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Everything I've Learned from 40 Inflatable Kayaks

As Jack says in the outset of an earlier video: "I'm an inflatable kayak enthusiast... I'm not necessarily an expert but I'm happy to share some tips with you." The opinions in this video are those of the video creator and not those of paddling.com.

Be sure to read consumer reviews for inflatable kayaks and ask your questions on the message boards to get the opinion of others. Plus read the Best Inflatable Kayaks article

I got into inflatable kayaks about seven years ago after I sold my little sailboat and was looking to get on the water without the hassle of boat storage, or roof racks, or trailers. Since then I've owned about 40 inflatable kayaks and generally find that they take a very important and under-appreciated niche in the boating world. I get a lot of questions from people about which kayak to buy and that's what I want to dedicate this video to. I’ll also add some tips to what I've learned along the way.

Inflatable Kayaks Vs. Hardshell Kayaks

First off, it's probably obvious but if you're looking into buying an inflatable as opposed to a hard shell kayak it's probably for two reasons, they are much easier to transport and store and they also can be really cheap. So overall they might be the most accessible way to get on the water and that's why some kayaking snobs might not take them seriously. I'd say that while most inflatable kayaks might not be viewed as a status symbol unlike a fancy boat, they are a wonderful vessel to get you on the water and the higher-end ones can get quite fancy and pretty expensive too. It might be counterintuitive but I might view the fact that they're not a status symbol as a benefit. Let's say you're starting to date somebody and propose to go boating. If you have a fancy expensive boat you won't know if they actually like you or the boat, but if someone agrees to go kayaking with you it's a sure sign that they like you. Also paddling together can reveal so much about the relationship dynamics. It's like modeling being married for a brief time. They have another advantage that might be appreciated by novice paddlers as well. They're generally very stable compared to hardshell kayaks. Some of them would be hard to capsize on calm water even intentionally. Stability in kayaks correlates with width and inflatable kayaks are usually quite wide. There are disadvantages as well, most importantly, they are slower than hardshell kayaks. They can't reach the same speeds nor are they usually as good at being able to go straight as hardshell kayaks. Much smaller but still an existing concern is that they can get punctured and therefore have some inherent safety concerns. Although, in all the years that I've dealt with them, I've witnessed a serious air leak just once and it was because of a misuse of the kayak. I should also clarify most of my experience is on the calm water lakes and slow rivers, not on white water. I have done some white water adventures but in this video, I will mostly talk about kayaks on flat water.

Okay, so you're thinking of buying one and are trying to cut through all the marketing nonsense. I sure remember being lost in all the information when I was looking at my first one. Now I have a much simpler and effective system of categorizing them and it makes my life significantly easier. Here is how I do that.

Inflatable Kayak Categories

Inflatable Kayak Categories

Category 1 Inflatable Kayaks

I divide all the inflatable kayaks into three categories based on what they are made of. The first category is the kayaks made of a single layer of thin vinyl. Think of a cheap inflatable mattress which is the same material that these ones are made of. This material is cheap and easy to manufacture therefore these kayaks will be by far the cheapest ones. Many of them cost less than $100 with a pump and a crappy paddle and you might find a used one for $60 or even less. Higher-end ones in this category might be $200 or a little more. I should also note that not all kayaks I put into this category are made of exactly the same material. The Sea Eagle 370 I have here is made of slightly thicker vinyl. And Intex Excursion Pro is a really interesting beast that I would like to dedicate a separate video to as it's made of some weird plasticky feeling material with a fabric base in it. It's trying hard to be category three but I would not put it in there. I'd call them category one+.

Category 2 Inflatable Kayaks

The second category is kayaks that are made of the same cheap vinyl but now it's encased in protective fabric. This makes them much more protected from the puncturing and UV light exposure. This category is quite a populous but has one major disadvantage that first-time buyers usually don't think about. I'll talk more about it in-depth shortly. If the kayak looks like it has some fabric on the outside and has zippers that's a sure sign you're looking at a category 2 kayak. If you open that zipper you'll find the same cheap vinyl chambers inside. These kayaks are generally quite a bit more expensive than category 1 kayaks ranging probably between $350 to $800 dollars.

