Best Inflatable Kayaks – Detailed Buying Guide and Reviews

If you want to get on the water without the hassle of owning a big boat or driving a trailer around, then inflatable kayaks would be just what you are looking for.

Inflatable kayaks are a very small but important niche in the boating world.

Tips to read before you buy your first inflatable kayak …

Inflatable kayaks are very easy to store and transport. This is not the case with hard shell kayaks. Many kayaking in to enthusiasts do not take inflatable kayaks very seriously – mostly because they are cheaper and so easy to use.

Inflatable kayaks are also a lot more stable when you compare them to hardshell kayaks. And so if you are a beginner to kayaking, you might want to opt for them. Inflatable kayaks are much wider then hardshell kayaks. And it’s the width that makes them more stable.

On the flip side, these cannot go as fast as hardshell kayaks and you might have a bit more difficulty in getting them to go straight.

They can get punctured – and that’s a vulnerability. That said, such incidents happen only one kayaks are misused. And with experience you should be pretty safe. If you are going to be kayaking on calm waters – like lakes and slow rivers – or flat water, you might not have anything much to worry about. But if you are talking about white water kayaking, that would be a very different issue.

Hardshell vs inflatable kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are mainly meant for flat waters, though you can use some of the more expensive models – like drop stiched ones – in white water.

Inflatable kayaks cannot go as fast as hardshell kayaks can. These are not meant for very rough waters. And they are not meant for sea adventures. You certainly would not want to use one in the open sea – in case you are one of those adrenaline junkies who thrive on pushing the limits of what’s considered possible.

Even if you are an adrenaline junkie who believes in pushing the limits and then pushing some, you most certainly would want to keep away from crocodile or alligator infested waters. You would not want to use any kind of inflatable kayaks on these waters. Crocodiles and alligators have extremely powerful bites and very sharp teeth. They can puncture or capsize these kayaks very, very easily.

Hardshell kayaks will always have some advantages over inflatable kayaks as they can go a lot faster and can’t be punctured.

Inflatable kayaks fall in one of three distinct categories depending on the material they are made of …

Single layer vinyl: this is the same material that’s used to make cheap inflatable mattresses. These are the cheapest kayaks you can find.

You would not want to use these kayaks in very cold weather, rough conditions or in the sea. That would be too risky. These are mainly for very placid and calm waters – like a small lake.

Vinyl encased in protective fabric: these are made from pretty much the same material as single layer vinyl kayaks are made from, but the vinyl is encased in a protective fabric. This protective fabric make set a lot harder to puncture the kayak and also makes it resistant to ultraviolet rays. If the Kayak has a fabric on top and zippers – that would indicate it’s a category two kayak.

Thick PVC or rubber kayaks: these are the most durable of all inflatable kayaks. These are also the hardest to puncture and you possibly will not have to worry about UV damage either. If you are going to be using inflatable kayaks on white water, this is the kind you would want to use. This can last decades. Which does mean these are also more expensive then kayaks of the other two categories.

Tips for beginners

Most folks who are just getting started with the sport of kayaking only seem to care about how long it takes to inflate and setup a kayak. That takes only about 5 to 7 minutes and is very easy to do.

But that’s not the only question you should be asking …

You would also want to get to now how long it takes to dry and repack a kayak. Drying and repacking a kayak is a lot more critical than inflating it.

Kayaks that do not have fabric on the outside are the easiest to dry. All you need to do would be to wipe them dry and then repack them.

On the other hand, kayaks that have a fabric on the outside can take a very long time to dry. You cannot just wipe them dry and repack them because the fabric takes a long time to dry completely. Some models may have several layers inside that might take an inordinate amount of time to completely dry.

Things can get so bad that mold may develop on these inner layers. Not only can the mold eat away the inner fabric, it can also be a health hazard. The fastest way to dry one of these kayaks would be to wipe it with a towel first and then use a blow dryer or a hair dryer. You’d want to take care the temperature is not set too high and you would not want to heat any particular spot for too long.

