The best inflatable paddle board

The Best Inflatable Paddle Board - Reality vs the Internet

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.

Paddling at sunset on a performance SUP board

Choosing an inflatable SUP: The Reality

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.

Paddlers at sunset on all around boards

Making an informed decision

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.

Surfing an Inflatable SUP on a wave

The basic steps for choosing the best inflatable SUP are:

Step 1: Determine Your Price Range and Budget

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.

Girl Paddling an inflatable SUP

Step 2: Consider the types of paddling activities you’ll be doing

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.

  • Cruising on flat water. Paddling around on lakes, slow moving rivers, or coastal waters is the most popular way of enjoying stand up paddle boarding. You’re out on the water, enjoying the sensation of standing up while paddling, seeing nature, and getting some exercise.
  • Surfing. For the more physically adventurous, SUP is a fantastic alternative to traditional surfing and a really fun way to catch waves in the ocean. You are already standing and you have a paddle to propel you, so you have two things in your favor compared to traditional surfing. If you have access to a river with the right conditions, you can also surf standing waves that form in whitewater rapids.
  • Running river rapids. You can use a SUP almost anywhere you would paddle a kayak, including in whitewater. Standing on a paddle board is a unique sensation and give you a completely different perspective to see things you wouldn’t notice in a kayak. Many kayakers give SUP a try and will never go back. This is a very specific and skilled area of the sport where specific whitewater paddling equipment such as quick release leashes, inherently buoyant life jackets and helmets are in common use.  
  • Expedition touring. This is another activity where a paddle board can take the place of a kayak or canoe. Day tripping and overnight camping are both possible on a SUP board.
  • Racing. Competitive athletes and other fitness-minded individuals can get involved in the SUP racing scene. During the summer months, most locations with accessible water have races of different levels every weekend.
  • Yoga. A stand up paddle board adds a dimension of instability that ups the challenge level of practicing yoga, while being on the water brings an element of outdoor tranquility.
  • Fishing. A SUP board is an excellent platform for fishing or crabbing. Compared to a kayak, canoe, or rowboat, a SUP lets you move around and get as close to the water as you want, opening up new possibilities and venues for fishing.

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.

Paddling in Florida on flat water

Step 3: Decide Where To Shop

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.

  • Do they have detailed articles explaining aspects of paddle board design and construction?
  • Do the articles make sense and answer your questions?
  • Does the dealer provide meaningful and specific assessments of the boards they sell, beyond the marketing speak provided by the manufacturers?
  • Are they specialized in inflatable paddle boards or is SUP just one of many departments for them?
  • Do they have staff with actual paddle boarding experience?
  • Can you get a person on the phone to answer your questions and provide advice? 

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. 

Paddling near a cruise ship on ERS boards

STEP 4: Settle On The Type Of SUP You Want

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.

  • All-Around SUP boards are designed to work in a variety of conditions without specializing in any one activity.
  • Touring SUPs are adapted to long-distance paddling where efficient glide is a priority and fast turning is not.
  • Racing SUPs are sleek and narrow in addition to being longer than all-around SUPs, with less emphasis on convenience features such as cargo tie-downs.
  • Whitewater SUPs tend to be specialized for specific whitewater activities, such as running rapids or surfing on river waves.
  • Surfing SUPs are generally shorter than all-around boards and shaped for maneuverability in ocean waves, although a good all-around board is usually well suited to surfing as well.
  • Yoga SUPs are wide and stable and should have a long and plush deck pad.
  • Fishing SUPs are also wide and stable and may have a variety of fittings to hold fishing rods and other gear.

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.

Person performing headstand on a stand up paddle board

Step 5: Determine What Size Board You Need

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).

Greg Miller carrying the ERS V3 10-0

Step 6: Explore Specific Board Features

Here are some of the key features to look for when evaluating and comparing boards:

  • Fixed vs. removable fin system: Some boards have permanently attached, unbreakable fins that perform well in most conditions and can be one less thing to think about when you gear up for paddling. Higher end boards may feature mix-and-match fins in various sizes that can be swapped out to tune the performance of the board. What level of fin system complexity you want is something you’ll want to think about.
  • High vs. low-density deck pad: The deck pad is an area where higher end brands use more expensive grades of foam rubber which may look the same as a cheap deck pad but makes a surprising difference in your comfort level while paddling. Cheaper deck pads made of low-density foam will wear through in a very short time. 
  • Kick tail: Some boards will have a contoured area at the back of the deck pad with a raised back and an arch support which is a great thing to have when you progress to intermediate turning skills.
  • Stiffening systems: Board stiffness starts (and mostly ends) with the quality of the base materials, a mostly invisible quality attribute, but can be enhanced with various stiffening technologies that vary by brand. Many of these systems on the market are ineffective, such adding 'carbon' rail tape to the rail which sounds high-tech but serves no effective rigidity purpose on an inflatable SUP. 
  • Hardware and riggings: Attachment points for cargo bungees, leashes, or tow ropes should ideally be made of stainless steel and should be sensibly placed only where they are needed. An unfortunate trend in SUP board design is to load a board up with lots of bungees and attachment points to make the board seem more useful. The reality is that you only need a few attachment points, and extra ones that don’t get used just add weight to the board and get in the way while you maneuver on the deck.
  • Handle options: A nicely cushioned carry handle makes it so much more comfortable to carry the inflated board to the water but can get in the way if you lie down on the board for Yoga, stretching, or relaxation. Look for a board with a removable cushioned grip that wraps around a flat strap handle.
  • A quality inflation valve: A critical component of an inflatable SUP board and an area where many brands skimp to lower the board cost. As a buyer, it is very difficult to judge the quality of a valve, so this is an area where the advice of an expert dealer can really make a difference.

    Running rapids on a 5" ERS SUP

    Step 7: Identify The Best Accessories To Complement Your Board

    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. 

    ERS Carbon Paddle 95

    Step 8: Put It All Together To Make Your Choice

    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.

    Explore our range of SUP boards by activity / use in Inflatable SUP Type or focus on Inflatable SUP Brands to find the right board for you. 


    Pumped Up SUP Logo

    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.