The world is full of famous “this or that” comparisons that are guaranteed to spark interesting and argumentative debate in a heartbeat.
Facebook or Twitter? Beatles or Stones? Dogs or cats? Ninjas or pirates?
And in the kayaking community, there is one conversation that will never truly be put to rest:
Inflatable kayak vs hardshell – which is better?
In this article, we try to make sense of it all, and arm you with enough knowledge to make your own, informed decision.
Note – please be aware that we’re comparing inflatable kayaks with comparable hard shells. When we talk about pairing them head-to-head, all things are as equal as they can be.
We’re not matching a basic Lifetime hard shell with an Advanced Elements inflatable, for example; or anything with a significantly lower price tag to that of a high-end boat.
Disclosure: At BonfireBob, we recommend products based on unbiased research, however, BonfireBob.com is reader-supported and as an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases if you shop through the links on this page. For more information, see disclosure here.
Table of Contents
Inflatable Kayaks versus Hardshell Kayaks – TL;DR
For anyone in a rush, the answers are: Facebook, Stones, dogs, and pirates.
But for the main question, if you don’t have time to read the whole article, here’s the content in summary:
Inflatable kayaks and hardshell kayaks both have their advantages and disadvantages. In short, there is no definitive right or wrong, better or worse, winner or loser.
It’s simply going to come down to what you’re using it for, and your personal preference. If you can, I would encourage you to own a version of each.
- Inflatable kayaks are better for storage and portability. Surprisingly, they’re also less susceptible to damage than hard shell kayaks, although there is still a small risk of puncture.
- Hard shell kayaks win hands down when it comes to performance. They also typically offer more deck and storage space, with more scope for customization, and they’re ready-to-go with little setup required.
A hardshell kayak is usually more feature-rich than an inflatable, as a lot is sacrificed for creating a highly portable and stowable boat.
When it comes to cost, inflatable kayaks are usually cheaper – all things being equal – although there are some high-end models that will set you back a fair bit of coin.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that – and we don’t want you to go just yet!
Below, we’ve organized the inflatable kayak vs hard shell match-up into key factors, and we’ll explain the pros and cons each type of craft has related to that heading.
Without further ado, we present the inflatable vs hardshell kayak contest – head-to-head!
Inflatable Kayaks vs Hardshell Kayaks
Materials and Durability
When comparing inflatable kayaks to hard shells, we should first look at what each type is made from, which should give us an idea of how durable it’s going to be.
Hardshell kayaks are made from a variety of substances. Rotomolded polyethylene/plastic polymers, wood, fiberglass, Kevlar, and/or other composite materials are common, each with their own set of pros and cons.
- Hardshell kayaks are typically going to last longer than inflatables. While not without their flaws, a hardshell kayak is going to stand up well to the rigors of different water and weather conditions.
- Made from durable materials, you’ll still own a hard shell long after an inflatable has failed to hold air.
- Dents, dings, and scratches are common with rigid kayaks, and you’ll always pick up new cosmetic marks every time you take one out.
- Because of the materials used to make them, hard shell kayaks are also heavier than inflatables, but we’ll talk more about that in the sections below.
Inflatable kayaks, on the other hand, are commonly made from a durable PVC, with more expensive models using a synthetic rubber called hypalon. In newer inflatables, nitrilon is used – but at a price.
- Inflatables are much lighter to carry, and a well-made craft is actually going to be more durable than you might think.
- Most inflatable kayaks will bounce off rocks – whereas hardshell or rigid kayaks can easily take on cosmetic damage in a similar situation.
There are plenty of videos online of people taking a claw hammer to a quality inflatable kayak – and it simply bounces back without a scratch.
Try doing the same thing to a hard shell, and you won’t get the same result.
- Alas, with inflatable kayaks, there is still a (small) risk of puncture, seams failing, or it no longer holding air – especially over time.
However, unless you’re hitting a particularly sharp branch, a puncture while on the water in a modern good-quality inflatable kayak is unlikely – so don’t let that put you off. Inflatables are still made with durable materials.
When we talk about kayak performance, we’re exploring the speed, tracking, and maneuverability of the craft on the water.
Tracking is how straight the kayak moves when paddling. To improve this, a kayak might have built-in or removable “skegs” (fins) under the hull, or have molded tracking lines to keep the craft straight.