Category 3 Inflatable Kayaks

The third category is the kayaks made of thick single-layer materials like PVC and rubbers. These are the most durable materials and can withstand quite a bit of abuse. These kayaks would be hard to puncture and would be more likely to have leaks around seams. I've taken boats of this type on white water and after rubbing against the rocks quite hard I could barely see any scratches on the bottom. They are also more likely to last significantly longer than the other two category boats. I'd say that 20 years for these would be easy. Of course, these boats come at premium prices as most of these vary from $800 to well over a thousand.

Best Inflatable Kayak Brand

Some of you now just want to hear what is the best brand and I can give you my general observations. Category one kayaks seem to be dominated by the brand who manages to make cheap yet surprisingly well-performing boats: Intex. The second category has many good players but Advanced Elements is probably dominating. There is also Aquaglide and a bunch of others. The third category is led by Sea Eagle. Aquaglide has some go good boats in there and so does Hobie, although their pricing is a bit insane. Any of these brands are fine and they have more or less successful models. There's just one brand that I personally would stay away from altogether. I've seen a few of their kayaks, none of them were great but two were absolutely abysmal. So I personally would not gamble with them and their name is Sevylor. They seem to end up sacrificing good design to win the price war. Also, common kayaks vary quite a bit by where you are in the world. In Europe, you have a whole bunch of other brands we don't really see here in the states, and vice versa.

Buying an Inflatable Kayak

Now let's look at the common story of what people go through when choosing an inflatable kayak. When I was researching inflatable kayaks for the first time I thought I was smart and I was going to pay a bit more and get a kayak that looks like it's really high performing so I could stick with it for years to come. It had an appropriate name too. Advanced Elements made me think I was going to be cool, modern, and outdoorsy if I got it. And looking at their promotional videos, they made me think that they designed something great and unique. It was more money than some cheaper, less fancy sounding stuff but it seemed like I was getting a much better kayak. So I got it and I must admit, I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that their whole supposedly innovative design consisted of a couple of aluminum brackets. And then I discovered that when I opened the zipper on the fabric cover, I had those cheap vinyl chambers staring at me. Oh and the kayak sagged when I sat in it. I felt like it was dirty secrets that were meant to be hidden. But the worst blow by far was when I discovered that drying this is a total and utter pain.

Drying an Inflatable Kayak

This seems like the perfect time to talk about probably the most important topic that novice paddlers don't think about, drying your kayak. I often get asked how long it takes me to inflate and set up a kayak and the answer is five to seven minutes, max! It's quite easy and joyful. What nobody asks about, and they really should, is how long it takes to dry and pack away a kayak. I will tell you that that part of the process is much more critical than the setup. When you're getting the kayak ready you're enjoying the thought that you're about to be on the water. You're probably in nature and you're generally having a good time but when you come back all tired from paddling, the last thing you want to do is deal with your kayak. But you have to. It is particularly bad for category 2 kayaks. For category 1 or 3 kayaks you just drain, wipe off, deflate and pack. Category 2 boats are almost impossible to dry fully because they're covered with the fabric that allows moisture in and they have multiple layers. So the water gets in between and most of the time they’ll be slimy on the inside even after months of dry storage. And they are quite prone to molding. Drying them when you get home might be required, which usually I assure you is the last thing you will be in the mood to do. If you're buying an inflatable kayak you might not have too much space to dry a boat, to begin with, so this is a big consideration. So as you might have deducted, my first kayak was a category 2 kayak and I have a bit of a prejudice against category 2 boats because of the drying issue. I don't want to sound all negative about Advanced Elements and will openly say that performance-wise their kayaks are quite good. They truly are among the best performing inflatable kayaks. If I were to do it all over again though, depending on my budget, I'd either jump on the category 3 kayak right away, especially a fully drop stitched one, It's a technology I'll talk about in a bit, or actually go completely the other way and buy one of the cheap category 1 kayaks.

