What is the Best Inflatable Kayak: Inflatable vs. Hardshell & Class IV Rapids

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Updated June 1, 2023

We researched the 25 best inflatable kayaks, not just for fun, but to help you find the right fit to fill your adventuring and paddling needs. A good inflatable kayak is easy to set up, stable and fast on the water and easy to put away at the end of the day. As we took the kayaks out on the water, we measured each of these aspects, as well as features like maximum weight and passenger capacity. If you’re looking for a kayak for beginners, the Dyad kayak offers clear bottom viewing for two, so paddlers can take a break and watch the aquatic life progress beneath them.

As we paddled and enjoyed the beauty of the outdoors, it was easy to choose the Oru Foldable Kayak as our top pick for inflatable kayaks…even though it’s not technically inflatable! This kayak features a unique foldable design, which is very similar in set up and storage to inflatable boats. This unique design, along with its durability, speed and good handling make the Oru our top choice. Keep reading to learn more about this origami kayak and the rest of the inflatable kayaks that made our list. It is a great choice for your foray into the world of boating and water sports.

Top 5 Best Inflatable Kayaks Compared

 #1  Oru Foldable Kayak

Award: Top Pick/Best Foldable Kayak

WHY WE LIKE IT: The Oru Kayak has been featured on national television programs like Shark Tank and Oprah, making it the most visible option on our list. It features a unique, foldable design that’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before while still maintaining its usability and durability.

  • Unique, foldable design
  • Extra-durable design
  • Good tracking, stability and speed
  • Most expensive on our list
  • First-time assembly is difficult
  • Takes up more room than inflatable kayaks

Also known as the origami kayak, the Oru actually isn’t an inflatable kayak. But since we don’t have a foldable kayak category here at GadgetReview, we’ve decided that it fits best here. The design of the Oru eliminates the need for time-consuming hand pumps. Simply open it up and snap it together and you’ve got yourself a boat. We had a little difficulty with this process the first time we researched it, but after a few times of assembling and disassembling the Oru, we finally got the hang of it.

Like inflatable kayaks, you might wonder if this foldable kayak can handle the bumps and bruises that often come with paddling. Fortunately, it features a hull made from custom polypropylene that we found to be durable enough for recreational paddling. While we don’t recommend using the Oru on white water rapids, it makes for the perfect vessel on calm waters. In the end, the Oru folding kayak doesn’t fold up as small as some of the other inflatable kayaks on our list, it’s still super portable and keeps up with the rest of them, making it an easy choice for our top pick. If you are just starting read about the best kayak for beginners.

 #2  Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame

Award: Honorable Mention/Best Inflatable Kayak for Fishing

WHY WE LIKE IT: The Advanced Elements Advanced Frame inflatable kayak is super durable and reliable with a unique, triple-layer build. It also features an aluminum frame, making this an extra stable and fast kayak in the water.

  • Durable and rigid multi-layer design
  • Handles super well
  • Fast and stable
  • Heavier than other inflatable kayaks
  • Carrying case is difficult to handle
  • Floor is difficult to inflate

The Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame inflatable kayak is versatile and extremely durable. More durable than most of the inflatable kayaks we’ve researched, in fact. Using a unique, 3-layer design, you won’t have to worry about punctures every time you run over a rock of stray branch. It also features a rigid hull with aluminum ribs for increased performance and control that you would typically expect from traditional fishing kayaks.

Setup is as simple as unfolding the kayak, pumping it full of air and attaching the foldable seats. When it comes time to put it away, though, you might experience some difficulty getting it back into the bag and hauling it around. The carrying bag could benefit from some extra space and wider carry handles that you could use to pack it on your shoulders. The AdvancedFrame is still a great choice for an inflatable fishing kayak for your next fishing trip. Also check out the best kayak for kids.

 #3  Sevylor Quikpak K5

Award: Lightest Inflatable Kayak

WHY WE LIKE IT: Sevylor is becoming a well-known name in the kayak industry because of their commitment to durable and lightweight designs. The Quikpak K5 is lightweight, easy to carry and easy to use.

