Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Better for Beginners?
Are inflatable paddle boards better for beginners? No.
Beginners of all sports should set themselves up for success. A larger part of success is to use the best equipment possible.
In the world of paddle boarding, that would be a hard paddle board. Inflatable paddle boards aspire to perform as well as hard boards. While performance might not sound important to a beginner, in reality the opposite is true.
The holy grail of every inflatable paddle board is to be as stiff as a hard paddle board. That’s why so many inflatable brands tout their products air pressure. It is the desire to be stiff. A good way to think of stiffness is to think of standing on a sidewalk versus standing on a mattress. A stiffer paddle board provides better stability.
For a beginner paddler, a board’s stiffness isn’t something they would think about, but it’s greatly appreciated on the water. Anyone who has experienced an underinflated iSUP understands the unbalanced feeling of standing on a mattress.
The key to early success for every new paddler is board stability. An underinflated paddle board will be less stable than a hard paddle board because it will be less stiff.
A paddle board’s shape also plays a role in its stability. Especially when the board is static in the water. All water craft are more stable as they traverse through the compared to being motionless. Often, paddler boarders may stand while the board isn’t moving. Especially when just learning. That’s why it’s important to have a board that will be stable when you’re just standing on the water and not paddling.
A hard paddle board will be more stable than its inflatable counterpart. Hard boards have a concave bottom which offers better stability on choppy water, swells, etc.…
Inflatable paddle boards have a flat bottom which offers a different benefit compared to the concave or bottoms of their hard board cousins.
Flat bottoms are actually very stable in calm waters and this can be beneficial for beginner paddle boards. In fact, in calm flat waters, these bottoms provide even more stability than the rockered concave bottoms of hard boards.
Unfortunately, the superior stability of the flat bottom ends once the paddle board leaves the idyllic conditions of calm, flat waters on a windless day. Once the wind picks up and water chop develops on, the superior stability of flat bottoms disappears.
Unlike the concave bottoms of hard paddle boards, the flat bottoms of inflatables do not provide any lift to help raise the board out of the water making it easier to skim over the top of the chop and maintain stability.
The lack of stability on anything but calm waters means that the vast majority of inflatable paddle boards should not go into the ocean on anything but calm days.
Glide can be viewed as a paddle boarding reward. It’s the feeling of movement and speed. It’s part of what makes paddle boarding so awesome.
Beginners may enjoy the glide experience better than most, since it is so hard to come by when starting out. The feeling of taking your first 10 good strokes without falling and feeling the speed you develop is a great one. It’s this feeling that helps develop the passion for SUP!
Because hard boards are stiffer, they have better glide than inflatables. Beginners deserve to reap the “glide rewards” for all their effort. Why lessen the joy with the experience an inflatable will provide?
From the practical benefits of stiffness and stability to the joy of glide, hard paddle boards are better than inflatables for beginners. It is easier to learn on a hard board and the feeling of glide is stronger on hard boards compared to inflatables. However, if you plan to only paddle on calm days on your small inland lake, the inflatable paddle board will probably be just fine.
Is a Hard Paddle Board Better Than an Inflatable?
Is a hard paddle board better than an inflatable? YES! There is no denying it. In virtually all areas, a hard paddle board outshines its inflatable counterpart. As a manufacturer of hard paddle boards, the reader might be skeptical of this answer. So, let examine the reasons for hard board superiority.
Every inflatable paddle board is held together by glue. That’s right… GLUE! Split seams are a major issue for inflatable paddle boards. To illustrate this, there are over a million Google results for repairing split seams for inflatable boards, and several repair options are available for sale on Amazon.
The simple fact of the matter is that hard paddle boards do not have seams. This issue simply doesn’t exist for hard boards.
Because inflatable paddle boards are held together by glue, there is a greater likelihood of drowning by people who use them. The seam glue may split at anytime causing the inflatable to suddenly sink, leaving the paddler with no support. If the paddler was to far from shore, there will be nothing buoyant to help the paddler swim to safety. Drowning may occur.
