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August 07, 2021 12 min read

What are Inflatable Kayaks?

green inflatable kayak on shore

Robust, hardwearing, and stable – inflatable kayaks are the future for outdoor adventure-seekers! Just like inflatable paddle boards, inflatable kayaks offer more opportunities for travel and make the sport more accessible for everyone.

Inflatable kayaks are multi-layered PVC boats with air chambers carefully designed to provide buoyancy to float on water. Designs are similar to hard shell kayaks, from bow and stern to the seat and paddle, with the obvious difference of being inflatable. Modern inflatable kayaks perform just as well as their hard shell counterparts.

With an inflatable kayak, you can get on the water without the hassle of boat storage or roof racks. Rock up to your favorite watery location, unroll your kayak, inflate, and hit the water. It’s that easy.

There are three main branches of kayaking:

  • Flat and calm paddling
  • Slow-moving water paddling
  • White water rapid kayaking

Ocean kayaking offers a complete range of paddling styles depending on the conditions on the day: mild and gentle days are perfect for beginners, whereas catching and riding waves provides a similar thrill to white water rapids paddling.

Lake kayaking is generally a calm experience on flat water. However, with certain wind conditions, the technical skill level required can increase. 

River kayaking allows for a mix of styles again, depending on the river and the amount of water flowing. Some rivers are slow-moving, which is good for beginners to practice paddling moving water for the first time. Other rivers with a faster flow can offer a good challenge for more experienced paddlers with potential white water rapids to play with.

Inflatable kayaks are perfectly capable of taking on all styles of paddling across flat water and rough waters with a double-bladed paddle. They offer beginners a fantastic vessel to learn the basic techniques and gain confidence, while also performing to a great standard for more experienced kayakers.

Inflatable Kayaks vs. Hard Shell Kayaks

Two kayaks on body of water

There are many similarities between an inflatable kayak and a hard shell kayak. Both are a fantastic way to explore nature and experience a viewpoint from the water. 

But, how do they compare in regards to stability, portability, and durability? What about versatility and pricing? As with most things, there are pros and cons to each type of kayak and only you can decide which is best for you.

Stability

Stability comes from the kayak’s width – the more surface area on the water, the more stable and rigid the kayak will be. 

Inflatable kayaks generally have a wider base than hard shell kayaks, which makes them more stable. In fact, these kayak’s are difficult to capsize, even intentionally! This makes them perfect for both beginners and experienced paddlers and ideal for a kayak fishing adventure. 

Portability

The beauty of an inflatable kayak is the ease of transporting and storing the vessel. Just like an iSUP, an inflatable kayak deflates and packs down into a compact size that can stow away neatly in a storage bag. Most of the time, this is the size of a large backpack or duffel bag.

Along with a more compact size, inflatable kayaks are great lightweight options. Once inflated, they are easy to manoeuver and get onto the water. Inflatable kayaks can be inflated using a hand pump or an electric air pump.

This means that inflatable kayaks are significantly easier to store and travel with than hard shell kayaks. They take up less storage space while being an easy piece of equipment to handle, both on the land and water.

Versatility

Although more lightweight than hard shell kayaks, inflatable options can still handle rugged environments and varying paddling conditions. The weight capacity is also exceptionally high, matching if not exceeding that of hard shell kayaks. 

When inflating the kayak, it’s essential to reach the recommended psi level for each air chamber (you can check this with the manufacturer information for the individual inflatable kayak) to achieve the high pressure required for maximum performance.

Inflatable kayaks are ideal for anyone who wants to enjoy relaxed paddling across the water or take a more adventurous trip to explore further on an expedition trip. They are also perfect for fishing trips!

Durability

Don’t be fooled into thinking that inflatable kayaks can’t handle rough riverbeds or whitewater tumbles. Materials used and advanced drop stitch technology mean these kayaks are ready for all the adventures life has to offer.

Most inflatable kayaks are made from a highly durable PVC, similar to lifeboats and whitewater rafts. They handle bumps and scrapes exceptionally well. If you are super unfortunate to get a puncture or tear, most will have a basic repair kit included so you can quickly patch up your kayak.

Pricing

Inflatable kayaks vary in price depending on what category or type of kayak you opt for. Generally speaking, the higher the price tag, the better quality the inflatable kayak. 

