If you have landed on my article (You beauty you!) you are at a crossroads. Inflatable vs hard kayak ? While I can’t tell you straight off the bat which is “better” I can walk you through which to use in what scenario.
You may also have looked at our domain name and thought.. Well this guy is going to be biased! But this is not true!
As someone who loves kayaking just about anywhere I can, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with both. As a result I can show you both the good and the bad of each kind of kayak. While I love inflatable kayaks there are definitely destinations where I would prefer a hardshell. And I will explain that to you in more detail below!
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know to solve the perennial question of inflatable kayak vs hard kayak. We’ll take a look at:
- The design and materials of both hard shell and inflatable kayaks
- The way they perform in different environments (rivers vs lakes vs the ocean)
- Practical considerations related to maintaining and transporting different types of kayaks
|Hard Shell Kayaks
|Which is Less Expensive?
|Transportation and Storage?
Inflatable Kayak Anatomy
Inflatable kayaks are surprisingly complicated watercraft, with many different parts that contribute to both function and fun.
The anatomy of an inflatable kayak is built around the air chambers that give the boat its shape and buoyancy once inflated. Modern inflatable kayaks more or less always have more than one air chamber for safety reasons relating to the possibility of leaks, punctures, or other failures.
If you’re out on the water when a kayak that has only a single air chamber deflates, you could be in big trouble when the kayak starts to sink. Therefore, inflatable kayaks tend to have at least three air chambers: one per side and one for the floor. That way, if your left chamber starts to deflate (for example), the other two unaffected air chambers will keep you floating well enough to reach the shore.
The air valves that you need to inflate your air chambers are another vital part of the kayak. Different inflatable kayaks have many different kinds of valves, with the most common being Leafield valves and Boston valves. These valves are similar to the ones you see on bicycle tires in that they let air in but don’t let it out.
Next, inflatable canoes have several removable parts that can be attached once it’s inflated. These include the seat and footrests that allow you to remain comfortable while paddling.
Finally, inflatable kayaks have rudders or skegs at the bottom of them. Rudders, which you can control with foot pedals, help you steer the kayak in windy or difficult conditions.
In these cases skegs are usually the common apparatus on inflatable kayaks. Rudders are used for more expensive specialist kayaks such as Hobie.
Top Inflatable Kayak Brands
Like most other outdoor equipment, the quality of the inflatable kayak that you buy matters a lot. It doesn’t make sense to ask, “are inflatable kayaks any good?” in isolation; you need to do some shopping for a high-quality Kayak.
Here are some of the top inflatable kayak brands and their most popular models:
- Aquaglide is well known for the wide range of inflatable kayaks they offer, from their Chinook single-seater and tandem kayaks for beginners to higher-performance models like the Deschutes.
- Advanced Elements
- The flagship product that Advanced Elements sells in the inflatable kayak market is the Advanced Frame Kayak, made from water-resistant fabric that’s stretched over an aluminum frame.
- Sea Eagle
- Sea Eagle is one of the top brands in inflatable kayaks as a result of its high-quality and reasonably-priced offerings. Their Explorer line is excellent for beginners and experts looking for a relaxing paddle, while you can cut through the water at speed in one of their FastTrack kayaks.
Hardshell Kayak Anatomy
Hardshell kayaks have more or less the same major features as inflatable canoes, minus a few of the parts like air valves that are necessary for inflatables. However, different kinds of hardshell kayaks are made from other materials and have some differences in design.
The body of a hard shell kayak can be made of plastic, wood, or so-called composite materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass. A hard plastic kayak will usually come with the lowest price tag, but they’ll often be heavier than wooden and composite kayaks. Wooden kayaks are beautiful handmade objects greatly enjoyed by hobbyists, while the highest-performance kayaks tend to be made from composite materials.
Next, you’ll have the chamber that holds the seat and the interior of the kayak where your legs go. Some hardshell kayaks are made from one solid piece of plastic or carbon fiber, while others have two parts fused—the lower hull and the upper deck.
