Inflatable (iSUP) vs. Fiberglass (Hard) Paddle Boards: Which is Best for You?

An Enticing Pursuit

At least once in his life, every beach-goer or lake-goer has seen a well tanned, grinning compatriot perched atop a paddleboard and thought to himself, “That looks awesome; I wish that were me!” Stand up paddle boarding looks so skillful, so calming, so Zen, even. Generally regarded – at first glance – as cheaper, easier on the body, and more conducive to waves than surfing, paddle-boarding is increasingly becoming regarded as a viable.

With the rise of inflatable SUP (Stand Up Paddle) boards, entering the game is as accessible as it has ever been; however, many still favor the traditional hard, fiberglass frame is their paddle boarding weapon of choice. Each side has its pros and its cons – which is best for you?

The Great SUP Divide

Some hardcore, veteran paddlers will still scoff when proffered an inflatable SUP board (iSUPs for short), and on the surface it’s easy to see why. Certain inflatable boards can look like toys, the proverbial inflatable kiddie pool when compared with the rigid fiberglass boards, the Olympic-sized pools. However, in recent years, manufacturers have been challenging these perceptions, pushing the limits in terms of quality and construction methods, cranking out inflatable SUP boards that are more and more worthy of attention.

It’s largely accepted as a universal truth that iSUPs are better for beginners for a number of reasons:

  • They’re more portable. You can deflate them and stow them almost anywhere, and while deflated they’re extremely easy to carry.
  • You’ll use your paddleboard in a variety of flat water locations including streams, lakes, oceans, and canals. In some cases, you may need to hike to arrive at your destination. You’ll be able to hike pretty much anywhere with your inflatable under your arm, as opposed to a rigid fiberglass board.
  • Inflatables, in general, are cheaper, although this isn’t always the case.
  • iSUPs are more durable, especially in whitewater.
  • You can bring your dog, as your fall will be cushioned

Nevertheless, iSUPs have their drawbacks, and fiberglass SUPs have features that make them the perfect choice for a certain kind of paddler:

  • Inflatables can take a while to inflate, and it can be a pain to always have to inflate and deflate them.
  • Over long distances, fiberglass boards are a bit faster. If you want to go fast, or do tricks, you need a hard board. At their peak, fiberglass boards perform better in terms of speed, agility, and handling.
  • Fiberglass SUPS are more stable.

Now that we’ve covered the basic advantages and disadvantages of each type, we’ll offer up some of your best iSUP and hard SUP options. Though this list isn’t comprehensive, and even if you don’t find your perfect board below, at the very least you’ll know what to look for throughout your search.

The Best Inflatable (iSUP) Options

Tower Adventurer Inflatable Paddleboard

Dimensions: 5.91 x 31.89 x 118.11 inches

The Skinny: A staple for iSUP aficionados, this board’s 6 inch thickness provides a great deal of support for the beginning paddle boarder. Its price tag – although $699 is no small amount, it’s not bad for your first SUP board – also makes it accessible for newbies.

Furthermore, its performance belies its inflatable origins. The board itself is extremely rigid, as it feels like and performs like a hard board, able to bear up to 350 lbs. of weight. Its military grade PVC material is pretty much the Kevlar of iSUPs, so durability is no issue. And obviously, its portability is excellent, rolling up into a (relatively) small bundle. The performance-to-price ratio is excellent.

For the recreational paddler – a step above beginner paddlers, but not necessarily competitive about the hobby or paddling almost every day – this is an excellent option. It’s a pain and a bit exhausting to constantly pump it up and deflate it (inflating it will take 5-10 minutes of pretty strenuous effort), but it’s well worth it in the long run.

Solstice Bali Stand-Up Inflatable Paddleboard

Dimensions: 18 x 12 x 34.5 inches (deflated)

The Skinny: Though the Solstice Bali iSUP isn’t on the performance level of the Tower Adventurer, it’s much cheaper and much more portable. It folds up small, and even comes with a convenient carrier rucksack that makes it easy to hike and explore until you find a place to paddle. If you’re looking for portability, flexibility, and a reasonable price, this is your board.

Though the Bali’s PVC material isn’t quite as durable as the Tower Adventurer’s military grade build, it’s still pretty darn durable. It doesn’t have the rigid feel of the Adventurer – it certainly doesn’t feel like a hard board – but it can still hold around 225 pounds. At $430 more or less, it’s a great entry point into the paddle boarding game for newbies.

Sea Eagle Needlenose SUP

Dimensions: 11’6” x 30” x 6”

The Skinny: The Needlenose is a bit of a well-guarded secret in the paddle-boarding world, as its best obtained straight from Sea Eagle, its manufacturer. Sleek, streamlined, and light, it’s built more for speed than the first two iSUPs we looked at, so it only holds up to 200 lbs. The sharp front (the board’s needle-nosed namesake) helps the Needlenose cut through the water, allowing for a quick and smooth ride. Finally, the 3-year warranty is nice. 

One drawback – as we mentioned, the Needlenose is a sleek, streamlined board designed specifically for flat water. It doesn’t do well with too much weight, and it doesn’t do well with overly choppy water. You’ll want to use it on the lake and other calm locales.

The Best Hard SUP Options

Surftech Saber SUP

Dimensions: 12’6” x 31”

The Skinny: The Surftech Saber won Outside Online Magazine’s 2015 Gear of the Year award, and with good reason – it’s a beast. As Outside itself highlights, “There are faster, prettier SUPs out there, but the Saber is by far the year’s most well-rounded. You won’t find a finer board for the money.” What the saber lacks in speed it more than makes up for in terms of smoothness, glide, and control. Its wide deck makes it a relatively accessible hard SUP given its stability, and its durable construction includes layers of fiberglass, epoxy, and wood.

If you’re looking for stability, reliability, and durability and have a bit of money to spend, the Saber is a good bet. Though it won’t blow any boards out of the water in races and it doesn’t deflate, the Saber will never let you down on the water and is much more comfortable in all conditions than the typical iSUP (or hard SUP, for that matter).

Earth SUP Biscayne

Dimensions: 12’6” x 28”

The Skinny: With a wooden, eco-friendly design (incorporating paulownia wood in lieu of foam), the Biscayne is an excellent option for the conscious consumer. Outdoor Online referred to the Biscayne as “the most comfortable SUP our feet have ever touched,” as the deck’s cloth and cork finish makes it a genuine treat for your extremities.

Lightweight and sleek, the board is quick out on the water; however, newbies may find it difficult to maneuver, and $2200 is a huge chunk of most people’s yearly salaries. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful board aesthetically, and if ethics play a big role in your purchases, you may want to give the Biscayne a look. Not for the faint of heart or for beginners, although there is also a wider (29”) option available.

Conclusion

In the end – predictably – your ideal SUP depends on your experience and the functionality you’re looking to get out of your board. Are you a pretty relaxed vocational paddler looking for convenience? One of the iSUPs is your best bet. Are you a pretty regular season paddler looking to take your SUP board out on the waves 5 times a week? It truly depends on what’s comfortable and what feels best for you, and you should give each type of board a shot. Are you a competitive paddle boarder looking to race and enter competitions? Then a hard SUP is your only option.

If you’re honest about your abilities and what you’re looking to get out of your board, then you’ll surely be able to make the right call. Furthermore, many paddle boarders have more than one board. If you’re serious and you can afford it, it will never hurt you to have a fiberglass SUP for more serious occasions and a roll-up/iSUP for when you need to travel lighter and easier.