When you’re in the market for a new kayak, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is should you purchase a hardshell or an inflatable?
And since inflatable kayak technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past two decades, the answer is not as obvious as you first think.
In this article, we explore the pros and cons of inflatable kayaks, and you might just surprise yourself by adding an inflatable to cart!
Table of Contents
- Inflatable Kayak Pros and Cons – Are Inflatable Kayaks Good?
- Which is better, an inflatable kayak or a hard shell?
- Are inflatable kayaks safe?
- Are inflatable kayaks good?
- How long do inflatable kayaks last?
- Do inflatable kayaks tip over easily?
- Do inflatable kayaks pop easily?
- Can I use an inflatable kayak on a river?
- Are inflatable kayaks any good at sea?
- Are inflatable kayaks good for pets?
- Can you leave an inflatable kayak inflated?
- Can you carry an inflatable kayak on a roof rack?
- How long does it take to inflate an inflatable kayak?
- Is it harder to paddle an inflatable kayak?
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Inflatable Kayak Pros and Cons – Are Inflatable Kayaks Good?
Thanks to inferior beach inflatables, play boats, and recreational pool toys, inflatable kayaks have often struggled to shrug off the negative stigma associated with cheap, poor quality blow-up products.
But this is changing rapidly, as modern inflatable kayaks are enjoying a boom in popularity, once people realize they’re not the same as the seaside dingy you had as a kid!
Far from it, in fact – and here are some of the main reasons why you should consider purchasing an inflatable kayak.
Inflatable Kayak PROS
Transport and Storage
If ever there was a plus point that counts for double, it’s an inflatable kayak’s ability for easy transport and storage.
Hands down the biggest advantage over hardshell kayaks, an inflatable kayak can be carried in the trunk of even the smallest car, carried on your back, and/or slung over your shoulder.
Inflatable kayaks nearly always come with a carry bag, which can usually accommodate a paddle, hand/foot pump, and repair kit if required. Everything you need to get up and go.
Inflatable kayaks are also generally lighter than most hard shells, some weighing as little as 25 lbs. Take a look at this article on the best lightweight fishing kayaks – many of them being inflatables.
And when not in use, it takes up next-to-no room in your garage, basement, under your bed, in your closet, or behind the couch. The carry bag often doubles as a good storage bag, too.
If you live in an apartment where space is at a premium, an inflatable kayak is overwhelmingly the best choice.
And if you’re a keen kayak angler, check out this review of the best inflatable kayaks for fishing.
Materials and Durability
Modern inflatable kayaks are every bit as tough and durable as hardshell kayaks – in fact, there’s a good argument that they’re even better.
Inflatable kayaks are made from super durable rubber/PVC – which can take an absolute beating.
The latest models use advanced materials like Hypalon and Nitrilon – the kind of stuff the US Military and Coast Guard uses in their boats.
You can literally watch people smash these inflatable boats with a claw hammer without making so much as a scratch. Check out the video below, which even shows a vehicle driving over a Sea Eagle inflatable kayak!
And when it comes to hardshell kayaks, they’re always going to take on cosmetic damage, far more than inflatable versions.
Dents, dings, scrapes, gouges… a hardshell kayak can get pretty beat up just about every time you take it out. Especially if you’re not using one of these kayak carts to help get it to and from the water.
But hit a rock with an inflatable kayak, and it will simply bounce off!
Having said that, please don’t ever drag your inflatable kayak across the ground – it’s light enough to carry, anyway!
While not all inflatable kayaks are made with a drop-stitch design, most are super-stable craft regardless, and it takes a lot of effort to tip or capsize an inflatable compared with a hard shell kayak.
But if you’re looking for the best of the best inflatable technology, then drop stitch is the way to go.
It allows for high pressure inflation, with a super-durable construction material that promotes more stability – perhaps even more so than rigid kayaks.
Weight Capacity and Buoyancy
If you’re looking to pack a lot of gear on your next kayaking adventure, and/or you’re thinking of using a tandem kayak and going with a partner, then an inflatable kayak could be the best option for you.
