Choosing the right stand up paddle board for you can be overwhelming- There are so many options and it can be difficult to know where to begin. There are number of different materials, shapes, sizes, layups, fin boxes, deck features, etc., without even a mention to gear options. By breaking down the thought process of buying a board into easy to follow steps, this guide will help you learn to distinguish between different boards, paddles and gear so you can choose the right board to suit your needs.
Choosing the Right Board
Before diving into shape, size, gear or anything else, an easy place to begin your search for your paddle board is deciding between rigid or inflatable construction. Regardless of the kind of paddling you’ll be doing, there are both inflatable and rigid boards designed to accommodate your wants and desires. Here’s a simple breakdown of the overall pros and cons of each:
- Pros: Lightweight, and easy to store and transport
- Cons: Technical performance and effort to inflate
Inflatable boards are attractive for several reasons: they are easy to store and transport, they are less susceptible to impact damage, and are more forgiving when/if you fall flat on your face on the board. Their downfall comes in the performance when compared to rigid boards and long-term durability. If you are limited in storage space, or don’t have a way of transporting a rigid board, concerned with the impact durability of the board (i.e., rocky whitewater paddling, kids, etc.), or don’t see yourself needing a high-performance board and simply like the option of being able to deflate the board, than an inflatable board is a great option.
Most inflatable boards are built with drop-stitched PVC fabric that incorporates thousands of strands of stitching between two layers of PVC material, which allows the board to keep its shape while being inflated to very high pressure. Some boards are even reinforced with carbon fiber (such as many of Hala’s lineup) or other materials. While this type of construction allows for the board to be very rigid, especially for something that’s inflatable, it simply doesn’t to allow for the same rigidity and performance that a rigid board offers. For this reason, inflatable boards do not glide across the water as well as, nor are they as responsive as a rigid board.
Long-term durability, however, is a concern, as most boards need to be inflated to over 15 PSI. A minor leak can become a big problem, and unlike a low-pressure raft or kayak, effectively patching a leak can be very difficult. Inflatable boards are also at their most vulnerable when deflated, which most people don’t understand, and can easily be damaged during transport when deflated. Making sure that you properly protect the board by at least putting it inside its carrying bag, if not adding additional wrapping, is essential in the longevity of the board. Even with proper care, an inflatable can develop leaks over time that can be a major headache to remedy.
Another disadvantage of an inflatable board is the time and effort it takes to inflate them to the proper pressure. With a high-pressure hand pump, it takes an average paddler about 10-20 minutes to inflate a board fully. If you have access to an air compressor, purchase a specialized electrical pump, or don’t mind the extra workout of hand pumping, then an inflatable may be the right board for you. If you see yourself wanting to show up and get on the water without the extra hassle of inflating the board, then we would recommend looking at a rigid board.
- Pros: performance (fast, responsive, glide, etc), no pump required
- Cons: durability, storage, and transport
Rigid boards are also attractive for many reasons: they are fast, responsive, and glide across the water better than inflatable boards. Because of the rigidity and the geometric shaping possible with a rigid board, they are capable of far superior technical performance and handling. If storage space is not an issue, you have the means to transport a rigid board, you don’t want to mess around with inflating a board, and/or you desire a high-performance board, than a rigid board would be great for you.
There are a variety of materials that are used in the construction of rigid boards: a board can be made out of epoxy, fiberglass, plastic, wood, foam or composite materials, and even reinforced with carbon fiber, kevlar, pvc, wood, etc.
In general, a rigid board most likely has a foam core (such as EPS) with an epoxy or a composite material shell. There are many different types of epoxy layups, some of which are extremely lightweight yet somewhat fragile and some of which are slightly heavier yet more-durable. All of the above offer superior performance when compared to an inflatable or plastic board.
Injection molded or roto-molded plastic boards offer a mid-way of performance and durability between epoxy and inflatable boards, however, they are generally heavier than either. Injection molded boards such as the Perception Escapade and the Boardworks Rukus offer comparable durability to inflatables without being too heavy to manage. Roto-molded boards are extremely durable, but are often almost twice as heavy as an epoxy board. Most of these boards tend to be less expensive than their inflatable or epoxy counterparts.
The greatest disadvantage to rigid boards, generally speaking, tends to be their impact resistance. While their construction is what makes them desirable, speaking in terms of performance, rigid boards can be easy to ding or crack. Luckily, epoxy boards are fairly easy to repair as long as the damage isn’t catastrophically extensive. If you are looking for high-performance, have no limitations with storage and transport, and impact resistance is of little concern to you, than an epoxy board is a great option for you.
