Four Factors To Consider When Buying A Beginner SUP

Posted: 6 January 2022


The current SUP market is a buyers delight. All major companies now have a well-developed range of boards.

From first-time entry level boards to multipurpose and specialist in either inflatable or hard board construction - which in turn, all have different levels of construction in themselves – the possibilities seem endless. When we factor in all of these variations plus, the plethora of companies, this turns the Aladdin’s cave of choice into more of a minefield!

This article written by ASI Master Trainer, lifelong waterman and SUP equipment guru, Glenn Eldridge, is aimed at demystifying the buying opportunities and taking the pain out of the first time buying experience.

To help come to a conclusion on which board best suits you it is useful think in a process of steps, starting with an ideal and to then scale down to budget and what is best suited. It is this later term ‘best suited’ that is key to this process.

It is important to keep in mind that it is rare that even with experienced paddlers, the board chosen is the ideal board. More likely, is that it resulted via a series of compromises which, overall, is best suited to your needs. Now that we know that it is very unlikely to find an ideal board and that compromises will be made, it takes the heat out of making that choice. So, what are these compromises; in order of importance these are:

  • Board type (broadly these might be cruising, surfing, touring, racing)
  • Board construction (iSUP, hard board – see our article iSUP vs. hard board)
  • Safety
  • Budget

Step One

To decide on which board is for you, begin with the end in mind. How are you most likely to paddle the board, is it a cruise, surfing, coastal/river tour or is it more likely to be a diving platform for the little rug rats at home to jump on and off of? Answering the following questions helps making a decision a quicker and is more likely to result in you buying the most appropriate board for you.

Things to ask yourself:

  • What do you want to do?
  • Do you have transport options?
  • Do you have storage?

In general, the longer and wider a board, the more stability it will provide. Plane shape (board profile, viewed from above) also impacts upon this equation – I have seen some very long and wide boards which are unstable, due, in part, to tails being excessively drawn in and narrow noses.

A good rule to bear in mind is to look at where the widest point is on the board and try to establish how far this spot extends along the board.

On a shorter, wider board with a narrow tail and or nose, the wide point is literally that, one point. However, on a longer board or ones with wider noses or tails the wide point is likely to extend along the board rail giving a straighter profile and greater stability rather than the highly curved boards.

It is important to remember that stability more likely means reduced ability to turn a board (this is both a positive and negative). Similarly, instability improves turning characteristics positively but will likely have a negative impact upon board tracking (paddling in a straight line).

Step Two

Now that you have settled on the type of board we can move onto construction – iSUP or hardboard. In short, the lighter and more tech there is in the board the more expensive it will be irrelevant of whether it is an iSUP or hard board. In terms of hard boards, the less carbon used, the heavier and less expensive the board will be; more carbon = more expense. It will of course be lighter, but it will also be more fragile. Remember, most damage occurs getting the board to and from the water, not on it!

iSUP are a little more complex. Boards should definitely incorporate

dropstitch (thousands of tiny strands which connect the internal components of the deck and hull together giving enhanced rigidity) as a minimum, and ideally use double skin layup with welded rather glued seams.

All quality manufacturers are moving to welded technology which is far superior to glue, turning two separate layers into one as they are joined using very high temperatures and compressed together under extreme pressures. Glue, a common method used over the past, and one currently used by more budget brands, is less robust, delaminates over time (particularly in hotter climates) and is worse for the environment.

In short, if a roof rack and storage is available, choose a hard board; on water it will be better in rougher conditions but will be very similar to that of an iSUP when flat. If storage and transport creates problems, then an iSUP will likely solve these issues for you.

Step Three

Safety. This seems a little strange but are there inherent safety features of the

board? This relates more directly with iSUP boards; one safety feature is the use of welded technology. More recently, however, use of double chambers is becoming more prevalent.

Not only does this improve overall performance of the board but, safety is massively enhanced. A double chamber means that if the outer compartment is compromised the internal integrity of the board is maintained as the second chamber will allow the board to continue to be paddled. Much like carbon, however, this has a cost implication.

Step Four

This is where the compromise comes in. Budget will ultimately determine what

features you will be able choose.

So, first time boards should be longer, wider with a rounder nose and tail for greater stability. If cruising and touring is likely to be your thing, having a slightly narrower board (overall plane shape) will improve speed. But buyers beware, boards are only fast when you are not swimming next to them (blokes fall into this trap more frequently than most)!

On a similar note, if you are likely to paddle more in coastal locations on rougher water, wider is better. If you are more likely to be on flatter enclosed water locations then bringing in the overall width is acceptable. A broad rule of thumb for a first time board, in terms of dimensions, should be no shorter than 10ft nor narrower than 28 inches; obviously, a little less for flat or a little more for rough water conditions.

Next, comes board construction.

Carbon is nice if you have the cash but provides more of a headache than is necessary, plus, unless you are at the thin edge of the wedge racing then it really provides no additional benefit other than carrying a lighter board to the water’s edge. Let’s face it, as a new paddler you are more likely to ding the board. Financially it is better to learn your skills on a cheaper board; its less painful, both emotionally and to the wallet!

If storage and transport is an issue, then iSUP is the way forward. If cost is no barrier, go welded with a double chamber. Both Starboard and Red, who are leaders in this area, provide these options in their higher spec boards.

If budget is a little tighter, opt for welded seams with a single chamber, and if budget is tighter still, then glued.

Ultimately, cheaper boards are just that, they lack the extensive research and development along with innovations in materials and fabrication processes. This impacts upon user experience. There is, however, a big but here. If the board is likely to be a dive platform and simply a means to gain access to the water, then there is a place for the ‘el cheapo’ super market board and it should not be discounted as an option.

Just remember that cutting costs to get on the water has its own price. The board is less likely to provide a truly enjoyable experience and is more likely to have poor rigidity and stability characteristics. Not only will the quality of the board be compromised, but prices are kept down by using substandard paddles with poor adjustment features. A one size fits all plastic blade and aluminium paddle shaft, all of which make for a heavier and more difficult to use paddle.

In summary 

  • Have a clear idea of how you will most likely use your board. If it is your first, then a multipurpose board, one with generic characteristics, is the better option. Unless, of course, you know that you definitely will surf, race or tour only.
  • A general rule of thumb is to aim for a board that is bigger and wider particularly if rougher water is likely to be encountered frequently. A rounded nose and tail improve upon these stability characteristics. Boards 10ft plus by 28 inches would be an ideal approximate choice. If only paddling on flat water, then these dimensions could be trimmed marginally.
  • If storage and transport is problematic then iSUP is the way forward. If neither is an issue choose a hard board.
  • Avoid carbon but try to choose the lightest construction that your budget will allow.
  • Similarly, choose an iSUP with the most tech incorporated into it. Ideally, welded double chamber boards offer the greatest durability, on water performance and safety.
  • If budget is going to constrain your choice, go welded seams.
  • If it is a choice of getting on the water or not, the ‘el cheapo’ will get the job done but, it won’t be pretty.
  • And finally, see if you can try a friend's board, or better still go to reputable re-seller who is more likely to have a range of boards that you can touch or even take for a paddle beforehand.

Happy paddling, have fun and be safe