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One paddle and you’re hooked! That’s what many find when they first step foot on a standup paddle board (SUP). SUP is a great way to have some exhilarating outdoor fun and excitement or just to relax and watch the day go by.
Some beginners start out by renting a SUP, but often realize that nothing beats the convenience of having your own. If you are in the market for your first SUP, there are a few things you’ll need to consider, chief among them being whether to start with a hard or an inflatable paddle board (iSUP).
The best way to decide between the two is to do a side-by-side comparison. So, keep reading and hopefully our helpful pointers will help you find the perfect board so you can escape to the water in no time!
Evolution of the SUP
Standup paddle boarding is rapidly gaining a huge following with over 2.8M Americans participating in the many forms of SUPing as a sport and as a means of recreation in 2014. To match the demands of SUP users, manufacturers have made some impressive improvements in both hard SUPs and iSUPs.
SUP Technological Advances
Even though we tend to group them all as hard SUPs, these boards differ in shaping techniques and material quality in the pursuit of increasing the performance of the board.
Hard SUPs are generally made from EPS foam wrapped in combinations of epoxy, fiberglass, carbon fiber and plastic. Two SUPs of the same material can also vary in weight depending on the method of construction. Heavier polyurethane foam boards are generally regarded as the best hard SUPs for beginners with hollow core plastic boards offering better performance and lighter weight.
Hard SUPs used for racing have perhaps undergone the biggest transformations as the demand for greater speed increases with the level of competition in the sport. These boards are being made narrower, longer and with the ability to slice through the water (or so it seems – they are that fast!)
iSUP Technological Advances
The biggest downside of inflatables has traditionally been their relative decreased stiffness compared to their hard counterparts. However, iSUP technological advancements over the past 3 or 4 years have considerably lowered this stiffness gap.
Inflatable boards are now more rigid and compare favorably to the various fiberglass options. Some iSUPs are now constructed with stabilizer battens to increase their rigidity.
Can iSUPs Match it with Hard SUPs
Once an iSUP is fully inflated and you have it out on the water, it’s pretty difficult for the average paddle boarder to tell the difference in performance between it and a hard SUP. There is generally a negligible decrease in speed (between 3-5%), which means for most persons (particularly beginners) and in most conditions, the iSUPs will certainly hold their own.
That said, there are still numerous points for you to ponder making a final board choice.
How Will You Transport Your Board?
With iSUPs, all transporting requires is that you deflate the board, roll it up into the size of a sleeping bag and fit it into the backpack that generally comes with the board.
The average iSUP comes in at around 25 pounds once inflated to the maximum recommended capacity. Hard boards are obviously going to be heavier, with PVC boards weighing around 40 pounds, with fiberglass boards generally a little over 30 pounds.
If you live just a stone’s throw from your favorite paddling spot and you have a bit of muscle then carrying your hard SUP by hand is absolutely doable. For further distances, however, you will need a vehicle such as a large van, truck or car with roof racks to transport your SUP.
Transporting a large SUP long distances, especially with roof racks, has it’s own set of risks such as damage and theft. Some find the additional peace of mind of transporting an inflatable a worthwhile consideration.
Quick tip – if you don’t have a roof rack or are in a pinch, I’ve seen people have success by using foam blocks (to protect both the roof of your car and the board) then strapping down the hard SUP with utility straps.
Flying with your board?
Want to take your board on vacation with you? One of the biggest advantages of an inflatable board is the ability to check it in as regular luggage when flying.
Hard boards can also be taken on planes (subject to each airlines policy), but you generally have to pay extra for oversized cargo. And then you still have to transport it at your destination. Be sure to check that your airline allows hard SUP boards (they are around 10 feet long) and scope out any additional fees before arriving at the airport.
Where Will You Use Your Board Most?
Inflatables are generally regarded as a great choice for river SUPing as they are more flexible and their durability allows them to withstand bumping into rock and other debris (trees etc) without damage.
Hard SUPs are susceptible to scratches, dings and chips when they hit stationary river objects such as rocks and trees. You’ll then have to find a repair shop before you can get back on the water. If, however, speed factors into your river SUPing, then a more rigid SUP does give a slight speed advantage.
Here it’s really a toss-up as to which board you should go with, since you most likely won’t be dealing with choppy waves or fast moving water. Both the SUP and iSUP will give you the maneuverability and stability you are looking for.
