Two new inflatable SUPs that rival hard boards for speed, maneuverability and convenience and a handy SUP “Taxi” lockable cartop carrier
One of the greatest inventions in modern history is the inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP). SUPs have opened lakes, rivers and even oceans to people who, without a traditional boat, would be stuck on shore. Stand-up paddling isn’t new—most likely, people have propelled themselves on wood or reed floating platforms by using sticks or long paddles for tens of thousands of years. But the gear has gotten much better and way more convenient.
When surfers on the Hawaiian islands popularized the SUP style of surfing (and racing), the sport took off. And by the turn of the millennium, even the southern California surf culture had embraced riding waves on a board steered with a big paddle.
The year of possibility
For the rest of us, 2005 was the year of possibility. That’s when people realized that these small, sleek boards could be used to explore not only lakes and rivers, but used for touring, fishing, and even fun things like yoga.
I’ve been testing paddleboards since 2005, and always seemed to lean toward rigid boards. They are heavier, and more fragile (they chip, and worst case, crack). Inflatable boards are lighter, and more durable. But you have to inflate them. And on long, multiday tours, bring along a patch kit and pump, just in case. Also, when the wind hits an inflatable board, it is more likely to get tossed around than its rigid cousin.
In general, rigid boards are faster and more maneuverable. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I found two inflatable boards that blew all those preconceptions out of the water (pun intended).
Hitting the John Day River in style
My daughters and I spent 4 days on Oregon’s John Day River, the third longest undammed river in the continental United States. Because it is undammed, the flow is unpredictable. We hit the river right after a major storm (in fact, the upper section of the river was closed as it was above flood stage). All our friends had typical river-running gear − drift boats and big oar rafts for fishing. We showed up with the new NRS Escape and Body Glove Performer. Both boards performed way beyond my expectations; in fact, they were so fast, and so maneuverable, that we were the envy of everyone.
Body Glove Performer 11 ($999)
I had paddled Body Glove’s first inflatable paddleboard − the Dynamo 10.8. And while it was light, it didn’t track as well as other boards. But the Performer 11 inflatable SUP has been upgraded with incredible stability and durability. The board is made from a puncture-resistant, heavy-duty PVC.
We pumped it up past 15 pounds per square inch, which easily held a 140-pound paddler, a golden retriever and 20 pounds of supplies. There’s a 6-point bungee system on the front that secured our drybag. We ran it through numerous Class III rapids and bumped some big, sharp rocks while exploring basalt caves, with no ill-effect on the board (we did scratch up the nylon fins, but no cracks).
A stable ride
What was impressive was the tracking and stability. The Performer had triple-layered side rails and upgraded carbon-reinforced stringers. We didn’t have time to do any yoga on the board, but we did a lot of dropping to our knees when the river got too wild. The board held firm, never feeling “tippy.” The drop-stitch around the board is 5.4 inches, which keeps the board light, without sacrificing stability.
After three days on the river, we had a new appreciation for the EVA foam deck pad. It was soft enough for long days, and even naps. When we were so far ahead of the drift boats and rafts we pulled out in a grassy eddy to take a break.
What we noticed was the convenience. The SUP comes in its own backpack that fits the pump and 3-piece paddle. The high-pressure hand pump let us go from car to water in under 5 minutes. The three relatively shallow fins are fixed, so there’s no wondering if they have been installed correctly or doubts of whether they have been left behind.
When it came to deflating the board, we accomplished the feat in under 3 minutes. This is where you really notice the light weight. The entire package weighs 32 pounds (with the pump and bag), so the board weighs about 29 pounds.
It is easy to carry if you need to portage around big waves or low water, but substantial enough that it didn’t get tossed around by strong winds. The only extra we added was a “tow” line to tie the board up on the river’s edge at night. And the handy waterproof phone case is more than fluff. It kept my iPhone 7S completely dry, even though I did swim a few rapids. The board also comes with a leash, which is handy for those big downwinders on the Columbia River Gorge when separation from your SUP can be deadly.
