Want a kayak for 2020 without the headache of storage and transportation? We researched 60+ foldable and inflatable kayaks and chose the best 8 to put to the test during hundreds of hours on the water. We spent months paddling across lakes, over waves, and down rivers to push their limits. With the aid of friends, dogs, snacks, and kiddos, we fully explored the capacity and comfort of each model. We enlisted the help of novice and expert paddlers to see how easy they are to set up, handle on the water, and pack back into the trunk. No matter what kind of paddler you are, we've found the perfect inflatable - or foldable - kayak for your aquatic adventures.Related: Best Kayaks
Best Inflatable Kayak of 2020
Best Overall Kayak, No Inflating Required
Oru Beach LT
"Hold on just a minute," you might say, "how can a non-inflatable kayak be the best in an inflatable kayak review?" Well, as we continue to test inflatable kayaks, we recognize that there's also a growing market out there for kayaks that are just as packable as inflatable kayaks but don't require any inflating. We think the reasons for buying an inflatable or a packable yak are pretty much the same — storage and portability — so we included them all. And lo and behold, The Beach LT is our favorite of the bunch. Aside from being able to leave the pump at home, we are blown away by the performance of this polypropylene origami kayak. Added length, just the right angles on the bottom, and a prominent keel make the Oru practically sail through the water with stability, ease, and speed while retaining a surprising amount of maneuverability. The Beach LT is a breeze to set up and break down and a snap to drain of water and clean. With an extra-large cockpit and 300-lb weight capacity, we have no problems bringing along our furry friends and a bunch of gear to camp for a weekend. And guaranteed by Oru for 20,000 folds, the durability of this double-layered watercraft leaves no doubt in our minds as to its ability to handle the bumps and scratches over the years like a pro.
The large cockpit of this boat does allow some waves to break over the top or water to collect from your paddle, and there's no self-bailing option with the Oru, leading to some water hanging out in the cockpit with you. The design of the seat also lacks a little bit of comfort and the ability to stay in place as you paddle. And as much as we enjoy the rigid structure of this foldable kayak, it does make carrying it against your bare skin a bit uncomfortable. But overall, this kayak is exceptionally high-performing, bridging the gap between portable and hardshell models — and it can fold up and sit in the back of your closet to boot.
Read review: Oru Beach LT
Best Inflatable Kayak
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
If you're after the best inflatable recreational kayak that's actually inflatable, the Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame is our top choice. This kayak combines incredible performance with a reasonable price tag. It boasts an internal folding aluminum frame that gives it the structure it needs to glide through the water with impressive tracking and speed. The water-resistant outer fabric adds to the overall durability and performance of the vessel. It feels nearly as fast on the water as a hardshell kayak and is quite comfortable for even longer journeys. Made of sturdy materials with reinforced construction, the AdvancedFrame is sure to keep you paddling through many adventures.
Unfortunately, the cost of the internal frame we love so much is in the weight of this 33 lb 4 oz kayak. Challenging to drag around in its duffel bag, the AdvancedFrame also takes a long time to assemble with no less than seven air chambers, five of which require a special adapter to inflate — in lieu of that, you'll need to harness the power of your lungs. With no port for drainage, we also had a difficult time getting all the water out of the hull after an outing, which typically resulted in finding leftover water somewhere inside the next time we set up this boat — even after overwintering in a dry desert garage. But if your main concern is with the on-water performance and comfort of your kayak, the AdvancedFrame excels in both areas.
Read review: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Best Bang for the Buck
Sevylor Quikpak K5
The Sevylor K5 Quikpak is a great combination of above-average performance and a reasonable price for a complete kayaking kit. It comes with a paddle and a pump that fit handily into the pockets and attachment points of this packed up rig. Which, by the way, packs up into a backpack, making it significantly easier to carry than any messenger bag or duffel style kayak. For even more convenience, every part of the backpack is a component of the assembled kayak, meaning all you're left with when you've finished setting up is the pump itself. Additionally, the Quikpak shows a decent level of versatility in what type of water it can handle, as it rides high, has a blunt bow, and the cockpit is covered by a "spray skirt" of sorts. The outer fabric hull helps increase this boat's durability so you can enjoy your purchase over and over again.