If you want to avoid the hassles involved with drying your kayak, you would want to buy one that does not have any fabric on it. Your best bet would be to buy a kayak made with good quality PVC.

If you are a beginner and you are mostly looking to have relaxing, short paddles in good weather once in a while, you would want to buy one of the cheaper kayaks that are made from just a single layer of vinyl. Before you buy a kayak, you would want to give some thought to have frequently or infrequently you will be using it.

Drying your kayak

If you are going to be using your kayak at least a couple of times a week, then you might not want to worry too much about drying your kayak – as drying takes a lot of time.

But if you use it just a couple of times a month or even more infrequently, then you would want to take the time and put in the effort to completely dry your kayak. Else mold will start to form – especially at hard to reach places, crevices and corners. Mold smells horrid, and your boat will be ruined.

You would of course need to get rid of all the gravel and sand – but you will also need to ensure your boat is completely dry before you pack it away.

Here’s how you can do it …

Step 1> Remove the accessories while the boat is still inflated. It’s the hull you want to focus your efforts on. Use a few towels to wipe all of the outer surfaces until they are as dry as they can be.

Step 2> Deflate the inflatable floor. Turn the boat upside down. This should drain water that may have accumulated on the inside. Wipe all of the areas dry.

Step 3> Deflate the boat completely and wipe all surfaces until they are dry.

Step 4> Lay it out in the sun for a few hours – if you live somewhere that gets plenty of sunshine. Or use a hair dryer at low setting for a few minutes until there’s no moisture anywhere.

Step 5> Roll it up and pack it away.

Your weight

If you are very large and heavy – like more than 250 pounds, then you might not want to buy one of those cheap vinyl kayaks. If you want to buy an inflatable kayak, you would want to buy a fully drop stitched model. These will be a lot more stiff and efficient, able to more easily handle higher pressures.

Any of the other kayaks, especially the cheaper vinyl ones, can sag under the weight.

Manual pump vs electric pump

You would also want to get a good manual pump and a good paddle.

Some people seem to believe electric pumps are strictly better than manual pumps. But this is not always so. Electric pumps can be slow, noisy and you would need to have your car nearby to operate one. A good electric pump can cost more than what one of these cheap kayaks will cost.

Inflatable kayaks have multiple bladders and these are essential for stability and comfort.

A manual double action pump would be what you might want to buy. Using one of these, you should be able to rapidly inflate your kayak. Double action pumps pump air out when you push the handle down and when you pull it up. There are also small foot pumps, but these take a lot more effort.

If you aren’t inclined to put in the physical effort required to operate a manual pump, you would need to get a electric pump. To operate one, you would need to plug it into your car’s charger, set the required pressure and turn it on. You will need to have your car’s engine running till the kayak is completely inflated.

There are electric pumps that run on rechargeable batteries as well. These tend to cost more.

Paddles

Buying a good paddle would be something you would want to do. This can be nearly as expensive as a cheap kayak, but the investment is worth it. Even if you change kayaks, you will still be able to use the same paddle.

Length and weight are the most important attributes of a paddle.

Lighter paddles tend to be more expensive. You would want the paddles to be light and sturdy. On longer outings, lighter paddles will significantly reduce your energy expenditure as you will not have to work quite so hard.

Paddles that come with higher end kayaks are usually made from fiberglass. These are very lightweight, sturdy and your shoulders will not be strained even during longer outings.

It’s very important that you choose a paddle of the appropriate length. And the length of the paddle depends on how tall you are, your paddling style, the width of the kayak and even the height of the seat.

In general, the taller you are the longer your paddle should be.

If you are about 6′ 0″ ft to 6′ 6″ tall, then you might want to use a paddle that’s between 220cm to 240cm in length.

That said, if you are a very tall person and your kayak happens to be much wider than average, you would need to use a longer paddle. Else you might end up hitting the deck with your knuckles a lot.

If you are using a tandem kayak, then the paddles need to be slightly longer than what you would need to use on a single kayak. The height of your seat will also have a bearing on the length of the paddle you will need.