Performance does depend upon the paddler and the paddle stroke, smooth or rough waters, and other factors; but for the most part, the evidence is pretty conclusive.
This is where a hardshell truly shines – just be aware that some cheaper/poor-quality hardshell kayaks aren’t going to be as good as a high-end, frame-constructed or drop-stitch inflatable kayak.
- Across the board, hardshell kayaks are faster, more maneuverable, and track straighter than inflatable kayaks. When it comes to paddling, you’ll seriously notice the difference when trying to get from A to B.
- A hard kayak is also more likely to have a rudder, or be compatible with one – which significantly improves maneuverability.
- None to speak of, as we’re not counting weight as a performance attribute. See transport and storage, below.
Try as they might, an inflatable just isn’t going to come close to a comparable hardshell kayak in this department.
- Some inflatable kayaks that are built around a rigid frame might offer similar performance to that of a hard shell. Smaller craft can also be pretty good at turning on a dime if required.
- You can also see an improvement with a drop-stitch inflatable kayak, as this technology allows the craft to be inflatable up to 10 psi, giving an almost comparable performance to that of a hard kayak.
- Generally speaking, inflatables can be difficult to paddle anywhere fast. You’re certainly not going to win any races, and the tracking (or lack thereof) leaves a lot to be desired.
Try paddling across a body of water in an inflatable, and then do the same stretch in a hard shell.
Also, if there’s even a moderate wind up, the lighter weight of an inflatable kayak suddenly becomes a problem, and it will be a challenge to stay the course in such conditions.
Safety and Stability
One of the primary concerns, when anyone starts out on their kayaking journey, is how safe and stable the craft is. This is particularly true if you’re shopping for younger paddlers, and/or total noobs.
And if you’re looking for your first kayak for angling, check out this review of the best fishing kayaks for beginners.
Of course, a sit-on-top kayak has better primary stability, whereas a sit-inside model has better secondary stability.
In this department, you might already have given the win to hardshells – but a good inflatable kayak might still surprise you.
- Depending on the type of kayak, a decent hard shell should be stable, which will breed confidence on the water, and feel very safe to use.
- That said, hard shell kayaks are considered easier to tip and capsize than inflatable boats – especially if you’re using a sit-on-top craft on rough waters.
When it comes to safety, inflatable kayaks often get a bad rep, but do away with those images of cheap beach play boats and your old inflatable that could pop like a balloon.
- If there’s one word that can put anyone’s mind at ease when on the water – it’s buoyancy. An inflatable kayak has it in spades, and they are much less likely to sink or tip than a hard shell kayak.
- Some inflatable kayaks also use drop stitch technology in their flooring, which allows for higher PSI inflation, which results in a more stable, rigid kayak. And for fishing kayaks, this can be invaluable if you want to enjoy standing casts and reels. Check out this review of the best fishing kayaks for standing for more information.
- But that niggling concern that they can puncture sometimes just won’t go away. Still, they have more than one air chamber, so in the unlikely event of a snag, you can still make it back to shore.
Comfort, Space and Onboard Storage
Aside from safety, comfort is a huge priority for most kayakers – especially if you’re going to be out on the water for long periods of time.
So too is the amount of storage space and room to move that a kayak offers. Nobody likes being restricted, or having to choose between what to bring and what to leave behind for outdoor adventures.
When you think about the best sit-on-top fishing kayaks, there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard shell in mind – and for good reason.
- Most hard shell kayaks are designed with comfort in mind. They have more deck space and offer more storage room and compartments than inflatable kayaks.
- Watertight storage hatches, bow and stern tank wells, accessory tracks, and bungee tie-downs are commonly found adoring a hard shell kayak. Storage compartments galore!
- But where they truly excel over their inflatable counterparts is with kayak seating. Sit-on-top kayaks can accommodate lawn-chair style seats that are more comfortable than whatever is in your sitting room. And even sit-inside hardshells have more comfortable seating than most inflatables.
- And while both hard shell kayaks and inflatables can come with foot braces, you’ll find they’re more common, of better quality, and more likely to be adjustable, in a good hard shell.
- Some sit-inside hard shells can be a tight fit, and quite restrictive when it comes to movement.