While this issue may be easily dismissed, the reality is that it is possible. The United Kingdom’s Office for Product Safety and Standard even issued two product recall for inflatable paddle boards for that very reason.
A hard paddle board will never suddenly deflate and sink under your feet. There simply aren’t any seams to break apart like an inflatable. In fact, if a hard board split in half, the paddler would still have a buoyant object to help support their weight as they worked their way to shore.
99% of all inflatable paddle boards perform worse on the water than their hard board counterpart. The one percent that performs as well cost as much or more than the hard board.
All inflatables strive to be as rigid as a hard board. That is their goal - to imitate the standard. Rigidity is a key aspect to a paddle board’s performance. A rigid board glides over the water better. In practical terms, that means it takes less energy to move the same distance on a board with better glide. Rigidity also aids in stability. It is much easier to stand on a rigid and solid surface than on a flexible surface. After all, it is much easier to walk on a sidewalk then it is a mattress.
Paddle board glide is also affected by a board’s bottom shape. All inflatable paddle boards have flat bottoms. On the other hand, the majority of hard boards have concave bottoms. Concave bottoms are designed to improve glide. These bottoms are shaped by machine or hand. It’s difficult to blow up a balloon with a concave in it. That’s why inflatables have flat bottoms. Inflatable SUPs can’t duplicate the improved performance supplied by concave bottoms.
EASE OF TRANSPORT/ SET UP
Owners of hard paddle boards often give a little giggle to themselves when they see inflatable paddlers at the beach.
Life as a hard board owner is simply easier. Let’s compare a hard board and inflatable SUP owners typical experience.
To transport a hard board to the beach, it takes about three minutes to strap the board to your vehicle’s roof rack and even less time to remove it from the rack. Yes, it takes even less time to throw an inflatable’s backpack into the rear of a vehicle, but that is where the inflatable’s advantage ends.
Once the paddlers arrive at the beach, the hard board owner simply has to remove the board from the roof rack, attach the leash to the board and his ankle and head straight into the water. The inflatable owner, has to unpack and unroll the inflatable. Pump it up. Ensure the proper pressure is obtained and attach the fins. After all that, the leash can finally be attached and the paddle session can begin.
At the end of the day, the hard board owner rinses his board to remove the sand from the beach and spends three minutes strapping the board to the rack and is gone. Meanwhile, the inflatable owner has to wait for his board to dry. Remove any debris. Deflate the board. Roll it up. Repack the backpack and then toss it into the back of the vehicle. That is certainly a lot more effort to go paddle boarding for the inflatable owner.
Yes, you will need a rack if you own a hard paddle board, but many inflatable owners end up buying racks and cargo boxes, because their inflatable’s pack takes up so much room in their vehicle, that they don’t have room to transport other beach essentials. Either way, you may end up purchasing a roof rack.
NO WEIGHT DIFFERENCE
A quality hard paddle board will weigh the same or even less than its inflatable counterpart. Many shoppers believe that inflatable are lighter and easier to carry. That simple isn’t true. Inflatable just have a handle at the nose so you can pull your board to the water. A quality paddle board is well balanced and easy to carry.
After examining the reasons for hard paddle board superiority, it is apparent that inflatable boards are inferior in every tangible way. Yes, they are less expensive than a hard board. In that case, the old saying is certainly applicable here, “you get what you pay for”.
What is the Widest Paddle Board?
If you’re asking “What is the widest paddle board?”, you’re probably shopping for your first board. We’re going to answer the question from that perspective. This won’t be an article in search of some gimmicky monstrosity that holds 10 people. There will be no Guinness Book of Records insights here. Just a simple answer for paddlers trying to get educated.
Paddle board width is an important design factor and it should be a consideration when purchasing a SUP. It’s especially important for first time buyers. Width plays a major role in board stability. Wider boards will be more stable than narrow boards, and width is determined by the board’s function. Racing boards are the narrowest style with some being less than 20” wide. All Around paddle boards have an average width of 32 inches.
