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A Beginner’s Guide To Choosing A Paddle Board

As a beginning paddle boarder, learning how to paddle and balance on a board is not your only challenge.

Paddleboards come in such a wide variety of brands, types, sizes, price points, and quality levels that it can be difficult to know where to start when buying your own paddle board. Finding truthful information to help you make a buying decision on anything these days is difficult, let alone information grounded with fact, experience and genuine expertise.

In the paddle boarding ecosystem, the white noise of opinion has been turned up to full volume. The web is full of review sites, influencers and media companies that will happily tell you which board models and brands to buy, but won’t directly tell you that the real reason for these opinions and comment is payments made by referral commission programs or marketing agencies.  

The specialists at our store have been advising first-time paddle board buyers on SUP board and gear selection for over a decade and have worked with thousands of new buyers who had the same beginner questions you are wanting answers to. 

We guarantee that if you read this entire article you will be in a significantly better position as a beginner to buy a paddle board.  Whether it is your first board, or you are looking for an upgrade to a previous purchase that didn’t perform as expected, this information will prepare you to work through fundamental criteria that are necessary for getting genuine value from the gear you purchase.

If you are in a hurry, you can skip directly to where we tell you how to choose the best paddle board as a beginner, otherwise read on for some insight as to the amazing benefits of paddle boarding and some of the challenges facing new paddle board buyers. 

paddler doing yoga on a stand up paddle board

The Importance of Choosing The Right SUP Board as a Beginner

Why is your choice of which paddle board to buy as a beginner so important? 

Choosing the right board to get started on will affect your ease of learning and your likelihood of having an initial positive experience.  Your success and positive introduction to stand up paddle boarding will encourage you to stick with it.

The benefit to having a positive paddle board learning experience is immense when you consider what it may lead to.  Stand up paddle boarding can be life-changing and successfully bringing SUP into your life will have many rewards.

The health benefits of paddle boarding are abundant.  Paddle boarding integrates soothing elements including water, nature, rhythmic motion, endorphin release, and respite from the demands of daily life, making it an amazing source of stress relief. A SUP outing provides an amazing cardiovascular and core workout with little perceived effort.  Your paddle board can also be used as an aquatic platform for yoga and stretching exercises. 

The portability of a paddle board can also greatly increase your recreational opportunities. A paddle board is something you can keep in or on the car and use to access any waterway that has a dock or boat ramp.  With an inflatable paddle board, you also have a new way to experience places you visit all over the world, with the option of taking a rolled-up board with you anywhere as checked airline baggage.   

Many also experience social benefits with paddle boarding. SUP can be a way of connecting with other outdoor enthusiasts with a shared appreciation for nature, watersports, and stand up paddleboarding.

Once you let paddle boarding into your life, it can profoundly change the way you spend your free time and give you a new connection to the natural world. Getting beyond the learning curve and developing confidence that you can paddle anywhere you wish will pay big dividends for years to come, so you’ll want to get off to the best possible start with the right equipment. 

Paddler carrying a sup board down stairs at the beach

The Problem: How to Choose the Best Beginner Paddle Board 

If you read enough review sites or influencer social media posts, you’ll see that they tend to converge on a limited list of brands that make their recommended boards lists. 

This may seem like an easy shortcut to choosing a board, but relying on these sites will limit you to the brands that have specific programs for compensating reviewers in a pay-to-play referral system or engage in extremely aggressive marketing that keeps you seeing the same products over and over again after your initial click on the product.

The Advertising Problem 

The problem is compounded by the precise targeting of ads to people who have clicked on products that are being aggressively promoted.  After a single visit to the website of a company with an aggressive remarketing program, you are then pursued relentlessly by ads or “sponsored content” about that product wherever you go online or on social media, based solely on your click history. 

This gives the impression of a massively popular product, when in fact it is just an impression given by advertising targeted at individual people, and is reinforced by the hiring of social 'influencers' who are paid to talk up and promote the product on social media. 

Advertisements that follow you around on every device, and at the top of every google search in the form of google shopping cost a ton of money to propagate.  These ads and products and advertisements are a result of bidding on the placement, and are not indicative of anything other than a business willing to spend more money than another business on the process.  

