Don’t have room for a regular stand-up paddleboard? Try an inflatable

12:00 a.m. Sunday, July 17, 2016 Lifestyle

I feel a little like Huck Finn as I slice through the blue-green ribbon of Barton Creek upstream of Austin, water dripping from my straw hat and a pair of foot-long catfish gazing up at me from the crystalline depths.

But unlike Huck, who poled his cumbersome log raft down the Mighty Mississippi, I’m gliding along aboard an inflatable stand-up paddleboard, or iSUP.

Talk about convenient. The whole kit — backpack, inflatable board and pump — weighs about 30 pounds. But more than the light weight, it’s the compact size that makes the Paddle Anywhere Kit, or PAK, appealing to city dwellers.

In reality, most folks aren’t hauling inflatable SUPs into the backcountry. They are, though, stashing them in closets, carrying them on elevators, checking them onto airplanes and tossing them in the back seats of their cars. Inflatables are easier to stow and transport than the rigid boards that turn Lady Bird Lake into a six-lane highway on summer days.

We’re paddling at the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve, a 4,084-acre piece of property in southwest Travis County set aside by the Nature Conservancy for wildlife habitat and water quality preservation. The site, home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and other species, opens several times a year for volunteer events and guided hikes. (Check nature.org/texas to learn more.)

Austin-based SUP ATX, one of the country’s biggest SUP manufacturers, makes and sells the inflatable board that I’m using. It sells for $785. A paddle — a traditional one, or one that breaks down and can be stuffed into the pack — will set you back another $125 to $500.

It took our small group less than 10 minutes to unload the portable boards — folded up like deflated beach toys inside their packs — attach the pumps and fully blow them up. It’s easier to inflate a stand-up paddleboard, it turns out, than it is to pump up a bike tire. And when it’s filled, the board looks and feels remarkably like a traditional board.

“It feels extremely rigid. You can hardly tell it’s inflatable,” says Dale Rogers, vice president of SUP ATX. “The biggest difference is the flexibility and glide you get from a traditional board versus the inflatable.”

The classic test? Put the nose of an inflatable board on the edge of one table and the tail on another. It’ll support even 6-foot 4-inch former professional swimmers like Rogers and my paddling buddy today, 6-foot-8.5-inch Chris Kemp, without buckling or flexing.

Stand-up paddle boarding first became popular in beach towns; paddlers used them in the ocean, feeling the rhythm of the waves and looking down into the water from above. Eventually, the sport spread inland, to places like Austin, where paddleboards now outnumber kayaks and canoes on Lady Bird Lake on hot days.

“The Austin market is one of the best markets in the country. Well over 1,000 boards are sold directly in Austin in a year,” Rogers says.

SUP ATX, formed in early 2009, started by manufacturing and selling one or two types of boards. Today it makes nearly 20 different models, including ocean-faring boards, touring boards, race boards and boards specifically designed for yoga.

“In a canoe or kayak, you’re sitting there and that’s really all you can do. When you’re standing up, your perspective of what you can see down the lake and into the water changes,” Rogers says. “You can sit on (a paddleboard), lay on it and sunbathe, you can do a workout or yoga — it gives you so much diversity.”

Inflatables, or iSUPS, first hit the market about 5 years ago. Technology has improved since then. Early models featured snap-in fins. Now a traditional fin box allows users to change out the fin depending on conditions.

The 10.5-foot PAK model I’m testing tracks well, but don’t expect to win any races with it. (Who wants to race out here anyway?) When you quit paddling, it drops lower in the water and slows quickly instead of continuing to glide.

“Even though it feels totally rigid, it still has a little bit of give, which is nice for durability and smashing into rocks,” Rogers tells me.

The board comes with a patch kit, in case you’re shot with an arrow or get washed down a razor-blade-lined waterfall. If that happens, it’ll deflate pretty quickly on the water, but you can fix it later, Rogers says. (You may have bigger problems, though.)

He straps a waterproof box onto the board, and I drop my car keys and cellphone into it. I wade into the water, climb aboard, squat on my knees a few minutes to steady myself, then stand up. It’s smooth and quiet, and nobody else is around but a bevy of turtles perched on a half-submerged log.

I like the peaceful, nature-focused aspect of paddleboarding. Rogers, a former competitive swimmer, likes the competitive part, too.

“For most people in Austin, it’s a social thing. You go to a friend’s and hang out and paddle a bit and jump in the water,” Rogers says. “But I like doing workouts or racing, too.”

I think Huck Finn might like it, too.

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