The bottom line: The Big Earl's durability, portability, and buoyancy make this inflatable stand-up paddleboard a good choice for anyone paddling on rivers, traveling to their paddling destination, or carrying extra gear. While the board probably won't win any speed races, the dimensions keep the board stable, friendly for beginners, and suitable for river currents as well as flat water.
It has been almost a decade since NRS introduced the Big Earl to the stand-up paddleboard universe, and back then it was one of only a handful of options for inflatable boards. Since then it has gone through some iterations and slight modifications, but the essential design hasn't changed much due to a commitment to the core purpose of the product. This is a board of modest length and broad width, which makes it stable and forgiving in all kinds of conditions, including whitewater. The Big Earl isn't fast, but it isn't supposed to be. Instead, this is a rugged workhorse that doesn't mind the bumps and scrapes that would gouge and ding hard boards beyond recognition. And it is tough: I've pushed it over and through river rocks and sandstone, dragged it over hot sandy beaches, and thrown it into the back of trunks and truck beds without caution. Over the years it continues to perform well and without complaint. The Big Earl comes with fin set-ups for deep and shallow water. The fin mounts themselves are the greatest opportunity for design improvement: They are rigid plates of plastic mounted in an otherwise flexible and rollable board, and thus they are prone to cracking if the board isn't packed or rolled properly. It is difficult to imagine how another system would work, however, so it may just be one of the trade-offs (along with speed and weight) that come with owning an inflatable paddleboard.
Inflatable boards are a great choice for their portability. The Big Earl easily rolls into a bag with backpack straps that NRS includes with the board, and the bag is large enough to accommodate the included pump, fin setups for both deep and shallow water, a repair kit, and a paddle that breaks down. The total load should be under 35 pounds, which is light enough to pack into plenty of your favorite backcountry lakes and rivers. Alternately, with some careful packing and a bomber box or bag, this could easily be checked on your next flight to a watery paradise. You just can't beat that kind of convenience for a personal watercraft.
This board's buoyancy means that it can accommodate extra loads with ease, and rigging gear on the front is easy given the number of D-rings. You can easily strap up a small cooler for a picnic on the far shore away from the crowds, or you can pack up a few dry bags with enough gear for a multi-day trip. There is enough space in front for children or pets who are game for a ride, as well. In terms of versatility, this carrying capacity really opens up new possibilities for use and destinations.
The board's drop-stitch construction means it requires plenty of air pressure to achieve the necessary rigidity, and this is the probably the most significant drawback to any inflatable board. The pumping takes both time and effort...and you always have to push in more air than you think is necessary. Once you have it inflated, however, the board is both rigid enough to support a paddler with extra gear and soft enough to absorb impact if you (or younger paddlers) slip and land on it. This makes an inflatable board an ideal option for families and beginning paddlers who don't mind the initial pumping ordeal.