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If you think embarking on a body of water in a paddling vessel filled with air sounds like an ill-fated outing, you aren't alone. But fear not—today’s inflatable kayaks are a far cry from those blow-up boats you used to mess around in the pool with as a kid. In fact, these inflatable watercraft are giving traditional hardshell kayaks a run for their money. And in this extensive guide we'll demonstrate exactly how and why.
Differences Between Hardshell Kayaks and Inflatable Kayaks:
When you think of a kayak, a pointy plastic form with a hole in the middle may come to mind. Aka a traditional hardshell kayak. Hardshell kayaks are made from wood, fiberglass, plastic, or composite materials like Kevlar, which forms the body of these rigid boats. These "regular" kayaks can be quite heavy, and you need a car and roof rack to transport them.
Inflatable kayaks, on the other hand, are made from more flexible materials, like rugged vinyl, which is often coated in either polyester or nylon. When deflated, they pack up reasonably small for easy storage and transport—many inflatable kayaks fit into a conveniently sized carrying bag that may fit in airline overhead storage and definitly fits in the back of a small car, no roof rack necessary. Inflateable kayaks, much like inflatable tents, are convenient, but do require an extra step: when you arrive at your destination, you have to pump them up with an electric pump, foot pump, or hand pump to the recommended pressure.
The allure of inflatable kayaks is the incredible ease of transport, and that they're light and easy to carry to and from the water. This makes them ideal for multi-sport activites, like packrafting.
Inflatable kayaks can accommodate between one and three people with a combined weight of between 350 and 700 pounds, depending on the model. Remember that more people means more paddles, bags, personal flotation devices (PFDs), and other gear though. Inflatable tandem kayaks may be best for larger groups.
The length of inflatable kayaks ranges between 10 and 16 feet, with most landing around 12 feet in length. Longer kayaks are usually more stable in the water, while shorter kayaks are easier to maneuver.
Key Features to Consider Before Purchasing an Inflatable Kayak:
Where You Will Be Kayaking
Calm water—think ponds and lakes—is ideal for simply constructed (and slightly cheaper) inflatable kayaks. In contrast, whitewater models have to be more robust and able to take more of a beating; if you plan on getting in whitewater or open water, consider looking at a self-bailing kayak (a type in which the water automatically drains from the bottom of the boat).
Construction & Materials
The construction of the kayak goes hand-in-hand with the environment in which you plan on using it. Less expensive inflatable kayaks have fewer features, and they may also be made from a slightly less durable material. These will work if you want to kayak in calm waters, ponds, or close to docks.
More extreme environments, like open ocean or advanced rivers, require a more robust inflatable kayak. Longer excursions or kayaking in more extreme weather and water conditions will need to be done in a kayak built to withstand these environments.
More expensive inflatable kayaks often have two or three layers of material. These make the walls of the kayak stronger and more puncture-resistant.
Some inflatable kayaks have multiple air chambers, too. You have to inflate each chamber individually, but the benefit is that if you get a puncture, only one chamber will deflate while the others will keep you afloat long enough to get to shore.
What You Will Be Using Your Inflatable Kayak For
Think about what you want to do with your kayak. Paddling with a partner? Opt for a tandem inflatable kayak. Plan on fishing and need to stand up on your kayak? You'll need to ensure that the floor can accommodate that. (Some kayaks are specialized with a sturdier floor for just this reason.)
You can always invest in additional accessories for your inflatable boat too. Some brands make things like rod holders for fishing and spray skirts for whitewater. You can also get an add-in inflatable seat to make paddling more comfortable, and those wanting to decrease the amount of weight they take on board should opt for aluminum paddles.
All inflatable kayaks should be certified by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). The organization ensures that all products meet specific standards that promote the safety of users and durability of products. They generally do a physical inspection of each kayak model annually.
Although most inflatable kayaks meet the NMMA’s standards, they can still get a puncture. There's a higher risk of that happening when paddling in water where there's a lot of debris or in shallow water where sharp rocks or other objects could penetrate your kayak.
The 5 Best Inflatable Kayaks & Packrafts
If all you want is a casual boat to paddle around on flat or Class I water, the AdvancedFrame Sport inflatable kayak is a solid and affordable option. It rolls down into a medium-sized duffel bag but is over 10 feet fully inflated. Its body is made of triple-layer PVC-coated polyester and has welded seams plus aluminum frame elements that function as "ribs," creating extra rigidity that helps with balance and tracking (it comes with a fin, too). On top of that, it's made up of multiple air chambers for solid structural integrity and shape. It doesn't come with a pump, but that's okay given its comparatively low price.