Like inflatable kayaks, some models come with rudders or skegs to assist with steering, while others don’t have them. Similarly, different models have different sizes and arrangements of hatches to store cargo in.
Top Hardshell Kayak Brands
You also have a lot of options when you’re shopping for a rigid kayak, with a host of reputable brands that make great kayaks.
- Pelican has made its name selling affordable kayaks for decades. Their classic hard plastic kayak Sprint XR is a ten-foot kayak that’s in garages all over the country.
- Recently purchased by Old Town Kayaks, Necky is a brand that’s focused on providing high-end kayaks to customers who are still beginners and intermediates at the sport. They’re a little bit more expensive than others, but the quality of models like Pungo 120 and Eliza Composite is well worth it.
- Hobie is particularly famous for its Mirage line of pedal kayaks (which come in both hard shell and inflatable configurations).
Of course there are a ton of reputable hardshell kayak brands to choose from. To get the complete picture visit our friends at paddling.com . Check out another comparison page we did on folding vs inflatable kayaks here.
What Are the Differences Between Inflatable Kayaks vs Hardshell Kayaks?
Here’s where we’ll get into the meat of our inflatable vs rigid kayak showdown, breaking down the comparison between the two types of kayaks in several ways. We’ll get started with price, which we all know is one of the most important considerations when it comes to buying a kayak.
Which Is Less Expensive?
This is a bit of a tricky question to answer because there’s a lot of overlap between how many inflatable kayaks and hard shell kayaks cost. That’s to say that you can find inflatable kayaks that are more expensive than a hardshell, but the opposite is true as well. It all depends on the specific kayak you’re looking at.
So, what we’ll do is compare the cost of inflatable kayaks vs hardshell kayaks according to different categories of kayaks, e.g. entry-level inflatable kayaks vs hardshell kayaks, sport inflatable kayaks vs hardshell kayaks, etc.
When it comes to low-priced options that will get you out onto the water without breaking your wallet, inflatable kayaks are the way to go. You can find inflatable kayaks for as little as a hundred to a few hundred dollars with serious quality, such as the Sea Eagle 330 or the Intex Excursion Pro. In contrast, a Pelican MAXIM Kayak will set you back well over $500.
However, at the midpoint of kayak prices, there’s a lot of overlap in the cost of inflatable vs rigid kayaks. You can get excellent kayaks, both inflatable and hardshell, for between $800 and $1200. For example, the exceptionally capable (and inflatable) Sea Eagle RazorLite 393rl will set you back $999, while you can get the hardshell Sportsman I20 from Old Town Kayaks for the same price.
Finally, at high price points, rigid kayaks can become much more expensive than their inflatable counterparts. For instance, the complete carbon fiber Necky Eliza has a price tag of over $2,599. Few inflatable kayaks reach this price point.
Advantage Inflatable Kayak
In general, we can say that inflatable kayaks are less expensive than hardshell kayaks due to the cost of materials that go into making the different types of kayaks.
This difference is most felt at the lower end of the price range, where inflatable kayaks are much less expensive, and at the higher end, when rigid kayaks begin to be made with very expensive materials like carbon fiber.
Environments You are Paddling In
One of the most significant factors that determine whether an inflatable or a rigid kayak is the best fit for you is the type of paddling you like to do. Some environments suit inflatable kayaks, others suit rigid models, and sometimes there’s not much of a difference at all.
In this section, we’ll take a look at how an inflatable vs hard kayak performs in some typical paddling environments.
Going out onto the ocean in a kayak is one of the most unique experiences you can have in such a boat, mostly because of the set of specific conditions you face out there. There are waves, saltwater, and lots of wind, meaning that you need to go out with the right equipment. That means you need to have a kayak that’s meant for oceangoing, whether or not it’s inflatable.
You can buy inflatable kayaks that are designed for ocean use, such as the Sea Eagle Explorer 380x. These kayaks have several features that help them stand up to harsh ocean conditions, such as self-bailing holes, wide floors that increase stability, and skegs to keep you moving forward.
