Budget inflatable SUP are awesome
They get people on the water, standup paddleboarding or SUPing, for the first time ever. Whether it be at a local beach, on a river, or on a lake. Whether it be with family, friends, dogs, or by themselves, cheap inflatable SUP get people on the water. And with all the well documented health benefits that being in nature, being with friends, or being outside brings, this is a massively positive thing.
But if you can buy a budget board for under £300, why does anyone ever pay more? Is it just because they’ve fallen for marketing by big watersports brands? Is it because there is a real difference in quality?
The answer is a bit of both…
Why inflatable SUP boards by big brands cost more
The big brands typically have a big supporting infrastructure – sponsoring developing riders, major events, and grassroots development amongst other value added benefits, all of which are important for the sport as a whole. It’s OK if you don’t feel part of that, and don’t see why you should pay for it. But it is an explanatory factor.
And of course, many of the brands sell through local shops and retailers. who need to make a margin to keep trading. And these shops often don’t make a massive profit: They do it for the love of the sport, and the stoke. We have seen the number of watersports shops decreasing over recent years as they fail to compete with online direct sales, and as the big brands squeeze their margins. If you don’t want to be part of that scene, that’s OK, and as a direct sales brand, we’re not in any position to point fingers! But these shops also provide value added activities, giving advice on places to SUP for example, or allowing you to try lots of boards. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.
But that’s an aside, and doesn’t address the real issue of whether there is a real difference in quality between premium boards and budget boards. And more importantly, whether this difference is important to beginners.
What we’re going to say here isn’t true across the board (pun intended). We’ve seen some expensive boards with dodgy build quality and poor quality accessories in the past. We’ve also seen some great value budget boards that look like they’re made to last and will really generate that ‘I love SUP’ feeling.
We can of course only speak definitively about McConks, but we suspect that many of the differences we’ve seen between our premium boards and some of the cheaper boards out in the wild apply fairly widely. And when you know what you’re looking for, you don’t need an x-ray machine to determine the quality of the board.
Which leads us on to…
Inflatable SUP build quality and design
Many of the budget boards just look cheap. Like a teenager designed them in an arts project. There’s not necessarily a problem with this, especially if you like the design. But a board that looks cheap is normally indicative of a lack of care and attention.
Something that isn’t always apparent from the marketing photos (which are always the best board in a batch), is just how poor quality control can be. We’ve seen budget boards where the deckpad is cut to shape with a Stanley knife when still attached to the board. Believe it or not, we’ve seen some budget boards where this cut has actually gone through into the board itself, meaning that they leak from day one.
You can spot a premium board from the cut of its gib – they have regular and even overlaps at seams. All of the PVC is fully adhered, and they are well cut. Whilst the look of the board might not matter to you in your keenness to get on the water at the right price, those uneven overlaps and irregular seams are indicative of slapdash manufacture, poor quality control. And are probably just the spot where a seam will burst or you’ll spring a leak.
And we’ve lost count of the number of budget boards we’ve seen where fin boxes are glued on at jaunty angles, or in the wrong place. This can really affect how easy your board is to paddle, and how stable it is.
Despite the claims that the whole process is ‘machine driven heat fused blah blah blah’ or other’, the rails, accessories and deckpads are still glued by hand. The precision with which this happens is really important, especially for the side rails, and that precision costs expensive worker time. Also clearing up glue from around the deckpad and fittings takes time if it’s done properly. This doesn’t necessarily affect the performance of the board. If the board is glued with the very best quality glue, then it doesn’t darken over time. But the cheaper adhesives used on many of the cheaper boards darkens in UV if exposed. This might only be a cosmetic thing, but it does mean that everyone can see that your board has been glued together with cheaper adhesive, and in turn affects its resale price.
There is a question about how well the cheaper adhesives last in heat and under pressure. And that’s why many of the cheaper boards come with stern warning about pressure and letting air out of the board if in direct sunlight. Anecdotally, although all brands have had issues with poorly formed seams, the cheap budget boards have a much greater failure rate.
We’ve seen with our own eyes deckpads coming unstuck, or forming massive airbubbles, fairly regularly on cheap boards. As far as we know, we have only had one board from our 16/17/18 lineup where the deckpad has started to lift. And that’s because we specify what glue should be used, and pay the price for it. Ask many budget board manufacturers or retailers what glue they’ve specified, and they’ll look at you blankly. Ask McConks, and we can tell you straight away! And there is a 4x difference in the price between the cheapest and most expensive adhesive used in SUP manufacture.
Although most budget boards use OK quality dropstitch these days, the quality of the PVC layer fused to it, and that makes up the rails (sides) matters. We’ve seen cheap boards with scorch marks from being placed against something metal in 26 degree heat in the UK. Even if you’re careful not to put the budget board up against hot rocks, at higher temperatures the PVC is weaker, and more likely to be punctured by thorns or scratches. And there’s nothing like the workout you get when you’ve put a slow puncture in your board, and you want to back to land before it turns into a banana and becomes unpaddleable!
