Inflatable Paddle Boards – The Ultimate Beginners Guide

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Every once in a while, a new sport is born. Inflatable Paddle Boards (iSUP) hit the US shores a few years ago and it seems that everybody wants to give it a try. It’s true, not all new sports have what it takes to win us over, gain in popularity and stick around. But the verdict is in and turns out that Americans love iSUP!

Who is everyone? Over 2.8 million Americans participated in Stand Up Paddle boarding (both hard and inflatable boards) in 2014 according to the Outdoor Foundation. It is the fastest growing sport in the world with more first-time participants than any other sport.

Those are some impressive statistics, but not in the least bit surprising…SUP is awesome and there is a reason (or a few) why everyone, young and old, are getting on board with the newest water sport:

  • SUP is a great workout burning 350 calories per hour for casual paddling and a reputation for working your core!
  • It is accessible to all ages, making it a fun family activity.
  • There is always room for advancement in your SUP career; there are diverse activities (e.g. SUP yoga) and a range of challenges (e.g. riding different breaks, competing or different types of boards) to work towards.
  • SUP means quality time with you, the water and nature!
  • It has low initial costs compared to other water activities such as boating and water skiing.
  • SUP will broaden your horizons while exploring new locations and bodies of water both nearby and far away…tropical vacation anyone?

While a new sport always has a certain glimmer to it, it’s the accessibility and diversity of SUP that lands it a permanent position on our roster!

SUP vs iSUP

While many variations in SUPs exist, the first decision many consider is whether a solid SUP (foam covered in Epoxy or fiberglass) or an inflatable paddle board (iSUP) is best for your first board.

The previously notable gap between these two options is fading fast with iSUPs turning the heads of both serious and beginner SUPers alike. Recent and ongoing advancements in the technology for both SUPs and inflatable SUPs mean that there is a lot to take in.

1. Transport (& storage)

This is the most obvious and often, the deciding factor between purchasing a SUP vs. an iSUP. Where are you going and how are you getting there?

If you are ever flying, boating, hitchhiking, bus-sing, ride sharing or driving in an average-sized vehicle (without a roof rack), then an inflatable paddle board is the obvious choice. iSUPs are designed with portability and ease of travel in mind. They often come with a bag specifically designed for transport (from backpacks to rollers), or at least a strap and are lighter than regular SUPs. Both of these characteristics make the overall handling (loading and unloading vehicles, storing in your basement, garage or closet and Uber trips to the airport) a breeze!

When your inflatable paddle board is deflated and rolled up into a bag, it is ready to be checked at the airport, tossed into your trunk and stored in your closet.

A regular or ‘rigid’ SUP will require either a solid roof rack or a pick-up truck and tie-down straps to transport it to the water, as well as a little bit of strength. We are talking about a 10 to 12-foot long piece of equipment that is between 20 lbs (lightweight) to 40 lbs. It’s important to also to consider a bag for your SUP as you’ll want to protect your cargo from potential debris during longer hauls on the roof rack.

Similarly, a SUP will require storage space and racks for your home. These Naked SUP racks can support up to 50 lbs.

2. Where will you be paddling?

Hopefully in a range of waterways! But let’s slow down and explore what your main use for your paddle board will be. As we mentioned, SUP is a widely diverse activity with a range of options when it comes to types of water and actual uses (yoga, riding waves, racing, etc.).

River

Take a closer look at your river; are there rocks and pebbles? If the answer is “yes,” then you’ll probably want to be reaching for inflatable paddle boards. As you can imagine a regular SUP, with its hard surface, is susceptible to chips from those rocks.

On the other hand, it is possible that your local river isn’t so rocky, in which case, either option, SUP or iSUP could be appropriate. The next consideration is whether ‘top end speed’ is important to you. The extra stiffness of hard boards gives it a slight advantage, roughly 5%, to the speed of an inflatable board. Now, your decision involves whether that extra 5% of speed outweighs the portability of inflatable boards.

Lake

A lake is a great body of water for fun and relaxing leisurely SUP outings and fitness, and this is what the majority people are out there doing! Either a regular SUP or an inflatable paddle board could be used in this scenario.

Again, if speed is important, the rigidity of a regular SUP does offer an approximate 5% advantage over the iSUP.

With the majority of people not racing, but enjoying quality time on the water, stability and maneuverability, as opposed to ‘top end speed’, are often the primary considerations. Both of these interests can be covered by either a SUP or an iSUP, the decision-making factor again pointing to transport and storage of the board.

As far as stability and maneuverability, you will want to further explore which hull shape is best for you, as well as the weight and volume considerations discussed below.

