Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell Comparison

So you’ve been kayaking a few times and want to invest in your own kayak but suddenly you find yourself torn between an inflatable kayak and a hardshell.

With so many models available and with the rising popularity of inflatable kayaks, it is hard to know where to start.

Don’t worry. The inflatable vs hardshell debate is a hot topic amongst even the most experienced kayakers so we’re here to help clarify things before you get started.

Inflatable vs Hardshell Kayaks Differences Explained

Inflatable Kayaks Explained

Inflatable kayaks are exactly what you imagine - kayaks that are inflated and deflated before and after use.

They’ve become increasingly popular over recent years, particularly as advancements in technology have allowed them to become progressively similar to hardshells in terms of performance.

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to weigh up so we’ve broken them down for you.

The Pros

Weight & Size

Inflatable kayaks are lighter and easier to carry than hardshell kayaks. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because they are lighter, they’re weaker. In fact, they can actually have a higher weight threshold than some traditional kayaks.

Inflatable kayaks also pack down to fit inside a duffle bag or large backpack. This means they’re easier to store at home and a lot easier to transport (no roof rack required). You can take them hiking or even fit them in a suitcase on vacation.

Durability & Stability

Inflatable kayaks are designed specifically to withstand knocks and bumps. They bounce off rocks and hard surfaces in the event of a collision.

Similar to Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards, the best inflatable kayaks will be made with “drop-stitch technology” meaning that small fibers inside the board interlock whilst the board is inflated in order to create a tough surface.


Similar to Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards, the best inflatable kayaks will be made with “drop-stitch technology” meaning that small fibers inside the board interlock whilst the board is inflated in order to create a tough surface.

Meanwhile, the outer layer is made from durable rubber and PVC (imagine life boats and whitewater rafts). Inflatable kayaks are therefore generally more durable than hardshell kayaks.

> Our guide to inflatable whitewater yaks

Don’t believe the rumors about inflatable kayaks being less stable than hardshell kayaks. Usually made with a wider base, they are actually more stable. This makes them perfect for beginners and experienced kayakers.

The Cons

You Get What You Pay For...

Many people are attracted to inflatable kayaks because they think they will be far cheaper than hardshell ones. This can be true but it does depend on what kind of performance you require from your kayak and what models and brands you are interested in.

High-end brands and kayaks designed for high performance in rapids and rough seas will probably cost just as much as rigid kayaks whereas basic models designed for beginners and calm waters will probably work out cheaper.

Inflating & Deflating

Although transporting an inflatable kayak to the water will be far easier than dragging a heavy hardshell, you will need to inflate and deflate an inflatable kayak before and after use. This can take up to ten minutes with a pump but a lot longer without.

It can also be tricky to get the correct level of air into your kayak for optimum performance. This is measured in PSI (pounds per square inch).

The higher the PSI rating, the more rigid your kayak is able to become. In order to ensure your kayak performs to the level you want, you need to pay close attention to this before heading out on the water.

You also need to make sure that you wash, air and dry your board thoroughly before packing it away as otherwise it will become damp, damaged and downright smelly.

Control

Because they are lighter than rigid kayaks, they can sometimes be harder to control. Generally speaking, rigid kayaks perform better in rough waters for this reason.

However, as technological advancements are made, inflatable kayaks are becoming increasingly effective in all sorts of water and there are several models on the market today that cater for rapids and open seas.

You just need to bear this in mind when selecting your model, especially if you’re a beginner.

Hardshells Explained

Hardshell kayaks are the traditional types of kayak made from wood, plastic, fiberglass or composite materials. Each of these materials have their advantages and disadvantages, but for the purpose of comparing hardshell with inflatable kayaks, let’s consider them one big hardshell family for now.

The Pros

Ready To Go

Despite being heavier and bulkier in transit than inflatables, hardshell kayaks make for a swifter transition to the water. There is no need to inflate the kayak so you can set off without delay.

Likewise, once you’re done you only need to transport the kayak back to the car. This is not only energy-saving and more convenient but also allows for more time enjoying the water.

More Control

This depends on the model you are using and your own capability as a kayaker, but many find that hardshell kayaks give you more control over the boat than inflatables. If you’re keen on open sea kayaking or fancy yourself as a rapid kayaker, a hardshell kayak is well worth considering.

The Cons

Not Particularly Light

Wood, plastic or fiberglass all differ in weight, but hardshell kayaks are all heavier than inflatable kayaks regardless. Carrying them to and from the water (as well as from the house to the car) can sometimes be a two-man job. They are not as easy or convenient as inflatable kayaks in that respect.

