This has to be one of the most common questions in stand-up paddleboarding, so we asked supboardguide.com writer Bill Dawes – who has been in the stand-up paddleboarding game since 2007 and has owned literally hundreds of paddleboards, both hard and inflatable – to give us his definitive answer…
It’s a great question, a hugely important one, and I can give you an absolutely straight definitive answer. Which I will, I promise! But first, we need to explore the topic in a little more depth, starting with: Why is it even a question at all? The vast majority of paddleboards sold nowadays are inflatable – possibly as much as 90% of the entire board market. So surely the jury’s back, the results are in, the verdict delivered, the case closed, the fat lady has sung, and whatever other appropriate metaphors you want to apply. Inflatable paddleboards clearly are good – end of story. Why are we even still discussing it? Who is even asking this question?
The reason it’s still in a debate at all is because the vast majority of opinion-formers in the industry come from a hard board background. They’re (ex or current) SUP Racers, SUP surfers, and/or just those who’ve been around in the game a long time and started their paddleboarding career when it was pretty much all about hard boards. They may also have arrived in SUP from other board sports (windsurfing, surfing, etc) where inflatables have never even been on the radar, so the idea of an inflatable being a quality product can never, will never, be valid for them.
The plethora of inflatable brands now competing for your attention is actually a fairly recent development. Until quite recently, paddleboard brands were virtually all hard-board orientated, (again due to their origins in other board sports), so that’s where their heart, and their focus, would always lie. Set a few weeks aside each year to develop the latest inflatable range (which often didn’t go much further than a few colour schemes) then get back to the ‘real’ job of designing and prototyping better hard paddleboards. Of course hard boards are better, how could they not be so? In their world, the hard board is the only real SUP board, and therefore the feel of the hard board underfoot is the only real SUP feel. If you love rock and hate country music, then it doesn’t matter how good a piece of country music might be, you’re still gonna hate it on principle. (Interestingly, Red Paddle Co, who were the first ever true iSUP-only brand, for many years used the hook that their boards offered ‘an authentic paddleboarding experience’ – a clear acknowledgement that the only ‘real’ paddleboarding experience was when it felt like a hard board!)
For these industry movers and shakers, the steady and inexorable rise of the (surely inferior) inflatable, eating ever further into their sales of hard boards, has been a real body blow. It has absolutely pulled the rug out from under their feet. They’re hurting! And the result is that we’ve got a whole bunch of, shall we say ‘senior paddlers’ out there who simply cannot, will not, accept that inflatables can be as good as hard boards, and they’re quick to voice these opinions whenever the question gets asked online. I have noticed that a lot of the smarter people in the SUP industry now just try to sidestep the question altogether by giving a “well, it’s comparing apples with oranges” type of response. But it’s not. That’s just a cop-out, it’s comparing Red Delicious to Granny Smiths, at best. The differences are in the flavour, the color, the crunch, maybe how long before they go off – but it’s still comparing apples to apples. In many cases whether the differences are positive or negative simply depends on where you start from. I regularly now encounter paddleboarders who started out entirely on iSUPs and then find their first go on a hard board to be a very disappointing experience. Are they wrong to think this? Of course not.
So is it as simple as that? The popular vote says that iSUPs are good and anyone saying otherwise is just stuck in the past – end of story? Yes and no. There are nuances. For many buyers, iSUPs are actually a better choice than hard boards, but not everybody. It’s not just about whether you prefer the flavour of Red Delicious to Granny Smith (and nobody would deny there’s a difference but it’s a personal thing as to which you prefer, rather than a definitive right or wrong), but actually, there are some types of apples that are definitely, undeniably better for, say, cooking with, than others. Or will definitely last longer, or whatever. Objective factors, that apply for everybody. So let’s look at the various aspects of paddleboards and see how the two types compare and contrast.