Ocean

Visiting the ocean with your SUP can offer an excellent variety of activities. Which activity you are here for will help determine what type of SUP board you have in tow.

The ocean can be a serene body of water with fairly stable conditions. If this is where you are headed, this location won’t weigh heavily on whether or not you use an inflatable paddle board.

If your beachside destination is known for its choppy conditions or small waves you ought to be considering a SUP with a somewhat larger rocker to help guide you through the water and make sharper turns. Until recently, the recommendation would have been for a regular SUP in choppy conditions, however, recent advancements in iSUPs mean you can find 4-inch nose rockers as well as 2-inch tail rockers.

However, if wave surfing is your primary focus, a shorter board with a rocker and appropriate rails should be where your attention is. As inflatables generally have thick rails, they are not ideal for cutting into the waves. In this case, we’d recommend a regular paddle board with the above specifications for surfing.

If you really have your site set on both riding ocean waves and the portability of the inflatable paddle board, they are out there and you can check out some reviews here.

3. Safety

If safety is of high importance, hands-down inflatable SUPs win here. We all have our battle scars we are proud of, unfortunately falling and landing on a SUP doesn’t quite fit into that category. The reality is, despite the rigidity an inflatable paddle board can offer, air is softer than fiberglass.

If children will be riding, or even in the general vicinity of the board, having an iSUP will allow for some peace of mind…and fewer stitches.

As you try out new SUP activities such as SUP yoga or riding waves, you may revisit your SUP falling days. Having an iSUP cushion may be just the support you need to continue working towards your goals.

Also, think about the safety of your SUP investment. If children or beginners are paddling, chips and dings can happen. Inflatable SUPs are full proof against these.

4. Paddling with friends and family

One of the many joys of SUP is sharing it with friends, family, and your pet dog. It allows for connecting with nature while simultaneously catching up on your kid’s day at school

Often, the decision to try out an iSUP lies in the affordability of the product as compared to regular SUPs. When it comes to having multiple boards for family and friends, your gaze may find the lower prices of iSUPs more appealing. And if those second and third boards are being used mostly by kids or beginners, an inflatable paddle board is your best bet for both safety of the paddler and the board.

5. SUP vs iSUP summary

That was a lot to take in, so here is a summary of SUP vs iSUP based on the main considerations. We recommend basing your decision on whichever of the following main factors matters most to you:

  • Is transport an issue? If yes, choose an iSUP
  • Using the board for general cruising in lakes? If yes, either SUP or iSUP
  • Is the last 5% speed important to you? If yes, Choose a SUP
  • Is safety a concern? Choose an iSUP
  • Are you mainly surfing waves at the beach? Choose a SUP
  • Are there pebbles/rocks etc that can damage the board? Choose an iSUP.

Choosing a type of board

1. Hull shapes

There are two basic SUP hull shapes; planning and displacement. This is really going to help to narrow your search!

beginner paddle boards hulls

Planning hull

A board with a planning hull would be recommended for most beginners, but also for those who are paddling with leisure and fun in mind. It has a rounded nose so it is easy to maneuver and extra width provides much-needed stability. These boards generally have a slight rocker so it goes over small waves and choppy water with ease. The downside of all this maneuverability and stability is a decrease in speed.

Displacement hull

Rather than go over the waves, the sleek pointed design of displacement hulls allows them to cut through waves and chop. Combined with a decrease in width, these boards are able to reach higher speeds, making them perfect for racing or paddling long distances. However, the increase in speed comes at the expense of stability and maneuverability. It is tempting to go for maximum speed, but having additional stability can greatly increase your enjoyment – nobody wants to spend more time in the water than on the board!

Keep basic hull shape in mind when checking out boards. There are also many hybrid boards that are designed to bridge the benefits of both hull types.

2. What type of activity and where?

The type of activity and body of water will largely impact your selection of board; below you can explore some of the exciting activities available to you on a SUP.

General cruising (all rounder)

If keeping your options open is your style, then the versatility of a cruiser will meet your demands of paddling down a river and then also catching the small waves at the mouth.

A general cruising board is great with maneuverability and dexterity of options due to the length and also the narrow tail.

The average length of a cruising board will be from 10’ to 12’6”, with the average width from 30” to 34”.

A general cruising board is great for beginners (or anyone wanting extra stability). The extra width and volume also comes in handy if you have a small passenger, a dry bag or other equipment along for the ride.

You won’t have any trouble finding a general cruising SUP, as they are the most common board shape, choosing which is the best board is another story. The Tower Adventurer 2 is a solid choice for your first inflatable paddle board for general cruising. At 10’4″ it is a nice length and offers support for beginners and larger riders.

