Guide

Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) for Beginners [Ultimate Guide]

Even if you haven’t been on a stand up paddleboard already, you probably know at least a handful of people who own one.  The beginner-friendly sport of stand up paddleboarding (SUP) has gained increased popularity in recent years due to its mass appeal.

Whether you are a novice, a seasoned professional, an adventure junkie, or someone who just wants to be immersed in nature, SUP has something for everyone, no matter age, fitness or skill level.

This Ultimate Guide to SUP for Beginners will take you through all you need to know about SUP so that you can get geared up and out onto the water safely.  This guide will cover the following topics:

  1. What is SUP
  2. Why is SUP so popular
  3. The different types of stand up paddle boards
  4. Selecting the right board for you
  5. Using your board correctly
  6. The different types of paddles
  7. Selecting the right paddle for you
  8. Using your paddle correctly

1. What is stand up paddleboarding?

Stand up paddleboarding involves standing on a surfing-style board, using a long paddle to propel the craft and paddler through the water.  The two main pieces of gear required are a paddle board and a paddle. Just add water, and off you go.

Ancient cultures from Africa to South America have utilised stand up paddling in some form or another for thousands of years. Modern stand up paddle boarding however emerged in Hawaii in the 1940s with surf instructors standing on their boards with their paddles to get a better view of the surfers and incoming swells.

However, SUP as we know it today really started to take off in the early 2000’s and by 2013, became the sport with the most first-time participants of any sport in the USA.

2. Why is stand up paddleboarding so popular?

Anyone can paddle board:

Unlike surfing that requires a number of skills to be learnt before getting anywhere near a board, most people can be standing up on a paddle board within 20-30 minutes.  In fact, a 2011 survey by SUP Magazine found that 60 percent of paddleboarders are self taught. Furthermore, you don’t have to be an athlete to take up paddleboarding.  What other sport appeals to kids, seniors, pregnant women and athletes alike?

You can paddleboard almost anywhere:

The use of a paddle provides propulsion that makes it possible to explore and experience all types of waves and waterways.  As well as flatwater spots which are ideal for beginners (ocean bays, slow flowing rivers, lakes, ponds, basins and even swimming pools) SUP also extends to open ocean waves, white water rivers, boat wake spots, and tidal bores.  The options truly are infinite. In fact, the 2014 Paddlesports Survey conducted by the Physical Activity Council (PAC) found that stand up paddlers made a total of 13.7 million annual outings.  That is a lot of paddleboarding!

It’s F.U.N:

The use of a paddle provides propulsion that makes it possible to explore and experience all types of waves and waterways.  As well as flatwater spots which are ideal for beginners (ocean bays, slow flowing rivers, lakes, ponds, basins and even swimming pools) SUP also extends to open ocean waves, white water rivers, boat wake spots, and tidal bores.  The options truly are infinite. In fact, the 2014 Paddlesports Survey conducted by the Physical Activity Council (PAC) found that stand up paddlers made a total of 13.7 million annual outings.  That is a lot of paddleboarding! So, you’ve decided you want to jump on the SUP wave, but how do you go about choosing a board? As America’s fastest growing paddle sport, new categories and models of SUPs are constantly evolving, which means a dizzying array of options are available. Its no wonder that selecting the correct board is often the most overwhelming decision many newcomers to SUP face. To get you on a board quicker, we will try to simplify things so you can navigate through the jargon with ease. But before we get into the more technical stuff, there are some practical questions we should be asking first.

 

Choosing the right paddleboard for you

A paddleboard to suit your lifestyle

First and foremost, it is important to first work out why you paddleboard and what type of lifestyle you lead as far as SUP is concerned. Specifically,

  • Why do you want to paddleboard? To get fit? To hang out with friends and family? To explore different locations? To do yoga and practice mindfulness?
  • Where will you paddleboard most often? E.g. in a lake, surf, white water rivers?
  • What distance will you be paddling? Is speed a concern?
  • Who will be using the paddleboard? Is it for you, for you and your partner, the kids, the whole family, you and the dog?
  • Is storage and transportation an issue/ priority? Would you like to travel with your SUP?

