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How To Choose a Stand Up Inflatable Paddleboard

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. SUP is an acronym for Stand Up Paddleboard. This is also often shorted to paddle board.

A "paddleboard" can also just be a longboard used for prone paddling across flat water. This is commonly called prone paddleboarding. You kneel and paddle with just your arms. It's not the most comfortable position, so it's a sport with limited participation. And it's not what we are talking about here.

Inflatable paddle board testing on the Eel River.
Inflatable paddle board testing on the Eel River.

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 platform when fully inflated.

Rigid boards most commonly 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.

Choosing between a rigid and an inflatable board depends on your priorities. Rigid boards typically outperform their inflatable cousins especially when it comes to glide. Serious advancements in inflatable technology, however, have made many of the top inflatable models nearly as high performing but with the added advantage of easy transport. Rigid boards are only a real necessity for competitive SUP racers, but in some cases, rigid models provide better performance at a lower price.

Pros and Cons Compared

We loved the versatility of our Editor's Choice  the Hala Carbon Straight Up. It performed well across the board and unless you are looking for an extremely specialized feature  this board has got you covered.
We loved the versatility of our Editor's Choice, the Hala Carbon Straight Up. It performed well across the board and unless you are looking for an extremely specialized feature, this board has got you covered.


  • Easy to transport — When deflated and rolled up, most inflatable paddle boards are the size of a large 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 minimal 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 significantly easier as well and will either be free or costs 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.

  • Durable — Inflatable paddle boards are typically made of the heavy-duty PVC. During testing, we bumped and scraped over rocks, logs, and asphalt and none of the models we've tested have ever popped. 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 — Falling on a SUP and landing on the board is common when learning or 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 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 more comfortable 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.


  • Not fast — Even the most efficient inflatable paddle boards are still too wide to glide as efficiently as a fiberglass or epoxy board. To get the best glide performance, check out our rigid SUP review
  • Take approximately fifteen minutes to inflate — Be prepared to put in some serious effort to get your board up to the recommended 15 psi. It's a great workout unless you buy a specialized aftermarket electric pump. The 10-30 minute inflation time varies depending on a person's strength. When the boards reach between 9-10 psi, they become more challenging to pump up, but it's worth the effort to get them to the recommended psi of 12-15. (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. And some do not.

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.

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 on shore 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 walk better understand what type of board you'd like.

Four different styles from L to R: inflatable  surf  race and touring.
Four different styles from L to R: inflatable, surf, race and touring.

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 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. 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.

According to some longtime paddlers, more people should invest in a touring board to enjoy the speed and range 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. 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 $500-2500.

Recreational boards are middle of the road options that are great for beginner and intermediate paddlers looking to have a good time. 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.

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

Key Components of a SUP

Whether selecting an inflatable and or a rigid board, 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 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.

Example of different amounts of nose rocker.
Example of different amounts of nose rocker.
  • 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. Nose rockers are 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 easy to turn. Displacement hulls have a more pointed nose, which enables them to slice through water more efficiently than a board that has a planing hull. Displacement hulls make for fast boards that are good for going long distances or for racing, but they are not as stable as a planing hull and can be more tippy. 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 to carve into the face of the wave.

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