Touring

This is going to be the majority of paddlers out for some fun in the sun. You might be on a placid lake or a coastal bay but generally, there isn’t much chop.

A touring SUP is going to facilitate a good time (read, stable) on the water. This is made possible by the board’s size and volume with its wide and long body.

The average length of a touring board will be from 11’ to 14’, with the average width from 28” to 32”.

Touring involves easy gliding on flat water, facilitating the coverage of long-distances at a relaxing speed.

Straps are perfect for securing at least a water bottle and potentially your waterproof camera for those idyllic shots.

There are plenty of solid touring SUPs out there to choose from.

Yoga

SUP yoga takes you out of the gym and onto the lake (typically). As always with yoga, balance is key. Extra balance (and mindfulness) is required to keep you on your board and out of the water, which is what makes SUP yoga well deserving of its reputation as the ultimate core workout.

A great SUP yoga board is going to be wide, picture your yoga mat at home…floating. It won’t be dissimilar to the shape of a cruiser with a long body, large volume, and rounded nose.

Features worth looking for include a full-length traction pad, places to hook up resistance bands and PFD’s and an anchor, so you don’t drift away mid-yoga session.

The consensus among floating yogis is generally for an inflatable paddle board as per the softer landing pad.

The Lotus YSUP Inflatable Board by Advanced Elements is highly regarded and its features fulfill our wish-list.

Fishing

Anywhere you were already planning on fishing, you can also do it on your SUP. You will even find that there is a benefit, compared to kayak fishing, of being in the standing position and having a high vantage point from which to spot your prey.

As usual, being aboard a SUP offers an additional challenge to your favorite hobby.

The number one for SUP fishing is going to be stability, so think wide and long, but depending on where you are fishing you may also want a board with a displacement hull or narrowed tail for slicing through rougher water.

Other features worth shopping around for include an area to store your paddle away and multiple straps for storing your tackle, fishing rods, beer cooler and of course, the many fish that you catch!

Surfing

You have probably seen these boards around. They are narrower, shorter and lighter and have a more narrow nose and tail.

These features facilitate quick turns, high performance and of course riding waves. However, this board will not serve you well in other conditions such as touring a flat water lake.

As with traditional surfing, the exact size and shape of SUP surf boards will match the ability (and weight) of the rider. An average length would be 7’ to 10’5” with a width from 27” to 32”.

iSUPs are not usually the preference for surfing waves. The hard rails of regular SUPs are what allow you to cut into the waves. However, anyone who has those well-known stitches just above their eyebrow from their first surf lesson can attest to the advantage of an iSUP. If a softer experience sounds like what you are after, one of the best inflatable paddle boards for surfing is the Isle 10′ All Around Airtech. As the name suggests, this board has a variety of uses and is a great mid-priced option.

White water

This extreme off-shoot of SUPing is for the more adventurous paddler!

This Standup Journal article can help you decide if white water SUP is your next stopover.

A board offering stability will be your friend as you battle the rapids, continuous movement and rocks of white water. White water SUP boards achieve this stability in great widths, averaging from 30″ to 35″ and relatively short lengths, usually 10′ or under.

Inflatable paddle boards are the obvious choice this discipline involving sometimes shallow waters and an abundance of rocks. A regular SUP will simply not last long.

We also recommend looking for a board with great traction pads and multiple grab handles. It’s worth mentioning that there is a decent amount of gear that goes along with the white water. You will want your PFD, leash, footwear, helmet and dry suit to fit perfectly and be great quality.

If you are ready to take the white water plunge check out the MCIT Badfish inflatable SUP. This brand is solely dedicated to river SUP and we like the new technology used on the MCIT.

3. Who is using the board?

Basically, the size of the human will dictate the size of the board.

Board dimensions

When we talk about weight, we are referring to the weight of the paddler. In discussing volume and length, we have moved on to the board itself.

SUPs are not all created equally. Remember Archimedes principle from high school science? You will need a paddle board built specifically to displace the correct amount of water for your weight. This is accomplished by the board’s volume. The volume of a paddle board is expressed by the number of liters the board is able to displace.

The obvious would suggest that a heavier person would be paddling on a long and wide board. In the case of paddle boards, volume involves three measurements; length, width, and thickness. Thankfully, board thickness can be used to displace more water. In the case that a heavier person wants a narrow board (for speed), then thickness can be considered in order to meet the volume needs.

Board length is going to be determined by the activity you are undertaking on the water. Shorter boards for surfing, medium boards for general cruising and longer boards for more speed and touring.

You may begin to notice a pattern with stability being our main focus. Well, width is a defining factor for stability making it arguably the most important dimension. A slightly wider board can make it more accessible to a variety of paddlers. However, keep it in mind that too much width can negatively impact a short paddler in having to reach too far, making paddling inefficient and tiring.

