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How to Choose an Inflatable Kayak

Photo: Kats Kitagawa
By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday October 16, 2018
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The world of paddling, and the followers and adventurers it attracts, has steadily increased in recent years as new and different ways to get on the water become more available and diverse. From canoeing to kayaking to paddleboarding to rafting to rowing, there are so many ways to get out on the water. A study from The Outdoor Industry reports that kayaking is the most popular paddle sport in the United States. And with more kayak options on the market today than ever before, you too can join the ranks of kayakers out enjoying public lands and waters — and what better way than in a portable, inflatable kayak??

You too could be enjoying the lake on a lazy Saturday afternoon in...
You too could be enjoying the lake on a lazy Saturday afternoon in your new inflatable kayak.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Aren't Inflatable Kayaks Just Pool Floaties?

No way!! While you can find pool floaties on the market that resemble kayaks and may even come with flimsy paddles, true inflatable kayaks are NMMA certified. That is, they've been awarded the Boat & Yacht Certification by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), stating that the craft is built to applicable standards set by the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC). To achieve this certification, boat manufacturers must have each model of boat they sell physically inspected by an NMMA inspector every single year. This certification actually goes beyond the minimum manufacturing regulations required by the US Coast Guard, helping to ensure that the kayak you're taking out on the water is safer than, you know, a pool floatie.

Paddle farther in a great, NMMA certified inflatable kayak!
Paddle farther in a great, NMMA certified inflatable kayak!
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

So, not only are inflatable and compactible kayaks NOT pool floaties, they have certain benefits that traditional hardshell kayaks don't offer, and some of them perform just as well as — if not better than — a rigid kayak.

Benefits of Inflatable/Packable Kayaks

The most immediately obvious benefit of an inflatable kayak is its increased portability over a hardshell kayak. As you can fold or roll your boat into a bag or box and carry it yourself, you no longer have to purchase and install expensive and cumbersome roof racks on your car to take your kayak out for an adventure. No more lifting a long, awkward boat solo over your head and hoping you strapped it down well enough to survive the traffic-filled highway commute home. Not only can you easily throw a packable kayak into the trunk of even an itty bitty Smart car, but you can also feasibly bring it with on public transportation such as a train or bus. You can even bring your sleek little watercraft with you for international travel — try doing that with a hardshell kayak!

Another benefit of good things coming in small packages is that storing an inflatable kayak is a much less space-consuming chore. You can easily stick your packable yak in the back of your coat closet. Even the largest inflatable kayaks are just a fraction of the size to stow away as their rigid counterparts, and they often weigh less too. Some weigh significantly less, making their potential travel opportunities increase exponentially.

A convenient shoulder strap makes the Sea Eagle 330 more convenient...
A convenient shoulder strap makes the Sea Eagle 330 more convenient to cart to that perfect launch spot.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

A less obvious benefit of using an inflatable kayak is that they can offer some forms of durability that you can't find in a rigid kayak. Sure, being inflatable may lead you to believe that they're ready to pop at any given moment, and while they can get (usually patchable) holes, a lot of them can also take quite a beating. Inflatable kayaks are becoming more and more popular among whitewater enthusiasts for their ability to bounce off of rocks, rather than enduring the scratching and scraping of a much more difficult to repair hardshell. Not all inflatables are created equal on this front, but they are typically hardier than your imagination may lead you to believe. This tenacity also comes in handy for rocky shore landings, scraping across sandy beaches, floating over submerged sticks and logs, and even having your canine friend join your on-water adventures.

Another big selling point for many inflatable kayaks is their low price. While you can spend thousands of dollars on inflatable boats, you can just as easily save a bunch of money and get a pretty darn good boat for a few hundred or less. We discuss the value of each kayak in the individual kayak reviews as it relates to the boat's performance, as we realize that for many, the lower cost of inflatable watercraft over traditional models can be a major factor in making the decision of what vessel to add to your fleet.

Don't Forget the PFD

The US Coast Guard requires kids ages 12 and under to wear a USCG approved personal floatation device (PFD, aka life jacket) in any vessel on the water, and a PFD must be present for every passenger 13 and over. The American Canoe Association also estimates that up to 75% of all paddler drownings could be prevented by wearing a life jacket. Laws vary state-by-state, so check local regulations before you head out!

