Shopping for portable kayaks leads to two main choices: folding vs inflatable kayaks.
Folding kayaks are quick to set up and take down, while inflatables require the use of a pump. However, inflatable kayaks are more stable on the water and extremely affordable. There are pros and cons for both, so you might feel torn on what to buy.
I’ve been around kayaks since I was little, and I’m always amazed at how far the design has come over the years. Instead of having to strap unwieldy kayaks to the top of the car, portable options are easy to stow in the trunk or backseat. Inflatable and folding kayaks make transport so much easier.
Since folding and inflatable kayaks are so easy to transport, use, and store, you might wonder which is best for you. While they’re both convenient, some key differences might influence your buying decision.
I’ve broken down the basics of folding and inflatable kayaks so you know what you expect and how to use them. For anyone who’s ever wondered about the merits of a folding kayak vs. inflatable, I’ll explain it all.
You’ll learn how to compare various features of a folding vs. inflatable kayak, such as:
Table of Contents:
- Anatomy and design
- The Showdown!
- Reputable Kayak Manufacturers
- So What’s Better?
Inflatable Kayak Anatomy
You’d think a kayak is pretty basic, but knowing the inflatable kayak anatomy helps you understand exactly what you’re getting when you buy one. Like hard kayaks, the hull is the body of the boat that rests in the water. The bow is the front, and the stern is the rear.
The whole design centers around air chambers that keep the kayak afloat. There are usually three chambers to ensure the kayak won’t sink if there’s a puncture or air leak in one chamber.
Each chamber has an air valve so you can inflate and deflate your kayak. Most inflatable kayaks have valves as you see on a bicycle tire. These valves allow air in but won’t let it out if you leave them open.
The air chambers make up the foundation of the inflatable kayak, and the other parts are removable. These accessories include seats and footrests that keep you comfortable while you’re out on the water.
A skeg gives you a way to keep your kayak paddling straight. They’re attached to a cord so you can effortlessly lower them into the water and then tuck them back in your kayak when you don’t need them.
More expensive kayaks have rudders instead of skegs. A rudder lets you steer the kayak with foot pedals, but isn’t necessary if you want an affordable kayak.
Folding Kayak Anatomy
The anatomy of a folding kayak is similar to a hardshell kayak, but the design itself can vary. Some manufacturers like Oru Kayak use a single sheet of polypropylene to create an origami-inspired kayak. The corrugated plastic can fold down quickly, becoming about the size of a backpack for transport.
Other manufacturers create a light carbon frame you can expand easily or even build yourself. A kevlar skin fits over the frame and buckles into place. These closely resemble the original kayaks used by the Yupik and Inuit people, who stretched animal skins over bones.
You can quickly recognize the anatomy once you have your folding kayak assembled. The hull is the body of the kayak, with the bow at the front and stern at the rear. Folding kayaks usually have a removable bulkhead to make the most of the space. It not only provides a structure but also gives you hidden storage space.
A footrest made of ABS plastic is lightweight and compact enough to fit into your folding kayak without making it bulky. You’ll appreciate the added comfort the footrest provides when you’re out on the water.
The same goes for the backrest, which allows you to lean back while you’re paddling or cruising. Since you’re in such a tight space in a kayak, this chance to alleviate the pressure on your back makes a big difference.
Handles on the front and back make the foldable canoe easy to carry even when it’s fully assembled. You can construct it on the riverbank and transport it to the water using a handle. Since it’s so lightweight, you can carry it yourself.
Folding vs Inflatable Kayaks: The Ultimate Showdown
Now you have a broad overview of the anatomies of folding and inflatable kayaks. You can picture each one and see how it might benefit your time on the water.
But having a foundation of knowledge is only part of what you need to know. Breaking down each issue and discussing the pros and cons of the folding vs inflatable kayak help you make the best decision.
Which Costs Less?
It’s always worth spending money to invest in your hobbies, but there are big differences in the price point of folding and inflatable kayaks.
Even if you’re looking for a cheap folding kayak, you’re likely to end up spending at least $1,000. However, you can’t look at the price alone. You have to consider all the pros and cons explored in this article.
An Oru folding kayak, for example, starts at almost $900, while an Intex inflatable kayak is just over $100. On the other hand, an inflatable BOTE kayak costs anywhere from $1,100 to $1,700, so there are stipulations regarding cost and quality.
Advantage Inflatable Kayaks
Since inflatable kayaks are more affordable overall, they’re the clear winner in this feature. Most models cost around $500, which is at least half the price of a folding kayak. If you want to try an inflatable kayak without breaking the bank, you can find a decent model to just get out there for $100 to $200.
Which Is More Durable?
Durability is always a consideration when you’re going out on the water because you want to be prepared for rough waters and wind. My first experience with portable kayaks showed me that inflatable kayaks vs solid were pretty evenly matched, so I wanted to compare folding kayaks as well.
