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Inflatable Kayak vs. Hardshell Kayak (An Inside Look)

If you are in the market for a kayak, there are many things to consider, and it can be overwhelming.  Today we will take on the inflatable kayak vs. hardshell kayak debate to see what makes each of these boats unique.

Kayaking is a fun outdoor adventure that many people enjoy.  You can also find some good controversy in the hardshell kayak vs. inflatable kayak debate. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types.  This article will explore the good and bad and help you decide which option is best.

The main reasons people choose an inflatable kayak over a hardshell kayak are transportation, storage and the entry-level price point is low.

One more thing, this post is about calm water conditions, like lakes or slow-moving rivers. Okay, let the debate begin!

Inflatable kayak vs. hardshell kayak

Setup

Inflatable kayak:

Setting up an inflatable kayak is very easy, and many inflatables come with a dedicated electric pump.  You can be fully inflated and on the water in about 10 minutes in most cases.

You have to make sure it is correctly inflated with an inflatable kayak to the correct PSI before heading out on the water.  Some of the pumps are designed to fill the boat with the right amount of air pressure for you.

Hardshell kayak:

With a rigid kayak, the kayak is ready to go. There is no inflating required.  You simply take the kayak off your car and put it in the water.  There may be some setup with gear, but strictly speaking about getting the kayak ready for paddling, there is nothing to do with a hard kayak.

Cost

Inflatable kayak:

Inflatables come in a WIDE range of prices.  You can buy a cheap inflatable, some very cheap (under $100) made from single-layer vinyl. As you step up in material and performance, there are mid-range inflatables in the $300-$700 price range.  You can expect to spend upwards of $1,000 or more on an inflatable kayak on the high end. We are not talking about pool toys here!

Hardshell kayak:

Much of the same holds true for hard kayaks as for inflatables.  But on the lower end, you won’t find a new hard-side kayak for $100.  You can find entry-level hardshell kayaks for $300-$500.  As you move up in quality and performance, you can spend thousands of dollars on a top-notch hardshell kayak.

Materials

Inflatable kayak:

Inflatable kayaks are made from a variety of materials.  On the low end (entry-level), these kayaks are made of a single vinyl layer, like a cheap blow-up air mattress. These inflatable are super cheap to produce and can often cost around $100 to buy.

The next kind of step up is inflatables made of the same thin vinyl, but these boats are covered in protective fabric.  This fabric helps to protect the kayak from punctures and UV light.

Finally, there are kayaks made of thicker materials like PVC and rubber. These boats are very durable, but they come at a price.

Hardshell kayak:

Rigid kayaks are made from a variety of different materials, which can include things like plastic, fiberglass, composite, even wood.  Some materials are heavier than others.  Without getting too technical, the majority of recreational kayaks are made of hard plastic. You can read more about what kayaks are made of here.

Transportation

Inflatable kayak:

Inflatable kayaks can offer a decided advantage over hard kayaks.  Inflatable kayaks are easy to take with you. They can fit in your trunk, back seat, in an RV, etc.  You don’t need a roof rack, pickup, or a trailer to haul your kayak around.  You simply toss it in your vehicle, and away you go.

I will take transportation a step further, in that many inflatables come with a duffel bag or backpack style carry bag.  This makes it easy to trek your boat to the water, and even launch from places other people can’t.

Hardshell kayak:

If you have a roof rack or other way to transport a hard kayak, you are in luck. If you don’t have a way to transport the kayak, then that is an added expense for you.  There are inexpensive roof racks available, or you can spend a lot of money on a rack.  This is something to keep in mind when you are shopping for a kayak.  How are you going to get the kayak from home to the water?

Storing your kayak

Inflatable kayak:

I have a couple of things to discuss here.  Inflatable kayaks are easy to store; you can put them on a shelf in your garage or tuck it away in a closet.  From that standpoint, storing an inflatable kayak is easy. That is one reason people will buy an inflatable kayak, especially if you are low on space.

But, trouble lies ahead.  Before you can store your kayak away, it needs to be dry.  This is a critical part of owning an inflatable kayak.  Earlier, we talked about different categories of inflatables.  Some are made from a single thin layer of vinyl. For the most part, you can wipe these down and pack them away.  Others are covered with fabric, and these are the most difficult to get completely dry. 

