There’s something in the water — and it’s not just canoes, kayaks and rafts anymore. Originating in Hawaii as a way to work-out when waves turned fickle, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) has gone both mainstream and mainland. “It’s absolutely huge,” says Charlie MacArthur, owner of Colorado’s first SUP school (and son of James MacArthur, who played Dan-o in Hawaii Five-O). “We’re taking just as many students out on SUPS now as we are in kayaks.”
The key to the sport’s popularity is a learning curve as shallow as a mountain stream. Just stand up and paddle…no rolling, escaping from a cockpit, or cumbersome gear like spray skirts. Plus, it’s great exercise…in disguise.
SUP types run the gamut from those for racing, downwind paddling and surfing to lake paddling and river use. Throw in hard shells made of fiberglass and composites vs. inflatables and the options get even murkier.
Fear not. Whether you’re a retailer adding SUPs to your shelves or a consumer looking to buy, the following design snapshot will get your stroking in the right direction.
Touring (Lake and Ocean): Longer length equals speed, says Victoria Ohegyi of Colorado’s Hala Gear. So does rigidity, she adds, which prevents flex and results in more efficient paddling. “We add carbon stringers to achieve this,” she says, adding beginners looking for stability should go with a wider board and those looking for speed a longer, narrower board. “And stay away from boards with rocker for more glide, which equals speed.”
Bad Fish’s Mike Harvey advises looking for a board that’s 11 feet long or more, and a bit narrower, less than 30 inches wide. Also look for a a sleek, piercing shape. “In general, the more width the less efficient it is,” he says. “And we sell a lot of touring boards that are made for self-support camping trips that have additional tie-down points.”
And there’s a difference between and ocean and lake touring boards, says TAHE Outdoors’ Jimmy Blakeney. “For rec boards and casual paddling we prioritize stability, tracking and efficiency,” he says. “Stability comes from added width and moving volume out towards the rails. Enhanced tracking can be achieved with a keeled nose, and efficiency comes by reducing rocker—especially in the tail.” For ocean paddling, he adds, “look for a board with more volume in the nose and a deck shape that sheds water to prevent it from getting swamped. A lower standing area, sometimes in the form of a ‘dugout’ shape, can increase stability in choppy conditions since it lowers your center of gravity.”
Kevin Cook of Level6 says look for a displacement-style hull and a nose-piercing bow. “This allows you to get the maximum efficiency out of your forward stroke, helps the board track straight and increases hull speed,” he says. “It also helps you get more strokes per side and creates a better rhythm in flat water.”
Surfing: The shorter your board the more maneuverable it is. It also helps to have a sharp rail for carving, says Ohegyi of Hala, whose Doublestack technology piles two air chambers on top of one another to create a rail. “You’ll also want fin boxes for versatility, so you can change out depending on the wave and water depth.”
The more fin boxes you have, adds Level6’s Cook, the easier it is to adapt to the type of wave you’re surfing.
Blakeney adds that the rails on a surf SUP should also be foiled (tapered) towards the rail. “This allows you to keep volume (flotation) down the center while still making the rails thinner so they can ‘bite’ into the wave for carving,” he says. “Rocker, or curve, is also critical – without enough rocker you end up pearling easily; too much rocker and your board will be slow.”
And there’s a big difference between ocean surfing and river surfing, adds Bad Fish’s Harvey. “For longboard-style ocean surfing, get a board that’s 9 or 10 feet long or so, and narrower, maybe 30 inches, so it turns well and doesn’t trip up on the wave when you’re riding down the line,” he says. For river surfing, he adds, go short, wide and rocker: “Everything you’d look for in a river runner but shorter so it can fit in a tight trough of a river wave.”
The reason ocean boards don’t work for river surfing,hea dds, is volume. “You don’t get the same lift in the river as you do from an ocean wave, so you have to simulate it by adding volume,” he says. “For instance, a typical river surfing SUP will have about 150 liters of volume while an ocean surfing board might only have 90 liters. It’s a pretty dramatic difference.”
