Stand up paddle boarding can open doors to many fun and healthy ways of enjoying the water. SUP boards can be used for touring, racing, surfing, running rivers, yoga, fishing, or just paddling around and enjoying the outdoors.
The variety of things you can do on a stand-up paddle board is reflected in the various shapes and sizes of boards that are designed for different purposes. A SUP board designed for racing or touring will be extra-long, a board for running river rapids will often be wider than usual, and a board for surfing ocean or river waves will be shorter than average.
The factors that make a board ideal for a very specific purpose can also be limiting for other types of paddling. A board that is very long will be harder to turn, and a board that is extremely wide or short will have less glide and will be slower than other boards on the water.
If you are just getting into the sport, you will likely want to explore various paddling activities and not restrict yourself to one way of using the board. For this reason, most people shopping for their first paddle board should be looking in the all-around category, where boards are designed to do a lot of things well but not overly focused a specific paddling type.
Here are the questions you should ask yourself before buying an all-around inflatable paddle board:
The key factors to consider are Length, Width, Thickness, and outline shape.
All around boards for paddlers in the average weight range are usually in the 9”6-11” range which is long enough to paddle fast and track well but short enough to turn easily.
The most popular boards in this category are 10’6” - 10’9” in length though a paddler can look at going up or down from that, dependent on their height and weight.
32” inches is the sweet spot for an all around board to feel stable but still fast and responsive, though it can vary from 30" - 34" depending on the paddler and overall dimensions of the board. Board thickness has to be considered in relation to the width and length of the board.
While many mass-market manufacturers have trended toward 6-inch thick boards, a properly designed 5-inch board has a lower center of gravity, so it will feel more stable and will be easier to climb back onto after falling off, and generally just be more pleasant to paddle.
The 6-inch thickness that many manufacturers use can be a shortcut to making a poorly designed board more rigid, but it’s a fact that a more stable 5-inch board can be produced with superior rigidity and a more balanced feel with some attention to construction techniques and materials.
6-inch thick boards have their place, but the thickness should be chosen based on board performance characteristics and must work with the width and board outline. An all around board can be 6 inches thick but then the default width for reasonable stability moves to 33-34 inches, as a little more width is needed to counteract the higher center of gravity and prevent the board from feeling tippy.
When you hear claims of “hard board-like performance” from 6-inch thick boards, purportedly based on their rigidity, keep in mind that hard boards do not ride several inches above the water line, so increasing the thickness of an inflatable actually makes it feel less like a hardboard.
More importantly, we would question any manufacturer who doesn’t realize that the paradigm has shifted and inflatables are preferred by an increasingly large swath of the SUP market, with inherent performance advantages over hard boards.
For more on the importance of inflatable SUP board thickness, read our article on Why You Should Be Looking For A 5-Inch All Around Inflatable SUP.
A board designed for all-around use should avoid extremes in the outline contours. The tail is one area in particular where the outline shape makes a big difference. An all around board with a widely rounded tail, or with a flat tail with slightly rounded corners will provide the best balance and performance. A board with an excessively narrow tail will feel less stable than boards with more volume in the rear.
Beware of boards with extremely long and narrow noses, as they can be less than ideal when you want to ride with a pet or child on board or stretch out for relaxation or yoga and see no speed benefit in real-world use. Manufacturers will often shape their boards in ways that lower their cost of materials, which can result in outlines that are less than ideal for paddlers.
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The subtle differences in outline shape, can create very different feels on water. Choosing an all-around shape that is versatile enough to be used from flat water to waves, with an advanced flexible fin setup will benefit paddlers who intend to skill-up to more challenging paddling opportunities.
This is a personal choice, and there are really two ways to approach the choice of a fin system. If you are looking for carefree enjoyment of your paddleboard, you can keep it simple by choosing a board with a set of permanently attached unbreakable fins. If you want to get more technical with your gear, you can select a configurable fin system that lets you swap out the fins to adapt the board for different paddling types or venues.
A board equipped with a US center fin box and FCS compatible side fin boxes allows you to use different fins for different purposes and not be limited to the fin setup supplied with the board. What you’ll want to avoid is a manufacturer-specific removable center fin which can be hard to replace if lost or broken and does not allow you to alter the fin depth for different paddling conditions.
The most common fin systems found on cheap mass market boards have a brand-specific removable center fin and two much shorter side fins which are permanently attached.
The drawback of these fin setups is that you have no way of adapting the board to different conditions, such as shallow water paddling. The removable center fin is usually at least 7 inches tall, tall enough to drag in shallow water, and removing it would only leave the two very short side fins which do not provide enough bite to give the board adequate traction when used alone.
For maximum versatility, an all-around board should have a center fin box that conforms to widely adopted surf industry standards, which means there will be a universe of compatible fins that you can purchase for use on your board.
