The world of Stand Up Paddleboarding was transformed by the evolution of the inflatable paddle board. Until that time, the sport had predominantly been the preserve of big wave riders who used hardboards as a means of propelling themselves on to waves. These hard boards used existing manufacturing processes from other sports such as surfing, windsurfing and kayaking and used a variety of constructions, mostly based around a foam core encased by laminates of fibre glass, carbon or even thin laminates of wood. Whilst these boards proved effective for use in the waves as well as for racing, the inherent fragility and cumbersome nature made them impractical for the vast majority of would-be paddlers. And whilst these hardboards still have a place in the elite/professional side of SUP for paddlers looking for marginal differences in racing or waves, the performance margin has been reduced to almost nothing by innovations, materials and superior design at the premium end of the inflatable paddleboard market.
The development of inflatable paddle boards, which Red Paddle Co were at the forefront of in 2008, was responsible for the global adoption of SUP. This new breed of board were easier to transport and store, allowed access to new waterways and offered far greater durability than their harder counterparts. Today, the growth in popularity of stand up paddling boarding shows no signs of stopping and this combined with the continual innovation and development from companies like Red Paddle Co has helped develop the paddle board market we see today.
If you’re reading this guide, the chances are you’re either looking to buy your first board or upgrading from an existing board. Well, you’ve come to the right place! The purpose of this guide is to explore the ever-increasing, although potentially confusing, world of inflatable paddle boards, debunk some myths and give you a clear understanding of the technology involved in the manufacture of these boards.
At first glance, the current market can seem bewildering. A quick Google of “Inflatable paddle boards” reveals a mass of different boards in all manner of size, style and colours. Not to mention price. How can seemingly identical boards, save perhaps for wildly different colour schemes, all of which profess to offer a great paddling experience (with words like “stability”, “durability”, “performance” thrown in for good measure), have significantly different prices? Can there really be that much difference between board X and board Y? In short, the answer is yes! To help understand this, let’s start with a delve into what actually goes into making an inflatable paddle board.
Put simply, the big differences in price across the market today are due in large part to the construction processes and materials used in the creation of a board. And these differences are not purely for reasons of performance. The quality and durability of construction are, of course, vital when you consider the importance of safety of the paddler when out on the water. So what are these differences?
In the early days of inflatable boards, a material was adopted that has since become known as “Drop Stitch”. Essentially, this refers to the material which forms the top and bottom skin of the board which is connected by threads. This gives the board it’s shape, structure and stiffness.
Drop stitch comes in various forms and, generally speaking, cheaper boards (although also some so-called “premium” boards) use this to create something known as a ‘single layer’ or ‘fusion’ board. These have a very thin PVC coating which is similar thickness to a deflated balloon, and which is spread over the woven drop stitch material to make it airtight. The resulting board is often bendy, unreliable and does not deliver a very good paddling performance. A good tell-tale sign of whether a board is made using this, is if the board has a maximum PSI of 15psi or less displayed on it. This is not because it works brilliantly at that pressure, but because they aren’t designed to last under pressure. Inflate it to more than that and you’re going to have problems down the line. As a guide, a minimum of 15psi should be used to give good performance but ideally your board should be able to be pumped to 18-22psi to deliver unbeatable performance.
An evolution of these “single” layer construction came in the form of “double layer” drop stitch. This involved the doubling up (surprise!) of the PVC layer to reinforce the board and make it stiffer. Whilst it did achieve this, it came at the expense of weight as inevitably these boards were heavier and they were also more susceptible to cosmetic blemishes. Certain manufacturers sometimes try to avoid such blemishes by adding strips (sometimes called stringers) around the edge of the board, rather than double coating the whole board.
Whether the board is single or double layered, fundamentally the drop stitch material fails to provide a level of stiffness and quality required to produce an inflatable paddle board that will give you an authentic and enjoyable paddling experience. Such boards are essentially little more than beach “toys” and this is reflected in their price. However, whilst cheap to buy, the lack of durability ultimately means your investment is possibly going to be wasted. Repairing these boards when they fail can be both uneconomical and potentially dangerous if the structure of the board has been compromised.
As pioneers of the inflatable paddle board, Red Paddle Co developed a technology known as Monocoque Structural Laminate, or MSL, to produce hitherto unseen levels of stiffness, durability and performance whilst all the time saving weight by removing now unnecessary layers of adhesive. This technology uses layer of horizontal multidirectional polyester threads that are sandwiched between 2 layers of reinforced PVC. This is then machine laminated to a super-reinforced drop stitch, that provides a high-tensile rigid core, to deliver unrivalled stiffness and a premium finish. Features such as heat-treated seams and quad-layer rail tape complete the design and help provide an airtight, waterproof seal.
Ultimately the material is only half the story, as how the board is put together is just as important and, as with the material, varies hugely between manufacturers. For us at Red Paddle Co, it’s taken years of meticulous research and development to refine and finesse the construction process we use to deliver a consistent shape and product. We call this process TEC AIR and it means we constantly scrutinise every part of the production process to maximise board reliability and performance. Whether it’s how the rocker curve is applied or the process used to bond the layers together, we’ve continually evolved the process to ensure our boards deliver unrivalled quality.
