Stand Up Paddle Boarding vs. Surfing: What’s the Difference?

Stand-up paddleboarding and surfing do not seem a whole lot different from one another to the casual eye. The distinctions between these two water sports can be a bit challenging to pick out.

The foremost difference between SUP and surfing is how riders maneuver themselves in the water. SUP riders use a long, bladed paddle from a standing position to navigate through the water. Surfers, on the other hand, use their arms while lying in a prone position to propel themselves on the water.

Although this is probably the most noticeable difference between stand-up paddleboarding and surfing, it is not the only difference. Several of the most prominent differences between these two water activities are discussed further in the subsequent sections of the article. So keep reading to uncover the subtle nuances that distinguish these popular water sports.

Differences Between Stand Up Paddle Boarding & Surfing

Contrasting Board Dimensions

One major discrepancy between SUP and surfing is the average size of the boards.

Contrary to popular opinion, a paddleboard is not the same thing as a surfboard. Paddleboards are wider, thicker, and lengthier than the average surfboard. This is because paddleboards are primarily structured for support.

For the benefit of comparison, I provided a table of the typical dimensions of a stand-up paddleboard versus a surfboard. Keep in mind that these are the average dimensions of each type of board. There are certainly outliers that are produced with far bigger or smaller dimensions than the measurements listed below.

Stand Up Paddle BoardSurfboard
Length10-11 ft or 3-3.4 m7-8 ft or 2.1-2.4 m
Width32-34 in or 81-86 cm20-22 in or 51-56 cm
Weight20-30 lbs or 9-13.5 kg5.5-6.5 lbs or 2.5-3kg
Thickness5-6 in or 13-15 cm2.5-3.5 in or 6.5-9cm

Paddleboarders are predominantly operating from a standing position the majority of the time they are out on the water. Standing on top of a board on open water requires a much more stable board than simply lying prone on top of a board.

It makes sense that paddleboard manufacturers would bolster the board foundation to accommodate for the extra stability needed to support an upright rider.

In contrast, surfboards are exclusively designed for riding waves. It is not meant for maneuverability on calm water, like that of the stand-up paddleboard. The lightweight framework of the surfboard complements the ability of surfers to slash through waves, as we will investigate next.

Ease of Mobility While Riding Waves

Although this excess material eases the burden of balancing on the board from the standing position, it comes at the cost of mobility.

The short, narrow, and slim design of the surfboard is specialized for maximal mobility while riding waves. Surfers can slice through waves with masterful precision in large part because the surfboard is built exclusively for this type of change in direction.

The heftier SUP board can definitely be used to ride waves. However, it takes a bit of extra effort and skill to change direction with these behemoth boards.

The paddle certainly helps to counteract this diminishment of mobility. It can be utilized to force the paddleboard to turn at a quicker pace. Nonetheless, the maneuverability of the paddleboard on waves does not quite compare to the rapid adaptability of the surfboard.

Possible Water Conditions Where These Activities Can Be Performed

Another distinction between SUP and surfing is the possible water conditions where these sports can be conducted.

Stand-up paddleboarding is much more flexible in terms of where people can perform this activity. Essentially, all that an individual needs to participate in SUP is a body of water and adequate space to paddle.

It does not matter whether the water conditions are flat and calm or aggressive and choppy. Individuals can partake in SUP in practically any aquatic environment.

Examples of places where SUP has been known to take place are oceans, lakes, rivers, and even swimming pools. Certain water recreation sites have even elected to hold their SUP training sessions in swimming pools to make the water conditions more conducive to first-time participants.

Conversely, the sport of surfing is not so adaptable in this respect.

Surfing absolutely requires the presence of waves. For this reason, the prospect of surfing is limited in terms of what aquatic conditions are realistically able to cater to this sport.

