Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Any Good?
If you’re reading this post then you’re likely aware that paddle boarding is quickly becoming one of the global water sports of choice. But if you’re new to the sport and haven’t shelled out for your own board yet then you probably still have questions on which direction to go – hard or rigid board vs an inflatable (iSUP). You’ll have to put your hand in your pocket if you are looking to buy something half decent so like most things, doing your research is important.
Whilst the die hard seasoned old school paddlers will likely be leaning toward the rigid boards, the continued advancements in technology have seen a massive up tick in the quality of iSUPs so much so that there are some pretty solid arguments that iSUPs closely rival their more rigid cousins.
Below we will take a look at a few different metrics and weigh up the pros and cons. I’ll sit on the fence as much as possible so you can hopefully draw your own informed conclusions one way or the other.
Off the bat it might seem like a natural assumption to assume that something that is sold or rigid is more durable when compared to something that is inflatable – simply enough right. Well not exactly.
Whilst epoxy paddle boards are made from EPS foam and then wrapped in multiple layers of fibreglass and epoxy resin making them very rigid and stable, they are still susceptible to chips, cracks, dents and if mishandled, dropped or beaten up in say rough surf conditions, then can simply snap in two.
A quality iSUP on the other hand is made from a high density dropstitch core and then wrapped in layers of military grade PVC. With the advances in technology and construction methods over recent years, a number of manufacturers have adopted more cutting edge techniques and with enhanced materials making the latest model iSUPs very durable. Take for instance Red Paddle Cos 11’3″ 2020 Sports iSUP which is made using their proprietary MSL (Monocoque Structural Laminate) Fusion technology and construction processes which makes their boards highly durable, lighter and stiffer. A quality inflatable board can comfortably withstand collisions with rocks and other floating debris as well as being dropped on hard surfaces. You might well have seen the adverts or video clips where iSUPs have been dropped from multistory buildings or driven over by cars and come out unscathed.
Some manufacturers provide warranties up to 5 years on iSUPS so if standing by their product for that period of time indicates one thing, they have a fair level of comfort that their boards should be able to withstand the test of time. Durability wise, I would give iSUPs a big tick.
This is one area where an iSUP is not as superior when compared to a rigid board. Whilst there are not large margins, rigid epoxy boards are faster (5-10%) when compared to iSUPs and perform better in racing, long distance touring and surf conditions. Their thinner and sharper edges (sides, front and rear) also enables quicker turns and manoeuvrability. If you are a serious paddler who is looking for these advantages over and above the other benefits that an iSUP offers, then a rigid board would be a better choice for you. That said, an example of a quality iSUP that offers a narrower sleek feel that caters nicely for touring is the BOTE HD Aero 11’6″ iSUP which includes a front rocker and tri-fin configuration.
By virtue of their thickness (quality = 6″), inflatables will sit nicely out of the water making for a quite buoyant and stable paddling platform. Staying away from the cheaper boards, manufacturers recommended inflation rates will normally be inthe range of 18-20 psi which will make the boards very rigid. Some boards have a weight carrying capability of 450 lbs and even higher so as long as your board is suitable relative to your weight, then iSUPs are quite stable and compare well relative to rigid boards. To get a better understanding of how to select the right board for you, take a read of our article on Paddle Board Size Guides. The only exception from a stability standpoint is if you are in windy or rougher water conditions where a rigid board offers greater stability in the main due to its heavier weight and lower profile.
iSUPs would typically be seen as safer than a rigid board for beginners and children particularly. In the main this is because they have a softer surface and rounded edges and will therefore provide greater protection or a lower likeliness of injury if you fall on the board. They are also able to withstand impacts better than rigid boards although in the unlikely event that they were to lose air or deflate in open waters then this could be a genuine safety risk if you are a reasonable distance from the shore. Wearing a buoyancy vest would be strongly advised if you have limited experience.
Inflatables offer a great amount of versatility so they are the clear front runners here. If like most of us you are into general recreational weekend paddling then a quality inflatable will perform and offer a very similar paddling experience whencompared to a rigid board. Where they do stand out though is their ability to cater well for other paddling disciplines.
If you take yoga for instance. There are specific purpose Yoga Paddle Boards that offer greater stability (governed in part by their width) as well as cushioning so you can get into your pose. You should also have sufficient D-rings and a bungee system to hold your water bottle and other personal items.
Beyond yoga, iSUPs are great for dogs as their surface offers a comfortable ride and a better ability for the dog to gain traction and grip. No their nails will not perforate the board, again quality being key. There are also other specialist inflatable boards that cater for both fishing and whitewater paddling where again they prove to be superior when compared to rigid boards. In essence there is nothing that you can not do on an inflatable that you can do on a rigid board. The same can not however be said the other way around.
Portability / Transportation
It would be very hard to argue against an iSUP when it comes to portability, storage and transport when compared to a rigid or epoxy board. By their very nature, along with their accessories, the boards deflate and roll up into a handy backpack style carry bag making them easy to transport and store away. If you are looking to paddle in a remote area then they are easy and light enough to carry over longer distances and over rougher terrain. They can also simply be included as luggage if you were to go on a flight so again a great benefit over a rigid board.
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Like anything on the internet, you’ll be able to find arguments and counter arguments for pretty much every subject but in the case of paddle boarding, the vast majority of commentators or genuine SUPing enthusiasts will have fairly strong views that cheap paddle boards are simply not worth it.
From our perspective, we would typically define cheap as boards below the $600 mark. The Goosehill 10’6″ Sailor iSUP is an excellent example of a well-made mid-range board where you will get value for your spend. Whilst you may be able to get some good deals on older stock or run-out models, the simple truth is that a cheaper board will have very little use outside of playing around with the kids.
The challenges that you will find with cheaper boards is that they will lack the ability to be inflated beyond 15-16 psi or thereabouts. Below this level the board will lack the rigidity to carry any real level of weight and will therefore be less buoyant making it less stable, slow and sluggish and very difficult to control or manoeuvre. Cheaper boards are also made to lower standards and with lower quality materials meaning they will leak from the seams or valves easier as well as being easier to puncture.
The old adage that ‘you get what you play for’ is very much the case here so you would be well advised to think carefully before buying a cheap board.
To wrap it up, whilst the intention of this article is to speak to their worth rather than a comparison between iSUPs v rigid boards, there are some downsides if you are looking at hitting the water on a regular basis. If you can comfortably overcome the storage and transport challenge, then you need to bear in mind that iSUPs require time and effort to inflate although this can be overcome in part by using an electric pump. They are also 5-10% slower than rigid boards and are less friendly in windy or choppy water conditions.
The decision is yours to make but if you weigh up the pros and cons and look to quality, then I think there is a pretty strong argument that will hopefully answer the question – Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Any Good?
As always we would welcome your thoughts or feedback so please feel free to leave your comments below and we will get back to you.
Until then, stay safe and get wet.