L ike other paddlesports, one of the biggest challenges facing those looking into the activity is space—if I live in a small apartment or condo with limited storage, what do I do with a paddleboard up to 14 feet in length? Fortunately there’s an easy answer: inflatable paddleboards that fit into a large backpack when not in use.
Since many of the buying decisions around inflatable paddleboards are similar to those of traditional hard boards, you may want to have a look at the general information found in our SUP Buyer’s Guide here.
There’s plenty of information about different types of boards, shapes and how to pick the right option for you.
Inflatable vs. hard paddleboards
We’ve already mentioned one of the biggest benefits to inflatable paddleboards, which is storage. Most inflatable standup paddleboards, often referred to as iSUPs, will come with a heavy-duty backpack big enough to carry the deflated board, the inflation pump, and accessories such as the fin and leash. If you’re fortunate enough to have a three-piece paddle, it will also break down small enough to fit into the bag.
With that compact size comes another major benefit of inflatable SUPs: transportability. Unless you own a short surf-style SUP, trying to take a hard paddleboard on an airplane is a nightmare, and rarely worth the trouble. But with an iSUP, you can check the backpack as a regular piece of luggage and bring it with you wherever your adventures take you.
Having a paddleboard that fits into a backpack also means no need for expensive roof racks. Throw your board into the trunk of your car before work and there’s no worrying about someone stealing your prized possession off your roof while you’re busy sitting at a computer.
Because inflatable paddleboards are filled with air, rather than high-density foam, they’re also fairly light. While the backpacks themselves can weigh a fair amount with the board and all the gear tucked inside, once the board is inflated, carrying it from your vehicle to the water is easy for anyone—regardless of the board’s size.
Another huge benefit? Durability. A common question when people are buying iSUPs is, “What do I do if I get a hole in it?” While it’s not impossible, springing a leak in an inflatable is a pretty rare occurrence. Hard paddleboards have fibreglass or carbon fibre construction, so hitting a rock in the water is a recipe for a big ding or a hole. On an inflatable paddleboard, however, you’re far more likely to simply bounce off the rock and keep going. It’s the reason inflatables are the boards of choice when it comes to paddling in rivers—especially anything strewn with rocks or shallow bottoms that cause rapids.
Along with that durability comes versatility. Bring an inflatable paddleboard to a cottage and it becomes a floating dock for kids to play on. The softer surface and extra tie-downs that typically come on inflatables make them great for loading kids or dogs onto and heading out into the water (don’t forget appropriate PFDs for every person and canine on board).
Bonus use: Inflatable SUPs also make great air mattresses when camping.
For all of the reasons listed above, many people think inflatables are the obvious choice. So why NOT buy an iSUP?
The biggest disadvantage is in the setup time and effort. While your friends are pulling their boards off the roof of their vehicles in a matter of seconds, you have to pull the deflated board out of the trunk, unroll it, set up your pump, and then get to work inflating the board.
Expect the setup of your inflatable to take between 10 and 15 minutes depending on how hard you want to exert yourself pumping the board up before you get on the water. The faster you pump (and the better your pump is), the faster you’ll be on the water. But don’t kid yourself—pumping up an inflatable SUP is definitely a pre-workout workout.
If you want to avoid the effort, electric inflators are a great way to go, and will typically have your iSUP filled to the recommended pressure in far less time than a manual pump, but expect to pay anywhere between $100 and $300 for a good one.
The other big issue is rigidity and speed. There’s a reason you don’t see many people racing inflatables on the international paddleboard racing scene, despite their portability. Inflatables just can’t match the glide and firmness that comes from a traditional hard board. Inflatable technology has certainly come a long way, and just like when buying a hard board, you get what you pay for. Top end brands are making their iSUPS with things like wire frames and stiffening battens that take away the floppiness inflatables used to be known for.
But, that technology comes with a higher price point, and many people who start out with an inflatable will add a rigid board to their quiver at some point.
Of course, the same can be true the other way. Many people who start out with hard boards will add an inflatable to their quiver at some point, as well.
Types of inflatable standup paddleboards
Inflatable paddleboards are often loaded with tie-downs and D-rings, making them a great platform for a variety of uses. When it comes to fishing, a wide inflatable SUP is a great choice. The Sea Eagle Fish SUP 126, for example, is built specifically for fishing with non-slip deck pads, a swivel seat, built-in fish rulers, plenty of attachment points and even a removable trolling motor mount.
In the minimum, you’ll likely want a 12’6” board with a long deck pad and plenty of tie-downs.
As mentioned earlier, inflatable SUPs make great touring boards because of their versatility and durability. “Touring” can mean different things to differing people. If you’re just looking to go on shorter treks around your local lake, a shorter board might do the trick, but touring boards generally refer to something a bit longer (11 feet or more, and with lots of D-ring attachment points and tie-downs). iSups make great platforms for overnight treks because you can load them up with camping gear and know that they’re durable enough to handle any surprises in the water such as unexpectedly shallow bottoms. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that if you are planning on multi-day treks with your inflatable, you should have a pump and repair kit on board, just in case.
Inflatable standup paddleboards are great options for yoga use because of their softer-than-normal surfaces and wide design. You’ll want to make sure the board is inflated properly so there’s a nice solid platform for performing complex yoga maneuvers, but all the benefits of iSUPs certainly apply to yoga boards. Some companies are making yoga-specific inflatables, such as the Lotus YSUP that is 10 feet long, 32 inches wide and has a full-length deck pad, making it ideal for yogis who need the portability of an inflatable.
