HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST INFLATABLE SUP IN 2021
A STEP BY STEP GUIDE
We know, it’s tempting to think that an internet search can instantly tell you which of the hundreds of inflatable paddle boards on the market is “the best”, all pre-packaged in a tidy list, but unfortunately the truth is a little more complicated. To identify the best inflatable paddle board you can buy, you’ll need to take a critical view of review and rating sites, star 'ratings', advertisements veiled as editorials and a lot of misguided opinion and information.
You will have to do your own research to understand how to tell a quality board from a mediocre one and will need to consider personal factors to decide which inflatable SUP is best for your needs. Here are the 10 things you need to know to find the best inflatable SUP for you:
- Ignore the “best paddle boards” lists that are flooding the internet search results.
- Know what makes the difference between a cheaply made board and a quality one.
- Start with a realistic expectation for what a durable and well-constructed inflatable paddle board should cost.
- Ask yourself how you will be using the board.
- Determine the ideal shape and size for your needs and body weight.
- Compare fin systems.
- Check the deck pad
- SUP backpacks should be more than an afterthought.
- Compare pumps and SUP inflation systems.
- Get to know the history and background of any paddle board brand you are considering.
1. Ignore the “best paddle boards” lists that are flooding the internet search results.
You won’t find the inflatable paddle board that best meets your needs by consulting a quick-read “Top 10” list. The vast majority of sites publishing SUP board ratings are not actually reviewing the boards that they list. Most are merely checking which boards are selling the most on Amazon and listing them to entice you to click on their links.
These sites earn a commission every time somebody clicks over to Amazon and makes a purchase. They make their money by recommending whatever is already selling in volume, which is usually the cheapest mass market boards or whichever brand spends the most on advertising. Recently, we have seen several of these well-known low cost companies fold and close up shop leaving their customers with no warranty or support. This is of no concern to the sites promoting these 'top 10 lists' since they will just pick another item for sale and recommend that instead. Their goal is not getting you a quality SUP board - their goal is to get you to click that Amazon link so they get paid.
2. Know what makes the difference between a cheaply made board and a quality one.
Entry level SUPs, such as the ones sold in quantity on Amazon, eBay and at Costco, are made with a single thin layer of plastic-coated fabric on the top and bottom surfaces of the board, and usually two overlapping strips of material to connect the top and bottom sheets of fabric and hold the air in. More advanced SUP constructions have additional layering of materials that will keep you better protected from air leaks, withstand more intensive use, and result in a more rigid board that will perform better.
There aren’t many information resources that go into board material and construction details in any depth, so reading our article explaining inflatable paddle board construction methods would be a good start to understanding the different material layer layups used in inflatable paddle boards of different qualities and price points. Aside from the integrity of the pressurized core of the board, there are many places where cheaper brands save on materials. For example, deck pads may look comparable in product photos, but they are made with varying foam densities, which affects how much cushioning they provide and how long they last. Handles may seem like an afterthought, but a carefully designed handle with a removable cushioned grip can make a big difference in comfort when you are carrying your board to the water. Similar tradeoffs between cost and quality affect every component of the board and its included accessories.
3. Start with a realistic expectation for what a durable and well-constructed inflatable paddle board should cost.
Your past experience will tell you that you get what you pay for in life, and inflatable paddle boards are no exception to this rule. For this reason, the price range of each brand should give you a strong hint about their quality. Of course some brands will give you better value than others, but don’t expect a $5-600 board to be comparable to a $1K+ board. You will read pitches about how a certain brand has eliminated the middle man to give you factory direct pricing, but what they don’t tell you is that direct selling companies have to spend significantly more money advertising their product, so the savings involved in direct to consumer selling is not nearly as much as they would lead you to believe.
So how much should you expect to pay for a quality inflatable paddle board kit that will have you feeling secure on the water, will let you progress your skills, and will stay out of the landfill for many years? If you can get in under $1000 for a quality board with travel bag and pump, and get a decent paddle and leash as part of the deal, you’re doing pretty well. You may opt to spend more for certain upgrades in design or construction, but if you want to get in much below $1000, you should look into previous season’s closeouts or lightly used equipment as alternative strategies to get a board that would otherwise be beyond your budget.
The price of a board should be an indicator of quality - but sadly it isn't always the case. Comparing features of different boards will get you closer to finding a board that fits your purpose and needs within your budget. The intangible level of detail that goes into board shape design and structural composition is difficult, nigh impossible to understand without knowledge of complex SUP manufacturing techniques and made even more difficult by the unfounded and disingenuous claims pushed by the marketing departments of many brands.