Storage and Transportation
Hard boards are big, and need either a van or a roofrack to transport – iSUPs are clearly, undeniably unambiguously better in this regard – there is simply no other way to spin it. I recently flew around the world with my race iSUP – it was zero stress, I just turned up at airports and checked in my one bag, I took it in taxis, on buses, on trains, I rented small cars for getting around. The same trip would have been a totally different experience (vastly more stressful, and vastly more expensive, possibly not even do-able) if I’d had a hard board, particularly a race board! When it comes to traveling and storage, the iSUP wins totally and overwhelmingly. It’s not even a contest.
If an iSUP is built well then it’s a pretty robust piece of kit. I see this on a daily basis at my paddleboarding school, where boards routinely get knocked and bashed against pilings, pontoons, decks, each other, clients, cars and pretty much anything else in the vicinity that could possibly be bashable. With a hard board I’d be super stressed about damage – not necessarily to the board, but to those clients, cars and anything else vulnerable to a hard knock with a large blunt object. With a more lightly-constructed higher performance board I’d be cringing about damage to the board too. The only hard boards that can cope with school use tend to be extremely heavy due to extra outer layers of plastic, otherwise they tend to look like they’ve been attacked by a gang of crazed cheese-graters and power strimmers after just one season. Whereas I have inflatables in my school that have been going for 10 years and still look perfectly presentable.
Higher-energy scenarios, such as an inflatable falling off a trailer or roofrack, are much less of a worry too. There might be some damage to the fin or finbox if the board falls directly onto that, but otherwise the board is basically just going to bounce. And if it falls on top of someone (or their car) you’ve hopefully got no more than an irritated person to deal with, as opposed to a major injury and a prospective lawsuit.
So when it comes to day-to-day durability, the ability to absorb the routine bumps and knocks that a big thing like a paddleboard has to endure, then inflatables definitely take the win. Likewise in the associated area of collateral damage; the potential for injury to persons or property in the vicinity.
(Hard board fans don’t stress, I will get on to the subject of iSUP punctures and blow-outs in the next section!)
This is another factor I see all the time. Essentially it’s the same as with the durability – the more forgiving nature of inflatable construction means that the boards are just easier on the rider. Easier to lift off the roofrack, easier to carry to the water without getting biffed or bashed by it, easier on the knees to scramble on to, easier when you fall down and bang yourself on the board. Hard boards hurt more! Definitely another clear unambiguous win for iSUPs on the user-friendliness department.
So we can categorically say that there are things that iSUPs just do better than hard boards – end of story. And all three of these factors apply pretty much whether it’s a low-budget Amazon special or a top-end iSUP. But we still have a few more aspects of the paddleboarding experience to consider yet…
The nature of iSUP construction means that inflatable boards are always the same thickness from the nose all the way through to the tail, always have rounded rails, and flat bottoms. Whereas a solid board can be pretty much any shape it wants; super thin in places, thick in others, with complex rail shapes and underwater shapes featuring concaves and vee. This allows hard board design to be focussed far more in specific areas of performance. The most important of these being SUP surfing. While iSUPs are perfectly capable of catching and riding waves, you simply cannot engage a thick rounded rail and crank hard turns. You’re never going to throw spray on an iSUP! The extra flex of the iSUP is also very noticeable in the surfing environment. It’s harder to push out through the white water too; again the thin narrow nose of a hard board is much easier to punch through waves with.
The other design area where hard boards will always reign supreme is in the racing environment. The ability to create cockpits, allowing the rider to get lower to the water, is something that inflatables will never be able to offer. Likewise hard release edges, underwater concaves, etc. On flat water a good stiff iSUP can definitely hold its own against a hard board of similar width, but again, hard boards can go to much narrower widths than can comfortably be achieved with iSUPs, for a variety of technical and design-related reasons. And ultimately, in racing, the narrower the board, the faster you go. *
So if you’re looking for surfing performance or maximum racing speed, then you need a hard board. This one is definitely a win for the hard boards. (And as mentioned at the start, largely responsible for most of the negative comments about iSUPs, which arise from folk for whom surfing or hardcore racing is SUP.