Typically offering a higher weight capacity than a hard shell kayak, inflatables are aided by their multiple air chambers, which increases buoyancy and makes them near-impossible to sink.
An average inflatable kayak can hold 600 lbs plus while on the water, compared to most hardshell kayaks coming in around 250-450 lbs.
Something that’s often overlooked when it comes to inflatable kayaks is the choice of put-in options it affords you.
With a hard shell kayak, you’re pretty much limited to man-made boat launches. But with an inflatable, you’re free to take it anywhere you want.
Inflatable kayaks, for the most part, are cheaper than their hardshell kayak counterparts. This makes them ideal for total beginners, or anyone dipping their toes into paddle sports for the first time.
And for more of the best beginner fishing kayaks, you can follow that link, or go here for the best budget-friendly fishing kayaks if you’re watching the pennies.
Inflatable Kayak CONS
Of course, inflatable kayaks are not without their flaws, and some of the following disadvantages can be deal breakers, depending on what kind of kayaking you’re interested in.
Setup and Pack Time
Alas, an inflatable kayak’s greatest strength is also one of its major downsides. It takes time to inflate and deflate a kayak.
It’s not going to take hours out of your life (most inflatable kayaks are fully inflated in around 7-12 minutes), but it still eats into time you could be doing something else.
But it’s after paddling and when you’re packing the kayak back down that can really take a chunk out of your day – especially as you need to make sure it’s clean, and clear of debris – unless you want a dirty car.
Top tip – always bring some old towels whenever you’re using an inflatable kayak.
I found this out the hard way after using inflatable kayaks for the first time in muddy conditions. We couldn’t fit them back into the storage bags, they were that filthy!
Furthermore, an inflatable kayak needs to be thoroughly cleaned and dried before storage, as they’re susceptible to mold if not properly maintained.
Paddling and Performance
While the latest inflatable kayaks – particularly with drop-stitch technology or aluminum frames – offer near-comparable performance to that of hard shell kayaks, for the most part, they don’t even come close.
A comparable class of hardshell kayak is going to be faster, track straighter, and be more maneuverable than even the best inflatable kayaks.
And if you’re paddling in windy conditions, moderate currents, or choppier waters/tides, it’s going to be much more effort on your part to stay the course.
Onboard Storage Space
When compared to hard shell kayaks, inflatables seriously lack storage space.
Sure, they might have bow and stern areas with a spray skirt, or pockets along the sides, but they can’t offer the same storage versatility as their hard shell counterparts.
Accessory tracks, tanks wells, and dry storage hatches are all largely missing from inflatable kayaks – which does translate to limitations if you’re kayak fishing.
As well as offering more storage room, hard shell kayaks are more comfortable than inflatables.
Inflatable seats leave a lot to be desired, and even if an inflatable kayak does have a more advanced and spacious cockpit or seating system, it’s generally not going to be as good as a comparable hard shell.
And legroom might be an issue, especially in some inflatable tandem kayaks with two paddlers on board. This is where hardshell kayaks with adjustable foot braces are preferable.
With care, a hard shell kayak is going to last a lifetime. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for inflatable kayaks.
They will give out eventually, and be unable to hold air, the seams/construction might be compromised, or some other issue will prevent them from operation as intended – even with the use of a repair kit.
Thankfully, that’s not going to be for five to ten years, or even over 20 years with some high-end inflatables, made from top-quality, durable materials.
Are inflatable kayaks worth it? Yes, they are. For on-the-go kayaking that’s tons of fun, modern inflatables are hard to beat – especially if you’re living in a small space.
In the end, if you have the means, I would highly recommend owning an inflatable and a hard shell. Most keen, experienced paddlers have both, understanding that one kayak doesn’t fit every situation!
Which is better, an inflatable kayak or a hard shell?
As luck would have it, we’ve written a whole article dedicated to answering this question. Check it out at this hardshell vs inflatable kayak link.
Are inflatable kayaks safe?
Yes, inflatable kayaks are extremely safe. In fact, they’re comparable with hardshell kayaks in this department, thanks to their increased levels of buoyancy, and super-stable design.
In rough waters, I would argue you’re safer in an inflatable than a hard shell kayak.
