MaterialIf you are reading this review, than you most likely have decided on buying a SUP with inflatable technology. In a nutshell, inflatables are far more durable than composite boards, lighter than plastic boards, and MUCH more portable than any hard board. The main drawbacks to inflatable SUP's are lack of speed and stiffness. There have been tremendous advances over the past few years in material technology, allowing companies to offer boards that are approaching hard board stiffness. You have probably noticed a large price differential with various inflatables (ranging from about $300-$1300). Part of what you are paying for is a board that can be inflated from 15-18psi, which creates a solid, stiff platform to paddle on.
Board ShapeThe shape of a board is going to determine it's stability, surf-ability, maneuverability and speed. In general, the wider a board, the more stable it is. Companies have also began building boards of various thicknesses. 3" used to be standard for the original iSUP's (C4 Waterman). Today, a 6" drop stitch is not uncommon. A thicker board provides quite a bit of both primary and secondary stability. It also deflects river current, which enhances general stability and river performance... Tail shape is worth taking a look at too. Boards with tapered tails tend to turn easier, and often times surf a little bit better. Boards with block tails are usually more stable. The best thing to do is try a few different boards and determine which one works best for you. Nose rocker is similar to tail design. Some boards have more of it, and some boards have less. Depending on what you plan on doing with the board, less or more rocker may be needed. Boards with more rocker tend to surf better and turn easier, but are also a little bit slower. Boards with less rocker, have better speed, but may perl when surfing on a wave. C4 Waterman is a great example of a company that builds a fair amount of rocker into many of their boards. Because of this, they are capable of high performance surfing. The same is true for many Starboard inflatables.
FinsFins are a very important part of inflatable SUP's. Without them, you would just spin in circles. The biggest debate is whether you want removable or permanent fins (or a combo of both). The advantage of removable fins, is that you can adjust your set up (twins, tri's or center fin set up) for different types of paddling (down river, surfing, touring). Here in CO, it is not uncommon to see a down river paddler with no fins at all. The water can be shallow, and sometimes it is better to have a slick bottom that does not catch on rocks. In technical rivers, you often want a board that turns easily, and SUP'ing sans fins is a good way to achieve that. Inflatables with removable fins also are smaller when deflated, because there are no fins to take up valuable space. The NRS Big Baron is a GREAT example of this. It's a behemoth of a board, and shrinks to fit into a very small pack. This would not be possible with permanent fins. The main disadvantage to having removable fins, is that they can break or get lost. It's no fun getting to the put in, and realizing that you only have one 4" fin for your SUP, when you really need 3. This is the reason that brands like C4 offer boards with permanent fins. The XXL for example is only offered with a perma tri fin setup. It's a burly board, can paddle some hard rapids, and is guaranteed not to pop a fin.
AccessoriesWithin the past year or 2, boards have diversified themselves into various genres. Some are built for racing, some for touring, many for downriver paddling and surfing, and a few for fishing. Make sure to look at features that may make your life easier. For example, NRS and Badfish Stand Up Paddle offer boards built specifically for fishing. They typically are wider than usual (more stable), and have mounts for rods, tackle bags and fishing gear. One of my favorite features is a bungee cargo net on the front deck of the board. This is very useful for touring on flat water, and also for bringing a gear bag on a down river trip. Nothing is better than having a warm fleece layer, rescue kit and camera when you are on the river or lake for the day...
BrandsEach brand has it's own reputation and niche. Depending on what you are, or are not looking for, you may want to look at a particular brand. Here's a rundown. Yep, we're gonna stereotype manufacturers...
- C4 Waterman - C4 Waterman is one of the most popular manufacturers of inflatable stand up paddle boards in the world. They are the ones who coined the term "iSUP". C4 is known for building durable inflatables designed to take a beating. C4 is also based out of Hawaii, which is home to some pretty gnarly surfing. Because of that, many of their boards are incredible surfers...this goes for their inflatables too. Also, Charlie MacArthur (aka. CMAC) is one of the key members of the C4 team. He is largely responsible for bringing SUP inland. Charlie even has his own model of board (CMAC). It was one of the first SUP's to experiment with thicker sidewalls for deflecting river current, and kick rocker in the nose to make river surfing easier.
- Boardworks SUP / Badfish Stand Up Paddle - If I had to think of one key word to classify Badfish Stand Up Paddle, it would be innovation. Both Boardworks and Badfish are on the cutting edge of technology, with boards like the MCIT (and River Surfer for hard shell boards) available to the public. The MCIT has a patent pending on it's unique multi chamber design. It is also rumored, that the MCIT is the most popular selling item in ALL of The Boardworks fleet. This is a HUGE statement, considering that they are one of the largest coastal SUP manufacturers on the planet.
- NRS - Northwest River Supplies jumped into the game with the Big Earl and Big Baron. They have a background in building rafts and river gear like wetsuits and foot wear. In short, they know what they are doing, and build a high quality product at a very reasonable price. Their boards appeal to families, and ALL populations. They are also known for ease of use. If you are new to the sport of Stand Up Paddling, want a board to learn on, and carry you through the years, check out NRS. Also, it is to be noted that NRS has some BAD ASS new inflatable SUP's in the lineup for 2013. They are diving head first into inflatable SUP's and have some awesome new toys to show off. Keep an eye out!!
- Starboard SUP - Starboard has a heritage in wind surfing, which on many levels is similar to SUP (and also very different). They also have an ace in the hole on their pro team, by the name of Dan Gavere. Dan's one of the most prolific whitewater kayakers who ever lived, and is now killing it in all aspects of inland SUP. Their boards are SOLID. They just feel right. The Astro Whopper for example is a board that you feel like you have paddled for months after about 10 minutes on the river.