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Inflatable Kayaks – Beginner’s Guide
Inflatable kayaks have become increasingly popular in recent years. Well-known manufacturers are constantly improving materials and construction, so that today they are no longer regarded as bathing boats, but in some cases as a full-fledged replacement for rigid hull kayaks. We have been paddling a inflatable kayak for the past few years and we are still very enthusiastic about it. In this article you will learn the necessary information on all relevant topics that you should know before buying an inflatable kayak. Whether beginners, hobbyists or ambitious paddlers, we also present a selection of suitable inflatable kayaks for everyone, most of which we have tested ourselves.
What is an inflatable kayak?
A kayak is a narrow-cut boat that is driven by a double paddle and in which the paddler sits facing the direction of travel. They are fast and agile paddle boats that were originally used for hunting in Greenland and the rest of Arctic North America. Today, because of these properties, kayaks are used as racing kayaks in water sports or as touring kayaks for touring paddlers. They are therefore aimed at paddlers who want to move forward quickly and cover a lot of distance. But among beginners, kayaks are extremely popular for small, leisurely excursions on the water.
Inflatable kayaks are boats in which mainly PVC or coated polyester fabric are used as materials. In an inflatable kayak, air is pumped into the boat chambers with the help of an air pump. Depending on the material used and the processing of the kayak, more or less air can be pumped into the boat chambers, which affects the pressure.
In their early days they were ridiculed because the air hoses were more prone to damage and an inflatable kayak can never have the same handling characteristics as a rigid hull boat. In the meantime, a lot has happened in the field of air kayaks and they have already established themselves as hiking and white water kayaks. A good compromise was found between robustness, compactness with low weight and reasonable driving characteristics. Only the area of racing kayaks remains reserved for rigid hull boats.
How much does a good air kayak cost?
What makes a good air kayak depends on your own needs and the intended areas of use. Of course, one can say that the high-priced inflatable kayaks are of better quality, and accordingly have better handling characteristics and a longer lifespan. From our point of view, a good inflatable kayak costs between 400 and 1,000 dollars. There are also inflatable kayaks that cost well over $ 1,000.
But not everyone wants or can dig deep into their pockets or does not need an inflatable kayak of $ 1000. That’s why we would like to introduce you to interesting air kayaks in three different categories, most of which we paddled ourselves.
Inflatable kayaks for fair-weather paddlers and relaxation
These inflatable kayaks are mainly boats for casual paddlers and for those who want to try their hand at this area first to see if the paddling enthusiasm grabs them.
The cheapest inflatable kayaks can also be found in this category. These inflatable kayaks (under $ 300 depending on the offer) have very low air pressure and a relatively thin boat skin made from a PVC film compared to other inflatable kayaks. The inflatable kayaks are particularly suitable for bathing lakes, quiet small rivers and for paddling in the sea near the beach under optimal weather conditions. Some boats even come in a complete set, including a paddle, fin and pump. Under no circumstances should one expect high processing quality or good handling characteristics from these boats. These boats are mainly intended for short paddling (0.5 – 1 km) and lingering in and on the water.
Then there are inflatable kayaks between $ 300 and $ 500 in this category, intended for the occasional paddling and short tours of 2 to 3 hours on the calm waters. These inflatable kayaks have a higher operating pressure and a more robust boat skin than the cheapest models, because either the PVC tubes are protected with a separate textile cover or have a polyester fabric as the core.
For regular sea tours of several hours, the running characteristics are still not good enough to make speedy progress. On rivers, the sluggish running characteristics of these air kayaks are less noticeable due to the current, so that longer distances are theoretically possible. However, the kayaks only offer insufficient seats for a longer tour with a lot of paddling. The Itiwit kayaks are an exception. We were positively surprised by the seats in this price range.
