What makes one inflatable kayak better than another? We set out to answer exactly that question by putting these compactible boats through a myriad of side-by-side tests. We chose five metrics on which to rate each boat, being both complementary and mutually exclusive to bring you an in-depth picture of how each kayak stacks up to the competition. Here's how we did it.
One of the most important categories of any boat — how does it handle on the water? We tested this through an exhaustive season of paddling through all kinds of waters and terrain. We noted how each kayak tracked, how easily it turned, how fast we could go in it, any drag or resistance during paddling, how stable it was, and how well it did in windy conditions. We also evaluated each kayak's ability to handle various speeds and intensities of water and wave action, as well as its ability to pass over partially submerged objects unscathed. We tested this by paddling across lakes, up and down streams and rivers, racing friends, putting novice paddlers and experienced paddlers in every boat, and seeing how each did in various wind and wave conditions.
We also checked how waterproof each boat was, how easily it collected water while paddling, and if it had any draining mechanism (including tipping the boat over on land) and how efficient that was. We evaluated how much water we found ourselves sitting in — or not — and how easy it was to mitigate that.
Several boats came with a paddle, which we evaluated for overall usefulness and effectiveness as we paddled in all conditions, pushed off of shores and submerged rocks, and took long journeys. Tandem models were also tested for best paddle position by having many different sized people and of varying ability levels work together from playtime paddles to epic voyages.
What good is trying to spend an afternoon or whole weekend out on your boat if it's not even comfortable? We asked paddlers of as many sizes and skill levels as we could find to help us evaluate the comfort level of each kayak. The most important questions were, "How long are you willing to sit in this kayak?" and "How challenging is it to paddle?" We tested these by taking trips of varying lengths and intensities and swapping kayaks with other paddlers frequently to tease out the more subtle differences between models.
We also evaluated each kayak on how easy it was to get in and out of from a beached landing, from docks, and even to get back in when floating in water too deep to stand in.
Finally, we considered the comfort of any included paddles and any special use the kayak may have been designed for. This included checking out foot braces, trying various angles of recline, using gear holders and storage compartments, and evaluating each for what they added (or detracted) from overall kayaking comfort.
Ease of Set Up
Not only did we assess how easy it was to set up each kayak, but we also appraised each one for how easy they were to take down again. This included following the included directions to a T to see how helpful they were, seeing how the amount of time it took to set up each kayak changed as we became more familiar with the process, and being brutally honest about how excited we were — or weren't — to go through the assembly/disassembly process.
Several kayaks specifically requested inflation to a certain pressure (measured in PSI) but came with no way to measure that pressure. However, most included qualitative directions for what the appropriate pressure should feel like. In addition, the pressure inside each air chamber is subject to fluctuation based on ambient temperature of the air, land surface it's being inflated on, the temperature of the water you're paddling in, and amount of direct sunlight the kayak is exposed to. For this reason, we worried less about the specific PSI of the kayak chambers and more about their relative feel to each other and the paddler and noted our experiences with that approach.
We also tested each boat for how dirty they got during our adventures and how easy each was to clean and get ready for storage. This included getting water out of each kayak, drying them completely, and having boats as free from debris as reasonably possible.
As packable yaks, these boats are automatically more portable than any standard hardshell kayak. However, just because you can fit them on the garage shelf or in the trunk of your sedan doesn't mean they're just as much fun to carry a mile to the beach, over rocky terrain, or take with you on a backpacking trip or an international vacation.
For this category, we evaluated the overall packed size and weight of each kayak as well as how each was carried. We lugged them to distant lakes, nearby streams, up and down stairs, through woods, on road trips, across campgrounds, and anywhere else we could find water to float on. We also took note of not only how easy they were to carry, but also if we had enough free hands to bring along our life jackets, water bottles, sunscreen, snacks, and anything else required for an enjoyable on-water experience.
Additionally, we set up kayaks at the car and carried them down to the water already assembled. We also graded each kayak on the presence and type of bow and stern handles they had to facilitate this process, and if it was easier, harder, or virtually the same amount of work as carrying them in their bags.
While we tested these kayaks extensively for an entire season of adventure paddling (some for several subsequent seasons), we also recognize that most people who are looking to purchase an inflatable kayak would like to use it more than a single season. We did our best to treat these boats with as much abuse as we felt they would reasonably take from hard use by aquatic voyageurs of all kinds. We sent them out with kids, brought dogs of all sizes, piled them full of gear, and took them across all manner of abrasive objects. However, we recognize that a single season of use can only give us so much insight into the true longevity of many of these crafts, which is why we only gave this metric a 10% weight in the overall score of each kayak.
We also noted the construction and care put into each of the kayaks we tested, as well as their carrying bags, and pointed out areas we found fault with. Additionally, we checked out the repair kit (if one was included) of each kayak and put them to use as needed.
Each of these tests helped us to put together a complete picture of every kayak, how it performs, and its best use, to help you figure out which is the right choice for your paddling desires.