* Just a corollary on this. While iSUP surfing is never going to take off in a big way because of the fundamental limitations of iSUP design in this arena of performance, racing on iSUPs can and should be encouraged. The best iSUP race boards are really really good, and on flatter water can absolutely hold their own against hard boards of similar width. If everyone was using iSUP race boards then the fact that it’s possible to go even faster on a skinnier carbon board is meaningless. If speed is all that matters then get off your SUP – go buy an ocean ski or K1 canoe. Or a jetski! SUP racing would be a lot more accessible if everyone raced on iSUPs. It’d be so much easier to travel to events and the racing could be a lot more aggressive and exciting with more contact encouraged! But that’s another story.
An iSUP essentially has two states of existence – it’s either a working craft, (it may have a bit of deckpad peeling or a fitting come adrift, but you can still paddle on it), or it’s a complete fail, because of some sort of catastrophic construction failure. Nearly always a seam failure so it is no longer airtight, but occasionally a delamination or dropstitch rip. Whatever the cause, the result is a thing that cannot be used for its primary purpose. ALL inflatable boards will suffer this fate eventually, every single one of them. The worst-made ones may last less than one season, the best made ones ten years or more. (We don’t know yet how long they’ll last because they’re still going strong!). On top of this, as was made abundantly clear by the recalls from a number of major iSUP brands over the summer of 2022, there is also the risk of a quality issue affecting an otherwise respectable manufacturing process. It is important to remember that iSUPs are a textile product. They are made of cloth and glue (there’s always glue, no matter what brands like to tell you). The glue and cloth are made by different companies in different locations to where the boards are made, thus creating a whole variety of new variables and quality control issues for the manufacturing process. Plus which there are also the environmental conditions to consider. Glues are hugely sensitive to temperature and humidity, and of course, they change state by the minute so the last board made with a glue batch may end up with a very different lifespan to the first board made with that glue batch.
So, as many buyers have already discovered, it is perfectly feasible to take your iSUP to the beach, and have it change state very suddenly from a fun toy to a useless pile of cloth and threads. Fortunately, iSUPs tend to do this on dry land rather than in the water (when the skin is cooler and the internal pressure lower), so it’s rarely actually a dangerous failure, but wherever it happens it’s just hugely annoying and frustrating. Repairing a blown seam can be done but it’s a skilled and expensive operation. It may cost more than you paid for the board in the first place
Contrast all this with a hard board, which can exist in many states from pristine to a beat-up old wreck held together by duct tape. But whatever its state (other than a full-on snap down the middle, which is extremely rare outside of the surfing environment), you can still go paddleboarding on it.
So this is definitely one area where iSUPs do suffer in comparison to hard boards. However, when the iSUP is functional, then the inflatable construction is actually better, as it gives all those advantages listed in ‘durability’ above.
So can we pick a winner in this department? Not so clearly, because it depends on your perspective, and your budget. It’s important that you understand this fundamental point – your iSUP will eventually explode. But you buy a car, a phone, a TV or a microwave on the same basis – nothing lasts for ever. However, you generally expect to get at least a few years out of a product, and the sad truth is that many of the cheapest iSUPs won’t last that long. See my comments on PRICE below. There are measures you can take to reduce the risk of your iSUP exploding, but they’re still hassle and ‘admin’ factors you could do without. Bottom line, if you want a board that won’t ever fail catastrophically, go for a hard board. If you definitely want an iSUP but are worried about the catastrophic fail, get the best-built iSUP that you can. (Look for the 5 year warranty, from reputable brands with a reputation for good customer service, that have been around at least 5 years!).
There are several other factors we haven’t considered yet, so let’s take a look at them now.
This is another area where the lines are blurred, because there’s a very wide spectrum of iSUP prices with a correspondingly wide spectrum of qualities. As with most things, the general life rule that ‘you get what you pay for’ is largely true, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Some high quality brands sell their boards directly online, which removes the retail markup from the price tag. Another route to market for many iSUPs are the discount sports stores or supermarkets which buy in bulk and are only looking to make a few bucks per item, which again results in some artificially low prices. Normally though, the cheapest boards are those that aren’t actually even ‘brands’ at all in the true sense of the word, they’re simply the result of someone ordering a bunch of standard product from a Chinese ‘OEM’ factory and sticking their own logo on it. All the R&D has been done by the factory (or, more likely, the other brands using that factory!), and thus the actual overhead costs for this ‘brand’ are pretty much zero, other than getting the boards shipped to them. This is the super cheap product that you find on Amazon etc, and this is where ‘you get what you pay for’ tends to be pretty accurate. They are usually badly made, using cheap glue and materials, cheap fittings, and generally don’t tend to last very long, often just one season.
