What about an inflatable kayak?

by Sherri ~ April 26th, 2010. Filed under: Kayaking Equipment, Kayaks, Paddling Safety.

IMGP0138In the spring, an aspiring kayaker’s thoughts turn to getting a kayak.  A question that I am often asked, frequently by women, is what do I think about inflatable kayaks?  Many people looking to get into the sport think an inflatable addresses some of the concerns that they have in regards to lifting, transporting, and storing a kayak.  While this assessment is not entirely untrue, I do think that there is more to consider when deciding whether an inflatable is the best choice for your first kayak.

Benefits of an Inflatable Kayak

STORAGE: Doesn’t require a lot of room for storage.  You can store it in a closet or basement.

TRANSPORTATION: Doesn’t need to be lifted up on top of a car rack. Can fit in the trunk or back seat.

TRAVEL: Can be taken on planes like luggage.

PERFORMANCE: Generally pretty stable and forgiving.  Not prone to capsize easily.

SAFETY: Because the whole kayak is filled with air, it is not very likely to sink unless you have punctured all or most of the air chambers.

Disadvantages of an Inflatable Kayak

ASSEMBLY:  The kayak will need to be inflated before each use and deflated after each use taking extra time.

STORAGE: 1. The kayak has to be dried completely before it can be folded up and stored or it will develop mildew.  2. To avoid premature cracking of the hull material, you must be careful not to store it in places with excessive heat or under UV light.

TRANSPORTATION: After kayaking, you will have a wet blob of a boat that you will need to throw into your trunk or back seat.

DURABILITY AND MAINTENANCE: 1. Even a well-made inflatable will not last as long as an inexpensive plastic hardshell kayak without a lot of patching and repair.  2. Decent inflatable kayaks should have at least a two layer construction so that you do not puncture the air bladders if you scrape over rocks or sticks in the water.  3. After prolonged storage, you will need to do a test inflation to make sure you do not have any leaks before taking it out on the water, or you will need to do a test paddle in very safe water near shore.

PERFORMANCE: 1. Inflatables sit higher on the water and are therefore, more affected by the wind.  In other words, they are more difficult to paddle in the wind than hardshell kayaks.  2. You need to be able to pump up the pressure fairly high on an inflatable to get it to be stiff like a hardshell.  A soft, spongy inflatable kayak will bend under the weight of the paddler and not track well.  3. Most inflatables, because they are wider and more stable, are also slower due to an increased surface area in contact with the water. 4. Many inflatables are similar to sit-on-tops in that you are likely to be sitting in a puddle of water when you paddle.

COST: A good inflatable will probably cost you as much or more than a plastic hardshell kayak.  You should not be spending less than $400-$500 minimum on an inflatable kayak or you will be paddling a glorified pool toy. (Imagine trying to paddle a cheap air mattress.)

Now, you may think after reading the list of benefits and disadvantages that I do not recommend inflatable kayaks.  That is also not entirely true.  If after taking a hard look at the pros and cons you decide that the benefits strongly outweigh the disadvantages in your situation, an inflatable may be a good option for you.  For example, I bought an inflatable whitewater kayak 3 years ago for a trip I took to a remote Alaskan arctic river.  An inflatable or folding kayak was the only option for being able to take the boat inside the small bush plane that we used to get to the headwaters of the river.  I was using the boat for 11 straight days on the river so I didn’t have to inflate and deflate the boat each day.  I was wearing a drysuit while paddling, so I was not concerned about sitting in a puddle of water. (It was pretty funny to see some of the other members of our group take my kayak out for a test paddle.  When that cold water soaked into their pants, they hopped out in a hurry!)  Perhaps if you truly have nowhere to store a full-size hardshell kayak, you will need to get an inflatable.

However, if you are a women who has not kayaked before and you are thinking of an inflatable because you are worried that you can’t lift or transport a hardshell, I would suggest that there are many ways to deal with those two issues.  Many of the smaller recreational kayaks do not weigh all that much, and are not so difficult to lift up onto a roof rack.  Some of the smaller kayaks will even fit inside a minivan or truck bed.  There are also many gadgets that are made to assist people when having to load a kayak onto a roof rack by themselves.

