Are Inflatable Kayaks Safe? (Pros & Cons)

Some hear about an inflatable kayak and immediately think of an oversized pool toy. But are inflatable kayak safety features on par with hardshell kayaks? Absolutely! 

In fact, you can find many videos on YouTube that show an inflatable kayak “torture test”, which involves putting the boats through a variety of outrageous tests to see what it takes to puncture them.

These cheaper alternatives to hard-shelled kayaks may actually have a higher safety rating than their harder cousins in a few categories. They have many benefits that make them worth purchasing, but there are also a few downsides that must be considered as well. 

Finding out about inflatable kayak safety is important because you don’t want to paddle out on the water and find yourself in a dangerous situation. Here’s what you need to know about this topic before you make a purchasing decision on inflatable kayaks.

What are Inflatable Kayaks?

Inflatable kayaks are precisely what their name implies: an inflatable watercraft in the shape of a kayak. They consist of three air chambers, including the floor and two side chambers. 

These chambers fill up with air and keep your kayak afloat on the water. They typically adapt to various types of pumps, including a foot pump, hand pump, or electric pump. 

So why would anybody want this type of craft?

When an excellent hard-shelled kayak costs double the price of an inflatable kayak, is it any wonder that many manufacturers sell out of these models so quickly? Nevertheless, they provide a more than reasonable boating option for those who want an inexpensive model. 

Beyond that, inflatable kayaks are simply easier to store and transport. Just think about it: rather than having a dedicated space the size and shape of your kayak for storage, you can simply deflate it and store it in a much smaller spot. 

The same benefit is true of transportation. Rather than having to tie a big hard-shelled kayak to the top of your car, you can simply deflate it and put it in your trunk.

What are the Pros and Cons of Inflatable Kayaks?

Advantages

  • Lightweight Design – A solo inflatable kayak weighs somewhere between 8 and 40 pounds; a regular hardshell kayak weighs anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds. With similar tandem weight differences (35-65 pounds inflatable, 60-90 pounds hard-shell), their lightweight nature makes inflatable kayaks a good choice for those who want a light boat.
  • Smaller Size – While a fully-inflated kayak will be the same size as a hardshell model, it can be easily deflated to take up much less space. Adequately folded, an inflatable boat that would generally be 12 feet long may be just two square feet, saving you lots of room.
  • Surprisingly Stable – While you’d think an air leak or single hole caused by a sharp object would cause your inflatable kayak to sink immediately, that isn’t the case. They have multiple air chambers that make them incredibly buoyant even with a bit of damage, and also keep them stable enough to withstand tough conditions on the water.
  • Drop Stitch Design – Many inflatable kayaks have drop stitch construction that allows for a high inflation pressure. This pressure increases the stability and rigidity of the kayak. 
  • Durable Beyond Expectations – Most modern inflatable kayaks have been designed with incredibly durable, incredibly strong exteriors. With proper maintenance, you can put your inflatable kayak through incredible difficulties and wear and tear without seeing extensive damage.

Disadvantages

  • Weaker Performance – Inflatable kayaks have improved a lot in recent years but are simply not as fast as hard-shelled kayaks. They shouldn’t be used for racing situations but may be a good alternative for amateur paddlers who want a simple recreational boat.
  • Launch Time – You typically need to spend anywhere from a few minutes to up to 10 minutes inflating and preparing your inflatable kayak; similarly, it would help if you spent time drying it and deflating after boating. This longer launch and removal time is something to seriously consider.
  • Susceptible to Wind – Hard-shelledl kayaks typically have are typically more robust and stable against wind and waves than inflatable kayaks. While some people may take inflatable boats sea kayaking or whitewater kayaking, even inflatable whitewater kayaks simply won’t perform as well as normal kayaks.

Are Inflatable Kayaks Safe?

Quick answer: inflatable kayaks are very safe in many different scenarios. Typically, the higher-priced models are safer than lower-cost ones. 

Budget models don’t have the same kind of puncture protection you get with higher-cost options; they also don’t have the same sort of overall stability and strength. Still, your average, moderately-priced inflatable kayak will be safe in most situations.

In fact, it might even be possible that inflatable kayaks are safer than hard-shell options for first-time boasters. How is this possible? 

Inflatable kayaks are broader than traditional kayaks, sometimes by as much as several inches. This extra width makes them more stable on the water and cuts back on the risk of potential flipping. 

Even better, the inflatable tubes and chambers on a good inflatable kayak typically provide more stability, making it easier to keep the boat afloat and harder to flip it when you’re having a good time on the water.

