An inflatable SUP is often the best stand up paddle board choice. They are more portable, durable and less expensive than most rigid paddle boards. But what is the difference between each model and what do terms like "touring" mean? We break all that down and help you find the perfect option for you. After researching 20 models, we bought 10 and put them through months of tests on rivers and lakes. For some people, a non-inflatable or rigid SUP might be the way to go, so we have a separate review for those as well.
Updated Fall 2017
After a full summer on Lake Tahoe, we updated our review with new insights and award winners. The Isle Touring, a former Editors' Choice, is now our Best Buy for touring and the best option for many people. It retails for $995 but has a street price of often less than $800 - and that include backpack, paddle, and pump.
The Isle Explorer used to be our Best Buy winner, but this year it moved to the top. It stole the hearts of nearly all of our testers, a reputation which earned it our top honors. A dream to paddle, the Explorer successfully combines stability and glide, while a square tail, slightly rockered nose and fin design allow it to maneuver easily. Constructed from quality materials, this board instilled confidence on rocky sections of river and along jagged shorelines. The Explorer comes with a pump that has universal attachment ends and a paddle. Surprisingly, the whole package comes for a relatively small $845, which sits well below the prices of spendier models.
The PEAK Inflatable has a sleek design, solid construction, and flashy deck that turned heads around the local lake, making it a favorite among many testers. The lightest board reviewed, this model scored well in ease of transport, and its included backpack was simple yet versatile. Additionally, this board was the cheapest in the review. If you're looking for a board that will get you out on the water and can cruise nearly as well as the top boards for a price that won't break the bank, this model is for you.
Quality materials, high-performance components, and a sleek profile helped the Red Paddle Co Explorer Plus to a high score, tieing it with our overall winner (the Isle Explorer). Because of this model's sleeker profile, beginner paddlers will likely feel less stable atop it. However, this dip in stability means an increase in glide and agility, which made this model a go-to for tight creek and voyages that demand maneuverability. With an FCS Connect fin and an RSS stiffening system, this model is noticeably top of the line. The icing on the cake comes in the included universally compatible pump, which was by far the best in our review, and became the favorite for use with all of the other boards. It doesn't come with a paddle. This is understandable since the buyer for a high-end inflatable probably wants a higher end SUP paddle.
This is by far the best value in a touring board. Want a good glide ratio but don't want to spend big money? This is your board. It won Editors' Choice for 2013-2016. This year, we feel the Isle Explorer is a better all around board. And the Red Paddle is a higher performing touring board. But the Red Paddle is double the price and is less stable which makes the Isle Touring the best option for people on a tighter budget or who just want a more all around board.
The iRocker Inflatable just barely missed out on an award, but it deserves an honorable mention. It was an immediate favorite among testers, and its overall score was competitive among the top performers. This model's materials and design easily instilled confidence on rocky rivers and choppy water, and its shape provided a good combination of stability and glide. Plus, the full kit comes with a paddle, universal pump, repair kit, and an ankle leash.
Over the course of several months, our experts tirelessly tested and retested the nine boards in this review. Our testers kept detailed notes as they went, making sure that the boards saw beginner, intermediate and expert users, in a variety of conditions, and with many different use scenarios in mind.
The table above serves as a comparison of all the boards, and their scores in this Overall Performance are a combination of many factors. Some boards may have scored very well in one metric but lower in others, meaning that they won't perform as well in this overview, but may work for your particular use.
Lovingly called SUPs, these vessels are perfect for a rest day, core workout, or an exciting river run. This review covers inflatable options, which are more portable and durable (while losing a little speed) than non-inflatable offerings.
Stability is one of two heavily weighted rating metrics in our review (the other is glide performance). Beginning and intermediate paddlers often use inflatables, so it's important that they are as stable as possible. As a general rule, bigger boards equate to a more stable feel, and the most important dimension in this regard is thickness. We don't recommend getting a board that is less than six inches thick unless there are some significant technological improvements. Boards with minimal thickness tend to feel floppy, even when inflated to their max recommendation.
Another key reason to purchase a stable board is if you plan on having multiple passengers, a furry friend aboard, or if you're into SUP yoga. The Tower Adventurer 2, Isle Explorer, and iRocker Inflatable 11 are all capable of carrying multiple paddlers, with weight limits of 400, 275, and 385, respectively. The wider NRS Mayra, which is billed as a Yoga-specific board, did an excellent job of handling a furry passenger and, of course, yoga. Although the Mayra did well in stability, it scored lower in glide. This is usually the case, as a more stable board will naturally be bigger and thus its glide will be affected. Finding a balance between optimal glide and stability is key.
Stuck in paradise while testing our fleet of flops.
When compared to non-inflatable boards, inflatable SUPs will always lose in a glide/maneuverability battle. The fiberglass hulls of rigid SUPs allow for a design that lends itself to quick turn response and improved drift, and inflatable SUPs simply cannot compete with this. However, many of the boards in this review respond well, even in choppy water or wind. Keep your experience level and needs in mind. Beginner and intermediate users likely do not need the most responsive board on the market. And the amount of speed lost on an inflatable model is relatively negligible for most user's needs.
