TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Inflatable Kayaks

Introduction to Inflatable Kayaks
by Tom Holtey

Inflatable kayaks, considered by some to be the first generation of the sit-on-top kayak, trace their humble roots to the government surplus rubber rafts used for white water river travel in the early days of recreational paddling. Over the years they have developed into packable paddle craft, from sophisticated performance sea touring and river running kayaks to a variety of models for simple recreational use. Both solo and tandem versions are widely available. Photo provided by Innova

Whether you are prone to make an impulse purchase at a sporting goods store or planning an expedition in distant lands I hope you find this article helpful in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of inflatable kayaks, how to use and care for them, and why you may or may not want to get one.

TYPES OF INFLATABLES0000MAKING THE CHOICE0000Resources0000More about Inflatables


We often refer to inflatable kayaks as "soft shell" and glass & plastic kayaks as "hard shell". You will also see an abbreviation for inflatable kayak as IK. For the purposes of this article, since there is quite a selection of "blow-up" craft to choose from, I will be referring to inflatable kayaks that can be "pumped up" for use on the waters that their hard shell cousins paddle and not those that are more of a pool toy like blow-up rafts or canoes.

There are three main groups of inflatable kayaks; Touring, White Water and General Purpose.

TOURINGFEATHERCRAFT Jet StreamPhoto provided by Feathercraft

Touring inflatables are for both fresh and ocean water. They are long and slender with a shape that is suited to cruising flat water efficiently. This type often come with rudders or have rudder installation options.

WHITE WATERAIRE Tom CatPhoto provided by AIRE

White Water inflatables are short and wide and have a shape that is suited to navigating rapids. Their design considers that the water current will propel the craft.

Both the ocean touring and white water kayaks are often manufactured to a higher quality standard. Features may have been added like scupper holes to drain the cockpit and tie down loops to secure baggage or even knee straps for better control. They can also cost just as much or more than hard shell kayaks.

GENERAL PURPOSESEAEAGLE 330Photo provided by Sea Eagle

General Purpose inflatable kayaks are mostly dual duty for mild river running and fair ocean waters. Because they can do "both" they will not necessarily excel in either environment. They may have some of the features of specialty kayaks but will more likely be very basic. On the bright side they will cost much less.




  • The first question to ask yourself is: "Why do I want an inflatable kayak?"

Storing & Transporting

INNOVA Kayak In BackpackThe primary reason to get an inflatable is for storage and transportation. If you think you will have difficulty storing a hard shell kayak then a soft shell could be the way to go. Those who live in apartments, condos and other small living situations can simply deflate and roll up their kayak to stow it under a bed or in a closet. The better quality kayaks will roll up larger than the smaller lower quality kayaks. The space needed will be about as big as a large suitcase or duffle bag. Photo provided by Innova

Transporting an inflatable is fairly easy. What other kayak could you take on a city bus? Those who travel to destinations where paddling is on the itinerary can bring along their own kayak.

This is especially helpful if you want to travel to remote locations where freight services are either unreliable or costly. There may also be a lack of dependable outfitters. In these cases the inflatable kayak simply becomes baggage and can be checked on an airline as luggage.

This ease of transport can also be nice for folks who have trouble lifting a kayak onto a car's roof rack. They may lack the strength to lift a hard shell over their head, or may have a camper with a roof that is just too high. It is much more simple to just tuck a soft shell into the trunk or back seat of a car.

Bulk & Weight

An inflatable is easy to ship, or mail, if you are thinking about ordering on-line or by phone. It would also be a great option for sending a kayak as a gift. In addition shipping can be an advantage for trips where sending your kayak ahead, and then back again, is an option.

An important consideration is the weight and bulk of an inflatable vs. a hard shell. Most hard shell kayaks are about 50 pounds - less for small recreational kayaks and more for longer touring kayaks and tandems.

A bulky 60-65 pound kayak may be too much to handle for some while a 30-40 pound soft shell in a back pack could be just right. Not all soft shells are lighter than hard shells. Some can weigh just as much as a plastic or composite sea kayak.


SEVYLOR Wave N Paddle BoardOne myth that needs to be dispelled is that an inflatable kayak will cost less. This is true, for the general-purpose recreation kayak and beach toy category. Good quality soft shells will run about as much as hard shell kayaks and in some cases more. Photo provided by Sevylor

Some folks will want a low cost soft shell to "test the waters" to see if they like kayaking. This makes some sense, but one must be aware of the performance (& safety) factors. Bear in mind that the experience will be similar, but paddling a soft shell will require a bit more effort and your distance goals will have to be scaled down. Careful attention to wind and currents is a must.

  • The next question to ask: "Is an inflatable right for me and the waters I am paddling?"