Understanding the answers to these questions will help clarify which:

Board shape (all round, touring, racing, surf, or yoga); and
Construction (inflatable or traditional hardboard) is best suited to you.

A paddleboard to suit your physique

As well as choosing a board that fits your lifestyle, the board also needs to be able to support your size and weight. If the board is unable to displace the correct amount of water for your weight, your frame won’t be supported. On the other hand, if a board is too big for you, SUP will be cumbersome.   

Here the most important consideration is:

Board size or specifically, its: weight capacity, volume, width, length, and thickness.
Essentially, all paddleboards have the following parts: nose , tail, deck, bottom, rails and fins. When purchasing a board, you will see that individual boards will vary in terms of each of these elements.  These variations are what make some paddleboards more suitable to certain paddleboarding conditions. In the next section we will cover off the main paddleboard shapes on the market, and how they differ so you can choose which is right for you.

 

The different standup paddleboard shapes

Simply speaking, the shape of a paddleboard will determine where it can be used and who can use it. There are five main SUP shapes on the market:

Allround

Allround

Racing

Racing

Surf

Surf

Touring

Touring

Yoga

Yoga

Boards fitting into each of these categories will vary in terms of their weight capacity, volume, length, width, thickness and construction. In fact, while shopping for a paddleboard, you will not be able to escape these terms!  

So before we review the five main SUP shapes, it’s important that we first get an understanding of what each of these terms mean where SUP is concerned.

Weight capacity:

Every paddle board will specify the maximum paddler weight it has the capacity to carry. This is generally expressed in pounds (lbs). Understanding a boards weight capacity is important because if you’re too big for a board, it will sit much lower in the water, making it difficult to paddle. Similarly, if you have a small frame, a board that is too big will also be much more challenging to paddle. Getting the right board for your weight will make SUP much more enjoyable.

Volume:

The volume of a board refers to its ability to float whilst carrying weight. A boards volume will determine both its stability and maneuverability in the water. Simply put, the more volume a board has the more stable it will be. A longer, wider and thicker board has greater volume than a short, narrow and thin board. Having said that, a short board that is thick and wide can have a high volume. Similarly, a long board that is narrow and thin can have comparably low volume.

Bigger boards lack the agility of smaller boards, and will not turn as quickly on the water. However, a higher volume board is the best option if you are a beginner. Once you become more confident on the water, you can progress to a smaller board.

On the other hand, a lower volume board may work well for children and small framed adults.  It is important to adjust as circumstances change.  For instance, as a person’s weight increases, a higher volume board (or more skill) would be required.

When choosing a board, it is important to match a boards volume to your size and skill level. The following formula can be used to identify the minimum board volume for you.

Step one: convert your weight to kilograms by dividing it by 2.2

Step two: multiply that figure by 2.

So if you weigh 160 pounds:

160 / 2.2 = 73kg, 73kg x 2 = 146L

If you are a 160 pound beginner, your ideal board should have a minimum volume of 146 liters.  We actually recommend that you go a bit higher than that as greater volume means more stability. Once you are confident and ready for more challenge, you can gradually downsize to a board with lower volume.

Length:

the length of a board is measured in feet and inches, from the very tip of the nose to the end of the tail. A paddle board’s length will essentially determine its speed or “glide” through the water. Generally, a longer board will have greater speed, whereas a shorter board is much easier to maneuver. A paddler’s height and weight will also impact on which board is more or less suitable.  For instance, a tall/ heavier paddler may need a longer board to support their frame, whereas a smaller, lighter paddler may find a shorter board easier to carry and use. Short boards will move quickly through the surf but can be challenging and tiresome on flatwater, and over long distances. A medium length board will work well in all conditions. For travelling long distances, a longer board will have more glide per stroke meaning it will be more efficient and require less effort to travel the same distance.