The Red Paddle Co Explorer Plus had a more aggressive nose shape, which allowed it to score high in this category, earning a near perfect 9 out of 10, followed by the Isle Explorer and iRocker Inflatable 11 (both scored 8/10).
The Explorer Plus was a top scorer in the gliding and maneuverability metric and was easy to navigate around obstacles. Here it is paddled with the Aqua-Bound Challenge.
On the other end of the spectrum was the NRS Mayra, which has a blunt nose and took home a 6 out of 10 in glide performance and was the lowest in our test. However, if you're focused on relatively stationary paddleboard activities (like yoga), the Mayra is an excellent choice. This is another example of a time when getting a board that is a top scorer in every metric might not be in your best interest. Decide if these categories are important to you, and go from there!
Cruising on the Airis while paddling with the Werner Trance.
Ease of Transport
When thinking about buying an inflatable SUP, ease of transport is an incredibly important consideration. The main advantage of an inflatable board comes from its packability, which makes it portable for a variety of missions. If you're committed, some of these boards can even be packed into remote alpine lakes depending on their ability to roll up well and the carry system. We scored this metric based on each model's carryability and rollability as well as included extras that make packing easier, like a strap. Included bags factored into this area. Bags that did not get the job done for one reason or another scored very low, whereas bags that were comfortable and easy to use scored higher.
The lightest boards were the Isle Touring and PEAK Inflatable, with the iRocker Inflatable 11 following closely behind. This contributed to higher scores in this metric, as the boards were easier to haul from place to place. The Xterra Touring was by far the heaviest board reviewed, weighing 30 pounds. The Isle and iRocker models both scored well in this category, with packs that were well padded and roomy enough for a sloppily rolled bag and all of the accouterments needed for a day on the water. The Red Paddle competitor also scored well, and it included the only bag that had wheels. For most missions, we found this to be helpful, but if you're planning on carrying the pack for a long distance on trails, this is an unnecessary extra.
Fly With Your Board!
One huge advantage of inflatables over rigid SUPS is you can fly with them. All boards tested all light and small enough to avoid most airlines oversized bag requirements, at least for domestic flights
Here you'll see many of the competitors in our fleet. The top row bags belong to the following boards, from left to right: PEAK Inflatable, Xterra, Airis. And the bottom row, from left to right: Red Paddle, NRS, Isle, iRocker.
The Airis HardTop SUV was by far the lowest scorer in this metric. This low score is attributed to several things. One, the Airis is the second heaviest of all the boards tested. Two, the Airis has stiff material on the deck that does not roll, requiring you instead to fold the boat in exactly the right places. And three, this model's included backpack did not fit it well. In fact, after the initial use, we were never able to get the board back in its bag fully, and getting it even halfway in was a two-person job. The NRS model also scored relatively low in this category, despite having an excellent and roomy backpack. This model's low score was due to its lack of a center handle, which made it extremely to carry around fully inflated. However, this lack of a center handle does make SUP yoga easier. Again, this is a situation where choosing a board depends on your needs.
Ease of Inflation
Large differences from one model to the next within this metric were somewhat difficult to identify, largely because most of the models in this review came with pumps that were very similar. With that said, three pumps stood out (in both good and bad ways). The Red Paddle pump was by far the best pump in this review. The dual cylinder design allowed this pump to blow a board up quicker and in a more efficient manner than any other. Also, the product comes with a variety of different nozzles, so you can use it with other boards (which our testers were apt to do since it as so nice to use). The iRocker 11 and Isle Explorer followed behind the Explorer Plus by Red Paddle, both earning 8 out of 10s.
The dural chamber pump of the Red Paddle model on the right, compared with the single chamber pump common for most boards in this review on the left.
The Airis pump was one of the slowest to inflate, and there was a fair amount of leaking air around the pump. Also, several testers complained that the pump felt cheap. The NRS Mayra's pump also stood out in this review. This board had the only inflation nozzle that was not the standard design, which meant that if you are using one pump to inflate multiple models, this board must be kept in mind. Each inflatable SUP tested takes around five to seven minutes to inflate, with the bigger volume boards like the Tower Adventure and Airis HardTop taking a little longer. Boards with inflation nozzles in the back can be rolled up without removing the fins.
The universal nozzle that is common to most pumps is shown on the left, compared with the non-universal nozzle of the NRS model
Most pump gauges break - consider these accessories
Sadly, most SUP pumps gauges either break quickly or are very inaccurate. This is a significant problem for beginners who can't tell inflation pressure by feel. If you are new to inflatable SUPS, and your gauge breaks, you will probably only fill it to 5-10 PSI which is far below the 15 PSI that most boards recommend. There are two solutions:
1) get a High Pressure Inflator Valve. This allows you to use any standard tire pressure gauge.
2) get an electric SUP pump which, in addition to doing the pumping work for you, has a more accurate built-in gauge.