Commonly, surfers take to the ocean since it routinely provides waves that are favorable for riding. In addition, there are also artificial wave machines that have made surfing possible in locations that are miles away from the nearest coastline. This has done wonders to bring the sport inland, but it has still not totally resolved the fundamental problem of surfing accessibility.

Overall Versatility of Use

Another differentiating factor between SUP and surfing is the versatility of use.

As aforementioned, the surfboard is exclusively designed for the use of easy riding and maneuvering waves. Other than that, there are no other viable activities that you can do with the surfboard.

In contrast, the pursuit of stand-up paddleboarding encompasses various unconventional activities that individuals could theoretically participate in other than riding waves.

For example, the dependable support of the paddleboard allows for individuals to partake in fishing. Individuals can store all the supplies needed for a fishing trip on its roomy deck and still have space to conveniently paddle through the water.

In addition, stand-up paddleboarders also have the capacity to perform yoga from the comfort of the paddleboard. But, again, this is due largely to the extra space on the deck of the board.

The first time I heard about this trend, I did not quite believe it myself. However, I was so curious that I had to conduct some research of my own. Surprisingly, I found that this is very much a possibility with paddleboards.

In summary, individuals can do a whole lot more with a stand-up paddleboard relative to a surfboard. Riding waves, transporting camping gear, fishing, and yoga are all within the realm of possibility in the sport of stand-up paddleboarding. Still, surfing excels at the level of riding waves.

The Presence of a Paddle

As aforementioned at the top of the article, the presence of the paddle is the most appreciable way to separate these two sports.

Stand-up paddleboarding is distinguished for the use of a paddle to navigate the water. The paddle is rather lengthy, typically anywhere from 9 to 10 inches more than the rider’s height. Furthermore, the paddle also has an angled blade.

There is actually an intended purpose behind the angled design of the paddle blade. It is meant for easier water entry and more efficient stroke power.

This accessory allows riders to conveniently move forward or change direction while maintaining an upright position. In addition, riders can perform paddle strokes from a kneeling position as well.

Surfers do not have this luxury. In the absence of the momentum of a wave, surfers have to resort to utilizing their arms to move through the water while lying down on the board.

Surfers are not equipped with a paddle because they never really kneel or stand on the surfboard. This is because of the difficulty associated with retaining these positions on the lightweight frame of the board.

Plus, mobility is not an issue while riding waves on a surfboard because of its lightweight design. For this reason, a paddle would be more of a hindrance rather than an advantage while surfing the waves.

Similarities Between Stand Up Paddle Boarding & Surfing

Generic Use of a Board on the Water

The generic use of a board on the water is one of the central points of harmony between these two well-known aquatic pursuits.

SUP and surfing are based on the principle of balancing on top of a board and enjoying the prospect of venturing out on the open water. Thus, the board is a foundational cornerstone of these water sports.

Although the board dimensions may slightly differ, it is hard to identify these disparities from afar. All an offhand observer knows for certain is that an individual is riding on a board in the water.

Structural differences aside, the main functional premise remains the same. Without the presence of a resilient board to ride, people cannot perform the sports of stand-up paddleboarding and surfing.

Capacity to Ride Waves

In addition, both stand-up paddleboarders and surfers possess the capacity to ride waves.

The technique of approaching the wave is a bit different between the two sports. Yet, once paddle boarders and surfers start to ride a wave in unison, it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Go to any local beach and try differentiating surfers versus paddleboarders for yourself. There are plenty of stand-up paddleboarders and surfers that ride the waves day in and day out. Unfortunately, it can be tough to judge the subtle markers separating these two sports, especially to the untrained eye.

In both instances, individuals maintain an upright posture and try to stay as long as possible on the wave before tailing off. The fundamentals of riding a wave are universal, spanning the domains of both SUP and surfing. With these two sports, it is an art that is just tweaked in a slightly different light.

Venn Diagram

I summarized these similarities and differences in the Venn diagram below. This is a beneficial guide for anyone who is looking to definitely characterize SUP versus surfing.

