The Buyer’s Debate: Hard SUP vs. iSUP

Paddling the River Gerry in Scotland with Terri Bryce and Will Taylor.
Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Whether to go with a hard SUP or an inflatable SUP is one of the first decisions to make when looking to buy a new standup paddleboard. But do a little research and consider your paddling needs, and the answer becomes clear. To help you come to a conclusion on what type of SUP makes sense for you, here’s a little insight on each board type—hard or inflatable—and where they work best.

San Diego is home to countless surf breaks. In most every surf scenario, you’ll want an epoxy hard SUP for maximum performance. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

What is a Hard SUP?

Hard SUPs, or solid standup paddleboards, are most commonly built from different materials like foam, fiberglass, Kevlar, plastics and wood, and protected with coats of epoxy resin. The foam core creates buoyancy, while layers of fiberglass, Kevlar or bamboo veneer creates durability and rigidity, while the epoxy finish works to harden the board and ensure it’s water tight.

Many epoxy boards have an air vent installed on the deck, used to prevent delamination of the epoxy resin from the EPS foam blank. Other finish layups, like plastic, are available and usually cheaper, but don’t necessarily provide the same level of performance. Other than shape, size and a few other factors, when considering a new purchase it’s important to make sure the board is light enough for you to manage, provides ample floatation (volume) for your weight and comes equipped with a thick, unblemished finish to ensure it’ll be durable and water tight.

When and Why to Use a Hard SUP

Epoxy SUPs generally deliver better performance and responsiveness than inflatable SUPs, particularly in surf and downwind. That’s because they are considerably more rigid, and because manufacturers are able to get more precise with designs to produce higher-performance shapes. For SUP surfing and racing, epoxy SUPs are undisputedly the way to go. For whitewater paddling, traveling and convenience sake, inflatable SUPs may be a better option.

SUP associate editor Jack Haworth paddling an iSUP on Lake Michigan with the Chicago skyline in the background. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

What is an Inflatable SUP?

Inflatable standup paddleboards, or iSUPs, are manufactured from layers of PVC plastic with woven fibers that connect the top and bottom at points inside throughout the board. They typically come in a carrying case about the size of a large duffle bag, weighing anywhere from 18 to 28 pounds. iSUPs come equipped with a valve that the operator attaches to a pump (most often included with the iSUP) and uses to inflate the board, normally to around 15 psi.

iSUPs can become surprisingly rigid once inflated, and some even come equipped with carbon strips or rods that run along the rails or stringer (the center line) from nose to tail to increase stiffness. Many iSUPs, especially boards geared for river paddling, come with flexible, built-in fins, but some come with fin boxes for replaceable fin options. Inflatable SUPs are commonly a bit lighter than most solid boards because they are composed mostly of air and plastic. They’re also generally less expensive.

When and Why to Use an iSUP?

The biggest differentiator between iSUPs and hard boards is in its convenience: an inflatable paddleboard fits in the trunk of most cars and can be checked on an airplane without extra fees. They’re great for road trips and even better for air travel when space is limited and a giant board bag can be a nuisance.

If you’re just looking for a knock-around sled for your summer house that can be stowed in the basement during winter, an iSUP may suit your needs best. They’re also superior for standup paddling in shallows and particularly on whitewater or river trips where collisions with boulders and rock bottoms is likely. iSUPs are generally much more durable than hard boards and can handle a fairly rough beating in rapids.


Standup Paddleboards in SUP’s 2018 Gear Guide
Hacks: What’s the Right Fin Setup For My SUP?
Hacks: How to Pick the Perfect SUP Paddle

The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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