SUP, aka stand up paddling or stand up paddleboarding, is fast growing with new riders all ages taking up the sport. In parallel, the surf craze continues to spread all over the world, with everyone from 4-year old toddlers to mid-aged parents and fit retirees hitting the waves.
If you’re a newbie looking to get on a board and start riding waves, you may be wondering which of SUP or surfing is easier.
Most surfers agree surf SUP is easier than surfing. It has a much tamer learning curve and generally has you standing and riding waves a lot sooner than on a surfboard. Once you’re able to catch and follow small waves, however, the challenges of SUP will get closer to those of regular surfing.
It’s worth noting that, in this article, I’m comparing surf SUP with classic surfing. I won’t include flat water paddleboarding disciplines in this comparison are these are very different from surfboard riding – wave riding is the biggest challenge.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: paddling
Paddling is a significant challenge in both learning surfing and SUP paddleboarding. The big difference is that on a surfboard, you paddle in prone position, while on a stand up paddleboard, well… you paddle standing up.
Which is harder? At first sight, it may seem like paddling lying down is a lot easier than standing up on moving water. While prone paddling is more stable, efficient paddling on a surfboard is not easy and is a key aspect to master to become a good surfer.
First, paddling while lying on your belly is not natural and puts strain on you body. Your lower back and neck are extended as you look out towards the incoming waves. Your shoulder are raised from the board in an awkward position.
Initially, on a surfboard you may struggle to keep your balance even in prone position as the waves pass you by, let alone keep your feet together as you should.
On a paddleboard, you need to stand up before you paddle. Typically you’ll start with a big SUP, say 10-11′ long by 30+” wide, so you’ll feel relatively stable. You’ll also start in small waves.
If you’re fitness level is decent, you should be able to get up and stay up within a few hours of practice. Once you do, paddling comes quite naturally for most people – paddling actually helps you keep your balance on the SUP.
While a newbie typically starts paddling on a SUP within a couple hours in tiny waves, efficiently prone paddling through whitewater on a surfboard may require more practice.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: getting to the lineup
Once you have the basic paddling skills down, the next challenge for both surfing and SUP is getting up to the lineup, or peak, to catch waves. This requires you to paddle across incoming waves.
This part is generally easier on a surfboard than on a SUP, especially in small waves. The reason is, on a surfboard you can simply flatten yourself on the board and let the small wave roll on top of you while you continue to prone paddle.
On a SUP, on the other hand, most newbies struggle to stay up while paddling across a wave. This requires very good balance and generally comes with practice.
In bigger waves, on a surfboard, you must master the duck dive to get under breaking waves and solid whitewater. Duck diving is an art that requires solid technique. While often underestimated, it’s one of the main challenges of surfing.
You can’t duck dive on a paddleboard, so paddling across larger waves often involves jumping off the SUP and grabbing your leash. Proficient riders, however, continue to paddle across the wave, push the SUP’s nose under the wave with a well-timed stroke.
In my experience, I would say learning to do a solid duck dive is harder than learning to stay up on your SUP when crossing medium waves. See this post about duck diving on different surfboard sizes.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: waiting for the wave
So now you’re at the peak and eager to get a wave. Is that easier to do on a surfboard or on a SUP?
On a surfboard, you typically sit on your board while you wait. Sitting on a small board isn’t very natural at first and requires some balance, but it quickly becomes second nature.
On the SUP, you generally stand while you wait. Since the water surface is rarely completely flat and calm, that can be a challenge in itself. You need to constantly adjust your position not to lose balance as currents and small waves go by.
If you’re on a smaller SUP (e.g < 9′ for a more responsive riding experience), standing while the board isn’t moving is even more challenging, so you need to keep moving, e.g. in circles.
If there are many other people in the lineup waiting for the wave, this can be a pain as you need to continuously paddle in circles around others. On a surfboard, you just sit still on your board, holding your position in “the line”, and socializing while waiting.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: turning around
As a wave comes in, you need to turn around from facing toward the wave to facing toward the beach. That’s quite easy to do on a surfboard – you typically turn around while sitting on the board just by threading water with your hands.
On a SUP, turning around while standing is generally a bigger challenge. You could of course paddle the into a large U turn, but many times time is short and you need to “turn on a dime”. This requires good technique.
Basically, you shift most of your weight toward the extreme rear of the paddleboard to allow it to pivot, while making strong strokes on the opposite side of the turn. As soon as you’ve turned, you have to quickly rebalance on the board – or you’ll dip.
Since this is a challenging SUP techniques, some SUPers prefer to sit on the SUP just like surfers while waiting for the wave, and turn the board around before quickly getting up.
Others will keep paddling around until the wave arrives, then paddle almost parallel to the wave, progressively turning as the wave approaches – this requires good timing.