However, that outer fabric isn't waterproof, which adds to the overall drag on the boat and takes a long time to dry out before packing up your kayak and hitting the road or trail. Its higher profile also works against you when you find yourself paddling against or across the wind. And while we appreciate having a paddle and pump already included for one low price, neither piece of equipment is one we much enjoyed using for longer than we had to. But for what you get — a pretty good all-around kayak with everything you need to get on the water — we think the value of this little boat can't be understated.
Read review: Sevylor K5 Quikpak
Best Tandem Kayak
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Convertible Tandem
Combining the impressive durability and handling prowess of the AdvancedFrame series with the ability to paddle this craft with a friend or on your own makes this our top choice for a tandem vessel. As a very long boat with integrated tracking fins and a slick PVC tarpaulin hull, this kayak can make some impressive moves on the water. We continue to be impressed by how much maneuverability this vessel maintains while still comfortably seating two adults. And its ability to also be paddled by a solo adventurer with relative ease is a major selling point. With intense construction of durable materials, we feel confident gliding over submerged sticks and underwater rocks without worry.
All this boat comes at a cost to portability, though. This boat weighs over 50 lb, so while you might be able to paddle it by yourself, carrying it to the launch point alone or heading solo upriver or against the wind might require a bigger feat of strength. This boat's design also leaves no room for a drain, but plenty of spaces for water to hide, making it difficult to dry your boat entirely before storing it again. And like all the AE yaks we tested, this one doesn't come with any paddles or pump (with necessary adapter). Yet with useful features, a fairly simple set up, and the best on-water performance of any tandem we tested, we prefer this model for every excursion with a co-captain.
Read review: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Convertible Tandem
Best for Backcountry Paddling
Advanced Elements PackLite
The absurd portability of this little 5 lb 4 oz kayak makes the Advanced Elements PackLite an easy choice to be the kayak you can carry for miles through the woods or days through airports and on buses to get to amazing destinations. We love that it can be added to a backpack or suitcase and gives us access to lakes and streams we would never have dreamed of being able to paddle on before. With a quick set up process and simple to clean off, the PackLite is the ideal travel companion. We also appreciate the excellent quality repair kit and directions, as you never know what may happen when you're really "out there."
What the PackLite brings to the table in portability comes from what it lacks in areas of its performance and comfort. Not the most luxurious kayak to paddle, tracking is lessened by the short, wide shape of this boat, designed more to get you out there and less to help you win races. The material is quite thin to keep it lightweight, and during our testing, it tore readily on a rough dock — but the patch was easy to place and held up impressively well. And don't forget that for all that small, lightweight boating, you'll still need a paddle and pump to take along for the haul. That said, if what you want is to paddle where no one else even is, the PackLite can give you that.
Read review: Advanced Elements PackLite
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert panel of testers is lead by Senior Review Editor, Maggie Brandenburg, a longtime backcountry adventure guide and avid paddler. Maggie has been paddling as long as she can remember, completing an intensive skills course in a canoe before branching out to kayaks and rafts. She has spent over 15 years guiding backcountry adventures and on-water trips. From quiet paddling through secret channels in the Everglades and Caribbean to ripping down rapids in South Africa and the American West, she's paddled thousands of miles on rivers, across lakes, and through oceans, putting dozens of different kayaks (and canoes and rafts) through their paces. Maggie has been testing and reviewing on-water and land-based gear for GearLab since 2017.
This is the third year we've been testing packable kayaks, putting them through their paces in some of the most iconic rivers and pristine alpine lakes in the world, in and around the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Maggie assembled a ragtag team of friends and family, all eager to get out on the water to help test these boats. Some are fellow expert paddlers with years of experience, many are novice boatsmen and women (and children) just excited about it all, and quite a few had never been in a kayak before this. They spent hundreds of hours splashing, paddling, and having aquatic adventures, swapping kayaks, and getting to know which are best for what. From toting gear to carting kids and several delighted dogs, we pushed these crafts to their limits, quite literally getting to know each one inside and out.Related: How We Tested Inflatable Kayaks
Analysis and Test Results
To formulate a comprehensive picture of each kayak's performance, we crafted our tests to encompass five mutually exclusive metrics. We combined tests collecting hard data like measurements, weights, and assembly processes with subjective tests assessing things like the comfort of boats for different types and sizes of paddlers. By incorporating a wide range of skill levels and body types in our testing and using each model across a range of bodies of water and weather conditions, we gained important insights into the benefits, challenges, and best uses of each boat. To explore a detailed analysis of how each kayak compares to the others we tested, read on.