Inflatable kayaks for families
Inflatable kayaks for families offer space for two paddlers and another for a child (personal data: 2 + 1). If you have a bigger child (already of school age) you should make sure that the kayak is at least 4 m long so that there is enough space. Gumotex and Itiwit offer inflatable kayaks with wide side tubes and a drop-stitch base, which makes the kayaks particularly stable. But there are also extra stabilizers that you can attach to the kayak to prevent it from tipping. Of course you can also find these stabilizers in the Campers-Shop.
For families with two or more children, we recommend buying two inflatable kayaks. Another alternative is an inflatable canoe, which, depending on the model, can accommodate 3 to 4 people.
Inflatable kayaks for touring
Those who regularly plan kayak tours and want to go on longer tours should invest a little more in an inflatable kayak. Especially for someone who is used to kayaking in rigid hull boats, they will surely only be satisfied with an inflatable boat of this category. For more money, you definitely get more boat. Due to the high level of workmanship, these boats are suitable for regular and intensive use.
From our point of view, the slightly more expensive touring inflatable kayaks are good value for money. Both air boats can be used for tours on lakes and rivers as well as for paddling close to the coast. White water (up to level 2) is also possible with the two inflatable kayaks. The kayaks each have their own strength on the water, which you should consider before buying.
If you have the highest demands on your future inflatable kayak and want to make as few compromises as possible, you should look at the inflatable kayaks from a price of around $ 1000. These inflatable kayaks have very good handling characteristics for an inflatable kayak due to their long and sleek hull, additional construction elements (reinforcements in the bow, drop stitch) and higher air pressure. There are a variety of accessories available for these kayaks.
Materials used in the boat skin
The material used for the boat skin in an inflatable kayak is the most important criterion for the longevity and possible uses of the boat. Depending on the manufacturer, different materials are used for the boat skin. Many manufacturers even use a combination of different materials. In almost every product description you will read that the material is particularly thick and robust. Inflatable kayaks with a thick boat skin made of sturdy material, however, have their price. Very cheap inflatable kayaks only consist of a relatively thin PVC film. They are significantly stronger than the material of an air mattress, yet too thin for regular paddling with possible ground contact.
Some manufacturers separate the boat skin and the actual air chamber from each other. The air chamber is in a kind of nylon or polyester cover that is supposed to protect the chamber from damage. You can find such constructions on some boats from Sevylor, Itiwit and Advanced Elements. The air hoses are made of PVC and the sleeve is made of a more resistant material. The disadvantage of such nylon and polyester covers is the longer drying time after paddling and the possible risk of mold formation. PVC and rubberized fabric materials can easily be wiped dry with a cloth.
When it comes to repairs, the air kayaks consisting of a polyester or nylon cover have another disadvantage. They are difficult to repair if they crack. Rubberized fabric materials are easy to repair in the event of a defect, comparable to mending a bicycle inner tube.
Air pressure and use of drop stitch
In addition to the shape of the hull, the air pressure of an inflatable kayak plays a decisive role in its handling characteristics. The higher the pressure, the stiffer or stronger the hull is. The air pressure of a inflatable kayak ranges from 0.069 to 0.3 bar, and when using drop stitch, even up to 0.7 bar is possible. That doesn’t sound like much at first, but it is a lot with inflatable kayaks. The air pressure between the bottom and the side chambers can differ.
An air pressure of less than 0.1 bar is little for an inflatable kayak. You can literally push in the hose with your hand. That’s how soft the hose is. Such kayaks are designed for recreation and leisure in and on the water, but not for kayaking tours. The higher quality the air chamber is processed, the higher the air pressure allowed for the chamber. From an air pressure of 0.2 bar, the side hoses of a kayak are filled to the brim. The permitted air pressure differs depending on the manufacturer, model and air chamber. You can find the exact information in the instruction manual of the boat. The following table shows you the usual air pressures used by manufacturers of inflatable kayaks. Some manufacturers also give the air pressure in PSI. 1 PSI corresponds to 0.0689 bar.