So I would just advise that you think hard and carefully before going the inflatable route.  Inflatables make great “second or third” kayaks for those of us who want to be able to take a kayak with us wherever we travel.  Do you have an inflatable?  What are your thoughts on the subject?


21 Responses to What about an inflatable kayak?

  1. Chris Carlson

    I bought an inflatable years back and it just does not slice thru the water like a hardshell. I called it my water slug. It is a pain to sit there and set it up instead of tossing it in the water. And then taking it apart after. I still have it to allow nervous first time paddlers something to use but I’ve gone to hardshell and bought a trailer to haul so I don’t have to lift my kayak to the roof of my car.

  2. Sherri

    Thanks for throwing in your 2 cents worth of personal experience. What you just said reinforces my impression of inflatables. There are a few inflatables that will give reasonable performance, but you are paying around $2000 for those boats. Some of the whitewater models aren’t too bad since you aren’t as concerned about “slicing” through the water when running a river, although you wouldn’t want to try any playboating with an inflatable.

  3. marilyn

    I’ve had an inflatable, and loved it at first (since I am a woman who isn’t strong enough to lift up a plastic kayak to the top of my car), but I agree – sitting in a puddle of water isn’t the greatest experience, and I certainly did feel “slowed down” compared to the times I’ve rented a hardshell kayak. advantage was easily throwing it into my car – disadvantages were deflating it and having to towel it down, and have it sit in the yard to make sure all the water dried out of it before storing it – kind of like having a tent out in the rain. I like the performance of the hardshell compared to inflatable – but will have to figure out some options on how to load it myself if I do decide to purchase the hardshell kayak.

  4. Sherri

    Hi Marilyn! I don’t know what kind of car you have, but I’m pretty sure there is a solution to you loading a hardshell kayak onto your vehicle. Take a look at the video I posted on lifting a kayak onto your shoulder. It’s on the “Photo Gallery” page of this website as well as on the SherriKayaks YouTube channel If you haven’t already, you can also read my blog on some of the many products that are on the market to help you load a kayak by yourself. I may also try to get some more videos posted in the near future on how to load a kayak onto a car by yourself. Thanks for the idea!

  5. Frank

    I have owned cheap inflatables and they are toys. However I own an Advanced Elements Convertible with several upgrades and I can say it slices through the water and wind. We thereon Lake Michigan with 1 to 3 ft waves and we were safe and had a great time. The setup time is about 20 min and less for tear down. Tracking is great too. We are very happy with our kayak. As setup we have over $1200 in the kayak and almost $600 in 2 paddles.

  6. Sherri

    Again, your last sentence speaks volumes. You get what you pay for and you have invested some dollars in a kayak and good paddles. Inflatables, like all kayaks, have their advantages and disadvantages. You need to find the right boat for your situation. The inflatable has worked for you and you are happy, so that is great to hear. However, an inflatable is not necessarily the answer for all paddlers and they need to understand the pros and cons to make sure that they don’t waste money on something that they won’t be happy with. The inflatable whitewater kayak I took to the arctic five years ago was the perfect solution for me to paddle the Kongakut River in Alaska, but I am happier in my Dagger RPM when I have the option of bringing a hardshell kayak as it has better control and performance and makes it easier to roll.

  7. Darlene

    Your article was a big help. I was trying to decide if I should get an inflatable because it would be easier to take to Canada. After reading your opinions I know that it is probably not what I want.

  8. Sherri

    Inflatables and folding boats are specialty kayaks that have their place and can solve some difficult logistical issues, but they are not the right answer for everyone and every situation. I’m glad that my article was able to help you make an informed decision on finding the right boat for your particular situation.

  9. jon

    Honestly, I found your “information” to be biased. I’ve owned hard shelled touring sea kayaks, sit on tops, and inflatables, and have abandoned all but the inflatables. You didn’t mention, for example, how much fun it can be to be capsized in rough surf and have the hard kayak turn into a 60lb missile that can knock you unconscious or break bones, or the fact that wet exits and entries, and rolling, are all but impossible in very rough conditions from sit insides, while I’ve had no such problems with my Innova Safari self bailing boat over the ten years I’ve owned it, and the tandem Solar. I’m in New England, not a warm climate, and have taken the Safari with me to Europe, Newfoundland and Iceland, and have never once missed a hardshell boat.