  • If Brand A bids $1 for every click or view to be in that slot and Brand B bids $1.25,  then brand B will almost exclusively be shown. 
  • If Brand A then bids $1.50 for every click or view, Brand B will adjust its bid to $2 and the result is the same. 

In an extremely competitive industry such as paddle boarding, what happens is the brand with the largest advertising budget, not the best paddle boards, is the one that gets pushed in front of you more often.  

Brands and businesses are interchangeable in this respect.  Big Box stores and large outdoor retailers take a similar approach to trying to drown out smaller niche businesses by blanket advertising whatever product they see the opportunity to sell, only to move on to the next product to push when it becomes an easier target.  

How Does This Affect Purchasing a Paddle Board?

As a beginner seeking information on paddle boarding, we’re all naively believing that everything we read and see has a modicum of our best interest in mind. 

The truth is that many, if not most, of the most visible paddle board brands, review sites, associations and self appointed authorities are part of an ecosystem of multimillion dollar corporations purchased or backed by investment firms or trusts who are looking at nothing other than dollar signs and return on investment.  

Return on investment is the guiding design principle in these cases and it is a proven business strategy for businesses that is designed to exert influence and convince you a sub par product is better than it really is. 

Alternate Options in the Industry

If you don’t go beyond what you see on referral sites or what is advertised to you online, you’ll miss out on knowing about the smaller, more enthusiast-run and quality-oriented brands that are making the best boards today, including brands that choose not to participate in the incentivized review ecosystem or to spend heavily on advertising. 

It is almost as if there are two separate universes of SUP equipment.  On the one hand, there are mass-market brands that throw a lot of money at advertising and social media cheerleading in a rush to exploit the latest market opportunity.  On the other hand, there are smaller brands run by enthusiasts with a true focus on developing authentic, high-performing water sports equipment. 

Since some of the brands making the best boards choose not to participate in the same promotional channels, there is a chance that you may not have even heard of them.  Much like in surfing culture, a local shaper thrives by reputation but unless you have been exposed and introduced, then you would never know. 

A benefit of this is potentially much less advertising and promotional cost built into the price of their boards, and more investment in materials and components that make for a better paddle boarding experience.

Paddler with inflatable paddle board near the ocean

Choosing a Paddle Board as a Beginner - The Criteria

To make the right choice, you’ll need to arm yourself with information that gives you a basis to make a selection based on fact instead of hype.

So how do you choose the best paddle board for a beginner paddler?  The answer reduces down to this:  

The best paddle board for most beginners will be inflatable, will have a low profile, and will be sized and shaped for stability and glide. It should have an uncluttered deck without unnecessary attachments in the central area of the board that can get in the way of climbing back on from the water.  Also, consider that you won’t be a beginner for long, so the board you buy should have a substantial build quality so that you will want to keep it as your permanent all-around board as your skills develop.  

The features that make a particular paddle board best for beginners are stability, versatility, and ease of use.  These needs are most likely to be met with a board that is inflatable, is no more than 5 inches thick, approximately 32”-34” in width, and a generally rounded or gently curved outline akin to a surfboard. It should have a clear zone in the central part of the board where nothing is attached to the edges of the board that will get in the way of climbing back on the board from the water.  

Of the criteria for choosing a paddle board for beginners, the most overlooked and misunderstood are the profile thickness and the suitability of the deck layout.

two girls paddling on stand up paddle boards

Let’s go into the most important criteria and principles for choosing a paddle board as a beginner in greater depth: 

1. The Best Paddle Boards for Most Beginners are Inflatable

Almost everything about an inflatable makes it more suitable than a hardboard for beginners. If you later get serious about surfing or racing, you might then consider a fiberglass or epoxy board for those activities, but an inflatable is what makes the most sense for your first board in most cases.