In recent years, drop stitch technology has been used increasingly in inflatable kayaks. With the inflatable SUP (Stand Up Paddling) boards, the drop stitch technology is already widespread and also indispensable. With this technology, the upper and lower inner walls of the air chamber are woven together with textile threads. Drop-Stitch makes it possible to produce high-pressure air chambers, so that these (depending on the manufacturer) can be inflated to an air pressure of well over 0.3 bar. As a result, the air chamber achieves very good dimensional stability and rigidity. The air pressure from which an air chamber counts as a high-pressure air chamber is not officially determined.
In inflatable kayaks with a drop-stitch bottom, the bottom no longer gives way when getting in and out. The boats have a significantly stiffer hull and therefore better gliding properties in the water. The manufacturers advertise with very similar driving characteristics of a rigid hull boat. With or without a drop stitch, the typical susceptibility of air kayaks to wind remains as they swim more on the water than in the water due to the buoyancy of the air.
A drop-stitch construction makes perfect sense on large and calm bodies of water, as the very stiff and shaped air floor makes it easier to slide through the water. In the whitewater area (from whitewater 1-2) classic inflatable kayaks still have their advantage. On the one hand, with their more flexible bottom, they ride the waves more gently. Softer kayak tubes also yield better when touching obstacles in the water.
Inflatable Kayak Safety
The majority of inflatable kayaks are very stable due to the wide hull, due to the side tubes, and their air buoyancy. It is usually much more difficult to capsize with an air kayak than with conventional kayaks. On the other hand, airboats are a bit slower due to their wider hull.
But there are also inflatable kayaks that are trimmed for speed. These inflatable kayaks are cut significantly narrower, making them more prone to tipping and are primarily intended for experienced paddlers who want to cover a lot of distance.
Compared to rigid hull kayaks, the boat skin of inflatable kayaks is more sensitive. That is why almost all inflatable kayaks nowadays have a multi-chamber system. This means that the boat cannot go down with a hole in a boat chamber. Often, air kayaks consist of a separate bottom chamber and two separate side chambers. In the event of a hole, the inflatable kayak can be patched.
High-quality inflatable kayaks are also made of a very thick and tear-resistant material, so that the risk of such damage is minimized.
Driving characteristics compared to folding and rigid hull kayaks
Inflatable kayaks have a reputation for poor handling characteristics compared to folding and rigid kayaks. This is definitely the case with very cheap inflatable kayaks. High-quality inflatable kayaks now offer some very good driving characteristics. However, there are differences to conventional kayaks.
In contrast to rigid and folding kayaks, inflatable kayaks swim more on the water than in the water because of their buoyancy. As a result, the directional stability is less and the susceptibility to wind is higher. If it is too windy, a tour with an inflatable kayak on the lake is not much fun, as the high side tubes give the wind a lot of contact surface. The boat keeps drifting off course.
Many air kayaks can have a fin attached to the bottom of the kayak for improved straight-line stability. A fin is a directional fin that significantly improves the straight-line stability of the inflatable kayak and the boat is less likely to deviate from the course. If you want to go on longer tours with your future inflatable kayak, make sure that a fin can be attached to the kayak.
Air pressure also plays a crucial role in inflatable kayaks. The higher it is, the stiffer it is. A high rigidity enables faster paddling and more stability on the water. Inflatable kayaks with high pressure in particular are more likely to be found in the higher-priced segment.
Otherwise, the handling characteristics, like a conventional kayak, depend heavily on the shape of the hull. In general, it can be said: the longer and narrower a kayak, the better it runs in terms of straight-line stability and speed. As the length and width decrease, the kayak becomes more manoeuvrable and stable, but it also loses speed. That’s why you should always pay attention to the dimensions when choosing a inflatable kayak, because they give you a good indication of the driving characteristics.
In addition, the shape of the lower hull has a significant influence on the driving characteristics. Compared to folding and fixed kayaks, the hull of an air kayak can be shaped less well. Nevertheless, new technologies such as drop stitching or the use of stiffening elements offer some possibilities. A flat floor ensures a lot of stability with a simultaneous loss of performance. The V-shaped fuselage, on the other hand, offers optimal running properties, but is a little more prone to tipping over. The middle between the two shapes is the round kayak bottom.