  • Backpack is comfortable and convenient
  • Multiple air chambers for puncture resistance
  • Quick, 5-minute inflate time
  • Included paddles aren’t great
  • Top-layer fabric isn’t water resistant
  • Can be hard to drain

One of the biggest benefits to the Sevylor Quikpak K5 inflatable kayak is the overall convenience it offers. It’s the lightest sit inside kayak on our list and comes with an incredibly handy backpack for storage when you’re not using the kayak. The backpack is surprisingly comfortable to carry, too, a relatively small feature that has a big impact, especially when you’re hiking into your kayaking spot.

On the water, the Quikpak performs well, especially when it comes to stability and handling, making it a great kayak for beginners and casual paddlers. Unfortunately, the top-layer fabric on the kayak isn’t water resistant, so the more you’re out on the water, the heavier the kayak becomes as the fabric gets wetter. This can also make it difficult to put the kayak away at the end of the day. Draining water that gets into the kayak can be difficult, so if that’s a concern, consider an option with a self-bailing drain included. Still, the Quikpak is an excellent choice, especially if you’re looking for something lightweight and easy to pack around. Check out the Sea Eagle 380x Inflatable Kayak for another great option due to its removable skeg for added performance. Also check out the best tandem kayak.

 #4  Intex Explorer K2

Award: Best Two Person Inflatable Kayak

WHY WE LIKE IT: The Intex Explorer K2 is spacious and durable, and it offers a solid option for people who want to enjoy the water with their friends. With a 2-person carrying capacity and a good variety of included accessories, you’ll up and running in no time with this inflatable kayak.

  • 2-person carrying capacity
  • Air pump and aluminum oars included
  • Made from heavy-duty vinyl
  • Inflatable seats don’t offer much support
  • The included carrying bag isn’t well made
  • Doesn’t perform well in windy weather

Made from heavy-duty vinyl materials, you can expect a long life out of the Intex Explorer K2 inflatable kayak, even if you do bump into stray debris while out on the water. The sturdy construction also helps you feel more secure during use. What’s even better about this tandem inflatable kayak’s design is the fact that you can go paddling with a friend because of the extra seat. However, remember that you can use this as either a solo or tandem kayak, so if you don’t want to paddle with a buddy, that’s entirely possible here. This versatility of letting you paddle as one person or as a pair is a great option for family or friends with different skill levels.

While the included carrying bag isn’t as well made as others on the market, it still provides enough space to fit the deflated kayak along with the other accessories and keeps the boat from dust while in storage. Unfortunately, the inflated seats don’t offer as much support or comfort as standard padded seats, which can get worse during extended periods of use. However, despite these drawbacks, the Intex Explorer K2 offers an exceptional experience for 2 people wanting to enjoy a fantastic day on the water. Consider the Driftsun Voyager 2 as well, which has a pointed bow and stern in the front and rear for enhanced performance in both calm and choppy waters. You might also be wondering where is the best place to buy a kayak?

 #5  Intex Challenger K1

Award: Best Budget Inflatable Kayak

WHY WE LIKE IT: The Intex Challenger K1 is one of the most highest-rated inflatable kayaks on the market today. It’s affordable and easy to use, which makes it a great choice for those new to the paddling scene who don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to get started.

  • Super affordable price
  • Includes all the necessary accessories
  • Durable design
  • Manual air pump, not automatic
  • No dry storage
  • Not as smooth as others

In an industry traditionally dominated by hard shelled kayaks, the inflatable Intex Challenger K1 stands out. It features a super durable design resistant to punctures and tears. It also includes all of the necessary accessories to get you going on the water without needing to buy a bunch of extra stuff. Unfortunately, getting up and running can be a little labor intensive since the air pump that comes with the kayak is manually operated. There is also a lack of dry storage area.

All in all, the Challenger K1 performs pretty well on the water, but it’s definitely not as smooth a ride as other kayaks on our list. It still offers a stable experience on calmer waters, which is great for beginners. When you consider the ultra-low price, though, these relatively small performance drawbacks are easy to ignore. If you’re a beginner who wants an easy entry point into kayaking, you shouldn’t pass up the Intex Challenger K1. For the top rated picks, read our best kayak list. You may also want to take the best Bluetooth speakers with you. Same with the best sleeping bags.

Inflatable Kayaks Buying Guide

Purchasing the right inflatable kayak for you depends on a variety of different factors.

