Shopping for an inflatable SUP can seem like a daunting task at first. The sheer (excessive) number of brands, models, features, and price points that are available can appear bewildering and confusing.
If you read just one article before making your decision on a new paddle board, make it this one. If nothing else, it will give you insight and a better framework for discerning real and useful information from the nonsense that permeates most of the internet.
Faced with too many choices and no prior knowledge of how to select a board, many buyers fall under the spell of a well-placed advertisement or one of those “10 Best Inflatable Paddle Boards” lists (or equivalent) that come up on Google when you search for buying advice. You’ve probably already figured out that these sites can’t actually tell you which board is best for you. The hard truth is that these articles make their money by referring buyers to Amazon or certain manufacturer’s sites that reward the site owner with a financial incentive when you purchase after clicking a link from the article.
Once you have had some basic experience with paddle boarding, you will see that the bulk of rating site reviews do not exhibit the depth of experience with the product that would actually be needed to make an expert recommendation.
You may also encounter ‘editorials’ on sites that appear very legitimate, but most are simply promoting brands that have advertising relationships with them or are working with PR agencies hired by the manufacturers.
In addition to incentivized editorial reviews, again you should also be aware that fake 'customer' reviews are a huge problem for e-commerce in general, and the stand up paddle board industry is no exception. In fact, there is an entire shadowy industry of automated customer review generation, allowing companies to amass hundreds of glowing reviews as long as they are willing to pay for them.
These factors combine to present the biggest problem in finding the right paddle board for you. The amount of noise out there just overwhelms a lot of people and they kind of give up and buy whatever board gets gets the highest rating on a review site or shows lots of 5-star customer reviews, not realizing the amount of behind the scenes maneuvering that was involved in creating the appearance of a hugely popular product. They end up with an at best average board kit that is likely overpriced and isn’t ideal for their particular needs. At worst the board ends up in a landfill before the summer even ends because actually getting warranty and support in the event of an issue is non existent.
In this article, we share our methods of choosing a board that is the right fit for you, while ensuring that you are in a better position to understand the key factors to consider when choosing an inflatable SUP.
If you have found this article, you are already ahead of the curve by taking the time to utilize the information on our site. Fortunately, there are specific steps you can take to narrow down your buying choices and sources of information available to help you make an informed decision on which inflatable SUP to buy that best meets your specific needs.
We have worked with thousands of paddle board buyers with no prior knowledge of how to choose a paddle board and have guided them through the process of selecting the equipment that is the best fit for their particular needs. Our record is first-rate and we pride ourselves on getting it right. As a result of our experience working with so many SUP buyers, we have been able to distill the process of choosing an inflatable SUP and accessory package into the easy to follow step-by-step system described below.
The basic steps for choosing the best inflatable SUP are:
Really good inflatable paddle boards may seem expensive, but you need to consider it as a one-time cost that comes with investing in quality. As with any piece of recreational equipment, there are a wide range of price points and levels of quality to choose from to fit your budget and aspirations.
Cheaper inflatable paddle board models are generally priced in the $300-$800 MSRP range. In the lower end of this range, you’ll get you a very basic starter set, maybe okay for kids to play on close to shore, but not a board you’ll feel good about using regularly or venturing far from shore on. With an ultra-cheap board, you can be sure that the manufacturer has skimped on most points of quality to minimize the cost.
As you push toward the $800 mark, you’ll find some boards that will be good enough to get you out on the water, give you a reasonable feel for what paddle boarding is like, and meet some basic quality guidelines, but you still won’t be getting the most durable or highest performing boards. Lower cost boards are made with calculated compromises in material and component quality to keep manufacturing costs in a range that allows for the low price. Many buyers who start with a board in this entry level range soon realize that they want more from their equipment and invest in a better board. While this progression is understandable, a lot of wasted expense can be avoided by spending a little more on the initial purchase to avoid the need for an expensive upgrade later.
You will see many boards in this price range promoted on rating sites and ‘Top 10’ type lists. This is a price range rife with misinformation and hyperbole. Just keep in mind that these sites make money when people click on links to purchase the products they list presenting a clear incentive to promote the products that are easiest to sell, due to their cheap prices. Few of those sites will acknowledge that the cheaper boards on their lists are there because they are affordable, not because they have the performance, durability, or specialization of higher-end boards.