Category 1 Inflatable Kayaks Details

So let's talk about category 1. These are great kayaks to have relaxed shorter paddles in good weather. If you're evaluating how much you will actually use a kayak, get one of these. They are really cheap and you might score a used one for close to nothing. However, I would advise getting a good big manual pump and a good pedal if you feel like you will use it often enough. Usually what comes with them is not good on the pumps. Many people assume that electric pumps are faster and easier than manual ones and that's usually not the case. Electric pumps need your car nearby, are really noisy, slow, and just annoying. There are good electric pumps but they're usually really expensive. These pumps will cost you more than a category 1 kayak. A lot of times you might want to spend more money on the paddle than you would on one of these kayaks and it's okay. That paddle might stay with you for the rest of your life and you can change kayaks while keeping it.

Another great advantage of category 1 boats is the fact that they're really small when folded. For example, category 3 kayaks take a whole big storage shelf while the same space could fit probably six of these. The disadvantage of these boats is they're usually quite slow and many of them don't track well. This means they have a hard time going straight, so with every paddle stroke you rotate the kayak and waste your energy spinning rather than moving forward, but if you get one of these you're probably not going really far anyway. They also often have inflatable seats which is something that, at first, does not seem so bad, yet it is actually quite annoying and uncomfortable. These seats often have super annoying tiny valves that are really hard to inflate and even harder to deflate. They only make these seats because they are cheap to manufacture. If you can avoid these seats or replace them with normal kayak seats. Intex is the company that dominates this category and they make surprisingly good value kayaks for the money. They might be more kayak per dollar than any other kayak. A simple rule to follow, don't buy a kayak if it does not have a skeg, which is a tracking fin.

Category 2 Inflatable Kayaks Details

Category 2 kayaks I've already talked about them a little. They're significantly more durable. I've gone on multi-day camping trips on them and they do just fine. If you don't mind the drying issue they are quite a good choice. Also, most inflatable white water kayaks belong to this category. AIRE is probably the main brand for the inflatable white water kayaks. When looking at whitewater capable kayaks you might see the phrase self-bailing advertised as a great achievement. I imagined it meant some kind of water pump in it but it turns out it actually means it has holes on the bottom. It really helps when you get a bunch of water dumped into the kayak and you are wet already. Anyway, if you're on flat water, self-bailing translates as wet butt because water is coming inside through those holes. You don't want self-bailing for paddles where you are hoping to remain dry. Also, you'll notice many kayaks in this category are enclosed and you can have a spray skirt attached. It seems that it's rarely used by people. Most kayakers dedicated enough to kayaking in that kind of condition use hard-shell kayaks and novice kayakers usually seem to be more comfortable in open kayaks that in their openness are more like a canoe. It feels safer and in the case of a capsize you won't get trapped.

Category 3 Inflatable Kayaks Details

So category 3 kayaks are for kayakers who are more committed to kayaking or just have the money. These are the kayaks I take on multi-day trips and I'm not worried about puncturing them. They usually feel solid and I personally now do most of my paddling in these. I've loaded these kayaks with three or four hundred pounds of camping gear and they handle it like nothing. Kayak camping is one of my favorite uses for a kayak. It's like backpacking but exercising the upper body while sitting and also you get to bring much more stuff with you and be comfortable kayak camping as opposed to backpacking. It might also save you on expensive super light backpacking gear that I see. The main future development in inflatable kayaking mostly is happening in category 3. I think category 2 will rightfully lose some market share to these and there is a lot of promise in one emerging new technology that is pretty much revolutionizing inflatable kayak and I'm really excited about it. It's called drop stitch.