If you are lake racing or touring long distances (5+ miles), then once again the solid SUP gets the nod for a slight speed advantage.
SUP at the beach actually covers a few different scenarios. If you are mostly paddling on fairly flat and stable conditions (ie not surfing decent sized waves), then either board is going to provide the maneuverability and stiffness required.
But if you’re predominantly looking to ride large waves, then the maneuverability of a hard SUP wins out. See the below section on surfing for greater details.
Which Activity Will You Be Doing Most?
Fun and Fitness
This covers majority of beginner paddle boarders, so there is a fair chance that you’ll also fit into this category. Either board is suitable for these leisurely pursuits. The correct board for you is simply the board you’re going to get the most fun out of, as this will largely dictate how much use you’re going to get out of it and whether you’ll stick with the sport past the honeymoon period.
If you think the portability or iSUPs is going to allow you to use the board more, then look at an inflatable. However, if you are adverse to pumping up and deflating your board each time you use it, and are ok with transporting a large board, then a hard SUP is a likely winner for you.
SUP surfing boards are often very similar to actual surf boards. These boards need to have a larger rocker than boards used for racing and touring. With the larger rocker, you can ride waves better, driving and turning your board easily. Along with a larger rocker, SUP surfing boards also have narrower tails, stabilizer fins and a thruster, all designed specifically for surfing.
The large rails of inflatables are not great for cutting into the water for sharp turns. Whilst there are some specialist iSUP boards for surfing, we’d still generally recommend hard SUPs for anybody that is mainly going to be using the board for surfing large waves.
That said, it’s important to be realistic about your intentions as it is easy to get swept away with the romance of surfing. If, in reality, you’re only going to be surfing waves a small portion of the time, you’ll have much more fun on a non-specialist board. We’ve found the majority of beginners start with all-rounder or generalist SUP board as their first purchase, and potentially migrate to a specialist SUP board for surfing after they’ve mastered the basics.
Whilst we don’t generally recommend an inflatable for surfing, plenty of people have had loads of fun carving waves on an iSUP. The video below shows a lad in beautiful Mauritius doing just that.
As opposed to surfing SUPs, SUPs for racing have a small rocker for less resistance and drag. With their long and narrow displacement hulls, these lightning fast boards are designed to give competitors as much of a speed advantage as possible, however, they will be more inclined to tip over.
Generally, iSUPs have more resistance and drag, so the hard SUP has the advantage as it provides that much desired (though relatively small) speed advantage. For beginners, however, there are iSUPs that can be used with pretty good results for racing until you feel the need to upgrade to the features of the hard SUP as your skills improve.
Built mainly for use on flat water, touring boards usually have a higher volume when compared to racing boards. That’s because they have only a slight displacement hull (not as narrow or long as racers). They can still attain pretty decent speeds and will maintain their maximum speed with less effort than you would require on a racing SUP.
You can go with either the iSUP or hard SUP here as either one will let you cover long distances and achieve good cruising speeds. Inflatables sometimes get the edge over rigid SUPs because some people find it more comfortable to stand for long periods on an iSUP. Just ensure the iSUP is pumped up to the correct PSI to get a smoother ride.
As the many benefits of SUP yoga become better known, the practice has started to balloon in popularity across the US. A good board for SUP yoga is one that is wider and longer than regular wave boards.
SUPs for yoga will generally have full deck padding for more secure grip as you shift and turn to strike each pose. They will also have hooks for things like resistance bands that help with your training. Yoga SUPs will also have storage for your personal floatation device and water bottle. Additionally, they come equipped with anchors so you can focus on your poses and not worry about drifting away.
The main disadvantage of a hard SUP is exactly that. It is hard. Posing on a softer surface of an iSUP is more comfortable (especially for beginners) and is less likely to cause injury if you fall over mid flying warrior!
You don’t need to start with a specialist SUP yoga board. An all rounder that is wide enough will give you a great feel for whether SUP yoga is for you before you invest in a board solely for yoga.
Is safety a driving factor?
