Close your eyes, and picture a kayak. You almost certainly imagined a hard-shell kayak, but even though that’s the most popular conception, it’s not the only option.
Inflatable kayaks have come a long way in the past couple decades, from glorified pool toys to boats that can hold their own against hard-shells, even in whitewater. Both types of kayaks have their advantages and disadvantages; the right one for you will depend on how you want to use it and the trade-offs you’re willing to make.
The Great Kayak Debate
Walk into any sporting goods store, and you’ll have quite a few hard-shell models to choose from. There might be one or two inflatables on display, but most will be in their boxes, and the store may not even carry many models. That doesn’t mean there’s less to consider when buying one, though. Both styles of kayaks have quite a few attributes to weigh when determining which one is right for you.
The most commonly cited advantage of hard-shells is their superior maneuverability. This is becoming less and less true as inflatables improve, but the basic physics of how inflatable boats operate means they don’t have the responsive handling of hard-shells. Hard-shells sit lower in the water and track better as each paddle stroke needs to push quite a bit of water out of the way to turn the boat. This phenomenon prevents it from going off center as easily.
If you’re interested in taking camping trips longer than an overnighter, a hard-shell kayak is a great choice. The rigid frame provides ample space for your gear, both in front of and behind the cockpit. Obviously the exact amount of storage space is determined by the length of the boat; a 6-foot-long hard-shell playboat won’t have a whole lot of space, but then again, you won’t need it for anywhere that kayak can go.
On the other hand, one of the biggest disadvantages of hard-shells is their weight – they’re relatively heavy, weighing two or three times as much as an inflatable kayaks. This is especially true for two-person kayaks, which are almost impossible to carry without a partner or some extra equipment.
The most noticeable advantage of inflatables is their lower price tag, which makes them great for beginners who aren’t sure how far they want to progress in the sport. They nearly always cost less than half the price of their hard-shell counterparts.
Inflatables are also extremely portable, and many of them even come with a convenient backpack or duffle bag. This is ideal for hikers who want to paddle around some backcountry lakes, and for paddlers who don’t have a kayak rack or need to take their boat on public transportation. It’s also great for solo kayakers or anyone who don’t want to utilize two vehicles; having an inflatable means you can hike back with it to the put-in point.
An important consideration with inflatables is where you think you’ll be using them. Will the beaches you launch from be covered in razor sharp rocks, or will you baby your boat with pillowy soft sand? Does your ideal kayak trip consist of boulder-filled rapids, or are you more interested in lazy rivers?
Though inflatables can be constructed of tough materials, they do puncture, so rocks and boulders pose a risk. Actually, using an inflatable means you should always be prepared with a patch kit. Paddlers of hard plastic boats never need to consider this. So, while inflatables can take a beating, there is still the risk of a puncture, which can be off-putting to some kayakers.
Hard-shell or Inflatable Kayak: Which One’s Best for Me?
Inflatables are a great choice for two types of people: beginners that don’t want to spend a lot of money on their first boat, and kayakers who require portability (apartment dwellers, backcountry paddlers, and people who hate carrying heavy boats). Hard-shell kayaks are the best choice for just about everyone else; superior handling and greater storage space makes them a better all-around boat that will excel in more situations.
But there’s also a third option. If you require the portability of an inflatable and the handling of a hard-shell (and price is not a factor), you might consider a folding kayak. These boats consist of a metal or wooden frame with a piece of tough fabric stretched over it. They pack down to the size of an inflatable, but when assembled, have the rigidity of a hard-shell. Collapsible kayaks are usually quite expensive ($2000+), but the recent introduction of the Oru Kayak ($1300) has broken that stereotype.
All kayakers have their own opinions about which type of boat is best, but it all comes down to how you intend to use yours. Both hard-shells and inflatables have their pros and cons, and there are also good and bad models of each type. The choice between a hard-shell and an inflatable is only the first consideration when buying a kayak. There is significant variation within both types, so you’ll still need to decide what size, shape, and features will be best for you.