SUP Shapes: Choosing the Right One

There are many different kinds of SUP shapes designed for specific types of paddling.  When you are beginning to look for a paddleboard you should have an idea of what type(s) of paddling you want to do.  The three main kinds are flat water or recreational, surf, and race.  There are also offshoots like down winding (riding with a strong wind to the back in one direction and normally in open water), white water river paddling, and paddleboards outfitted specifically for fishing.  But for now we will address the main three.

Most of the paddleboards that you will find in your local SUP shop cover a range of styles.  That is, you can use them effectively for flat water and surf, and sometimes racing, although it is far less common to have a multi-purpose racer.  The degree to which a particular paddleboard lends itself to either surf and/or flat water paddling varies greatly.  A board that is considered to be a 50/50 is designed to do both equally well.  But most boards are designed to accommodate one style more than the other and dialing in just what you want out of the board is the task at hand.

In addition, boards with three or more fin boxes (thruster and quad set-ups) have the capability to hold side bites.  Side bites are small fins that aid in turning a surf paddleboard on a wave.  Flat water boards will normally have only one fin box for the larger fin, although many have a 3 fin (thruster) set up that can be used if and when one chooses to surf.

Hopefully, this article will lend a little insight into what is out there on the market.  So first lets identify the three main styles.

  • Flat water:  Flat water paddling, also referred to as cruising, is the most common form of standup paddleboarding.  As the name implies, it includes any paddling that does not involve moving down the face of a wave.   Many people will choose to flat water paddle on lakes, ponds, bays, open ocean water, rivers and streams.   Racing, down winding and fishing also are considered forms of flat water paddling.
  • Surf:  Standup surfing (SUS) is very popular and like regular surfing it involves locating sets of incoming swells at key locations along the coastline.  Most often these locations include beach breaks, point breaks and offshore breaks.
  • Race:  Racing involves competing against other paddleboarders on a set course designed to cover a specific distance.  The paddleboarder who completes the course in the least amount of time wins.   The racers are usually broken up into age and skill-level categories and are very fun to watch even if you are not participating.  Check out this one if you live in Southern New England.

Now lets take a look at the basic paddleboard shapes that go with these styles of riding.

Planing Hull:  The planning hull is the most common shape in standup paddleboards.  It normally has a shaped bottom, a wide and raised nose that narrows down toward the tail.  The bottom can have any combination of concave areas that help channel and release water quickly.   The tail can be cut to a narrow, rounded shaped (pin tail) or a v-cut (swallow tail).  These shapes aid in turning the board while riding on a wave.   Paddleboards with squared-off tails (like the one on the orange board pictured above) are designed for added stability.

Also, the boards will have lift in the nose and tails to varying degrees to make them easier to turn and keep the nose from diving under the water (known as pearling) when riding down the face of a wave.

Planing hulls are used exclusively on surf paddleboards.  The concave bottoms, pulled-in tails and rockered ends all aid in getting onto and turning on a wave.  The shorter the board is the more it will be geared toward surf also.  The longer boards are more stable and are more suitable for flat water because the extra length helps with glide and stability.


Displacement Hull:  Displacement hulls have keeled nose that resemble the shape of canoes and kayaks.  These nose will cut through the water giving the paddler a smoother ride because the board does not slap against the water as it moves through it rather than over the top of it.  Displacement hull boards tend to be narrower and longer and have more volume than planing hulls making them ideal for racing.

Displacement hull boards offer better glide (distance at which a board will travel after one stroke) and speed than planing hulls but they are not as easy to turn and are often more “tippy” due to their higher center of gravity and narrowness.  They are not ideal for surfing.

Hybrid Hull:  Hybrid hulls are a relatively new design on the market and they employ a displacement hull nose that transitions to a planning hull through the middle and tail areas of the board.  Essentially, you get the benefits of speed and glide along with being able to easily turn and surf the board.

Every board will employ a specific set of features and shapes that are designed to make the board ride in a specific way.  If you enjoy long paddles and smooth cruising with lots of glide then a displacement hull board may be for you.  If you like to surf then a paddleboard with a planing hull, rocker in the nose and tail, and a shorter length will be your best bet.  If you plan to race then a displacement hull may be worth looking at, although there are some extremely fast planing hulled race boards on the market.  If you want a fast paddleboard that you can also surf then check out the hybrid hulls.

Head down to your local SUP shop and ask the dealer about the different paddleboard shapes he/she has in stock and which one will fit your needs best.  Getting the right board for your style of paddling will make you a very happy waterman for years to come.


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