You’ve finally decided to buy a kayak but there are so many choices. Inflatable, hardshell, solo, tandem, recreational, fishing, touring, etc… What kayak is right for you? Traditionally hardshell kayaks have been the number one choice. Inflatable kayaks have come a long way and make a wonderful choice too. This guide is here to help you decide inflatable kayak vs hardshell kayak. Which is best for you.
- The Great Debate Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell Kayak
- What is an Inflatable Kayak?
- What is a Hardshell Kayak?
- 1 – Cost
- 2 – Weight
- 3 – Transportation
- 4 – Storage
- 5 – Ease Of Use
- 6 – Ease of Paddling
- 7 – Maneuverability
- 8 – Usage Limitations
- 9 – Durability
- 10 – Maintenance
- 11 – Repairability
- Inflatable Kayaks
- Hardshell Kayaks
- Kayak Types
- Sit In or Sit On Top Kayaks
- Kayak FAQ
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The Great Debate Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell Kayak
There are so many kayaks to choose from these days. Which one is best for you? Inflatable kayaks with drop stitch floors and keels can have great performance while being easily portable. Hardshell kayaks still win the performance edge at the recreational level and above. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of inflatable and hardshell kayaks.
What is an Inflatable Kayak?
An inflatable kayak is exactly what it sounds like. A soft plastic or rubber structure that is inflated into a kayak. They typically have 3 air chambers for the hull structure. 2 sides and a bottom.
What is a Hardshell Kayak?
A hardshell kayak is molded or constructed of rigid material such as hard plastic, fiberglass or wood. It has a rigid structure.
1 – Cost
Inflatable kayaks have the edge in terms of cost. The cheapest inflatable kayaks run under around $100 including a paddle. The cheapest rigid kayak available will cost about $200. At the high end both inflatable and rigid kayaks can run several thousands. The old adage “You get what you pay for” definitely applies here. Don’t expect to get a great paddling super comfortable touring kayak for $100. You’ll get a short recreational kayak with a cheap seat and paddle that will get you on the water.
2 – Weight
Inflatable kayaks win the weight categories. The lightest weight solo inflatable kayaks weigh under 20 lbs. You will have a hard time finding a solo hardshell kayak under 40 lbs. An inflatable tandem kayak might weight 25 to 35 lbs where a hardshell tandem will weigh 50 to 80 lbs. Not all inflatables are super light weight. If you add in drop-stitch floors, rigid bows and sterns and more length than the weight will go up a lot.
3 – Transportation
Inflatables are the clear winners when it comes to transportation. To move an inflatable kayak around you just need to grab it, in it’s carrying bag, and throw it in the back seat or the trunk. Some inflatable kayaks even some with a backpack bag to make carrying it around even easier. To move a rigid kayak somewhere you have to put it on a car roof rack or other rack and make sure it is securely tied down. You can’t just through a 10 foot long kayak into the trunk.
4 – Storage
An inflatable kayak takes up a lot less space than a hardshell kayak. You can store an inflatable in the closet or in a corner somewhere in the basement or garage. It’s very easy to find a place to store one. With a hardshell kayak you need a much larger space and you have to be able to get the kayak from your car or truck to it. You are pretty limited to garage wall or ceiling space or an outside rack somewhere. It’s much easier to store an inflatable kayak than a hardshell kayak.
5 – Ease Of Use
In terms of ease of use both types of kayaks have their advantages. Inflatable kayaks are easier to transport. Once you get to where you are going you have to inflate it and mount the seats and any other necesary steps. With a hardshell kayak you just take it off the car and it’s ready to use as is. There is no inflation and when you are done you don’t need to deflate and roll it up.
6 – Ease of Paddling
Hardshell kayaks win in this category. A rigid hull shape moves through the water easier because it doesn’t bend and flex around every wave. It tracks better because it has a more defined shape. They are less dependent on a skeg or fin to help with tracking. You can have a more complex hull shape with a molded hardshell kayak with channels and grooves to help with tracking.
There are some very good tracking higher end inflatable kayaks using drop-stitch floors and keels that are very rigid and track very well. You have to spend a lot more to get it than with a hardshell kayak. Even the cheapest hardshell kayaks track fairly well for their length.
