Just add water. And, in some cases, air.
Red Paddle Sport 11'3" ($1,529)
Gear of the Year
The paddleboard industry continues to boom, thanks largely to inflatables. Blow-up boards allow those space-challenged adventurers among us to reach places rarely touched by a paddle, and are no longer too floppy or too bulky to be considered unworthy alternatives. Take Red’s 11-foot-3-inch Sport. Lightweight at 22 pounds, it can handle everything from alpine lakes to open-ocean jaunts. Included battens make it amazingly rigid, more so than any other inflatable we’ve tested. And given that the Sport is a hair under five inches thick, paddlers can keep a low center of gravity, which translates into increased stability. The upshot is you’ll be more confident—one tester calmly cruised the sea-lion-infested waters off California’s central coast in the dark. On the user-friendliness front, Red’s two-barrel pump allowed us to inflate the Sport in about seven minutes. And when the day is done, the board easily burritos up and slips into its roller bag.
Bic Sport Tough-Tec Cross 10' ($699)
Best For: Fun and fancy-free flatwater outings.
The Test: Bic’s boards stand out for being nearly indestructible. The company claims that its Tough-Tec construction (a thick layer of polyethylene plastic over watertight EPS foam) can withstand the crushing weight of a small car. We opted not to drive over our board, but bumping the Cross into rocks or crash-landing it on the beach didn’t result in dings. While that brawny frame means more weight than other ten-foot models, the Cross easily floats and turns, handling well in chop and shining on smooth water. The slightly keeled nose helps with tracking and cuts through smaller oncoming waves. For larger paddlers, Bic offers an 11-footer that’s similarly bombproof. SUP yogis: remember to get a full-length deck pad.
The Verdict: An affordable board that can play rough.
Hala Nass 12'6" ($1,499)
Best For: Convenient all-around performance.
The Test: Another blow-up board that paddles almost exactly like its fiberglass-and-foam counterparts, the Nass carries speed like few other inflatables on the water. The secret? Flexible sheets of carbon fiber that boost stiffness and allow the Nass to track gracefully across both choppy oceans and serene lakes. We’d have liked better balance—its six-inch girth sets the paddler pretty high off the water—and all that volume means inflation takes longer than with comparable models, running testers roughly ten minutes. But handy D-rings in the front and back allow for easy loading of gear. Hala also makes a 14-foot model for serious expeditions.
The Verdict: A ready-for-anything performance board.
Boardworks Verve 11' ($1,399)
Best For: Speedy touring for smaller paddlers.
The Test: Despite the push toward specialized shapes, classic touring boards will never go away. The latest offering from last year’s Gear of the Year-winning company is a slimmed-down version aimed at women and smaller paddlers. The Verve’s narrow profile slips through waves, making it excellent for ocean touring and downwind paddling. An elevated foam tail block at the back end of the traction pad allows for agile maneuvering. Four low-profile tie-downs at the nose make packing necessities a breeze. Boardworks’ LiftSUP handle, which pops out of the body for easy pickup while the board is flat, continues to be one of the most comfortable and unobtrusive designs on the market.
The Verdict: A responsive cruiser with plenty of get-up-and-go.