Because of the significant extra costs of shipping and storage, hard boards don’t tend to be such an online/mail-order based product, and their prices start at a higher level than iSUPs. There is still a wide spectrum in manufacturing quality, the same ‘OEM’ boards at the lowest end of the spectrum are made as cheaply as possible, and very prone to opening up along the seams or delaminating after a season or two. At the other end of the scale are the hard boards designed for high performance, which are built using sophisticated manufacturing techniques and materials to be as light as possible (but as a result need to be looked after as they’re easy to ding).
So can we make any generalisations on price? It’s actually pretty moot. The best iSUPs overlap pretty much with the general prices of decent (non performance-specific) hard boards.
This is where the debate really gets heated, which is why I’ve left it till last. To the hard board purist, the softer, spongier feeling of an inflatable is just not as good, end of story. The flat bottom of the inflatable means less grip, so you need to change sides more often when paddling. The fact that most inflatables are 6” (150mm) thick, putting the rider much higher off the water than you’d ever be on any self-respecting solid sup, just adds insult to injury for the hard-board guy or gal. (The main reason for making thicker iSUPs is simply that it creates a much more rigid platform – it is very hard to make a thinner iSUP that doesn’t sag in the middle. It also means more weight carrying ability. But it does mean more windage from those high sides, and reduced tracking in a breeze. )
But does any of that actually matter? There’s no denying that it’s a different feel. But is the person on the thicker inflatable having to change sides slightly more often with their paddle having any less fun? Red Delicious or Granny Smiths? As mentioned earlier, for someone who has only known the softer feel of an inflatable and the security of being that bit higher above the water, the lower, more clattery ride of a hard board can actually feel undesirable.
You don’t necessarily need to be so high off the water anyway, there are plenty of good iSUPs of 5” (120mm) thickness. In our SUP school we have boards of identical planshape but different thicknesses, and it’s true that people pretty much universally prefer the 120mm thick version to the 150mm version when comparing them back to back. But this still all just falls within the spectrum of different apples. Once you get back onto the 150mm board it’s not some sort of penance or hardship, it’s still most definitely paddleboarding.
Another reason inflatables get a bad rap from the hard-board purists is because most are actually rather wide. There are very few hard boards made wider than about 32” because they require more raw materials and end up being super heavy, and of course become even more of an issue to freight and store. Whereas actually the majority of inflatables are 32” or more, simply because they can be. The cost and weight difference when going wider is insignificant, but the extra stability and user-friendliness from the extra width is huge. “But you can’t paddle a wider board properly” say the purists. Again, there is truth in this, but you can’t paddle any board properly if you’re falling off all the time because it’s too unstable!
So – are inflatable paddleboards good? I’ve been using them in my SUP school for nearly 15 years now, and I’ve also sold quite a few thousand of them to customers. (I also sell hard boards if it’s the right choice for the customer). As far as I’m concerned, the answer is a categoric yes – and for the vast majority of paddleboard purchasers, they’re not just good, they’re actually the best choice – if it’s a quality inflatable. And that has to be the caveat here. Not all inflatables are created equal. The worst ones offer a bad paddleboarding experience and won’t last very long at all. But the good ones are really very good, and in my experience, actually better suited to the needs of most recreational paddlers. If you’re wanting to surf your SUP then you’ll be better off with a hard board, likewise if you’re after ultimate race winning performance (particularly for open ocean racing, downwinders etc). But for general paddling, touring, cruising, even flat water racing, then a decent inflatable paddleboard is absolutely a good choice. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
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