One of the reasons inflatable kayaks are so popular is because they are compact and don’t take up much space. Just keep in mind there is some work before you can pack it away.

Hardshell kayak:

With a hard kayak, you need more space to store your boat.  There are many different ways to store a hardshell kayak, using a wall or freestanding hanger.  Click here for more information on kayak wall hangers. 

You can store a kayak indoors or outside, but some materials will deteriorate in UV light, so keep that in mind if you store it outdoors. You want to make sure that the kayak hanger will be able to support the weight of your boat and that you install it at a height where you can lift to boat up to it.

Stability

Inflatable kayak:

Inflatable kayaks are typically very stable because they are wide and buoyant.  This is great for beginners!  Some inflatable kayaks are challenging to capsize even if you try.

Hardshell kayak:

Hardshell kayaks are also very stable, and they sit lower in the water.  Hard kayaks can be a better option in rough water. Again the width of a kayak plays a vital role when it comes to stability.

Weight limit

Inflatable kayak:

Inflatable kayaks come in a wide range of weight limits.  You can find kayaks from 220 pounds all the way up to 750-pound capacity. I had to do some serious searching to find a 750 pounder! Don’t write off inflatable kayaks.  They come with impressive weight limits for different sizes of paddlers and their gear.

Hardshell kayak:

Hard kayaks come in a variety of weight limits as well. There are recreational, touring, fishing kayaks, to name a few different types.  The best thing to do is decide how you plan to use the kayak and then choose a boat that will fit your body weight plus gear.  Here is a helpful guide on kayak weight limit.

Safety and durability

Inflatable kayak:

We are not talking about your favorite pool toy here. One of the biggest concerns people have with an inflatable kayak is puncturing it.  Depending on where you are kayaking, you might encounter sharp rocks, tree branches, or stumps.

Inflatables are pretty darn tough these days, and if the kayak is used as intended, you should be just fine.  Yes, if you use a cheap inflatable on whitewater, you are probably asking for trouble. New and innovative technologies have taken inflatable kayak construction to new heights.  Many kayaks are built with multiple air chambers, so if you experience a puncture, you won’t be stuck.

Hardshell kayak:

Hard kayaks are made of different materials, from hard plastics to composite, even wood.  The same story holds true for hardshell kayaks as inflatables. Sure, you can puncture a rigid kayak if you hit a sharp rock.  But if you use the kayak as intended, the hardshell kayaks are durable and safe.  You can read more here about what kayaks are made of.

Tracking

Inflatable kayak:

Generally speaking, inflatable kayaks don’t track (go straight) as well as hardshell kayaks. This means you are not as efficient when you are paddling, which is especially true at the entry-level. Even more so in windy conditions. Some inflatables come with a skeg, which is a tracking fin, to help you go straighter.

Hardshell kayak:

Hardshell kayaks allow you to move quickly through the water and are easier to control.  Each stroke is more effective because you will be heading straight toward your destination.


Things to keep in mind

  • With a hardshell kayak, you need a way to transport the boat with a roof rack, trailer, etc.  You might also need a kayak cart to get the boat to the water once you arrive at your destination.
  • Inflatable kayaks will fit in the trunk of your car.
  • Entry-level inflatables come with everything you need to get on the water.
  • Inflatable kayaks need to be dry before you pack them away.

Conclusion

Inflatable vs. hardshell kayak - kayaks stacked on a dock

There is a lot to think about when it comes to hardshell kayaks vs. inflatable kayaks.  

Many inflatable kayaks come with everything you need to get started, at least entry-level models.  You will get one inflatable kayak, a collapsible paddle, and a bag to carry your kayak.  Sometimes you will get a pump and a repair kit as well.  All of these included accessories, coupled with transportation and storage, are part of the allure of entry-level inflatables.

Hard kayaks are better for moving quickly through the water and tracking well.  There are a lot of different configurations for hardshells as well. Sit on top hard kayaks are popular among fishermen.

The debate continues, and you will have to decide which option works best for you.  If you are limited on storage space and want a boat that is easy to transport, then an inflatable is a good option.  If you are looking for better performance, then a hardshell kayak is an excellent way to go.

Steve Morrow Founder of Paddle About
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve is an avid kayaker and founder of Paddle About. When he is not on the water, Steve enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, camping, and hiking with his family. Read more.