You might need to try out a few paddles before you will be able to determine what works best for you. You might want to rent a kayak and a few paddles of varying lengths, use each of them and see which sized paddle makes for the most comfortable experience for you.

Using a improper sized paddle can result in poor form. You would always want to use proper form while paddling.

You would also want to hold the paddle the right way.

The back face of a paddle is convex, and the power face is concave like a spoon. When you are paddling, the long edge needs to be on the top, and the shorter edge is on the bottom. You would want to hold the paddle with a light grip and not squeeze the shaft. Your knuckles need to be in line with the edge of the blade.

For the best kayaking experience, you would need to use appropriately sized paddles, have a good form and a efficient paddling style. You need to use a combination of leverage and reach and not expend too much or too little power with each stroke.

Kayaking gloves

You would want to wear gloves while paddling. Especially if you are going to be paddling in cold water. Paddling in icy cold waters during the winters can be pretty hard on your palms. A good pair of kayaking gloves can help keep your hands callus free and warm. Most rivers and river banks have sharp rocks. Gloves can protect your hands from potential cuts and injuries. Textured gloves will also improve your grip.

You would ideally want to buy thick, neoprene gloves. For cold conditions, you might want to use five finger gloves. But during summers, you could use fingerless gloves.

Storage space

Some kayaks are ten feet or even longer. So you will need to deflate them before storing. While single layer vinyl kayaks do not take a lot of space after deflating them, once made from rubber or thick PVC do take up a lot more space. You will not be able to pack a rubber kayak in a duffel bag or into a backpack. And you will need to have sufficient storage space on yourself or in your closet if you are going to be buying one of these.

Storage conditions

You would not want to store your inflatable kayaks in places where the ambient temperature fluctuates a lot. Like your garage. You could store it in your basement, though. And you would not want to fold it too tightly either. You may not want to completely deflate it, fold it extremely tightly and store it that way for long periods of time.

It would be best if you could store it fully inflated. Or at least partly inflated. But then, you would need a lot of storage space.

Inflatable seats

Many inflatable kayaks also have inflatable seats. And these can sometimes be really uncomfortable and annoying. These seeds are usually hard to inflate and deflate. Their only advantage is they are cheap. You would want to replace these with normal kayaks seats.

Rudders and Skegs

You would not want to buy a kayak that does not come with skegs.

Some people strongly believe that a well designed kayak does not require skegs. In a perfect world, kayaks should easily go in a straight line with no paddle corrections. And should turn without powerful turning strokes. Tracking and turning are two important requirements in any kayak.

But then, this isn’t a perfect world. And situations are not ideal. And everyone is not a skilled paddler with lots of experience under their belts.

Throw in waves, the wind and varying skill levels, and things change. Kayaks will either turn into the wind or sideways a wave. If you are not paddling into the wind, your kayak will require paddle stroke corrections.

Which is why every kayak will need to have a rudder or skegs or some kind of tracking fins.

A rudder is essentially a blade attached to the stern and can pivot from one side to the other. And a skeg is a blade located in the stern, and it can be retracted.

A rudder aids in helping the kayak stay on a straight path, while skegs are meant to help the paddler handle quartering winds or crosswinds better.

Since rudders are located at one of the ends, they can get damaged pretty easily. You will need to remember to raise the rudder while backing up, else it will likely get damaged.

Skegs can also get damaged, but they are a lot less likely to get damaged compared to a rudder.

Some kayaks without skegs may not track well. They may start spinning like crazy and you might have a pretty hard time controlling one of these.

And if the kayak has a fabric on the outside and does not have skegs, things could get even worse. Some kayaks that have thick fabric on the outside and have no skegs can become really hard to paddle and it may be extremely hard to get them to travel in a straight line.

Weight of the kayak

The weight of a kayak does not matter a lot – at least, not as much as people think. Now, it does matter when you have to carry it in your backpack. But while it’s on the water, weight does not really matter a lot.

Fully drop stitched kayaks tend to be the heaviest, while those made from cheap vinyl tend to be lightest.

