How to Choose an Inflatable Stand Up Paddleboard

How to decide which paddleboard to buy

While rigid stand up paddleboards certainly have their place in the market, inflatable boards are more attractive to beginners and all-around paddlers. Since stand up paddleboarding is the fastest-growing water sport, many new options are hitting the market as manufacturers try to get their piece of the action! 

The wide range of features and their respective price points for iSUPs can be intimidating at first, so it’s essential to understand how the differences can best suit the specific user. It’s important to know yourself as you consider different features; will you use the board more on a quiet lake or reservoir? On a river with changing conditions? Do you plan to bring along a dog or gear to camp with? iSUP characteristics offer advantages and disadvantages for different applications, so keep that while assessing what’s best for you.

Today we’re diving into the basics for choosing your first paddleboard.

Why Inflatable?

So- why go inflatable for your first board? ISUPs are famous primarily because of their versatility and approachability, offering more users entrance into the sport.

  • Compact Storage Size - No matter the size of your car or your home, you can purchase and enjoy a stand up paddleboard. They typically come with a storage bag with backpack straps, so they’re easy to move around, even if you don’t enter your home on the ground level. You don’t need a garage, storage unit, or a fancy jeep with roof racks to house and transport it, making this style of board more attractive than its rigid counterparts.
  • Traveling/Accessibility - Because they are easier to transport, inflatable boards open up so many more opportunities to enjoy being out on the water. You could throw your board on your back with a water bottle and hike to a remote lake to explore in solitude. You could also check it as luggage and fly it with you when you travel, as it will fit in even a compact or economy rental car. Suppose you are traveling with others or for a long period of time (like a road trip or as a full-time RVer or vanlifer). In that case, an inflatable board you can stow away makes it possible to get out on the water wherever you are- without having to rent a board in each new place. 
  • Activity - Inflatable boards are typically better for SUP Yoga because they offer a bit more stability and comfort. For whitewater/river paddling, inflatable boards handle impact against rocks or logs better (like a guide’s raft would), and the air-filled core can help with balance in rapidly changing conditions as it is slightly more forgiving than a rigid board.

Hull Shape

Hull Shape - or the overall shape of the board where it meets with the water - makes a big difference in how the board rides. There are two main hull shapes for paddleboards, planing and displacement, though planing is typical for inflatable paddle boards. 

The planing hull has a bull-nose that is slightly curved up and allows for the board to “float” or glide over the water, rather than cutting through, like a kayak. This type of hull is best for leisure paddling, surfing, SUP yoga, and whitewater - pretty much most of the reasons folks want to get an inflatable board!

The displacement hull is meant more for racing, SUP touring, and targeted fitness paddling, and has a pointed nose that cuts through the water as it moves forward. 

Fins

Again, consider how you’ll be using your board when looking at find configurations. While some inflatable boards come with fixed fins, it’s also common to have detachable fins and the option to customize them for different conditions and enhanced performance. Either way, the fins will typically be made of a somewhat flexible material. 

Common Fin Layouts and their advantages:

  • 2+1 - The 2+1 setup features a larger center fin with a smaller fin on either side. This is a great entry-level fin configuration that’s popular with surfing. This also offers better lateral stability in windy or choppy conditions.
  • Single fin - Good tracking and minimal drag, good for speed on flat water.
  • 3-Fin - Features 3 equal-sized fins. This setup offers a happy medium of features: straight tracking on flat water, and maneuverability on surf. 

An example situation: it’s the end of summer when the water is low, and you’re just doing a lazy river float with friends in tubes. You probably don’t need to focus on speed, so it would be better to have shorter fins for clearance to the river bottom and more agility while paddling with a group of free-drifting tubers!

Board Volume and Weight Capacity

These are determined by the length, width, and thickness of the board, and affect the board’s overall stability. The volume (expressed in liters) of the board is its ability to float with weight on it. The higher the volume, the more weight can be supported by the board. 

Each board also has a weight capacity typically listed under the product specs. While inflatable boards with planing hulls are pretty forgiving to extra weight, overweighting them can still cause drag and diminished performance from the board.

Board Length and Width

A very general rule of thumb is that larger people should use larger boards, and smaller people should use smaller boards. For example, a 6’ tall 200 lb adult should use a larger board than their 8-year-old kiddo. However, as with the above considerations, your intended application for your board will also help you narrow down what’s best. 

A longer board will generally be best for faster paddling, long-distance touring, and gliding over the water. Narrower boards will be faster because they displace less water along their path, and wider boards will be the most stable and comfortable for SUP yoga or hauling gear or accommodating a wiggly pup. 

A board with a narrow tail will turn more swiftly (think surfboard), while a broader tail will offer more stability. 

The most popular general-use inflatable paddleboards are 10-11 feet long and 32”-36” wide. You can tweak this a little to accommodate other features, but keep in mind your stature/body type. For example, If you’re a smaller person, you don’t want to go too wide or paddling will be awkward and much less fun.

Accessories and Rigging

Once again- what will you be using your board for? Will you be taking your fur baby out with you every time you go? Will you be on water with a swift current where you may quickly lose your board if you took a tumble?

  • A solid basic accessories package would be a single crisscross bungee system at the nose, D-ring at the nose for towing, handle in the middle for transport (and clipping in a water bottle), and D ring at the rear for your leash.
  • However- consider your uses. If you’ll have a dog with you, will you need an extra spot to tether a dog leash in case of their accidental dunking? 
  • If you’ll be carrying more gear with you (perhaps waterproof sacks with snacks and water, towels, changes of clothing, even camping gear), you may want to consider a board with more options for tethering and securing things snugly. Just keep in mind your own body weight PLUS the estimated weight of your dog and gear, not just your weight alone. 
  • Make sure you purchase a leash to attach the board to you, for obvious reasons! There are different types of leashes, both straight and coiled, but the average length is about 10’. Coiled leashes are better for flat water as they’ll stay out of the way and minimize drag, and straight leashes are better for surf because they won’t boomerang the board back at you in choppy water. If you’ll be using the board in whitewater, you’ll need to purchase a leash with a quick-release for safety in case the board or leash gets snagged by a rock or tree. 

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, knowing yourself and what you want from your aquatic adventures is the first place to start. Don’t just go with a board because it’s a “good deal,” make sure that deal is right for you! Once you’ve narrowed down your needs, check the specs on all listings you’re considering, and the right board won’t be hard to find. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions, we’re always happy to help!