When you fold a piece of paper over and over again, you notice that the folds start to wear out and eventually rip. If this could happen to a foldable kayak, it wouldn’t be very durable.
But an inflatable kayak is also at risk since rocks or glass could puncture the air chambers. So which kayak option is more durable?
Manufacturers of both folding and inflatable kayaks have done amazing jobs with construction. With that said, it’s possible to buy a collapsible kayak that isn’t very durable. Always choose a reputable manufacturer and use the kayak according to manufacturer guidelines to make it last longer.
The polypropylene of folding kayaks is durable enough to withstand a lot of use. Oru folding kayaks, for example, can handle about 20,000 folds in their lifespan. You don’t have to worry about the folds wearing out and allowing water in.
Folding kayaks with a frame and kevlar are durable because the frames are usually carbon or PVC. These materials can withstand countless builds. Kevlar isn’t completely puncture-proof, but it won’t rip with the usual wear and tear of kayaking, even when you scrape against rocks or the shore.
Likewise, inflatable kayaks use durable materials that won’t wear out or rip with regular use. Most manufacturers use PVC or Hypalon, but Nitrylon is growing in popularity. These materials have enough elasticity to expand when you inflate them. Even inflated, it’s thick enough to prevent rips and leaks. Sea Eagle inflatable kayaks are durable enough to last for years.
Things get a little more clouded when you start dipping below the $300 mark. The vast majority of the inflatable kayaks in this range are made of a vinyl-like material. This helps the kayak keep its price point, but they usually only last a few seasons. Manufacturing defects are more common with these types of kayaks.– Editior Note
When you’re looking for a durable portable kayak, you can’t go wrong with either a folding or inflatable option. Make sure you use them properly and take good care of them to let them last as long as possible. The manufacturer will have lots of information to help you with this.
Most manufacturers have found ways to make inflatable kayaks’ designs sleek and narrow so you don’t feel like you’re aimlessly floating. They might have caps on the bow and stern to give it a pointy tip for better steering.
The air chambers of an inflatable kayak keep it afloat, but unfortunately, this means they’re floating on top of the water. Traditional kayak hulls are slightly submerged to cut through the water. You can have a good experience with an inflatable kayak, but it’s not going to be sleek enough to race against a folding or hard model.
Advanced Elements kayaks come with rigid panels you can put on the inside and outside of your inflatable kayak to make the vessel sturdier. Before using them, you should consider how much weight they add to your kayak. It might not be worth weighing yourself down even more just to try and gain some speed.
However, the inflatable kayak isn’t all bad in terms of performance. The heavier weight of the PVC kayaks makes them handle better in rough water. But since they’re inflatable, they aren’t quite as streamlined as a folding kayak. A good example of this is the Sea Eagle Razorlite 393rl.
Advantage Folding Kayaks
Folding kayak design and structure is closer to traditional hard kayaks, so it’s no surprise that they have a similar feel on the water. They have a rigid framework so they keep their sleek shape to deliver an exceptional experience.
Since the hull sinks slightly into the water, they have better speed and control. You can watch speed tests online to see the models you’re interested in. It’s impressive to watch the Oru foldable kayaks perform in the water after learning about how long they last and how they hold up in other regards.
The materials and design used for folding kayaks give them the leg up in terms of tracking and maneuverability. The sleek design keeps it moving in a straight motion even after you stop paddling, which refers to tracking.
Maneuverability is how efficiently the kayak turns. If your kayak has good tracking, it might not have the best maneuverability. Usually, shorter kayaks with flat bottoms have a better turning radius. But, understandably, that design isn’t the best for speed and tracking. So you might have to choose which factors matter most to you when you choose your folding kayak.
Many folding kayaks use displacement hulls to further improve their buoyancy. The design also positively affects the stability of the kayak. As a bonus, you can use the space inside of the displacement hull for hidden storage.
If you’ve ever been on the water, you know that even the biggest boats will rock depending on the wind and waves. When you’re in a kayak, you feel this even more. Choosing a stable kayak will cut down on the rocking and make you feel more in control when you’re on the water.
Since folding kayaks use a rigid material and have a structured framework, you might think that they offer the most stability. They’re a good choice, especially the sturdy Tucktec kayaks that have a retractable fin for launching and tracking. Still, they can’t compare to inflatable kayaks.
Advantage Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable kayaks are wider so more of the vessel is touching the water’s surface. This width gives them a good foundation for the duration of your outing.
Beginning kayakers especially seem to prefer the stability offered by inflatable kayaks. Intex has affordable, one-person inflatable kayaks that are wide enough to make beginners feel comfortable.
Setting up and Packing Away
Inflatable kayaks seem simple to manage since you only need to unfold and inflate them. But there are some things you might not consider until you have one.
First, consider how you’re going to blow up the kayak. Unless you plan to use your breath to inflate your kayak before each use, you’ll need to bring an air pump. At this stage, I prefer to use electric air pumps like Outdoor Master Shark II pump which saves you significant effort and time.
