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Inflatable Kayak Guide: What You Need To Know About These Portable Watercraft

This post was updated on March 15th, 2024

If you’re in the market for a kayak, you know it can be a confusing purchase. There are just so many different types. From touring styles to modular to sit-on-top and folding, there’s no shortage of variety. But just one choice can make your purchase a much easier decision – choosing an inflatable kayak.

For years, many people have seen inflatable kayaks as being only a step above a pool toy. In fact, one of the largest drawbacks was always performance. You simply couldn’t get the same ride that you would with a traditional hard shell. But thanks to recent technology, that’s no longer an issue. Today’s inflatable kayaks handle just as well as any other type. What’s even better though is that inflatable kayaks have advantages that go far beyond the water.

If you’re thinking about picking up a new kayak, here’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to choose an inflatable one.

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Inflatable kayaks are easier to move and store.

Hiking with inflatable kayak
Zachary Collier

Transportation and storage is probably the largest benefit of an inflatable kayak. It’s so much of an advantage though, that this reason alone makes an inflatable worth the purchase. For most kayak owners, the day starts and ends with trying to tie their kayak to the roof of a vehicle and hoping the ropes hold as you travel down the road.

It’s a job that can be tough to do alone, and one that you’ve got to be very cautious about, unless you want to see your expensive kayak toppling off the roof. When you have a traditional kayak, hitting the water takes a planned effort.

Transporting an Inflatable Kayak Is Easy

The vast majority of inflatable kayaks can be placed in a large backpack, meaning they can be tucked into the trunk of a vehicle, checked on an airplane, carried up a mountain trail – or even taken on mass transit. You can carry and store an inflatable kayak places you’d never dream of taking a traditional one.

With an inflatable kayak, it’s much easier to have around “just in case.” You can pack it with your things if you’re flying to a foreign country, take it down the elevator of an apartment building, or have it tucked away in your RVs storage space for that moment you happen across a pristine body of water during a hike.

With an inflatable kayak, you have so much more freedom and flexibility as to when you go out on the water. You may not have been planning to paddle today, but since you just drove up on this beautiful mountain lake, and the kayak is just in the closet behind you… why not?

Inflatable kayaks are very durable.

Rafting in rapids
Zachary Collier

When you first think about it, an inflatable kayak doesn’t seem too durable. It seems like the first brush up against a sharp rock would leave you with a pile of deflated rubber, but that’s not the case at all.

Most inflatable kayaks are very heavily constructed, and can truly take a beating. After all, that’s what they’re built for! Most of them are made with the same type of skin you see used in high-end whitewater rafts.

And on the rare occasion that you do manage to puncture your kayak, repairs are simple. Most new inflatable kayaks come with a repair kit. To fix a leak, you just cut out a patch, apply the glue, and let it sit untouched overnight.

Inflatable kayaks are stable in almost any water condition.

Man in inflatable kayak

If you’ve ever watched someone in a kayak go down a river, you’ve no doubt seen them tip over and have to right themselves. While it’s not incredibly common, it does happen, and it’s something a kayak rider needs to know how to handle. While tipping over is a concern in any kayak, it’s much less of a concern in an inflatable one.

Why? It turns out that inflatable kayaks tend to be a little wider than their hard shell counterparts. Because of that, they’re more stable. This does sacrifice a little speed, but it’s not always important to have the fastest craft in the water.

The inflatable variety of kayak also tends to be much more buoyant than a hard shell, primarily due to the pockets of air all around the body. A traditional “v-shaped” hull has a low center of gravity, allowing it to slice through the water easily. But an inflatable kayak sits high and is much more resistant to sinking down in the water.

Overall, inflatable kayaks are pretty stable in just about any type of condition, from flat water to rapids. In fact, you’ll often find that an inflatable is more stable in rough waters than a regular kayak.

Inflatable kayaks are more budget friendly than hard shells.

Floating in kayaks
Zachary Collier

Especially before you fully dive in to a hobby like this, you might want to test the waters first. Fortunately, an inflatable kayak is a great way to get started. They’re significantly cheaper than other kayaks, meaning you’re not left with a very expensive piece of equipment if you decide it’s not for you. But, just like rigid kayaks, there’s a large price range.

It’s certainly possible to spend more on a high-end inflatable kayak than you would on an entry-level hard shell. But a beginning inflatable kayak is going to be your most budget friendly option by far for your first time out.

What type of inflatable kayak is best for you?

Inflatable kayaks

  • Self Bailing: A self bailing kayak is just what the name implies: one that doesn’t hold water inside. These are most useful if you’re hitting the rapids. In a whitewater ride, water is splashing around in every direction, and it would be easy for your kayak to fill up. But a self bailing kayak has designed holes (think eyelets with metal rings) on the bottom to let out water. If you’re using one of these kayaks, be ready to get wet. If you take this type of kayak on flat water though, be warned that water will come in through those holes. It’s certainly not enough to cause trouble, but it’s enough to make sure that you don’t walk away dry. A self bailing kayak usually won’t have fins, meaning it’s not as versatile in flat water.
  • Sit-on: With a sit-on kayak, you’re literally sitting on top of the surface. You’re not really sitting “down in” the craft at all. These are great for people who may have trouble getting in and out of the kayak, or those who feel claustrophobic. With a sit-on kayak, be ready to be splashed. A lot.
  • Sit-in: A sit-in kayak is more traditional. You’re in a “cockpit” of sorts with the kayak wrapped around you. Because you will not get splashed as much, these are great for cold weather trips.
  • Canoe style: A canoe style kayak is similar to a sit-in, in that you’re sitting “down in” the body of the boat. But with a canoe style, the entire body of the kayak is open. In a sit-in kayak, there’s only a small space where the driver sits. But this style is, like the name implies, open like the body of a canoe.
  • Open style: The open style kayak is sort of a hybrid between the sit-on and the canoe styles. The body is open like the canoe style, but the walls are lower and the riders sit higher. If you want easy entry and an open feeling, this is the design for you. The walls will still keep some of the spray out, but you still have the comfort of the shell around you.

Inflatable kayak downsides.

Inflatable boat repair kit

Inflatable kayaks do have a few downsides though, most of which have been mentioned above. But here’s a look at the issues that separate them from the traditional, hard-shell varieties:

  • Speed: You will sacrifice speed if you choose an inflatable kayak. Because of their design, they don’t sit as low in the water, and aren’t able to “slice through” as easily. But remember that what you lose in speed, you make up for in stability. Speed isn’t always the most important factor. Especially for a beginner, you want something that you can feel safe in. Slow and steady wins the race, as the old adage goes.
  • Durability: Like absolutely anything inflatable, there is the risk of damaging your kayak. But it’s never going to “pop” and leave you sitting in the water. If a leak occurs, these kayaks are designed so that it will leak slowly and you’ll almost always have time to exit the water. And should damage occur, fixing it is as easy as gluing on a patch and waiting overnight. And of course, remember that it’s entirely possible to damage a hard shell kayak as well. It’s tougher to do, but repairs would be much more costly.
  • Width: Inflatable kayaks might not be able to squeeze into the tight spaces a hard shell can. But again, what you lose in “sleekness,” you gain in stability. Just be aware of how big your kayak is, and pay attention to spaces you try to slip through.

The most important thing is to choose a kayak that fits your specific lifestyle and suits the water where you’ll use it most often. Fortunately, there’s an inflatable kayak that’s going to be perfect for your situation.

Selected highly-rated inflatable kayaks:

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