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How To Choose a Stand Up Inflatable Paddleboard

From left: Tava  Adventurer  Baron 6  Explorer  Jobe  Touring (previous model)  Uli  Touring (new model)  and the Raven.
By Chris McNamara and Shey Kiester
Monday July 10, 2017

Selecting the Right Product


The stand-up paddleboard world is heavy with terminology, so we'll start by explaining some of the lingo. There are three terms that pretty much describe the same thing and we use them interchangeably throughout this review:
  • paddleboards
  • stand-up paddleboards
  • SUPs

SUP is obviously just an acronym for Stand-Up Paddleboard. A "paddleboard" can also just be a long board used for prone or manual paddling across flat water. You kneel and paddle with just your arms. It's not the most comfortable position so, not surprisingly, it's a sport with limited participation.

Key Components of a SUP


The first thing to consider when deciding on a SUP is its dimensions.
  • Width - Generally, the wider the board the more stable it is. Wider boards are also slower, so racers generally have narrow boards (the back is narrower than 28 inches) while beginners typically benefit from a wide board (31 inches or wider).
  • Length - The longer the board, typically, the faster it is. Longer boards are also hard to turn. SUP surfers usually use 8'-10' boards while racers use 12-16' boards. A good size for most beginning and intermediate paddlers is the 10 to 12-foot range.
  • Thickness - Thickness generally tells you how floaty a board is but it has a special importance with an inflatable board. As a general rule, if an inflatable paddle board is less than six inches thick, it feels like you're standing on Jell-O.
  • Nose Rocker - Nose rocker is how far the front of the board pulls up. It's an important metric if you are surfing; too little rocker and the board wants to pearl or submerge its nose like a submarine. For inflatable boards, it doesn't matter much unless you plan to be in very choppy water (then you want a lot of rocker).

Example of different amounts of nose rocker.
Example of different amounts of nose rocker.
  • Hull shape - Race boards have a displacement hull similar to the bottom of a sailboat. Most other boards have a flat bottom similar to the bottom of a barge. A flat bottom makes the board more stable and easy to turn. Displacement hulls are more pointed on the nose, which enables them to slice through water more efficiently than board that has a planing hull. Displacement hulls are fast but not as stable as a planing hull and can be more tippy, but they are good for going long distances or as a race board. A planing hull is more rounded on the nose and wider than displacement hulls, making them better for beginners or an all-around board.
  • Rails - Rails are the sides of a paddle board. They are pretty much only important if you are surfing and you need rails in order to carve into the face of the wave.

Types of Stand Up Paddle Boards


There are many types of SUPS, but here we break the category into four main styles.
Four different styles from L to R: inflatable  surf  race and touring.
Four different styles from L to R: inflatable, surf, race and touring.
  • Flat Water Race Board - These boards are typically long (12'-14'+), narrow (less than 28" wide) and with a displacement hull that makes them very fast. They are not very stable and therefore not recommended for beginners. They can be unwieldy to transport and store. They are also easy to bang up. These are for intermediate and advanced riders who want to get across flat water as fast as possible. Prices start around $1500 and go way, way up.
  • Flat Water Touring Board - These are the all-around boards. They are typically wide, stable and 10-12 feet. They are the best boards for choppy water. They are not particularly fast compared to race boards, but they are faster than a surfing paddle board shape. Prices are $1500-2500.
  • Surfing Paddle Board - This is a surfboard on steroids. It has the shape of a shortboard or longboard but is much thicker, wider, and usually longer. The rails are narrow to be able to cut into the wave face. Prices are typically $1000-1500.
  • Inflatable - These boards take the shape of any of the boards mentioned above; they are typically thicker, lighter and easier to transport.

Inflatable paddle board testing on Lake Tahoe.
Inflatable paddle board testing on Lake Tahoe.

Is an inflatable SUP right for me?


Inflatables come with some distinct pros and cons.

Pros

  • easy to transport - When deflated and rolled up, most inflatable paddle boards are the size of a medium duffel bag and fit in any car. Most other SUPs require a roof rack and tie-down straps and can be a pain to get on and off the roof, especially if they are particularly heavy. An inflatable SUP deflates quickly, rolls up easily and takes very little effort to lift and place into a trunk. Not having to worry about how secure the boards are on top of the vehicle is especially relaxing when traveling long distances. Flying with an inflatable board is easier as well. It will either be free or cost $50. Flying with a non-inflatable board generally, starts at $100 if it is shorter than 9' 6" and goes up from there.

