Inflatable Kayaks vs. Hard Shell Kayaks – A Comparison of Pros and Cons
Of the two yak types, the choice between inflatable kayaks vs. hard shell kayaks will depend on several factors including convenience, cost, portability, and more.
When considering inflatable kayak pros and cons, let’s look at the two types head to head:
Weight, Storage, and Portability: A hard shell kayak will take up a lot of room in the garage, could be quite heavy depending on the size, and will require a roof rack to transport it to and from the river from your home. An inflatable kayak or IK, on the other hand, will weigh much less and deflates down to the size of a small suitcase. You can store it in your trunk and carry it to the water’s edge with no problem. You can also take an IK on an airplane as another piece of luggage. That kind of portability isn’t possible with a hardshell kayak.
Load: An inflatable kayak may weigh 25 pounds but it can carry up to 500 pounds, i.e., two paddlers, paddles, and gear. Most hardshells are solo kayaks, but even sea kayaks don’t offer the same payload that an inflatable sea touring kayak can handle.
Durability of Material: Modern hardshell kayaks are made from either plastic (polyethylene) or fiberglass. Each have their drawbacks as plastic boats are prone to heat distortion and can be damaged by scratches that can affect the glide through the water, while a fiberglass hull can crack and chip – and be costly to repair. The modern fabrics used on inflatable kayaks are tough enough to take on river rocks and other hazards head-on without puncturing an air chamber or ripping the fabric, and if it should happen it is easily patched.
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Portage: In the inflatable kayaks vs hardshell kayaks debate, the IK wins here too. A lightweight IK is far easier to take out and put in when you need to portage overland in remote wilderness areas.
Stability and Maneuverability: This is an even split as inflatable kayaks offer more stability and less rocker motion while hardshell kayaks are more maneuverable and easier to paddle. Also, IKs are slower and do not have the tracking that a hardshell does.
Learning Curve: An inflatable kayak is a good choice for beginners because they are safe and stable. A hardshell kayak will require familiarity with a wet-exit as well as learning traditional kayaking skills such as strokes, edging, bracing, and the Eskimo roll.
Price: On the cheap end, inflatable kayaks vs hardshell kayaks are equal — both start at around a few hundred dollars and go up to about $1500. Fiberglass kayaks can cost from $1,000 to $3,000, and high-end composite kayaks (fiberglass, carbon, Kevlar) can run thousands of dollars.
Comfort: The comfort of a hardshell kayak, with its spray skirt to surround the paddler is hard to beat. It keeps you warmer and prevents water from entering the cockpit. A ride in an inflatable kayak will be wet, and it will only be as comfortable as the seat, which is why many IK owners replace the standard thwart with a strap-in seat that offers back support.
What Kind of Kayak is Right for You?
If you are buying a boat for the very first time, your personal needs in a kayak will depend on the type of water you plan to explore. There is an inflatable kayak for every type of water — be it ocean, lakes, or whitewater rapids, but like the hardshell cousin, there is no one kayak that excels at everything.
Once you narrow your choices to only the boats that fall into your preferred choice of flat water, ocean touring, or whitewater, and then consider other factors such as your skill level, yak size, features, and price. Ultimately, the choice between inflatable kayaks vs. hardshell kayaks is a personal one. As a beginner, you might want to spend just a few hundred dollars on a quality inflatable until you develop into a full-fledged kayak hobbyist. You may end up owning one or more of each type.
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