Average speeds between 4 to 5 km / h are quite realistic with inflatable kayaks. There are also inflatable kayaks that can be paddled an average of 6 to 7 km / h. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the boat is nice and long and sleek. In addition, such boats have a well-formed hull thanks to a drop-stitch floor and frame struts in the hull and in the stern. The aluminum frame in the bow literally cuts the water instead of pushing it in front of you. This creates a bow wave much later, and higher speeds are possible with an airboat.
Space and comfort in air kayaks
Inflatable kayaks are available as 1-, 2- or 3-person kayaks. Due to the air tubes, inflatable kayaks offer a little less space in the interior than rigid or folding kayaks. The interior space of air kayaks is still perfectly adequate. Many solo paddlers even buy a 2-person inflatable kayak and still paddle it alone. This is possible because the seats of many 2-person inflatable kayaks can be positioned variably. On the one hand, due to its length, the boat has better handling characteristics (especially straight-line stability and speed) than a 1-person air kayak and, on the other hand, it offers more space for luggage on longer tours.
Because of the air tubes, you sit more comfortably in a classic inflatable kayak. There are no hard spots or edges that could press. With a drop-stitch construction, comfort is heavily dependent on the seats used. Cheap air kayaks often have the weakness that the backrest of the seat does not provide enough support for longer paddling. Even in colder seasons, it is more pleasant to paddle a inflatable kayak. The air floor insulates well from the cold water.
The legroom in an inflatable kayak depends heavily on the specific model and also on the manufacturer. Cheap inflatable kayaks are on average 50-100 cm shorter.
Advantages and disadvantages of an inflatable kayak
Anyone who buys an inflatable kayak primarily chooses them because they are extremely practical. The huge advantage of an inflatable kayak is that, when folded, you can easily find space in a carrier bag or large pack sack. Inflatable kayaks can be packed compactly so that the longest side is reduced to 50 to 100 cm. A rigid hull kayak, on the other hand, has a minimum length of 3 m, often 4 to 5 m. In addition, inflatable kayaks are 10 to 20 kg lighter than fixed boats, depending on the model. If you don’t want to carry your boat on your back, you can also use a kayak cart to transport it.
You can transport an inflatable kayak on foot, by bike, on the bus, even on a plane, in the trunk of a car or in a camper. So you don’t need a car with a roof rack, so you are completely flexible. At home, inflatable kayaks can be stowed in any corner when folded. Anyone who is about to buy a inflatable kayak will still wonder whether a hard-shell kayak or a folding kayak is the better choice. A hard shell kayak is only an option if there is a car and storage space. If this is the case, a hard-shell kayak naturally impresses with its high level of robustness and, consequently, its long service life. In addition, a rigid hull kayak offers the best driving characteristics.
If you value a handy and easy-to-transport boat, then only a folding kayak or an inflatable kayak is shortlisted. In a folding kayak, the boat skin is stretched with the help of a frame. The construction is of course a little more time-consuming and complicated than a rubber dinghy with an air pump. On the other hand, folding boats offer greater rigidity and better properties for tours on lakes, the sea and calm rivers. Nonetheless, most inflatable kayaks remain a bit lighter in total weight and have a shorter assembly and dismantling time. Inflatable kayaks can be set up or dismantled between 10-15 minutes, folding kayaks take at least twice the time. On the other hand, inflatable kayaks are not that deep in the water and are therefore quite susceptible to wind.
If you want to enjoy an inflatable kayak for a long time, you should also pay attention to the correct use and care of the inflatable kayak.
Very few inflatable kayaks come in a complete set. For the majority of the time you have to buy an air pump, double paddle, life jackets and, if necessary, a pressure gauge separately. We recommend a double-stroke pump or an electric air pump for quick assembly of the kayak. With a double stroke pump, air is expelled in both directions of movement. You can check the air pressure of the boat with a pressure gauge. If the air pump does not have an integrated pressure gauge, there are special pressure gauges for the valve type of the respective kayak.