High-quality and optimally performing inflatable SUP boards mostly fall in the $900-$1300 MSRP range. This is where buyers generally should look if they are enthusiastic about getting into SUP and are willing to invest in equipment that performs better and will be used season after season, not end up in a landfill prematurely. Boards in this category will be designed for optimal performance and be made of more durable materials, in factories that adhere to higher quality and ethical standards. Stretching into this price range can get you a lot in terms of quality and performance upgrades and better accessories, so the initial investment will be well-spent and will save you money over time by making it a one-time purchase.
Above $1300 MSRP, you’ll find some specialty boards designed for enthusiasts who can afford to pay a premium for specific purpose designs or unique features. If you are planning to make SUP a significant part of your recreational life, then looking at a specialty board in this price range is a good investment.
If the level of performance and quality you are striving for is beyond your budget, don’t despair. Buying a clearance, store demo or open box unit can get you the quality of a higher-priced board at a much lower price. These opportunities are almost always out there for smart and determined shoppers looking to make their dollar stretch further and who are willing to invest in a quality brand. Note that we have listed MSRP in theses ranges which by its nature is open to opportunism. The broader pitfalls of commercial markets are well beyond the scope of this article but we've all developed a general skepticism that if a deal seems too good to be true, it often is. A more detailed approach is needed to discern the right SUP board and this can start with prices ranges as a factor, but should be evaluated in unison with other criteria.
Whether you are just looking for a fun way to get out on the water or you are a fitness fanatic or thrill-seeker, there is a board out there for you. Every board is designed with a range of paddling activities in mind, so an important step in choosing a paddle board is narrowing down on what kinds of paddling you’ll be doing.
While some boards are specifically designed for a particular use, many boards are designed to cover a range of different uses. Low and mid-range boards will tend to be less versatile, and will usually provide a less satisfying experience compared to a higher-end board, even in flat water paddling. Knowing how you will use the board will help you narrow down your search to a specific category of board or at least provide information that an experienced dealer can start with to help you sort out your options.
Now that you have an idea of how you will use the board and what price range you are looking in, you have the basic information you need to begin your search. At this point, you should narrow down where you will be shopping for the board. There are plenty of dealers online and in brick and mortar stores that will gladly take your money, so finding one will not be difficult.
The problem is that there are too many businesses trying to make a buck selling paddle boards, and the challenge lies in choosing a dealer that is actually qualified to give experience-based advice specific to inflatable SUP boards and provide effective after-sale service. Ideally, you’ll want to find a seller that can provide all the information you need to understand what you’re buying and why, and will be reachable either by phone or in person to help you understand your options and to answer questions after you receive your equipment.
Due to the specialized nature and size of inflatable paddle boards, there are not many physical stores that will have a wide variety of boards and the depth of product knowledge needed to assist with your purchase. This leaves specialized online dealers as the best option in most cases, but you need to really assess their product knowledge so you can decide who to work with. A dealer that sells all categories of outdoor products is much less likely to have detailed knowledge of inflatable paddle boards than one who makes it their specialty. Ask yourself some questions about any dealer you are considering.
It takes a bit of due diligence to find an online dealer that will add value to your shopping experience, but finding one will make the rest of the process so much easier.
We want you shopping on Pumped Up SUP and we put a lot of effort into informing buyers and providing a high level of service. We build and maintain our website entirely ourselves with detailed articles to present information that matters. and have built our business on a reputation for product knowledge and customer support. We are a small business that loves our sport and specialize entirely in inflatable stand up paddle boards so we are more detailed and personable about getting the right SUP and gear for our customers.
You’ve already put some thought into what you’ll be doing on the board, so now is the time to gain an understanding of the categories of board and how they relate to your intended uses.
If you don’t have a specific purpose in mind for a board then you should be looking for something in the All-Around SUP category, which will allow you to explore various areas of SUP at your own time and pace.
Boards designed for a specific purpose can still be used for other types of paddling, so you should consider all of the ways you want to use your board and choose a model that can cross over from one purpose to another. This is an area where understanding what aspects of a board make it suitable for particular uses is needed and where specific advice from a specialist inflatable SUP dealer is important.
Once you have some clear ideas on how you will be using the board and have identified a board type that will work for you, you can turn your attention to board sizing. This is an area where the folly of the one-size-fits-all approach taken by many of those rating sites we’ve talked about really becomes apparent.
Ask yourself this: How can a board simultaneously be the best choice for a 120lb rider who wants to surf and paddle in whitewater and for another rider weighing 240 lb interested in flatwater cruising and fishing? Not possible, right?
