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Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell Comparison – Battle of the Kayaks!

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. Hardshell vs inflatable - that's the battle. 

With so many models of hard shell kayak and inflatable kayak available and with the rising popularity of inflatable kayaks made from durable materials, 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. We'll look at hard shells and inflatable yaks to see if one is better for you than the other.

Inflatable Kayaks Explained

Inflatable kayaks are exactly what you imagine - kayaks that are inflated and deflated before and after use. But are inflatable kayaks worth it? Looking at hardshell vs inflatable kayaks, the winner probably depends on your lifestyle.

The inflatable kayak has 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 with an inflatable kayak so we’ve broken them down for you with a quick overview, so you can analyze the hardshell vs inflatable kayak argument for yourself.

The Pros

Weight & Size

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

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

An inflatable kayak's weight is also something worth considering, as some of them may not be as light as you'd expect for an inflatable kayak, and can often weigh close to some hard shells.

Some inflatable yaks are more portable than others. But if you lack storage space at home inflatable yaks can be a no brainer.

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, which makes sense for beginners and river paddling.

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 high pressure “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 of an inflatable kayak is made from durable rubber and PVC (imagine life boats and whitewater rafts). Inflatable kayaks are therefore generally more durable than hardshell kayaks.

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

Fishing kayaks can also be found in both the hardshell kayak and inflatable kayak market and often benefit from heavy duty synthetic rubber materials for durability. Inflatable yaks made for fishing can be useful as they can easily fit in a small space, unlike their large hard shell counterparts.

On the other hand, if you have the space and want to use your kayak everyday, a hardshell kayak could be the way to go.

The Cons

You Get What You Pay For...

Many people are attracted to inflatable kayaks because they think they will have a lower price tag than hardshells. This can be true that hardshells can cost more money. But it does depend on what kind of performance you require from your hardshell vs inflatable kayak and what models and brands you are interested in. 

High-end brands and inflatable kayaks designed for high performance in rapids and rough seas will probably cost just as much as a hard shell kayak whereas a basic inflatable kayak 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 the heavy hard shell counterparts, 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. You may also have inflatable seats to think about with an inflatable kayak, something hard shells probably won't have.

It can also be tricky to get the correct level of air into your inflatable kayak for optimum performance. Again, something you won't have to think about with hard shells because of the rigid frame. This is measured in PSI (pounds per square inch). 

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

You also need to make sure that you wash, air and completely dry your inflatable kayak thoroughly before packing it away as otherwise it will become damp, damaged (develop mold) and downright smelly, unlike their hard shell counterparts.

Control

Because they are lighter than hard shells, an inflatable kayak 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 of inflatable kayak on the market today that cater for rapids and open seas.

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

Hardshell Kayaks Explained

Hardshell kayaks are the traditional types of kayak. These hard shell kayaks are made from wood, plastic, fiberglass or other composite materials, with a rigid frame. This is unlike an inflatable kayak, which tends to feature synthetic rubber or PVC and plastic polymers, but sometimes they can be of a similar quality.

Each of these durable 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 an inflatable kayak, 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, thanks to the rigid frame and durable materials. 

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 better control than an inflatable kayak.

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 capacity than inflatable kayaks so you need to be aware of this when picking gear to take with you. Based on comparable size, inflatable yaks will tend to have the highest weight capacity because of their heavy duty construction and increased buoyancy.

Storage & Transport

Dragging Heavy KayakPin

Dragging Heavy Kayak

Unlike an inflatable kayak, 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 hard shell kayak in your apartment, garage or storage space? Can you fit a roof rack on your car? Hardshell kayaks cost more in storage and transportation costs, such as the cost of a roof rack or a trailer.

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

Remember that a hard shell kayak will mean more weight to carry to and from the water, which could be difficult for one person, which could mean hardshell kayaks cost more in energy too.

Maintenance & Durability

Generally speaking, hardshell kayaks require more maintenance and upkeep than inflatable kayaks. Without the rubber exterior and flexible, durable materials of inflatable kayaks, a hardshell kayak is more susceptible to bumps, knocks and scrapes without the proper care.

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 a plastic hard shell kayak does get damaged, it is more expensive to repair. 

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

Hardshell vs Inflatable Kayaks: Which Is Best?

It depends!

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both the inflatable kayak and the hard kayak and both can provide a fun and safe time on various types of water. So the winner of the inflatable kayak vs hardshell kayak battle is down to personal choice. Maybe you like the portability of the inflatable kayak or perhaps you prefer the rigid frame of the hard kayak.

An inflatable kayak can 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 than a hard kayak (especially in rough waters) but an inflatable kayak can offer more stability than hardshells.

For a beginner looking for an all-round kayak for predominantly calm waters, perhaps an inflatable kayak 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 an inflatable kayak and a hard shell kayak, 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 28 comments
Dieter

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.

Reply
Anonymous

try advanced elements. rearly good.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    🙂

    Reply
Gregory

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!

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    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

      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

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

        Reply
          Kayak Guru

          Hi Jon….thanks for sharing 🙂

          Reply
Jennifer K

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!

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    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

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

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Thanks for the tip!

    Reply
Joe

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.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    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

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.

Reply
Jess

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

Reply
Frog

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!!!!

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    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

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!

Reply
Fil

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

Hard shell boats are just way too expensive.

Reply
Slabby rider

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

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply
Karl

Anyone heard of a hard-shell kayak that can be assembled in sections?

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Joseph Spartan

Don’t believe all the sales pitch about inflatables, even the very best are not much more than toys vs. traditional kayaks – even the cheapies from big box stores. Unfortunately,there’s a vested interest in selling blowup boats because it opens up a bigger market, and as such most internet reviews is manufactured and glosses over their on-water shortcomings and focus on their dryland advantages. If you have or think you might ever get even semi serious about paddling, steer well clear of toy kayaks; even the most exotic and expensive one.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    I agree. Inflatable boats have their place, but traditional kayaks are the bread and butter for serious kayakers. Even as a serious paddler, I think you can have both!

    Reply

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