When it comes to this arena, comfort, space, and onboard storage is not the strongest suit for an inflatable kayak.
- Sit-on-top inflatable kayaks can offer plenty of room, and you should easily be able to stretch out, even if you’re using a tandem kayak with a significant other on board.
- Many inflatable kayaks also offer D-rings for you to attach your gear, as well as a bow and stern spray skirt under which you can store additional stuff.
- And when it comes to how much weight a kayak can hold, inflatables can generally boast the higher weight capacity, with many able to hold upwards of 500 lbs.
- But they’re just no comparison when it comes to comfortable seating, and inflatable seats aren’t nearly as attractive for spending long hours on the water.
- Nor can they offer storage hatches, or accommodate things like fishing coolers as readily as their hard shell counterparts.
Transport and Storage
Another key consideration when choosing a kayak is where you’re going to store it, and how are you getting it to and from the water?
I have a feeling I know who is winning this round…
Oh dear, it looks like hard shell kayaks are on the ropes when it comes to this department. This is, without question, their biggest downfall.
- You can still get some excellent compact, lightweight hard shell kayaks that are relatively easy to transport and store.
- However, one huge saving grace for a hardshell kayak, is the fact that it’s ready-to-go. Once you get it to the water, there’s no time spent blowing it up – fussing around with pumps, valves, or spending energy inflating rather than paddling.
- By their nature, hardshells are heavier, more cumbersome, and larger than inflatables. You’ll rarely find a rigid kayak under 40 lbs, and the best pedal fishing kayaks can weigh upwards of 70 lbs.
- You might struggle to find storage space at home, you’ll need a roof rack, or trailer to transport them, a kayak rack for the wall, floor, or ceiling, and possibly one of these kayak carts to help get them to and from the water without damage.
- Good roof racks can be expensive, too. As can all the other storage/transport hardware and gear you will likely need when rocking a hard kayak.
By stark contrast, a quality inflatable kayak is going to shine when it comes to transport and storage – and this is the very reason why people continue to champion them.
- An inflatable kayak wins across the board, here. They can pack down to next to nothing, be carried on your back, thrown in the trunk of your vehicle, and stored under your bed in a carry bag if you choose.
- And many inflatable kayaks come with their own carry sack or duffle bag. No roof rack or trailer required.
- They’re also much, much lighter than hard shells. An inflatable kayak can weigh as little as 25 lbs, which is a breeze to lift to and from the water, even when fully inflated.
- There is still a major downside with such portability – you do need to physically inflate and deflate the craft at the water’s edge.
- And depending on your air pump/fitness level, this can take a lot of time and effort – time and effort you’d rather spend paddling, or enjoying a cold one back at camp.
- Furthermore, one aspect that’s often overlooked, is how filthy a kayak can get. That’s fine if you’re throwing a hardshell on the roof rack, but it’s a monstrous pain-in-the-behind trying to clean and pack an inflatable for the journey home.
Some paddlers – most notably kayak anglers – like to be able to pimp their ride. But which type allows the most scope to do so?
Being constructed from solid, durable material, a hard shell kayak is ripe for customizing.
- You can drill into and attach pretty much anything you want to a hardshell kayak. From pet platforms to sport cameras, fish finders to anchors. Even if you have a basic kayak to begin with, the possibilities are endless.
- Many hard shell kayaks – particularly those used for fishing – already come with accessory tracks and gear mounts as standard.
- Unless the hardware is already in place, and/or they lack DIY skills, many paddlers will be reluctant to start drilling into the hull of their kayak.
Generally speaking, an inflatable kayak isn’t known for its suitability for custom modifications.
- It is still possible to add accessories to an inflatable kayak, but you might have to think outside the box for attaching hardware. You will have to get creative with the Velcro.
- You can’t drill into the hull, and for the most part, the hardware for customizing is sparse – to say the least – when it comes to most inflatable kayaks at the till.
When shopping for a shiny new kayak, maintenance can often be overlooked, but it’s an important part of the life of your yak. This article offers the ultimate guide to kayak maintenance for more information.
You’ve probably heard that hard shells are more challenging to maintain than inflatables – but is it true?
- Fiberglass kayaks are the most durable hard shells out there, but this comes at a price.