Advantage Hardshell Kayaks
However, in a straight comparison, hardshell kayaks are better for ocean environments. This is mostly because they can maintain stability while keeping a much slimmer profile, giving you greater control over handling. Furthermore, the possibility to wear a spray skirt will keep you dry and eliminate the need for bailing holes.
It’s unquestionably more relaxing to go for a kayak on the lake than out on the ocean, with little surf to trouble you (or tip you over) and warmer water beneath you. If you’ve got a lakefront cottage or often go for day trips to lakes, you and your family will love taking out the kayak.
These beautiful conditions mean that you’re able to enjoy the lake equally well in an inflatable kayak or a hard shell.
Indeed, I wouldn’t recommend going out and getting an incredibly expensive hardshell kayak if you’re just planning on using it on a small lake. Instead, a basic Pelican or one of the many reasonably priced inflatable kayaks will do the job perfectly.
As a rule of thumb, the bigger the lake gets the bigger advantage it is to use a hard shell kayak. This is because they can cover great distances with less effort.
There’s a wide variety of conditions you can face when kayaking on rivers, and therefore, a range of different kayaks will be appropriate for some of them but not others.
You can take both inflatable and hardshell kayaks on rivers. There’s very little difference between them regarding slow and calm rivers that don’t feature rapids or steep descents.
There are several inflatable kayaks that can stand up to the challenges of whitewater kayaking. They have very tough outer skins that can stand up to collisions with rocks and other obstacles without puncturing and are pretty wide and stable.
Advanced Element makes an excellent whitewater kayak called the Attack Whitewater Inflatable Kayak, for instance. Sea Eagle also excels in these conditions.
On the very toughest of rivers, it may be advisable to go with a hardshell kayak. This is only an issue when you know that you’ll have to do a lot of maneuvering (and edging) to make it to the bottom of the river safely.
Except for the very toughest of rivers that require a highly maneuverable kayak, inflatable and rigid kayaks both perform well on rivers.
I recently watched the documentary starring Scott Lindgren called the River Runner (It’s on Netflix). In that documentary he was first introduced to river rafting.
One of his fellow guides asked him if he had ever tried river kayaking. Confused, Scott asked what the difference was. The guide’s response was “steering a river raft down a river is a bit like driving a bus, steering a white water kayak down a river is like driving a Ferrari” . And just like that the plot of the movie began!
Now I don’t want to spoil anything about this great film but there are a lot of dangers involved. You NEED to do training before even considering white water kayaking.
While there’s always an inherent risk to kayaking, as long as you practice basic precautions (like wearing a lifejacket, remaining aware of the weather, and kayaking within your skill level), you can minimize any dangers you face.
There are a few different safety considerations to keep in mind when using an inflatable vs rigid kayak. The main difference is that rigid kayaks tend to be easier to capsize, so you must be prepared to flip over and re-enter your kayak should that happen.
The most significant hazard that you’ll face in an inflatable kayak that’s specific to the kind of boat is a puncture or leak. Since most models of inflatable kayak have multiple air chambers, your craft will usually retain enough buoyancy so that you can make it back to shore to patch the hole. However, numerous air chambers may break at once. In such a situation, you’ve got to make sure you have a lifejacket and that someone knows where you’re kayaking.
Both inflatable and rigid kayaks are safe to use in the conditions they’re designed for, so long as you approach the activity with maturity and care.
Transportation and Storage
When you want to travel with a hard shell canoe, you need much more than just your boat. To attach your canoe to your car, you’ll most often require a specialized roof rack that can clamp onto your kayak. These accessories can be costly and take a long time to install.
In contrast, most inflatable kayaks will fit into the trunk of your car when deflated and folded up. The additional parts of your inflatable kayak won’t take up much extra space either: the seat and any metal framing that your kayak has will fit into the trunk or, worst-case scenario, in the backseat. This ease of transport reduces the barriers to having a great day trip.
