Choosing the right inflatable paddleboard for kids and adults depends on budget, weight and your intended use. It's also handy to know the different SUP construction methods and how they affect performance
With summer on its way and lockdown restrictions easing, paddleboarding is a great way to find adventure close to home, but there’s a bewildering array of boards out there to choose from. Where do you start?
Your choice of inflatable paddleboard will depend on your weight, what you plan to use it for (touring, racing, surfing or even yoga), whether you’re taking passengers (ie. kids and dogs), and how much space you have for it (particularly if it’s going to live in a small space such as an understairs cupboard or a boat locker). If you’re not sure, your first board should be an all-round design. You can always specialise later.
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Your budget will influence what type of construction you go for. Boards can range from £350 to £1,200 upwards. As Dave Price, author of the excellent Paddleboard Bible, puts it: “you may not have a choice as to whether you paddle business or economy class”, but the more expensive the board, the better the construction and the stiffer and more robust it will be (see ‘construction’ below).
These are not necessarily characteristics you’ll notice right away – or possibly, ever, if your intention is only to have fun in flat water on calm days. But as you experience SUPs in different tides, winds and types of water their characteristics will become clearer.
It’s worth trying out as many SUPs as you can beforehand, and at least considering the specs and reviews online, before committing.
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Your weight and board volume
A low-volume lightweight budget board may be fine for a 60kg rider, but put a 80kg+ rider on the same board and you’ll begin to feel the difference.
The higher the volume, the more stability you have. According to Dave Price, the ideal volume in litres is your weight in kilograms x 3. Width is particularly important too, the heavier your board, the wider it should be.
Red Paddle Co, who make premium SUPs suggest you add 165 litres of extra volume on top your weight for good stability. So if you are 80kg, a good all-round volume is 245 litres.
Which paddleboard length?
Inflatable paddleboards are usually measured in feet and inches and the length of the board will be in the name. The longer the board, the faster it tends to be, whilst shorter inflatable paddleboards are more responsive and manoeuvrable. Boards over 11ft are usually classed as touring or race boards, for example the Gladiator Elite 12’6 board.
The shorter boards (under 10’6) are better for smaller riders (under 100kg) or for surfing, so for example, Red Paddle Co’s new Compact 9’6.
The most popular length tends to be between 10ft and 11ft, for example, Red Paddle Co’s popular Ride 10’6, which accommodates riders up to 110kg.
Measuring 9’4 and 150-litres, Red’s Snapper SUP is a good inflatable paddleboard for children.
The whole package
The SUP basic package will include a board, paddle, pump, fins, leash and bag, all varying in quality according to the overall price. You may later want to upgrade the paddle for better paddling upstream or into tides for example.
Pump performance might not matter if you’re planning to use an electric one, neither would the ergonomics of the rucksack if you’re keeping it in your boat.
However, if you’re hiking to a remote Scottish loch with an inflatable paddleboard on your back, you’re probably going to want something light in a decent backpack with comfortable straps, such as the Red Compact 9’6.
When buying a board you can often ‘upgrade’ these elements at the time of purchase. Or you might prefer to focus on the best quality board you can buy for your money and upgrade the accessories later when you know what type of paddling you’re going to do.
Inflatable paddleboard construction methods
Although from the outside, many inflatable paddleboards look the same, the construction process and materials will have a big impact on how the board paddles, how durable it will be and how much you pay.
All construction methods start with the inner bladder, which is made of a drop stitch fabric. This consists of two parallel sheets connected by thousands of 5in or 6in threads.
When the top and bottom drop stitch sheets are joined by an air-tight material, and the bladder’s inflated, you get the shape of the board. The strong threads restrict the movement of the sheets, which is how it keeps its shape, rather than becoming curved like other inflatables. However, the drop stitch fabric itself isn’t airtight, and what happens next will vary.
Single skin/ Single layer
Here a liquid PVC layer covers the drop stitch which, once dry, creates an airtight seal. This is the single skin. Single skin boards are lightweight and cheaper than other boards.
On the down-side, fewer layers means more flex in the board, which means reduced performance and durability when compared to other constructions of the same thickness. Whilst light and easy to handle, single layer drop stitch has very little stiffness and can’t be inflated to higher pressures.
This is a single skin board with an additional ‘stringer’ or wide PVC strip glued down the centre of the board. The purpose of this is to increase rigidity, and it only adds a little bit more to the price and weight.
The single skin board is glued to a second PVC layer. This is old technology, now only reserved for extra-strong boards (for example, designed for rivers and rapids).
As well as having a full coating over the whole board, it’s usual to have an extra layer around the rails (sides) of the board. Many of the brands have phased out this technology now, replacing it with a double-layer laminated (see below).
Double-layer drop stitch is more durable than single-layer drop stitch and stiffer but with the disadvantage of being much heavier, harder to roll up when deflated and prone to cosmetic blemishes.
Double-layer laminated/ fusion
This is the latest design in SUP construction, sometimes called ‘Fusion’. The entire single skin board has a second PVC layer laminated or ‘heat-bonded’ directly to it.
The lamination process eliminates the cosmetic wrinkles or bubbles on the board’s surface and because there’s no glue, it makes it around 25% lighter and stiffer than glued double-layer constructions (a weight saving of up to 2kg).
A word of warning, though, regarding terminology. Robyn Dawson of Red Paddle Co, advises: ‘While it is not possible to know the exact make-up of each [SUP] material used, it’s clear that the vast majority of boards that are claiming to be Fusion are just single layer boards. “Fusion” is becoming the generic term with no basis on actual tech.’
Weave/ woven drop stitch
Additionally, some manufacturers, such as Red and Gladiator Elite, use ‘weave’ or ‘woven drop stitch’ technology, where the weave is much more rigid than the traditional knitted method.
A discussion with the supplier or manufacturer should help clarify the process.
In contrast to single and double layer construction, Red Paddle Co have developed and patented a system they call MSL. This combines a super-reinforced drop stitch core with a hard-wearing polymer layer and heat-treated seams that produce a stronger, stiffer board that is up to 2kg lighter.
Red have developed other innovations to improve the durability of their boards, and have even run over the Ride 10’6 with a 22-ton digger!
The new Red Compact 9’6 is made with technology they call MSL PACT – this has an extra-high-tensile thread matrix at the core of the board that combines with a super-strong but malleable outer layer and a tensile quad stringer-system. You can read more about it here.
- Buy a Snapper 9’4 Kids inflatable paddleboard
- Buy the Red Compact 9’6 all-round inflatable paddleboard
- Buy a Red Ride 10’6 all-round inflatable paddleboard
The side wall, or rail (which holds the layers together), is one of the most important parts of the construction. For example, the top and bottom layers of a Red Paddle Co board will meet together and are sealed with a 1.5in strip, followed by a 2.5in strip for strength. This is known as a ‘triple layer rail’.
Less premium brands might have the solid double-constructed rail, but the difference is that the top and bottom layers finish within 3/4 in of each other, with a 2in strip and a 3in strip for strength.
It’s best to avoid a board with thin sidewalls, as this could lead to rail failure, ie. punctures, when resting the boards on the ground. These will feel thinner, leaving 4in or more held together with a single layer.
Inflatable paddleboards compared
We recently tried out six 2021 inflatable paddleboards in Poole and Christchurch harbours. However, to get an idea of how construction type is reflected in price, and SUP specifications vary, take a look at the table below (correct as of March 2021).
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