When people think of stand-up paddling these days, it’s usually flat water – on a lake, or any other placid body of water. But SUP really got started in the surf. Waikiki “beach boys” are most often credited with its beginnings, orchestrating surf lessons high atop a large board, plying a canoe paddle, cameras dry, as they called out sets to wanton tourists looking to catch their first waves. Island vibes to the core. Laird Hamilton, Archie Kalepa, Dave Parmenter, Todd Bradley, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, Brian Keaulana and other modern watermen re-birthed the practice in the early 2000s.
SUP surfing, though, has become a bit of a lightning rod. And that’s putting it mildly. Which is also unfortunate given its application in crappy waves. Prone surfers dedicated to their pursuit complain (often vehemently) that “sweepers” are cheaters, able to catch set waves easier using a paddle. That it proliferates the VAL revolution, clogging lineups. Or that SUP surfers are a danger to other surfers. Arguments that certainly have merit.
I ride both ways. So, in my view, every tool has a place in your shed. Surfing on just one style of board surely limits the possibilities of your wave-riding experience, no? Shortboards, even high-volume grovelers, require certain types of waves – namely size (even shape). Yes, longboards and soft-tops are fun when the surf is bad (and should be in your quiver), but if you pine for performance, even when the waves are lacking, you should learn to appreciate that SUP hanging in your garage (trust me). Stand-up paddling doesn’t have to be practiced (and quite frankly shouldn’t be) at named breaks. Takeoffs can be crumbly or flat (less crowds). You have a paddle in your hands. Mushy surf isn’t an issue. The wave will reform on its way to the beach. You’ll reap the reward. Why not do something with that wave?
Enter performance SUPs. Most brands in the industry make a higher performance SUP surfboard. That’s what we’re looking at here. Not something for cruising upright like a stiff scarecrow, shooing birds from the garden. Something that allows you to step on the tail and make real turns, ride a wave top-to-bottom, or even, when conditions align, pull into a mini tube-a-rooski. So here, despite the ridicule I’m sure will follow, I examine the best SUP boards for riding waves.
I’ve also included some rules to live by when SUP surfing. For more detailed info, check out our comparison table and buyer’s guide, below, as well as some thoughts on the “custom vs. manufactured” debate at the bottom of this piece.
The Best SUPs for Surfing
Best Performance Surf SUP: Infinity Wide Speed
Best All-Around Surf SUP: Quatro Carve Pro
Best Value Surf SUP: Naish Mad Dog
Most Stable Surf SUP: Starboard Spice
Best Beginner Surf SUP: Fanatic All-Wave
Best Surf SUP for Longboarders: Kings Dauminator
Best Surf SUP for Bigger Waves: Pearson Arrow
SUP Surf Rules to Live By
Just so we’re crystal clear, unless it’s a designated paddle spot (such as Dog Patch at San Onofre), don’t take SUPs out at named surf spots. Sure, there’s a caveat given that some of you have put years in at your spot, know everyone that surfs there, and have earned the right to take a SUP out. This is for the rest of us: avoid it all together. Go down the beach to the wave without a name. Hike into a beachbreak or a wave that isn’t crowded with prone surfers. DO NOT purchase a SUP board and paddle out to a named spot. Trust me as someone who’s effed this up, you’re asking for trouble, or a beatdown.
Don’t be a kook. Be aware of your surroundings. Here’s a wild idea: Maybe spend a session just studying a spot. Understand what’s happening in the ocean before you go. If you’re inexperienced, wear a leash – your board could literally scalp someone. Maybe try a “tour?” Find waves that aren’t being surfed while paddling your way down the coast?
Oh yeah, conditions. Know your ability level. Abide by the cliche: when in doubt, don’t paddle out. SUP surfing is better when conditions are smaller anyway. Beatdowns with a SUP attached to your leg can be violent at minimum, skull crushing at worst (literally). Be realistic and protect your experience. Don’t ruin it by paddling out in conditions that are above you.
Best Performance Surf SUP
Infinity Wide Speed ($2,295)
Available In: 7’7″, 7’11”, 8’2″, 8’6″, 9′, 10′, 10’6″, 11′
Size Tested: 7’7″
Pros: Durable, lightweight construction, stable, lift.
Cons: On the expensive side.
There’s little doubt that Dana Point, Calif.-based Infinity Surf has put as much research and development into stand-up paddling as any company on the planet. And that doesn’t take into account the brand’s history with performance surfing (see Albee Layer). So, from surf, to race, to foil, Infinity has put the long yards in, creating high-quality products that perform and last.