7 – Maneuverability
Hardshell kayaks have a slight edge in maneuverability. The most severe case is a white water kayak where the kayaker uses their legs and core to steer the kayak around. A rigid kayak where you can wedge your knees and feet against braces allows you to make the kayak an extension of your body. With an inflatable kayak, the hull is not as stiff and you don’t have quite the control.
With recreational kayaks, the inflatable kayak will be much softer than a hardshell kayak so it will flex with waves and take more effort to push through them.
Other factors are important for maneuverability. Length is a huge factor. A short kayak will spin around much easier than a long kayak. A short kayak will fit places a long kayak won’t. Long touring kayaks paddle easily and track very well but they don’t spin around in circles quite as easily.
8 – Usage Limitations
Hardshell kayaks have less limitations than inflatable kayaks. There are very few inflatable kayaks that are suitable for class 3 or 4 rapids. You will spend a lot of money to get one. Is it is desirable to be able to stand up on a fishing kayak to fish. Standing is only possible on inflatable kayaks with a drop-stitch floor. Inexpensive hardshell kayaks are still designed with hull shapes that allow standing.
Most usage limitations on inflatable kayaks can be solved by throwing more money at the problem. When you are trying to get the most value for your money, inflatables aren’t always the best solution.
9 – Durability
Both inflatable and hardshell kayaks will last years with proper care. Extended exposure to sunlight and UV rays will dramatically shorten the life of both types although it will degrade an inflatable kayak much faster. Both types of kayaks should be cleaned with fresh water after use, especially if used in saltwater. The non hull components of the kayak such as seats are replaceable.
10 – Maintenance
All kayaks require maintenance after use. Inflatable kayaks need to be washed, dried and kept clean so mold doesn’t grow on them during storage. Hardshell kayaks need to be washed as well and you should avoid keeping them in direct sunlight. Fiberglass and Wood Kayaks require additional maintenance because the finish needs to be cleaned and waxed regularly. Wood requires periodic refinishing or repainting as well.
11 – Repairability
All kayaks can be repaired. Inflatable kayaks are the easiest to repair. They can be fixed with simple patching kits that most kayaks come with. The hole is covered with an adhesive or glue on patch.
HDPE kayaks are the most difficult to repair because adhesives do not stick well to it. The process involves melting more material in to fix the hole or crack.
Patches can be glued onto thermoformed hulls.
Wood and fiberglass kayaks can be repaired but it requires some skill to work the materials. It can be done by the owner but you should do some research first to do a clean job that won’t leave the kayak ugly. If you can’t do it yourself or don’t want to there are many fiberglass repair shops around that will fix it for you.
Inflatable Kayak Materials And Construction
Vinyl can be used for kayaks. Vinyl is one of the feed components of PVC. Vinyl by itself is a more stretchy, less durable material than PVC. It is only used in very inexpensive kayaks. Vinyl kayaks are still a very good value. They will not last as long as a PVC or Hypalon kayak.
PVC is a lightweight durable plastic material that is commonly used in many marine inflatables. PVC is a good choice for inflatable SUP construction because it can be easily thermobonded into the hull shape and the core. PVC is typically used in the form of a laminate for extra strength and abrasion resistance compared to a single layer.
PVC can be constructed in what is known as “Drop Stitch” that creates a very rigid thin structure after inflation. Dropstitch is ideal for floors and hulls of touring kayaks where a long rigid kayak is desired.
The downside to PVC is that it is UV sensitive and will degrade over time if left out in the sun too much. It is less abrasion resistant than other materials.
Hypalon is another material choice. Hypalon must be glued instead of heat welded making it much more expensive to manufacture than PVC. Hypalon has superior UV resistance and abrasion resistance compared to PVC. Most military or coastguard inflatable boats are made from Hypalon.
For more information on inflatable kayak materials click here.
Drop-stitch construction is a process where 2 layers of PVC fabric are joined together with many connecting threads. When the structure is inflated the threads keep the fabric a certain distance apart. This allows the creation of very rigid structures made from inflatable fabric.
This process has even been used to create inflatable airplane wings for the military. This is the primary construction method used for inflatable stand up paddleboards and is used in more expensive inflatable kayaks. The outer material layers are always PVC as there is no way to construct it from Hypalon.
To learn more about drop-stitch construction click here.
Inflating And Setting An Inflatable Kayak
Infatling and setting up an inflatable kayak can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes depending on how many air chambers the kayak has and how many steps there are in the setup process. Some kayaks have inserts to stffen the bow and stern and extra inflatable bulkheads to install. Most inflatable kayaks have 3 air chambers for the hull. A left, right and bottom chamber.