When considering a paddle board’s width, it is important to remember the concept of drag. A wider paddle board has a larger footprint. That means, there is more surface area in contact with the water. The more contact, the more energy it takes to travel a certain distance compared to a narrower board. This is friction. That’s why racing paddle boards are so narrow. They have less drag and can travel further on less energy.
With the physics of friction in mind, there are practical limits as to how wide a paddle board can be. If it is too wide, the paddle board would become difficult to move forward, and that isn’t fun no matter how stable it is, or how much weight it can hold.
To get a paddle board that offers speed, maneuverability, and stability, the widest a paddle board can be made that offers those functions is 36” wide. Any wider, and the board becomes to slow and less maneuverable.
However, not all 36” wide paddle boards are the same. Inflatable paddle boards this wide need to be avoided. Inflatables have flat bottoms. This means a whole lot of surface area in contact with the water. All that water contact results in drag, which will make for a slow and unenjoyable paddling experience.
In order to have the same experience on a wide paddle board as you would on a standard 32” wide board, it is important to get a hard paddle board. Hard boards can be shaped to have concave bottoms. A concave bottom lets the water slide smoothly under the board with much less friction. Less friction means more speed with less effort. The best paddle boards like the Wappa Olas will have double concave bottoms which makes the flow of water even more efficient.
Wide paddle boards are a great option for heavier riders, or people with a naturally wide stance. A properly shaped 36” wide hard paddle board with a concave bottom can be as much fun on the water and in the surf as a narrower 32” board. It won’t be as fast as a touring or racing styles, but you can still do it all. The key to success with the widest paddle board will be its shape. Keep that in mind when shopping.
Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Safe? Maybe Not
Most inflatable paddle boards are purchased by first time owners with limited experience, and most tend to paddle no more than a hundred meters from shore. However, it doesn’t take long to gain experience, confidence and paddle sessions go further and further from the shoreline. Soon, paddle trips 1-2 KM from shore or out to “the middle” of the lake seem like fun.
If long paddles far from shore are appealing, then using an inflatable paddle board might not be a safe choice. Inflatable companies like to promote the strength of their boards and imply that they are safe. They talk about the board’s material and its resistance to punctures. This is a smokescreen. Punctures don’t happen on open water. Nothing sharp is sticking out of the water to puncture your board. The strength of the material is irrelevant to your safety on the open water.
What is important for your safety is the board’s seams. All inflatable paddle boards are held together by glue. Yes GLUE! If the glue fails, the board can instantly deflate leaving the paddler no choice but to swim to shore. That’s not a big deal if you’re 100 feet from shore, but most people would have difficulty swimming 1-2 km back to safety.
In July and August of 2022, The UK Government’s Office for Product Safety and Standard issued two recalls for inflatable paddle boards for defective seams. The August recall specifically states the risk of drowning due to faulty glue.
This safety issue does not exist with rigid paddle boards. Only the cheapest rigid boards have seams. The vast majority do not. There is zero chance of a rigid paddle board deflating in the water. No matter what happens while out paddling on a hard paddle board, you will always have the safety provided by a hard, solid surface to climb upon. A hard board will not sink. In fact, if it snapped in half, it would still be buoyant and provide a level of safety. This is something that an inflatable just can’t do.
Split and leaking seams is such an issue for inflatable paddle boards that a Google search on the topic “inflatable paddle board seam repair” yielded 750,000 results. Amazon has more than a dozen different repair kits for sale. Clearly, these results indicate that split seams on inflatable paddle boards are an issue.
Are inflatable paddle boards safe? If the paddler stays close to shore, then yes, an inflatable SUP can be considered safe provided that the rider is a capable swimmer or is wearing a PFD. Staying close enough to shore is the key metric. However, if the rider paddles far enough that swimming to shore would be very difficult, then it wouldn’t be safe to use an inflatable. Seam separation is an issue. If a seam splits while on the water, you may have no choice but to swim to shore or drown. If you’re not comfortable with that option, you should get a hard board and the safety it provides.
The Wappa Blog
Written by Wappa's founder Layne Pennell, the blog's aim is to educate and share his love of stand up paddle boarding with anyone interested in SUP.
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