  10. Sherri

    I’m not sure what your definition of “biased” is, but I feel that I presented both the advantages and disadvantages of inflatable kayaks. I believe that your opinion of inflatables could also be considered “biased” since you are listing only the positive aspects of your experience with inflatables. I must strongly disagree with your assertion that wet exits are “impossible” in very rough conditions. They are actually quite easy and I speak from years of personal experience in surf and whitewater. If you still do have fears of doing wet exits after repeated practice and training, then a sit-on-top or inflatable is likely a better choice for you. Rolling in rough conditions is difficult if you have never practiced in rough conditions, which I will grant you that most people never do. However, if you plan to paddle in those conditions, you should be practicing in those conditions. Whitewater paddlers regularly roll in very rough rapids. While it is true that a hard-shell can be dangerous to swimmers in rough surf, people who do not have the experience to handle their hardshell in rough surf probably should not be out there in the first place. In any event, whenever you wet exit in surf, you should keep the kayak between you and the shore and not the other way around. I’m very glad that you have been happy with an inflatable kayak and don’t miss a hardshell kayak. As someone who also owns an inflatable, I personally would not want to get rid of my hardshell kayaks although I would agree that there are certain situations for which an inflatable is an ideal solution. Many novice whitewater paddlers have had very positive paddling experiences thanks to inflatables. If you read my post carefully, you will see that I have not told people “not” to buy inflatables, I have merely cautioned them to consider their choice carefully. Manufacturers are always very quick to tout all the positive reasons to buy their products in their marketing campaigns. They aren’t going to point out the negatives. I know. I sold kayaks for 9 years and had to listen to many marketing campaigns over the years from every boat manufacturer. Since there are far fewer owners of inflatables, it is harder to solicit advice from friends who have used them. My post is meant to advise potential buyers to weigh the pros and cons before spending several hundred dollars only to realize that an inflatable may not have been what they were looking for after all.

  11. Isaac

    So I’ve just recently got interested in kayaks, and am looking to get one, but im not sure what kind, or if my budget will allow me to get anything at all. Technically I’m “inexperienced”, but I’ve been doing a lot of research in addition to my astounding three times of physically being on a kayak (lol). Don’t worry, I’m certainly not cocky but very cautious, I just know my general capabilities. All of my voyages have been in cockpit kayaks but I’m comfortable with them and possibility of having to perform a wet exit. I’ve seen some very enticing inflatables online, but I hear they are slower, and speed is the most important thing to me. The bodies of water will generally be relaxed, such as lakes, or very calm rivers. Any idea what would be some options or brands to consider? What about the length? Thanks for your reply!
    P.S. Nice professional reply schooling the hater 😉

  12. Sherri

    If speed is a major priority for you, an inflatable is most likely not going to make you happy. Inflatables have several advantages, but speed is not one of them. Even models that allow you to pump up the inflation chambers to a high pressure making the boat very stiff still suffer from being wider than most comparable hard-shell kayaks increasing wetted surface area, and the high degree of buoyancy in inflatables means that they sit higher above the water and have more wind resistance. If you have the space to store the boat, I think a good option for you right now would be to look for a used hard-shell touring kayak in a 13 to 14-foot length. Hopefully you can find something like a Perception Carolina 14.5, Wilderness Systems Tsunami 140/145, or similar. These kayaks are the closest to a “do-everything” kayak that you can find. They will allow you to explore the sport of kayaking, develop your skills, and then you can make a more informed decision about what it is you really want when buying your next kayak. These types of kayaks are also usually pretty easy to sell if you need to recoup your costs in order to afford the next boat. You don’t need a rudder which can save you a couple hundred dollars on the new versions of these kayaks. If you buy used, you probably won’t have a choice. If speed is really your first priority, you need to go with an even longer and narrower kayak. A used sea kayak in the 16 to 18-foot range would likely be a better option, although generally more expensive unless you stumble across a motivated seller with a killer deal. For the true speed demons, surf skis are great, but lack some of the maneuverability and stability of the other boats I mentioned.