First, you should determine how you’re going to use the kayak. This is especially important because inflatable kayaks used for whitewater rafting offer different features than products used for fishing. Of course, if you want to use your inflatable kayak in a variety of different applications, you’ll want to consider purchasing one that offers a comprehensive solution. And don’t forget the best tents if you are kayaking overnight.

Next, you should consider the standard features offered on most inflatable kayaks. No matter what kind of inflatable model you purchase, there are a few features you should always consider:

√  Carrying Capacity – How many people are going to be using the kayak at any given time? Just like traditional hard kayaks, inflatable kayaks offer both solo and tandem (paddling with someone else) options. If you want to paddle with a friend or loved one, consider purchasing an inflatable tandem kayak, which usually seats two. Some companies even manufacture models that can sit up to three people at a time with higher weight capacities and more spots for additional kayak seats.

You may also want to consider how much room available for taking your pets along with you. Many kayakers enjoy bringing their dogs on their rafting trips with them. Having enough room for furry friends can be just as important as having enough room for another person.

√  Durability – Whether you are whitewater rafting or paddling around a calm lake, you always have the chance of bumping into shallow water, rocks and other stray debris. Most inflatable kayaks use commercial-grade materials for durability, but some are more durable than others. Consider the type of material used in the hull of the model you purchase. PVC tends to be the most common material used, but you may also see kayaks built with neoprene, polyurethane or hypalon. PVC kayaks are usually the most durable and affordable overall.

√  Weight and Size – One of the best aspects of owning an inflatable kayak is the fact that at the end of the day, you can deflate it, fold it up and throw it in the back of your car without having to worry about it taking up too much room or the need for roof racks. While the portability of these kayaks is unparalleled, you still need to think about the weight and size of the model you purchase. If you’re planning on driving straight to the water’s edge and launching from there, you’re probably okay purchasing a kayak that’s bigger and heavier. However, if you need to hike to get to the next body of water, you’ll definitely want an inflatable kayak that is compact, lightweight and easy to carry.

√  Storage Space – How much gear are you taking with you on your kayaking trip? Fishers and campers typically pack a lot of gear, and if your main mode of transportation is your inflatable kayak, you’ll want to plan on purchasing a model that gives you plenty of storage space. This storage space can come in the form of extra floor room or dedicated pockets built directly into the kayak’s hull. Some models even include webbing that you can use to store your gear. Often enough, the extra storage space can make or break your purchasing decision, based on the excursions you plan on making with your new inflatable kayak.

√  Included Accessories – An inflatable kayak by itself isn’t going to do much for you in the way of transportation. If you want to get out on the water, you’ll need a pump to get inflated, kayak paddles to get going, repair kits to keep you going and more. If you don’t want to have to do more shopping, you might want to consider purchasing a model that includes all the necessary accessories you need to get going. However, be aware that the quality of the included accessories isn’t always the best. This tends to be the case for most paddles and sometimes true for the adjustable seats. Many manufacturers include paddles that don’t do well in rough water conditions and many consumers complain that their included paddles didn’t last longer than a few trips to the lake. Always make sure you’re prepared, so if the included accessories aren’t enough, consider purchasing your own aluminum paddles, PVC tarpaulin, air pumps, etc.

Inflatable Kayak vs. Hardshell

Inflatable kayaks are relatively new to the world of recreational water sports, and they’re up against a lot of tradition with hardshell kayaks. Take a look at some of the differences between the two:

  • Weight and Size: Hardshell kayaks are often bigger and heavier than inflatable kayaks. This is mostly due to the fact that hardshell kayaks are made from denser materials. Inflatable kayaks are much easier to carry around and don’t take up nearly as much room in your garage since they can deflate.
  • DurabilityIf you’ve ever run into something while kayaking in a hardshell kayak, you know just how grating the sound of running into rocks and branches can be. You can’t help but cringe when you just know that your hull is getting all scraped up. While hardshells kayaks are durable in their own right, inflatable kayaks were meant to take a beating and come out the other side without a scratch. Since they’re made from rubber and PVC, most times you just bounce off the hard stuff and continue on your way.
  • Setup: Inflatable kayaks need more time to get set up than hardshell kayaks. You’ve got to pump them full of air and then fully deflate them when you’re done kayaking for the day. With hardshell kayaks, you can simply put the boat in the water and be on your way. No need for much set up.
  • Control: Hardshell kayaks tend to control a little better than inflatable kayaks, at least for now. Since inflatable kayaks are lighter, they can struggle a bit in rough waters like rapids and choppy lakes. However, this is becoming less of a problem as technology advances and manufacturers come up with better features to make inflatable kayaks more efficient on any kind of water.