Surprisingly, many high-quality inflatable kayaks also react better to whitewater rapids and rocks and other debris than hardshell options. For example, an inflatable kayak is likely to bounce off stones or other sharp objects in the river bed that could potentially puncture the hull of most kayaks. 

Of course, any time you are out on the water, including when you are inflatable kayaking, you should wear a life jacket. Wearing a life vest may offer the extra peace of mind you need to fully enjoy your outdoor adventure.

That said, you don’t see many experts or long-time kayakers putting their hardshell boats away. Why is that the case?

If Inflatable Kayaks are Safe, Why Don’t Pros Use Them?

Yes, inflatable kayaks are safe and do surprisingly well in rough water (even whitewater rapids). But professionals choose hard-shelled boats for many reasons. 

First, inflatable kayaks may be too light, which could cause them to flip in certain rough water conditions. Second, professionals don’t trust them in these life-and-death situations, mainly since inflatable kayaks are slow and hard to keep straight.

This last issue is a genuine problem for inflatable kayaks because their lightness makes them move from side to side as you paddle. While you’ll move forward, you won’t stay straight. 

For serious kayakers, this situation is not only frustrating but potentially dangerous. For example, they may find themselves unable to stay straight in a tight race and end up losing or even flipping.

These issues do decrease when you buy a high-quality inflatable kayak. They break down into three categories: the incredibly cheap and less durable category one; the more protected and durable category two; and the strongest and best performing category three. 

A category three inflatable kayak still won’t quite get to the same level as a hard-shelled option, but it is the best choice for those who want an inflatable boat.

FAQs on Inflatable Kayaks

Are Inflatable Kayaks Durable?

Inflatable kayaks are covered with multiple layers of thick-coated materials, usually a reasonably rigid PVC material, that make them surprisingly durable in many situations. Their multi-chamber design helps to minimize the risk of sinking after several punctures, as well.

What Size Inflatable Kayak Should I Get?

Most of the same things we covered in our kayak sizing guide apply to inflatable kayaks. They aren’t significantly different from hardshell kayaks in this way, and similar sizes are available. 

In addition, there are various types of inflatable kayaks. For example, an inflatable fishing kayak will be wider to provide more stability. 

You may find it easier to purchase an inflatable kayak designed for one person even if you traditionally like to use a tandem kayak. The tipping point will be different in an inflatable boat, and sometimes this can be difficult to navigate with two people. 

Can I Use Them in Rough Water?

Inflatable kayaks are very safe in rough water conditions. Typically, an inflatable kayak that is short and stout is better for rough water and river kayaking; longer ones are better for the flat water of lakes or oceans.

Where Do I Find Inflatable Kayaks?

Most sporting goods stores that sell kayaks should have inflatable models. You can also find them online in many shops, like Amazon or specialty kayak stores.

What Do I Do If I Get a Leak?

If a chamber of your kayak were to tear open, causing air to leak out, the other chambers would continue to keep the boat afloat. Rest assured, you will not see your inflatable kayak sink due to one hole or puncture.

Once at home, spread soapy water over your inflatable kayak and look for bubbles to spot the leak. Put some waterproof glue over the hole or use a patch for this purpose.

You can buy a repair kit that will come with everything you need to get your kayak working as good as new. You can even purchase a small patch kit to take with you on your kayaking adventures for quick fixes.

Which Pump Should I Use for My Inflatable Kayak?

A hand pump is an excellent inexpensive option, but it will likely take 15 minutes or more to inflate a kayak. If you choose to use a hand pump, one of the most important safety precautions is to take your time and complete the process fully because an under-inflated kayak will be harder to paddle and will not stay afloat as well.

Foot pumps are more expensive but faster. Electrical models are fast but may over-inflate the boat. 

How Long Will My Kayak Last?

Most inflatable kayaks made with modern materials should last for a long time if you treat them well and only expose them to normal wear and tear. Some people may get a decade or more out of these boats by adequately caring for both minor and significant damage.

Considering a Purchase?

Our answer to the question “Are inflatable kayaks safe?” should provide you with the information you need to make a purchasing decision. In general, we’d say that they are an excellent option for many people and can provide a fantastic advantage in various types of kayaking situations. 

And since they’re so relatively cheap compared to hardshell models, they may be an attractive choice.

Don’t ignore inflatable kayaks due to a perceived lack of safety; they’re actually one of the safest types of kayaks on the market for the average kayaker.