And don’t worry about the small risk of a puncture, as even if the shell is compromised, they have more than one air chamber – so you’ll be able to make it back to shore safely.
Are inflatable kayaks good?
Providing you’re purchasing from inflatable kayak manufacturers such as Sea Eagle, Advanced Elements, Elkton Outdoors, Kokopelli, and some of Intex’s models – then yes, inflatable kayaks are good.
How long do inflatable kayaks last?
One of the negatives of inflatable kayaks is the fact that they do have a shelf life. But with the right care and maintenance, a good inflatable kayak can last 20 years.
Obviously, it depends on the quality of the kayak, and how well it’s treated. Most inflatable kayaks typically last from five to ten years. Follow this link to learn more about general kayak maintenance.
Do inflatable kayaks tip over easily?
No. Next question.
Joking aside, it’s damn-near impossible to tip an inflatable, especially when compared to hard shell or more traditional kayaks. It’s going to take a lot of effort on your part to get an inflatable to rock over that far.
Do inflatable kayaks pop easily?
No. Modern inflatable kayaks are designed with safety and durability in mind – a far cry from those cheap pool and beach inflatables.
Both materials and technology have significantly improved, so you have peace-of-mind on the water.
Can I use an inflatable kayak on a river?
Yes! In fact, many inflatable kayaks are rated for whitewater, so you can be free to explore more waterways than ever before.
Just make sure your inflatable kayak is rated for that particular class of river before attempting to paddle it. Use certified whitewater rafts when in doubt.
But for calm lakes and lazy rivers – go for your life!
Are inflatable kayaks any good at sea?
Yes, absolutely. As mentioned above, they’re extremely durable, and almost impossible to tip by yourself.
You just need to make sure you’re using the right inflatable kayak for sea and ocean use. Look for narrower kayaks with a V-shaped hull design – which is more suitable for tackling waves and rough water.
And if you’re kayak fishing, take a look at this article on the best fishing kayaks for the ocean.
While most of them are hard shell kayaks, that doesn’t mean to say inflatable fishing kayaks don’t have their place on the high seas!
Are inflatable kayaks good for pets?
Some people might be afraid that Fido’s claws are going to damage or even pop the outer layer of an inflatable, but rest assured, modern inflatable kayaks are perfectly suitable for dog paws.
And cat paws, if you can persuade them to go anywhere near water!
Can you leave an inflatable kayak inflated?
You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Air expands and contracts when heated and cooled, so leaving an inflatable kayak pumped up can cause pressure on the seams and valves.
Over time, this can damage the kayak internally and externally, so make sure you properly deflate and store your inflatable kayak after every outing.
Can you carry an inflatable kayak on a roof rack?
Yes. If you’d rather inflate your kayak from the comfort of home and then travel to your put-in spot, you can easily lash it to your vehicle’s roof rack. Check out the video below, which shows you how.
Having said that, I think using roof racks with inflatables is cutting your nose off to spite your face, and not playing to an inflatable’s strengths. If that’s the case, why not just get a hard shell kayak instead?!
Of course, if you’re using one of these awesome inflatable fishing boats, I can understand why you might like to leave it set up and transport it on your roof rack.
How long does it take to inflate an inflatable kayak?
It depends on the type and size of the kayak, as well as the pump you’re using to inflate it.
But as a rule of thumb, most modern inflatable kayaks will be up and running somewhere between 7 and 12 minutes.
Is it harder to paddle an inflatable kayak?
Unfortunately, yes it is. One of the downsides of inflatable kayaks is that they’re typically harder to paddle – especially if you’re up against any kind of natural force – wind, waves, current, etc.
That said, they are improving all the time, and some inflatables offer near-comparable performance to certain hard shell kayaks, such as the Sea Eagle or Advanced Elements models.
On the whole, though, hard shell kayaks are going to be easier to paddle than inflatables.
A good quality inflatable kayak has a lot going for it, and it might be time you gave the best inflatable kayaks on the market a second look.
Drop us a line with your thoughts on the topic in the comments, or let us know if we’ve missed any pros or cons that you’ve discovered while using an inflatable kayak.
Stay safe out there, and happy kayaking.