly expensive initial investment. If possible, rent a few different kinds of boards, or go to a demo event before you buy, so you know exactly which one you’ll want.
IS IT HARD TO LEARN?
With the right board and flat water, stand-up paddling isn’t hard. Experience in a canoe or kayak will help; folks who surf or windsurf should have no trouble at all. However, learning on the wrong board or in difficult water will not endear the sport to you.
CATEGORIES OF BOARDS
Paddle boards come in a variety of lengths, widths, thicknesses, and constructions, and while there are some niche categories, all SUPs are designed for either flat water or surf, or sometimes a little of both. You’ll need some idea about the type of water where you’ll want to paddle.
This is how we categorize our boards at Eastern Mountain Sports:
- Surf: shorter boards that turn well and are naturally at home in the waves
- Family recreation: durable boards with width for stability
- Cruise: long boards, often with room for cargo; at home on flat water
- Fitness and race: long, narrow boards built for speed in any water conditions
- Yoga: wide, stable boards; often made with full deck pads for better grip in various postures
WHO IS GOING TO USE THE BOARD?
Are you the only person who’s going to use the board, or will your family and friends want to hop on, too? Do you have experience with other paddle sports and great balance that lets you try a more advanced board? Will you have to load or unload and carry a board by yourself? When shopping around, be sure to take all of these things into consideration to make sure you find the best one possible for your needs.
HEIGHT & WEIGHT
Height is important in paddling dynamics. For example, if you’re short, a too-wide board will force you to reach farther to the side to get your paddle into the water, which will be awkward and unnecessarily tiring.
Each stand-up paddle board is also designed for a specific range of weights. If you’re new to paddling, you’ll want to be on the lighter end of the recommended range.
Perhaps the most important dimension is the width. A wide board is more stable, while a narrow one is faster. However, don’t underestimate stability—a few extra inches can make a board fun for everyone, while a narrow, less stable model might frighten some folks off the water. An extra inch will make no noticeable change in your forward speed, and the extra stability may help you paddle more efficiently.
Length affects how fast a board can cruise and how easily it turns. Generally, a longer board travels faster and straighter, like a sea kayak. Shorter models turn faster, which is ideal if you want to catch waves.
THICKNESS & VOLUME
A board’s volume is determined by its length, width, thickness, and shape. The higher the volume, the more weight the board can support. Below is a chart of recommended weight ranges. Use this as a starting point, and try to demo the size you want before you buy.
Weight: 120-150 lb.
Weight: 120-150 lb.
Weight: 160-190 lb..
Weight: 160-190 lb.
Weight: 200-230 lb.
Weight: 200-230 lb.
Weight: 240-270 lb.
Weight: 240-270 lb.
Weight: 280+ lb.
Weight: 280+ lb.
SUPs come with one, two, or three fins and sometimes even four or five. For boards used only on flat water in bays, ponds, lakes, and estuaries, a single fin works well. The tri-fin setup gives you the versatility to run a large center fin on calm water or two side fins (“side bites”) in the surf. The more fins a board has, the more specialized and surf oriented it is. You can always experiment with different fin shapes, sizes, and materials as you progress.
Fins are usually made of either fiberglass or nylon. Fiberglass provides the best performance, but they’re stiff and sharp, and can be a danger if you’re not careful. It’s also common to snap a fiberglass fin in very shallow water or on the rocks.
Though it’s cheaper to replace a snapped fin than a broken board, families who spend time paddling primarily on smaller ponds and shallower bodies of water might be better served with a more flexible nylon fin.
The area of grippy foam on top is the traction pad. A race board may have a small traction pad, as you’re usually pretty static in your stance. A surfboard has a large traction pad, so you can move back or practice your cross-step up to the front and hang ten. If yours has no traction pad, you can either buy one separately or wax your board like a surfboard.
Where can I put stuff?
If you spend a long time on the water, you’ll need to bring extra gear. Touring SUPs have bungee cords, or insets for attaching bungee cords, so you can tie down a dry bag.
Stand-up paddling benefits from advances in both surfboard and windsurfer designs. Generally speaking, durability and weight are tradeoffs, so you’ll have to decide how much of either is important to you.
Most boards start as a foam core, with the most popular being simple expanded polystyrene (EPS). Though very light, EPS does have the drawback of having air between the cells. If the board is compromised, water can seep in between the cells and degrade the core. The best cores are made with fused-cell EPS, which is watertight and looks like a honeycomb.
Composite sandwich boards
The lightest boards have their foam core wrapped in several layers of fiberglass. Layers of wood can then be added for strength and aesthetics, and in high-end boards, some or all of the fiberglass is replaced with carbon fiber. These boards are very light but must be used and transported with care.
Soft boards are perfect for beginners and families who play in shallow water and fall in often. These boards are made with an EPS foam blank and stiffened with stringers of either wood or fiberglass. The blank is then sealed to stop water from getting in, and finally traction pads and bumpers are applied.
These aren’t like inflatable pool toys. Inflatable SUPs often hold up to 12 psi of pressure and are durable enough to use anywhere. You get the added benefit of a smaller pack size, great for small cars and tiny apartments.
Planing vs. displacement
All boards fall into either a planning- or displacement-style hull. A planing hull rides over the water like a surfboard, and a displacement hull cuts through the water like a canoe. Planing hulls are good for catching waves and have better stability; displacement hulls are ideal for cruising and racing, where they have a higher average speed.
Nose design falls into two main categories: wide and narrow. A wide nose provides more flotation, which makes it easier to catch waves, and its extra volume is also helpful if you plan to carry gear.
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 choppy conditions.
The tail shape of a board will have a dramatic effect on the way it handles when you start catching waves. The science behind SUP tail design is taken straight from the design of surfboard tails. A good rule to remember is that more angular shapes will give you sharper turns, whereas a rounded shape will give you more progressive and smoother turns. A round or pin tail will hold the water longer, making it stable in bigger surf. A square or angular tail will release water, making it looser, more skate-like, and snappy.
“Rocker” describes how curved a board is when viewed from the side. A SUP with more rocker will turn more quickly. Surfboards have the most rocker; race boards and cruising boards have less rocker.
The shape of the board’s bottom will have an effect on how it handles. Most boards fit into either a flat planing bottom shape or a belly displacement bottom that pushes water to the side. Other possible shapes include a concave bottom that holds water through the length of the board, which increases lift and decreases drag while surfing. If you go to a custom shaper, you can find even-channel and V-bottom hulls that are a direct carryover from regular surfboards.
The edges of the boards are called “rails,” and help determine how a board handles. A cruising or family board will have thick rails for increased stability. Performance race boards and surfboards have many different shapes of rails, depending on the designer and the characteristics they’re looking for. If you want to know more, buy a board-shaper a six-pack, and he’ll talk to you all night about the intricacies of rail design.
What, you are still reading? Well, if you made it this far and still need help, you should plan on spending some time with one of our knowledgeable Eastern Mountain Sports Kayak School instructors. Check them out here.
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