4. Ask yourself how you will be using the board.
The best board for you will depend a lot on what activities you are planning to do. Do you plan on going on long paddles along the coastline or doing expeditions? If so, you’ll want a longer board shaped for touring. Is ocean surfing your priority? Then you should opt for a shorter board shaped for quicker turning. How about fishing or yoga? That would dictate a wider board designed for stability. Planning to do a little of everything? An all-around SUP board of average width and length may be just what you need.
Board selection is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, so it will be important to have an idea of how you will be using the board so you can eliminate models that are ill-suited to your intended activities and instead focus in on boards adapted to them.
Often you will want to find yourself doing different things than you initially intended, so having a board with some versatility is an excellent long term investment. This is why we design our boards according to the ERS Lake-River-Coast philosophy, meaning you should be able to take them in any type of water and have your ride keep up with you as your skills develop. We believe that your board should help you expand on your paddling activities instead of limiting them with overly specialized equipment.
5. Determine the ideal shape and size for your needs and body weight.
While the types of paddling you are planning will influence your choice of board shape, your weight and height will also affect the ideal dimensions of the paddle board you will ultimately select.
Many articles stress board volume as an important criterion in selecting a board to support your weight, but for most people it is a secondary consideration. Most inflatable boards on the market today have ample volume for riders up to 200 lbs. If you weigh more than 200 lbs or plan to paddle with a pet or child on the board, you will want to look at boards that will support extra weight and are proportioned for added stability.
Once weight and volume considerations have been addressed, the board dimensions become a matter of the performance characteristics you are looking for. Our article on SUP board sizing goes into detail on this, but there are a few basic principles we can share with you here. The three dimensions of a paddle board each influence specific aspects of performance.
Width is the main determinant of board stability, although thickness plays a role to be discussed below. A wider board will generally be more stable than a shorter one, so if stability is important to you, look for a board in the 34” width range. If you don’t feel the need for above-average stability, a 32” board will do just fine and will tend to paddle a bit faster than a 34” board of the same length and outline shape.
Length most directly affects the speed of a board. Average all-around boards are in the mid-10 ft range, usually around 10’6” or 10’7 long. Boards designed for speed or for covering distances with maximum glide tend to be longer, up to 12’6”.
Thickness of a SUP board is the most neglected dimension that buyers tend to ignore or misunderstand. The lower end of the inflatable SUP industry has gravitated toward boards with 6” thickness. Making a board thicker is the easiest way to increase its rigidity. By increasing thickness, a board made of weaker materials with low inherent rigidity will have adequate rigidity when inflated. However, this added rigidity comes at a cost in terms of stability, as it raises your center of gravity while you are standing on the board. This is why boards at higher price points are often available in 5” thickness, which is better for stability and board feel, and has plenty of rigidity when the right materials are used. For more on this, read this more in depth article on what is the best thickness of an inflatable paddle board , which explains the relationship between board thickness, width, and stability.
6. Compare fin systems.
Once you have given some thought to how you intend to use your paddle board, you will be in a position to look at the specific features of different boards and evaluate which are important to you. One area where inflatable SUP boards differ greatly is in their fin systems. The standard for mass-market boards is a large removal center fin that is stamped out of sheet plastic and has a plastic clip to keep it in place, and a pair of 2” height side fins that are permanently attached.
As you move up in quality, choices in fin systems become available. This is an area where you need to know something about yourself. Are you the kind of person who wants to have a carefree board that just works great all the time and requires no further thought about the fins once the board has been purchased? If so, a board with three equally sized permanent fins such as our SKYLAKE GREEN™ series would be a great choice. A quality set of permanent fins will be indestructible and has the advantage of not having a long center fin that will bottom out in shallow water. In additional you will never need to worry about losing or breaking a fin, or forgetting to pack the center fins, which can ruin a planned SUP outing.
One aspect of the fins that give you a clue about their quality and affect the performance of the board is the “foil”, or rounding of the sides of the fins, which affects how the fins slice through the water. Better fins are molded (not stamped) and will have contoured sides that contribute to a smoother ride and more responsive turning.
