Where to Start?
If I had a nickle every time I was asked this question …
“Hey Dale long time no see. Forgive me for contacting you out of the blue for advice but I figured you wouldn’t mind too much. I’m strongly considering getting [my wife] a paddle board for Christmas. She’s mostly just interested in paddling around the lake. I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom?”
With so many options out there in the paddleboard market it can be daunting for a beginner to know where to start. Plastic, inflatable or glass/epoxy? Longer or shorter? Narrow or wide? Displacement or planing? Full deck or partial? Big box, boutique, or online retailer?
When it was time for me to purchase my first SUP the answer was pretty simple. I came from a whitewater canoeing background and knew that whitewater was what I wanted to do with a paddleboard. Combine that objective with my employment at a Jackson Kayak river livery and the opportunity to use an employee discount and it made total sense to start with Jackson’s line of plastic SUPs. Almost three years later I remain mostly happy with my choices. The SUPerNatural – a heavy, plastic recreational boat/board – inspires confidence in first time stand-up paddlers on lakes and easy rivers and is the perfect ‘spare’ to have on hand for friends and for taking my 90+ pound dog along on lazy river floats. The SUPerCharger – a heavy, plastic whitewater boat/board – inspires confidence in novice and intermediate stand-up paddlers on whitewater rivers and really facilitates learning in my experience.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to paddle many other paddleboards both on flat water and rivers and am myself in the market for new boards for both personal and professional/instructional use.
So – finally – I’ll try to walk you through a decision process.
Get educated and try before you buy
Even if you KNOW where you want to go with SUP – fitness, yoga, racing, coastal surfing, whitewater, etc – find an outfitter that provides lessons and has rental boards. What you learn in an introductory class will be applicable regardless the sub-discipline you move toward. Like kayaks and canoes, a quality stand-up paddleboard (new) will run anywhere from $800 to $1,400 which qualifies as a major purchase for most of us. A little hands-on (and feet-on) experience will inform your decision much more than reading articles on the internet and talking with salespeople.
Without instruction it really won’t make any difference whether you go with a high end or cheap board. With instruction you’ll feel more comfortable on any board you choose and will probably get out on it more since there will be less frustration.
Caveat: I have three friends who are happy with the inexpensive boards they purchased without any prior SUP experience and sight-unseen online for less than $600. None of them have paddled their boards more than 2 or 3 times in the past 6 months – but the boards are apparently in fine condition and they remain happy with their purchases.
Boutique, Big-Box, or Online
If at all possible I always recommend going with a knowledgeable and established small retailer near you. I learned this lesson many years ago when shopping for my second lawn tractor – the big-box store where I got my first one provided almost precisely ZERO help after the original sale and simply didn’t know who I was. While it ‘seemed’ like I was saving money I ultimately discovered that the small shop near my home was not as expensive as I thought, provided superior quality, and stood behind the equipment they sold with excellent customer service.
The same is often true for the small paddleboard dealer in your town. If you can afford to spend a little extra today – maybe as little as an extra 10% – you’ll save in the long run not only in money but also in enjoyment.
All-around or specialty board
Unless you have very specific ideas about how you intend to use your paddleboard an all-around model will be your best bet. If you stick with paddling regularly you will be shopping for your second board within a year anyway and this first board will become your spare for friends.
A beginner all-around board will be 9 to 12 feet long, 28 to 34 inches wide, and 4 to 6 inches thick. This is true whether you go with a traditional glass/epoxy board, inflatable or plastic. Longer boards are faster but harder to turn. Wider boards are more stable but sacrifice speed. Thicker boards are a little more stable than thinner boards mostly because of the additional volume. Beginning paddlers over 180lbs will also notice that they deal with much less water on the deck of a 6″ thick board which also helps with stability.
As a beginner you may want to consider weight and durability; a heavy board will inhibit the frequency you get out on the water. Of course, a lightweight board is damaged easily and can be more difficult to handle in windy or rough conditions.
Rotomold plastic boards weighing from 45 to 70 pounds are incredibly stable and nearly indestructible but cumbersome to transport and slower on the water. Inflatable boards weighing from 25 to 35 pounds can be as tough as plastic and much faster but are usually less stable and can be difficult to manage in rough conditions. That said, unique inflatables like the Badfish MCIT are just as stable as a 30 pound heavier plastic board. Epoxy boards are generally the least stable for DIY novices, comparable to inflatables in weight, and hands down the best option for fitness and fun … as long as you learn how to paddle and care for them like the fragile eggshells that they are. One hybrid construction that is gaining popularity with liveries are the thermoplastic composite boards being made by Bic Sports (in France) and Bounce SUP (in California). They are slightly heavier than regular epoxy but can be dropped, banged, and crashed with little risk of serious damage – and they are just as stiff and smooth.