It’s easy to find budget options for as little as $80. While premium models, considered the best inflatable kayaks on the market, can reach over $1,000. That said, they are still a cheaper option when compared to hard shell kayaks. 

Determining which inflatable kayak you need depends on how much you use the kayak and for what purpose. After all, there is little point on spending heaps of money on the gear if you’re only going to take it out for a spin once a year.

Inflatable Kayak Categories

Yellow and blue inflatable kayak on body of water

Inflatable kayaks are categorized by the materials and construction methods used. As the technology and quality advances, so does the price. 

Category 1 - Light Recreation

Key characteristics:

  • Made from single layer thin vinyl material
  • Suitable for light recreational paddling
  • Cheapest inflatable kayak option ranging between $80 and $250

Category one inflatable kayaks are a good entry-level choice for anyone on a tighter budget. As they are inexpensive, they are great for kayakers who want to test the waters of the inflatable world before committing to a more robust and expensive model.

However, they are made from cheap materials, so don’t expect miracles when it comes to durability. The thin, single-layer vinyl won’t last a lifetime and may tear if taken through rough bottom terrain. Recreational inflatable kayaks are also considerably slower than the other types of inflatable kayaks and often have poor tracking in a straight line.

Despite this, these are the most lightweight inflatable kayaks and pack down into a neat package when deflated. If you are only planning on paddling a short distance, an entry-level inflatable kayak is ideal.

Category 2 - Heavy Recreation 

Key characteristics:

  • Made from single layer vinyl material wrapped in fabric
  • Suitable for heavy recreational use
  • Mid-range inflatable kayak option ranging between $300 and $700

Many of the inflatable whitewater rafting kayaks are in this mid-range category. The single layer vinyl wrapped in fabric provides great durability. It provides an additional layer of protection against rocks as well as UV exposure. 

However, this same advantage provides a significant challenge when drying the inflatable kayak. Without proper drying, the materials can become moldy and deteriorate rapidly. This catch is something that needs serious thought when looking to buy an inflatable kayak.

Category 3 - Every Adventure

Key characteristics:

  • Made from thick PVC
  • Can handle any adventure
  • High-end inflatable kayak option costing $800 or more

Category three inflatable kayaks are by far the most superior in durability, performance, and design. The materials used are similar to life-saving boats, so you can rest assured knowing that these i-kayaks will keep up with any adventure you throw at it. 

As modern technology progresses, new inflatable kayaks emerging on the market utilize the same drop stitch technology that the best inflatable paddle boards use. This feature makes the boat lightweight and compact when deflated. 

This type can be considered expensive for a recreational kayak. However, if you plan on getting out on the water a lot and have the budget, then why not get something that you can trust. 

Types of Inflatable Kayaks

Tandem inflatable kayak on body of waters

There are several types of inflatable kayak styles. Choosing the best type depends on your paddling style preference and what you want to get out of the kayak.

  • Self-bailing– Ideal for fast-moving water conditions, self-bailing kayaks are designed with drainage holes that allows water to pass through. This means your seat will be wet most of the time, even in calm and flat water situations.
  • Sit-on– A hybrid design that is super easy to master the basics with, sit-on kayaks have a high center of gravity and are limited in what type of conditions you can use them in safely.
  • Sit-in– Offer greater stability and efficiency in paddling with a low center of gravity. Sit-in kayaks are good for multi-day tours with bonus space in the hull area to store equipment and gear.
  • Tandem– Perfect for when you want to paddle with company! Tandem kayaks are designed with two seats and tend to be more stable (thanks to the extra length).

Tandem vs. Single Inflatable Kayaks

Are you riding solo, or have you got a trusted partner for the water? Determining whether to go for a single or a tandem inflatable kayak is a crucial decision to make. You need to ask yourself two key questions before choosing which way to go:

  1. Are you and your partner a good team? Tandem paddling can be a real relationship tester and could lead to some serious arguments if you’re paddling against each other.
  2. How long are you planning to paddle? If you’re taking on an expedition, then a tandem kayak is a shared effort!

On average, a one-person kayak paddles at 3 mph. A tandem kayak doesn’t mean double the speed because you’ve got more weight to move on the water. Instead, you’re looking at around 4 mph average speed.