Hardshell kayaks usually have a lower weight threshold than inflatable kayaks so you need to be aware of this when picking gear to take with you.

Storage & Transport

Unlike their inflatable cousins, hardshell kayaks cannot and will not change shape or size. You therefore need to take storage and transportation into account. Do you have space for a kayak in your apartment, garage or storage space? Can you fit a roof rack on your car?

Dragging Heavy Kayak

Dragging Heavy Kayak

If you have the means (and are committed enough to kayaking) to make this work, it is by no means a deal breaker. But it is something to take into account.

Maintenance & Durability

Generally speaking, hardshell kayaks require more maintenance and upkeep than inflatable kayaks. Without the rubber exterior and flexible materials of inflatable kayaks, hardshells are more susceptible to bumps, knocks and scrapes.

Once again, wood, plastic and fiberglass vary in durability and maintenance requirements. Wood requires more maintenance in general whereas plastic is more resilient and less likely to get damaged. However, when plastic does get damaged, it is more expensive to repair.

Fiberglass is the most resilient of the three materials and is less likely to require repairs but what you save in maintenance and repairs, you will pay for upfront when purchasing the kayak.

Hardshell vs Inflatable: The Conclusion

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both types of kayak and both can provide a fun and safe time on various types of water.

Inflatables pack down small and can be taken anywhere any time, whilst hardshells require more thought and preparation (roof racks etc). Inflatable kayaks can be harder to control (especially in rough waters) but offer more stability than hardshells.

For a beginner looking for an all-round kayak for predominantly calm waters, perhaps an inflatable is best for you. If you’re a seasoned kayaker with access to a garage and don’t want to spend time inflating and deflating your boat, you may want to stick to a hardshell kayak.

Once you’ve decided between inflatables and hardshells, there are plenty of fantastic, high-performing models to choose from in both categories. So don’t panic - the right kayak is out there just waiting for you.


What type of kayak do you have, and why do you prefer it? Tell us about it below...

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 24 comments
Dieter - April 28, 2018

We don’t have a kayak yet but are looking to
buy one. Any help is appreciated. I am looking for the most stable kayak 2 person plus an 8 year old that we can buy. Stability is the most important factor for me. We are going down calm rivers and maybe a small lake. We are first time kayakers. Inflatables are probably my preference. Thanks in advance.

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Anonymous - May 11, 2018

try advanced elements. rearly good.

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    Kayak Guru - November 17, 2018

    🙂

    Reply
Gregory - May 22, 2018

Howdy. Im not much of a kayaker but would be if i had one. Im liking the inflatable option due to travel and storage flexibility. But…i have a med sized dog who goes everywhere with me. Enough storage for some minimalist camping is key also. Any suggestions? Thanks!

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    Kayak Guru - June 3, 2018

    Hi Gregory,

    We wrote an article on inflatable kayaks here: https://kayakguru.com/best-inflatable-kayak/

    The Coleman Colorado might be a good choice for you. We’ll be looking at some more kayaks over the next few months (including inflatables), so keep posted!

    Reply
      Jon - November 10, 2018

      I bought the NRS Outlaw II two-man inflatable kayak last spring and it has performed well on lakes and rivers. You should be able to pack a lot for camping as well.

      Reply
        Jon - November 10, 2018

        I took it out around 15 times this year. Rivers include S. Platte, Cache la Powder, Colorado Rivers.

        Reply
          Kayak Guru - November 14, 2018

          Hi Jon….thanks for sharing 🙂

          Reply
Jennifer K - May 27, 2018

I have an intex challenger 2 person yellow inflatable kayak. I have been out on it just twice since I got it. I really like it. I am looking for a big backpack to haul all my gear. It does,come with a big duffel but I can’t fit the boat in it after I’ve inflated it and deflated it. Plus I can’t get the skeg off. I think I’m falling in love with
kayaking!

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    Kayak Guru - June 3, 2018

    Hi Jennifer,

    Yes, the Intex kayaks are entry-level. Some find them an inexpensive way to get into the sport, and then end up buying a more “serious” kayak at a later date.

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying it!

    Reply
Anonymous - June 1, 2018

Look for a large rolling suitcase canvas like. I found one my 13′ fits in and I can grab retractable handle and roll it.

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    Kayak Guru - June 3, 2018

    Thanks for the tip!

    Reply
Joe - July 30, 2018

Very helpful info. I almost bought a tandem hard shell but the comparison made me change my mind. We will start with a durable inflatable and see how it goes. Thank you for saving me $$. I’ll refer back your site to shop, assuming you’re an affiliate.

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    Kayak Guru - August 24, 2018

    Hi Joe, glad to be of help.