Other features such as fins, rocker and hull shape (planing or displacement) are somewhat less critical in a beginning paddleboard. In surf and river environments nose rocker – or, the amount of upward curve in the front tip of the board – is useful to keep the nose up as you move through waves. Too much rocker, however, can really slow you down on flat water. Displacement hull shapes cut through the water the a sharp point on the nose and are prefered for touring boards designed for cruising or racing longer distances. Planing hull shapes are significantly easier to maneuver and more stable – but slower and harder to keep on a straight line. As for fins – for a beginner you will be fine with whatever stock fins come with the board. It’ll be a year of regular paddling before you really begin to feel the fins.
If you have a specific SUP activity in mind like yoga, coastal surfing, racing, or river running definitely ask someone knowledgeable in the discipline. If whitewater SUP is calling you check out Ian Smith’s article Whitewater SUP – Gear Overview.
How much should I expect to spend?
Most reputable SUP’s are going to run you over $1,000. Plastics will be roughly 20% less. There are also plenty of inexpensive options in the big-box and online markets. Your mileage may vary. Entry costs for all other paddlesports and most outdoor adventure disciplines is anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 in new equipment when factoring the suite of gear you need to start. You may also be able to find your gear in the used market and save more than 50%.
In the case of SUP on flat water your entry level gear will be a board, paddle and personal floatation devise. Additional and highly recommended are a leash and some type of rack system for your vehicle. But let’s start with the essentials to think about budgeting.
If we use a $1,500 target budget to make the leap into SUP most first time buyers will pour hours of research into the best possible board for the budget while scrimping on the paddle and PFD as shown in this table.
Typical $Typical %Suggest %Suggest $Board$1,37592%75%$1,125Paddle$906%20%$300PFD$352%5%$75
The thing is that the tangible difference between an inexpensive ($90) paddle and something lighter and more comfortable ($300) will effect your enjoyment dramatically – and with each paddle stroke. The tangible difference between the $1,125 and $1,375 boards will be pretty negligible for the first year if you choose well. And then the PFD – get something comfortable that you won’t feel inhibited to wear on EVERY paddle. Old fashioned horse-collars and ski jackets with 3 or more straps are both poorly fitted to the athleticism of SUPing. Inherently buoyant PFDs designed for SUP (and whitewater kayaking) are ideal and provide the greatest range of motion without bunching or inhibiting. Inflatable PFDs are also a legal option and recommended by the Coast Guard as “better than nothing” but can be expensive at $100 or more.
Other essential gear
Air Pump: if you go with an inflatable be sure to spend a little time evaluating options for putting air in it. Getting a board up to 15psi with a hand pump is no small feat. An inexpensive high volume electric pump to get the board from zero to 10psi will let you conserve energy for those last 5psi.
Leash: in the past year a record number of people – including at least one pro – have drowned because their PFD was strapped to the board deck and they weren’t leashed to their board. A little wind to blow the board away and exhaustion can set in quickly. Get a leash and learn when to use it and when not to use it. The American Canoe Association also has a nice video on leashes and PFDs.
Deck Bag: a sweet Outdoor Research deck bag is definitely a top-of-the-line “nice to have” but you will need some way of securing water bottles, energy snacks, first aid, etc. A simple mesh bag into which I can stash smaller dry bags and boxes and fits under the deck bungees also gets the job done. Having your gear flopping around on the deck is irritating and potentially dangerous. Securing everything in a bag that is securely mounted removes that issue.
Transport Rack: There’s nothing like a nice Thule, Yakima or other well-designed and built car-top rack system – but that quality comes with a few dollar signs. There are definitely cheaper options as described in The SUP Board Guide‘s excellent article, The Best SUP Carriers & Car Racks.
Where from here?
We haven’t even addressed issues like fins, deck layouts, gear attachment points, displacement hulls vs planing, rail designs or a myriad assortment of other distinguishing characteristics. But hopefully this is enough to get the ball rolling in a reasonably confident direction.
If you’re looking for advise for a Christmas gift for a would be SUP paddler definitely check in with a local boutique retailer who may be better able to match a board to your giftee. A gift certificate for a board shopping spree and a couple lessons would really show how much you care 😉
Happy shopping! And welcome to the varied world of Stand Up Paddling.