Inflatable Kayak Key Features

Blue inflatable kayak with accessories

It’s all in the features! When buying an inflatable kayak, you need to consider some key features and ensure you are happy with what you’re getting.

Materials and Construction Technology

The majority of inflatable kayaks are made from PVC. Some are wrapped in a durable fabric to provide extra protection, while others use a stronger poly-based material for higher durability. 

If you are keen to have the best inflatable kayak, look out for a boat that uses drop stitch technology. This makes the inflated kayak super rigid but keeps the weight down, helping save storage space and paddle power.

Valves

Reliable valves are needed to inflate the air chambers quickly and efficiently. Some inflatable kayak brands use different valve sizes/types on the walls and seats. Make sure your pump fits these, and you pack the correct connector when heading out for a paddle.

Seat

A comfortable seat makes a world of difference to a long day of paddling. Molded and hard plastic kayak seats could be uncomfortable on your lower back. Adjustable seats are great for lumbar support while a mesh lining will help with airflow and breathability.

Paddle

Some inflatable kayaks may come with a paddle included. You may find these paddles are fairly basic, so upgrading to a better quality paddle will greatly benefit your kayaking experience.

Ideally, you want a lightweight paddle with relatively large blades to cut through the water. Carbon fiber paddles are always good, but there are some decent entry-level paddles made from aluminum available.

If you are already into paddle boarding, you may already have a favorite paddle in your gear. You can buy awesome conversion kits to make SUP paddle into a kayaking paddle with the additional blade. 

Skeg Tracking Fin

As inflatable kayaks don’t often have the precise hull shape of the hard shells, so it’s important that a skeg tracking fin is included with the boat. This device is simply a small fin that fits towards the rear of the underside of the kayak. 

The skeg helps keep the inflatable kayak in a straight line which helps conserve your energy while paddling, allowing you to go further and longer. 

Pumps 

Having a pump in your kit bag is essential when owning an inflatable kayak. Some people prefer electronic pumps, but this does limit where you can inflate your kayak. A manual hand pump is great for off-the-beaten-track adventures.

Additional Accessories

You may want to load up your inflatable kayak with some additional accessories. Having the option for this could swing the purchasing decision. These accessories could be:

  • Spray skirt – a cover that fits around the kayaker’s waist and attaches to the deck, preventing water from entering the kayak. This is more of an accessory used by advanced kayakers and more commonly seen on hard shells. 
  • Paddle float and leash – great for peace of mind on those longer expeditions.
  • Cooler bags – for picnics or fishing trips.
  • Inflatable foot/back rest attachments – these clip-in using D-ring attachment points.
  • Action camera mount points

Storing an Inflatable Kayak

Man deflating an inflatable kayak

One of the main advantages of owning an inflatable kayak is the storage options. Inflatable kayaks can either be stored inflated or deflated, depending on the storage space available to you. 

If storing while inflated, remember to release a small amount of air pressure from the chambers. This will preserve the seams and ensure your new kayak lasts. Inflated storage is good if you are storing the kayak close to the water and plan to paddle regularly.

If deflating, it’s essential that the inflatable kayak is dry. Storing the kayak wet will lead to mold and will damage the kayak material used. Deflated storage is great if you have limited space or plan to travel with your kayak. You can use a heavy-duty large duffel bag to store the boat, pump, and paddle together.

No matter how you choose to store your kayak, it’s important to keep it out of direct sunlight. The UV exposure can damage the materials and fade the color. 

Repairing Inflatable Kayaks

Accidents do happen. One risk of using an inflatable kayak is you could run into a puncture if you take it into unsuitable conditions. However, repairing small punctures is easy enough to do at home with a repair kit.

How to repair a puncture on an inflatable kayak

  1. Identify the puncture and carefully mark with a pencil if required.
  2. Clean the area and allow it to dry.
  3. Apply the vinyl patch (you may need to cut it down to size if your repair kit provides a sheet). Use the adhesive back or glue, depending on the repair kit.
  4. Smooth out the patch removing any air bubbles underneath.
  5. Leave to dry for at least 4 hours (leave overnight for the best results).

Inflatable Kayak Pricing

Blue sea eagle inflatable kayak

Inflatable kayak pricing varies depending on the category of kayak you choose. Generally speaking, i-kayaks are cheaper than a hard shell kayak.