The most universal of these is the US Fin Box (US Box), which has a long history of being used on surfboards, resulting in many fin options being available on the market. This will give you the option of, for example, using a shorter center fin in shallow water then switching it up to a larger touring fin for distance paddling sessions.
Additional customization is possible on boards equipped with a pair of side fin boxes that accept a variety of removable fins. FCS is the compatibility standard most often used for side fin boxes for the same reason as the US Box. FCS fins can be sourced easily as they are a shared standard with surfboards and are universal in the attachment tabs.
While having fin boxes that accept a variety of center and side fins is the true gold standard for a fully adaptable SUP, there are some reasons to consider a permanent tri-fin system, a setup which has three equally sized flexible unbreakable fins, usually around 4” in height.
This is an option that works well for school and rental fleet boards where fin breakage could become an issue and for paddlers who would rather not have to think about what fins to use on any given day or take precautions to avoid breaking or losing removable fins.
A permanent three-fin setup will perform well in most conditions, but with a little less flexibility in terms of adapting your board to varied conditions. It can also save you some of the cost of configurable fin systems that are found on more expensive boards, so it really comes down to how technical you want to get and how much you want to invest in the board.
A common misconception is that board with three permanent fins are ‘slow’ but this is unequivocally not the case.
A shorter fin actually creates less drag through the water, all other things being equal, and it generally allows faster turning. A longer center fin helps the board track straighter which requires less corrective strokes but the physics involved don’t automatically equate to speed - as the board shape is the main determinant and the fins play a supporting role.
Configurable 2+1 fin systems give you the ability to tweak your board performance of your board to different types of water.
The quality and texture of the deck pad makes a big difference in how the board feels under foot, especially important on longer outings. In general, a thicker and longer deck pad that covers more board surface will enhance your enjoyment of the board and expand the usefulness of the board to activities such as yoga, stretching warm-ups, and relaxing on the water.
Also, pay close attention to the tail area of the deck pad. A board with a contoured tail pad area with a raised rear edge to keep your back foot from sliding off the board and to give you more leverage when applying foot pressure.
Another feature that makes a big difference but is available on fewer boards is an “arch bar”, a slightly raised feature in the tail area of the deck pad that lets you feel where your back foot is situated without having to look down. Arch bars are commonly used on surfboards, and a few inflatable SUP manufacturers are now including them on paddles boards.
Deck pads will come in a wide variety of textures. Flat pads are often stamped with croc skin or brushed textures which are great for casual paddling. Enhanced deck pads add diamond or grooves and features such as kick tails and arch bars. These features are used to provide grip at the back of the board for tail drops, pivot turns, whitewater and surfing maneuvers.
While epoxy hard boards can have technical advantages in certain situations, such as surfing or racing, a well designed and solidly built inflatable is often the best choice for an all-around board.
Inflatable SUP boards are generally more stable than hardboards of equal size and shape. This is due to the fact that inflatables have a uniform thickness across the width and length of the board, while hardboards tend to be thickest in the center and get thinner toward the sides, nose, and tail.
A hardboard with the same uniform thickness profile as an inflatable would be very heavy, so most hardboards tend to have reduced volume at outer edges of the board outline.
While some care must be taken with inflatables to avoid blades and other sharp objects, epoxy boards are much more sensitive to dings, holes, and even board breakage, which will not happen with a quality inflatable paddle board.
Inflatable SUP boards are softer and more comfortable on the feet when paddling and easier on the body when relaxing or doing yoga. An inflatable paddle board can be rolled up and taken on airplanes, which makes them suitable for travel situations where hardboards would not be practical.
We recommend that you embrace the inherent advantages of inflatables while understanding that hard boards still have their place for those who want them. The differences in performance, except in a few niche areas such as SUP racing and surfing, are negligible, and the hardboard is no longer considered a standard to aspire to.
The concept that an inflatable SUP should strive for “hardboard like performance” is an outdated idea that has been superseded by advances in inflatable technology and design.
There are many choices when it comes to all-around SUP boards, so you’ll need to narrow down the field to make your best choice.
Knowing what features to look for will help guide your thinking. Start with a basic shape and volume that works for your height and weight. Generally starting with a 5” thick board, being the optimal all round board thickness for most paddlers, and then consider factors such as configurability of the fin system and features of the deck and tail pad.
The quality of the included accessories such as travel bag and pump add to the value, so be sure to consider the price in relation to everything you are getting in the package.
It takes some extra time to do the research, and as always feel free to call us for advice, but you’ll be rewarded with an all-around performing board that you’ll be happy with for years to come.
For more details, check out Pumped Up SUP's best SUPs for beginners and all around paddling category.
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