  13. Alex Bland


    I’ve found some very good reviews from this website http://www.inflatablekayakreview.com


  14. Ed Gold

    A bunch of different reviews all over the Internet to try and find the perfect inflatable kayak and I stumbled upon your blog. First of all thanks for all of the information but I think I’m still a bit confused mainly my biggest concern is will the kayak standup to me taking it in an out of the ocean and keeping it outside in the eating son (I live in a Caribbean location). Also with regards to the speed I just read a review saying a few of the inflatable’s actually match up really well to the non-inflatable kayaks there was one that was getting up to 4.5 kn it was the innova sunny. Right now I’m looking at this big “report card” (http://www.kayakerguide.com/best-inflatable-kayak/) but out of the 50+ kayaks their listing I can’t figure out which one would suit my needs. In this case is price a huge show of quality because some of the cheap ones they show like the intex $70 is super affordable but I’m wondering whether it will break down on first use, the reviews look great. Also leaning towards the sea eagle 330. Any help is greatly appreciated



  15. Sherri

    I wasn’t able to view the link you sent, so I can’t speak to anything on that list. However, if you are in a Caribbean location, you will need to be very concerned about UV exposure, regardless of what kind of boat you get. Inflatables are probably more susceptible to UV damage because they are often made of a woven fabric. The fabric of a life jacket will weaken and degrade with sunlight exposure much faster than a plastic sand bucket that the kids leave out on the beach. Likewise, the fabric of an inflatable kayak will weaken and become less flexible in a much shorter time than a hard plastic or fiberglass kayak. If you need to stick with an inflatable for other reasons, make sure that you store the boat out of the sun when it is off the water, preferably inside a structure where there is little reflected UV light. You can also extend the life of your boat by regularly using 303 Protectant. Think of it as sunscreen for your kayak. Finally, price will be a good indicator of quality. At a minimum, you need a kayak that has double layer or double wall construction. In other words, the material that forms the air chambers is covered by another layer of material that forms the outer skin of the kayak. You don’t want to scratch your boat on a rock or oyster and immediately be cutting through into the air chamber causing a leak. The $70 kayak is likely the equivalent of a blow-up beach toy or cheap air mattress. Innova and Sea Eagle are both names that have been around for awhile. Between the two boats you mentioned, I would personally lean toward the Innova Sunny as being a better boat, obviously at a higher cost, but you will generally get what you pay for. I don’t think the Sea Eagle is going to be as rigid as the Innova. The more rigid the inflatable, the better the performance will be in the water.

  16. Sherri

    In looking over the site you linked, I feel like the boats and paddles are mostly on the low end of the price spectrum. I wouldn’t recommend a Coleman inflatable kayak for anything beyond a beach toy. The pricing icons for the paddles show three dollar signs for both the Werner Skagit and the Werner Kalliste, despite the fact that the Skagit is under $150 and is what I would consider a starter paddle. The Kalliste is at least $200 more than the cost of the Skagit. This site would lead people to believe that either the Skagit and Kalliste are similar in price or similar in performance quality. Neither is true. In reading some of the other articles on safety gear, the author mentions getting gloves to keep your hands warm as safety gear, but makes no mention of a wetsuit or drysuit to keep your truly safe in cold water. It appears to me that the person or persons behind this website have limited training and experience in kayaking, or at the very least they are not familiar with paddling in the northern part of the United States. Paddling gloves used to keep your hands warm in cold water will not have the finger tips cut out. Sponsons are not a piece of safety gear that would be used by whitewater paddlers or sea kayakers in more challenging conditions. They certainly wouldn’t be added to anything beyond a fishing kayak being used by someone who might need more stability while anchored. Several other statements in the article on “12 Must Have Safety Gear for Kayaking” are incomplete, misleading, or flat out wrong. I would not want to personally endorse this site.