The high pressure valve lets you quickly check the multiple boards (your friends will thank you) but it is an extra step.
For more tips on how to inflate a paddle board, watch this video:
While not immediately obvious, there are two settings to the valve on SUP boards where the inflation pump hose attaches: the inflate/closed position and the deflate/open position. It's important to twist the valve into the inflate/closed position before attaching the inflation hose. In this position, air gets in through the valve to inflate the board and when you are finished pumping and take the hose off you won't lose valuable air pressure.
A very short video clip demonstrating the above tip:
Inflatable SUPs are versatile in part because of their durability. These boards can run white water, and are burly enough to smash into rocks and drag through forests while portaging around log jams. Most of the boards in this review scored well in this metric, with several falling behind, and one sticking out for its lack of durability.
The Isle, Red Paddle, and PEAK models all stuck out for their high-quality construction and materials and thus, earned high scores. We took these boards down rivers and creeks, bashing into rocks and ducking to avoid sweepers, and our testers were confident that the boards could hold up to the abuse. Plus, they each held their own during multiple portages, when encounters with logs, rocks, and dirt were inevitable.
During testing, we took each competitor down river rapids in order to assess their level of durability. Shown here is the Mayra, which scored an above average score for durability.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Airis HardTop was notably the least durable board in our review, earning a 4 out of 10. This was noticed in the board's overall construction, with seams that stuck up significantly from the board, inviting rubbing while loading and maneuvering shallow water. Interestingly, this board sprung a slight leak along a top seam on only the second day of testing.
Most of the inflatable paddle boards tested were in the same price range. However, keep in mind when price shopping that some boards come with paddles and other accessories, like a leash, and some do not. Take a look at our individual reviews to see which boards come with what accessories. The Editors' Choice Isle Explorer and Best Buy iRocker are both steals at $845 and $965, and the PEAK has an impressively low price of $595.
Paddle - Most of the boards come with adjustable aluminum paddles. These are heavy but durable and adjustable. They also collapse down to the width of the board, which makes the complete package easy to transport and store. If you want a more high-performance paddle, get a carbon fiber one which ranges in price from $180-450. The best deal we have seen is the Bullet Proof Surf Alloy.
Life Jacket - There are a lot of great life jackets for water skiing and wakeboarding in the $20-60 range. However, if you are looking for something that's Coast Guard approved (which is mandatory in some places like Lake Tahoe), then you can find one for less than $25-30 like the Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest.
See below for US Coast Guard stand up paddle board regulations.
Leash - In most situations, you want a leash. If on a lake, and the wind pick up, your board will be gone in seconds if you fall off (a SUP is like a kite compared to a human in water). A coiled leash is generally best because it won't drag. If you're on river with any type of current, get a leash with a quick release in case the leash get stuck on something, like the NRS Quick Release SUP Leash. There have been many deaths from people getting their leashes snagged in rivers and pulled under. Educate yourself before attempting any river paddle boarding.
Roof Rack - If you are going to the lake for the weekend and plan on using your board a lot you might not want to pump it up every single time you go out. You can purchase a soft roof rack like the FCS Premium SUP Single Soft Racks to make your life a little easier. This rack holds two boards easily.
Electric Pump - If you are not psyched on pumping up your board by hand, you can purchase a battery powered air pump for inflating your board. We used Sevlor Pump for this review. It's a little slow and finicky but got the job done and has an accurate guage.
What Are the General Stand Up Paddle Boarding Rules on the Water?
The US Coast Guard passed a regulation in 2008 that classified paddleboards as vessels. Outside a swim or surf zone, a stand-up paddle board is considered a vessel and must adhere to the same rules and regulations. This may include a Coast Guard approved life jacket in serviceable condition for each person on board and a signaling device like a whistle. Children under the age of 13 are required wear a type 1, 2, or 3 PFD at all times. PFDs are required to be size appropriate for the wearer.
Since SUPs are one of, if not the smallest, vessel on the water they essentially have no right of way and must give way to larger vessels.
SUPs must always cross behind or astern of oncoming motorized boat traffic.
To SUP after sunset or at dawn or dusk, you are required to have a white light such as a flashlight that is visible up to a mile and capable of warning other boaters by shining towards oncoming traffic.
If you're not keen on wearing a type 3 PFD, there are pouch type manually inflated life jackets or C02 triggered inflatable belt style PFDs available. These types of PFDs do offer more range of movement but keep in mind that if you are paddling somewhere where you might hit your head, you may not be conscious and able to inflate your PFD.
Pictured here is the iRocker, along with a slew of other contenders in our fleet.
Inflatable SUPs are versatile and offer a fun and engaging way to get out on the water. They can paddle lakes, oceans, rivers, and even surf. When you're done, they roll up into any car trunk and usually cost less than $1,000 (few non-inflatable boards can claim this). All the boards in this review are ideal for learning to SUP and for touring, and only serious SUP racers should overlook this category for a slimmer non-inflatable option. For helpful tips on selecting the right product, check out our Buying Advice article.