Inflatables vs Hard Kayaks: What’s Best?

Written by Ryan Moore

I will admit unashamedly that I am the proud owner of two inflatable kayaks, and have been for about 10 years. I gave my hard shells to my children (who are grown…) a few years ago, and now I use my inflatables exclusively. Some may think I’ve lost my mind  (it was gone a long time before it did that…), but there are reasons why I now use inflatables. But first, let’s look at the history of inflatable boats in general. Then it will be easier to understand why I now use inflatable kayaks.

Pros and Cons of Inflatable Kayaks

In days gone by, most of the good construction of inflatables was limited to military boats. But today, consumer kayaks are using the same technology available on the best military and commercial units. Of course, there are low-end models which are little more than pool toys, but the mid-range and upper-end models are incredibly tough, puncture resistant, and extremely safe, maybe even more than a standard yak. Just remember, as in most things, you get what you pay for.

The first and most obvious drawback is that they have to be inflated. But any boat has to be set up before launch, and with a modern high-capacity pump, inflation takes only minutes. I am an old man (relatively speaking…in my 60s), and I can have either of my yaks inflated, loaded, and ready to hit the water in under 15 minutes, all by myself. I have a Sevylor Rio, and an Advanced Elements Frame Convertible, and both inflate quickly and easily.

The next concern a lot of people have is with punctures, and sinking. Modern yaks are made of several layers of PVC reinforced with lots of nylon, and in the case of my yaks, they are also encased in a very thick nylon cover. Other yaks are made from super-tough Hypalon. In over 10 years of use on rivers, rapids, lakes, the coast, and even the Everglades, I have never had a single puncture. I have bounced off of rocks, trees, other boats, and once, even over a waterfall, and never had a picture…in the boat anyway. I, on the other hand, keep a good supply of band aids and bandages handy. They seem to get used a lot around here. I have two patch kits that have never been opened. However, should you manage to pole a hole in your yak, no worries. They have several different compartments, and to sink it, you’d have to poke holes in 5 or 6 different places. It’s easy just to paddle to shore, slap on a patch, put in some more air, and in a few minutes, you’re back on your way again. If you poke a hole in a hard shell, your trip is over until you can take it to get repaired. Inflatables can withstand bumps, crashes, and contusions that would kill any other type of comparable boat. They handle whitewater better than most hardshells in all but the most vicious conditions. They are less prone to get trapped in drops, holes, whirlpools, troughs, or boofs. The air makes them more bouyant, and most of the time they just ‘pop’ right out of the aforementioned hazards. The air also provides a lot more cushioning when you bang into and over rocks and other obstacles, so you’re less likely to go home with a sore butt, a common condition among hard shell kayakers. Inflatables just bounce off.

Speaking of punctures, I have been asked many times if an inflatable could withstand damage from a shark or alligator. I got news for you….even a hard shell boat cannot withstand a shark or alligator attack if they are sufficiently motivated. Attacks are very rare, but when they happen, all the boats are pretty much write-offs. When asked which type of boat I’d rather be in if that happens, my answer is a U.S. Navy Destroyer.

As far as stability goes, it is my opinion that inflatables have much more secondary stability than most hard shell kayaks. I’ve tried out over a dozen inflatables from Solstice, Intex, Saturn, Sea Eagle, Sevylor, and Advanced Elements, and none of them were the slightest bit ‘tippy’. In fact, it was hard to capsize all of them, even on purpose. The least stable one I have ever used was a Sevylor QuickPac K1 inflatable SOT (Sit On Top), and even it was more stable than most of the hard shell SOTs I have reviewed. It was actually a lot of fun to paddle down the river in, and I almost bought one. I may still buy one, yet.

As to the flexibility of inflatables, again you get what you pay for. Cheap ones crawl over the water and track horribly. The better ones, when inflated to the proper pressure, are almost as rigid as a hard shell, with the added cushioning effect of the chambers. They are very comfortable, and yes, with a little practice you can even stand up in most of them. Many even have high-pressure floors that are as stiff as a wood floor. Or, you can easily do what I do, and simply cut a piece of remnant indoor-outdoor carpet to size and shape, and lay it in the bottom of your yak to make it even more stable. It works like a charm. And who the heck needs to stand up in a kayak anyway? I have carpet in my boats to set tackle boxes, my bow and arrows (with arrow covers on them, of course) and other items on without fear of sticking a hook or something through the floor.

The advantages of inflatables that I have not already mentioned are weight, price, and portability. Inflatables, on average, weigh considerably less than a comparable hard shell. Inflatables, again on average, are considerably less expensive than their comparable hard shell counterparts. And if you have a compact car, like a Tracker, one with no cargo rails on top, or limited trunk space, then inflatable kayaks are tailor-made for you. They can fit in the back of just about any vehicle. I have even carried mine in my bicycle trailer, and once on a city bus. They can be carried on busses and airplanes (in the cargo hold…) when you want to paddle in exotic places in your own boat. They can be stored in closets when you don’t have a garage. Some are small enough, like Sevylor’s QuickPac series, to even be back-packed into and out of remote locations that would be impossible to get a boat in any other way.

The Air Is There…

Using air to make things float is not a new concept. There are incredibly ancient carved images of neolithic paddlers using animal skins inflated with air to cross rivers. But what really made inflatable boats a workable proposition was the invention of the process for vulcanizing rubber by Charlie Goodyear in 1838. It caught on quickly, and in 1839, no less than the Duke of Wellington tested the first inflatable pontoons.  In 1840, English scientist Thomas Hancock designed the world’s first inflatable rubber boat. In 1844, a British naval officer, Lt. Peter Halkett designed two inflatable boats for Arctic exploration. The first was a one-man boat that doubled as a poncho when not inflated. The second was a two-man model that served as a waterproof ground cloth for a tent. They came with special pockets that held a bellows for rapid inflation, and a blade that turned a walking stick into a paddle. How cool can you get???  Unfortunately, as is so often the case with the military, the Royal Navy was a bit short-sighted, and did not see a practical use for the Halkett boats at that time.

John C. Fremont used inflatable boats to go up the Platte River in 1844. In 1866, four men went from New York to Britain in an inflatable boat. By the 1900s, all ships carried inflatables as emergency equipment. In the 1930s, a French airship company named Zodiac Aerospace used skins from blimps to make one of the most famous inflatables of all-time …the Zodiac, still in full production today. But it took WW-II to show the world what inflatables could really do. Not only did they save countless lives, they were also indispensable for covert landings in the Pacific. They could be carried on submarines and silently deployed to deliver several platoons where needed. Inflatables were used in assaults that would have been impossible by any other means. Rescue aircraft began to carry inflatables because they could be dropped without damage to hapless people in the water to keep them afloat until a boat could pick them up. They are still carried by rescue aircraft to this day.

After the war, new synthetic materials were developed and bonded to other materials to improve durability and handling. Now, we have fantastic boats made from PVC bonded to nylon, which makes an incredibly tough hull, Hypalon, and more. New shapes were created so that now we have inflatable kayaks, canoes, pontoon boats, paddle boards, and more. Modern inflatables have become so good that they actually offer lots of advantages over hard shell boats.

The Bottom Line…

I am certainly not advocating that all hard shell kayaks be phased out. I like them too. It’s mostly a matter of personal preference. Inflatable kayaks fulfill specific needs and desires. Only you can decide if an inflatable is for you. But don’t let the fact that it is an inflatable dissuade you, all else being equal. Inflatables are great yaks. Try one sometime….

Happy paddling

About the author

Ryan Moore

I like to write about Kayaks.