Whitewater SUP Paddler

How to Choose a SUP Board for Whitewater or River Surfing

Of all the places you can choose to paddle, rivers provide the most varied range of opportunities and challenges.  Rivers can have long expanses of flat water, areas of flowing water ranging from gentle currents to fast-moving rapids, and unique hydrodynamic features to explore including standing waves that can be surfed in place.  Your choice of a SUP board for river paddling will depend to a large extent on the terrain you plan to explore and what features of the river you will be interacting with.

Choose the Right Shape For the Venue

Boards designed for whitewater can be very single purpose or can be tuned for all around whitewater use. We break them down into three general categories:  River running (downstream) boards, river surfing (park and play) boards, and all-around boards suitable for whitewater. 

River Running (Downstream) Specialty Board Shapes

A board optimized for river running will be wide - usually around 35-36 inches in width - and relatively short, with 9’6” being a common length for these boards, though longer options can be looked at for those wanting speed. Rapids are a turbulent, challenging environment, so stability is key. There is also a need to maneuver around obstacles which is easier on a shorter board that turns quickly. A somewhat standard 9’6”x36” whitewater shape can be very limiting when used for other types of paddling.  The short and wide shape makes for a slow paddling board that doesn’t like to track straight without a lot of corrective strokes.  It also requires the paddler to reach farther to the side than usual for the paddle blade to clear the edges of the board, which can be uncomfortable when paddling for longer periods.  But when you want to get through a class IV rapids without taking a swim, a short and wide dedicated whitewater board will improve your performance. To really get the maximum value for such a board you would require the dedicated training that goes with the discipline, the board will only get you so far.


River Surfing (Park and Play) Board Shapes

Surfing stationary river waves places very different demands on a SUP board than ocean surfing.  Surfable river waves, especially smaller ones described as “holes”, often have very little space in front of them, which demands a shorter board with more upward curve in the nose than a board that would be used in the ocean.  The mechanics of paddling into the wave and maneuvering on the wave face are very different from ocean surfing, and the shapes that work in this environment have evolved through experimentation and testing.

SUP Boards designed specifically for river surfing tend to be much shorter than multi-purpose boards - generally between 6 and 8 feet, moderate width (usually 30”-33”), and are either widely rounded or nearly rectangular at the nose and tail.

An example of these new breed of inflatable SUP boards is the ERS 7’2 G-Rocker.  As suggested by the name, a key feature of this board is the rocker curve, which is optimized to promote prolonged planing while keeping the nose of the board from getting submerged in the cresting water in front of the trough. It’s overall width and wide flat tail give it stability that will keep you on the wave once you get the hang of it. You can surf larger boards on longer, more open, waves if they have good turning and lateral recovery but the new breed of pocket boards allows some slick maneuvering and are tailored to the task.


Crossover Shapes for Whitewater and All-Around Paddling

With all the varied paddling terrain you’ll encounter in a river environment, it can be very limiting to go out with an overly specialized board. In a single river outing, you are just as likely to find yourself paddling upstream or cross-stream as you are to be running a rapid. There will also be expanses of still water which are part of the river paddling experience.  For these reasons, we recommend that your first board for river based paddling should perform well in a variety of conditions, which is what an all-around/crossover whitewater board does. 

Crossover boards are not usually advertised specifically for whitewater, so you’ll need to know what features to look for in a multi-purpose board that you intend to use on the river.  Look for board length of around 10 - 11 feet - long enough to paddle fast but not too long to maneuver around obstacles, 33-34 inches of width, and a fin system that can be customized for whitewater use.

Whitewater SUP 10-0 Earth River SUP


Fins Can Make All The Difference

Once you have settled on the board type and shape for the type of paddling you will be doing,  you need to pay close attention the fin setup options on any board you are considering, as it can make a big difference in board performance and tunability.

Fin setup for pure whitewater paddling is much less of a black art than it initially appears, but it is one of the few SUP pursuits where you will see 2-fin, 3-fin, 4-fin (quad) and 5-fin setups in a variety of configurations.

