In many ways, early autumn is the best time of year to get to the beach. The tourist throngs have ebbed, the water is still warm, and the swells are becoming more consistent. One of our favorite ways to enjoy those late-season waves is on an inflatable surf mat like the Fourth Gear Flyer Vespa Roundtail. At first glance, it may look clunky and unremarkable, like a kid's pool toy, but this handmade canvas and nylon mat is actually a serious high-performance wave-riding vehicle. And it holds way more "beach cred" than a typical foam boogie board. "[Mats] are one of the most fun vehicles I've ever used," says California surfing legend George Greenough. "The speed is excellent, these things will get through waves that virtually no surfboard will get through."
Once inflated (takes about one minute by mouth), you grip the mat's edges to smoothly roll through turns and fly through the flats and into barrels. Speeding with your face just inches off the water makes the waves seem larger too. We've tested the Vespa in conditions from waist-high slop to overhead-high point breaks and have had a hoot every time. It's way faster than a foam bodyboard and infinitely more packable – deflated, it rolls up tight. Best of all, mat surfing requires less experience and coordination than traditional standup surfing, so you'll spend less time wiping out and more time having fun. [$199; surfmats.com]