Traditionally, Infinity is a custom-design company. And they still are. Any surf design that you want to fit your specs can be crafted in their South Orange County headquarters. Infinity gear is the shit. That includes the Wide Speed. This is an extremely fun, and stable, high-performance surf SUP that comes in Infinity’s manufactured material, SUPspensionTech. It’s light, durable, and essentially a carbon construction, which has been one of designer Dave Boehne’s favorite materials of late.
Now, the nitty gritty. “Wide” in the name equals stability. The problem with SUP design, if you want a stable board, you often get a boat – tough to maneuver and frankly, not fun. That’s why the Wide Speed’s width is in the “shoulders” and “trunk,” as Boehne says, meaning the width is up front, and then just ahead of the tail. This allows for easier paddling but still plenty of maneuverability. I used the 7’7” on a glassy morning. It was incredible in small surf and could be legitimately ridden top to bottom (it features a five box for your preferred fin setup). A double concave from nose to tail, chined rails, and the fin system all give this board a speed and lift that is super fun (and really unique in feel). The rails are also really sensitive to your movements with this setup, so you can get rail to rail easier. The thought and design in this board is exceptional: light materials, contours, fin placement, all work together to make this board easy to paddle, and really easy to rip. It’s a little more spendy at $2,295, but the Infinity Wide Speed would definitely complete any quiver.Check Price on The SUP Store
Best All-Around Surf SUP
Quatro Carve Pro ($1,989)
Available In: 7’7″, 7’10”, 8’0″, 8’2″, 8’4″, 8’7″
Size Tested: 8’0″
Pros: Well-designed tail, light weight, durable.
Cons: A little spendy.
The Quatro Carve Pro was one of the best boards I tested. I rode the brand’s 8’0” model and it allowed for easy paddling, even when the surface got bumpy. I tested the Carve Pro in a few conditions including morning glass, afternoon crumble, and shoulder-high (can I say punchy) beachbreak, and it was super versatile. Quatro taps its “Integrated Stability Deck” as the reason for its stable ride but I’m not entirely sure what that is. I do know that Quatro is an extremely versatile brand from the wind world with an exceptional track record in kiting, foiling, surfing, and SUP. Quatro is a partner label of KT surfboards (the guys that make all the incredible crafts under Kai Lenny’s feet), so the company’s design chops are impeccable.
Back to the Carve Pro: first, the 8’0″ was ideal for my six-foot frame. The stability we just referenced comes from the 28.5-inch width. It was the perfect blend with the board’s length and bottom contours to make it really easy to paddle. The rocker profile is similar to a fish, but certainly a performance fish. After the initial nose rocker, the board flattens out after the center point. This allows for easier entry on steeper drops, but also makes the board feel extremely fast, even when using a thruster setup, which I did most of the time. The swallow tail is trimmed down to allow for instant reaction and a really tight turn radius (I really loved the feel of the uber-thin tail). In a thruster setup, I felt supremely confident on cutbacks and bottom turns. There was no slippage.
As far as the board’s material, the Carve Pro boasts the “Pro Light Full Double Sandwich Construction,” from Quatro. Here’s the download: This manufactured construction is extremely light (13 pounds), and truly makes for one of the board’s most redeeming qualities. It’s easy to handle, easy to get to the water, and feels like a normal shortboard on the wave, despite its dimensions. I’ve put a handful of solid surfs and beach days into the material and there are no dings to speak of. Common sense applies with any construction but initially, it seems durable. The Carve comes with a set of Quatro-branded fins in Futures setup and as mentioned, boasts a five-fin box. The Carve Pro was easily a standout in this test and despite the steeper price ($1,989) you’d be a stoked bloke if you added this gem to your quiver.Check Price on Quatro
Best SUP Surfing Value
Naish Mad Dog ($1,329)
Available In: 7’6′, 7’10”, 8’1″, 8’6″, 8’11”
Size Tested: 7’10”
Pros: Well-designed, shortboard feel, good value.
Cons: Material is a little heavier.
The Naish Mad Dog is quite frankly, an easy-to-paddle shortboard from a brand that has been in the SUP game for years. You may recall Robby Naish’s namesake brand is where a young Kai Lenny first got his start in the world of wind and waves. Robbie has been one of the most dominant water athletes of his generation (other than one Kelly Slater, of course). Naish’s Hokua has long been a solid, go-to SUP shape in the SUP-surfing market. But the Mad Dog is all-together different. I used the 7’10”, 29-inch-wide version and really liked the speed and responsiveness in the quad setup. I tested the Mad Dog in eight-foot winter Oregon surf and actually loved it in bigger waves.