Kokopelli's Rogue-Lite is another example of an inflatable kayak that's not technically an inflatable kayak, it's a packraft. But the two are so similar—a packraft is a lightweight, packable, single-person vessel that has room for paddling with gear—that we're including one on this list. And the Rogue-Lite is impressively light at a mere five pounds three ounces and packs down small enough to fit in a small duffel (or strapped to the exterior of your backpack). Still, it's durable with a 210-denier TPU nylon body and has a burly zipper on the hull that lets you stash gear inside the raft if you're doing an overnighter. The Rogue-Lite is only rated for flat water and Class I rapids, FYI.
No, Oru Kayaks are not inflatable kayaks. It's a folding kayak, and it still packs down small enough to fit in a closet or car and is lightweight enough for you to throw over your shoulder (26 pounds, to be exact). Even so, it's a full 12'3" long and has room in its hull to stash enough gear for a multi-day trip. Setting it up is a bit of a puzzle, but it's one that you get the hang of after a few goes of it. Once in the water, it tracks remarkably well and feels just like a standard hardshell kayak—the best of both worlds.
There's a sub-category of inflatable kayaks called duckies. Like mini whitewater rafts, duckies have open tops and typically a rockered (curved) bow and stern. An excellent example is Aquaglide's McKenzie 105, which is a hybrid model that works well in both flat water (thanks to an included touring fin) and whitewater. The boat has a self-bailing cockpit, multiple carry handles, and an included seat. It doesn't come with a pump, so you'll have to get one separately. It only weighs 24 pounds but its Duratex PVC material is super durable.
Even tandem kayaks come inflatable these days. Advanced Elements' AirVolution2 is a great option because its rugged drop-stitch PVC body becomes rigid enough to function similarly to a hardshell boat. It's large at 14.5 feet but deflates and rolls into a bag that you can either roll or carry as a backpack. The kayak is full-featured too, with adjustable seats and foot braces, storage compartments, on-deck attachment points for gear a drain well, and a removable tracking fin.
Benefits of Opting for an Inflatable Kayak
They're Convenient to Store and Transport
Because inflatable kayaks pack up reasonably small, they also require less space to store—you can even keep one in a small city apartment (trust us on this one). You can also conveniently transport them without the need for a roof rack and check them at the airport for trips.
They're Cheaper Than Hardshell Kayaks
Inflatable kayaks are generally less expensive than their hardshell counterparts. They are also a good option for avid paddlers who might otherwise spend a small fortune on renting a kayak every time they want to go out but don’t have space to store or transport a traditional kayak.
They're Great for Beginners
For the most part, inflatable kayaks are more stable in the water than hardshell kayaks. That's because inflatable kayaks are generally wider than hardshell kayaks and thus more difficult to capsize. Some even claim to be impossible to capsize in flat water. The fact that they are filled with pressurized air contributes to their buoyancy.
Drawbacks of Inflatable Kayaks
They Can Be Slow
Inflatable kayaks are wider than hardshell kayaks. While that makes them more stable in the water, it also creates more drag and slows the kayak down when there's no current to push it along. It can also be more difficult to paddle a straight course in an inflatable kayak than a hardshell one, especially when it's windy, but some models allow for a removable skeg to counter this.
They Can Pop
As with anything blow-up, inflatable kayaks stand the risk of being punctured or torn. Still, designs and technologies of inflatable kayaks have improved significantly in recent years. Some higher-end inflatable kayaks have multiple layers of material and several inflation chambers to make punctures less likely, but it's always possible. It might go without saying, but punctures are more of a concern when paddling whitewater in rougher river terrain where there are sharp rocks or debris in the water.
Caring for an Inflatable Kayak
Here's a rule for all outdoor gear; take care of it properly, and it'll last longer. You should attempt to always clean your inflatable kayak after each use. This doesn't only apply to kayaking in salt water, either; freshwater can contain organisms and bacteria looking to make a home of your kayak and can cause mold to grow or affect the durability of your vessel.
The easiest way to clean an inflatable kayak is to give it a thorough rinse once you get home (or to the boat launch, campsite, etc.). Then leave the inflated kayak to dry thoroughly, preferably in the shade to avoid unnecessary sun exposure. Once your kayak is dry, pack it up and store it in a dark, dry place.
You also need to do regular inspections of your kayak to ensure that it hasn’t developed any leaks. The most tell-tale sign that a kayak has a leak is, of course, that it's deflating. To locate a leak, look to see if there are any bubbles when you submerge parts of your inflated kayak in the water. Do this in relatively shallow water, near the shore, where you can stand (you know, for safety). You can purchase a puncture repair kit to repair any leaks you may find, and some models come with them too.
Remember that some inflatable kayaks do gradually lose some air throughout the day. Changing water and air temperatures may also affect the firmness of your kayak as the air inside the kayak expands or compresses if the surrounding air temperature changes dramatically, which should make the kayak only slightly less rigid. In other words, don't always jump to thinking it's a leak.