    If you’re just getting into the sport, it’s best to go to the lower end of the budget range to “test the water” – no pun intended, haha! If you like the inflatable you can always purchase a hardshell, or another higher quality inflatable in the future. Just sell your old inflatable, or use it as a spare 🙂

    Reply
Anonymous - August 13, 2018

HI Guys
We live in Florida and we are water people, springs, lakes, creeks, beach…but we are lazy, dont want to deal with heavy kayaks..so we tried the sea eagle both 360 and the smaller but it was too much to worry about pop out these kayaks with sticks, or rocks and be miserable in the company of a few not to friendly alligators. We still believe on the inflatable concept, any recommendations.

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Jess - November 24, 2018

Hey there,
I am looking to purchase an inflatable kayak because I want to be able to take it along with me on airplanes etc. But I am also looking to be able to use it for multiday overnight paddling trips, so I would like some storage space in it. Are there any inflatable kayaks out there with storage compartments?
Thanks

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Frog - July 16, 2019

I am 69 years old my wife is 62. We live on a river in WV. Purchased two Challenger K1 kayaks from Wal Mart last year never used until a couple weeks ago. We are in good shape but have never Kayaked before. These are a blast and we enjoy these as much or more than our other water toys. I could have used a shop vac to inflate but used the provided pump to see how difficult it would be. Way better than expected. Kanawha River has a lot of commercial and large pleasure boat traffic. We love riding the waves near shore and also visit the inlets. These have a storage area for beverages etc. Worth every penny spent!!!!

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    Kayak Guru - August 16, 2019

    Hi there, and thanks for throwing in your 2 cents.

    The K1 really is bargain basement, in the kayaking world. If you like the K1, you’d love something a little more upmarket!

    Glad you’re enjoying it!

    Reply
Elizabeth Ciupinas - May 11, 2020

Interesting read-i like seeing the comparisons. My husband and i just purchased a tandem hardshell sit on top for our first kayak. We love the size and can pick up some serious speed. I love that it allows us to have an extra middle small seat incase our family increases. Im from ireland so we have plenty of loughs and water around, however i can see that the best reason for the inflatables would be that you could take it anywhere in the world on a plane which would be amazing!

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Fil - May 22, 2020

Hi I have enjoyed various boats in my heyday, including inflatables with outboard, hard-shell kayaks, canoes and a wooden / fiberglass sailboat and a trimaran.
Nowadays my age would only allow me some light vessels, the ones I can handle alone. I live by the lake which is ideal for kayaking and diving or snorkeling, and I’m lucky to be welcomed to occasional use my neighbor’s sit-on-top polyurethane kayak, so you migh say I’m equipped.
However, I wonder why the hard-bottom inflatable technology still isn’t introduced to small boats like kayaks, since it works so well with other boat lines? That way one could have all the advantages of both. If you imagine a lightweight (coated foam) kayak bottom that could be taken apart for storage or travel and held rigidly within the inflatable outer tube[s], you’ll know what I mean. The advantages would be attractive. Please let me know if you see any bad points in it!
A “dirty tip” for older folks… If you find it hard to inflate the larger boat in a hurry, you could consider using your car exhaust gases for 90% of the chamber volume and finish to the proper tube pressure by hand pump. It’s not the cleanest way, but sure is easier on the old bones! Any adapted hose of the proper diameter will do… Yes, I know about the exhaust gas disadvantages, but when you’re alone and have to pump a larger inflatable, it will work. 🙂

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Marissa - May 31, 2020

Hard shell boats are just way too expensive.

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Slabby rider - June 18, 2020

We have the Intex explorer 2 as our first kayak and its great. We use it for both river and calm sheltered seas in the UK. With regards to Jennifer k comment it packs away easily into the supplied bag. It just requires you to lay on it when deflating to squeeze every last bit of air out. You can then fold it sufficiently to go into the bag along with the paddles and pump and have room still for snorkel gear too. It does fit. The skeg comes off easily too.
It is perfect on rivers and on calm seas but in the sea it’s easily affected by wind and current so care must be taken.
The convenience of packing it away on the beach then putting everything into its carry bag and walking to the car to pop it into the boot is just brilliant. I love doing it with an audience too lol. For us this cheap inflatable has been the perfect introduction to kayaking and at £90 it was a no brained. However since discovering via YouTube some absolutely stunning sites and locations along the south west UK coast only accessible by kayak (or noisy jet ski etc) we will soon invest in 2 hard shell sea kayaks as they seem more suitable albeit more cumbersome to transport and store but for me it’s a small comprise worth making.

Us enjoying the Jurassic coast in our Intex explorer 2

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