Surfing SUPs share similarities with regular surfboards, adds Cook. “It depends on the waves—if they’re long and flat you’ll want a longer, quicker board; if they’re fast and steep, use a shorter, quicker one for carving.” Beginner surfers might want to size up so they can paddle between sets, and have some extra stability when catching the wave, he says, adding surf-style boards are traditionally much lower volume and can be less stable than touring-style boards.
River running/easy whitewater: Rocker is critical for whitewater, says TAHE’s Blakeney. “It makes the board more maneuverable and capable of punching over whitewater features,” he says. “But too much rocker makes a board slow – it’s all about finding the right balance for the particular application.”
Bad Fish’s Mike Harvey adds that for general river running, look for aboard that’s short, wide and rockered. “Under 9’6” seems to be the industry standard, with about 36 inches wide or so the sweet spot,” he says, adding that the rocker should be fairly aggressive and continuous throughout the board for a smooth transition over waves.
That rocker, or having the bow higher, will also help prevent the board’s nose from catching the current when you peel in and out of eddies, adds Level6’s Cook. He also touts durability as key. “Go with an inflatable, ABS or poly board,” he says. “Anything that can withstand hitting rocks.”
In summary, wide equals stability and short equals maneuverability, which, as well as rocker, is what you want for river running, says Hala’s Ohegyi, adding get a big fin for deep water and smaller ones (sidebites) for shallower runs (or Hala’s retractable Stompbox) so they won’t catch on rocks.
Sidebar River SUP Tips
Former professional kayaker Ken Hoeve, a 47-year-old father of two from Gypsum, Colo., has switched to stand-up paddleboarding and hasn’t looked back. A former board developer for Jackson Kayak and member of its whitewater and fishing sup teams, he has countless first sup descents under his shorts and knows what paddling them takes. Here are a few of his tips for supping rivers.
Wear a properly fitted PFD and proper footwear — river bottoms and banks are typically lined with rocks.
Never attach a leash to your ankle. Attach it to a PFD with a quick release system so you can free yourself if it gets snagged.
Always paddle with someone else. A partner can help with any number of situations that might arise.
Know your stretch of river. Be aware of what class of water you’re paddling and if there are any hazards. Don’t get in over your head.
Use a wide, thick board — around 34 inches wide and 5-6 inches thick. The width adds stability while the thickness adds flotation and rigidity.
Keep a wide stance with your feet facing forward and staggered. Also, bend your knees and keep your paddle in the water.
If you swim, keep your feet at the surface and face downstream on your back. Never stand up in a river.
Carry momentum across an eddy line. Also, be aware of its depth and keep your paddle in the water as a brace.
Carry water, a snack and a small first aid kit. If you need to hike out, they’re great to have.
Take a lesson. River supping takes time and practice, so ease into it. When in doubt, walk around a rapid or hazard. The river will always be there.
Sidebar: Rigid vs. inflatable boards…
“Rigid boards, as the name implies, are stiff and so don’t lose efficiency when acted on by outside forces like waves, wind and current, and even the force of your stroke combined with the downward pressure of your feet,” says TAHE Outdoors’ Jimmy Blakeney. “They also typically have a longer life-span vs. inflatables, which are textile products and rely on glue, can and can be repaired indefinitely. But inflatables are great also, and are an incredibly good solution to portability and storage issues. They’re also great for calm, flat-water and rivers where you might be hitting rocks, thanks to their high volume and durable, ‘ding-proof’ construction.”
Pull Quote: “Inflatable SUPs are incredibly versatile and designed for travel — simply roll it up and throw it in the back of your car. They’ve come a long way since the early days and are more stable than ever; you can feel confident paddling them on any waterway. I always keep one with me whenever I’m on a road trip and I have access to a paddle spot.”
—Victoria Ohegyi, Hala Gear