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4 Things To Look For In a High Performance Inflatable SUP

For some paddlers, having high-performing and carefully selected equipment is an essential part of their paddle boarding experience. 

Perhaps you are planning to put your board to a more demanding use, progress your skills rapidly, challenge yourself, and be competitive with your paddling.  Or maybe you are the type of person who enjoys the equipment aspect of the sport and likes to tune and optimize their ride. 

Regardless of your reason for wanting upgraded equipment, here are 4 things to look for when shopping for a high-performance SUP board:

SUP rider crashing over wave

Optimized Board Shapes

An enthusiast looking for a speed and performance edge will want to know how the outline, dimensions, and rocker curve of a board come together to influence its speed and agility.

Boards optimized for speed will tend to have a sleek profile that narrows at the nose.  Boards optimized for agility will be shorter and generally more rounded.  A board designed for stability will be wider, especially closer to the tail. 

A true crossover / performance board made to excel in more than one of these categories will have a shape that is a hybrid of board shapes designed for speed, agility, and stability.

This is the most challenging type of board to design and build because there are tradeoffs that need to be carefully balanced to get the right blend of performance. But when it all comes together, the result is a board that is fun to ride and really performs in a cross-section of water environments and conditions.

SUP Rider out in the ocean

Advanced Fin Setups

If you want to get more control over the performance of your gear, you’ll want to consider a board with a configurable fin system that lets you swap out the fins to adapt the board for different paddling types, venues, and personal preferences. 

A board equipped with a US center fin box and FCS compatible side fin boxes will allow you to use different fins for different purposes and not be limited to a single fin setup supplied with the board.  

At a minimum, a board designed for performance should have a center fin box that fits different types of fin you’ll use and lets you move the selected fin forward and back to affect the board’s propensity to turn easily or track straight.  

The most versatile center fin option is a US Fin Box, which is a standard in the surf industry as so many fins are available to use with this fin box.  This will give you the option of, for example, using a shorter center fin in shallow water or a longer race fin when you want to go fast and water depth is not an issue. 

The next level of fin system customization comes with adding a pair of side fin boxes that fit different types of removable fins.  This lets you set the board up with many different combinations of center and side fin length, each of which has advantages in different conditions. 

You can make a board faster by using a single long center fin to track straighter, adapt it for shallow water by using three short fins or loosen it up for fast turning by running it with only two short side fins.

Being able to choose from different fin sizes, shapes, and flex patterns in a configurable fin system gives you the ability to tune the performance of your board to meet your needs for different paddling sessions.

Fin Setup of performance paddle board

Decked Out Deck Pads

A paddler planning to tackle surf or whitewater will want a lot of traction from their deck pad. A diamond or square grid pattern with deep grooves gives the most traction for rivers and choppy water and is an important feature for users that prioritize performance over casual use. 

A removable grip on the carry handle, another upgraded feature found on relatively few boards,  lets you remove an obstacle to more involved paddling when a protruding grip in the center of the board would get in the way of your footwork.

A performance board may also have some extra features at 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 when you execute tail drops or pivot turns.

Boards with more advanced designs are also equipped with an “arch bar”, a slightly raised rectangular bump in the tail area of the deck pad that lets you feel the location of your back foot so you don’t have to turn around and look down to know how your feet are positioned on the board. 

SUP Rider on small choppy waves

Better Materials, Riggings and Accessories 

SUP Enthusiast boards are designed to perform in more demanding conditions that ordinary boards, which is reflected in their materials and construction.  To improve rigidity, some boards have removable battens along the edges or strips of rigid material on the top and bottom of the board that act as stringers to stiffen certain areas of the board.

Other manufacturers improve rigidity and durability simultaneously by bonding an extra layer of material to the entire board, a somewhat costly upgrade which has the advantage of affecting the rigidity of the entire board instead of focusing on only certain areas.

Performance boards are sometimes used for safety training and rescues, which require upgraded stainless steel D-ring attachment points at the nose and tail of the board.

Performance-oriented boards will come with upgraded accessories in the kit, which may include a rolling travel case with large ruggedized wheels, a dual action air pump that inflates the board more quickly than a standard pump, and a pocketable gauge for taking pressure readings on the fly to confirm proper air pressure which is critical for peak performance.

Boards built for enthusiasts are usually also developed by enthusiasts, and incorporate features they would want for their own paddling. This leads to features that demanding buyers want, including configurable fin systems, upgraded constructions, and contoured tail pads. 

If you look closely at the shape, fin system, deck pad features, materials and components of a board, you can more easily judge whether it offers you the extra level of performance or customization that you are looking for.

Perfromance 10-0 by ERS

So what makes a performance/sport board, a board you should choose? It depends. Many fit into other categories such as all-around SUP and touring boards and your intended use should be your primary consideration.

For example, let’s say that speed is your main consideration and you’re planning to use the board entirely on flat water and avoiding strong currents, chop, or wind.  In this case, you could choose a board with a sleek outline and a single center fin, as you won’t need a configurable fin system that would be used in more varied or challenging conditions.

If you contemplate going out in more varied conditions and want to tune your board’s performance, then put boards with swappable side fins and layered construction on your list.

We would advise to look and compare features, decide where you want to paddle and in what kind of water, and look for real features that will serve your needs - not gimmicks or window dressing.  A board that can be paddled in the locations and environment where you plan to paddle and have the level of adaptability you are looking for can be your true performance enthusiast/sport board.

See our top high-performance paddle board picks here.


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