Related: Buying Advice for Inflatable Kayaks
The US Coast Guard requires all paddlers under the age of 13 wear an approved Personal Floatation Device (PFD, or life jacket) at all times while on a kayak. Furthermore, one life jacket per passenger is required — and most effective when worn. Additional local regulations may vary, so check with your nearest agency before you head out — and always tell someone reliable where you're going and when you'll be back.
Related: Best PFD of 2020
Steadily gaining in popularity over the past several years, inflatable kayaks come attached to a wide range of price tags. Generally speaking, in this category of gear, more money will get you more impressive performance and durability, but that correlation isn't perfect. Additionally, many less expensive kayaks still provide a good on-water experience. Not every one needs the most technically advanced, rugged boat available. While those do exist among contenders we tested, if you're just looking to enjoy an afternoon of peaceful paddling a couple times a year, there are some excellent value choices out there.
For most casual paddlers, the newest, most cutting edge technology in inflatable kayaks isn't really necessary. The Sevylor K5 Quikpak offers reasonable performance on calm waters and includes all the pieces you need (minus the life jacket) to get pumped up and head out there. If you're after a more serious aquatic adventure, the extra money you'll spend on the boosted performance of the Oru Beach LT or Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame is well worth it when tackling bigger waters or rougher conditions.
One of the most important metrics in this review is how each kayak handles on the water. Not all kayaks are made to take on the same types of water, so we tested each one for the purpose for which it was created. We noted three primary attributes when assessing the handling ability of these kayaks, which we'll break down below.
How easy is it to control?
How well does the boat track (hold its course when moving on water) across flat water? How easily does it turn, and how responsive is it to small changes in paddle stroke? How much drag does the boat have, and how much resistance do you feel as you paddle? How stable is the boat during different forms of paddling — relaxed vs. intense? How easy or difficult is the boat to paddle into or across wind? Can the kayak handle the type of water the manufacturer claims it's made for?
After many hours of paddling, the Oru Beach LT, Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame, and Advanced Elements Convertible Tandem all proved to be excellent performers on the water; nearly as easy and responsive as some hardshell kayaks. They cut through the water better than we ever thought an inflatable or foldable kayak could and track exceptionally well due to their longer lengths and hardened frames. Impressively, the Tucktec Foldable Kayak also manages to combine the maneuverability of a shallow boat with the tracking gained from its good-sized tracking fin on the back. And with the rudder removed, the shortness and flat bottom of Tucktec helps it to move like a play boat, allowing you to turn on a dime. The similarly short AE Packlite is also maneuverable, though it's lack of rigid shell slows it down a bit compared to the Tucktec.
How waterproof is it?
We noted the material each kayak is made of and if it was truly waterproof, water-resistant, or got totally soaked while paddling — thereby increasing resistance and drag. We also looked for drainage systems in the form of bilge or scupper holes that remove water from the boat even while you're paddling. We considered the size of the cockpit in keeping out waves and runoff from the paddle itself. The Sea Eagle 330 Inflatable Sport is the only kayak that has an on-water drainage system. The Sevylor K5 Quikpak has an included "spray skirt" that zips over your legs and helps to keep out most eager waves and paddle drippings. The Oru Beach and Tucktec are both made of folding plastic, which is obviously quite waterproof, though they also both feature fairly open cockpits that can take on water quickly in certain situations.
How effective is a paddle stroke?
Where does the seat sit within the kayak, and how does that affect your paddling? If a tandem boat, are the two seats at helpful distances from each other or are you likely to hit your partner's paddle? Can you adjust the seat to gain better vantage? Is it possible to brace your feet for a proper kayaking stroke? If a paddle is included with the kayak, is it effective for propulsion and useful pushing off objects? The Tucktecboasts one of the highest seats, giving you an advantage while paddling. The AE Convertible Tandem has the most adjustable placement of seats and the most room in which to change things around to best suit the individual paddler. The Oru is the only one we tested with adjustable foot braces, which provide the most stable and effective base for an efficient paddle stroke — one that you could keep up with for hours.
