Want to Surf on a SUP? 6 Tips to do it Right!

Surfing is a hobby many people enjoy in lots of different ways, including the more recent and ever-expanding style SUP surfing. You can do it to relax and even meditate, or you can push your limits to the extreme with giant waves and practiced, honed skills. 

There are many things to keep in mind when starting into the world of SUP surfing, such as:

  • Using a SUP to Surf
  • What a SUP Can do
  • How to Surf on a SUP
  • Picking a Board
  • Deciding a Location
  • Lessons and Practicing

It can seem a bit overwhelming and like you’ve already gotten in over your head at the deep end, but with a few tips you’ll be on your way to riding the waves in no time. As you will see below, we have researched and compiled a comprehensive list to help you get started on the path to SUP surfing.

Can You Use a SUP to Surf?

A stand up paddle board is incredibly versatile in what it can do, including surfing as one of its attractions. While sized differently than a standard surfboard, and utilizing the use of a paddle, hitting the waves is still not only possible but surfing is an amazing and enjoyable activity with a SUP. 

We have included below what you need to know to get started, but the driving point of information is that, yes, you can definitely surf with a paddle board and have a mind-blowingly awesome time doing it!

What all can SUP do?

Unlike standard surfboards, a paddle board has many different uses. While it can be used to cut up waves on an active ocean surface, it can also be used to simply paddle around a lake or even to do gentle aerobics and meditation exercises. It is possible to fish from a SUP, or to kneel on it and paddle with your hands in a modified butterfly stroke. 

Stand up paddle boards first appeared as an off-shoot of surf boards in Hawaii. You can also use a SUP to just move from one place to another across water. The original version of paddle boards were used by many groups of people, originally people of Hawaii, to travel between islands with ease. They’re great for casually traveling through water, an easy way to get from point A to B.

SUPs can be outfitted with different riggings to perform a vast range of tasks from fishing to even a picnic literally on the lake. You can even get the more competitive styles and hit a river with whitewater rapids and all. When it comes to a SUP, your options are pretty well endlessIf you want to do it, you probably can with the right SUP and setup.

One of the newest trends is fitting electric motors to paddle boards for multiple uses. Some surfers report that catching waves is easier with an electric boost, while others have said having electric power can turn a flat water day into more fun by allowing them to catch smaller waves. Read my coverage of the ScubaJet and Bixpy setups to see how they work.

While traditional surfboards are restricted to the single task of surfing, SUP boards have ample options for different activities. Whether it’s yoga or fishing, surfing or modified swimming; the SUP board can do it all and still have other choices to try out. Check out how to outfit a paddle board for fishing posted here a while back.

For more on the differences between surf boards and paddle boards, check out one of Carlo’s earliest posts on this.

How to Surf on a SUP

Just as with traditional surfing, SUP surfing starts with and continuously uses balance as its main important element. But to start surfing with a SUP, there are things you need to do if you want to do it right:

  • Get a Properly Fitted Board
  • Learn to Balance
  • Get Lessons
  • Hit the Water

Get a Properly Fitted Board

Without the correctly sized board, you’ll have an incredibly difficult time learning to SUP surf. There are several things that play a major role in picking the right board. They include:

  • Your height
  • Weight
  • Reach distance

Below we elaborate on picking a board, but know that even a general any-use standard SUP, while easier to use than a traditional surfboard, still needs to be as close to your proper measurements as possible. Swapping out the fins will likely help when surfing. Here’s my info on paddle board fin interchangeability.

Learn to Balance

Not unlike a skateboard on solid ground, balance is a huge and vital party of any surfing, including SUP surfing. Gravity is different on a fluid surface, and a changing surface like the ocean or a river pose even more challenges. It’s not as simple as walking across the sidewalk. You’ll have to relearn balance and your own mass, as everything on the water interacts differently than on land. 

Some have suggested practicing on land by balancing on an elevated narrow surface. You can even simply try walking heel-to-toe on a line or crack on the ground. Anything that helps you focus on your balance and center of gravity will benefit future surfing.

Get Lessons

It might seem like you could teach yourself without any lessons or guides by just jumping on a SUP and figuring it out, and maybe some people can- but the majority of people need to use a guided lesson if they ever want to surf on a SUP. 

Lessons can be sought out online or at local recreational parks with bodies of water. You might be able to find a class offered at nearby public pools, too. With books or videos, you can even teach yourself. Whichever way you do it, lessons are a necessity to be a successful SUP surfer.

Hit the Water

The most exciting part is finally getting in the water. Not “on” yet, though. In the water. When you at last get to go out to the water and start hands-on learning, you will fall and it will most likely be quite often. But that’s okay. Water dries and each fall teaches some small lesson to your body. Muscle memory and reflexes will pick up what went wrong that caused the fall, your sense of balance will remember how far is too far when leaning. Literally hitting the water is probably the second biggest thing to remember with SUP surfing, just below learning your balance. 