There are several ways to tell if an air chamber is inflated. Some pumps have pressure gauges to read the pressure. Some kayaks have visual indicators built into their air chambers that show when a chamber has enough air. Proper inflation is important to getting the best performance from your kayak.
Below is a video showing the inflation process for a typical inflatable kayak.
Deflating And Folding An Inflatable Kayak
The take down process of an inflatable kayak involves drying out the kayak, then deflatinng it and folding it up back into it’s storage bag. The process should take between 5 and 15 minutes. Drying out is very important to avoid getting mold in the kayak fabric to ensure that the kayak will last a long time.
If you aren’t able to dry it out enough right after using you can lay it out at home and let it dry more. After drying out fold and roll the kayak back up. Be careful to avoid rolling across seams and fittings. Your kayak should come with instructions for the proper folding and rolling method.
Below is a video showing the take down process for an average inflatable kayak.
Hardshell Kayak Materials And Construction
HDPE – Roto-molded
HDPE or roto-molded polyethylene. In this process, a plastic powder material is put into a mold which is then heated and spun until the powder melts into the shape of the kayak. It is then cooled and it’s finished. Roto-molded kayaks are heavy. They are durable and can take some punches against rocks and stops. If you do manage to crack the hull or get a whole polyethylene is not easy to repair because few adhesives stick to it.
A more expensive molding process can be used called thermoforming. In this process the plastic material is formed into sheets that are then put onto a model. With thermoforming the sheets can be several layers that are set for different strength and appearance characteristics. They are lighter than roto-molded kayaks but heavier than fiberglass kayaks. Thermoformed kayaks are generally as durable as roto-molded or fiberglass kayaks. They can be repaired fairly easily.
Lexan Polycarbonate can be used to make hardshell kayaks with transparent hulls. Polycarbonate is a high strength plastic material that is commonly found in safety glasses and ballistic panels.
Fiberglass or Carbon Fiber
The most expensive hardshell rigid construction is molded fiberglass or carbon fiber. This will give you the lightest and most rigid kayak but it will be the most expensive as well. Fiberglass can be repaired using resin and glass cloth.
Kayaks made of wood are the most expensive. You can make your own kayak out of wood if you have the woodworking skills or are willing to learn them. Wood kayaks can be very light and stiff and are easily repairable by replacing or refinishing the damaged wood. Wood construction has a special beauty that molded plastic or fiberglass kayaks just can’t match. Wood kayaks require a lot of care and special storage considerations to keep them dry and out of direct sunlight.
Transporting Hardshell Kayaks
Because of their size hardshell kayaks are a bit more challenging to transport to the water. There are countless stories out there of people who have left kayaks on the side of the road because they weren’t tied down well. It is important to secure the kayak to your car or truck before hitting the highway.
Roof racks are the most common way to transport a hardshell kayak. There are a ton of varieties out there. You can go simple with just a set of cross bars. You can go fancy with a set of kayak carriers. Kayak carriers will support the kayak shape better and cause it less wear while going down the road. Padding your rack or using padded carriers are always a good idea.
These are kayak racks that mount to a trailer hitch receiver. They mount the kayak in a vertical orientation. You have to keep in mind how high this will make your vehicle so you don’t leave your kayak on the side of the road when you go under a bridge. A tandem kayak might be 15 feet long which will make your car 16 to 17 feet tall going under overpasses. These are easier to load than roof racks especially if you have a tall SUV or Pickup.
Pickup Bed Racks
Pickup bed racks mount in the bed of a pickup truck. They give you some crossbars and tie-downs for your kayak that will be a bit more secure and padded then just tossing the kayak in with it hanging out the back.
Hang it Out The Back
The cheapest form of kayak rack is just tossing it in the back of your pickup or SUV and leaving it hanging off the back. Tie it down somehow so it stays in place. This works fine if you have a vehicle that is suitable for it.
This is the most common type of kayak. They are designed to be stable and easy to paddle. They are meant to be easy to use and comfortable. They are usually 12 feet or less in length. Because they are focused on stability they don’t go through waves great and won’t track in a straight line really well.
Fishing kayaks are similar to recreational kayaks. They are meant to have a stable hull shape to be easy to fish from and they should have some fishing rod holders and holders for other accessories. Frequently they may have drop stitch floors to make standing easier and various seat options such as benches or swivel seats.
