Are you considering purchasing a kayak but unsure whether to go for an inflatable or hard-shell model?
We’ll delve into the pros and cons of each type, examining factors such as portability, durability, and performance. By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of which kayak is best suited to your needs and preferences.
Portability & Storage
Kayaks come in various sizes and materials, which can drastically affect how heavy and portable they are.
Most hard-shell kayaks are made of a rigid plastic called polyethylene. While highly durable and cheap to produce, polyethylene is one of the heavier materials used in kayak construction. However, you can also find lightweight hard-shell kayaks made of lighter materials, such as fiberglass. Although these boats are usually much more expensive.
Regardless of their material, hard-shell kayaks require a roof rack or trailer to transport them with a car. Roof racks are reasonably priced, but you’ll need to be comfortable tying down and securing your kayak. While relatively straightforward, it is an extra hassle and can often require another person’s help.
In addition, hard-shell kayaks require a larger dedicated storage space, preferably in a dry place like a garage or shed. This can make them challenging to own if you live in an apartment.
On the other hand, inflatable kayaks can be folded up and stored in small areas when not in use. Their lightweight material makes them much easier to transport and carry, whether inflated or not. This flexibility and ease of transport give them a significant edge over hard-shell kayaks, which, in some cases, can weigh over 100 pounds.
While hard-shell kayaks take more physical effort to get to the water, they’re usually ready to go once you’ve reached your launch point.
Inflatable kayaks can be tossed in your car’s trunk on a whim with no extra help. However, you’ll need to take the time to inflate your kayak before you can get onto the water.
Most inflatable kayaks market their designs as taking less than ten minutes to inflate. But this will depend on your pump and whether it’s hand-operated or electric.
The durability of inflatable kayaks has steadily improved over the years, but they still can’t compete with hard-shell kayaks.
Quality drop-stitch inflatable kayaks have their seams stitched two, three, or four times providing excellent tear and puncture resistance. Nevertheless, all it takes is one rough landing on a sharp rock to end your inflatable kayak career.
Even if you’re extremely careful, the odds are that you’ll eventually need a patch kit and the occasional repair to keep your inflatable in good working condition.
However, with proper care, it’s reasonable to expect an inflatable to last several years, if not more.
One of the most important aspects is ensuring your inflatable kayak is dry before storing it. This will help extend its lifetime and keep it in good working order. However, these extra steps can add a fair bit of time to the storing process and can be tedious.
Hard-shell kayaks are much more durable, particularly plastic models. They can land on rough beaches, endure drags across small boulders, and handle the occasional collision with few harmful effects.
Solid kayaks can be kept just about anywhere when not in use. However, make sure to keep water from pooling in the seats or storage areas, and never let these puddles freeze, as the expanding moisture can weaken and even crack the hull.
Most polyethylene kayaks market themselves as UV-resistant, but I still like to keep mine out of direct sunlight if possible.
These simple steps ensure that your hard-shell kayak can last for many years and might be the only boat you ever need to purchase.
Plastic, hard-shell kayaks require little to no maintenance as long as they’re stored properly. As a result, these boats can sit for weeks, months, or even years between use without ill effects on their performance.
Fiberglass kayaks require significantly more work. It may be necessary to re-glass parts of the hull to deal with normal wear and tear, and most models also have a protective resin or gel coat that protects the glass. This needs to be reapplied every couple of years, depending on how much you use your kayak.
When it comes to cleaning, hard-shell kayaks can be more tricky. Instead of drying, deflating, and shaking sand and grime-free, many hard-shell kayaks have hard-to-reach areas requiring a vacuum cleaner with long, narrow attachments to get to all the nooks and crannies.
But your kayak doesn’t need a deep clean after every use. This is best to do before storing it for an extended period.
It’s not a question of if your inflatable kayak will need some TLC, but simply when. Obvious punctures will be easy to spot, but even if you’re a careful paddler, chances are you’ll notice the seams weakening over time.
A basic patch kit should be enough to deal with most small holes and punctures. Pay close attention when inflating your kayak, and listen for the sound of air escaping. If you suspect a leak, rub soapy water along the seam. If it isn’t holding air, you should see some bubbles form in the water.