If you’re going to own only one paddleboard, an inflatable makes a lot of sense. An all-around board is one that will serve many purposes. Look for something in the range of 10’6” to 12’6”, that offers a large deck pad, and plenty of attachment points for tie-down straps and accessories.
Because many people have to travel to catch some waves, inflatables work here, too. For a surf-specific inflatable, you’re going to want something fairly short—likely 9’6” or less. Other than a leash mount and a handle, you won’t want many tie-down points because they’re just going to get in the way as you move your feet around the board. Look for a board with lots of stability, a high-quality deck pad, and preferably the option to choose between a variety of fin setups.
Racing and training
While you can certainly get a good workout in on any inflatable paddleboard, if you plan to do some racing, you’re going to want to go long. A 14-foot board is the industry standard for racing, although a 12’6” board is a good option too. Boards in this category should have fairly pointed noses (although, inflatable boards will never match the smooth, water-cutting shape of their hard board cousins). Most iSUPs in this length will come equipped with lots of attachment points, which is a handy feature when you want to tie down snacks, water or drybags. All of the major manufacturers are now making high-quality inflatable race or touring boards, so you have lots of options to pick from.
For similar reasons to the surf category, inflatable paddleboards make lots of sense for whitewater and general river use. Their strength and durability, combined with portability for transport, make them ideal. Unlike a surf iSUP, however, in a river board you do want plenty of tie-down spots, since you will need to make sure your equipment is well-secured before heading out into a raging river.
Two important notes when running rivers on any paddleboard. First, safety is everything. Lifejackets, helmets, breakaway leashes and foot protection are a must. Secondly, you may want to consider flexible fins so that if a rock suddenly appears just below the surface, hitting it won’t damage a fin or, even worse, the fin box.
Last but not least are the inflatable SUPs that fit into the category of “boards that will make people on the beach take pictures.” These come in a variety of options, from rectangle floating yoga platforms to 22-foot-long team racing boards to 17-foot Blu Whales that can easily handle six adults paddling away on it.
A note about why recommended air pressure matters
Every inflatable board manufacturer will provide a recommended air volume that will be listed in PSI (pounds per square inch). This number will vary by brand, length and type of board, but will usually be in the 12 to 18 PSI range.
This is a critical number because it’s what the board manufacturer deems to be the ideal pressure you should pump your board to in order to have the most rigid and stable platform to stand on possible.
Think of the PSI recommendation in the same way you think of vehicle tires: The manufacturer has put lots of time and money into developing the product based on a very specific pressure parameter, so stick with what they’re suggesting. The board will perform much better if you do. Underinflate and the board will feel like you’re paddling a piece of soggy cardboard. Overinflate and you risk putting too much pressure on the seams and board construction.
The key point here is that accurately inflating your board to a particular PSI is important.
Where to buy an inflatable paddleboard
Paddling Buyer’s Guide
The Paddling Buyer’s Guide is the go-to place for comparing the best standup paddleboards on the market. You’ll be able to filter based on purpose, materials, size, price, brand and more to find a list of boards best suited to you. You can then compare models, sizing them up to one another to give you confidence in your decision. Ready to buy? Hit the button to order directly from the company or find a local dealer. It’s as easy as that.
It’s hard to match the expertise of a local paddlesports retailer that, in many cases, has been selling paddleboards since they first became a “thing.”
Local retailers are looking to develop long-term relationships with customers, so they’ll spend the time finding out exactly how you plan to use the board and will then recommend something based on your preferences, size and level of experience.
Many retailers also offer demo days or try-before-you-buy programs, which can be a great way to test out a few boards before making a decision on something that—especially if selected properly—will likely be in your family for years to come.
REI locations are easy to find and they currently carry more than 40 inflatable paddleboard models from a dozen different manufacturers.
While some of them do have ratings and reviews, you may need to do some more research to find out what customers have to say about the various options. If you have questions, you can chat live with REI staff and, once you’ve selected your board of choice, you can have it shipped to your local REI for free.
Like it is with most other products, Amazon is a behemoth when it comes to inflatable standup paddleboards. There are literally hundreds of options from dozens of manufacturers around the world, many starting at very low prices. Just remember what you read earlier—you get what you pay for. Buy a discount paddleboard and you’ll likely be upgrading to a lighter, more rigid or stronger option down the road.
While you will find plenty of online reviews, you won’t have the benefit of talking to an expert like you would from a local retailer. So make sure you spend lots of time researching before clicking “add to cart.”
Costco and other big box retailers are starting to sell more and more inflatable SUPs as the market for them grows. Similar to buying from Amazon, you may not find the high-quality boards available elsewhere, and you won’t get the benefit of talking to an expert.
Inflatable SUP brands
- Advanced Elements
- BIC SUP
- Bishop Boards
- Blu Wave SUP
- Body Glove
- Kaku Kayak
- Otto Vallinga Yacht Design
- Pelican Premium
- Pygmy Boats
- Salamander Paddle Gear
- Sea Eagle
- Star Inflatables
- Stellar Kayaks
- Sun Dolphin
- Vibe Kayaks