Touring kayaks are long and narrow. They are meant to have really good tracking and speed. Stability can be sacrificed to make a hull shape that moves through the water easier. They are longer, typically 15 feet or longer.
Sea or Ocean
Sea or Ocean kayaks are designed to be better at handling waves and surf. They typically have more rocker shape (raised bow and stern) and a v-shaped hull profile. These allow them to cut through waves easier. This will make it a bit less table when not moving compared to a more square profile that a recreational kayak will have.
Kayaks meant for whitewater usage will have hull shapes with more rocker to allow them to spin and manuever easier. Whitewater kayaks may have self bailing drains or valves to keep them from filling with water. They should be built with heavier material so they don’t easily puncture or cut on any underwater obstacles such as rocks or branches.
Tandem kayaks hold 2 people sitting one in front of the other. There are kayaks available that sit more than 2 people as well all inline.
For more information on kayak types look here.
Sit In or Sit On Top Kayaks
There are 2 main types of kayaks. Kayaks where you sit on top of the deck or kayaks where you sit down in on the hull surface.
Sit in kayaks allow for a lower CG which makes it more stable. Sit in kayaks allow you to use a spray skirt around your waist to keep water out of the kayak. They offer more dry storage area than sit on top kayaks. Sit in kayaks tend to be lighter weight than sit on kayaks. Sit in kayaks have narrower seats because you have to sit between the hull sides.
Sit in kayaks are harder to get back in, on the water, because the deck is higher off the water and less stable before you crawl back into the seat.
Sit On Top
Sit on top kayaks are heavier than sit in kayaks because the entire deck is enclosed. They are easier to get back on in the water because the deck surface is lower. They offer more seat room because you have nothing beside you when seated. They are a little less stable because you are sitting higher above the water. You need a longer paddle because you are sitting higher above the water.
Q: How Much Do Kayaks Cost?
A kayak package (kayak, paddle, pump, etc..) can run anywhere from $100 to well above $2000. There are value options at the low end of the scale that are great for getting on the water and messing around at the local pond, lake, or stream. The price can vary a lot depending on whether it is inflatable or rigid, single or tandem kayak, and how many options such as rod holders the kayak has. Inflatable Kayaks with drop-stitch rigid floors for standing tend to cost quite a bit more.
Q: How do I transport a kayak?
If you have an inflatable kayak you can just toss it in the trunk or back seat of your car or truck. If you have a rigid hardshell kayak then you’ll either need a roof rack with pads or a trailer. Some people with pickups or big SUV’s just tie in down hanging out of the pickup box or out the back of the SUV.
Q: How do I paddle a kayak?
The below video gives some tips for paddling your kayak.
Q: How do we paddle a tandem kayak?
The below video gives you some tips for how to paddle.
Q: What should I take with me on the kayak?
Here is a list of a few handy to have items on your kayak.
- Safety gear – A PFD, whistle, light, first aid kit
- Sun protection – sun block
- Rain coat
- A small anchor and line
- Lunch or snacks
- Drinking water
- A radio
Q: Do I need To Have Someone Else Along To Use A Tandem Kayak?
No. You can use most tandem kayaks with just one person. Some have adjustable removable seats that can be set up for just a single paddler. If they aren’t then you can still paddle and control the kayak by yourself from the rear seat. Tandem kayaks are incredibly versatile because they can be used by 1 or 2 people and sometimes 3.
Q: How Do I Inflate a kayak?
You hook up a handpump to the kayak and pump it up to the specified pressure. Most pumps have a pressure meter on them so you can tell how much air to put into it. Dual action pumps (They pump air in on the up and down stroke) make pumping up your kayak a lot faster.
Q: Do I need To Wear A PFD While Using A Kayak?
That one is up to you and what you are comfortable with. I personally almost always wear one. If it’s really really calm and hot out I might not where it but I will always have it with me. The laws for PFD’s and kayaks vary from state to state. Many require that you at least have a US Coast Guard approved Type 3 PFD with you. To read more about PFD’s and kayaks click here.
Q: How Do I Get Back Into A Kayak In Deep Water?
If you’ve ever rented a kayak somewhere, they can feel pretty difficult to get in and out of. With a little practice you can self rescue yourself in deep water. The best thing to do is go out on a nice warm day with warm water and practice getting in and out of the kayak in a comfortable place near the shore. The below video shows how to get back into a kayak in deep water.