Width:

The width of a paddleboard determines how stable it is on the water. Generally speaking, the wider the board, the more stability it has. The narrower the board, the more ‘tippy’ it will be and the harder it is to maintain balance. The width of a board is measured in inches, at its widest point, where the handle is typically found. Most beginner boards are wider so that users are able to quickly get on their feet. A board that is around 30-32 inches wide is an ideal starting place for beginners and intermediate paddlers. A board that is a few inches wider may, however, work better for paddlers who are tall/ heavy, while smaller paddlers may find a slightly narrower board easier to paddle and carry. A board that is too narrow can be very challenging to master, and is better left to those with more experience.   

Thickness:

The stability of a board is also determined by its thickness. Measured also in inches, the thickness of a board is taken at its side. A board featuring a thicker structure will float higher in the water, which will, in turn give it greater stability. This is particularly useful for paddlers who are less experienced, or who have taller/ heavier frames.

Construction:

Another important consideration when you are selecting a SUP is in terms of its construction.  Broadly speaking, there are two main options: an inflatable standup paddleboard (iSUP) or a traditional epoxy hardboard. iSUP technology is the most popular choice globally.  iSUPs are typically made from stitched PVC or rubber, and while having the same rigidity as many hardboards, can deflate down to backpack size making them highly portable. While a durable, stable and and practical board for beginners, advanced users and competitive paddlers may prefer the speed and agility of a hardboard.  

Hardboards are typically constructed out of foam wrapped in plastics or composites, although there are many variations that are also accompanied by varying price tags. (read the detailed discussion on Paddleboard Construction below). Hardboards are great where racing and competitive SUP are key priorities of the user.  They are however, heavy, difficult to store and transport and more likely to get damaged than iSUPs.    

Summary:

In short, paddleboards vary in terms of volume, length, width, thickness and construction. In the table below, we briefly summarise what each of these factors means for a paddleboard.

Volume A board with higher volume will have more stability vs A board with lower volume will be more agile
Length A longer board will have greater speed vs A shorter board will have better maneuverability
Width Wide boards have more stability but can be slower and less maneuverable. vs Narrower arrower boards can be easier to paddle & carry for smaller paddlers.
Thickness Thick boards float higher and have greater stability. vs Thin boards float close to the water and require more skill to master.
Construction Inflatable standup paddleboards have broad functionality, especially all-round shapes. Have similar rigidity of hardboards but not ideal for advanced users or competitive SUP. vs Traditional Epoxy Hardboards are designed to glide quickly through water but are bulky and heavy and challenging to store/ transport.

Now that we have unpacked some of the common terminology used when comparing paddleboards, we can look at the five main standup paddleboarding shapes that are on the market. To make choosing a paddleboard even easier, we have provided a table at the end of this section that summarizes each paddleboard shape in terms of volume, length, width, thickness and construction. You can use this table to compare the five main paddleboard shapes at a glance.

 

First, however, we start with reviewing each paddleboard shape.

5. The different standup paddleboard shapes

(i)  The all-round paddleboard

All round SUPs are called this for a reason – they can perform in all manner of paddleboarding situations including surf, flat water cruising, tour, fitness, or Yoga SUP. It is likely you will take your first SUP steps on an all round shape and remain aboard something similar throughout your stand up paddle boarding career. You may have it as part of a collection of boards or opt for a one-board-does-all philosophy.

Ultimately an all round paddle board is flat and wide, is typically longer and has greater volume than the average board.  Their shape, size and volume creates greater buoyancy and stability making them great boards to learn on.

Although dimensions differ depending on paddler weight, skill and performance requirements, ultimately an all round paddle board is defined by a round blunt nose, widths of around 30”-32” and rounded pin or square tails.

