SUP surfing a hard board vs an inflatable – the main differences.

by | Oct 19, 2021 | SUP advice

SUP surfing your inflatable stand up paddle board and comparisons with a hard SUP experience.

SUP in the UK has seen unprecedented growth during the last 18 months or so. Driven by the COVID pandemic, which has forced people to stay at home and make use of their local geographic waterways, stand up paddle boarding has filled a natural gap.

Inflatable stand up paddle boards have topped the poles in terms of popularity. Billed as easy to store, transport and generally live with, the humble iSUP has been the ‘go-to’ option (even though this actually might not be the best option…). There’s abundant chat about air board performance online. If you search any of the social media groups you’ll come across discussion. In a nutshell, however, cheaper inflatable SUP materials and manufacturing techniques make for less quality boards. This directly knocks on to performance.

SUP surfing a hard board vs an inflatable - the main differences.
You couldn’t SUP surf like this on a cheap inflatable stand up paddle board.

Inflatable SUP performance.

But what do we mean by ‘performance’? On the face of it the term sounds elitist and many new paddlers (or even intermediate riders) may think this doesn’t apply. Yet stand up paddle board performance can be drilled down to a base level.

A stand up paddle board’s glide characteristics are key. Without beneficial glide (how much momentum your SUP carries after a few paddle strokes) a rider will have to put in additional effort. Fatigue sets in quicker and the whole thing just isn’t as much fun. 

SUP surfing a hard board vs an inflatable - the main differences.
Pump it up! Getting set for some quality paddling aboard Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co’s iSUP.

Tracking is another foundational SUP performance element. In tandem with glide tracking refers to how straight and true your board points. If it keeps veering from side to side (yaw) with correctional strokes required, again, it’s not as fulfilling an experience to pilot. Add inefficient glide to poor tracking and the whole process of stand up paddling becomes arduous.

All the above is based on the simple practice of driving your iSUP a short distance on flat, placid water. If you then try and advance your skills, taking your board into more ‘condition’ led SUP environments you can appreciate how inefficient (and possibly unsafe) this will be with a cheap inflatable stand up paddle board. And we say ‘cheap’ not ‘budget’.

It’s possible to purchase a good budget inflatable SUP that does an admirable job on the water. ‘Cheap’ inflatables just aren’t worth it though… Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co’s range of inflatables are made from premium materials and manufactured to top spec. Our kit certainly doesn’t fit the cheap mould, which you’ll appreciate as soon as you lay hands on one.

Hard shell SUP performance.

Stand up paddle boards manufactured from EPS foam and fiberglass can also suffer from poor quality issues. This will also knock on to performance issues as well. A big point here is how easy it can be to ‘ding’ a cheap hard stand up paddle board. And then there’s the EPS foam core itself, which if not quite up to the task will cause your board to endure high levels of stress.

In a wave environment, the board could flex to the point of snapping, cracking or creasing. Better produced SUPs can take a degree of flex. In some cases, this flex has actually been built in by the designer to deliver a specific feel. But cheaper hard boards just won’t be able to take the strains.

Waves and SUP.

When talking stand up paddle surfing the type of waves most will aspire to will be on the smaller, mellower side. There are, of course, some riders looking to battle overhead pulses of energy. The majority, however, will be happy piloting their kit to good use in ankle to shoulder high waves.

Stand up paddle boards – by their very nature – are longer and bigger than their surfboard equivalents. Oversized is good but does require a specific approach to using them. Of course, you can purchase short wave SUPs but these are quite technical and not to many tastes. Bigger SUPs therefore prefer a longboard style approach to riding them in waves. As well as offering a degree of flat water paddling performance. Versatility is a much better value option after all.

SUP surfing a hard board vs an inflatable - the main differences.
Bigger swells require more efficient and tuned SUP surfing boards.