  • Budget inflatable kayaks, $80 - 200
  • Mid-range inflatable kayaks, $300 - 700
  • Premium inflatable kayaks, $800+

Best Inflatable Kayak Brands

Regardless of what category of inflatable kayak you’re going for, there are some notable brands that manufacture reliable kayaks. Buying from a reputable brand with solid product feedback is one of the best ways to shop for water sports gear.

  • Intex (Category 1)
  • Advanced Elements (Category 2)
  • Aquaglide (Category 2)
  • Sea Eagle (Category 3)

Inflatable Kayaks vs. Inflatable SUPs

The inflatable kayak or inflatable SUP debate could fuel a whole evening’s discussion around the campfire. There are pros and cons to both sports with the main real difference being, standing against sitting.

Here at GILI, we are biased! However, as inflatable kayaks progress and become more travel-friendly, it’s getting easier to see the appeal. 

If you’ve already got one of our GILI inflatable paddle boards, why not grab one of our SUP to kayak conversion kits and detachable kayak seat add-ons. This gives you the best of both worlds!

Two man on a inflatable kayak and inflatable SUP

GILI’s Top Tips for Paddling an Inflatable Kayak

Just as you need to master how to paddle with a SUP, nailing the paddling technique for an inflatable kayak will save your arm power and make your sessions more fun!

With some simple tips, you may find your paddling technique improves immensely:

  • Hold your paddle with both hands, hands shoulders width apart
  • Sit up straight and look where you want to go
  • To go straight, alternate the blades dipping into the water
  • To go left or right, paddle more on the side you want to go
  • To turn, paddle hard on one side and back-paddle on the other
  • For the optimum paddle stroke, reach as far forward as possible on each side, digging the blade into the water to pull straight through to the rear of the kayak

FAQ’S

🏆 Are inflatable kayaks worth it?

Inflatable kayaks are perfect for anyone who wants to get on the water but struggles to transport or store a hard shell kayak. Modern construction techniques have made these kayaks a reliable and durable option that performs well under most conditions. So, in our eyes, inflatable kayaks are totally worth it!


👍 What is the best inflatable kayak?

Sea Eagle is considered the best inflatable kayak brand. However, both Advanced Elements and Intex make decent models that are more affordable.


🏝️ Do inflatable kayaks puncture easily?

Heavy-duty, military-grade PVC is designed to withstand the rough and tumble of life’s greatest adventures. The vinyl material used to make the inflatable kayaks will surprise you at how durable it is. Most punctures occur when the kayaks are being misused or dragged over unsuitable ground. So if you’re wondering, ‘are inflatable kayaks durable?’ The answer is yes - they are! 


❓ Are inflatable kayaks safe in the sea?

Inflatable kayaks are safe to use in most environments and conditions, including the ocean. However, it’s always advisable to check the wind and swell forecasts to ensure you are only going out within your comfort zone. Premium inflatable kayaks are better suited to handle waves and whitewater.


📦 Are inflatable kayaks good for beginners?

Beginners will get on well using inflatable kayaks. When correctly inflated, these kayaks are rigid and provide a stable vessel that is extremely difficult to capsize – even when you try to! This makes them ideal for beginners to master the basics of paddling and feel comfortable in a kayak.


📦 Are inflatable kayaks hard to paddle?

Some inflatable kayaks can be difficult to keep in a straight line. However, if you have a skeg tracking fin you will have an easier time tracking and maintaining speed. 


📦 Are inflatable kayaks better than plastic?

There are pros and cons to both inflatable and hard shell kayaks. Determining which is best for you is a personal decision based on your experience level, storage space available, and transportation methods.


📦 Are inflatable kayaks safe for dogs?

Inflatable kayaks are great when wanting to take your dog out for a ride! They provide a stable deck and large space for your furry friends to sit comfortably and enjoy the ride. Always remember to put your dog’s life jacket on before heading out on the water – this can help save lives if your dog gets tired swimming or accidentally falls from the inflatable kayak.

Abi Leach
Abi Leach

Surfer, paddle boarder, and ocean lover. She loves traveling and discovering new destinations all across the world. When she's not writing, she's exploring the outdoors and enjoying fresh air.



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