Are Cheap SUPs Worth it?
The siren song of the cheap inflatable paddle board has been blaring for the last several years. What are the downsides for saving a few bucks now?
Let’s face facts: in this day and age, we’re all looking for a good deal on goods and services that we buy. The question that we hear a lot is: “why shouldn’t I just buy these affordable boards from (insert name of Big Box Store or re-tailer here)?
Many paddlers think that entry level inflatable paddle boards are all they need to get started. Like all things in life, you end up getting what you pay for so in this article we’re going to spell out the reasons that you don’t want to waste your hard-earned money on cheap paddle board brands made with sub par construction. Sometimes the best deal isn't actually well suited for the long haul. Top paddle board brands offer a wide array of reasons to spend a little more on them.
Hard Paddle Boards
Since the stand up paddle board market began with hard paddle boards, let’s examine them first. When you buy a SUP, you are taking a bit of a leap of faith because whether it’s a rigid paddle board or an inflatable paddle board, you only can assess the quality of the SUP by how it looks externally. Let's face it, there are quite a few paddle board brands out there so this can get you in some trouble because the interior of the paddle board is actually more important than the exterior. Top brands offer other details that sometimes get lost in the quest for "more deals".
There are two types of foam that are available to make up the core of the stand up paddle board: Polyurethane (PU) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam. PU was the standard foam used in paddle boards until about 2005. It is heavier than EPS and so your paddle board will sit lower in the water with a PU board. Most top paddle board brands make their stand up paddle boards with EPS foam, you will want to know that density of the foam that was used as higher density means a board that holds up better and longer. PU is a fair amount cheaper than EPS so beware of cheap SUP paddle boards that may be substituting PU for EPS.
The foam core of the rigid paddle board is then wrapped with fiberglass and resin to protect the core. Knowing the thickness of the fiberglass and how many layers were used on your paddle board is something that you will want to be aware of because if the paddle board brand creates their SUP with a single layer of thin fiberglass, you are going to need to treat your paddle board like a Faberge egg…very delicately.
Next up, you will want to consider what type of resin is used polyester or epoxy. Polyester is the choice of cheap paddle board brands and contains known carcinogens which make it quite toxic.
Epoxy is quite a bit less toxic than polyester but if you want the most environmentally friendly resin, you will find that quality manufacturers use bio-resin which is made from plant-based compounds like soybean oil which makes it so eco-friendly that you can safely compost it. The Devil is truly in the details when it comes to resin.
Many manufacturers in Asia will cover up a patchwork of cheap foam and polyester resin by spraying their stand up paddle boards with a lead-based auto paint that was outlawed in the US by the EPA years ago. Auto paint will chip off into our waterways with a mere paddle strike which makes it a threat to water-based wildlife. A paddle board should be non polluting!
When you combine cheap foam, fiberglass, and resin you have a paddle board that may look gorgeous online or on the showroom floor but becomes quite an eyesore after your paddle has struck the rails of few times or you have accidentally dropped it in the parking lot a few times.
Paddling these SUPs on lakes with rocks can also be hazardous to the board’s health. Once you’ve gotten a ding that penetrates the fiberglass and epoxy layer, your paddle board will become waterlogged, and it will take several days to dry it out before you can patch it. It’s virtually impossible to drain all the water from the paddle board so as you get more dings, the paddle board keeps getting progressively heavier which makes for a lousy paddling experience. A water-logged board paddles poorly and won't allow you to get much speed.
The more expensive stand up paddle boards will also have a full-length UV stable deck pad that is comfortable on the feet. To cut corners, cheap paddle board brands will have a smaller deck pad which isn’t helpful if you ever want to take multiple people or even your dog on your hard boards.
Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards
Cheap inflatable stand up paddle boards have similar challenges to cheap hard SUPs. Most inflatable paddle board enthusiasts assume that the core of the inflatable SUPs are made up strictly of air. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
To add more rigidity to the inflatable paddle board, the core is constructed of an inner bladder in which thousands of 6-inch (assuming the board is 6 inches thick) threads are connected to the top and bottom fabric sheets which make up the board.
Most cheap inflatable paddle boards use “knitted drop stitch” technology for their core. Knitted drop stitch has more space between the threads so the core ends up being spongier in the middle.
The higher end inflatable SUPs use “woven drop stitch”. One can easily picture the difference between material that has been knitted as opposed to woven. A weave is typically much tighter than a knit which means that the core is much more solid when inflated and feels like a rigid stand up paddle board rather than a pool toy.
Cheap inflatable paddle boards tend to “taco” which means that the nose and tail tend to lift out of the water when the paddler’s weight is in the middle of the board. Most beginners are going to have a challenge standing on a board made with this kind of construction.
Another problem with cheap inflatable paddle boards is that they typically only use 1 or 2 layers of PVC in the outer shell of the inflatable paddle board. The makes the inflatable paddle board more susceptible to puncturing. If they do use two layers of PVC, they usually glue them together which gives the board a less finished look and makes it heavier.
The more expensive inflatable paddleboards use up to 4 layers of PVC which not only makes them less likely to puncture but also helps with stiffness. Rather than glue the layers together, they use a “fusion” technology which melds the layers of PVC together. Besides giving a more finished look to the inflatable SUP boards, fusion also significantly shaves weight from the board.
Look for paddle boards that use “military grade” PVC so that your board will be literally bomb proof. Some inflatable paddleboards are so durable, you can drive a truck over them.
Also check on the PSI capabilities of the inflatable SUP boards before you buy. Paddle boards with a PSI under 25 is going to be a less rigid board that undoubtedly will not hold up for the long haul. You probably never will pump your inflatable paddle board up to 25 PSI, but even when properly inflated at a lower PSI, inflatable SUPs that have a higher PSI capacity will be more stable than its competitors. The more sturdy the board, the more speed you are likely to get from it.
Cheaper inflatable paddle boards also tend to skimp on SUP accessories. The higher end inflatable SUP boards usually come with a quality backpack that has wheels, a dual-action hand pump, paddle, leash, center fin, and kayak seat.
A top brand inflatable board will come with all of these SUP accessories whether it's an all around inflatable SUP or a touring board (the board with the pointed nose). Many unsuspecting buyers have just ended up with an inflatable board and no way to pump it up or transport it.
Think of your paddle board as an investment in your health and longevity. The difference in price between a cheap paddle board and a quality one is about $100-300.
If that cheap inflatable paddle board only lasts you one to two seasons, you will end up spending a lot more over the long haul and will have added significantly to your overall frustration level to boot. So in the end, did you actually save money?