Self bailing kayaks

Self bailing kayaks are mainly meant for whitewater and not for calm, placid waters. These have several well placed holes in them that help drain water that may have entered the kayak drain out.

These kayaks have a wide floor, and an inflatable chamber that’s about 4 inches deep situated underneath. These are called “self bailing” kayaks as the water gets drained by itself due to the design. And you will not need to mannually bail the water out by yourself or use a pump.

The deck is above the water at a height, and the floor slopes. So water that’s sloshing around flows to the drainage holes, goes to the air chamber and flows out.

These are meant for white water only. There’s no need to buy a self bailing kayak if you are going to be on flat waters. In fact, using a self bailing kayak on flat water would be a disadvantage as the inside of the kayak will always be damp and wet.

For the “self bailing” to work, you will need to be traveling at a certain minimum speed. If you are traveling at less than that speed, water will enter the kayak through these holes. And the inside will be wet all the time you are on water. This does not make for a pleasant and relaxing kayaking experience if you want to stay dry. So if you are paddling on flat waters and are hoping to remain dry, you would not want to use one of these.

If you are going to be using one of these on flat waters, then you would want to seal the holes.

Spray skirts or spray decks

When you are paddling in cold water or when the waters are very choppy, you would want to use spray skirts. In such conditions, spray skirts create a relatively warm environment and help you stay dry.

You would not want to use spray skirts unless you have undergone ‘wet exit training’. Or you know how to get them off. All professional instructors and paddling schools teach this method.

In a way, spray skirts make you one with the boat. It keeps water from waves and even rain out of the boat. You wear one of these by stepping into it and pulling it up around your waist like you would a pair of pants. The long part of the skirt is always in the fromt. The front of the skirt has a ‘grab loop’.

You wear the skirt and sit in your boat. Lean back and attach it to the cockpit coaming. Then attach the front of the skirt and the sides to the cockpit. The grab loop or the pull tab should be sticking out and easy to reach in case you need to do a wet exit in the water.

Spray skirts will need to fit the boat you are paddling. And they come in various sizes.

Drop stitched kayaks

Dropt stitched kayaks are a relatively recent innovation. This method of constructing kayaks allows for much higher inflation and higher pressures than traditional PVC floors.

Drop stitched kayaks are a lot more rigid than traditional inflatable kayaks. But have the same portability. These can be rolled and packed just like other inflatable kayaks. These are extremely light and you can carry them in your backpack. The sleek design and high rigidity mean you can easily paddle for hours on end.

Unlike other inflatable kayaks that have tube floors, these drop stitched kayaks have very rigid, high pressure floors and narrow high pressured side walls. Some of these can be inflated to a pressure of 10psi or more. Something that’s not possible with traditional kayaks. You will also have more space in the cockpit.

You could compare drop stitched kayaks with standup paddleboards.

These drop stitched kayaks cam also go a lot faster. They behave a lot like a hardshell kayak, while having all of the advantages on inflatable kayaks. But on the flipside, they also cost more than most inflatables.

If you are really serious about inflatable kayaks and plan to pursue the hobby for a long while, you would want to get yourself a drop stitched kayak.

If you plan to go frequently on kayak camping and touring and really like being on the water, a drop stitched kayak would be what you might want to buy. But if you aren’t even sure whether you want to purse this as a hobby and are just thinking of testing the waters, so to speak, then you would want to buy the cheapest kayak, or maybe rent or borrow one, and see whether you really like the experience.

Fully drop stitched kayaks

Standup paddleboards have always been extremely rigid due to the use of drop stitch construction. But it’s only recently that this technology started being used to make inflatable kayaks. The result is you now have extremely rigid inflatable kayaks that are almost as good as hard sheel kayaks when it comes to speed and handling. And can be rolled and packed just like any other inflatable kayak.

Tandem or Double vs Single kayaks

Tandem or double kayaks have two seats and are heavier. And so two paddlers need to work in tandem in a double kayak.

And that’s not easy if one or both are beginners.

Just because you want to get on the water with another person does not mean you need to get a tandem kayak. The two of you will need to operate as a team.

