Inflatable kayaks are a type of highly portable watercraft that can be inflated for use and deflated for storage and ease of transport. Many inflatable kayaks are comprised of three air chambers—a floor chamber and two side chambers—though there are many designs available. Inflatable boats can be filled using a foot pump, hand pump or electric pump.
An inflatable kayak isn’t suited for just one skill level or type of kayaking; there are models available for almost every kayaking activity or experience level. Rather, they are best suited for people who value the benefits afforded by their compactness. For example, someone who wants to access hard-to-reach launch points would enjoy the fact that an inflatable kayak can be easily carried over rough terrain and for longer distances. Likewise, someone who lives in an apartment would appreciate that it can be stored in a small space.
If those are things you value, read on to learn more about what to consider when purchasing an inflatable kayak that suits the particulars of your paddling pursuits.
Pros and Cons of Inflatable Kayaks
There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to inflatable kayaks when compared to their hard-shell counterparts or even other portable options such as foldable kayaks. You’ll need to weigh these pros and cons against each other based on what kayak features are important to you.
Keep in mind that regardless of whether you go the inflatable, foldable or hard-shell route, there’s a wide range of quality on the market. It’s important you do your research and purchase from a reputable brand to ensure you’re making a wise investment, but more importantly to ensure your safety on the water.
Advantages of Inflatable Kayaks
The weight of inflatable kayaks varies based on size and material, but as a general rule they are more lightweight than hard-shell kayaks. There are many exceptions, but a solo inflatable kayak commonly ranges from 8 to 40 pounds, and a tandem from 35 to 65. In contrast, a solo hard-shell kayak commonly ranges from 40 to 70 pounds, and a tandem from 60 to 90.
The lighter weight of inflatable boats means they are easy for one person to carry from their vehicle to the put-in.
Because an inflatable kayak can be deflated, it can be easily stored in small, indoor spaces if you don’t have a backyard or garage. Transportation is also made easier as it does not require a roof rack or trailer and can simply be stowed inside a vehicle.
You can even buy storage bags with backpack straps or handles so it can be easily carried from your home to your vehicle, and from your vehicle to the put-in. This also comes in handy when trying to reach access points that are overgrown or feature rough terrain that would be difficult to navigate when carrying a hard-shell kayak.
Saying “it floats” is a pretty basic selling feature for any kayak. But in this case we mean it floats—even if you spring a leak or swamp your kayak. High-quality inflatable kayaks are practically unsinkable, so long as your inflatable kayak has multiple air chambers.
If you do happen to puncture one air chamber, the other chambers will remain inflated and keep the vessel afloat, though you likely won’t be able to paddle the boat until repaired.
While you can certainly find low-cost hard-shell kayaks on our Paddling Buyer’s Guide, you’re more likely to see a price tag under $1,000 for inflatable boats. The Sea Eagle Sport Kayak SE370 costs $289, for example, and the Advanced Elements AdvancedFramed Ultralite $649.
Of course, if you’re looking for more bells and whistles it isn’t hard to drop $2,000+ on other models. But generally, you can get an inflatable kayak for a cheaper price than a hard-shell.
The stability of inflatable kayaks is similar to hard-shells—and in some cases, paddlers may feel like an inflatable kayak has superior stability. This is usually due to inflatable boats having a wider and flatter base than many hard-shells. However, if the paddler fails to ensure the air chambers are equally or fully inflated, it may detract from the kayak’s stability on the water.
Most inflatable kayaks come with a pump (either a foot pump, hand pump or electric pump), some of which have a built-in psi gauge. If yours doesn’t, it can be helpful to purchase a pump that can measure psi to ensure the air chambers are equally inflated (and to ensure you aren’t over-inflating them, which can damage the internal septums).
If you enjoy paddling whitewater or even rivers, where it’s not uncommon to come across deadheads and sharp, fallen branches protruding from the riverbank, you might think using an inflatable kayak is just asking for trouble. However most high-quality inflatable boats these days are almost puncture-proof. You do get what you pay for in terms of durability, though; tougher and lighter weight materials are going to be more expensive.
PVC is a common material used in the construction of inflatable kayaks and is very tear-resistant. Even more durable and more lightweight—and therefore more expensive—is Hypalon. Inflatable kayaks are often made of a combination of these two materials. The third material most frequently used is Nitrylon; it’s extremely strong, but the trade-off for this toughness is its heavier weight.