Some may be supplied as single fin SUPs whereas others will have a triple-fin (tri-fin) configuration. While all round SUPs may not suit elite or competitive paddlers, there’s no denying why they remain the go to style of stand up paddle boarding for the masses.

(ii)  Touring SUP

Designed initially as a race hybrid the touring SUP displays enhanced glide and tracking making it an ideal board for scooting through flat water and navigating long, but moderately bumpy stretches of water. With a pointy nose, and generous length, the touring SUP is designed for maximum efficiency over distances. The pointy nose does tend to put many off, as do lengths, which come in 12.6ft and 14ft sizes (or similar). This doesn’t make for the easiest of SUP to transport or store although be aware you can find touring shapes in iSUP form, making these boards more appealing.

While lacking the maneuverability of shorter boards, and the versatility to ride waves, touring SUPs do provide a natural next-step-up for beginners and intermediate users.

(iii) Surf SUP

SUP surfing is one of the smallest sectors within SUP, and it’s not hard to understand why. There’s a whole raft of skills needed to surf SUP – just getting on the paddleboard, through relentless white water will test inexperienced paddlers to the limit. Surf SUPs are essentially crafted like oversized surfboards.  These boards are shorter and narrower making them very maneuverable in waves. On flatwater however, these boards lack stability. Paddling them long distances is also arduous. Surf SUPs are suitable for advanced, experienced paddlers and are often the niche of choice for surfers who want to give SUP a go.

(v).  Racing SUPS

For the more competitive and elite SUP’ers, the racing SUP is the way to go.  Racing SUPs are designed with an extra long body to attain maximum glide efficiency. This means racing SUPs achieve longer glide or distance with each stroke than you would with a shorter SUP. Racing SUPs are also narrow in width and have a pointed nose which ensures faster sprint speeds and the ability to track straight through choppy water. The narrow and long structure however can lack stability, and consequently requires much more skill to master.  These boards are therefore better suited to experienced paddlers.   

Paddleboard type All round Touring Surf Racing
Suitable for Beginners and intermediates Skilled users Distance paddlers Advanced paddlers Elite and recreational paddlers
Usability Very versatile - can be used for touring, racing, surfing, yoga, whitewater and river. Useful in most flatwater conditions Catching and Riding waves Flat-water, open-ocean and downwind races.
Pros Easy to use

Broadest functionality

User friendliness

Affordable price point
Efficient where long distances are required Great for cruising Agility and maneuverability Super fast and efficient
Cons May not have the speed of touring/ racing boards Not designed for wave riding Lacks the glide and stability of longer/ wider boards

Not suitable in flatwater conditions

Not suitable for beginners
Challenging for beginners

Much heavier board

Not designed for waves
Shape Flat and wide with blunt nose Long, with narrow bow Short and narrow Long and narrow with a pointed nose
Volume High High Low Low
Average length 10′ – 12’6” 11’ – 14” 9’ and under 12’6” and 14’
Average width 30”-32” 28” – 32” 31” and under 25” – 29”
Volume generous generous limited limited
Thickness varies varies varies varies
Construction Inflatable or traditional epoxy Inflatable or traditional epoxy Inflatable or traditional epoxy Inflatable or traditional epoxy

How a paddleboard is constructed will also impact on its usability and practicality.  In the table above we have broadly referred to paddleboards as having either an inflatable or traditional epoxy construction. The following section will delve deeper into the concept of SUP construction, specifically, by comparing inflatable standup paddleboards with the traditional epoxy (hardboard) variety.

6. Paddleboard Construction

When considering standup paddleboards on the basis of how they are constructed, you should consider your current skill level, as well as practical matters such as the amount of storage space you have; how you intend to transport the paddleboard and how important durability is for you.

