So you’d like a compact kayak, but you’re wondering … is an inflatable kayak as good as a hard-shell?
In this inflatable vs hard-shell kayaks review, you’ll find out how they compare in terms of durability, portability, comfort, performance on the water, storage, set-up and cost.
I grew up paddling hard-shell kayaks and have been selling (and paddling) inflatables for almost a decade now. Here’s my take on the old inflatable vs hard-shell kayaks debate.
The durability of inflatable kayaks is where most people get nervous and think that hard-shell kayaks are better. But, when it comes to durability, there is a huge variation across both inflatable and hard-shell kayaks.
Whereas the durability of hard-shell kayaks is mostly dependent on the material, for inflatable kayaks, it is mostly dependent on price and purpose.
For example, we sell inflatable whitewater kayaks that are designed to take a beating and inflatable fishing kayaks that are designed to handle hooks, fins and knives!
As long as you don’t go cheap, you can find an inflatable kayak that is durable enough for whatever kind of paddling you want to do.
Inflatable kayaks are definitely better than hard-shell kayaks when it comes to portability.
- If you are transporting your kayak in a vehicle, an inflatable saves you from having to purchase and install roof racks, and from having to manoeuvre a heavy hard-shell onto the roof racks. Also, your kayaks are safe inside your vehicle, rather than vulnerable to theft on top of it.
- A lot of people get an inflatable kayak because they know that paddling is an awesome way to explore and adds a whole new dimension to a holiday. If you want to take your hard-shell kayak on an airplane, not only would it be a hassle, you would have to organize and pay for oversized baggage. Inflatable kayaks can just be checked in as part of your baggage allowance.
- Ever thought about doing a multi-day wilderness hike? What would you do if you came across a water body you wanted to cross? You are not going to carry a hard-shell kayak with you, but you could take a super lightweight pack raft.
Comfort (or lack of) is one of my biggest bug bears when it comes to hard-shell kayaks. It usually only takes about 15 minutes before I start looking for a beach!
- If you suffer from numbness when sitting on hard surfaces (like me), then inflatable kayaks are a dream. Sitting on a soft inflatable floor means you can go paddling for hours and hours and never lose feeling in your legs!
- The other bummer with hard-shell kayaks is that you often get a very short, hard back rest, if you get one at all. Most of our inflatable kayaks have a clip in seat that is very supportive for your back. When you are having a leisurely paddle and want to sit and relax for a bit, you can just recline like you are in a lounge chair.
- In summer, it is nice to be able to jump out of your kayak for a swim, but getting back in can be a bit painful in a hard-shell because of all the hard edges connecting with shins and torsos. When you are hauling yourself back into an inflatable kayak, the edges are nice and soft…
Performance on the Water
In both cases, you get what you pay for!
I’ve had absolutely terrible experiences trying to paddle hard-shell kayaks, and wonderful experiences paddling inflatable kayaks.
For example, here I am paddling the AirFusion Elite – one of our fastest kayaks.
You can’t even tell it’s an inflatable!
Cheap inflatable kayaks are pretty terrible on the water, but so are cheap hard-shell kayaks …
This one is a no-brainer … inflatable kayaks take the cake, hands down!
An inflatable kayak packs up nicely into a bag, so it take up much less space in your home. You can put it in a closet if you want – no need for a garage or a shed.
This is a huge win for keen kayakers that live in apartment blocks.
There are pros and cons to both hard-shell and inflatable kayaks when it comes to set-up. A useful comparison is the time and effort it takes from getting up in the morning and deciding to go kayaking, to being out on the water.
- TIME – An inflatable kayak is quicker to get going – you just throw the bag in the car and away you go. With a hard-shell, you have to load the kayak onto the roof racks and tie it down, which takes longer. But when you get to the water, you have to blow up an inflatable kayak, whereas the hard-shell can just be un-buckled and lifted down. Overall, it is hard to say which takes longer. Most of the inflatable kayaks I sell are very quick to inflate (about 5 minutes) so there probably isn’t much difference.
- EFFORT – This is where the inflatable kayaks pull ahead. They don’t weigh anywhere near as much as hard-shells kayaks AND they don’t have to be lifted on and off roof racks.
Check out this video of me inflating the AdvancedFrame Sport in the same amount of time it takes to make a cup of tea (4 minutes and 10 seconds) and you can decide for yourself which is quicker and easier:
Good quality inflatable kayaks are much cheaper than good quality hard-shell kayaks. Always go for good quality – you get what you pay for!