Despite the impressive durability of most inflatable boats, they aren’t invincible. Users should take care to avoid dragging their kayak over gravel and rocks, and steer clear of sharp objects when on the water. It’s also important to not take the durability of your inflatable kayak for granted—always carry a repair kit with you (and know how to use it) in case one of the air chambers does get punctured.
The durability of inflatable kayaks also lends them greater versatility. Because they are virtually puncture-resistant and are made to bounce off rocks, you can easily transition from paddling on flatwater to rivers without having to worry about scratching your boat’s composite hull.
Unless you are going to be tackling class III+ rapids, entering races, or participating in other types of paddling that would require a more specialized boat, you can get away with having one inflatable kayak for all your pursuits on the water whether it be fishing, touring, sea kayaking and more.
Disadvantages of Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable technology has come a long way. While you can now get speedy and efficient inflatable kayak designs for activities like kayak touring, when it comes to the average inflatable kayak, paddlers generally aren’t going to get the same performance as hard-shell kayaks.
For example, all other factors being equal, a hard-shell kayak will be faster than an inflatable. This is in part due to the inherent flex in inflatable designs, which translates to loss of speed. For the average recreational user, this likely isn’t much of a factor.
While inflatable boats are easier to transport to an access point, they do require more preparation than hard-shells to get on the water. This, of course, is because they need to be inflated. It depends on the size of the kayak, but a foot pump generally takes about seven to 10 minutes to blow-up a tandem kayak.
An electric pump will only take a couple minutes. Some tiny packrafts can be inflated in under a minute. You’ll also need to factor in a minute or two to check the air pressure of each of the air chambers to ensure the kayak has been properly inflated for peak performance.
Susceptibility to wind and waves
Just like a light canoe or kayak will get pushed around more by wind and waves, inflatable kayaks—which are generally lighter-weight than hard-shells—are more impacted by adverse conditions on the water. The shape of inflatable kayaks also contributes to their susceptibility to wind and waves when compared to hard-shell kayaks, which have sleeker profiles that allow them to more readily cut through these conditions.
Even so, improved technology has brought specialized inflatable kayak models for whitewater and open seas closer in performance to hard-shell counterparts. Some also come with skegs or optional rudders that make tracking in the water easier.
Just as there is a little more prep required when launching an inflatable kayak (due to their need to be inflated), there is more time involved in putting one away. Whereas a hard-shell kayak will dry on the drive home or on the canoe tree in your backyard, an inflatable kayak needs to be laid out to dry fully before it can be folded up and stored. This means you’ll either need to wait at the take-out (which, unless it’s a sunny or breezy day, isn’t the most efficient option) or lay it out to dry at home.
Types of Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable kayak models today are versatile, able to handle a variety of water conditions and trip lengths. Many are also customizable, allowing you to add accessories depending on your intended use. However, as previously mentioned, there are more specialized models on the market that cater to specific activities and conditions. Here are some of the most common types of inflatable kayaks you’ll want to know about.
Recreational kayaks are typically under 12 feet in length, are wider to allow for greater stability, and are easy to paddle in friendly environments. Inflatable recreational kayaks in particular make for great entry-level boats. Not sure what kind of paddling you’d like to do yet? A recreational kayak like Advanced Element’s Scout 134 will give you the versatility to dip your paddle in lakes, bays and slow-moving rivers. Many recreational kayaks are able to handle class I and II rapids as well.
More experienced paddlers who prefer casual day trips and light touring will love the comfort, efficiency and storage space of boats like Aquaglide’s Chelan 155 HB XL.
Inflatable fishing kayaks have all the benefits of ease of transportation and storage with added features that are both need-to-have and fun-to-have for anglers. These boats are typically made of ultra-durable materials that can withstand sharp hooks.
Fishing boats like the Innova Halibut have slip-resistant floors to allow for standing while casting and reeling, high-back seats for comfort while sitting, as well as integrated features like bottle holders, fishing rod holders, sonar brackets, safety ropes and tracking fins for greater maneuverability. Other features include D-rings, anchor lines and storage space for tackle.
Inflatable whitewater kayaks tend to be shorter and have a more limited weight capacity than other inflatable boats. One of the most important features to consider when purchasing an inflatable kayak for whitewater is whether it is self-bailing.