Picking a Board

Next you need to pick a board, and there’s a lot of features to pick from. While there’s already a difference between standard surfboards and SUP boards, there are also different types of SUP boards to consider depending on your intended use. Below are the main different types of SUP boards, picking the one to fit your activities will make it easier and more fun when learning how to SUP.

  • Allround
  • Surf
  • Race
  • Flatwater

All-around SUP

Great for beginners, these boards are versatile and known to be multi-purpose. They allow the rider to explore all facets of surfing, from leisurely paddling on flatwater to touring the open ocean. They’re typically 

  • Wider
  • Thicker
  • Longer 

than surf-specific models. Their sturdiness, while not sacrificing flexibility, make them an easy pick as a first SUP board.

A standard all-around measures roughly 11-12 feet long, 32-33 inches at the widest point, and about 5 inches thick.

Surf SUP

With more curve (or rocker) than other types of SUP boards, the surf design is a specific board with 

  • Narrow nose and tail
  • Usually shorter. 

They are perfect for riding in active surf, its shape making it more maneuverable when hitting waves. However, they tend to

  • Glide slower on calmer water
  • Don’t track straight lines on flatwater
  • Can be less stable

If you plan to do more direct surfing than paddling, and will dedicate time to learning how to balance on the less stable, more narrow board, the surf style might be a good fit. 

A standard surf style board is usually 9-10 feet long, 30-31 inches wide, and 4 inches thick. 

Race SUP

The race style boards are incredibly narrow, they’re a very challenging board even for experienced surfers and paddlers alike. They’re optimal for speed and agility, many consider them to be aggressively sport boards only. 

While not recommended for beginners, advanced riders will enjoy how they slice through water more smoothly than the other boards to allow for high performance and competitive displays. If you’re an experienced surfer and looking for speed and nimble, precise moves, the Race board is the one for you. 

Check out the post 13 tips for Paddle Board Racing. The standard size of a Race style SUP is 8-10 feet long, 29-31 inches wide, and can range between 3-5 inches thick.

Flatwater SUP

Ideal for 

  • Flatwater
  • Ocean paddling
  • Simply gliding along from one point to another powered by just the wind nudging you along

They’re longer than the allround boards with a slight point to its nose, allowing a smooth straight glide. They’re typically wide enough to be stable for beginners, similar to the allround, but with more of a leisurely easy ride as opposed to the race board. 

Great for all experience levels, it has a touch more sport than the all-around while still being a casual board. 

For the Flatwater style of SUP boards, the standard size is 1214 feet long, 33-35 inches wide, and usually starts at 5 inches thick or thicker.

You must take into consideration your personal size and skill when picking a board, as well as picking a paddle length along with the board style. While the boards have standard sizes, when you buy a SUP setup you need all of your measurements, including height and weight, to make the best purchase. All of the SUP boards are built vastly different from normal surfboards, which are usually only 7-8 feet long, 19-22 inches wide, and 2-4 inches thick. 

Solid or Inflatable Types

Besides the style of board, you also have the options of a standard solid board or the more convenient inflatable boards. 

Solid Boards

ProsCons
Faster and more responsiveEasier to ding and dent
Smoother more steady glideTakes a lot of space in storage
Better buoyancy, especially for heavier ridersHurts more to fall on
Higher overall performance Difficult to transport for travel 

Inflatable Boards

ProsCons
Easy to transport and storeTakes time to inflate and deflate
Much more light weightSlower and has more drag in the water
Comfortable for long ridesNot as noble or responsive
Simple to patch Need separate accessories to maintain 

Deciding on a Location

While picking a board, you will also need to decide what water type you wish to surf on. Unlike a surfboard, SUP boards can be used on more than just the ocean waves. Surfboards, despite having different styles as well, are typically for one thing: Waves. Trying to take a standard surfboard out on flat water is a difficult task, if even possible. Their main purpose is to hit choppy, moving water fast and hard.

SUP boards, however, can go in many varying water conditions with ease. Some SUP boards are better than others for varying types of water, but overall they’re designed to fit in comfortably with

  • Choppy oceans
  • Fast moving rivers
  • Completely still lakes 

Considering what kind of water you wish to go out on is the main factor in picking a SUP board and getting started. If you’re only looking to hit waves and nothing else, it might be best to stick with surfboards and find one for the type of waves you want to ride. If you want versatility and more options without having to get more boards, SUP is the way to go.