Beginners fall (a lot)
Hopefully, your first SUP experience as a beginner will be in calm, flat waters where the chances of falling will be greatly reduced. Still, expect to fall. A lot! A hard SUP is more likely to result in bumps and bruises. It is worth noting that you’ll also want to be on the lookout for the boards of your fellow paddle boarders. Inflatables suit beginners as they have a softer surface, providing more cushioning to your (many) falls.
SUP with children or pets?
One of the main reasons cited by SUP participants for why they SUP is to spend more time with family and friends. iSUPs are a good choice because they help protect children (and fur babies) from those bumps and bruises. There is also little chance your child is going to be able to help lift a hard SUP. Older children can help transport and potentially feel a sense of independence carrying a lighter iSUP out to the water.
Is cost an issue?
SUP shopping on a tight budget
iSUPs are generally cheaper than hard SUPs, which can be a key consideration for those on a tight budget, or are a little undecided about whether this sport is right for them.
The lower cost of the iSUP does not necessarily mean sacrificing performance and durability. Performance only becomes an issue if you have specialized needs, such as for surfing and racing.
Initial perceptions of inflatables sometimes conges up images of a swimming pool toy, and I have to admit that was my first impression when I first heard about them years ago. However, after stepping foot on one and seeing how they are manufactured, I realized these are much more than over sized pool toys.
Shopping for multiple boards?
The lower price point of the iSUPs makes shopping for two or more boards much less daunting. It means family members can each have their own board or friends can go SUPing together without having to share a board.
Pumping an inflatable takes time
With a hard SUP, once you arrive at your location, you grab your board and head for the water. An iSUP, however, introduces one more step – you’ve got to pump it up first!
A regular hand pump could see you waiting 4 – 8 minutes to reach the recommended PSI. If you invest in an electric pump, however, that time could be cut to anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Opinions differ on the time efficiency of hard vs inflatables. The increased portability and lighter nature of iSUPs saves time transporting the board to and from the vehicle. For some, this time saving will offset the time it takes to inflate & deflate a board.
Owning multiple SUPs (a quiver)
How serious a beginner are you? Whilst it is a good idea for your first board to be as generalist as possible so that you can use it most of the time, regardless of where you are, many enthusiasts have multiple boards (or a quiver) for different conditions.
As a beginner, your decision of hard vs inflatable should boil down to whatever board you’re going to use the most. There are many proponents that recommend an inflatable as the first board as it can be used under most circumstances and is also the most likely to be used because of portability and transportation. So it can certainly make sense to invest in an iSUP first, then if you need a more specialized board (for racing, for example), you can opt for a hard SUP with features that will best benefit you.
Solid SUPs can get pretty banged up from riding and handling them. Light damage may look unsightly but will not interfere with the board’s performance or integrity. Deep scratches, cracks and holes will have to be repaired as soon as possible to prevent moisture from entering your board and possibly warping it. You can choose to repair the damage yourself but for major repair jobs it’s best to take the board to a SUP shop in your area.
If you are not into fussing over repairs, then an iSUP becomes rather appealing. Although every iSUP is sold with a repair kit, you are less likely to need to repair it as they don’t ding or chip easily. They certainly don’t “pop” when they hit something. If you do need to do repair the iSUP, the process is pretty simple and you can generally DIY. Seam damage should, however, be referred to the manufacturer or specialist repairer.
That was a lot of information to take in, so here is a little summary of the main considerations and recommendations for each:
- Is transport an issue? Inflatable SUP
- Are you paddling for fun and fitness? Choose either. But, if 5% increase in top end speed matters to you, consider a hard SUP.
- Predominantly paddling in rivers? Inflatable SUP
- Is safety a priority? Inflatable SUP
- Mainly surfing? Hard SUP
- Mainly Yoga? Inflatable SUP, but have a lesson on a regular board before purchasing specialist SUP board.
- Is pumping up your board too much effort? Hard SUP.
- Is budget an issue? Inflatable SUPs are generally cheaper.
Select the criteria from the above list that is important to you and then balance the good with the bad. I find that most people ultimately have 1 or 2 main “must haves”, along with several “nice to haves”.
Whichever way you’re leaning, just make sure you are choosing the board that you (and your family) will get the most use of. If you are still on the fence and want a personalized recommendation, feel free to get in contact and we’ll be happy to help without bias.
Looking for more information on inflatable paddle boards? Check our extensive guide at pumppaddleboards.com/inflatables.
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