In 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?