Below are some general recommendations regarding a paddler’s weight and the length and width of an ideal SUP. We like the guide provided by EMS because it separates beginners from advanced.

Beginner SUP dimensions
Weight Range (lb) Length (Feet & Inches) Width (inches)
120 – 150 10 ft 6″ – 11 ft 28 – 30
160 – 190 11 ft 29 – 32
200 – 230 11ft – 11ft 6″ 29 – 32
240 – 270 11 ft 6″ – 12 ft 32 – 33
280+ 12 ft 33
Advanced SUP dimensions
Weight Range (lb) Length (Feet & Inches) Width (inches)
120 – 150 9 ft – 10ft 6″ 26 – 26.5
160 – 190 9 ft 6″ – 10 ft 6″ 27 – 28
200 – 230 10 ft – 11 ft 28 – 28.5
240 – 270 11 ft – 11 ft 6″ 29.5 – 31.5
280+ 12 ft 32

 

Women and children SUPs

As there are SUPs for every activity, there is a SUP for every person. Women and children often are significantly lesser in weight. With weight being a primary consideration for the design of a SUP, boards made specifically for the smaller paddler demographic only means a more precise fit.

With women having made up 43% of SUP paddlers in 2014, SUP manufacturers have not hesitated to lend their designs to the female-specific market, with some women dedicated SUP brands like Paiwen also appearing.

Besides being smaller in size, a women’s or children’s board is also often lighter-weight if it is a regular rigid SUP. This can mean it is made from lighter materials, which may also signify lesser durability, something to be aware of.

Other iSUP Gear

While SUP is renowned for being a minimalist sport, with not much gear that is required, there are a few things worth picking up along with your board for basic safety and comfort.

Paddle

Stand up paddles are specific in that they often have an “elbow” or bend in the shaft. This is the most efficient shape and angle when standing.

Second only to your board, your paddle will always be by your side, so you want to make sure the length feels good. Your paddle should be approximately 6” to 8” taller than you are.

Life vest (Personal Flotation Device)

You are required to always wear a PFD while on your SUP, as it is considered a vessel by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Make sure that it fits snuggly, so that if you are in the water it doesn’t end up around your head, and is comfortable to wear throughout the day.

Leash

A leash can be of varying importance depending on your SUP activity. If surfing waves or in a fast-paced river it’s going to be much needed. In flat water scenarios, a leash provides some convenience. It is always a good idea to have your SUP, a large flotation device, at leash’s length.

Most paddle boards don’t include a leash, they are sold separately and are typically designed for the specific type of water or activity.

Pump

Inflatable paddle boards will need to be inflated and deflated with each use (5-10 minutes). An iSUP will come supplied, typically with a hand pump. That said, there are different pumps out there and quality is important in order to obtain those last few PSI’s to reach optimum stiffness. Some hand pumps will even have two inflation settings, for high and low pressure, allowing for that perfect PSI level.

A foot pump can be an alternative that is not quite the full-body workout of the hand pump. Foot pumps aren’t the most common option for inflatable paddle boards and as such they do not have the reputation of filling those last few PSI’s.

If you aren’t looking to break a sweat before getting on the water, than you might want to skip the pre-paddle workout and consider an electric pump. This option might be especially appealing for families with multiple boards in tow.

An electric pump hooks up to your car battery. It does not necessarily save a huge amount of time, however, the energy which is saved for paddling is what makes it worthwhile.

Proper clothing

For warm weather paddling, a bathing suit or shorts and a t-shirt are appropriate. You will simply need clothing that can get wet, won’t weigh you down in the water and your PFD fits comfortably over.

Paddling can also take place in cool conditions where hypothermia is a concern. Here, you will need a wetsuit or a dry suit in order to enjoy your time on the water.

Basic paddling technique

While it’s not the most complicated technique to learn, it’s always best to get it right the first time around rather than get stuck in bad patterns.

Learning

With the current popular status of SUP you won’t have a hard time finding the instruction that you are after.

If you are starting out, it can be a great idea to obtain your first one or two SUP experiences from renting your SUP board until you know this is a sport you will stick with. You don’t want to waste money on a SUP or iSUP if it just sits in the corner. It is likely that your local (or vacation) rental or retail shop has someone on hand offering lessons.

While we’d recommend experiential learning on the water, sometimes you want a preview of what you are about to get into. Videos can also offer an opportunity to review or build on previous lessons or prepare for an upcoming lesson.

