Anyone who’s recently become aware of the stand up paddle boarding craze would be forgiven for thinking that paddle boarding is an entirely new sport — millions of people try it for the first time each year (and in some years, millions of people try SUP for the first time in the US alone!), after all, and paddle boarders seem to be everywhere now.
Stand up paddle boarding is also the fastest-growing water sport in the world. The actual practice of stand up paddle boarding is not, when it’s boiled down to its very basics, anywhere close to new, though.
In fact, the practice of standing up on a flat board while the user propels themselves through the water using a paddle dates back millennia. In its current, modern, incarnation, stand up paddle boarding — also called SUPing or just paddle boarding — started with Hawaiian surfing legend John Ah Choy, who simply added a paddle to his surf board to allow him enjoy the waves even as he got older.
He became an unwitting trendsetter, and soon enough, dedicated stand up paddle boards, which differed from surf boards, were being manufactured. The history of modern stand up paddle boarding isn’t that long; John Ah Choy started doing it in the 1940s.
That was well before the materials modern SUPs are made from came into vogue, however, so it’s no surprise that stand up surf boards have evolved rather a bit since then.
Inflatable SUPs are by far the most popular kind of stand up paddle board today, to the point where many people who hear that you’re looking into getting a SUP simply assume that you’ll go with an iSUP.
Hard boards, which are the more traditional kind of stand up paddle board, are still very much around, though.
If you’re in the market for a new stand up paddle board, it’s good to keep all your options open and to at least think about getting a hard board.
Here, we’ll be taking a brutally honest look at the pros and cons of inflatable paddle boards vs hard paddle boards. Spoiler alert: Although the title asks which is best, there’s no such thing. There’s only best for you. This guide will help you get the answer to that question.
- What Are Rigid Stand Up Paddle Boards?
- What Are Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards?
- Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards vs Rigid Paddle Boards: Which One’s Better for You?
- Hard Boards vs iSUPs: Which Performs Better?
- Are Hard Boards or iSUPs More Durable?
- What’s Cheaper? An Inflatable SUP or a Rigid SUP?
- Inflatable vs Hard SUPs: Which Is Easier to Store?
- Are Inflatable or Hard Sups Easier to Maintain?
- Inflatable Paddle Board Vs Hard Board: Which Is Best?
What Are Rigid Stand Up Paddle Boards?
Rigid stand up paddle boards are also sometimes called hard boards, solid SUPs, or traditional SUPs. These stand up paddle boards are not inflatable, and therefore maintain their shape and size at all times.
Rigid stand up paddle boards usually have a core made from EPS foam, around which the waterproof materials that give it its shape are built. Fiberglass and carbon fiber are the most common choices in this case.
A durable epoxy resin seals the whole build to create a strong and beautiful stand up paddle board.
It is important to note that rigid paddle boards, or hard boards, are tapered in shape. That means that, rather than being equally thick throughout, they taper off to render them more hydrodynamic. Hard boards are thinner across the board, however, often just a few inches.
There are two kinds of hard boards:
- Soft top rigid SUPs have a foam upper surface. These boards are lighter and sotfer.
- Hard top rigid SUPs are coated in a hard material like fiberglass, and are generally the board of choice for seasoned paddle boarders who want to achieve speed in the water.
What Are Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards?
Inflatable stand up paddle boards, also called inflatable SUPs or just iSUPs, can — as the name so clearly suggests — be inflated and deflated. If the word “inflatable” immediately fills your mind with images of inflatable kiddie pools or beach balls, however, you’re way off.
Inflatable SUPs do feature chambers that need to be filled with air, but they’re constructed with a dropstitch technique. That means that layers of durable PVC plastic are held together by a multitude of strong threads that connect the upper and lower surfaces of the SUP.
The more air fills the chamber, the tighter the threads are pulled, creating a very solid board that doesn’t have much give. Inflatable stand up paddle boards are usually at least five inches thick, while premium boards can be six inches thick.
The more PVC layers an iSUP has, the more durable it will typically be. Some high-end inflatable SUPs are even manufactured with two distinct chambers, with a foam core separating the two. This allows the rider to get back to shore safely even if one of the chambers were to fail.
Inflatable SUPs have quickly become the paddle boards of choice for beginners — and while that’s got a lot to do with the fact that they are typically more affordable, that’s not the only reason iSUPs are so popular.
Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards vs Rigid Paddle Boards: Which One’s Better for You?
We promise to continue taking you further down the rabbit hole if you’re the type of consumer who simply needs to be familiar with all the ins and outs of the different options before making your choice. Recognizing that some folks just want to know which kind of paddle board is best for them, though, here’s a quick peek to satisfy your curiosity.
Choose an inflatable stand up paddle board if:
- You are new to paddle boarding.
- You place a premium on durability — hard boards can be damaged by knocks and scrapes, and while iSUPs can be punctured and do sustain wear and tear over time, they can withstand a lot more heavy use without damage so long as they are well taken care of.
- Safety is your top priority. Falling off an iSUP and being knocked into it has a lower risk of injury than having a close and sudden encounter with a rigid SUP.