What it is is a technology that allows boat makers to make inflatable chambers that are flat instead of round. The way they do it is they have thousands of strings inside connecting the two sides. What this translates to are inflatable kayaks that have chambers of about the same shape as a hard shell and also have high pressure so they are rigid and behave much more like a hardshell kayak. It means this significantly faster Sea Eagle Razerlight line is the pioneer with these and I personally love them. They're as close to perfection of an inflatable kayak as I've seen at this point. They have only one potential area of improvement left. The seam between the floor and the sides. I would certainly endorse these kayaks. They are pretty much all a paddle now but they certainly cost quite a bit, somewhere around thousand dollars for a single and $1400 for double. However, if you use them often, in my opinion, it's well worth it.

Inflatable Kayak Pricing

I'm noticing I'm starting to sound as if I'm pushing Sea Eagle Razerlight kayaks. I'm in no way affiliated with them or any other manufacturer but yes indeed I consider these kayaks to be superior to any other kayaks on the market. I know it seems that they are expensive but I'd say it really boils down to how often you'll be using it. Here is a simple calculation. If you paddle twice a month for six months out of the year, and that's pretty low use, and we compare it to a kayak rental that costs thirty dollars, which is also a low conservative estimate, buying a fancy $1400 kayak will pay off in less than four years. But if you don't actually end up using your kayak and it just sits around, even if you spend hundreds of dollars on it, you are not getting your money's worth. So ultimately, your goal is to get a sense of how much you'll be using a kayak. If you don’t own one go rent a kayak or borrow one from a friend and see how it feels or buy a really cheap category 1 kayak. If you realize you like being on the water or especially if you’d like to go kayak touring camping, category 3 kayaks are my advice. I’d just skip the whole category 2 wet fabric nonsense.

Single Kayak Vs Tandem Kayak

Sometimes I get a question about double versus single kayaks. Let's say if you have a partner and are deciding between two single kayaks or one tandem one I'd say the main thing to consider is how good of a team you are. Paddling a tandem kayak can be a relationship tester but if you're good at it you get a great bonus. Tandem kayaks are inherently much more efficient. They're faster just because they're long but there is also another interesting effect at play here. If a person is paddling alone you might be going let's say three miles an hour and if two people are paddling the speed does not double. You would not be going six miles an hour but instead, you will only go probably four miles an hour. So on longer trips, it makes sense to paddle one person at a time and rest. Fifty percent of the time that can allow you to go much further with the same effort.

Inflatable Kayak Vs Inflatable SUP

Another question I hear is, what is my opinion on inflatable stand-up paddleboards and how do they compare. They're generally slower than a kayak and will make you work harder. You're also likely to capsize on those, so while standard paddleboards can be used as an exercise and splashing device in the warm weather a good kayak can actually get you places and keep you fairly dry even in colder weather. I personally also don't like to stand, I'd rather sit but some people prefer the standing position of stand-up paddleboards. They sure give you a good core workout but kayaks will get you further with the same amount of effort. An important thing to acknowledge with stand-up pedal boards is that they have become hip and cool. Be cognizant of that aspect of their appeal and why you might want to get one. They are indeed cool for exercise and posing for Instagram but in my opinion less practical than a kayak. They're also much more expensive than a cheap category 1 kayak.

Inflatable Kayak Valves

Let me mention the topic of valves. There are a number of valves that I would consider perfectly fine and workable. What I don't like is when boat makers use two different valves on the same boat. It's just annoying and feels disrespectful towards the user. Also tiny little valves used on cheap kayak seats or small chambers are a pain and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Inflatable Kayak Storage

Another topic is storage conditions. Try not to store your kayak in the places where the temperature swings quite a bit. The basement is preferable to the garage and ideally, if you can avoid it being tightly folded with sharp bends especially for long periods it'd be ideal. But I understand it's hard to do ideally. You have enough space to store it inflated but not tightly inflated but that's really a lot to ask. You're probably owning a hard shell at that point.

I hope all that info helps. Come paddle with us if you find yourself in Portland, Oregon, and have a delightful time on the water wherever you are.

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