What you need to look for is a system of removable fins that lets you swap out fins and reconfigure for different conditions.  Some configurations you may find helpful are:

  • A single long center fin when speed is a priority.
  • A long center fin with shorter side fins for varied terrain where some lateral control is needed. This is often the default configuration.
  • 3 medium length equally sized fins for when you expect to encounter shallow waters and exposed rocks
  • 3 extra-short fins in a tri setup for exploring shallow water areas
  • 4 fin quad setup that leaves the centerline of the board clear for getting over obstacles.
  • 5 fins (usually medium to short length) for maximum lateral traction

To enable this kind of flexibility in fin setups, look for a board where all of the fins are removable, not just the center fin, and check into what types of fin will fit in the provided fin boxes.  3 fin boxes provide enough options for most purposes, as long as a variety of fins are available for the specific fin system.  5 fin box setups are more common on specialized downstream whitewater boards where the extra weight and complexity can be justified, but most paddlers do not need that complexity.

Fin breakage is fairly common in whitewater, so you’ll want to prepare for that possibility.  One novel approach is Hala’s Stomp Box retractable center fin. The fin is designed to retract into a recessed fin box when hitting a rock or other obstacle, and spring back out immediately after clearing the obstacle. While it often functions as intended when hitting an obstacle front on it also adds a potential failure point to the board, should the mechanism be hit from side on during the considerable force of a turn in rushing water. It works on slow straight runs through, but is more a novelty than a necessity, especially in the wider context of whitewater paddling. Keep in mind that a board like the Atcha is a specialty board and some measure of carefree ease of use may need to be sacrificed to achieve peak performance.

2-fin setups, such as those offered by NRS, are not really recommended as they lack the flexibility and control that a removable center fin setup allows, attempting to avoid a problem that doesn’t really exist. Most paddlers will be better served just removing the center fin in a removable setup in the rare instances when they might want to paddle with only the two side fins.

Non-removable flexible 3-Fin setups are somewhat overlooked for whitewater but they make a great trouble free option which avoids any of the hassle associated with fin boxes and perform very well in most conditions, provided the board is up to the task.

Whitewater SUP Fins


Check The Deck Pad

The deck pad on a board for river use should have as much grip as possible.   A pattern of deep grooves in a diamond or criss cross shape works better than a smoother brushed or crocodile skin pattern when maximum traction and water shedding is needed.

Look for a deck pad that covers at least half of the front end of the board – generally the part forward of the center carrying handle.  There will be a tendency to move around the board on rougher whitewater and you’ll want traction in all areas where you might find yourself standing.

A board designed well for whitewater should have a raised rear edge at the tail of the deck pad, which will prevent your back foot from slipping off when applying tail pressure.  A feature that is very helpful and is available on some boards is a raised arch bar that is centered on the tail pad, which helps you locate your rear foot without having to look down and back, and acts as a leverage point for turning.

Despite some trends we’re seeing, including many brands we sell, we do not recommend a lot of extra attachment points on the deck pad / board. They can get in the way of your footwork and get snagged on things, especially in moving water. Some manufacturers have added these extra ‘attachment / rigging points’ as a marketing feature but many experienced whitewater riders will seldom use more than one.

Whitewater SUP deck pad


Inflatable vs. Hard SUP Boards for Whitewater

The river is one place where inflatables tend to be the default choice, and have really come into their own.  In addition to the convenience factors that weigh in their favor when comparing with hard boards, they are generally better suited to river paddling than hard boards.  The river can be a rough environment for an epoxy board that will suffer serious damage when impacting a rock, whereas a well-built inflatable such as the brands we sell will bounce off rocks and other obstacles unscathed. 

Whitewater Paddleboarding


Be Sure To Make The Right Investment in a River Board

A well designed and solidly built SUP board will be an investment, so you’ll want to consider where the board fits into your long term purchasing plans.  If you are serious about whitewater SUP and plan to build a quiver of boards for different purposes, you should consider specialty boards for running rapids or surfing standing waves.  If you plan on purchasing only one board, you’ll need to look at the bigger picture and choose a board that can do several things well.   In that case, a crossover board with a good all-around shape will be your best bet. As always give us a call and we can help you find the right board that will suit your paddling adventures for years to come.

View our highest rated inflatable paddle boards for whitewater here.

Want more expert advice on choosing an inflatable SUP board?  Check out our 2018 Inflatable Paddle Board Buyer’s Guide.