What Is Paddleboarding?
Paddleboarding is a fun, rewarding, and highly accessible water sport. As the name implies, the activity combines the act of paddling with a long flotation device. From a prone position, your arms act as the paddles that propel you forward. If you’re in a kneeling or standing position, you can employ an actual paddle.
Before we go any further, a quick word on nomenclature. Paddleboarding refers to the act of lying prone on a paddleboard while using your arms to propel yourself through the water. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) – also known as stand-up paddle surfing – refers to the same activity, but performed while standing up. In this case, a single oar is used to paddle.
Though each sport has its own unique history, technique, and fanbase, we’ll largely use the terms interchangeable in this article unless otherwise indicated.
Paddleboards come in two main shapes: all around and touring.
The all-around paddleboard has a rounded front end (or nose) with a little rocker. This is known as a planing hull. The purpose of a planing hull is to slightly lift the front of the board to improve gliding. This design is ideal for handling waves or choppy water.
In terms of shape, an all-around is considerably wider than its touring counterpart. In fact, the ample width makes it easy to manoeuvre and maintain your balance. This is a major plus for beginners. That said, the shape and size of these boards doesn’t translate well for speed and long distances.
Get an all-around paddleboard if you:
- are a beginner in need of practice;
- want to take relaxed journeys across lakes or bays;
- want to cruise leisurely down rivers;
- enjoy SUP surfing, yoga, or fishing;
- prefer recreation to sport.
Similar to the design of a kayak, a touring paddleboard is recognizable by its pointed nose, otherwise known as a displacement hull. This shape is ideal for high-speed runs across flat water.
A touring board can maintain a smooth, straight path over long-distances without you expending much energy. Its high-efficiency design makes it a great choice for paddleboarders seeking optimal performance while racing.
In contrast to all around boards, touring boards are more narrow. This makes them nearly impossible to use for SUP. They are best suited to paddleboarders who prefer to paddle from a prone position.
Get a touring paddleboard if you:
- want to go on a lengthy expedition or coastal cruise;
- are seeking a mix of sport and recreation;
- want to maximise performance.
Hard SUPs vs Inflatables
Paddleboards come in two varieties: hard and inflatable.
Traditional paddleboards are constructed with solid materials. Today, they mostly combine an EPS foam base with several layers of fibreglass; an epoxy finish protects the board from nicks and scratches. The resulting paddleboard is durably rigid yet surprisingly light.
Hardboards excel when it comes to conquering big waves. And as long as you have the space to store and transport a hardboard, you can get in and out of the water quickly without worrying about inflating and deflating it.
Compared to inflatables, hardboards are heavier. This makes them more adept at handling windy conditions when you’re out on the water. Hardboards also tend to be cheaper to repair. And, despite not being quite as durable as modern inflatables, they better resist natural wear-and-tear caused by the sun’s UV rays.
Get a hard paddleboard if you:
- want a performance edge in competition;
- prefer a narrow board for speed and distance;
- need a board capable of handling big waves and surfing;
- need a board that’s easy to store and transport;
- prefer an easy set-up.
Historically, inflatable boards were seen as a novelty among paddleboards. Over time, however, they’ve come to dominate the paddleboard market thanks to major advances in material science. Modern inflatable boards are more durable, portable, lightweight, and versatile than their hardboard countertops.
For novices, inflatable boards offer two main advantages. The first is that falling doesn’t hurt nearly as much. The second is that the soft deck reduces contact pressure; this lessens the standing fatigue you’re sure to feel in your feet and up through your knees, core, and neck.
Inflatables can actually attain a rigidity comparable to hard boards, making them exceptionally versatile. Depending on shape, inflatables can conquer flat water, small waves, and even whitewater. They’re often larger than hard boards by as much as 20%. This improves both balance and manoeuvrability.
As for storage, inflatables can be easily packed down and stored on a shelf in your closet, in the trunk of your Prius, or in a checked bag at an airport. Though most inflatables still come with a patch kit to tackle small repair jobs- an artefact of early, single-layer board designs – you probably won’t ever need it.
Get an inflatable paddleboard if you:
- need a compact paddleboard for travel and storage;
- want a versatile board;
- want a lightweight board;
- want a durable build;
- want a board for beginners or injury-prevention.
Like the reality we exist in, paddleboards have three dimensions. When combined, these dimensions contribute to the total volume and weight capacity of a board. Keep this fact in mind as you read the next sections. You can’t alter any single dimension without affecting the entire mechanics of a paddleboard.
Paddleboards come in three lengths: short, medium, and long. Below, we discuss some of the advantages and drawbacks of each type. As a general rule, however, shorter boards handle better, while longer boards are faster.
Short boards measure 10’ or less. In terms of shape, they’re typically designed as all-around boards. Between their short length and planing hull, they provide excellent manoeuvrability for activities like big wave surfing. For kids, a board of 8’ is generally recommended.
Most paddleboards fall into the medium category, measuring between 10’ and 12’. Though commonly built as all-around boards (planing hull), you can still find some touring options (displacement hull). Medium boards are a great choice for their versatility, from river cruises to SUP yoga.
If you’re looking for a board that can literally go the distance, then a long board is unmatched. These boards come in at a length of 12’6” and above. The vast majority are touring boards. Thanks to their exceptional length and displacement hull, they’re effortlessly fast and can maintain a straight trajectory with ease.
Most paddleboards come in a width range of between 25” and 36”. When choosing the right width for your needs, take into consideration the three following criteria.