- More susceptible to bumps, scrapes, dents, prangs, and other cosmetic damage, hard shell kayaks will require more time and effort to maintain.
- They’re also more likely to fade with UV damage – so it’s important you spray your hard shell with a suitable protectant.
A common misconception is that an inflatable kayak is going to need more repairs than a hard shell.
- Give an inflatable kayak a good hose down, and you’re pretty much good to go.
- Punctures can easily be repaired with the right kit, and the fact that an inflatable is usually stored in its own bag ensures it will stay protected and out of harm’s way when not in use.
- An inflatable kayak can develop mold if not properly cared for, and they can be an absolute pain to clean and wipe down before packing away at the water’s edge.
For some, how their craft looks is a lot more important than how it performs.
Available in almost any size, shape, and color scheme you can think of, there’s a hard shell kayak design out there for everyone – largely thanks to the fact they can be painted and molded.
- Hard shells offer a mind-boggling choice of designs when it comes to aesthetics. If you want bright pink, you can find bright pink. If you want camo, you can find camo.
- Hard shell kayaks can also look stunningly beautiful, especially if you’ve ever seen a handmade craft, or a professional sea-touring kayak. Sleek, sexy, and stylish, these things can seriously turn heads.
- Such a choice can often give you a selection headache.
You can’t really paint inflatable kayaks, so the more outlandish colors and designs aren’t as readily available as they are for their hard shell counterparts.
- Sorry, I can’t find anything to like here, although some inflatable kayaks with frames can look quite attractive, and there are one or two exceptions.
- Let’s get down to brass tacks – inflatable yaks are never going to look as good as hard shells. They just don’t have the lines, the contours, the verve…
- Unless you’re spending a lot of money on an inflatable with a rigid frame, you’re stuck with primary colors, and a basic shape that looks like blow-up bumper training lanes at a bowling alley.
A significant factor in the type of kayak you choose is going to be what you’re actually going to be using it for.
I certainly wouldn’t try a long-distance, offshore, kayak-camping trip in an inflatable – for example!
There are some things that a hardshell kayak is just going to be better at than inflatables, and vice-versa.
Fishing is a prime example. While there are some excellent inflatable fishing kayaks (and you can follow that link for proof), hard shell kayaks are universally the more popular and preferred option.
For whitewater, both hard shell kayaks and inflatable kayaks are great options – providing the craft is rated to the class of the river.
That said, for serious rapids, for solo performance paddling, a dedicated whitewater hardshell kayak is unbeatable. You don’t see athletes using inflatables at the Olympics!
If you’re looking for a fun recreational boat on a car camping trip, then inflatable kayaks are perfect for throwing in the trunk of your vehicle.
And as mentioned above, if you’re looking to go some distance, then a performance hardshell kayak designed for touring is overwhelmingly the best choice.
When in doubt, revisit this article, consider what you want to use the kayak for, and go through the factors above with that in mind. You should be able to figure out which type of kayak is right for you.
As much as inflatable kayaks and hard shell kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, they also come at prices to suit every budget.
Head to head, inflatable kayaks are usually cheaper – but that’s not to say there aren’t some high-end models available that can cost over $1000.
Hardshell kayaks cost anywhere from $400 to over $5000, and some professional or custom-made craft can be considerably more.
Inflatable kayaks are typically priced from around $200-$2000.
Check out this review of the best budget-friendly fishing kayaks if you’re looking for an angling craft that won’t break the bank.
On paper, totaling up the scores on the doors, we can see that the hardshell kayak just edges out the inflatable 5-4 with one draw.
Of course, that’s my little made-up match-up, and your score might be entirely different. I’m just using my years of paddling experience to give an honest assessment.
Both have their pros and cons, both have their place, and at the end of the day – I would highly recommend owning a version of both if you have the means.
But in a nutshell – here’s my final take.
Short on space? Choose an inflatable kayak.
Looking for comfort and performance? Choose a hardshell kayak.
Check out the video below for some more thoughts on the inflatable vs hardshell kayak debate.
When the dust has settled, the battle between the inflatable kayak vs hardshell was never going to reveal a clear winner.
Tell us which camp your flag is in by dropping a message in the comments, or letting us know if there’s anything we missed out in our kayak head-to-head.
Stay safe out there, and happy kayaking!