But if you can operate as a team, tandem kayaks will be very well suited for you. You will be able to go much further and faster than a single kayak when you have two people working in tandem.

Some tandem kayaks may not be actually long enough to accommodate to adults. But they might be ideal if you have a lot of camping gear to carry. You can simply load all of your gear behind you and paddle it by yourself.

To accommodate two adults, a tandem kayak will need to be about 16 feet in length. If it is a few feet shorter than that, it should not be considered a tandem kayak.

Valves

Some inflatable kayak seats have really tiny little valves that make it hard to inflate the seat. You would want to watch out for those. The best option would be not to use inflatable seats.

Transporting your kayak

Backpacks with inflatable kayaks may weight anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds. That may not seem like a lot of weight, but you would still want to exercise caution when lifting. You would want to remember to bend your knees as you lift and not lift with your back alone.

Once the kayak is fully inflated, grasp either side of the cockpit, bend your knees as you lift, slide the boat up onto your thighs and then load it onto one of your shoulders. You would want to make sure the boat is well balanced before you move.

If you feel the kayak is too heavy for you, you would want to ask for help. You would not want to try to lift it all by yourself. That would be too risky.

It’s a lot easier for two people to lift a kayak by lifting with the bow and stern hand toggles. This is possibly the easiest way to walk a boat to and from the water. You would want to make sure the kayak is not loaded if you are going to be lifting this way. You would not want to load all of your gear onto your kayak and try to move it just by gripping the bow and stern hand toggles. You would want to put your hands under the hull and then move it.

It’s best to load your gear at the water’s edge and not whilst on dry land.

If you are planning to carry your inflatable kayak on your vehicle’s roof without deflating it first for whatever reason, you would want to strap it is that the deck is up and the hull is down. And you would want to make sure the tie down lines are not overtight. And you would never want to transport a loaded kayak by strapping it onto your car’s roof. The hull may not be able to support the weight of your gear and may give way.

Using a kayak cary or dolly to move your kayak would be a very good thing to do. Your back will thank you. You can just wheel your kayak to the water’s edge/ That’s a lot easier than having to walk your kayak.

Some people drag their kayaks on the ground. That’s not a good idea as sharp pebbles can cause serious damage or even tear the vinyl.

Landing

You would not want to run your inflatable kayak onto the shore at full speed. You would want to slow the kayak using the paddles and gently tough the shore.

Avoid over inflating your kayak

You would want to buy a pressure gauge, and read the manual. You would want to know what the pressure recommended by the manufacturer is, and follow their guidelines.

Over inflating your kayak may make it feel stiffer, but it will also damage your boat.

Foot support

Some find foot supports do not make that much of a difference while paddling, while some feel these are absolutely essential. These boil down to personal preference, and you will get to know only by trying to paddle with and without foot support.

Most of the higher end kayaks come with foot support, while the cheaper ones may not have them.

FAQ:

Are inflatable kayaks worth it?

If you are serious about kayaking and are an avid outdoors person, then inflatable kayaks would be well worth the investment. More so if you are going to be paddling on flatwater.

If you happen to live in a small apartment in the middle of the city, chances are storage space will be at a premium and you will have no place to store a hardshell kayak.

Inflatable kayaks are very easy to store and transport. They are very lightweight and cost a lot less than hardshell kayaks. On the flipside, they cannot go as fast as hardshell kayaks can, and may not track equally well either.

There are many places like remote alpine lakes and other similar places to which you simply cannot take a hardshell kayak to. There are no roads leading to such places, so you will not be able to drive there with your boat strapped onto your car. Your only option to paddle on those lakes would be inflatable kayaks.

Some of the newer models built using drop stitch technology offer all of the benefits of hardshell kayaks, while being very lightweight and easy to carry. You would want to buy those models if you are used to hardshell kayaks.

IKs are not over-priced pool toys as some seem to think they are. These boats are durable, safe and reliable. Many of the newer models are almost as good as hardshell kayaks. Still, you would not want to use them in crocodile infested waters!