Basic SUP technique

  • Mount the board on your knees, just behind the center. Stand up one foot at a time.
  • Your feet should be parallel and hip width apart. Your knees are bent and your back is straight.
  • You’ll recall from other water sports that your body follows your eyes. So, look ahead at the horizon.
  • Reach your paddle as far forward as you are comfortable with each stroke. No more, no less.
  • As your paddle enters the water make sure to put the entire paddle in. Half the paddle equals half the power.
  • Use your entire body to bring yourself to the paddle once planted in the water. Do not use your arms to pull the paddle through the water.

SUP Videos

Below are some great videos portraying proper paddle boarding technique.

Basics

This video really covers the basics, from the length of your paddle to how to mount your board.

Balancing

We like this video specifically for balancing tips. It is also great for standing up in a shallow water mount.

Choosing a SUP spot

Here is a video which takes it from the beginning; how to choose a location and launch spot and talks you through steps in a very informative way.

Oldie but a goodie

Despite being a little older, this video is easy to watch and informative!

Launching and landing SUPs

This video is important for launching and landing your SUP board both on the beach and the dock.

Things to avoid

It is always best to get it right from the start. Here are some common mistakes to avoid in order to make the most of your time on the water.

Just using your arms

Other muscle groups such as your legs, core and back are much stronger than your arms. Engage these in order to use your most power, get a full body workout and last longer on the water.

Holding the paddle backwards

Beginners sometimes look at the paddle, see similarities to a shovel and hold it as such. Essentially, you do not want to be shoveling water. This will result in wasted energy.

Beginner Mistakes Video

This video details some very common beginner mistakes to be aware of.

Basic iSUP yoga

SUP yoga combines two wildly popular sports to create the ultimate core workout. If working your way towards standing up and balancing on your SUP was a mission, imagine the accomplishment of completing your first SUP yoga session!

iSUP yoga poses

Here are a few basic asanas, or poses, that should get you started. You can also check out our guide on SUP Yoga.

Seated pose

Facing the front of your board sit with your legs crossed and your hands resting on your knees. Sit with a straight back, an engaged core and take deep breaths. Enjoy the subtle movement of the water beneath you.

Child’s pose

With your knees wide and your big toes touching, place your hips onto your heels and your forehead onto the board. Extend your arms flat and long in front, slightly open to the sides so that your fingers touch the water.

Downward-facing dog

Beginning in Tabletop, allow your hips back and up and straighten your legs. Allow your gaze to follow through your legs. Press your index finger and thumb into your board while you take a few breaths.

Plank

Beginning in Downward dog, use your toes to push your body forward and drop your hips. Align your shoulders and your wrists.

Cobra

Lie flat on your stomach with your hands beneath your shoulders and draw your elbows inward. Extend your arms by pushing on your board and lift your head, shoulders and chest.

Chair pose

Standing with your feet hip-width apart, bend at the knees and the hips while keeping your back straight. Extend your arms up into the air and hold.

Standing forward fold

Facing the board’s rail create a wide stance with your toes turned slightly inward. Bend at the hips dropping the top of your head onto your board.

Savasana

A perfect end to your new yoga practice!

How to choose a SUP Yoga instructor

Just like your workout at the gym, you want to choose an instructor who suits your needs and your style, but furthermore someone you trust with your safety on the water. To make the most of your yoga session feel free to ask a few questions before signing up to paddle out and spend an hour or two in the deep water.

SUP yoga is becoming increasingly popular and as it grows we are seeing SUP Yoga instructor training courses appear all over the world. So, firstly, make sure your instructor is qualified and has completed a relevant teacher training course.

If your instructor holds a teacher training certificate from the Academy of Surf, they have also been required to complete a Flat Water or Surf Rescue Certificate and a Senior First Aid Certificate. This is the not the case with all SUP Yoga teacher training courses. So, if this is important to you, you should ask about the level of safety training an instructor holds.

The majority of SUP Yoga instructors were teaching yoga on solid land before moving on to the board (a 200-hour yoga teaching certificate is a prerequisite for all SUP Yoga certificates). Each instructor will have their own style, but more specifically, a type of yoga. Some SUP Yoga classes are advertised as ‘Hatha,’ some just as SUP Yoga. Find out what type of yoga your instructor practices, typically teaches or is influenced by. A Hatha practitioner will have a dramatically different teaching style from an instructor with a background in Bikram.

Maybe you practice yoga regularly, but this will be your first time SUP. Talk to the instructor about what levels they are offering and what class is appropriate.

What are you waiting for?

We hope this guide has given you the confidence to consider taking the plunge into one of our favorite sports. If you still have some reservations about dipping your toe into the world of SUP, then let us know and perhaps we can help you on your journey.

 

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