Experience all of the SUP Disciplines with an Inflatable Stand up Paddle Board
So you are looking to get into stand up paddle boarding but have no idea where to begin? We have learned a few things about paddle boards over the last twelve years of our existence and would be happy to share some of our expert advice.
In this article, we will cover the differences between solid paddle boards and inflatable paddle boards, the nuances of inflatable paddle board construction and stand up paddle board design differences. We will also discuss the various things you can do with this unique piece of recreational equipment.
Inflatable Paddle Boards vs Solid Paddle Boards
Before inflatable stand up paddle boards became wildly popular anyone who wanted a stand up paddle board needed to look for a solid board. These solid boards are made using the same process that surfboards are made with.
A solid paddle board starts with a foam core that is formed by cutting a large block of EPS foam down to a foam "blank" which is then sanded into the shape of a stand up paddle board. The board is then strengthened with resin and fiberglass. Once the resin dries, the board is sanded once again to create the final product. Generally speaking, most boards were made using this process, although some used, and still use, a process that sandwiches plastic together.
Rigid boards are great as they are the most stable board you can purchase, especially if you invest in a quality board. However, rigid boards require quite a bit of storage space and it takes more effort to transport them.
The original inflatable SUPs were more like pool toys than a serious piece of recreational equipment. As the technology improved, the best inflatable SUPs had 90 percent of the rigidity of solid paddle boards. Unfortunately a lot of the budget boards that are available today still have the "mushy" feel of the original inflatable SUPs.
How did Inflatable Paddle Board Technology improve?
Most people think that the core of their inflatable stand up paddle board is simply made up of air because the inflatable SUP will lay flat when it's deflated. Nothing could actually be further from the truth.
Drop Stitch makes up the Core
The core of the inflatable SUP board is actually supported by thousands to thin strands known as "drop stitch". The strands connect the top and the bottom lavers of PVC that make up the outer shell of the inflatable stand up paddle board so that the board can take in more pounds per square inch (PSI) in air. This makes for much more rigid boards.
The first inflatable SUPs used a "knitted drop stitch" which meant that the thin strands that hold the top and bottom of the inflatable SUP board together were all lined up in a perpendicular fashion. This set up proved to not be terribly strong and inflatable SUPs would develop weak spots after being inflated multiple times.
Enter "woven drop stitch" which really tightened up the core of the inflatable SUPs. The difference with woven drop stitch is that there is less air in between the drop stitch material which means are board is stiffer. The thousands of thin strands that hold the top of the board to the bottom are all criss-crossed which makes them exponentially stronger than strands that all stand up and down in the same direction.
The Outer Shell of the Inflatable SUP
PVC makes up most inflatable stand up paddle boards but the key is finding out how many layers of PVC and how they are bound together. Budget boards tend to use one or two layers of PVC which doesn't make them particularly stiff or impervious to puncture. Larger paddlers really tend to notice the difference in layers of PVC.
Inflatable boards that use more than one layer of PVC traditionally glued one layer on top of the next. Even if your inflatable SUP brand used quality materials in their outer shell, gluing multiple layers of PVC together can make for a heavier board and the glue tends to create unsightly bubbles in the board.
The newest technology for bonding the layers of PVC is "Fusion Tech" which essentially melds each layer onto the next. Not only does this make for a much stronger outer paddle board layer (especially if you are fusing 4 layers of PVC together), it also make for an inflatable stand up paddle board that is 30% lighter than an inflatable SUP that had multiple layers glued together. You are also much less likely to need you SUP's repair kit with a fusion board design.
Rails Can Be The Weak Link
The sides of your inflatable stand up paddle board are known as "rails". The rails are where the top of the board meet the bottom part as there are two separate pieces of material for each.
Many boards of lesser quality will typically buy their PVC in 29 inch wide pieces because they are cheaper, which creates a gap of several inches along the rails. This means that they need to glue a fairly wide piece of PVC to close the gap which means your inflatable stand up paddle board now has two seams along the sides which also means that you have two potential points of failure along the sides of the board.
A great board with a high weight limit that is able to handle a high PSI will use wider pieces of PVC so that the top and bottom meet, which creates one seam and only one potential point of failure. They will then tape those two layers together and add another layer of PVC which is melded rather than glued so that the rail is extra robust in strength.