We have written at length about the benefits of inflatable vs hard paddle boards, but the key points for beginner paddle boarder are these:

  • Inflatable SUPs are more stable than hard boards of comparable size.
  • Inflatable paddle boards are easier on your body than hard boards when you fall.
  • Inflatable SUP boards are less likely to be damaged while you are learning to use and take care of your equipment.
  • Inflatable boards let you get into paddling without having to dedicate too much space for board storage and can open possibilities for keeping boards on a boat or in an RV.
Paddle board board fin layout with a SUP paddle

2. Learning Will Generally Be Easier On a Board With a Low Profile

Rocking side to side while you are learning to balance on your board can dampen your confidence and set back your efforts to progress. A thinner board that rides closer to the water surface will minimize this type of movement and provide a more stable footing.

The optimal thickness of the board is an area where you might be getting conflicting recommendations.  As long as the board has enough volume to properly support your weight, a thinner (lower profile) model will be less tippy than a thicker one.  There is a misconception among some reviewers and buyers that a thicker board with more volume helps with stability, but this in fact only applies to heavier riders, well over 200 lb, who might be pushing the buoyancy limit of a smaller board.

The biggest mistake most first-time paddle board buyers make is buying a board with too much volume for their weight.

How do you know if a board has too much volume for your weight?

A 32-inch wide board in a low profile 4.75 - 5” thickness is the best for learning and progressing for riders under 200 lb. A 33-34” wide board in the same thickness will still feel sporty but supports some extra weight, gives you even more stability for taking pets and kids onboard or practicing SUP yoga, and can be a good choice for someone who prioritizes stability and doesn’t mind carrying a slightly larger board to the water.

Going even wider for more stability and thicker for added buoyancy might sound like a good thing, but the benefit of excessive width will disappear when you get past the initial learning curve. The extra thickness will serve no purpose and may detract from your experience if you are well below the weight capacity of the board.

Having a low-profile board has additional benefits, such as faster inflation time, easier carrying, an easier climb onto the deck from the water, and less tendency to be blown by the wind.

surfing a paddle board on small waves

The right SUP board will accommodate you as a beginner but will not limit you when your skills advance. Featured Product | ERS Deck 10-7 S3 Blue 

3. An Uncluttered Deck Makes It Easier to Get Back On When You Fall Off

Falling off the board and climbing back on are among the first skills you’ll need to learn when starting out.  Tie-down rings attached near the edges of the board in the central area (several feet forward and aft of the center handle) will get in your way and scrape over your body as you remount the board from the water.  These are often referred to as “action mounts” or “D-rings”, but when they are placed in the wrong areas, we think of them somewhat as “body scrapers” and the reason for this is self-apparent.

Keep in mind that fewer than 5% of all paddle board buyers will ever rig their board up for an overnight expedition that would require more gear than a typical 4-ring bungee setup can easily accommodate. And the vast majority of paddle board buyers who get a kayak seat with their board never use the seat after their first outing. This is mainly because the seat gets in the way when you are standing and does very little to support your back.

For these reasons, we suggest taking a “less is more” approach to accessory mounts and choosing an uncluttered board that will give you the most freedom of movement.

Deck Pad texture reptile skin

4. The Board Should Be Sized and Shaped For Stability, But With Plenty of Glide

As a beginner, you’ll want a board with enough stability to keep you standing while you are learning to balance.  At the same time, you’ll be learning to perfect your strokes, which will go much better on a board that has a reasonable but not excessive width and has enough length to give you a satisfying amount of glide from your paddling effort.

For most beginners under 200 lb, a board width between 31 and 34 inches on a board with proper thickness will provide enough stability for learning while still being an ideal all-around board as you move from being a beginner to an intermediate paddler.  Going narrower on the board width will make the board feel tippy, and going wider will slow you down and will require more of a reach to hold the paddle vertically with the blade in the water.

An all-around board shape with a gently rounded nose and tail is usually the best choice for beginners and all-around paddlers when considering stability and versatility.  Avoid boards with excessively narrow tails, which make a board more tippy and harder to turn, or very pointed noses, which reduce front-to-back stability and are less practical for cargo or small passengers on board.

Two people riding a paddle board together

Paddling with great equipment lets you focus on the moment and make every session enjoyable. Featured Product | ERS Deck S3 10-9 Blue 

5. Invest Up Front In a Well-Built, Reliable Board That Will Keep Working For You As Your Skills Develop

There are two ways to look at the cost of the paddle board you buy as a beginner.  There are many influencers pushing you to buy a cheap one because it will get you into the sport with minimal investment and with a heap of included accessories. 