NRS Escape 12’6” ($1295)
NRS arguably makes the most bomber inflatable SUP’s in the world. I had used earlier models in other reviews, and loved them. But again, I found myself reaching for a rigid, carbon board for big adventures. When I saw the Escape-series of boards, I decided to give them a try as they looked more burly, faster and more streamlined than previous iterations. And the Escape was all three. Fast, with excellent tracking and maneuverability that I have found only on a carbon-fiber board. The Escape series offers three lengths, an 11-foot, 6-inch board for greater stability, a sporty 12-foot, 6-inch board and an even faster 14-foot board.
Fastest in this class
The Escape is billed as a best-in-class touring board, and the description is spot on. We opted for the 12-foot 6-inch board for a great blend of stability and speed, and it was a good choice. We had time for plenty of “sprint races” and the 12-foot, 6-inch Escape beat the other SUPs in the test, as well as the rafts and drift boats, every single time. I’m thinking the 14-foot board would be as fast as any rigid race board for SUP races and downwinders.
NRS has decades of inflatable construction expertise and it is obvious when you look at the Escape. The brand makes some of the world’s highest-quality rafts and kayaks and they used their proprietary AXIS technology to make the Escape one of the most rigid boards I’ve paddled. (We went for 20 psi on the John Day River, which allowed us to carry big loads effortlessly). The double-sidewalls and Leafield D7 inflation valve and pressure relief valve are super sturdy, as is the heavy-duty PVC drop-stitch construction. So far, this board has about 200 river and lake miles on it. It has crushed Class III rapids, and conquered fast, sketchy beach landings in less that sandy conditions, and bumped through shallow rocky sections that would have trashed a rigid board and relieved it of its fins. And there’s not a scratch on Escape.
Perhaps the best feature is the ability to pack a lot of gear. There are six D-rings on the nose and four on the tail (both have bungee cords), so you can carry a food cooler on the back and dry bag on the front. Plus there are two additional D-rings for the leash and a water bottle.
We had the support of a fishing raft on the John Day, but since then have done a couple of self-supported overnights. The Escape did just fine with a tent, sleeping bag and stove (in dry bags), and cooler with food and drinks. It’s impossible to tip over, although a couple of paddlers did end up swimming a big rapid or two.
There are two nylon fin choices — one for grassy conditions and the other for touring. The latter is the one we used most; with some expert paddling we successfully surfed 3- and even 4-foot waves. The fins take a beating. There were two other boards on the trip, and one lost a fin on the first day. That wouldn’t happen with the Escape (or the Body Glove Performer).
For those instances when we did go for an unexpected swim, the three handles (on the nose, tail and center) came in handy for helping during a swim and, of course, carrying the board to and from the water. The board weighs only 27 pounds (less than many dogs) and comes with a three-year warranty.
Thule SUP Taxi XT ($300)
Both the NRS Escape and Body Glove Performer roll up and slip into suit-case sized bags with backpack straps for easy transport and storage. However, if you are using your boards for multiple days, you might want to keep them inflated. The Thule SUP Taxi XT is the answer.
We have tried a half dozen other SUP racks, and hand’s down, the SUP Taxi is the best. The rack has a telescoping design so you can adjust it to fit boards up to 34” wide. It will carry surf boards, inflatable SUPs and rigid SUPs. The curved base attaches directly to your car rack (if your car or truck doesn’t have a rack, you can buy Thule bars that will carry everything from the SUP Taxi to a gear box to a ski rack).
The SUP Taxi is easy to install (under 5 minutes). It weighs just 15 pounds, so it’s a one-person job. Two sturdy webbing straps with rubber bumpers flip over the boards (its designed to carry two) and then ratchet down for a secure fit.
We drove miles on bumpy, rocky access roads with boards in the SUP Taxi; not only do they not bounce around, the straps never loosened. The best part of the system is the lock. With the push of the button you can lock the straps (they have internal wires that can’t be cut), so your boards are secure. We bring the inflatable SUPs with us camping and carry them on top of the SUV so we can use it as our basecamp during the day and sleep in it at night.