For more technically minded buyers, a board with swappable fins can open opportunities to customize the board for specific preferences or paddling conditions. A board with a configurable fin system (CFS) will let you use a long center fin if you will be paddling in deep water and want the board to track as straight as possible. Or you can put in a medium length center fin if you’ll be doing more maneuvers that involve quick turning. If you’ll be exploring shallow or rocky areas, you may opt for a short center fin that will keep you from bottoming out. Likewise, side fins of varying height can let you set up your board for different paddling conditions. Our SKYLAKE BLUE™, GT and V3 series boards all use a CFS system that permits a wide range of setups for tuning your ride.
7. Check the deck pad.
The quality of deck pad material can vary widely, but look similar. Density is what matters here and it's an area where many boards fail miserably because better quality deck pads, cost more to manufacture. A low density foam will give less cushioning and will degrade quickly. Higher density and thicker foam feels much better underfoot and will last as long as the board itself. If you are interested in developing your skills, look for a board with an arch bar and raised kick tail which helps position your back foot and apply leverage for tail drop pivot turns. These features are on every Earth River SUP board and provide an unique way to add skill development to your paddling sessions.
Also check for deck pad texture options. A smooth or reptile skin texture, such as on our SKYLAKE series boards, feels comfortable on the feet and is also ideal for stretching or SUP yoga. A diamond groove pattern, which we use on our V3 series boards, enhances grip and channels water off the top of the board, which can be an advantage in more challenging conditions.
8. SUP backpacks should be more than an afterthought.
A good travel bag is an integral part of a SUP kit, but good bags don’t come cheap. You’ll see some pretty awful bags at the low end of the price spectrum. One of the warning signs of a cheaply made bag is the use of mesh on various parts of the bag. The story line is often that it helps the board “breathe”, but in fact it is a cost saving measure and very prone to tearing. While you are always rolling the dice when buying a cheap SUP Board, let us spare you the suspense regarding the bag that comes with it: It will rip the first time you use it - and if it doesn't, it will rip the second time.
Some things to look for that indicate a quality paddle board bag are padding inside the main panels of the bag, comfortable padded handles, and heavy duty zippers. In 2021, we consider wheels to be an essential feature of any paddle board bag. A SUP bag / backpack without wheels will have limited usefulness in travel situations. Some inflatable SUP bags are sized for a close fit with the board but you’ll get much more utility from an oversized bag that has ample space for your pump, paddle, leash, and other accessories, and room to spare for clothing. Your SUP will count as a check in bag when you fly, so you might as well have enough extra space to take advantage of the full airline weight limit and avoid paying for an additional bag.
9. Compare pumps and sup inflation systems.
The most practical manual pumps, such as the ERS Dual Action Pump, have a single cylinder with a dual action, meaning it moves air as you push the handle down AND when you pull the handle back up. This can reduce your inflation time in half.
Some boards come with much larger pumps that have two side-by-side cylinders, the idea being that it moves twice as much air. This results in a heavier and bulkier accessory to pack with your board. For this reason we recommend and include a single cylinder dual action pump, which accomplishes the same thing but won’t weigh you down.
12VDC electric SUP pumps are an attractive option available as an add-on with some boards, and the ERS 12VDC Pump with optional ERS GO™ Portable Battery Pack is as easy SUP inflation gets. A good electric pump is almost always worth the price, as it can save the energy spent pumping up the board for having fun on the water instead.
10. Get to know the history and background of any paddle board brand you are considering.
Find out how the company got started and what got them into making inflatable paddle boards. Did the brand evolve out of passion and expertise, or did they just spot a market opportunity and roll out a product line to get in on the action?
Paddleboarding is a rapidly growing sport, which has attracted many companies with its market opportunity. Companies that specialize in wetsuits, waterskis, surf apparel, blow up water toys - pretty much anything else water related - are all coming out with SUPs to chase those sales. The result is a large number of products whose design is dictated by sales and marketing folks who have no real connection to or understanding of stand up paddle boarding. They just care about selling. These boards tend to look good in their advertisements, but often lack features and design attributes that a more specialized brand would include in their product designs. To compensate, they will add design elements that have no practical benefit and creative marketing spiel to make you think these "features" are helpful.
Look into the history of whatever brands you are considering and find out what got them into the SUP business and how their business evolved. The best paddle boards are usually the ones designed by enthusiasts with a passion for great products and deep knowledge of the boards they are designing and producing.
CHOOSE THE BEST INFLATABLE PADDLE BOARD FOR YOU
We hope this guide has helped you in your quest to choose the best inflatable paddle board for your particular needs and budget. It takes a little more time to do all of the homework, but if you invest a little research into understanding what you are buying, you’ll be rewarded with a board that you will feel great about owning and will help you get the most out of your precious time on the water.