The Easiest Way to Tell if You Are Investing in a Quality Board
Since there is really no way to tell just by looking at an inflatable paddle board whether the company has gone the extra yard to make a quality board or cut corners, we suggest that you look at the PSI rating of the inflatable SUP. Pounds per square inch will tell you all you need to know about whether the manufacturer believes in the quality of their inflatable stand up paddle board. Many of the brands that sell to Big Box stores and online retailers will fudge on the specs they use in manufacturing their boards but they can't fudge on PSI as that would be dangerous for the consumer.
A lower rating of 12-15 PSI tells you that the manufacturer doesn't feel that their inflatable SUP will hold together if too much air pressure is put into the board. It could be that they went with knitted drop stitch to make up the core or didn't reinforce the rails. Either way, take our advice and don't buy an inflatable stand up paddle board unless it is rated at 22-25 lbs.
Other Things to Consider in your Inflatable SUP
There are other considerations when purchasing inflatable paddle boards besides construction. Inflatable stand up paddle boards typically come with quite a few accessories. It is easy for paddle board brands to skimp on these. You will also want to be cognizant of the deck pad that the board uses and the types of fins the inflatable SUP utilizes.
Paddle Board Fins
The fin setup is often overlooked when newbies research inflatable paddle boards. One consideration is whether the inflatable SUP has a US fin box as opposed to a proprietary fin setup. With a US fin box, you aren't beholden to the manufacturer when you inevitably break or lose a fin.
Removable fins are preferable because you can change them out for various sizes and it's easier to roll up your inflatable paddle boards if you can remove the fins. Inflatable SUPs that are used for surfing or river running usually have a 3 fin setup which means that they have two removable side fins and one large center fin. The side fins allow for aggressive turning as a surfer or river paddler tends to lean hard on the rails to turn and you don't want the back of the board to slide out from under you. A center fin is typically all you need for flatwater cruising.
Inflatable Paddle Board Deck Pad
The deck pad on inflatable paddle boards is often overlooked but it really shouldn't be. Considering that most people stand on their inflatable SUP barefoot, a plush deck pad is preferable to a deck pad that has gripper nodules on it because those nodules can be painful on the feet after a long paddle boarding session.
You also don't want to invest in an inflatable SUP that has images silk screened on as UV exposure or claw marks from your furry friend will cause the design to fade quickly. The only reason that paddle board brands use the silk screen method is to save on costs.
The best paddle board brands use smooth EVA foam on their stand up paddle boards. If there is a design built into the deck pad, make sure that the design is die cut into the deck pad which means that all of the colors of the deck pad are created from individual pieces of EVA foam so that the color goes all the way through the deck pad.
Other Accessories for your Inflatable SUP
Most boards come in a complete SUP package which includes other accessories like a manual pump, SUP paddle and storage case. It is worth taking a hard look at the accessories to make certain that the paddle board brand has not skimped here as many budget boards do.
Inflatable SUP Board Pump
Many other boards will include a single chamber pump with their inflatable paddle boards. The single chamber pump will get the job done but it takes more effort because you are only pushing air into your inflatable SUP board on the downstroke of the pumping motion.
Higher end inflatable SUP manufacturers will include a dual chamber pump with their boards. With the dual chamber pump you are pumping air into your Inflatable SUP on both the downstroke and the up stroke which basically cuts your pumping time in half. The best inflatable SUPs typically include this type of manual pump.
Beware of manufacturers that include an electric pump with their inflatable paddle boards. Most of these pumps are cheaply made and burn out quickly - leaving you without a way to inflate your paddle board.
The electric pump route is a great way to go as you can set the PSI for the board and let the pump do the rest. The point here is that it's worth investing the $150-200 required to get an electric pump that is going to last for the long haul and to have a nice dual chamber manual pump as a backup.
Part of the beauty of paddle boarding with inflatable stand up paddle boards is being able to hike them into remote bodies of water. With that in mind, you will want to make sure that the SUP paddle that comes with the paddle board, can break down into multiple pieces so that it fits in the backpack that comes with the inflatable paddle board. A three piece paddle is a must unless you plan on carrying your paddle separately.
Other Accessories for Inflatable Paddle Boards
A repair kit is also must have for your inflatable stand up paddle board for obvious reasons. One of the key features of the repair kit is a device that is used to tighten up the air valve on the inflatable SUP board as it is quite normal for the valve to come loose over time considering the pressure it is under.
We mentioned the storage backpack that comes with most inflatable paddle boards but the best inflatable SUP manufacturers have roller wheels on their backpacks so that you can simple pull your backpack behind you if you are just heading from the parking lot to the lake or ocean. This makes it easier for smaller people to transport their inflatable SUP board.