When you come back to shore after being on the water, you’ll notice that your inflatable kayak is even heavier. This is especially true with inflatable kayaks with nylon coverings like Advanced Elements and Aquaglide.
This additional weight happens naturally because there’s water all over the kayak. You have to let it dry out before you can deflate it and store it away.
While drying the inflatable kayak, you might want to prop it up against something. This position will allow any water trapped inside to escape. If you don’t let the inside and outside of your kayak dry completely, you’ll wind up dealing with mold which just makes the kayak smelly and unpleasant to paddle.
It will also require even more effort to get it out which is something you were avoiding in the first place!
Inflatable kayaks made with vinyl and PVC do not take as long to pack as kayaks that are covered with nylon. With this in mind, you might prefer to buy a Sea Eagle kayak over an Advanced Elements kayak, which uses nylon. The Sea Eagle inflatables even have floor drains that help them dry out faster.
Advantage Folding Kayaks
Folding kayaks have the advantage here. As soon as you get the kayak out of the bag, you start unfolding the lightweight material and clip it together so it holds its structure. If you have a kayak with a frame, you’ll construct that first and then pull the kevlar skin over it.
After a day on the water, you most likely want to pack your kayak quickly and head home. The folding kayak has the advantage here, too. Both kevlar and polypropylene dry out quickly. Since the kayak folds together, any water trapped inside will immediately leave so you can fold it up, put it back in the bag, and leave.
The MYCANOE folding kayak is especially noteworthy because the transparent body lets you see if there’s any pooled water or if mold is growing in the crevices.
Storage and Portability
Folding kayaks have a lot of advantages because they’re so versatile, but there’s not much flexibility in terms of storage and portability. Kayaks with a frame and a kevlar skin are more portable than polypropylene options, but both seem somewhat bulky compared to inflatable kayaks.
Oru’s Folding Inlet Kayak, when assembled, is 9’6” long and 30” wide at the cockpit. It folds down to 42” x 18” x 10” and weighs 20 pounds. These dimensions are more compact than carrying a solid kayak, but it’s still pretty bulky.
Advantage Inflatable Kayaks
As previously mentioned, inflatable kayaks are slightly heavier than the folding options. The weight makes them harder to carry unless you have time to allow them to completely dry out. But once they’re dry, you can fold them up into a small package. Sometimes rolling them will make them even smaller.
The Aquaglide Deschutes 145 inflatable kayak is 14’7” long when inflated. It folds down to 26” x 22” x 9”, which is the size of a backpack. These dimensions are much better for storage. However, the weight is 25 pounds, which makes it hefty in terms of portability.
Comfort is another factor that varies considerably across folding and inflatable kayaks. It usually depends on the manufacturer. Many kayak makers will include features to level up your comfort, like seats, footrests, and backrests.
If budget is no concern, you can splurge on a decadent portable kayak for the utmost comfort. But for more kayakers, you don’t want to break the bank for comfort when you might value speed, tracking, or maneuverability even more.
With all of those considerations in mind, it’s clear that both models tie here. You can find a comfortable kayak, whether it’s folding or inflatable if you look for the features that matter most to you.
For example, Advanced Elements’ Advanced Frame model is the most comfortable inflatable kayak. The seat is extra thick without adding enough weight to slow the kayak, and it has plenty of legroom and storage space.
Likewise, Oru’s Beach LT kayak is the most comfortable folding kayak due to its footrest and spacious cockpit that lets you stretch your legs.
When you’re shopping for a portable kayak, you don’t want to pick anything just because it’s cheap. Make sure you’re buying from a reputable manufacturer. I’ve listed my favorites for each type of kayak below so you have an idea of what to look for.
- Advanced Elements: They sell a unique folding-inflatable hybrid with a folding frame and inflatable cover.
- BOTE: Their inflatable kayaks are rigid and very stable, perfect for beginners.
- Sea Eagle: They’re one of the top names in the market, so you can’t go wrong with one of their kayaks.
- Intex: These kayaks are incredibly affordable, so check them out if you’re on a budget.
- Aquaglide: They offer different types and sizes of inflatable kayaks to suit your needs.
- Oru: Oru foldable kayaks are some of the most popular on the market.
- Tucktec: You can set up these kayaks in two minutes to get on the water quickly.
- TRAK: This manufacturer has been around for 15 years, so they produce the best of the best.
- MYCANOE: These origami kayaks have won awards for their design.
So What’s Better: A Folding Kayak or an Inflatable Kayak?
If you’ve been wondering, “Are folding kayaks any good?” you should have your answer. Whether you’re looking for a one-person folding kayak or something larger so your furry friends can come along, a folding kayak provides a memorable experience.
However, an inflatable kayak is more compact and portable. They’re stable and easy to navigate, so many beginners prefer this type of portable kayak. Depending on your kayaking experience and storage needs, you can’t go wrong with either portable kayak option.
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