Inflatable SUPs (iSUPs): Considerations on your First Purchase

As owners of two inflatable SUPs, we know a thing or two about them. First of all I will start by saying the following somewhat positive statement: Inflatable Stand Up Paddleboards (iSUPs) have a place and purpose. Yes, that is a very general statement but one I can hopefully clarify a little bit more in the following paragraphs. I used a very general statement because as you will find once you own an iSUP, you cannot mix the purposes of iSUPs to get one great all-around SUP experience. For instance, you cannot have a decent inflatable board that is good at racing as well as it is surfing. You get one or the other with an iSUP, never it seems, both.

12'6" ISLE Surf inflatable
My 6″ thick 12’6″ race/touring inflatable. I don’t leave my fiberglass boards sitting next to rocks on the beach!

Our initial thought when considering iSUPs was that we’d have a couple boards our two kids could play on as hard as they wanted without us worrying about ding repair. Then we thought that hey, we could get a 12’6″ race style inflatable and maybe use it for distance workouts and race training when the kids weren’t with us. It would also be nice if the boards could also be used for river rapids. So now our original intention is a mishmash of reasons why new inflatables can make our lives better in many different ways. As we were only in the planning stages of iSUP ownership, we had no idea how unrealistic our purchase goals were becoming.

In truth, in our now iSUP owner experience anyway, inflatables are good for maybe one particular specialty, two if you’re really, really lucky. You CANNOT combine intentions with an iSUP and come out with a satisfying purchase, iSUPs are just not that versatile yet in their relatively early age of development. So what should you be thinking about for your iSUP purchase? Here’s how I think I’d break it down now that I have an iSUP experience…

INTENT: First and foremost, what am I going to do the majority of the time on my paddle board? Am I cruising around my neighborhood lake? Do I intend to shoot some river rapids? Do I want to race it against fellow paddle boarders? Do I intend to surf a little? OK, pick the single activity you are going to do the majority of the time and begin to narrow your choices by that single activity.

QUALITY & VALUE: Second, the absolute majority of iSUPs are equal in both quality and design. I personally believe there are only two companies in all of China who actually pump these things out and slap a different color and logo on it depending on the name at the top of the invoice received. Whether it’s Isle Surf, Boardworks, Naish, ATX, BIC, you name the company, compare the shape and specs of their inflatable offerings and I can practically guarantee they are the same manufacturer who made their board. So don’t break the bank with a high end iSUP, you just paid for the marketing budget and the cool yellow and black color and not much else.

kids on iSUPs
Kids love iSUPs and are way better at playing in lakes and rivers than grown ups.

SPECS: 6″ thick is the standard. There are 4″ thick boards and 8″ thick boards as well. Unless you are putting nothing heavier than a 65 pound child on the iSUP, avoid 4″ thick boards; they will NOT adequately float an average size adult and you’ll stop riding it in two weeks tops. If you go with an 8″ thick iSUP, purchase an adjustable paddle to make sure you can lengthen it to make up for the extra distance to the water. 6″ thickness will float practically any human which is why it’s more or less the industry standard at this time.

PROS: 

  • iSUPs are practically indestructible. They are usually made from “Military Grade PVC” or else “Korean PVC”, which appear to be the same material. Yes, you can puncture them but iSUPs can take a lot of pressure against their surface before a puncture is going to occur.
  • iSUPs are very stable. They are generally built for a beginner so the shape lends to more stability, but the surface also assures a better adherence to the surface of the water. iSUPs are great learning boards for this reason.
  • iSUPs are versatile. Nobody takes fiberglass SUPs on river rapids. You can surf many iSUPs, send them down rapids, let the kids jump on them, you name it.
  • Transportability. You don’t need a surf rack or a pickup truck to get an iSUP to the destination. This may be the single biggest advantage to iSUPs.
  • iSUPs are great for guests! We recently had a friend new to paddle boarding and I let him use my fiberglass Riviera SUP. As he was not familiar with proper handling and care of a fiberglass board, he ended up doing some fairly extensive damage to the board through rough handling. Starting him on an iSUP would have been a far safer strategy!
  • Kids love them. Kids also destroy things but they will have a far harder time destroying an iSUP.

CONS:

  • iSUPs are SLOW. Don’t expect to race on an inflatable unless you’re only racing against other inflatables, you will lose.
  • iSUPs take effort! They have a rougher and usually wider surface area so create more drag, which means more effort on the rider’s part to maintain momentum. If you stop paddling, you stop altogether as there is little to no glide.
  • You have to pump up inflatables. A lot. To very high pressures. In my family of four, Dad is the only person capable of inflating our iSUPs to 15psi by hand. We purchased a Bravo inflation pump two weeks after purchasing our iSUPs so be sure to factor in an additional $150 into your fitness budget because you too will get mighty, mighty sick of hand pumping your iSUP.

    SUP Nap Time
    Inflatable SUP’s are far more comfortable to nap on in the middle of the lake.
  • No matter how much you pump up your iSUP, there’s going to be a little bit of flexibility on the deck. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, and indeed can be more comfortable on your feet than a harder board, but try to make foot adjustments on your board and see how much fun it is to move a foot and watch the surface flex and bounce below you. Manufacturers are working on this issue every day but for now the several models I’ve tried all have this issue.

So what model do you finally purchase? Well that depends on your single greatest intention. You should have narrowed it down to at least a 6″ thickness based on the above advice though. What do I own? I have an ISLE Surf 12’6″ and an 11′ iSUP also from ISLE. We originally bought ISLE’s because they give discounts for two board packages. The first two boards were the 12’6″ and their original 10′ iSUP. After spending a week trying out the 10′ we then exercised their no-questions-asked return policy, which they lived up to by the way. Their 10′ iSUP suffered from all of the cons mentioned above and was just not a fun board. Their 11′ iSUP, on the other hand, is a better second generation build and shape with slightly more glide and certainly more stability than the 10′. When my intention if playing with the kids or taking a newbie out, either one of these boards work perfectly and we really have a great time playing around the rivers and lakes with them.

THE SUMMARY:

  • When considering an iSUP, narrow down your intention to the single most important aspect of your purchase and then narrow down your selection based on that single reason.
  • The vast majority of iSUPs look and handle the same so don’t be fooled into paying for marketing and prettier colors.
  • 6″ thickness is the industry standard at this time.
  • iSUPs are durable and great for kids.
  • Hand pumping gets old, fast.

Just a few iSUP Resellers/Manufacturers:

The Last Word:

I don’t want to dissuade you from buying the best board that fits you but I do want you to make a more informed decision when purchasing an iSUP. As I said above, I really do believe there are no differences between iSUP boards no matter who you buy it from in the end. Some resellers though may offer better prices or warranties worth considering and some may just have a look that you feel suits you. Good on you then, you found your board and I hope you love it! Below is an image of three random board specs I captured online in about 5 minutes. All three board specs are from reputable companies but whose prices vary greatly. What do you notice about the specs below? Yep, nearly identical. So please understand that if you have are purchasing an iSUP for $1400 over the $799 model, you’re paying for the logo and not much else. Your happiness is what’s important and that’s all you should really be considering in the long run. Enjoy!

iSUP specification comparison image
A random comparison of three iSUP resellers and the similarities in most iSUP boards.