Hard-shell kayaks are more rigid than inflatables and won’t twist, bend, or warp on the water when the wind and tide push against them. Their solid material means there’s less wasted paddling power, and the kayak will be more responsive to your paddling stroke.
This advantage can be reduced if your inflatable kayak has a skeg installed. Skegs help keep a kayak on course when dealing with wind.
Other modifications like a rudder can also help improve a kayak’s performance and even the playing field. But by and large, even the best inflatable kayaks cannot match the performance of well-made hard-shell kayaks.
Stability & Safety
There are plenty of stable hard-shell and inflatable kayaks, and I wouldn’t consider one type superior in this case. However, if you’re worried about stability, look for a wider design. These kayaks have better primary stability and are designed to minimize the rocking sensation prevalent in most kayaks. Some are even stable enough for you to stand up in!
If you do capsize and need to perform a self-rescue, I again prefer wide kayaks. Big inflatables can feel like rafts and are great at absorbing shifts in your body weight as you scramble back in. Hard-shell sit-on-top kayaks have a similar advantage, but the solid hull makes it a little more challenging.
I wouldn’t specifically choose an inflatable or hard-shell kayak from a safety perspective; Instead, consult the individual kayak’s characteristics and your own risk tolerance.
Luckily, the days of cheap, flimsy, uncomfortable kayak seats have come to a blessed end. But hard-shell kayaks still have the edge over inflatables.
Since they’re more rigid and don’t need to be collapsed, their seat infrastructure can be more complex and provide more support for paddlers.
Many of these hard-shell kayak seats can comfortably accommodate a wide range of shapes and sizes. Many also have foot pegs to give you something to brace against, which improves your paddling efficiency.
Some inflatable kayaks also offer these features but tend to be flimsier and harder to incorporate into the kayak without sacrificing weight, storage, and portability.
Sea Eagle is one of the leading inflatable kayak companies out there, and most of their designs include weight capacities of 600 pounds or more. Conversely, hard-shell kayaks top out at around 550 pounds or so.
Chances are you won’t need to load several hundred pounds of gear into your kayak unless you plan a camping trip lasting a week or more.
But I’ll give inflatable kayaks a slight edge when it comes to weight capacity. Still, it’s close, and there are enough options for both designs that I wouldn’t let this serve as a tie-breaker when choosing your next kayak.
Hard-shell kayaks have a clear advantage when it comes to onboard storage. Their rigidity makes it much easier for designers to incorporate dedicated bulkheads and storage space. In addition, some models feature two or more watertight hatches that can hold gear for a week or more if packed correctly.
The structural limitations of inflatable kayaks prevent them from having these same large, dedicated storage areas. Some higher-end, expedition-style inflatable kayaks may have a watertight hatch or two, but they’re often much smaller and can’t hold the same type of gear.
You’ll have to be more creative with where you keep gear if you go the inflatable route. You’ll likely need to invest in some waterproof bags for kayaking and extra line to secure your gear to your kayak and keep it dry.
Most Kayaks are designed for specific types of water and activities. However, since hard-shell kayaks provide a better overall performance, they can usually handle a broader range of water conditions.
While I’ll give the edge to hard-sided kayaks here, it’s important to note that it’s best not to try jamming your square kayak in a round hole. If your kayak is meant for whitewater, don’t take it out on the open ocean.
Since hard-shell kayaks usually have more areas where this gear can be mounted, they have a noticeable advantage in customization.
Many inflatable fishing kayaks also have these custom options, but they tend not to have the same versatility and choice.
While polyethylene kayaks are relatively cheap compared to fiberglass or marine-grade plywood materials, most hard-shell kayaks are noticeably more expensive than inflatables.
Some high-end inflatable kayaks are in the same price range as hard-shell kayaks, but in general, inflatable kayaks are cheaper.
It’s worth also considering that owning an inflatable kayak gives you the advantage of not needing to purchase a roof rack, trailer, or storage rack to transport and store your kayak.
The Verdict: Which is Right for You?
In most cases, choosing whether an inflatable or hard-shell kayak is best for you will depend on a few factors. What sort of kayaking interests you, your budget, your living space, and your paddling experience.
From a performance perspective, hard-shell kayaks have a significant advantage in most cases. But an inflatable kayak might be best for you if you live in a tiny house or know you’ll struggle to carry and transport a heavy hard-shell kayak.