Related: Best PFD

So Which Yak is the Yak for You?

Many factors go into choosing the right kayak to fit your paddling style and goals. Before jumping in headfirst to the coolest looking kayak an internet search turns up, you should ask yourself the following questions:

What type of paddler are you?

Are you new to the sport of kayaking? Then perhaps you'll want to choose an inexpensive, more stable kayak, to see if you like it before purchasing a specific-use kayak or investing more heavily in a high-tech boat. Are you looking for a boat to use just once a summer or every weekend while it's warm? Then perhaps durability is more of a concern for you, as is having a versatile kayak that can handle different adventures you chose to have over many years. Are you a small or large paddler? This matters, as some boats may feel quite heavy to a 120lb adult, while some may be a bit of a squeeze for folks over 6ft tall. Or perhaps you're just on the market to get the kids out on the water so you and your spouse can enjoy a nice refreshing cocktail on the beach. In which case, you may not need anything fancy at all, and a boat with the right capacity will do the trick.

A great size for this 5'1" paddler, the Advanced Elements PackLite...
A great size for this 5'1" paddler, the Advanced Elements PackLite is on the small size for testers over 6'.
Photo: Kats Kitagawa

What kind of water do you want to paddle?

Have you been watching YouTube videos of whitewater tricks and are ready to try out some new moves? Are you longing to surf big ocean waves like a boss? Have you been planning all winter what streams you'd like to fish? Or are you simply looking to paddle across the lake for an afternoon? The type of boat you choose plays into what type of water you can paddle it on. Some boats are more stable and maneuverable, making them better for quick-moving streams and dodging submerged objects. Some kayaks are longer or have skegs (fins on the bottom of the hull) to help them track better as you paddle long distances across flat water. And some kayaks have scupper holes or self-bailers to drain water from the inside of the boat while you paddle, making them more comfortable for longer outings, particularly in wavy conditions when you're more likely to take on water.

Riding high above the water in the Sea Eagle 330 helps novice...
Riding high above the water in the Sea Eagle 330 helps novice kayakers feel more comfortable.
Photo: Kats Kitagawa

How far do you want to go?

If your goal is to paddle out from a beach, around for some sightseeing, and back again within an hour or two, you're unlikely to be as picky about the kayak you choose, and many will do just fine. However, if you'd like to paddle across that big wide lake — or around its circumference — making sure you've got a comfortable kayak that tracks well will go a long way. If every stroke you make wags the kayak back and forth, you'll do twice the work for half the distance gained. Do you live in a windy place? Then making sure you find a low-profile kayak to avoid having it act like a sail when paddling into the wind will be important. Are you hoping to take overnight adventures up the river or causeway in your kayak? Then getting a kayak with plenty of storage space and a high weight capacity is essential for your style of aquatic expedition. Are you hoping to paddle far away from anyone else? Then you may need to consider even more portable models to carry your kayak further before even getting on the water. Lightweight or convenient-carry kayaks (like a backpack yak) can help you get away from the crowds to enjoy peace and solitude as you commune with nature.

Which do you prefer - a long voyage or short trip? The relatively...
Which do you prefer - a long voyage or short trip? The relatively short Intex Challenger K2 is better suited for shorter trips when you don't need an excess of storage space.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Do you have a specific activity in mind while you paddle?

Just like hardshell kayaks, packable yaks are made for all sorts of specific purposes. From whitewater to flatwater, just for angling, specific for touring, or for simple recreation. Angling kayaks may have foot pedals for hands-free power and maneuvering, touring boats tend to have increased tracking and more room for gear storage, and whitewater boats often can attach spray skirts to keep water out of the cockpit and are shaped differently to handle the rolling and often unpredictable nature of changing river conditions. For this review, we looked at flatwater boats, but even within that category, we found a surprising amount of versatility in what these boats can handle.

How many people do you want in your kayak?