Referring back to the glide and tracking points mentioned above this is super beneficial when talking SUP surfing – especially in smaller, slower, fatter waves. Enhanced glide is very forgiving if paired with a less refined paddling technique. It allows riders to roll into waves (even the tiniest of swells) from further out back. Efficient tracking keeps the board pointing correctly and delivers riders onto the green, unbroken part of the wave. 

With a stand up paddle board you bypass much of the hassle of traditional surfing and get to the point of surfing clean swells much quicker. This can be a double edge sword though, as you really earn your stripes whilst learning to prone surf and pick up key skills that’ll stand you in good stead. It’s therefore good practice to learn as much as you can – try paddling prone on your stand up paddle board for example. This’ll give a different perspective and, if you break your SUP paddle, you’ll be able to get back in safely.

SUP surfing a hard board vs an inflatable - the main differences.
Ready for the task at hand – SUP surfing the Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Classic is bang up to the job!

Riding waves – hard SUP Vs iSUP.

In terms of your physical actions, the actual act of riding waves on both hard and inflatable stand up paddle boards is no different. Make sure you’re in position, spot your wave, paddle hammer down and let the wave pick you up and drive you forwards. Add a few extra paddle strokes to make sure you’re actually into the swell, look down the line and head off on your ride. In terms of how each board feels though, this is where the differences lie. 

iSUPs, made from Dropstitch and PVC material, are much stickier to water surfaces. It can feel a little like riding in glue when SUP surfing, as the wave wants to boot you along but the board says no. You’ll still have a fairly good rate of knots and you’ll end up on the wave’s face regardless. It just feels like fifth gear isn’t happening.

SUP surfing on hard boards unlocks speed and easy to access performance.

A hard shell stand up paddle board, in contrast, accelerates quickly and releases water from its underside and rails efficiently. If the wave’s steep then riders will be blasted into the trough before a quick bottom turn slingshots them back up to the lip or down the line. This is how good riders are able to perform moves. Speed is a good thing. It also aids stability.

There’s no deflection with a hard SUP. Air filled boards all bend to some degree around the middle. You feel this as you take off in a wave. The iSUP’s tail sticks into the face while the nose tries to curve down. Hanging off your inflatable board’s tail is therefore imperative to avoid pearling (nose diving).

Turns and maneuvers are also very different between the two types of stand up paddle board. A hard SUP can have its rail engaged by the rider. This cuts through water and can be switched from one side to the other via board trim and rider weight transfer. An iSUP doesn’t allow this option with its thick round rails not having any bite. To turn and carve therefore needs deft footwork and paddle skill from the surfer. Even then it’s no comparison.

Charlie rides a classic Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co longboard SUP
Charlie rides the Classic Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co longboard style SUP.

SUP surfing safety.

Safety in the surf needs to be paramount. An air filled iSUP is a lot softer on flesh and skin should it decide to whack you. Also, if you do accidentally come into contact with others then it won’t hurt them as much and won’t damage their kit.

Hard SUPs do need to be kept well clear of others while you’re learning. A marauding hard shell SUP through a surf zone can be lethal! And don’t forget about surfing etiquette wherever you ride. This article sums up surfing etquette perfectly.

Summing up.

You can no doubt take your inflatable stand up paddle board into wave environments and enjoy huge amounts of fun. Continuing this route is perfectly fine. If, however, you want to step up your wave riding and access those carving turns, lip smacks and gouging slashes you’ll need a hard version.

Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co longboard SUP
Locked into the Freshwatwer Bay Paddleboard Co’s Classic surf SUP performance.

With a hard SUP under your feet everything you do in waves becomes much more true to that surfing feeling you’re after. There’s a choice you have to make in terms of what board will do the job you’re asking. But if you get the choice right (a Freshwater Bay Classic is one for instance) you’ll enjoy hours of wave shredding fun. 

Take a look at Freshwater Bay Paddle Co’s online shop for a selection of longboard style surf SUPs that’ll deliver on the above promise. If you have any questions then let us know.

Other Freshwater Bay Paddle Co articles that may prick interest can be found below –