Traditional epoxy boards

Traditional solid boards come in various different constructions so there is more jargon to sift through. Bare with us!  In short, the construction of a traditional paddleboard can differ in terms of:

  1. The process used to create the paddleboard
  2. The material the core (the internal part of the SUP) is made out of
  3. The material making up the exterior of the board

Here we will outline the two most popular processes used to create traditional paddleboards:
Layering and PVC Sandwiching.

Layering

The most common type of hardboard SUP construction today is the EPS fiberglass epoxy or the layering approach.  This type of board involves the core (interior) of the board being shaped out of a material called EPS or expanded polystyrene foam.  Typically, the EPS core is then layered with fiberglass and epoxy resin (a synthetic adhesive). The process of applying the layers of fiberglass and epoxy (often referred to as glassing) requires some skill. Boards are painted after the layering process is completed.  Unfortunately, the paint can also cover up any errors that may have occurred in the layering process, which makes it difficult to determine the quality of workmanship.

PVC sandwich

The other most common construction is a PVC sandwich, which uses a three layer construction comprising: an inner layer of fiberglass, a middle layer of PVC (or high-density foam), and then another layer of outer fiberglass. While a PVC sandwich creates a stronger shell (and therefore a more stable board) it is a more involved and expensive process which leads to a pricier board.
Traditional hardboards also vary in terms of the material comprising the core or interior of the board.  The two most common materials are Polyurethane (PU) and EPS.

Polyurethane vs EPS Core

Polyurethane (referred to commonly as PU) was widely used before EPS became popular. Although EPS foam is 60 percent lighter than PU,  EPS boards are much more durable and have greater buoyancy. EPS boards tend to outlast boards made of PU board, however some paddlers have a preference for PU boards as they allow for more flex when surfing waves.

Carbon fiber vs Fiberglass exterior

At the higher end of the market, carbon fiber can be used in place of fiberglass to layer the outside of the board. Although carbon fiber is much lighter than fiberglass, it is much stronger and stiffer than fiberglass.  To achieve the same strength as carbon fiber, multiple layers of fiberglass are required as well as wood or PVC stringers (strips of material that run lengthwise through the board) to stiffen the board so it remains rigid under the paddler’s weight. While the result is a much more durable, light and maneuverable paddleboard, carbon fiber boards are also considerably more expensive.

Other options for the core and exterior

Traditional hardboards can also be made out of plastic – some are solid plastic which while a cheaper option, can result in a much bulkier and more challenging board to maneuver.  Other plastic boards are made with hollow interiors to lighten the weight.  At the high end of the market are wooden boards with hollow cores.  The appeal of wooden boards is definitely the aesthetics – these boards make great display pieces.  However, given how resource intensive the construction process is, these boards also come with a hefty price tag.

Options for SUP Core Pros Cons
EPS - expanded polystyrene foam Creates a strong, rigid core Light Good buoyancy Lacks flex
PU - Polyurethane Cheaper than EPS Heavier than EPS boards Lacks the speed of EPS boards
Hollow Core Creates a lighter board Not suitable for beginners
Plastic Cheap to buy Can purchase in most department stores Heavy and bulky Lacks maneuverability Difficult to learn on this board
PVC Creates a high density core Expensive, especially for a first board
Options for exterior Pros Cons
Fiberglass Cheaper than carbon fiber Requires more material Not as light as carbon fiber
Carbon fiber Lightest material available Very pricey, especially for a first board
Plastic Affordable for all Very bulky/ heavy
Wood Aesthetically appealing Great display pieces Very expensive, bulky, heavy

7. Inflatable Paddleboards

Globally, inflatable stand up paddle board (iSUP) technology is the most popular – and it’s not hard to see why. iSUP technology has come a very long way since the SUP obsession exploded globally, and many critics will argue that a good quality iSUP today can often outperform higher-end traditional hardboards.

Tough and stable

iSUPs are constructed with strong PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) exteriors and feature drop-stitch construction to create a rigid air-filled core. This ensures similar performance to a hard-shell vessel with the added benefit of portability. In terms of performance, many experts would argue that iSUPs have greater stability than hardboards, making them an ideal board to learn the sport.