Comfort matters a lot for a piece of gear that can take you to far off places while making you entirely reliant on continuing to use it - which, if it's uncomfortable, can be a big pain in the bum. We assigned this metric the same weight as the Handling metric because these two, more than any other metrics, give you the best picture of how a kayak will perform on the water. The questions we asked and tests we performed to get at the comfort of each kayak are complementary to those carried out for Handling tests.
This category is a lot about "the feels" and relies heavily on input from a wide variety of paddlers. We involved people young and old, large and small, accomplished and novice, and everything in between to try out these kayaks and provide feedback about their personal experiences. A troop of Girl Scouts, a family with small children, friends with several dogs, acquaintances who had never paddled anything before, and folks who were at the upper limit of rated capacity all tested our kayaks for how well each worked for them.
Our collection of testers considered how comfortable the seats of each kayak were to sit in both initially and after minutes or hours in the cockpit. The thickly padded seats of the Advanced Elements and Tucktec models is a feature we noted and appreciated. We also gauged how easy each boat was to get in and out of, from a beach, a dock, or over our heads. While getting back in your boat in the middle of a lake is never easy, only one of our boats made it actually impossible — the Tucktec. Its extremely low sides meant that every time we tried to climb in, it flooded with water and quickly became submerged. Even entering over the bow or stern didn't help, as the ends tended to come unclipped, still allowing the boat to fill with water because of their open design.
Additional space for extra items to be stowed out of the way was also taken into consideration. The PackLite and Intex Challenger K2 have mesh storage spaces on the bow of the boat to hold gear out of the way. Using the AE Convertible Tandem as a single paddler leaves TONS of room for all kinds of gear (while also maintaining maneuverability on the water), and even as a tandem option, there's plenty of room for dogs and other extra items.
The K5 Quikpak even has a useful storage area behind the seat for holding a dry bag or acting as a cooler (our favorite option). The bungee straps found on several models' sterns or bows (or both) are very handy for strapping down extra layers, shoes, dry bags, and other items you want to keep secure yet close at hand.
Ease of Set Up
If you're going to assemble and disassemble your watercraft every time you use it, you don't want that to be a drag that may discourage you from even going out. For every kayak, we considered both the setup and takedown process as part of this metric.
There's a first time for everything, and for inflatable kayaks, that means reading directions. We abided by the directions included with each kayak to see how helpful they were, how easy they were to follow, and how intuitive the process was. We also gauged each kayak's learning curve from that first set up to when we felt confident and swift in our assembly. While the origami Oru initially felt very confusing to put together, it quickly became the fastest and easiest boat to assemble.
We also enjoyed the efficiency of models like the Oru, Tucktec, and Sevylor. These boats use every piece — or nearly every piece — of what you carry to the beach in the assembly. Every piece of the origami-style Tucktec — including its method of carrying — become the boat. While we think this feature is excellent, putting this stiff, sharp-edged plastic boat together — and having it stay together — is not at all like the folding Oru, and proved to be much more difficult than we had expected. The Oru is far easier to assemble than the Tucktec. In contrast, the inflatable Sevylor's easy transformation from a neon green backpack into a savvy little grey kayak with only the pump left behind is particularly impressive. No other inflatable model we tested was able to incorporate the carry system (typically a giant duffel bag) into the kayak itself as the Sevylor does.
Just as importantly, putting your kayak away shouldn't be a chore that mars the end of a fabulous outing. When considering how easy each kayak was to disassemble, we kept track of how much time it took us from on the water to in the bag. We also noted how easy it was to drain and dry each boat. Open concept kayaks like the Oru, Tucktec, Intex, and Sea Eagle are the easiest to drain by simply tipping them upside down on the shore. And considering most launching areas aren't the most debris-free zones, we also considered how easy each boat was to clean up before tossing in the back of the car or closet. Kayaks with totally waterproof, simple exteriors like the Oru, Tucktec, and AE PackLite make for easier subjects to wipe free of dirt and sand.
As all the kayaks in this review are more portable than traditional hardshell kayaks by their very nature, we didn't assign too much weight to this inter-comparative metric. However, considering how large, heavy, and awkward something is will make a huge difference in how far you're willing to carry it, and therefore will limit the bodies of water you have available to paddle on.