Lessons and Practicing

Of course, when getting started with any new activity, you need to learn how to do it. There are plenty of facilities that hold classes, or you can even get a private instructor if you do best with one on one learning. You could even teach yourself with books and online resources. Three important keys to remember are:

  • Balancing
  • Ease of Use
  • Lessons online or in person

Balancing 

With any kind of board, whether a surfboard or SUP for the water or even skateboards on land, balance is your number one most needed skill. You have to learn how to change with your center of gravity, which is typically about your hips or lower stomach. You also have to learn:

  • When to bend which leg
  • Turn which way and how much
  • Tilt your weight on the board to keep upright when the board’s angle shifts on the moving water. 

There’s a lot to balancing, especially when the surface beneath your feet is moving and changing constantly. Even on a still lake, as it’s made of water, it’s fluid consistency is constantly altering its interactions with the board.

One major factor in balancing is the width of the board, as more board means more contact with the water’s surface and more room to help you balance

As a general design, surfboards are fairly narrow, about 19-22 inches at the widest point. They give enough room for a standard wave surfer to have their feet apart and balance, but only by so much and only to a certain extent. They’re made to cut through walls of water, set up to glide up these wave walls and skim across them as easily and swiftly as possible. 

With practice, experienced surfers make it look simple. The truth is, the amount of training to just stand on a surfboard, not even to move through the water or to ride waves, is pretty extreme. 

With paddle boards, the more competitive styles such as the racing boards can be as narrow as a surfboard. But as a whole, paddle boards provide more width for the rider to easily get on and stay upright, measuring to about 32-34 inches wideAdding in the use of a paddle helps tremendously, as it works as a kind of balancing rod and reduces the amount of work your body has to perform to not only keep upright but to move as well. 

Ease of use

As mentioned before, paddle boards are easier to balance on thanks to their extra width. The use of a paddle also helps with balance and motion, whereas it’s only you and the board with standard surfboards. 

A paddle board is also thicker, which does make it less responsive and reduces mobility compared to a surfboard, but also contributes to its ease of use. SUP boards are heavier than regular surfboards as well, which again only adds to its stability benefits and makes it that much easier to balance and control. 

Usually coming in at about 12 feet long, the SUP board is also much longer than the standard 9 foot long surfboard. This only continues to add to it’s rider-friendly elements. It’s increased length helps to distribute the board’s and rider’s weight more evenly across the water, which greatly increases the point of balance and center of gravity.

You still need to learn and practice with any style of board, but a paddle board provides quicker  security and stability to the rider. This helps their confidence go up and lets them focus more on using the board to surf rather than spending copious amounts of time just figuring out how to stand up. 

Between 

  • The larger size
  • Heavier weight
  • Use of a paddle

Paddle boards are easier to navigate in any body of water. Beginners typically have an easier time picking up SUP boards and quickly start getting the hang of the basics. In the time it takes a typical rider to learn how to even stand up on a surfboard without falling, paddle riders are usually taking their first few careful paddles out onto the water. 

Paddle boards are also easier on the body, since they require less physical strength and softer skills to operate. While more difficult to transport and lug out to the ocean given it’s girth, once on the water most riders experience less fatigue and muscle strain than with a standard surfboard. Many older riders or riders with conditions such as arthritis will tell you paddleboarding helps them stay in the water they love once they can no longer surf.  

Lessons Online or In person 

Everyone learns at different speeds and with different methods. Some people can’t learn unless they’re doing the new activity hands on, while some need to read every detail before they even get started. The same theory applies with learning to paddle board surf. Many riders find it easier to learn with an instructor, hands on and in the water right off. But there are plenty of riders who do better with online classes or reading how-to books for it, instead. 

If you’re an in person, hands on learner, there are no doubt plenty of paddle board instructors at facilities near you. Lakes are by far the easiest to first learn on, given the water is calm and fairly predictable. Finding a suitable lake near you and inquiring about SUP lessons is as simple as a Google search. Many offer group classes and private lessons for your comfort and needs. 

Some riders need to learn with books or videos before they get near water, and the internet is full of resources to do just that. Beginner Lesson in Stand Up Paddling (SUP) from the Inspirational Bob Purdy is just one of hundreds of videos on YouTube that show how to get started. The American Canoe Association, or ACA, has a course on SUP available, as well. (Note: You must be an ACA member for certification). The Stand Up Paddle Book: The Complete Stand Up Paddle Surf Guide from Window Shopping to Catching Your First Waves is one book that you can get to teach yourself. 

Whether you learn with an instructor or class, or teach yourself with online or paper resources, picking a lesson method that’s best for you is one of the most vital parts of learning how to SUP.

Final thoughts

As with any new hobby or activity, the most important thing to remember is to have fun! It can start to seem less like fun and more like a chore at times, especially when starting out, but remember that everyone starts at the beginning. No one is born knowing how to do everything, and even though SUP surfing is easier to pick up than traditional surfing, it still takes a bit of work at the start. 

And now it’s time to…wait for it…get out there, stay safe and have fun!


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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