- You’re looking for a SUP for a child.
- You plan to travel with your SUP — iSUPs can be transported much more easily, because they can be deflated.
- You are planning to do yoga on your SUP.
- You are planning to go SUP fishing.
- You want to get a cheap SUP.
Choose a rigid stand up paddle board if:
- Speed is important to you — rigid boards can glide through the water with more ease.
- You want to be as maneuverable as possible. Hard boards are not partially submerged, and instead ride atop the water. This makes them easier to maneuver.
- You crave better stability, including if you are a heavier rider. While inflatable SUPs are rather sturdy, they still don’t compare to solid boards, which do not cause the rider to sink into the middle of the board, potentially creating a taco effect.
- You want to go surfing with your stand up paddle board.
- You want to SUP with your dog — dogs seem to prefer soft top SUPs, which offer grip and stability while remaining soft on the surface.
Look at it this way — inflatable SUPs are generally great for beginners who want to explore everything that stand up paddle boarding has to offer, while hard boards are great for serious racers who want speed and maneuverability.
Hard Boards vs iSUPs: Which Performs Better?
Rigid stand up paddle boards perform better than iSUPs when it comes to speed and maneuverability. They glide through the water with ease, offer increased stability, and are, due to their tapered design and the materials from which rigid stand up paddle boards are constructed, more hydrodynamic. If SUP racing is your thing, go with a hard board.
That’s not the only metric by which you can measure performance, though. If you want to practice SUP yoga, an inflatable SUP will perform better for you — the give they offer is actually helpful for yoga, and slips won’t cause you as much pain.
In addition, inflatable stand up paddle boards are usually the better choice for people who would like to try SUP fishing. That’s not just because they are more portable, but also because the way in which they move through the water doesn’t tend to spook the fish as much.
Are Hard Boards or iSUPs More Durable?
A good inflatable stand up paddle board — and yes, that includes some cheap inflatable paddle boards made by reputable manufacturers — is surprisingly durable. Some have warranty periods of up to five years, and can last well beyond that time frame.
Some can (as advertisers have definitely already proudly demonstrated) be run over by a truck or thrown off a roof without any damage.
Good iSUPs can be punctured. If you do not clean your iSUP off with fresh clean water after use, if you do not deflate it, and if you do leave your inflatable stand up paddle board in the sun, it will definitely deteriorate much more quickly than it has to. Those things are down to user error, though.
Rigid paddle boards may seem stronger, but that has its downsides — any fall, knock, or scrape can damage the board, as riders will quickly discover if they brave whitewater.
The verdict? In terms of durability, inflatable SUPs win.
What’s Cheaper? An Inflatable SUP or a Rigid SUP?
There’s no contest here. Decent inflatable SUPs can be found for very little money — you’re good to go even if you don’t want to commit more than $400 or so. A good hard board will set you back at least $600, however, and more often over $700. For the best price to quality ratio, inflatable stand up paddle boards are the way to go.
Inflatable vs Hard SUPs: Which Is Easier to Store?
This question answers itself and doesn’t even need to be asked, but it’s still important to consider before you buy a stand up paddle board.
Inflatable SUPs can, and really should, be deflated after each use. That’s annoying, because inflating an iSUP takes time and sweat, but it’s got its upsides. You can travel your inflatable stand up paddle board incredibly easily, even aboard an airplane, and if you’re planning to put your inflatable SUP into storage for the winter, it won’t take up much space.
With rigid stand up paddle boards, what you see is what you get. You’ll need space to store a rigid board, and transporting it is more challenging as well.
In addition, hard boards are much heavier than inflatable stand up paddle boards, which can make taking them out onto the water a bit of a drag.
Are Inflatable or Hard Sups Easier to Maintain?
Inflatable SUPs can sustain punctures, which riders can fix at home if they know how — and, given the right maintenance, they won’t give you any trouble beyond that. Rigid stand up paddle boards will, on the other hand, inevitably acquire dents along the way. These are hard to fix, and professional repairs are usually warranted.
Inflatable Paddle Board Vs Hard Board: Which Is Best?
Rigid stand up paddle boards have unique advantages. They are generally faster and more maneuverable, as well as more stable.
Hard boards effortlessly glide through the water with the right paddle. This is why stand up paddle boards are popular among SUP racers, whose primary goal lies in achieving high speeds across longer distances. Rigid stand up paddle boards are, in other words, best for some riders.
If you have to ask yourself whether a rigid or inflatable SUP is best for you, though, that’s likely because you’re one of the many people who are excited to try paddle boarding out for the first time. You’ve seen paddle boarders on the water, and think SUP looks incredibly exciting. You’ve read people rave about paddle boarding, and you want in.
Are we on the right track? An inflatable SUP is almost certainly your best bet. Inflatable stand up paddle boards are beginner-friendly, versatile, durable, portable, and affordable, and you’ll have a very wide range of excellent iSUPs to choose from.
Whether you want to paddle, fish, or do yoga, a new iSUP can become your best friend in no time. Should you later discover that SUP racing is your true love, you can always upgrade to a more specialized board.