Selecting the Right Product
The stand up paddle board marketplace is heavy with acronyms and confusing terminology, so we'll start by explaining some of the lingo! SUP is a commonly used acronym for Stand Up Paddle Board. This is also often shorted to simply paddle board.
Paddle Board is a more broadly used term, and could also refer to a longboard used for prone paddling across flat water. This is commonly called prone paddle boarding. In this paddling discipline, you kneel or lie on your stomach and paddle with just your arms. It's not the most comfortable position, so it's a sport with limited participation, and is often used by surfers as fitness training. This is not what we are considering in this review.
Do You Want a Rigid or Inflatable SUP?
There are two distinct classes of SUPs — inflatable and rigid boards. Inflatable boards are typically made of 1-2 layers of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) connected by nylon drop stitches. Imagine a solid outer layer of bonded, flexible plastic with a core filled with strings reaching from the deck to the bottom of the board. This material is flexible enough for the board to collapse when deflated and durable enough to sustain the high pressure necessary to provide a firm riding platform when fully inflated.
Rigid boards typically consist of an EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam core surrounded by fiberglass and epoxy. Some inexpensive models are made of plastic, but these products typically suffer when it comes to performance. Some high-performance models are constructed with carbon fiber and typically have premium pricetags for their premium construction and performance.
Choosing between a rigid and an inflatable board depends on your paddling priorities. Rigid boards typically outperform their inflatable siblings, especially when it comes to glide, and stability in choppier conditions. Serious advancements in inflatable technology, however, have made many of the top inflatable models nearly as high performing as rigid boards, but with the added advantage of easier transport and storage. Rigid boards are only a real necessity for competitive SUP racers, but in most cases, rigid models do still provide better performance, sometimes at a lower price.
Pros and Cons Compared
Pros of Inflatable SUPs
- Easy transport — When deflated and rolled up, most inflatable paddle boards are the size of a large duffel bag and can fit in pretty much any car. Most other rigid SUPs require a roof rack and tie-down straps and can be a challenge to get on and off the roof, especially if they are particularly heavy or awkwardly shaped. An inflatable SUP deflates quickly, rolls up easily, and takes minimal effort to lift and place into a trunk. Not having to worry about how secure a board is on top of the vehicle is also quite comforting when traveling long distances. Flying with an inflatable board is significantly easier as well, and will either be free or typically cost between $50-$100. Flying with a non-inflatable board generally starts at $100 if it is shorter than 9' 6" and goes up from there, and of course, will be more of a challenge to transport to and through the airport.
- Durability — Inflatable paddle boards are typically made of the heavy-duty PVC. During testing, we bumped and scraped the boards over rocks, logs, and asphalt and none of the models we've tested have ever leaked or popped. Most other rigid fiberglass paddle boards easily pick up chips or dings and generally have to be handled more carefully. Inflatable boards are usually the only option for most rivers, because running into or paddling over rocks in low water spots is very common, and will likely damage other types of boards.
- Softness — Falling on a SUP and landing on the board is common when learning or when paddling in rough waters. 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.
- Easy storage — 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 more convenient 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 of Inflatable SUPs
- Not as fast — Even the most efficiently designed inflatable paddle boards are typically still too wide and too flexible to cut through the water as efficiently as a stiffer, more streamlined rigid board. The fiberglass material used on most rigid boards also provides a smoother, more slippery surface than the PVC used on most inflatable boards. To get the best glide performance and fastest speeds, check out our rigid SUP review
- Inflation time and effort — Be prepared to put in some serious work to get your board up to the typically recommended 15 psi pressure! It's definitely a great workout unless you buy a specialized aftermarket electric pump. The usual 5-30 minute inflation time varies depending on the board, but also on a person's strength and endurance. When the boards reach partial inflation, usually around 9-10 psi, they become more challenging to pump up, but it's worth the effort to get them up to the recommended pressure of 12-15 psi. (See our Best Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Board review under "Ease of Inflation" for more details.)
Keep in mind that some boards come with pumps that have what we like to call "universal" inflation hose attachment ends, which means that they are interchangeable with most other boards. Some pumps have a proprietary hose attachment end, which means it will only work for that particular board.
Choosing an Inflatable Paddle Board
When you're shopping for an inflatable paddle board, keep in mind:
- How often you will paddle — If you are going to use your board several times a week, and need to store it compactly between adventures, make sure to purchase a board that has fins that are easy to take on and off.
- Where you will be going most often — If your choice of adventuring is river touring or landing onshore often, you will want 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.
- What you want to bring — 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.
Once you have an idea of how you will use your SUP, read on to better understand what type of board you'd like.
Stand Up Paddle Board Styles
There are many types of rigid and inflatable SUPS. Here we break the category into four main styles.
Flat Water Race or Touring Board— These boards are typically longer (12'-14'+), narrower (less than 28" wide), and with a displacement hull (v-shaped) that makes them very fast. They are usually not very stable and therefore are not recommended for beginners. These are for intermediate and advanced riders who want to get across flat water as fast as possible. Prices normally start around $1500 and go way, way up.
According to some longtime paddlers, more people should invest in a touring board to enjoy the fasters speeds and longer ranges that they provide. We don't disagree; cruising along at a good clip is a satisfying experience. If this sounds interesting, take a look at the Red Paddle Co Voyager, our top pick for touring.
Flat Water Recreation Board— These are the all-around boards. They are typically wide, stable, and 10-12 feet in length. They are the best boards for choppy water and can be fun for a variety of paddling activities. They are not particularly fast compared to race boards, but they are faster than a surfing paddle board shape. Prices are usually anywhere from $500-2500.
Recreational boards are middle of the road options that are great for beginner and intermediate paddlers looking to have fun in a variety of conditions. If that sounds like you, take a look at our Editor's Choice, the Hala Carbon Straight Up. We love the quality and versatility of this board. It has an on-deck cargo system, extra D rings, comfortable handle straps, and three easy to remove/secure fins. This board also has a pump hose with universal ends.
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 $1000-1800.
Key SUP Design Components
Whether selecting an inflatable model or a rigid board, the first thing to consider when deciding on which model to choose should be 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 board that is 31 inches or wider.
- Length - If you are looking for speed, long and narrow wins the race, but longer boards are also hard to turn. SUP surfers usually use 8-10 foot boards while racers use 12-16 foot boards. A good size for most beginning and intermediate paddlers is in the 10 to 12-foot range.
- Thickness - Thickness relates to how well a board floats and it has a special importance when it comes to inflatable boards. 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 curves up. It's an important metric if you are surfing; too little rocker and the board wants to submerge its nose like a submarine. Nose rocker is also helpful to improve the maneuverability of a board.
- 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 easier to turn, while a displacement hull has a more pointed nose which enables it to slice through the water more efficiently. Displacement hulls make for faster boards that are good for going long distances or for racing, but they are not as stable as a flat bottom board. A flat bottom board is more rounded on the nose and usually wider than a board with a displacement hull, making them better for beginners or all-around paddling.
- Rails - Rails are the sides of a paddle board. They are pretty much only important if you are surfing and you need rails to carve into the face of the wave.
Today's SUP marketplace has a bunch of intriguing options available with both inflatable and rigid options, all with very different sizes, shapes, and performance capabilities. Once you decide what kind of paddling you want to do and what your design and performance priorities are, you can begin to narrow down the options and hone in on the best board for your particular paddling goals. Whether you're looking to try paddling for the first time, start experimenting with surfing or racing, or just want to have fun out on the water, we hope this was a useful guide to help you understand your options and find the right board for you. Happy paddling!