But weight doesn't tell the whole story, or else the PackLite, would be the only winner here. The design of the storage/carry bag itself plays a large part in the portability of each kayak. Kayaks that come in large duffle bags equipped only with small over-the-top handles are less pleasant to carry regardless of their weight. The Oru features a messenger style carry, and the Sea Eagle has a similar style of one-shoulder carry.
However, the one that stands out the most is the incredibly convenient backpack yak, the Sevylor K5 Quickpak. Despite weighing 23 lbs 7 oz (29 lbs 7 oz including the accompanying pump and paddle), the wide-strapped backpack design of this kayak's carry system makes trucking it over longer distances not only doable but almost enjoyable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Tucktec led us to believe it would be a breeze to carry with its one-sided strap and fairly low weight. While those are both helpful aspects, we soon discovered that the strap with which to carry it is so rough and scratchy, we couldn't comfortably use it on bare skin. So clearly just a kayak's weight doesn't tell the whole story.
Another important factor when considering portability is how many additional things you'll need to carry along with the kayak itself. Several of the kayaks we tested come with the paddle(s) and pump already included in the overall package, cutting down on the number of hands required for hauling. Those inclusive kayaking kits include the Intex, Sea Eagle, and Sevylor.
As a part of this metric, we also considered how easy each kayak is to carry already set up, as many paddlers may want to assemble their rig next to the car and leave superfluous equipment behind. The AE Convertible Tandem has sturdy handles at the bow and stern that facilitate sharing the weight more effectively with your paddle partner than its duffle bag ever could. And the Oru has conveniently placed hand cut-outs inside the cockpit to facilitate an easier single-person carry.
To assess durability in a single season, we put these kayaks through the rigors they would see in all kinds of typical-use scenarios and considered their construction and what we observed during outings.
To mimic many seasons-worth of use in a single paddle season, we used these kayaks as much as possible in as many conditions as we could hunt down. We dragged them across rocky beaches and boulders, threw them in our cars and on the ground, paddled them across submerged logs and rocks and on windy days. We invited rowdy kids to assemble and pack them up. We filled them with gear and dogs of all sizes. Kayaks with a fabric exterior held up better to the abuse of sharp objects both submerged and on land. Those include the Sevylor and both AE AdvancedFrame boats. The rigid, origami Oru is also a champion in this category.
Additionally, we considered the materials used in the construction of each kayak and inspected them for integrity. We compared manufacturer claims of durability with what we observed during testing. We also looked at the repair kits, repair patches, or extra pieces that came with each kayak and evaluated them for helpfulness and effectiveness.
Our lead tester has been using the Oru Beach LT regularly for over two years now, taking it on road trips and getting out on the water whenever she can, and has a durability update on this much-loved watercraft. The boat itself has held up phenomenally — over rocks, full of gear, and through innumerable folds on sandy shores. However, one small piece has gone missing. The pole that holds the seatback in place has a special cap on either end that secures it to the boat's sides. Unfortunately, one of these small caps has managed to pop out of place and disappeared during one of our adventures. While the Oru is still completely usable like this, the seatback and sides are marginally less secure due to our new inability to affix this pole between the sides where it belongs.
We even broke some kayaks during testing and subsequently tested the included repair patch or kit (lookin' at you, PackLite). While it might be easy to assume that thicker materials automatically make for a more durable boat, the story isn't so simple. Several models broke in other ways, like the snapped strap of the Tucktec. While time is the true test, we sure put these kayaks through a LOT during our seasons of testing.
There are a lot of options on the inflatable and packable kayak market today, and it's no simple feat to find out which is the right choice before you drop hundreds (or more) of dollars on a rig. Consider the intended use of your future kayak — where you plan to go, how long you hope to be out, what things you'd like to bring with you — to help inform your decision. Research water and weather conditions where you plan to travel and always remember to bring a life jacket for every living creature on your boat.
We can't lie, testing inflatable kayaks is a ton of fun. We hope that the results of our tests help you to gain insight into the best way to integrate a packable yak into your lifestyle. Now go forth and have as much fun out there as we do — and remember to be safe.
— Maggie Brandenburg