Versatility is the name of the game.
Surftech Aleka 11'2" ($1,349)
Surftech’s Aleka takes home our Gear of the Year award for one deceptively simple reason: in nearly all conditions, it shone. Designed for SUPers focused on fitness, it’s lightweight, it’s durable, and it held its own on distance outings, through choppy short trips, and in small waves off the Northern California coast. The Aleka was shaped by legendary board designer Joe Bark and built with Surftech’s combination of interior foam and exterior fiberglass and bamboo layers. With a 29-inch waist, it’s not as stable as some river-focused boards or the multi-person designs we tested, but it achieved a near perfect balance of steadiness, glide, and responsiveness. It doesn’t hurt that it’s poppy and fun to paddle. In surf at the mouth of the Eel River on California’s wild north coast, the Aleka accelerated quickly and caught waves with ease. Rocker in the nose helped avoid pearling in steep shore break, and the board was quick to maneuver. It’s on the lighter side (23.5 pounds) for a rigid 11-footer, and that adds to the nimble feeling. Though the deck pad doesn’t reach the nose (sorry, no hanging ten), there’s enough coverage for the necessary footwork. Surftech uses bio-based epoxy and algae-based foam in the pad, and the smooth texture is comfy on bare feet. Overall, the build and aesthetic remind us that SUP design is very much about the little things.
Red Voyager Tandem 15' MSL ($1,999)
Best group vessel
Multi-person paddling is fun! The Tandem—dubbed the station wagon of SUPs by testers—is a 15-foot inflatable that easily carries two or three people plus a pile of gear. Cruising the waters of Lake Tahoe with a few testers on board, the Tandem’s 34-inch width was surprisingly quick to paddle, and its eight-inch deck height kept gear above water in chop. Inflating the board required an efficient eight minutes, and testers appreciated the gear tie-downs at the nose and near the middle of the board. “It’s like road-tripping, but on the water,” said one.
Jimmy Styks Strider 12’6” ($749)
Blow-up SUPs are becoming more popular by the minute, and the Strider is a standout in the category. It’s light at 22 pounds and has five inches of rocker. Testers said the stiff Strider had no trouble popping over waves without sacrificing tracking in calm water, and its medium 30-inch width helped it glide well. We also liked the easy-to-install fin, a standard feature on Strider boards for 2018, which locks in place without tools. The Strider is less expensive than some similar boards we tested—an impressive feat, given the solid construction and high-quality materials.