All in all, turning around to catch the wave is one of the aspects that are harder on a SUP than on a surfboard.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: takeoff
Taking off on a wave is probably the toughest part of classic surfing. You paddle hard while lying prone, then pop up onto your feet right before the surfboard drops into the wave. Almost simultaneously you need to shift your weight to steer the board away from the breaking lip.
On a SUP, you’re already standing when the wave reaches you, so you don’t need to pop up – the most challenging step in surfing. As the paddleboard starts dropping, you simply need to switch from parallel to surf stance – some riders switch while paddling before the drop.
Like on a surfboard, on a SUP you start paddling before the wave gets to you. As you drop into the wave, while you also need to immediately steer the board into the green, the paddle makes this a lot easier vs relying solely on weight shifting as in surfing.
The paddleboard size and paddle typically also allow you to get into the wave a lot early compared to a regular (non-longboard) surfboard. This grants you a big advantage (and sometimes much resentment) for catching more waves than the average surfer.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: riding down the line
Riding down the wave on a SUP is often easier than on a surfboard due to the (generally) larger volume of the SUP and to the paddle. The extra volume gives you a lot more momentum on the wave, especially on softer waves.
Using your paddle while riding also allows you to pull through the weaker sections of the wave even if you don’t have the necessary skills to speed through it – as needed on a surfboard.
Depending on the size of your SUP, you can also “pump” on it the same way you do on a surfboard. Riding down a wave is about gaining and maintaining speed, which is typically easier on a SUP unless you’re a good surfer.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: making turns
For someone already comfortable standing and riding waves on a surfboard, turning is generally easier compared to a SUP since surfboards are generally leaner and narrower and hence more responsive for tight turns.
That said, proficient SUP riders use their paddle as an extra fin, allowing then to turn very fast, especially on smaller surf SUPs. Combining surf-style weight shifting with timely and skillful paddle strokes on both sides can result in astonishing SUP maneuverability.
Advanced SUP surfers are able to pull surf-style snapbacks, bottom turns, and off-the-lips comparable to shortboard maneuvers. Even 360s and aerials have been seen from the best wave paddleboarders.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: wipeouts
Wiping out on a SUP can be more taxing than on a surfboard. Short surfboards are generally lightweight and you can simply weight for the wave to pass by to quickly get back on your board.
Stand up paddleboards are generally heavy, so when wiping out you need to be careful not to get hit by the board, including through whiplash due to the leash. SUPs are generally more cumbersome to recover and get back on as well.
Another challenge of getting smashed by a wave on a SUP is that you need to hold on to your paddle even while you’re being tossed around under water. Losing your paddle in bigger waves can be a big hassle.
If you do wipe out with your SUP and get caught in a set, a great tip is to quickly get back on your SUP in prone (surfboard-style) position with your paddle blade tucked under your torso and the handle sticking out.
This can allow you to get out of the impact zone faster, and avoid getting pounded by the next waves of the big set.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: riding big & small waves
Riding a stand up paddleboard in small waves is often easier than riding a shortboard, again because of the SUP’s volume and momentum as well as the paddle. Effectively surfing small waves on a surfboard requires good skills – though a bigger surfboard makes it a bit easier.
Riding bigger waves, on the other hand, is generally harder on a SUP. Bigger waves typically require good and and fast turns. Unless you’re very good at pumping and using your paddle, a SUP will generally be less maneuverable and responsive than a surfboard.
Also, as mentioned earlier, big wipeouts on a SUP are harder than on a regular surfboard due to board size and weight, holding on to the paddle, and slower recovery and exit from the impact zone.
SUP vs surfing difficulty: setup
Stand up paddleboards are generally bigger than your average surfboard (again, with the exception of longboards), so they’re more awkward to transport and carry around to and from the water.
You typically hold your SUP under your arm, typically grabbing it by its central handle (these offer varying degrees of comfort) and your paddle in the other hand.
Unless you ride a high-performance SUP, the paddleboard will generally be quite bulky and relatively heavy for carrying it more than a few minutes. Most SUPs also have lengths above 8’+ and widths of 29’+, so they do take up some space in your home.
An average surfboard, in contrast, will generally be lightweight (even epoxy ones), narrow enough to fit under your arm without a handle in the middle, and in many cases short enough to fit even in a compact car (though this varies).
Overall, we say a regular surfboard will generally be easier than a SUP to transport, carry around, and store.
For many wave newbies, a (larger) stand up paddleboard will be easier to get started on than a regular surfboard due to the natural upright position (once balance is initially found) and to the fact there’s no need to master the pop up on a SUP at take off.
That said, once you’re able to do the pop up on a surfboard, you’ll find it easier to paddle back to the lineup by doing the duck dive, to pump for speed in fast waves, and to do fast extreme turns.
Doing these things on a surfboard, however, will generally require months or years of water time, while you’ll generally be able to do them much faster on a SUP with the right size.
SUP and surfing are both awesome sports that will fill your life with unforgettable moments in the ocean.