This criteria is for those new to the sport: beginners should choose a wide board over a narrow board. Wider boards are more comfortable and therefore better for learning. In contrast, experienced paddleboarders can opt for any width as determined by the next two criteria.
A SUP yoga practitioner will have very different needs than, say, a competitive racer or a river expedition camper. Yogis will prefer a wide board (31” or greater) since it allows them a greater surface area to perform their sun salutations.
Expeditionists will also opt for a somewhat wider board as they’ll need the extra space to store their camping gear. Lastly, competitive racers will always go with a narrow board for its unbeatable manoeuvrability and speed.
The width of your board should correlate to your body type. Smaller folks will feel more efficient with a narrower board, especially when it comes to paddling. Larger folks will prefer a wider board, as it will improve their balance and stability.
Board thickness is an important way to offset your choice of length and width. As such, it’s usually the last metric to be determined. Let’s look at a real-life example.
Suppose you’ve picked out the perfect length and width for your new board. But you have a problem: the board doesn’t have a high enough volume to support your total weight. In this case, you can increase the board’s volume/weight capacity by increasing its thickness.
Volume, expressed in litres (L), is a function of a paddleboard’s three dimensions. It provides a quick way to assess a board’s capacity to float when carrying weight: As volume increases, so does weight capacity.
If you’re shopping for a touring board, volume is an especially important metric to pay attention to. Unlike the very forgiving all-around boards, touring boards are designed with precision figures in mind to optimise speed and manoeuvrability.
Another key metric to consider when shopping for a paddleboard is weight capacity. This indicates how much weight can be safely placed on the board. This value is expressed in either pounds (lbs) or kilograms (kg). When calculating your desired weight capacity, be sure to include your body weight in addition to any gear, food, or water you intend to carry.
Using a board with a relatively low weight capacity will cause it to ride low, making it difficult to paddle. On the other hand, using a board with a relatively high weight capacity will negatively affect manoeuvrability. As with volume, weight capacity is especially important when it comes to touring boards, as they’ve been optimised for a specific weight range.
Fins are added to the underside of a paddleboard to improve performance. Small fins boost a board’s manoeuvrability, while larger fins enhance its stability and tracking. Because most fins are removable, you can swap them out based on your activity type. Removable fin setups also make for more convenient storage.
Below, we look at three common fin configurations. Note that these setups apply to both hardboards and inflatables. In the case of the latter, however, the fins can either be semi-rigid detachables or fixed and flexible rubber ones.
Single Fin Setup
This setup is ideal for flat water because it minimises drag and boasts excellent tracking. A solitary fin is housed and secured in a fin box, where a narrow channel provides room for the fin to slide up and down.
The 3-fin setup, otherwise known as a thruster, is the benchmark when it comes to tracking on flat water and maintaining stability in surf. As the name implies, there are three fins, all of which are roughly equal in size.
2+1 Fin Setup
Designed for surfing, this setup is similar to the 3-fin configuration. The difference is that two smaller fins flank a large central fin.
For the most part, paddleboard accessories are optional add-ons that can improve your board’s performance. Let’s look at some of the more common ones.
Handles make carrying your board a whole lot easier. One well-placed handle, positioned in the centre-middle of a board, is optimal for even weight distribution. Of course, if your arms are too short to reach that particular spot, feel free to make the necessary tweaks.
When shopping for a handle, opt for one that retracts into the board when not in use. This keeps things as streamlined as possible. It’s also wise to verify a handle’s tensile strength to determine its maximum weight capacity.
If you plan on carrying anything more than your body on a paddleboard, bungee straps are essential. Located at either the front, back, or both ends of your board, straps are used to secure items like coolers, dry sacks, and more.
Some boards come pre-equipped with straps. For others, you can purchase stretchy cord that can be laced through grommets already attached to the board.
A pump is absolutely necessary – but only for inflatable SUPs. You can purchase a hand pump if you’re on a budget or pay a little more for the convenience of an electric pump. Just don’t forget to take it with you!
For prone paddleboarding, all you need is a set or arms. For stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), however, a paddle is an essential piece of kit.
And while you may think a canoe paddle is interchangeable with a SUP paddle, they’re actually slightly different. A SUP paddle is shaped like a teardrop and tilted slightly forward to reduce friction and enhance paddle efficiency.
To determine the paddle length for your needs, here’s a heuristic: Take your height and add 9” or 10”. The result is the length of your paddle. For example, if you’re 5’9” (69”), your paddle should be 78” or 79” long. Competitive racers should add about 12” to their height.
A leash keeps you safe by tethering your ankle to your paddleboard. It also reduces the chances of becoming separated from your board after a fall.
Leashes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Depending on your choice of activity, you may use a different leash for flat water, rushing rivers, and waves.
Rashguard or Wetsuit
In warm weather, paddleboarding can be done in nothing more than a bathing suit. But if you burn easily or feel concerned about friction rashes or abrasions, you can wear a rashguard.
For cold-weather paddleboarding, you’ll want to wear either a wetsuit or a dry suit. The latter is more appropriate for very cold conditions.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
Because a paddleboard is legally considered as a vessel, a PFD – also known as a life jacket – is required to operate one. When shopping for a PFD, take the time to understand how it should fit. Also, make sure your PFD features a safety whistle and a waterproof light.
Paddleboarding is a great summer pastime. It’s affordable, easy to learn, and extremely versatile. From yoga in the bay to river expeditions to flat water racing, paddleboarding offers many fun variations.
So now that you know how to choose a paddleboard, the only thing left to do is get out on the open water and enjoy!