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.
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.
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”x 35-36” 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 III-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, as the board will only get you so far.
A specialty river running board is going to have 'rocker', and often lots of it. Rocker is the slight upward turn at the front of the board (and generally rear on specialty whitewater boards). The rocker keeps the nose of the board out of the water which is important in moving water, though it makes the board slower on flat water so there is a tradeoff.
Surfing stationary river waves makes 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 when compared to 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.
Again a key feature of this type of 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.
The 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.
Hardboards make an appearance in this area of the sport and much like their hardboard pure surfing counterparts have an advantage in carving turns due to generally thinner / shaped rails. There can also be a wider gamut of design for specific size riders and holes.
The clear disadvantage is contact with rocks which can result in dings, divots and serious damage of a hardboard. It isn't really a matter of if, it's a matter of when whereas an inflatable is going to bounce and deflect during impact.
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 9 - 11 feet - long enough to paddle fast but not too long to maneuver around obstacles, 32-34 inches of width, and a fin system that can be customized for whitewater use.
These boards will usually have moderate rocker profiles that make them great for flat water paddling, and if well designed they can handle all but the most difficult and extreme whitewater conditions.
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:
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. 4 or 5 fin box setups are more common on specialized downstream whitewater boards where the extra weight / complexity that leads to nuances in performance can be justified, but most paddlers do not need that complexity.
Fin breakage is more common in whitewater, so you’ll want to prepare for that possibility. Concept designs have emerged in response but they don't replace skill in learning how to read water, and having control over your board.
An example of a novel approach is Hala’s Stomp Box retractable center fin and designs of similar ilk. The fin is designed to retract into a recessed fin box when hitting a rock or other obstacle, and spring back out after clearing the obstacle.
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It functions as intended when hitting an obstacle front on it but the spring mechanism doesn't work if hit from the side otherwise it would give you no control. It's made of thinner plastic and doesn't have the foil shape or control of a standard fin setup though works well in low flow shallow creek style runs where the fin can bump along the surface as it skates the river bed.
Concept designs such as this are interesting though not a necessity especially in the wider context of whitewater and river paddling.
The flexibility of a US fin box to adapt a short fin for tricky areas or easily remove it completely and run a larger fin in other areas of the river should not be overlooked as river levels are generally in flux and change with rainfall. It will give you more control of the board and even a flexible center fin as low as 3" will provide a river paddler plenty of control to work with.
2-fin setups, such as those offered by NRS on some boards remove the center fin entirely and are designed to work specifically in whitewater environments.
An argument against 2-fin setup lacks the flexibility and control that a removable center fin allows, solving a problem that doesn’t always exist. Most paddlers will be better served just removing the center fin in a 3/5-fin removable setup in the instances when they might want to paddle with only the two side fins or quads.
It should be noted that side fin boxes are not made equal and fin box breakage is an accepted risk in this discipline of paddling.
Losing a fin is also common and is relatively inexpensive to replace, whereas a fin box repair will be more costly. The use of softer or low profile side fins will further decrease the risk of a trip to the repair shop regardless of the fin boxes on your board.
If there is the potential for impact then it is advised to err on the side of caution with your side / control fin selection. Softer or low profile fins lack control but they will flex a little more on impact and absorb a little more force, whereas a hard fin will increase drive and control but will not have the same give in them.
Non-removable flexible 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.
There is no right answer or absolutes on what fins should be in your board in a river environment as obstacles and depths are inconsistent, unique and can vary with river levels.
Paddler experience and skill is the deciding factor on fin selection and even the best in the world have broken fin boxes and loose fins challenging themselves.
Know your skill level, know your environment and don't blame the equipment if you steer your board into a rock or submerged obstacle with the force the board and your body weight.
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 and trim control for turning and tilting the rail.
Despite some trends emerging in SUP design, including many brands we sell, we do not recommend an excessive amount of attachment points on the deck pad or 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 their leash tether, and one set of bungees or tie downs.
If you are going on multiple night expeditions you can consider a board with multiple tie down points, though a competent paddler can tie down enough gear for several days with just a basic four point, criss cross bungee setup.
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 will bounce off rocks and other obstacles unscathed.
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.
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