Types of SUP Paddling: Breaking Down the Different Paddling Disciplines

Types of SUP Paddling and the Boards You’ll Need

As more people are discovering the fun and benefits of standup paddling, many new paddlers I talk to are full of questions.  And many have absolutely no idea of the versatility and varieties of fun they can have with a sup. “What do you mean you can surf a sup?” “Wait, there are races? What kind of board do I need for that?” Aside from knowing they want be on the water, prospective board buyers may have no idea how to answer one of the key questions when trying to decide which board to purchase: “What do you want to do with it?”

So, here is a quick summary of the main sup disciplines, complete with the type and length of board that’s preferable for each. Having the right board for the right conditions and activities can make all the difference in the world.

All-Around Recreational Paddling (Including yoga)

The all-around shape is the workhorse of sups.  And it’s the type of board – both hard and inflatable – that most people start off on. Wide, stable and easy to paddle in mild conditions, surf-able and fine for the first paddle race, it’s a great all-purpose board.

Shape: Planing hull (designed to plane on top of the water), looks like a surfboard.

Ideal Length: 11″6-12′ 6″

Composition: Fiberglass, plastic or inflatable.

Type of Water: Flat, calm lakes; wide calm, slow moving rivers; protected sounds and bays.

Type of Paddling: General recreation, family fun, travel (inflatable.)

Skill Level: All skill levels


Downwinding is a specialized type of paddling which normally takes place offshore in the open ocean.  The idea is to catch the swells and whitecaps, called “bumps” and “surf” them one right after another, with the prevailing wind giving you a push from behind, It requires strength, endurance, ocean knowledge and board handling skills including footwork.  Key places for downwinding in the US are the Columbia River Gorge, near Hood River, Oregon and  Hawaii, particularly Maui’s North Shore.

Shape: Specialized planing shape usually with lots of nose rocker.  Designed for catching open ocean “waves” or the unique conditions found in the Columbia River Gorge.

Ideal Length: 14′ – 18’

Composition: Carbon fiber

Type of Water: Open ocean, offshore, Columbia River

Type of Paddling: Fast, extreme, seriously fun, definitely advanced. Instruction highly recommended before attempting a downwind run in the Columbia River Gorge or on Maui.

Skill Level: Advanced

Speciality Brands: SIC Maui


Shape: Big, wide all-around shape fort stability and to accommodate fishing gear.

Ideal Length: 10′-12’6”

Composition: Fiberglass or inflatable

Type of Water:  Calm rivers, lakes, bays

Type of Paddling: Specific activity – lakes, rivers etc.

Skill Level: All skill levels

Speciality Brands: Bote, NSP

Racing – Flatwater and Ocean

You do not have to be an elite, advanced paddler to enjoy sup racing! Most sup races have categories and distances to accommodate all skill levels.  You will do better if you have a board designed for speed.

Shape: Displacement hull – cuts through water, looks more like a kayak than a surfboard. Can be a flat deck or a dug-out style.

Ideal Length: 12’6″-14′

Composition: Fiberglass and/or carbon

Type of Water: All conditions – some designs are better suited to ocean paddling.

Type of Paddling: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced – more advanced paddlers will go with a narrower board while beginners will start with a wider race board.

Speciality Brands: , SIC, Infinity, Flying Fish,   404


Yes you can surf a paddle board! But it takes wave reading knowledge, board handling skills and knowledge of surfing ettiequte. It’s best to start out with a local or take a class. And have your flatwater skills dialed in.

Shape: Displacement

Ideal Length: 8’4″-10’6″ – beginners will start with a longer and wider board, boards get smaller as you progress.

Composition: Soft top, plastic, fiberglass and carbon

Type of Water: Ocean beaches

Type of Paddling: High energy, exciting. Need to understand tide, current, wave reading.  Instruction recommended.

Skill Level: Intermediate to advanced

Speciality Brands: Infinity, Starboard, SIC


Sup touring can include day-long trips as well as overnight excursions and beyond! A displacement hull that can more easily cut through water and paddle more efficiently is recommended.  Touring boards will generally be a bit wider than race boards and should include bungee cords fore and after for securing gear.

Shape: Displacement hull

Ideal Length: 11’6″-14′

Composition: Fiberglass, carbon or inflatable

Type of Water: Generally calmer flatwater but can also be ocean paddling.

Type of Paddling: Generally easy and relaxing. Distances can be challenging.

Skill Level: All levels

Speciality Brands: Starboard, SIC, Hala


Believe it or not, whitewater SUP IS a thing! It is very exciting but it takes special skills as well as safety equipment. Knowledge of how rivers behave is essential, just as it is in whitewater kayaking.  Safety gear includes helmets, pads and inherently buoyant life jackets.  Instruction is advised.

Shape: Planing hull

Ideal Length: 10’6″ and wide.

Composition: inflatable or special rigid composition

Type of Water: Rapid

Type of Paddling: rough and rocky – definitely need to understand how to read rivers. Instruction highly advised.

Skill Level: Advanced

Speciality Brands: Hala, Badfish




Lisa is managing editor of PaddleMonster.com and is an avid paddler of all the things - including sup, SurfSki, outrigger canoe and prone, though she especially enjoys paddle surfing and downwinding. She is a former journalist with more than 30 years experience in print and broadcast journalism and in government communications. She is a six-time Chattajack finisher, racing both sup and OC2. When not paddling, she is an outdoor instructor.



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