Buying a stand-up paddleboard? Hard vs. inflatable SUP boards

A lady stand up paddleboarding on the water. Photo courtesy of Karin Salk

After much deliberation, you’ve decided to add a new sport to your summer activity list: stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). To do that, of course, you’ll need to find yourself a stand-up paddleboard. But should you opt for a hard board, one that’s most commonly built from fibreglass, wood, or foam? Or is an inflatable, made from tough PVC plastic, the way to go? Here are five questions to ask yourself before investing in your first stand-up paddleboard.

A chart summarizing hard and inflatable stand-up paddleboards.
Credit: Kathleen O’Hare/Cottage Life

Which stand-up paddleboard is better for beginners?

If you’re new to paddleboarding, you’ll want a board that is fairly stable. While both hard and inflatable boards will meet most beginners’ needs, a hard board might have a slight edge. Matt Bartol, the owner and manager of Blue Surf in The Blue Mountains, Ont., tends to favour hard boards. “Most people, if they have the room for storage, will get a hard board,” says Bartol. “It will offer a better performance all around.” However, inflatable boards provide a softer landing surface for falls and are easier to carry and transport—and these are also important factors when considering which board to buy.

Winner: Tie

Which stand-up paddleboard is more stable?

Both hard and inflatable boards provide stability on the water, but you’ll want one with a wide base if you’re just starting out. Boards that are between 32–34 inches wide and 10–11 feet long offer the best stability. While there is some debate over which board is the most stable, Bartol recommends investing in a hard board if you’re looking for maximum stability.

Winner: Hard

Which stand-up paddleboard is more durable?

It’s a common misconception that inflatable boards are less durable simply because they need to be inflated. “You would need a steak knife to put a hole in it,” says Bartol. Unlike a hard board, an inflatable won’t get dinged or dented if you drop it on your way to the lake or brush it against rocks when paddling in shallow water. Inflatables are surprisingly rigid, and, due to their increased volume, can handle more weight. This means you can bring Fido along for the ride knowing that his claws won’t damage your beautiful new board.

Winner: Inflatable

Which stand-up paddleboard performs better?

Depending on your riding style, each board has its own advantages. A hard board allows for increased agility and glide on the water, and it can better withstand windy conditions. But if you’re looking to practice your Downward Dog on a paddleboard—yes, SUP yoga exists— an inflatable has a softer surface. And although a hard board generally moves faster on the water, the average rider won’t notice a huge difference.

Winner: Hard (but not by much!)

Which stand-up paddleboard is easier to store?

Transporting and storing an 11-foot long paddleboard can be tricky. So if space is an issue, opt for an inflatable. It’s quick to set up (a manual pump will get the job done in under 10 minutes), takes only a few minutes to deflate, and can be easily tucked away in its accompanying backpack. Backpacks vary in size, but they’re usually around 36″ x 14″ x 12″.

Winner: Inflatable

Which stand-up paddleboard costs less?

Although some high-end inflatable boards can burn a hole in your pocket, most tend to be less expensive than hard boards. This can be good for a beginner who may not want to fork out the big bucks on a recreational board. Be prepared to spend $500–$1,000 on a basic inflatable board and closer to $1,000 (and often more) on a hard board. And be wary of deals that seem too good to be true ($200 inflatable, we’re looking at you). As tempting as a ridiculously cheap board may be, the poor construction and low-quality materials will result in decreased performance and less durability.

Winner: Inflatable

The verdict?

As both boards offer different advantages, your choice will depend on personal preferences and the types of activities you’ll be doing with your board. If you’re looking for optimal performance and maximum stability, a hard board might be a better fit. If storage space is an issue and you need a durable board, you’ll want to go with an inflatable. Ultimately, whatever board you choose will provide a great reason to get out on the water and take advantage of the summer.

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