Most boards for all-around use fall within a fairly narrow range of length (between 10 and 11 feet) and width (between 30 and 34 inches), but you also need to pay close attention to the board volume, which is mainly determined by its thickness. A board in the average range of length and width that is 5 inches thick will have plenty of volume for riders up to a weight in the neighborhood of 200-225 lb, depending on skill level. For riders below this weight threshold, a thicker board will be less stable because the center of gravity is higher. It will also be harder to climb on from the water, and less convenient to inflate and carry. The most common mistake we see is buying a sup with too much volume. An excessively large SUP board will support a lot of weight, but will have you feeling like you are bobbing over the water rather than gliding through it.
If you are shopping for a board for a rider over 225 lb, that would be a specific case where it makes sense to look at boards with 6 inches thickness, because at that weight the extra volume serves a purpose, the board will ride lower due to the extra weight, and the extra thickness adds rigidity that a heavier rider will need. But if you are below 205 lb, an all-around board with 5 inches of thickness will feel better on the water. If considering longer board for the purposes of touring / distance, or a downstream specific whitewater board a 6" board size can be considered.
Again, you need to get past the one-size-fits-all approach and understand how your particular situation determines which board are best for you.
Board width is also critical. An excessively wide board will be slow and will make you reach to the side uncomfortably to clear the edge of the board with each stroke you take. For all-around use, we recommend you generally stay at or under 11 feet in length, no more than 34 inches in width, and limit the thickness to 5 inches unless you weigh over 200-225 lb. There are exceptions though. If your primary use will be surfing, you may want to go shorter (9’6” or less), and if your primary use is touring or racing, you’ll probably want to go longer (12’6” or more).
Here are some of the key features to look for when evaluating and comparing boards:
While the board is usually the starting point in shopping for SUP equipment, keep in mind that it will be part of a larger assembly of gear in which every piece contributes to your paddleboarding experience.
There are two main accessories that will make a huge difference in your experience using your inflatable SUP: The pump and the paddle.
All inflatable SUP boards come with a manual pump. The pumps will vary in quality, but - some bad news here - none of them make it easy to inflate a paddle board to full pressure. Some manual pumps are “dual action”, meaning they inflate on both the downstroke and upstroke, which is an improvement over a single-action pump and are really the best option for manual pumping. Some manual pumps are double-barrel behemoths, which can move a lot of air at low pressure, but are just as challenging as any other pump once you have initially filled the board with air (the easy part of the pumping task) and are working to increase the pressure to the recommended PSI that the board needs to function optimally. There is some basic physics that applies to how pumps work and no matter how the pump is designed, pushing air through a valve at 15 psi will always be a workout.
The solution to this is to buy an electric pump designed specifically for SUP inflation. Electric SUP pumps can be powered from your car’s cigarette lighter socket or from a portable 12 Volt power source and take the effort out of inflating your SUP so you can save your energy for paddling. Just be sure to get an inflator designed specifically for SUP, because tire inflators won’t move enough air volume to fill a SUP, and pumps for air mattresses and pool toys can’t provide the pressure needed for a paddle board. An electric pump is generally not included with inflatable SUP boards, so it’s important to look at adding one to your package at the time of purchase, which can save you a lot of money compared to making it a separate purchase.
The paddle is the other accessory that will make a huge difference in your paddling experience. Because it is what propels you through the water, the paddle can be just as important as the board itself. Many boards come with a paddle included in the box, but in most cases the included paddle is not a very good one. This is another area where you should look to the dealer to round out your kit with an upgraded paddle at an advantageous price at the time of your board purchase. The sticking point here is that many dealers are selling sub par paddles under the guise of a professional paddle. It's a tricky situation for the buyer but we would suggest reading our article on what to look for in a SUP paddle that will give some insight into the technical aspects to separate from the advertising hyperbole.
In the end, what you are buying is a full setup including board, pump, paddle, and other accessories, so you’ll be better off choosing a SUP that doesn’t include a bunch of low-quality accessories you didn’t choose. Consider the entire package and buy from a retailer that is willing to swap things out and upgrade so you get the exact package you want and only pay for the accessories you have chosen.
Once you have gotten comfortable with a dealer, defined your price range and board type, determined the right length, width, and thickness, considered specific board features, and selected the best accessories for your needs, you’re ready to narrow down your choices and settle on a board to purchase. By following this guide you know you’ve done your due diligence for selecting equipment that will meet your needs and grow with you as you make paddle boarding a new dimension in your recreational life.
Want expert advice on choosing an inflatable SUP board? Check out our 2021 Inflatable Paddle Board Buying Guide.
Pumped Up SUP is an online store specializing in high-performance inflatable stand up paddle boards and accessories. We're always happy to answer your questions - just give us a call at 1-877-777-1769.