Activity (board shape)
Now it is time to discuss board shape, which will largely be affected by the activities you’ll be doing with the board. Ask yourself where you’ll be paddling? Will you take your board out on the lake with your family? Will your dog join your excursion? Or going down the river? Will it be mostly flatwater or have some current or whitewater? Want to surf the local river wave? Will you be taking your yoga practice out on the water? Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to select your board shape. Here’s a breakdown of each activity and a rough outline of the desirable board shape to match that activity.
Do you want a board capable of handling most paddle boarding activities? Whether you want to do it all, or you are a beginner who wants to try everything, there are quite a few options that will accommodate a variety of activities. You will look for a slightly wider board that measures 32” wide or wider with either a slightly pointed or rounded nose. If you plan on having your dog or child on the board with you, look for full length or ¾ deck padding to accommodate them. Some great examples of all around inflatable boards are the Hala Rival Straight Up, the SOL Rebel, or the Boardworks SHUBU Muse. For rigid boards, the Boardworks Kraken or Muse are great all around options
Are you going to be paddling out on a lake, flatwater river, or calm ocean? Touring boards are designed to slice and glide through flatwater faster and more efficiently than wider, shorter boards with a rounded nose. Look for a board with a pointed nose that is approximately 30-32” wide. Some great examples of inflatable touring boards are the SOLSonic, the Boardworks Raven Inflatable, and the Hala Nass. For rigid, the Badfish Holeshot, the Boardworks Raven, or any of Starboard’s touring lineup.
Whitewater / River Surf
Do you want a board capable of crushing downriver whitewater or surfing the local river waves? This is the most specialized class of board designs. Most whitewater and river boards are divided into two categories: down river and surf.
Downriver designs are wide, thick, and have a lot of hull rocker. This will help them be stable and ride up and over waves. Good choices in this category for inflatable boards are the Badfish RiverShred, the Hala Atcha, and the SOLShine. For rigid, the Badfish MVP or the MVP-X.
Surf designs will be much shorter and will have a sharp edge for carving on a wave. These boards are often thicker than traditional ocean surf designs to help them be more buoyant on the slower, less powerful river waves. Some great inflatable options are the Badfish I.R.S, the SOL Jah, and the Hala Peno. For Rigid, the Badfish Cobra 6’6” and the Badfish 6’11 River Surfer.
There are also a number of boards that fall in-between the two, designed to be capable both downriver and river surfing, like the Badfish MVP-S.
Are you going to be taking your board on multi-day expeditions or taking it out to fish? Boards in this category should be ultra wide for stability as well as long with plenty of tie downs to accommodate gear (coolers, drybags, rod holders, etc.). Look for something in the 35” plus range. Some great inflatable examples of boards designed for this purpose are the the SOL Sumo and the Hala Hoss.
Are you going to take your yoga practice out to the water? Boards designed for yoga are wide, with full to ¾ length deck padding, and typically have a rounded nose. When shopping for your yoga board keep in mind that the wider the board is, the more stable it will be. You should look for a board at least 32” in width, but wider is often more preferable. Some examples of great inflatables are the SOL Shiva, the Hala Asana, and the Starboard Dashama. For rigid: the Boardworks Joyride Flow or Starboard ASAP Whopper are great choices.
Now that we have had an overview of board materials and shape, it is time to discuss the right length and thickness of the board to suit your needs. In general, larger boards are for bigger paddlers, smaller boards are for smaller paddlers. As a rule of thumb this holds true, but isn’t always the case. For example a smaller paddler may want to choose a longer board if they want to do aerobic or long distance paddling. A larger paddler may want to go with a slightly smaller board if they want something that they can possibly surf with.
Generally, recreational paddlers up to 140 lbs will want to go with a 10′ board, up to 200 lbs an 11′ board and paddlers 200+ should go with a 12′ board. For touring boards, add 6 inches to 2 ft of length depending on how fast you’d like to go.
As we mentioned with inflatables, the thicker the board, the higher float and faster you’ll glide, but you’ll sacrifice turning performance. Boards for surfing, recreational or lighter weight paddlers, look for boards in the 4-5″ thickness range. For touring and fitness, whitewater or for larger paddlers, go 5″+.
Choosing the Gear
Paddles & Sizing
Now that you’ve got your board choices narrowed down, let’s look at the other integral piece of equipment: the paddle.
Paddles come in a variety of designs and builds. Most paddlers will want to choose a paddle with a medium sized blade. Somewhere around 85 sq/in is a good medium size. A smaller to medium size blade will give a higher cadence and allow for better board control and a more well rounded workout. Very strong touring & fitness paddlers may want to go with a larger blade around 95 sq/in.