Furthermore, you won’t have nearly as much trouble finding a place to store an inflatable kayak as you will with a rigid body kayak.
If you don’t have a spacious garage, it’s almost impossible to find a suitable space for a rigid kayak (and forget about it if you live in an apartment). Once you’ve properly cleaned and dried your inflatable kayak, it can be stowed away in a closet or any other out-of-the-way place.
Advantage Inflatable Kayak
When you make a list of inflatable kayaks pros and cons, the ease of storing and transporting an inflatable kayak is at the top.
On-Water Performance Comparisons
Are inflatable kayaks good compared to hardshell once you get out onto the water?
When people go kayaking for the first time, they can be surprised at how much work it takes to keep the average hardshell kayak above water. It can often feel like you’re just on the verge of tipping over, especially if you’re not very experienced in a canoe.
There are three main reasons that a hardshell kayak is prone to tipping over. First of all, kayaks sit low in the water, especially when packed with gear, meaning you don’t need to lean very far to the side before you start getting wet. Secondly, the ‘V’ shape of the bottom of kayaks isn’t very forgiving or stable. Thirdly, you don’t have much room to adjust your body weight when you’re in a kayak, making corrections challenging to pull off.
Advantage Inflatable Kayak
It’s a lot less stressful to paddle an inflatable kayak for beginners. The wider base of inflatable kayaks, as well as their inherent buoyancy, help to keep them upright without demanding too much of the paddler.
Another critical point is that inflatable kayaks are easier to right once they’ve tipped over. Rigid kayaks with a large hole for you to sit in can easily become swamped with water and difficult to turn back over. Then, unless you have the skill required to get back into, you might be facing a long swim while towing your kayak home.
Since inflatable kayaks are lighter, they’re easier to flip over on your own. The fact that most of them also have self-bailing holes means that you won’t be sitting in a puddle of water.
For those who aren’t familiar with this bit of kayak terminology, tracking is the ability that a kayak has to stay going straight while you’re paddling. If your kayak has good tracking, you’ll stay going in roughly the same direction in even high winds.
A kayak that weathercocks is the opposite of a kayak that tracks, and that’s not a good thing. Kayaks that have rudders and skegs are generally better at tracking than those without.
Inflatable kayaks are usually quite vulnerable to weathercocking due to their flat hulls that float on top of the water more than they cut through it. Furthermore, inflatable kayaks sit up high in the water and are thus more vulnerable to being knocked out of direction by the wind.
Advantage Hardshell Kayak
Hardshell kayaks track better than inflatables as a result of their lower and sleeker profile in the water. Kayaks that have a variable rudder can stay going straight on in even the windiest of conditions because you can always adjust your course.
For some weekend kayakers, speed isn’t the most crucial consideration when it comes to choosing a kayak–they just want to get out and enjoy the sun and the water. Other kayakers love to get moving and want to get a kayak that’s capable of moving at a clip.
Inflatable kayaks aren’t as fast as hardshell kayaks for several reasons. The most significant factor is the size and shape of inflatable kayaks, which tend to be short and broad. This means that inflatable kayaks generally float on top of the water and ‘plane’ over it, putting a lot of water in your way and slowing you down.
Big Advantage to Hardshell Kayak
Hardshell kayaks, on the other hand, have a pointed tip and ‘V’ shape under the water, which means they can cut through it. In the end, hardshell kayaks face much less water resistance and can go through it much faster than inflatable kayaks.
The different types of kayaks you can buy have very different properties when it comes to maneuverability, so this comparison is difficult.
In one sense, sea kayaks are easy to maneuver because they have a variable rudder that reduces tracking, but their extreme length means it takes a while to turn them all the way around. On the other hand, a whitewater kayak is short and easy to edge, so you can turn it on a dime.