Top Questions About Inflatable Kayaks Answered

How Good Are Inflatable Kayaks?
When it comes to purchasing a kayak for whitewater rafting, fishing or leisure use, people’s thoughts almost always go straight to traditional hard kayaks. For years, hard kayaks have dominated the market, and for good reason! They are sturdy and extra durable, but they’re also more expensive and harder to store and transport. Inflatable kayaks offer a good alternative over traditional kayaks because of their flexibility, portability and overall versatility.

If you’ve ever wandered into the world of inflatable alternatives, you may have asked yourself if these kayaks are any good. In short, the answer to that question is yes. Inflatable kayaks are a completely viable alternative to hard kayaks. In fact, the market for inflatable options is growing exponentially. Casual beginners find that inflatable models are easier to operate and aren’t quite as big an investment as traditional options.

Inflatable kayaks are much more than silly pool toys. In fact, they are manufactured using the same technology that the military and commercial corporations use for their own operations. This technology has trickled down to the recreation world and is quickly becoming the go-to choice for a beginners and experts alike. As this inflatable technology continues to innovate and improve, kayaks will only benefit and will continue to improve. Two main areas that come to mind when thinking about the quality of inflatable kayaks are stability and durability.

Stability – If you ever feel wobbly and unstable during a kayaking adventure, you’re either in really rough water or in the wrong kind of kayak. Rigid kayaks are made to be stable simply due to their hard hulls. Inflatable kayaks face a challenge in the stability world since they’re only filled with air. However, as inflatable technology has advanced, stability has become less of an issue. Inflatable kayaks are innovating and finding new ways to create a stable kayaking experience for beginners and advanced users alike. This typically comes in the form of rigid, drop-stitch floors, which allow for much higher inflation pressures than standard floors. Stability can also come from aluminum ribs built directly into the kayak’s hull.

Durability – Another consideration that comes to mind when considering how good inflatable kayaks are is their durability. Rigid kayaks can take a beating, especially in rough waters. Since those same durable materials aren’t used in inflatable kayaks, how can they hope to keep up?

Inflatable technology has advanced to the point that materials such as PVC and polyurethane have become about as durable as traditional materials. Since you’ll likely encounter debris while you are kayaking, you’ll want something that can handle getting hit. Most inflatable kayaks are durable enough that you won’t have to worry about punctures while you’re out on the water.

How Safe Are Inflatable Kayaks?
Since inflatable kayaks aren’t built from the same materials as traditional kayaks, many consumers are worried about safety, especially when using the boats in rough waters. This question is especially relevant to customers looking to purchase an inflatable whitewater kayak. Fortunately, these kinds of kayaks are incredibly safe in most kinds of waters. This safety comes from a few different features that most inflatable kayaks offer.

First, many people worry that if they do experience a puncture while out on the water, the whole kayak is compromised. To prevent this, most inflatable kayaks feature two or three different inflation chambers. When one chamber is compromised, the others are still full of air and will keep the kayak afloat.

Next, remember that most inflatable kayaks are built from materials like those used in military and commercial applications. If the Navy can trust their soldiers in inflatable boats, you can trust your recreational kayak to keep you safe, as well. As long as you have properly inflated the kayak to the appropriate pressure, it will be just as safe as a traditional rigid kayak.[/ft_toggle]

How to Inflate a Kayak?
Setup for traditional kayaks is as easy as putting the kayak in the water and going. Inflatable kayaks need a little more time to setup before getting started in the water, mainly, they need to be inflated first. So, exactly how do you inflate one of these kayaks?

The overall process is relatively simple. Most kayaks have several different chambers that need to be inflated before the kayak is ready to go. As such, you’ll need to inflate each one of those chambers separately, using the built-in valves. Simply connect the pump to the valves and get pumping. Some pumps are foot pumps that you step on, while others are powered and don’t need any other effort besides flipping a switch.

The deflation process is also just as simple. Open the valves, let the air out and then store the kayak in its carrying bag. Of course, you’ll also need to dry it before storing it so you don’t encourage mold to grow while the kayak is put away.[/ft_toggle]