There are many different choices at many different price points, mainly having to do with different materials. Most beginners will benefit from upgrading to a fiberglass blade paddle, like the Werner Thrive or Zen, for the lightweight and extra response over a plastic paddle like the Werner Vibe. Higher end paddles will incorporate carbon and or foam-core blades, and thus increase the cost dramatically, such as the Werner Trance or the Werner Flow.
Whitewater paddlers should look at the Werner Session or Legend. Built to a higher quality standard, the Session and Legend are built to withstand the high impact abuse of downriver and river surf paddling. This design works well for flat water as well for those that want just one paddle.
As for length, flat water paddlers will want a paddle that comes up to their wrist with their arm stretched out above their head (or 10-12″ over your height). Surf and whitewater paddlers will want a paddle that is 6-8″ over their height.
Many paddles come with a 2-piece adjustable option, good for paddlers that will be doing both flat water and surf paddling, or if several people of different heights will be using the same paddle. A 3 piece paddle will offer the same adjustability but with an additional break down point to be able to fit inside an inflatable board carrying bag for traveling. 1-piece paddles are the lightest, strongest and least expensive option of the 3, and also give the shaft a more even flex. 1-piece are preferable from a performance standpoint, but are certainly the least versatile.
There are many different styles of fins for different applications, far too many to get into depth here. In general, Longboard fins are usually longer and will track better. FCS fins are generally shorter and often directional, allowing for responsive carving in surf and whitewater. There are many articles out there on fin design and selection, but most beginners will be fine with the fin or fins that come with their board. Paddlers that are using their boards in shallow rivers (whitewater or flat water) will want to consider switching to a slightly shorter, flexible fin like the Hala Gummy Fins or FCS M-5 Flexi, to avoid damaging their fin box. If you’re going to be running the river, the Hala StompBox spring-loaded finbox is a great design, but only comes on certain models of Hala boards. Your fin choice will ultimately be dictated by which fin box you have, and what options are available for it.
As per Colorado State law, a paddle board is considered a vessel, meaning you have to have an approved Type III or Type V PFD on board, along with a whistle. PFDs are always a good idea any time you’re on the water, regardless of craft, and failing to have these with you can result in a hefty fine. We prefer to use low-profile PFDs like the NRS Ninja, Astral Blue Jacket or Astral Layla. Many of these can also be used with a quick release belt, which is essential if you’re using a leash on moving water.
Inflatable PFDs, like the NRS Zephyr, are another option for those that will be using their board strictly on flatwater. These types of PFDs are very low profile, but are not appropriate for use in moving water.
Leashes help keep your board close by should you fall off. This is helpful for beginners or those using them on the river or ocean. We highly recommend quick release leashes like the Badfish Re-Leash or the NRS Quick Release SUP Leash when on the river, even on flatwater. Being able to disconnect from the board in case of a wrap situation is absolutely necessary. Alternatively, you can also use a standard leash with a quick release rescue belt. There are many different lengths in both coiled and straight leashes. Generally, flatwater paddlers prefer coiled leashes as they stay tucked out of the way better and create less drag, while straight leashes are more preferable for surf as they won’t slingshot the board back towards you when you fall.
Helmets & Pads
If you’re venturing into downriver or whitewater paddling, you’ll definitely want to invest in a helmet and possibly a set of knee / shin pads. Due to the shallow nature of river paddling, you’ll want to protect your head and as much of your body as is possible. GForm pads are great as they provide quite a lot of protection while staying low-profile and don’t impede movement as much as other pad sets.
Accessories & Dry Storage
There are many different accessories for your paddle board. Many boards are equipped with bungee storage lines, or at least the plugs to add bungees. If not, you can always add self-adhesive Tri-Way Lash Kits. Dry storage is also helpful in most situations, and dry deck bag like the E-Sup Deck Bag are low profile and designed to be lashed to the board. Self-adhesive pads like the Dog SUP Pad are helpful solutions for boards that don’t already have a full-length deck pads. Small coolers or crates like the Canyon Outfitter 22, Jackson JKooler or the Hobie H-Crate JR. can also be lashed to the board for storage, seating, or fishing solutions.
For inflatables, a proper pump is a necessity. Most boards now come with a high-pressure double action pump, but if not, the NRS Super Pump or the K-Pump K20-HP are great options. If you want to work a whole lot less to inflate the board, consider investing in a high-pressure battery-powered pump like the Hala High Pressure Pump.
Hopefully this guide has been a useful tool in helping you choose which stand up paddle board and accessories are right for you. If you have further questions or need help deciding, feel free to give us a call to talk to one of our knowledgeable sales staff at 1-800-426-7637