Since an inflatable is essentially a sit-on-top kayak there is no need to be able to Eskimo roll or perform sit-in-side style self-rescues. It is relatively simple to recover from a capsize.

An inflatable or sit-on-top hard shell kayak would be a good choice for those who are less likely to invest the time learning rolling and self-rescues. It is, however, possible to Eskimo roll a soft shell if it is outfitted with knee straps - sometimes called thigh straps or leg straps.


Performance is something to consider. Hard shells will generally out perform soft shells. As I said earlier, the reason to get a soft shell is for storage and transportation. That said, they are not necessarily slugs FEATHERCRAFT Javaon the water. In fact many good quality inflatables will out perform low-end hard shell recreational boats.
Photo provided by Feathercraft

The higher quality soft shells will have good hull designs, high air pressure and in some cases there will be rigid structural members to hold the shape and enhance performance. If you need the convenience of a pump-up boat you can weigh the performance from kayak to kayak, soft and hard, while shopping for the one that suits your needs. If at all possible go for a test paddle.

White Water Inflatables

INNOVA K1With their roots in white water, many soft shell, or "rubber ducks" as they are often called on the rivers, are well suited to rapid rivers and are also well represented in the many makes and models to choose from. Photo provided by Innova

For river running look for kayaks with knee strap anchors so you can use them to increase performance and safety. Also look for self-bailing scupper holes to allow water to drain out of the cockpit.

Durability is something to consider, but any quality inflatable made for white water should be able to handle the punishment. In fact almost all soft shells are quite durable when it come to regular use.

Touring Inflatables

INNOVA HeliosTouring inflatable kayaks are more rare, with fewer models to choose from. On the bright side they often have design features that overcome the problems usually associated with the slower and flexible soft shell kayaks.

Some have a more V shape hull that aids in tracking. Flatter bottom inflatables may have fins, skegs or "strakes" that help in tracking. Many have a rudder that will help with maintaining a course line in crosswinds and following seas.

A few touring kayaks will be quite long, adding bulk and weight to their stow size, but increasing glide while on the water. A new generation of touring soft shells has a rigid frame for better performance. Also new is the Bic Yakka with a rigid hull and inflatable sides. There are a couple other pump-ups that have stiffener rods inserted into slots on the hull. When selecting an inflatable as your touring kayak look for strakes, a skeg, or a rudder. Photo provided by Innova

Higher air pressure or multiple side tubes can indicate a stiffer hull for better performance. If you are using your kayak for expedition camping - this goes for river running too - look for gear tie down options like D-rings, net bags, rope lacing and storage compartments.

Recreational Inflatables

SEVYLOR K79General-purpose inflatable kayaks are for recreational use on slow rivers and protected flat water for short distances. They can be rather simple and built of lesser quality materials than their white water and touring cousins mentioned above. They can also handle some minor riffles on a river or a bit of mild surf on the ocean with a skilled paddler.

While I would suggest the best possible quality and performance I do understand that some folks will want a very basic kayak for the occasional fair weather paddling a few days of the year. This is fine; just know the limitations of your boat and your skills. Photo provided by Sevylor

STERNS B500The reason to get a recreational inflatable kayak would be as a beach condo, a vacation to the tropics, for fun at a summer home or maybe as an activity for youngsters under supervision. Photo provided by Sterns

One thing to bear in mind is that while these kayaks border on beach toys they are real kayaks and life vests must be used. Care must also be taken to make the users aware of water safety concerns such as wind, currents, or tides predicted for that day. Don't let your guard down just because you are having so much fun.

INNOVA TravelerHybred Inflatables

Some inflatable kayaks have a deck like a sit-inside kayak. Of note is the Sterns B500 (above) and the Innova Traveler. The spray deck can keep out quite a lot of water from the cockpit. Even if the cockpit does flood the sealed air chambers will keep the kayak afloat. Photo provided by Innova


Feathercraft Pacific Action Sail

Feathercraft Java & Pacific Action Sail by Duncan Sayers

A field review of these folding sit-on-tops outfitted for sailing.

We now carry Innova Inflatable Kayaks at Tom's Top Kayaker Shop
Helios SoloHelios DoubleSafariSunny

Books (right) on the subject are available at Amazon. Using the search box supports TopKayaker.net. Sorry we do not have reviews for these titles:
Search by keywords or ISBN:
In Association with Amazon.com
-Inflatable Boats: Selection, Care, Repair, and Seamanship by Jim Trefethen
ISBN: 007065252X
-The Complete Inflatable Kayaker

(white water only) by Jeff Bennett
ISBN: 0070054282
-Guide to Inflatable Canoes & Kayaks
ISBN: 0890372098
-Inflatable Kayak Handbook
ISBN: 1555660789
-Inflatable Kayaking: The Complete Guide
ISBN: 0811728102
FeatherCraft is at www.FoldingKayak.com
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