The counter to this, and the way of thinking we subscribe to, is that investing in good equipment upfront will both make it easier and more satisfying to learn and will avoid the wasted expense of buying a board that you’ll want to replace with a better one as you get more involved in the sport.

For those on a budget, consider the following math. If you buy a $300-400 SUP board and intend to spend any meaningful amount of time paddling, you will outgrow it within weeks. Now consider a board that will be a step or two up, and apply the $300-400  you were about to waste.  The board you really want and would make sense to invest in probably isn’t as far off as you think. 

Use the same basis for that $6-700 board that looks decent, is heavily advertised, and has the weight of a social media influence campaign behind it. This may be a tempting “default” choice to make, but consider that spending just a little more can get you into a whole other category of performance and quality.

SUP boards get used outdoors, in full sun, around dirt, rocks, mud, and gravel. The accepted logic of what looks decent in an advertisement or product photo doesn’t apply so much to paddle boards because they are going to be exposed to all the wonderful things nature offers.  This is where workmanship and quality material come into play.

Going too cheap with your first paddle board purchase will detract from your enjoyment and impede your development of confidence. A water-toy level of build quality will result in a totally different experience than a well-engineered and solidly built piece of equipment that performs more like a vessel than a floaty raft.

It makes sense to always invest in the best equipment you can afford and not sell yourself short from the outset. 

Guy and a Girl paddling on blue water

6. Don’t Underestimate The Importance of Quality Accessories

It seems almost as if the cheaper a board is, the more included accessories it comes with.  While it sounds great to be getting a complete kit with everything you need, consider that the quality of the included accessories will be commensurate with their price, which is close to nothing in the case of accessories that may be included as part of the board kit.  

Going cheap on the accessories will cost you more in the long run than buying high-performing gear up front 

Making a Choice

Now that you know what you’re looking for, the next challenge is to narrow down to a specific board to buy.  If you feel overwhelmed by the torrents of advice and advertising claims that permeate the internet and social media, we feel your pain.  We believe it is most important to understand what makes for a good choice of paddle board for a beginner, and the criteria outlined below are a great starting point. 

Our guiding principles for choosing the best paddle board as a beginner or first-time buyer are: 

  • Go with an inflatable SUP, which is usually the best option for learning and all-around paddling.
  • Choose a board with moderate thickness, generally around 5 inches, unless you need the extra volume of a 6-inch board for additional weight handling. 
  • Look for a board shaped for all-around use, with a rounded nose and tail.
  • Avoid boards with attachment points in the standing zone. A 4-point cargo bungee at the front of the board is all you need for most uses.
  • To the extent possible, invest in a quality board that will enhance your learning experience and will last for many seasons, making it a one-time purchase.
  • Don’t settle for a “throw in” paddle and cheap bundled accessories. Choose your paddle and accessories as carefully as the board itself. 
  • Be mindful of excessively promoted brands, manipulated reviews, and manufactured social media buzz. 
Sunrise with a stand up paddle board

Planning for Future Board Purchases

After you’ve gained some experience with paddle boarding, you may eventually decide that you want to undertake longer expeditions, surf ocean or river waves, or even try your hand at SUP racing.  That would be the time to consider more specialized or decked-out boards or hardboards specifically sculpted for surfing or shaped for racing.

While you’re starting out and discovering how you will actually use your SUP board, you’re best served by choosing a well designed all-around inflatable that captures the essence of paddle boarding for most people:  Standing, paddling, relaxing, enjoying nature on a comfortable, stable, responsive, and uncluttered board that you’ll look forward to using and be proud to own.

If you want to go into more detail and explore the factors that should inform your buying decision, the best resource is the Pumped Up SUP 2024 Buying Guide, which will walk you through the steps you’ll need to take to identify the best paddle board for your needs.  

Paddler at night paddle on a stand up paddle board

A Final Thought 

Life is too short for things that don’t make you happy. Paddle boarding makes us happy and we believe with the right gear it can do the same for you.

As a beginner choosing your first paddle board, we hope this information has helped, and that it will lead you to experience the never ending joy of paddle boarding the way we do.


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