What To Look For In An Inflatable Stand-Up Paddleboard

Inflatable paddleboards come in all shapes and sizes, and qualities ranging from from products that are little more an overgrown beach toy, through to super high quality machines being used at world championship level.

The inflatable paddleboard concept makes a whole lot of sense. It’s easily portable, easily stored, and the good ones are extremely robust (much more so than solid boards), and offer extremely good performance. They’re also easier on the rider, and there’s less ‘collateral damage’, when the board bumps into boats, cars (getting on and off roofracks etc), other water users etc.

So many brands are now offering inflatable paddleboards. Most leading ‘solid board’ SUP brands such as Naish, Mistral, C4, Starboard, RRD, Fanatic, Hobie etc have inflatables in their range, there are specialist brands such as Uli and Red Paddle Co that only make inflatables, and there are also now a whole lot of other ‘brands’ where someone has basically ordered a few stock shapes from one of the Chinese factories and stuck their own logo on it.

So if you are in the market for an the best inflatable paddleboard, it is important to understand that – whilst they are all similar in that they have some sort of PVC dropstitch material inside – this is where the similarities end. There are many different factories producing inflatable SUPs, using a wide variety of materials, fittings and manufacturing techniques. It is very easy to make a cheaper board, and while they may not look much different in the shop (or on trademe) the difference soon becomes apparent on the water (and the short lifespan becomes apparent not long after!). But without knowing what to look for, it’s not easy to know whether you are looking at a quality product or not. Hence this website.

There is also a wide variety of motivations for producing inflatable boards. Some brands do it because it looks like a quick and easy buck while inflatables are trendy. Some because they feel they have to have inflatable boards in their range, simply because everyone else does. However, they still really see it as a bit of a gimmick, almost a nuisance. Whereas some brands are genuinely motivated to see just how far they can go with the technology; looking to produce inflatables that are better than solid boards. (Although inevitably this is unlikely to be a motivation with the most successful solid-board brands, who are not going to want to undermine their existing solid-board market!). This motivation factor also results in major quality differences, between the brands looking to cut corners and keep prices low, and those committed to building the best possible product.

The differences may not be apparent in the shop, but are very noticeable when you’re on the water. Inferior quality boards can only be inflated to a relatively low internal pressure, are prone to puncturing and very easy to damage by chafing or any contact with rough rocks, beach etc. They are also extremely low in paddling performance as they sag in the middle, and generate a lot of drag, especially the narrower ones, which are also relatively unstable. In contrast, the best inflatable boards can be inflated to incredibly high pressures thanks to their sophisticated and accurate manufacturing, higher grades of dropstitch and multi-layer skins, which instantly gives them much greater performance. Add in the benefits of carefully calculated rocker lines, planshapes and high quality fittings, and you get a near-indestructible package that can deliver performance as good as solid boards, and will last for years.

In other words, it’s a very false economy to go cheap, when for only a slight increase in price you can get yourself a top grade inflatable board that will perform vastly better and last many times longer.

Here’s a quick introduction to inflatable paddleboard construction, and a check list of what to look for when buying:

UNDERSTANDING DROPSTITCH

Dropstitch is at the heart of all inflatable boards. It’s basically a manufacturing process that creates two layers of cloth ‘tied together’ by a multitude of very thin threads. So thin that when the board is deflated, the two layers can collapse together almost completely flat, allowing the board to be rolled up and put away. Most dropstitch is made in Korea and it is a very slow manufacturing process – dropstitch machines churn it out at just a few centimetres per minute. Hence it’s quite an expensive material to use. Check out the video below…

Dropstitch material is now produced in a range of different thickness (i.e. the distance between the top and bottom sheet, determined by the length of the threads), stitch densities (i.e. how many threads there are per square centimetre), and patterns (whether the stitches run in parallel lines; “linear dropstitch”, or whether they are in diagonal orientation.) Obviously, a greater density of threads using a non-linear pattern will create a much stronger construction. Linear dropstitch is much cheaper to manufacture, but it’s easy to tear and creates natural ‘fault lines’ running along the board.

The most common thicknesses of dropstitch are 100mm, 120mm and 150mm. The thicker grades give more rigidity, if the board can be pumped up to sufficient pressure.

INFLATABLE CONSTRUCTION
The dropstitch material is not air-tight, so an outer layer of PVC must then be glued or laminated onto the top and bottom of the dropstitch material, to create the board itself.

The most basic inflatable boards consist of little more than a narrow rectangular section of cheap dropstitch, with a PVC top and bottom, side panels and a crudely shaped nose and tail. These boards are recognisable by very straight parallel sides, and an abrupt, angular change in the board’s “rocker line” at the nose and tail.

The more sophisticated boards involve extra layers of PVC laminated on, and the tension between these layers pulls ‘rocker’ into the profile, which needs to be done extremely accurately. The rails (the sides) are carefully overlapped and layered, with further material and taping is applied to the rails to give extra strength.

The difference between a board made this way and the cheap simple ones described in the previous paragraph is just massive, both in terms of performance and longevity.

UNDERSTANDING STIFFNESS (in inflatable SUP construction)
The stiffer the paddleboard, the better the performance. There are three ways to create stiffness in an inflatable paddleboard:

  1. Air pressure: The more air inside, the more rigid the board will be. In practise the gains becoming increasingly small once you get much above 25psi. But the difference between a board at 10psi and one at 20psi is dramatic.
  2. Thickness: A 120mm thick board is almost 40% stiffer than a 100mm board of the same shape. However, a thicker board needs more air to fill it (ie more pumping!), and sits higher on the water and is less ideal for surfing or indeed any sort of manouevring.
  3. Stiffness Aids: Add-on stiffening systems. For information on these read the Stiffening Systems section on the myths page.

It’s important to understand this, when deciding what sort of board to buy. The fundamental truth about inflatable paddleboards is that a stiff one is always better. (Apologies for the obvious innuendos etc!) However, there are other factors that will also play a part in determining the ideal board for your requirements,

THE MANUFACTURERS

By this we don’t mean the brand names, but the actual factories where the boards are made.

There are half a dozen main factories in China and South Korea making inflatable paddleboards, for all the big name brands plus all the ‘one board wonder’ ranges (where someone has basically just ordered a bunch of standard off-the-shelf boards, with their own logo on). Each factory tends to follow its own standard construction technique, so basically all the boards coming out of that factory look pretty similar. However, the quality variation between the various factories is huge, and the leading plants are technically way ahead of the competition, operating to much higher standards and lower tolerances, resulting in boards that can be taken to much higher pressures and have much better plan shapes and rocker lines.

Inflatable board construction is actually often extremely low-tech – panels are cut out by hand, and glued by hand, on the factory floor or basic workbenches. So there ends up being a lot of variation in shape, weight, etc, and because when done this way it is very far from being a sterile process, there are plenty of opportunity for grit or dust to get into the seams, generating leak spots. This is why cheaper inflatables are rarely a wise investment.