The Sandwich Deck Construction features a bamboo layering in the stance area. It’s a little heavier, but certainly durable, and felt really solid on the wave face in bigger surf. I also had a smaller day on the Mad Dog and really enjoyed its versatility. It features a quad setup in FCS fins with the option for a single fin or two-plus-one as well. I do like it when the fin boxes are uniform – meaning all one system – but I have a small screw-in center fin so I was able to use it as a thruster in smaller surf with shape and felt super controlled in that setup. The rocker on the Mad Dog felt a little bit more continuous tip to tail so this board definitely likes a better wave and is built for performance. At $1,329, the Mad Dog is easily one of the best value boards among the shapes we tested.Check Price on Naish
Most Stable SUP
Starboard Spice ($1,449+)
Available In: 6’9″, 7’11”, 8’8″, 8’2″, 8’8″, 9’3″
Size Tested: 8’8″
Pros: 8’8″ was very stable and would be good for beginners.
Cons: At the size tested, mobility was extremely limited.
There is little doubt that Starboard has invested widely in the SUP surf game, and with good results – they’ve helped launch the careers of some stellar water athletes like Zane Schweitzer. For this test, I used the 8’8″ version of the Spice, and quite frankly, it was way, way too much board for this grouping.
I used the Spice in bigger surf and certainly appreciated the stable paddling in the 32-inch wide version. So herein lies the market for an 8’8″ board, which is probably the right one: lesser skilled surfers, beginners, or even older veterans who really want to save energy and just worry about riding waves will enjoy this board at this size. For some reason, I couldn’t get my hands on anything smaller, like a 7’11” (106 liters). That version is 29-inches wide, still allowing for stability, but would be much, much easier to surf and get on rail. As it was, the 8’8″ is too bulky for much of that (unless you’re a giant). It’s more of a longboard feel in a shortboard shape.
The 8’8″ I used was in Starboard’s Limited Series, a board that has extra glassing and “Australian Pine” in the layup that protects it against heel dents and other beatings. Starboard also offers the “Pro,” a high performance board that looks really fun and should be further examined by those looking to properly ride waves.Check Price on Starboard
Best Beginner SUP
Fanatic All-Wave ($1,699)
Available In: 7’9″, 8’2″, 8’7″, 8’10”, 9’2″
Size Tested: 8’10”
Pros: Well-designed tail makes board feel smaller for how big it is.
Cons: Still, testing the 8’10” felt big. At longer than 8’2″, the All-Wave is geared towards beginners.
I ran into a similar problem with the Fanatic All-Wave. Fanatic is another solid company embedded in windsports. But the All-Wave was too big for this test. I tried the 8’10”. Still, I wouldn’t disregard the design outright. The All-Wave is a solid offering for those looking to up their wave count, while paddling a supremely stable board. The board is wrapped in the company’s Vacuum Epoxy Technology, which is basically a layering tech. that’s a mix of carbon, PVC, and EPS with bamboo to reinforce sensitive spots on the board like the back foot.
The board comes in a thruster setup (Futures) and I feel like the 7’9″ or even the 8’2″ would have been much more mobile and rippable, so you can definitely take this review with a grain of salt. I will say that the swallow tail made the 8’10” board feel much more mobile for its size than say, the Spice. I have a ton of respect for the Fanatic designers. They seem to constantly be pushing the envelope. They introduced the Bee a couple of years ago, which is a combo surf SUP and windfoil board (you can use fins for surfing, or attach a foil). The Bee has a similar-ish tail design to the All-Wave, and both felt really well conceived and very much in concert with the rest of the board. The All-Wave also has a much more pulled in nose that allows for an easier turn radius. All and all a really solid offering that I wouldn’t discount as a board for your quiver just because I didn’t get on a smaller version.Check Price on Fanatic
Best SUP for Longboarders
Kings Dauminator ($1795)
Available In: 9’0″
Size Tested: 9’0″, 9’6″, 10’0″, 10’6″
Pros: Board is extremely loose and versatile for a longboard shape
Cons: Still, it’s a longboard. Top to bottom surfing will be limited as such.
The Kings Dauminator is an absolutely classic design from Dave Daum with Kings Paddlesports out of north San Diego County. The Dauminator is not like most of the boards in this test but I did want to offer up a couple of my favorite rippable longboard-SUP shapes. It’s also important to note that most every company features a longboard shape in their respective stables. Kings is another company that has mostly based its business on custom offerings (so hit them up for made-to-order shortboard models like the Laser or Sidewinder).
