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What To Look For When Buying An Inflatable Paddle Board

All About Inflatable SUP’s

You have considered all your options and decided to give an inflatable paddle board a try!  There are a lot of options out there for you.  Let’s review some quality issues before you jump into sizes, shapes, colors and accessories because a bad inflatable paddle board can ruin your day or even cause some safety issues.

Inflatable SUP Construction

Inflatable paddle boards are made out of a special fabric called Drop Stitch.  This is two layers of support fabric attached to each other by thousands of threads.  The threads can have different densities and lengths which determines the strength and size of the inflated product.

The photo above is approximately how most boards are constructed.  The primary structure of the board is the drop stitch fabric that is then covered with various layers of other fabrics to shape the board and make sure air stays in and water stays out.  Drop stitch fabric comes in different heights, densities, and patterns of stitching and each of these characteristics will determine the rigidity and durability of your board.

Below is a video from Red Paddle Co. that shows how lower quality construction can make your board ride as well as the banana inflatable you bought for the pool party.  I haven’t ridden a Red Paddle Co board yet but I hope to soon and will let you know as soon as I do!

Most decent SUP manufacturers will have put some serious thought and effort into making sure their inflatable is designed and built well.  They will often have some info about it on their websites and you should check that info out.

Thickness and Rigidity

Inflatable SUP’s range from 4″ to even 8″ thick.  As a rule of thumb the thicker the board the more rigid it is.  The pressure you can inflate the board to, or the PSI, also plays a big role in how rigid the board will be.

When iSUP’s first came out the standard was a 4′ thickness, which just wasn’t cutting it.  As the manufacturers spent more time developing the inflatable paddle boards they have found the current sweet spots for thickness.  This is commonly either 4 3/4″ or 6″.  Some of the manufacturers make a range of boards and they will be identical in all ways except thickness.  So which do you choose?

Thin Paddle Boards:

  • A thin SUP will almost always be a little softer than a comparable thick one.  A really well designed and manufactured thin SUP might actually be more rigid than a cheaply made thick board so this is not a hard rule!
  • Thin boards will be faster to pump up, lighter and easier to carry
  • Thin boards will have better rail shape which you will need if you are going out in any surf
  • If you are a light or small person you don’t need the extra rigidity a thick board provides
  • May need to be pumped up to a higher PSI

Thick Paddle Boards

  • A thick SUP will almost always be more rigid than a comparable thin one.  However, a thin board that can take a greater PSI may be just as rigid.
  • Thick boards will take longer to pump, are heavier and not as easy to carry
  • Can be used at a lower PSI and still be rigid.
  • There isn’t much of a rail on these so they aren’t good in surf
  • Thick boards are better for heavier people or when you are carrying gear
  • A thick board keeps you a little farther above the water so your ride will be dryer, as long as you don’t fall off!

Inflatable SUP Rails

The rails on an iSUP are the sides of the board.  This is where the top layer of the board meets the bottom layer.  The top and bottom either meet on the edges and a rail is formed from that or there is a third piece of fabric joining the two.   If the two edges are brought together and taped off there is less chance of springing a leak and the result is a stronger rail that can hold more pressure.  Either way the rail on an iSUP is a heck of a lot softer than a solid board when you hit it face first!

An inflatable paddle board stands almost no chance against a sold core SUP when it comes to having a decent rail for surfing, at least not yet.  A thinner board has a better chance of getting a bit of rail shape in to ride some waves.  Thick boards with wide rails are best for flat water and all around use.

Inflatable paddle board fins

Just like surfboards and solid core SUP’s there are a lot of options for fins.  The big thing to note is that these might be the same fins as your other boards take.  The inflatable paddle boards sometimes come with permanently attached fins or they might not be easily swapped out.  If you know you are going to want to swap fins at some point make sure you pick a board that will allow that when you are ready.

iSUP Package Deals

Most inflatable SUP’s are going to come in a package deal.  They may include a bag, a pump, a paddle and maybe a leash or an extra fin.  Don’t buy a board because it comes with good stuff or you like the bag or the color.  Choose the board and then check out the accessories they send with it when you get it.

You will probably want to get a better pump at some point.  Leashes are cheap enough and you can pick up a bag on eBay if you need one.   A cheap paddle board is going to come with a cheap paddle.  Spend a little extra and buy a quality paddle.  The paddle can be used with any board and will last a long time if you treat it right.