Q: How Do I Choose A Kayak?
Choose a kayak based on what you would like to do with the kayak and how much weight you need to carry. Choose a kayak with a weight capacity high enough for you and any gear you want to take with you. If you want to kayak with a partner make sure you consider their weight also.
Do you want to go fishing? If so you should look for a kayak that has fishing rod holders and other fishing accessories.
Do you want to go through any rapids? If so pick a kayak with a white water rafting rating.
Do you want to paddle long distances? If so you might want to look at a touring kayak.
Do you want to kayak with a friend or family member? If so you might want to consider a tandem kayak.
Q: What kind of fishing rod should I use fishing from a kayak?
Choose a fishing rod that is at least half the length of your kayak if it’s a solo kayak. If it’s a tandem choose one that is longer than the distance from the seat to the front or back of the kayak.
Q: How Long Do Kayaks Last?
If well cared for a hardshell or inflatable kayak can last for many years. The key is keeping it dry and clean and out of UV light when not in use.
Q: Are Inflatable Kayaks Durable?
An inflatable kayak can be more durable than a rigid kayak because they can bump into rocks or branches without getting a permanent dent. They can be cut if you hit them hard enough with a sharp enough object. They are much more durable to small impacts. If properly cared for the PVC or Hypalon material can last for many years.
Q: How Do I Find A Leak In My Inflatable Kayak?
If you have a leak in your kayak, the easiest way to find it is to inflate the kayak and hold it underwater and then look for where air is bubbling out. If you inflate the kayak onshore and then put it into cold water, the kayak will appear to lose air as it cools down. Changes in temperature from the water to air can make the kayak feel like it has gained or lost air pressure during the day even when it hasn’t.
Q: How Do I Patch An Inflatable Kayak?
Use a repair kit designed for a PVC or Hypalon inflatable. Most Inflatable kayaks come with a repair kit for patching small holes or cracks. The general process is applying adhesive sealant around the crack or hole and covering with a piece of patching material and let dry. The below video shows how to repair a hole in an inflatable kayak.
Q: How do I repair a rigid hardshell kayak?
It really depends on what materiel the kayak is made from. HDPE kayaks which are the most common are also the most difficult. You will need to melt new material into the crack to weld it shut. The video below shows a process for repairing your HDPE roto molded kayak.
Q: How To Dry An Inflatable Kayak?
You can let your kayak air dry if you have enough time. It’s best to wipe it down with a towel after cleaning it and then let it air dry. If you are short on time you can towel dry it and take it home to dry. Unfold and unroll it at home to allow it to finish drying. If it is a windy day remember to secure the SUP board as they can blow away. Kayaks with a fabric cover over inflatable air bladders can get water trapped between the layers. Examine your kayak closely for where water might collect.
Q: How To Clean A Kayak?
The best thing to use for cleaning and inflatable kayak is fresh water. Always hose the kayak down with freshwater after using it in saltwater. Saltwater can degrade the PVC material and seams of an inflatable kayak over time. If more is needed you can use a biodegradable cleaner meant for PVC or Hypalon inflatable boats or for a rigid use any cleaner like you would use for washing your car. Rinse with freshwater again after using cleaner before putting it away.
Q: How To Fold An Inflatable Kayak?
Folding an inflatable kayak is super easy. You simply deflate it. Most will want you to fold the 2 sides in, and then roll it up. You want to avoid having the creases of your fold fall along seams as that puts added stress on them in storage. Your inflatable kayak will come with instructions on how to fold and roll it properly for storage.
Q: What is drop stitch construction?
Drop stitch construction is a method that allows the creation of very stiff inflatable board structure. It is 2 layers of PVC fabric with strings between the layer. When it is inflated the strings are pulled tight creating the rigid structure.
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Co-Founder & Chief Editor
I grew up back east in Pennsylvania and learned to ski on a family trip to Killington, Vermont when I was 6. I immediately fell in love with the mountains and outdoors and have been skiing across the US and Canada ever since. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering, and have a Master’s Degree in Material Science and Reliability.
I am a total gear nerd and love learning how things work and thinking about how they could be improved. Nothing excites me more than trying out new gear. I’d rather spend 3 hours taking my bike apart and learning how to change something than go to a bike shop. These days I reside in Michigan by the Great Lakes and go skiing, biking, and boating as much as possible.