I’ve used the Dauminator on multiple occasions, specifically a 9’0″, 29-inch-wide version that comes in a square tail and a two-plus-one setup (it also does great as a single fin). There’s a magic combination of speed and mobility with this board that probably comes from a slimmer tail and a bit of vee out the back to create down-the-line speed. This board, named after the brand’s designer, can be ridden as a traditional longboard and cross-stepped, or even ridden a little more top to bottom. The combination is appealing to a broader user base, no doubt.
This SUP also paddles extremely well. You can go bigger if you like, as far as size, but anything more than nine feet will really cut down on your mobility so I’d try to stay in that sweet spot with this board. Kings makes its SUPs in its factory using an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam core material wrapped in fiberglass and epoxy resin. Boards can be tweaked and customized, as mentioned.Check Price on King's
Best SUP for Bigger Waves
Available In: Custom.
Size Tested: 8’6″
Pros: Pintail makes for stable surfing in bigger conditions.
Cons: Still mostly surfs like a longboard in small waves.
Pearson Arrow is the baby of longtime Santa Cruz, California shaper Bob Pearson, who has shaped everything from big-wave guns to shortboards to stand-up paddleboards during the course of his career. In fact, Pearson Arrow was the longtime shaper for the Laird Hamilton-branded SUPs that proliferated the SUP surf market in the 2000s and 2010s.
Pearson Arrow is a custom shaper to the core, and has gone back to custom orders only for SUPs, but the standard design for the brand certainly deserves mention. The 10’0″ version was a larger longboard-style SUP, but combined with a sleek pintail and two-plus-one fin system, it surfs much shorter and can easily be used in larger waves (where it really feels at home).
Bob Pearson is an artist, that’s why his name appears here, and his boards are more than worthy. If I were to order one of his models today, it would be 8’5″ – 9’0″, around 28.5″ wide and come in a thruster setup with that pintail. His boards just paddle really nice and can be used in waves of all sizes. The magic in the aforementioned pintail allows for stability in surf from two to 1o feet. Oh, and he’s open to most any design you can think of, too.Learn More on Pearson Arrow
|Quatro Carve Pro||$1,989||8’0||28.5″||109|
|Infinity Wide Speed||$2,295||7’7″||28″||100|
|Naish Mad Dog||$1,759||7’10”||29″||101|
|Starboard Spice||$1,449 – $2,329||8’8″||32″||140|
|Pearson Arrow/Laird Surf SUP||Varies||8’6″||29″||n/a|
What Matters When Buying a SUP For Surfing?
Just like buying a shortboard, there’s a balance to be struck with SUP surfboards. You want as small a board as possible, making sure you can still paddle comfortably without constantly falling on your face. There’s certain boards I like to call “morning SUPs,” meaning they’re so small and unstable, you can only paddle them in pristine, windless conditions. Any bump and you’re flailing like a diseased sea bird. That said, finding the smallest board you can ride will allow for more shredding – using the rail to make better bottom turns, which can lead to legit cutbacks, or even, dare we say, snappy top turns. And so on. You want to feel like you’re riding a shortboard, but not at the cost of comfort (or worse, injury).
Length, width, and volume are all important numbers to look at when shopping surf SUPs. Bottom contours like rocker, concave, and channels, and how they impact the board’s performance also need to be considered (much like shortboard design). Another aspect is the weight of the board. These stats allow you to compare and contrast what works for you. The best way to understand boards is to try as many as possible. Find retailers that demo so you can make the right purchase. I tried to use those numbers to give you an idea of a board’s performance given my deets (6’0”, 198 lbs.). I scammed rides from each of the companies above, so take it for what it’s worth and hopefully this guide will help you make the right purchase.
Custom vs. Manufactured
The custom vs. manufactured debate is one of the most polarizing subjects in surfing. Traditionally, boards have of course been handcrafted by artists who’ve spent years learning to create wave-riding gold. Shapers are treasured in the world of surf. Another reason SUP surfing often raises hackles. Many brands mentioned, however, like Infinity, Quatro, Kings, and Pearson-Arrow provide traditional custom models that can be ordered in decidedly traditional ways (see telephone). SUPs have certainly been developed by surf brands. But they’ve also been refined by companies more rooted in wind, like Starboard, Naish and Fanatic. To discount those innovations would be to discount years of experience in performance. So I did my best to include as many as possible.
Editor’s Note: While you’re at it, check out our guide to the best inflatable paddleboards, and for more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.