Are you seeking to get away all on your own? Grab a single boat! Are you looking to take your significant other or a friend with you? Try a tandem. Many companies also offer 2+ or 3 person boats, which can fit up to three adults, or two adults and a child or dog. Want to take your large dog (or multiple dogs) with you? You may consider a small tandem or large single, depending on the size of the cockpit, the size of your dog, and your dog's comfort level with balancing on top of the hull. Or you could snag a boat that can do it all! Several manufacturers make tandem boats that can be adapted for a single person with gear and furry friends — or just an ambitious single paddler. That's another benefit to many packable boats: the potential for adjustable seating arrangements.

Two people, two medium-sized dogs, and no problems in a tandem boat...
Two people, two medium-sized dogs, and no problems in a tandem boat rated for 3 people and 600 pounds.
Photo: Kats Kitagawa

How much time are you willing to spend setting up?

One catch with the packable yak market is the amount of time you'll spend setting up and taking apart your rig each time you use it. There's a wide range of complications you can own or avoid, depending on how much you value your time. Some kayaks have just 2 or 3 chambers and go together in a matter of minutes. Others have numerous pieces to zip, clip, or velcro in place and adjust each time you take your boat out on the water. While there's something to be said for owning the same nautical adventure wagon for a long period of time and getting familiar and fast with its set up, some will always take longer than others.

Additionally, are you excited to pump up seven chambers by hand while using multiple adapters or your own lung power? Or would you rather opt for an origami-style kayak that requires no pump and goes together exactly the same every time? When it comes to disassembly, are you ready to spend potentially several hours on the shore waiting for your fabric hull to dry completely before stowing it away? Or would you rather take it home wet and set it up to dry in your front lawn or living room? Or perhaps avoid it altogether by getting a kayak with a waterproof exterior and simply bringing a towel to dry and clean it when you've completed your expedition. With a compactible boat, these are all things worth considering before making a purchase.

Spend less time setting up and more time on the water with the Oru...
Spend less time setting up and more time on the water with the Oru Beach LT, which goes up and comes down in under five minutes!
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

How much do you want to spend?

The value of any piece of gear you purchase is always an important consideration. Particularly in the realm of watercraft, it's easy to drop several hundred or thousands of dollars on a single ship. But does that necessarily mean you've gotten the best kayak your money can buy? Not necessarily. While there are excellent kayaks out there that will part you from a large chunk of change, there are also a lot more affordable options. In our review, we tested products with a wide range of price tags. While some hold their value better than others, all have their merits. We invite you to peruse through all the models we tested to find which has the right combination of features and price to suit your needs.

Though one of the most expensive kayaks in this review, the Oru also...
Though one of the most expensive kayaks in this review, the Oru also was incredibly impressive both on the water and off.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg

Don't Forget the Essential Accessories!

Last but certainly not least, it's important to note that some kayaks come with everything you need to get out on the water (aside from a life jacket!) — paddle, pump, and fill gauge. Some include helpful repair kits for if the worst happens to salvage your fun craft for future festivities. And some kayaks are just that — only a kayak, leaving you to additionally purchase the paddle, pump, and maybe a gauge. However, this isn't always a bad thing, as some kayaks that include the full kit make use of some subpar pieces of equipment that you may end up replacing anyway. You may also already own a pump from an air mattress that can also be used for your kayak, and perhaps you can pick up a paddle at a garage sale or as an online bargain. And if it really comes down to it, most inflatable kayak manufacturers have additional accessories available for purchase along with your yak to give you the complete kit.

The Sevylor K5 Quikpak is one of a few models we tested that comes...
The Sevylor K5 Quikpak is one of a few models we tested that comes with its own paddle and pump.
Photo: Maggie Brandenburg


Owning a packable yak may be the best, most liberating piece of outdoor equipment you ever have the pleasure of owning. Being able to toss it in the car for any road trip "just in case," take it with you on vacation around the globe, or keep it nearby for after-work paddles may mutate you from a casual kayaker to a serious paddle ninja. Just be careful all that fresh air, solitude, and nature bathing doesn't cause you to come down with a case of uncontrollable happiness.

Have more fun in your packable yak!
Have more fun in your packable yak!
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

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