Advantage Inflatable Kayak
However, in general, we can say that inflatable kayaks are a little bit easier to maneuver than hardshell kayaks. The reason being that on a whole, inflatable kayaks are usually shorter than hardshell kayaks, so they have less turning radius and require less energy to operate. The body of an inflatable kayak is also less submerged which makes it easier to “spin around”
Durability: What Lasts the Longest?
When asking the question “are inflatable kayaks worth it?” one thing you have to think about is the durability of the boat.
When looking at the question of durability in terms of hardshell kayaks vs inflatable kayaks, there’s a little bit of a tradeoff.
In an absolute sense, hardshell kayaks can stand up to more abuse than inflatables without taking significant damage.
However, rigid kayaks aren’t indestructible--they can crack and break. And when they do break, it’s often a write-off and, at the very least, an expensive repair job. If an inflatable takes some damage, it’s usually very easy to fix it with a quick patch job.
The question as to durability of a kayak is a bit more tough to answer in absolute terms because this is very manufacturer dependent.
Depending on how you’re planning on blowing up your inflatable kayak, it can take quite a long while from when you arrive at your destination to when you’re ready to start kayaking. A manual option like a foot pump will take the most time to fully inflate your kayak, but if you’ve got an electronic pump that can connect to your car, the setup time won’t be very long at all.
Advantage Hardshell Kayak
Since you don’t need any extra equipment or steps to set up a hardshell kayak. It’s an advantage for hardshell kayaks that you can take them directly off your car and into the water.
Which is Better When Loaded with Weight?
If you’ve decided to stay at a campsite that can only be accessed via the water, you’ll likely have a large amount of equipment and supplies to take with you.
Your manufacturer will specify the maximum capacity that your kayak can handle, so a little math that takes your body weight into account will give you an idea of how much you can take. Simply subtract your weight from the listed maximum capacity and what’s left over is the maximum amount of extra weight you can bring.
Both hardshell and inflatable kayaks can be loaded up with a large number of supplies, and the upper limit of how much you can take depends on the exact make and model of your kayak. Different makes and models of kayaks have different amounts of space for onboard storage.
Which is Higher Maintenance?
One con to getting an inflatable kayak is that they are a little difficult to store again once you’ve taken them out. No matter how easy the Youtube videos look! It’s not so bad if you’ve only gone into a clean lake: in that situation, you can usually just let the kayak dry thoroughly before folding it up.
On the other hand, if you’ve taken your kayak into saltwater or anywhere that’s muddy, you’ll need to unfold your kayak once you get home, then hose it down and clean it thoroughly before letting it dry and folding it up again.
In contrast, the most you’ll have to do before storing a hardshell canoe is hose it down quickly. You don’t need to worry about letting it dry or having a little bit of salt on the outside.
Which is More Comfortable?
As long as you are paddling with proper form, you can stay comfortable in both an inflatable and hardshell kayak.
However, if you get into the comparison between which is more comfortable, a rigid kayak will not come out on top. After all, hard plastic is not renowned for being a comfortable material to sit in.
If we were to compare models of similar price ranges it’s usually the inflatables that come up on top until you get to sea kayaks and fully rigged hardshell fishing kayaks like the Hobie.
Advantage Inflatable Kayak
If you’re trying to get comfortable while you’re out on the water, the puffy and pillowy nature of inflatable kayaks will keep you happy.
So What Have We Learned?
When choosing a kayak to go out onto the water with, the biggest dilemma is inflatable kayak vs regular kayak. There’s no easy answer to this question because you can find excellent kayaks that are both rigid and blow-up.
When to Use an Inflatable Kayak
- A Beginner
- Want Stability
- Are in Calm Water
- When you have Less Storage Room
- You have Limited Transportation Space
- You Want Something Durable
When to Use a Hardshell Kayak
- You Want to Advance Your Skill Level
- Want Some On-water Perfomance
- You Want To Tackle More Difficult Conditions (down the road)
- You Want Speed
- You Don’t Want to Set Anything Up
- You have a Garage
Paddle to your skill level and be safe!