So the material and construction of an inflatable paddle board is vital in terms of its quality, durability, stiffness and performance. Now let’s take a look at the different types of board available on the market today:
By far the most prevalent and popular type of board. Versatile and easy to use, these boards are perfect for beginners and more experienced paddlers alike. These boards are generally between 9 and 11ft long and are designed to offer all round performance in a wide range of conditions.
Designed to be used for longer trips, these boards can be loaded up with gear, such as camping equipment. Their longer waterline makes them great high speed cruisers whilst runner fins improve tracking and reduce lateral drift in side winds. Perfect for the more experienced paddler or those looking to take their paddling to the next level.
Being able to paddle on to a wave makes them a lot easier to catch! And these boards are designed to do just that. They need to be super-stiff and extremely durable and are shorter than all-round boards. Their narrower tails increase manoeuvrability in the waves whilst they must be no thicker than 3.9 inches to provide the rider with a lower centre of gravity making the board more responsive and stable.
Racing on a paddle board is a lot of fun! And in order to win you’ll need one of these specialist boards that are long (12ft+), narrow and super-stiff. There are two main divisions in SUP racing, the 12’6” and 14 ft class so first you need to decide which one you’d like to enter. To win, you’ll need a super stiff board to ensure you get the most out of every paddle stroke. The Red Paddle Co Elite range utilises patented proprietary stiffening systems such as the Rocker Stiffening System (RSS) and Forward Flex Control (FFC) to minimise flex and delivered unrivalled stiffness. They are much narrower than the touring and all-round SUPS to reduce drag and surface resistance allowing you to cut through the water more efficiently and deliver maximum speed.
These boards are wide, stable and ideally have a full-length deck pad to create the perfect platform for SUP Yoga. They are often slightly thicker than an all-round board to provide increased stiffness for more complex movements and to keep you high and dry when practicing those all-important floor (deckpad) stretches. To give you complete freedom the carry handles should be placed to the edges/rails of the board but the paddling experience should be the same as a large all-round so be sure to check how it paddles too.
The largest of these type of boards can carry up to 8 people, so they need to be super stiff, wide and stable for all the family to enjoy. At the smaller end of the category, tandem paddleboards enable two paddlers to share the work whilst its added length provides plenty of room for passengers, picnics, camping kit and more.
Smaller and lighter than other paddle boards, these are designed to be easy to carry and manoeuvre in the water. Reliability and performance are just as important on these boards as any other plus as your child grows in both experience and size the resale value may be a key consideration to ensure you get more bang for your buck.
These boards have high sides and exaggerated, progressive rockers to allow them to break in and out of the water. They need to have bulletproof construction as they’re likely to bump into their fair share of rocks! To navigate a foaming river these boards have to not only be super durable but also light and nimble to aid manoeuvrability so are often wide at their mid-section with a drawn in at the tail. Extra-grippy deck pad and cargo systems, whilst shorter, flexible fins are crucial to ensure you can ride out any rough stuff!
Combining paddle boarding with windsurfing, these boards give you the option to switch between the two, depending on the conditions. These boards come complete with a mast foot to connect the board and sail and often include numerous centre fin solutions. If you’re an avid windsurfer looking to make the most of your SUP when the breeze is up then a removable daggerboard offers the best performance and upwind tracking.
When it comes to inflatable paddle boards, perhaps the most important accessory is a pump! Let’s be honest, you’re not going to get very far without one. As with the boards themselves, there are huge variations here too, in terms of the quality and efficiency of the pumps available on the market today.
The majority of pumps are single chamber, the width of which vary between manufacturers.
A lot of boards at the lower end of the market supply pumps that have a wide chamber. These are easy to use but do not allow the board to be pumped to a high pressure. Most premium brands provide a thinner chamber pump with their boards as this allows you to get higher pressure into your board easier, however the downside is that it takes a longer time to inflate. Red Paddle Co innovated a completely new pumping experience with the Titan Pump which combines the best of both worlds, thanks to its two chambers. The thinner chamber allows air to be pushed out at over 60mph, whilst the larger chamber is used when the going gets tough, allowing you to reach a higher pressure in half the time – and more importantly by using half the energy!
Another key accessory is of course the bag used to carry your board. The backpacks supplied with boards come in all shapes and sizes, not to mention quality. A good quality one should have wide, padded shoulder straps to disperse and spread the weight when being carried and a waist strap to allow paddlers to bear the load through their hips rather than back and shoulders. As the bags are required to withstand any adventure and the weight of their contents they require super strong, double-bonded nylon seams, continuous coiled zips and robust coated material to ensure they don’t let you down. Integrated wheels are also a huge benefit when travelling, and a robust internal structure to ensure the straps are an integral part of the bag is vital to ensure they do not come away from the bag. As with the boards and pump, it’s worth researching the type of bag a board is supplied with before making that all important purchasing decision.
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