  17. NoVizKid

    I’m looking for an inflatable tandem kayak that will hold up to the Northern California coast (windy, rough, cold). It’s sole purpose is to get me out to Kelp beds that are inaccessible by land (half mile paddle at most). I will be free diving from the vessel. I own a non-inflatable angling kayak that I can’t hike down the steep cliffs so this option is null and void. The plan is not to paddle out on stormy, rough, windy, days but you never know when the weather will sneak up on you up here. Are there any options that meet this criteria or am I asking for ferry dust? Sherri, I know you got the solution in you. Please help.

  18. Ed Gold

    Thanks for the tips Sherri going to read through your other posts great content! I think your second comment was directed to the comment before me? I couldn’t find any paddle reviews on the kayakerguide site. But I decided to do as you said and go with the innova. The big reason for a inflatable for me was the storage my flat is a bit smaller and cant really accommodate a big kayak. I will do as you suggested and get the “303 Protectant”.

    Thanks again! 😀

  19. Sherri

    I don’t have a model that I can suggest right off the top of my head. I can do a little looking and see if I find something. You are not asking for fairy dust. For safety, you will need something that has multiple air chambers so that in the event an air chamber fails, the boat will still float and paddle enough to get you back to shore. Get a boat that has multi-layer construction so that if you scratch a rock, you aren’t slicing into your air chamber. You want to have an abrasion-resistant outer shell to the boat. For paddling on the open ocean, you will want a longer inflatable – over 14 feet. It will also make it easier to climb back into the boat after diving as it will have a bit more weight and buoyancy to counterbalance your own weight when you have to climb back in. With that said, I would still suggest you practice getting back in from deep water in a protected environment first before heading out to the cold kelp beds. I have an inflatable SUP and found that one of my students could not get back on it from the water by herself. It was so lightweight that when she tried climbing on, the SUP would just flip over. You want to make sure that you don’t find out that you have trouble re-boarding your boat when you’re out in the ocean. I assume you have plans in place to keep the boat anchored while you are diving. Inflatables will blow a lot farther and faster if you let go of it in windy weather than your angling kayak. It’s like letting go of a balloon. Some good name brands would be AIRE, Innova, Sevylor, NRS. Feathercraft makes a very high end folding/inflatable sit-on-top (the Java) that would be a great boat, although at a higher cost.

  20. Ken

    I am considering an inflatable, in particular the Aquaglide Chinook XP Tandem XL, and I am wondering why to do not see this brand listed on many of the kayak review web sites ?
    Should I be concerned ?

  21. Sherri

    There is are several positive reviews of this kayak on Paddling.com which is one of the slightly better kayak review websites. I wouldn’t be too concerned about what you see (or don’t see) on most kayak review websites. I find that most of them are either sponsored by businesses that are promoting their own products, or they are administered and frequented by people who show a considerable lack of knowledge about the sport of kayaking. You have to keep in mind that anyone with the time to set up a website or write a review can set themselves up as an “expert” in anything, including kayaking. When reading kayak reviews, the reader has no way of knowing what the actual level of experience or knowledge is of the person writing the review. In reality, you have very little way of knowing what my level of knowledge is other than what I tell you on my website. In my case, you could go to the American Canoe Association website to see that I am, in fact, a certified instructor as I claim which gives me at least some credibility, but that doesn’t tell you if I am a good instructor. 😉

    The biggest concern that you will likely have about an inflatable is how durable will it be? In the case of Aquaglide, this company makes a lot of other inflatable water toys like floating trampolines, water slides, and jungle gyms. You can look for reviews about some of these “other” products on non-kayaking review sites to see how well they hold up and if anyone has had issues when making a warranty claim. Since Aquaglide is not primarily a “kayak” company, it is possible that the design of the kayak may be flawed in some way, but the reviews on Paddling.com seem to indicate no serious issues with how it paddles. The one review complained about weight, but at 39 lbs for a tandem, this person must be very weak. I don’t think I would want a 13-foot boat that weighed much less than this as it would likely not be very durable. There are also reviews on the REI.com website where the boat is for sale and Amazon.com. Those reviews are as reliable as anything you will find posted on a “kayaking” website.

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