Explorer
Explorer
  • Durable - An inflatable paddle board is made of the same heavy-duty urethane as a river raft. After scraping over many rocks, we have not been able to pop any of them. Most other paddle boards chip, ding and generally have to be handled more carefully. Inflatable boards are the only option for most rivers because running into or paddling over rocks in low water spots is highly likely, and this can damage other types of boards.
  • Soft - Kids often fall down hard on any SUP. The soft flexible surface of an inflatable SUP means it's less likely for someone to bang up their head, face, elbows, and knees while paddling, surfing or just playing around.
  • Inexpensive - Most inflatable paddle boards are $500-800 and come with a paddle. Non-inflatables (other than Costco boards) generally start at $1000 and go up quick. It's a lot of fun to paddle with another person, so the lower price tag of the inflatables can be attractive if you're planning on purchasing two.
  • Easy to store - Inflatable paddle boards are appealing because they are easy to transport, don't require roof racks and don't take much room to store. Most inflatable boards easily roll up pretty small, which makes them much easier to store indoors. If you live in an apartment without a garage or somewhere where you do not have much storage, this factor makes them quite irresistible.

Cons

  • Not fast - Even race style inflatable paddle boards are still too wide to glide as efficiently as a fiberglass or epoxy board.
  • Poor at surfing - The rail is so fat that no inflatable paddle boards surf very well.
  • Take approximately five minutes to inflate - You'll need to always keep track of the pump, fins, etc. and make sure the board is in good shape and without any weak spots in the seams etc. It can be tricky to find the right pressure because the pump gauges generally don't work or won't register under 10 psi.

The 5-10 minute inflation time varies depending on a person's strength. When the boards reach between 9-10 psi they become slightly more challenging to pump up to the recommended psi of 12-15. Keep in mind that some boards come with pumps that have what we like to call "universal" inflation hose attachment ends. (See our Best Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Board review under "Ease of Inflation" for more details.) Which basically means that they are interchangeable with most other boards. This becomes important if you go paddling often with other people and backpack to the shoreline and want to take only one pump to decrease weight carried or if you want to use accessories such as an electric pump.

Left to right: Previous award winning Isle Touring  new 2015 Isle touring  Jobe  Raven  Tower  Tava  NRS  Isle Explorer  Uli.
Left to right: Previous award winning Isle Touring, new 2015 Isle touring, Jobe, Raven, Tower, Tava, NRS, Isle Explorer, Uli.

Making a Choice on an Inflatable Paddle Board


If you are a beginner, planning on bringing passengers aboard or planning on doing Yoga on your inflatable paddle board, make sure to consider a wider, more stable board. Check out the most stable board we tested, the NRS Mayra.

If you are a more advanced paddler you most likely will want to consider a board that glides easily. These tend to be lighter, more narrow boards with a rockered or at least slightly rockered nose. Take a look at the Isle Touring that we tested.

If you are looking for a surfing board, you'll want something that is light and thin and has a D-ring on the back for attaching a leash to. Check out the Red Paddle inflatable paddle board.

When you're shopping for an inflatable paddle board, keep in mind where you will be going most often and what you will be bringing with you in order to decide which features are essential. If you are going to use your board several times a week, make sure to purchase a board that has fins that are easy to take on and off. If you are going to bring a lot of stuff with you when you paddle, make sure that your board choice has a sufficient cargo system for your needs. If your choice of adventuring is river touring or some activity that requires pulling the board up onto shore often, you might want to make sure that your choice has a nice handle on the nose of the board. A handle makes pulling the board ashore much easier than a D-ring or grabbing further in via a cargo system or middle carrying handle.

Take a look at the Editor's Choice award-winning Isle Explorer. We love the dual cargo system, extra D rings, handle straps, and tail-placed inflation valve. Inflation valves are nice to have on the tail if you feel like rolling the board up without taking the fin off. This board also has a pump hose with universal ends.

The Best Buy award winner  the Explorer. We loved its dual cargo systems and strap handles.
The Best Buy award winner, the Explorer. We loved its dual cargo systems and strap handles.

Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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