The Sea Eagle Explorer 300x, for example, has 16 open and shut floor drains—these can be left open when paddling whitewater to allow water to rush out and can be closed when paddling flatwater to keep the interior of your kayak dry. It also comes with rear and front sprayskirts, which is another consideration for whitewater paddling.
Solo inflatable kayaks are built to hold one paddler at a time. They are typically shorter than tandem kayaks, but this may vary depending on the type of paddling the kayak is intended for. Accordingly, there are solo inflatable kayaks for a variety of purposes, from whitewater to recreation to fishing.
Tandem inflatable kayaks are built to hold two paddlers at a time. Boats like Advanced Element’s Island Voyage 2 have customizable seating arrangements that allow for one- or two-person configurations. Convertible tandem kayaks are also a great option for larger paddlers who require more space and carrying capacity.
Inflatable Kayak Brands
Plenty of brands that have jumped on the inflatable bandwagon these days, but the following are some of the best when it comes to quality and versatility of products:
- Advanced Elements
- Innova Kayak
- Kokopelli Packraft
- Sea Eagle
- Tahe Outdoors
For specific models, check out our roundup of the 12 Best Recreational Inflatable Kayaks For 2021.
Inflatable Kayak Reviews
Here are a few inflatable kayak reviews from our team at Paddling Magazine:
- Hobie Mirage i11S
- Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Convertible Elite
- AIRE BAKraft Expedition
- Innova Thaya
- Sea Eagle Razorlite 393rl
- Aquaglide Chelan 155 HB XL
- Kokopelli Packraft Rogue-Lite
Where to Buy an Inflatable Kayak
Paddling Buyer’s Guide
With a range of inflatable kayak models from top brands like Aquaglide, Hobie and Aire, the Paddling Buyer’s Guide is the ideal spot to narrow down your search for the perfect portable kayak. The site features more than 40 inflatable kayaks from seven brands; for each kayak you’ll get an overview of its specs and features, and be able to view photos, watch videos and read reviews.
Plus, when it’s time to make the investment you can choose from a number of options, including buying right from the seller or from a local supplier.
REI has far less variety when it comes to the number of kayaks on offer. The three brands REI sells are Aquaglide, Star and Advanced Elements. The site experience makes it easy to compare models and it’s free to ship your kayak of choice to your closest REI. The site also offers plenty of reviews, providing added confidence to your purchase decision.
There are advantages and disadvantages to researching kayaks on Amazon. The number of reviews makes comparing models much simpler. However, searching “inflatable kayaks” on Amazon yields a variety of inaccurate results you’ll have to sift through, from inflatable standup paddleboards to rowboats.
You’ll also get a lot more lower-quality options thrown at you—which can be tempting when you look at the difference in price tag, but not worth it in the long run in terms of durability and, more importantly, safety. However, Amazon does carry quality brands like Advanced Elements and Sea Eagle.
While Walmart does carry inflatable kayaks from top brands like Sea Eagle, Aquaglide and Advanced Elements, as a general rule it’s a good idea to avoid buying from Walmart. Many of Walmart’s inflatable kayaks on offer have a low price tag, indicating corners are being cut somewhere. While cheaping out on a pair of shoes might have painful ramifications by way of blisters, not investing in a quality kayak can have life-threatening consequences.
Cheaper inflatable kayaks are made with cheaper materials that will tear more easily; as well, often their seams will split and air valves will leak. Saving some money is not worth the risk of having your kayak fill with water while you are in the middle of a lake or having it deflate to the point where it can no longer be paddled when you are down a river and far away from help.
Not to mention, they are just less fun to paddle. Even if you’re not going to be doing anything more than paddling at the cottage, you are not going to have a good time in a kayak that tracks poorly and sags in the middle because it’s constantly losing air. An inflatable kayak should be an investment in both safety and fun, so treat it accordingly and save up until you can afford a quality product.
Visiting a local paddlesport retailer is a great option for those who are looking for in-person assistance when selecting an inflatable kayak. While there are plenty of online resources available, it can be valuable to have an expert assess your needs and preferences to help match you with the right boat. In addition, experienced retail staff can help you purchase the right accessories like PFDs and paddles.
Perhaps the most valuable advantage many local retailers provide is the ability to demo models. Nothing will give you more confidence about making a purchase than actually being able to try out the boat you’ve had your eye on.
Inflatable kayaks are incredibly versatile and durable. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Advanced Elements