Primary Reason Why People Confuse SUP & Surfing

The underlying reason that people confuse SUP and surfing is that SUP was originally revitalized as an offshoot of surfing in Hawaii at the onset of the 2000s.

Two renowned figures in the water sports community were seen maneuvering through the water on their longboards with paddles. These Hawaiian water sports professionals, Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton, sparked a trend that soon established itself into what we now know as stand-up paddleboarding.

Although the actual roots of SUP may have dated back centuries ago to ancient fishermen, these two individuals brought this water pursuit into the spotlight.

Since this was initially observed as an unconventional outgrowth of surfing, the general public continued to confuse the two sports as the same.

Nowadays, the differences between surfing and SUP have become more and more refined over time. As of late, SUP has really come into its own and emerged as a real player in the water sports industry. The water sports community is beginning to recognize the divergence of SUP from surfing with each passing day, which has helped to clear up the misconceptions surrounding this form of water recreation.

Why Does this Distinction Matter?

This distinction between SUP and surfing matters for a couple of reasons. The most significant of which are listed below.

Helps People Narrow Down Which Water Activity Best Fits Their Needs

For one, the definitive classification of these two water sports aids people in choosing what form of water recreation would be the most conducive for them.

There is a diverse amount of activities that SUP can offer. For this reason, almost anyone can partake in SUP. Whether it be a stroll through calm waters or an unorthodox form of yoga, SUP can cater to various wants and needs.

For this reason, people young and old can partake in SUP because of the lack of strain on the paddle boarder.

Surfing is best suited toward the practice of riding waves. This activity is much more strenuous, demanding a great deal of strength and coordination on the part of the rider. It is a great form of exercise, but it may be just a bit too much to ask of individuals who lie on the younger or older sides.

The bottom line is the separation of SUP and surfing aids the general public in determining which sport best suits their desires. If a person has their sights set exclusively on riding waves, surfing is the best option. On the other hand, a person that wants to bask in the joy of being out on the open water should explore the prospect of taking a SUP tour.

The blurred lines between these sports make for a much more troublesome experience for people to choose which water activity to do.

Surfing Community versus Stand Up Paddle Boarding Community

In addition, locals take great pride in identifying with the surfing community versus the stand-up paddleboarding community.

Although it seems a tad odd from an outside perspective, there is a bit of a rivalry between these two water endeavors in some parts of the world. In fact, some surfers cannot stand paddleboarders… and some paddleboarders cannot stand surfers.

For example, one surfer that was asked about his thoughts about stand up paddle boarders stated the following:

“If they are in the line up, they piss me off! Because they can really get in the way and can kill you if they drop in on you. Several times I’ve been on a wave and a paddle boarder has tried to go for it and it’s almost taken my head off, so they can piss me off if I’m in the line up.”


Of course, not every beach has tensions running high between surfers and paddleboarders. The majority of surfers and paddleboarders are just glad to share a passion for the water.

However, this is certainly something to keep in the back of your mind. Some members of the surfing community and the SUP community do not want anything to do with the other water sports communities.

Which Water Sport is Better?

There are pros and cons to both surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. But, at the end of the day, the true answer to this question lies with your specific needs and desires. What you want to get out of your experience on the water may be completely different from what somebody else wants.

However, I suppose I can provide a little insight if you sincerely want my personal opinion. I have always been drawn to the more tranquil side of water sports, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

If you find yourself gravitating toward the wild side of the water, I would recommend edging toward the surfing route. Although paddleboards are certainly capable of catching waves, the riding maneuverability pales in comparison to the surfboard.

Other than coasting on waves, SUP is superior to surfing in practically every other regard. Individuals can practice yoga, fish, transport gear, and take relaxing tours with SUP, in addition to cruising atop waves. The sheer versatility of this water endeavor is what tips the balance over to SUP in my mind.

Sources: 1 2 3 4

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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