We know the thermal tolerances of our PVC, and know chapter and verse about where the drop stitch is made. Our PVC is good in direct sunlight up to 40 degrees. That’s because we specified it, not just taking the cheaper alternative that most suppliers offer you. There’s a price premium of course, but we think it’s worth it. If the best the manufacturer can do is tell you ‘it was made in one of the top 4 factories in China’ when you ask questions, be concerned. McConks can get hold of a 10’6 x 32 x 5” double skin fusion iSUP board for £133 from one of the ‘top 4 factories’, and we wouldn’t sell it to our worst enemy!
There are good valves and there are bad valves. The difference in price (to us as a small company) is $2 – $24. We use the ones that cost us $24 dollars. We’ve tried the $2 and a range of others in the past. And there is a reason why we use the most expensive ones. We know they will last for years, that the metal components are made of marine grade stainless steel, they don’t leak, and are quality tested to within an inch of their lives. The last thing a customer should experience is a board deflating when in use.
Fins and fin boxes
Our fin boxes are expensive. We could get hold of fin boxes for our boards at less than $1 for all three. Our side fin boxes alone cost $9 a pair. And we pay close to $40 for our boxes and fins on our Go anywhere and Go explore range of boards. We specify where our fin boxes come from, and pay the price for this.
Because cheap fin boxes crack easily when knocked, or if left out in the cold, or if you blow on them (joke). But the point is that there are good fin boxes and bad fin boxes. Even we have had two fin boxes that have cracked, but one of these was on the whitewater course at the national watersports centre in Nottingham, and one was with a long windsurf fin in force 5 winds with the rider doing about 30 knots. But that’s two out many hundreds, a really low percentage compared to what we see on the beaches and at event. And when fin boxes are broken, it’s really difficult to change them – it’s probably going to cost you as much as your budget board to get them replaced.
We’ve already covered how well adhered / stuck fittings can be on budget boards. But the materials that they’re made from can be an issue as well. When we specify our boards, we specify the quality of PVC of the D-rings, we know where the handles have been sourced from and what the tensile strength of the webbing is, we have tested the quality of our camera mounts (destructively), we know that all of the metal on our boards is made from marine grade stainless steel. We work really closely with our suppliers to get the very best, rather than accepting the bog-standard fittings normally used.
Budget boards typically come with budget accessories. We don’t think this is a real issue for most people buying cheap boards. Most people buying a board for under £400 are testing the waters (pun intended again) to see if SUP is for them. And the accessories can always be upgraded in the future.
Cheap paddles feel a little bit like a lump of dough on the end of a stick. If you try SUP with a cheap paddle and think it’s too difficult, make sure you borrow a decent paddle before you give it up for good.
And likewise with the pumps. If you think you’re too weak to pump the board up, make sure you try a try a top quality pump from a friend first. Some of the cheap pumps have so much friction, they can put your back out before you even get on the water.
So should you buy a cheaper board?
As we said at the start, budget boards get people on the water, and have their place. Anything that gets more people on the water is a good thing. And hopefully many of the new recruits to this wonderful sport will stay, and buy more reliable kit as they upgrade.
So there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a budget board as long as you are armed with all the facts! And hopefully this article will help you find a better board for your budget.
How can you choose the best budget board?
It’s really difficult. And like we say, not every budget board has all of these issues. Some of them are fantastic value if you get the right board from the batch.
You can always check reviews on facebook or their website. But we’ve seen some pretty dodgy behaviours here by some brands. For example paying people for good reviews, or buying 50 fake reviews on Fiverr for $5. There are some giveaway signs to help you spot these – lots of reviews at around the same time is a tell-tale sign that they have been paid for! Lot’s of cheap pop up companies also claim to sell hundreds of boards every week, or claim to be limited companies despite not being registered in the UK. If a company is selling hundreds of boards a week, but isn’t VAT registered, they’re either tax avoiders or liars!
Asking for opinions on facebook groups is probably more reliable, because at least the groups are moderated. But these groups can be overly influenced by brand ambassadors selling the quality of the brands they are associated with, or shopowners recommending the brands that make them the most margin. But by and large these are relatively easy to spot!
You should also consider the depth of information available on the manufacturers website. If it doesn’t contain detailed information, then the chances are it’s a generic board, mass produced in China with some or all of the above issues. And don’t be tempted by marketing phrases like ‘made in one of the top 4 factories’ or ‘using the latest heat fusion pressed blah blah bah’. Because that no longer means what it did 18 months ago.
What you absolutely should do is try to get out with a local SUP group. They’ve probably got members on boards of all price ranges and will be able to offer friendly advice. You can find your local group using the maps on SUPhubUK.
And never be made to feel ashamed about the size of your wallet. There are a lot of elitists out there who can afford to spend £1000+ on a board, and think you should as well. Just because you can’t, that doesn’t make you a second class citizen! If the group/page/club/shop is making you feel like a lower class citizen, get out of there and find a different one!
So if you really love SUP, make sure you do your research, and get the very best board you can for your budget.
And if you’ve got £400 you might just want to look at our budget range of SUP: No compromise budget inflatable paddleboards | Go Simple