Easy storage and transportation

Unlike traditional hardboards, iSUPs can deflate and fold down to an-easy-to-carry backpack size. This means they are easy to store and weigh a fraction of what a hardboard would, turning SUP into a sport that anyone can enjoy. Furthermore, transportation is a breeze – simply throw the backpack into the boot or in your check-in luggage and off you go. The ability to travel almost anywhere with an iSUP literally opens up a world of opportunities.

Ideal for beginners

Falls are inevitable particularly when you are first learning to SUP. Despite having very solid and rigid cores, iSUPs do not have the hard surfaces that traditional boards do. This means, falls are better cushioned and less likely to lead to painful injuries. This makes iSUPs perfect for children and newbies.

Durable and low maintenance

Many SUPers actually prefer using iSUPs on rivers and rocky shores given the durability of the PVC exterior, which unlike fiber glass, will not get chipped by rocks. In fact, iSUPs will simply bounce off rocks and other hard surfaces, meaning the need for repairs is minimised. Overall, iSUPs are more durable than hardboards, and require less maintenance in the long term.

Things to be aware of:

iSUPs are inherently blow up products, and as such paddlers are standing on air. While there’s
certainly enough inbuilt rigidity, a degree of flex or bounce may enter the mix, especially if the
board is not inflated properly.

There are also a lot of badly manufactured inflatable stand up paddle boards in the market – all reflected by price (super cheap). We recommend that you check the specs of a board carefully and make comparisons before purchasing so that your decisions are well informed. A well-made iSUP will take you anywhere you choose, and that can’t be a bad thing!

The table below compares traditional hardboards with iSUPs.
Inflatable paddleboards vs traditional hardboards

iSUPs Traditional hardboards
Pros:
  • Great first board for beginners
  • Similar rigidity to hard boards when inflated well
  • Easier to carry
  • Lighter than hard boards
  • Easy to travel with
  • More portable than hard boards
  • Less likely to get damaged as they do not chip
  • Lower ongoing maintenance cost
  • Less painful when you fall
Pros:
  • Great board for experienced SUPers
  • Can have quicker response to iSUPs
  • Sleeker design can mean better speed
Cons:
  • A lot of poor quality iSUPs on the market so need to do proper research before purchasing
  • A degree of flex may occur if not inflated well
Cons:
  • Bulky and challenging to carry
  • Heavy
  • Difficult to transport
  • Costly to travel with
  • Storage can be a hassle
  • Can chip easily
  • Higher maintenance costs long term

Now that we have distinguished between iSUPs and traditional hardboard SUPs, let’s take a look at some SUP accessories

8. SUP Accessories

After purchasing a board, you need just a few more key pieces of equipment to enjoy paddle boarding.

Paddle:

Stand up paddles have an angle or “elbow” in the shaft for maximum efficiency. Choose a paddle that’s roughly 6″ to 8″ taller than you are (note: some manufacturers recommend an 8″ to 10″ differential).

PFD (Personal Flotation Device): The U.S. Coast Guard classifies stand up paddle boards as vessels (when used outside the narrow limits of swimming or surfing areas), so it is required that you wear a PFD. (The regulations also require you to carry a safety whistle and have a light available if you are paddling after sunset.)

Proper clothing:

For cool conditions where hypothermia is a concern, wear a wetsuit or dry suit. In milder conditions, wear shorts and a T-shirt or bathing suit—something that moves with you and can get wet.

Leash:

Typically sold separately, a leash tethers your SUP to you, keeping it close by if you fall off. Your SUP is a large flotation device, so being attached to it can be important for your safety. There are leashes designed specifically for surf, flatwater and rivers; be sure to purchase the correct one for your intended use.

 

Well there you have it, the ultimate guide to paddle boarding for beginners. Now, learn where the best paddleboarding spots are.