Many inflatable paddle board brands will offer a kayak seat and a carrying strap as additional accessories that they charge for. The better board brands include these with your purchase. A kayak seat is particularly nice if a friend or family member with balance issues wants to take your paddle board out for a spin.
What Do You Want to Do with Your Inflatable Paddle Board
Inflatable stand up paddle boards are so incredibly versatile that the sky is literally the limit as to how you can use them. Do you think you want to paddle long distances on flat water? Do you want to try your hand at paddle boarding slow moving rivers or maybe even whitewater? Do you live near the beach and want to surf ocean waves? Are you into fishing and want to try it while balancing on an inflatable paddle board? Or are you strictly interested in fitness paddling? Wherever your interest lies, we can help you find the proper inflatable paddle board for you.
Flat Water Paddle Boarding
Most inflatable paddle boards will work well for flat water paddling but ideally you will want a touring board design which means that the hull has a pointed nose for cutting through chop. Touring paddle boards tend to be narrower and longer than all around SUP boards are which gives the paddler a little more glide with each paddle stroke.
Make sure that your touring inflatable paddle board has multiple attachment points so that you can store extra gear under bungees. This is especially helpful if you decide to make it a multi-day camping and paddle boarding excursion.
Surfing Inflatable Paddle Boards
The best inflatable SUP boards for surfing tend to be all around boards. Ocean waves can be incredibly fun to surf on inflatable paddle boards once you get the hang of it.
Surfing on an inflatable SUP is definitely easier for advanced paddlers but because you are already standing on your paddle board when you catch the wave, it makes it possible for newbies to catch even ankle high waves. We recommend that beginners start with these types of little waves until they really get a feel for the motion of the ocean.
Navigating Rivers on an Inflatable SUP
Most people start with slow moving rivers on their stand up paddle board and work their way up to whitewater SUP. Either way, you will want to make certain that you have the proper safety gear: helmet, leash (with quick release) and a vest-type PFD that you wear at all times.
Rivers are nothing to be trifled with but if you take the proper safety precautions, start slowly and work your way up to the more churning whitewater on your stand up paddle board, you will find the sport to be quite a rush. Inflatable paddle boards lend themselves quite well to river rapids as they are made of the same material that whitewater rafts are made of and provide a somewhat softer landing than solid paddle boards do.
Inflatable paddle boards that work well for whitewater are typically river specific boards that are a little shorter and wider than all around SUP boards are. All around boards will work well on rivers, however, if you are just getting started in the sport. The shorter the paddle board, the better because quick maneuverability is key here.
SUP Yoga and Fitness Paddling
The fitness paddling movement has really gained popularity over the last several years. It started with some enterprising yogis who moved their yoga practice on to their paddle boards and gained a global following in no time.
Because of the extra balance that was required to hold poses on an unstable platform like a rigid or inflatable paddle board, these yogis realized they were working twice as hard on their paddle board as they were on land. Soon yoga classes were popping up on lakes around the world. Many of those classes are still on solid paddle boards, but more and more of them are switching to inflatable paddle boards as it is easier for a yoga teacher to store and transport them for their students.
The second trend that the SUP Yoga movement launched was general fitness classes on solid and inflatable paddle boards. The popularity of these classes became so great that many gyms started buying modified "SUPs" like the Glide Fit so that they could bring the classes to their pools without taking up too much room.
SUP Yoga and fitness solid and inflatable paddle boards, tend to be around 10 feet long and 35 inches wide to give the practitioners plenty of room for their poses and exercises. They also usually have attachment points to hook up an anchor as well as a paddle holder.
Paddle Board Fishing
Much like kayak fishing has exploded in recent years, so has fishing from a paddle board. Paddle board fishing tends to be more challenging and, therefore, more fun than fishing from a kayak.
The OG fishing paddle board was a solid board but the trend has been more towards inflatable paddle boards in recent years so that anglers could hike into the backcountry with their inflatable SUP on their back. The fishing paddle board is usually both long and wide but it also has a multitude of attachment points that serve as a fishing rod holder in addition to all the other gear that is required for fishing.
A fishing inflatable paddle board tends to be the most stable board in a paddle board manufacturer's fleet of boards. This helps the angler because typically the board isn't moving while they are casting which can make the inflatable paddle board a bit more difficult to balance on.
Whether you choose a solid or inflatable paddle board, we guarantee that you will become addicted to the sport in no time. Inflatable paddle boards have progressed quite a bit in recent years and are about 90% as rigid as hard paddle boards. Once you factor in the ease of transport and storage, you can understand why they have become so popular in recent years.