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Yes, These Kayaks Actually Inflate and Fold Up for Easier Storage

Jun 02, 2023Jun 02, 2023

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There are so many benefits to buying an inflatable kayak. Sans air, most can fold down into a corner of a studio apartment without much hassle. Blown up, they are sturdy enough to safely navigate rivers, streams, and ocean crossings. They are forgiving enough to accommodate new kayakers who might bump into rapid rocks and stony shores. Veteran paddlers can take advantage of the durability and portability to push the limits of where their boat can go.

While it's a generally amazing innovation, not all inflatable kayaks are created equal. Some have clunky geometry that can leave paddlers feeling like driftwood. Others don't hold air well, leaving you with a floppy, awkward watercraft. To really appreciate the benefits, you want to make sure you get one of the best inflatable kayaks. Luckily, we’ve paddled plenty and can steer you in the right direction.

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The Expert: I got my start in outdoor journalism at the now folded Paddler Magazine (rest in peace, Paddler) and have been testing and writing about kayaks professionally since 2008. I was the boat category testing manager for Outside Magazine for a decade and also helped coordinate testing for Canoe and Kayak magazine where I worked as a contributing editor. I have tested hundreds of boats in conditions ranging from open ocean crossings, to class V rapids, to sprint workouts in heavily polluted urban waterways. The types of boats have ranged from handmade sealskin legacy craft to corrugated plastic prototypes.

There are about as many types of inflatable kayaks as there are styles of kayaking. Some are made for simply hanging out on a lake. Others are made for specific purposes, like fishing or whitewater. Depending on what you need, you may want to look for a kayak made with heartier materials, or for advanced design features, like a rockered bow to help navigate over larger water features in a river.

General or "recreation" kayaks are the most popular type of inflatables. "Rec" kayaks don't have much in the way of specialized features, as they’re designed for protected waterways like bays and lakes. Since they lack specialty features, they are also the most affordable.

Fishing kayaks usually feature stable decks to give a stable platform for pulling in fish, and room for storing fishing gear. The inflatable apparatus can lend itself really well to fishing kayaks because they are traditionally monsters to store and an inflatable can get an angler out and paddling even if they need to store the boat in an apartment.

Whitewater kayaks are built for the rigors of paddling down rushing rapids. Perhaps surprisingly, inflatable whitewater kayaks offer a beginner friendly entry point to riding rapids: They allow boaters to hop right back in if their boat gets flipped on a rapid—taking out the necessity of learning how to roll. The bouncy nature of an inflatable craft also makes navigating rocky or shallow rapids more forgiving for advanced paddlers.

Packrafts are an increasingly popular form of inflatable boat that can pack down into a backpacking pack with all of your other gear when deflated. Since they’re so easy to carry, packrafts really shine on trips that involve hiking to remote waterways, but they’re also really fun to kick around on over easy whitewater or on an alpine lake.

It may be overwhelming for beginners to sift through so many categories, so we suggest keeping your search simple. Think practically about what type of paddling you actually plan to do when choosing your lane for research. While we’d happily encourage you to aspire to a two week packrafting trip, it makes more sense to purchase a recreational design if you usually take your boat out for casual day trips.

Generally speaking, a longer inflatable kayak is going to paddle more efficiently. Longer boats "track," or glide in a straight line, more easily. That means you spend less time making correctional strokes to maintain your heading, so you can focus on propelling the boat forward. On the other hand, longer boats turn less quickly, which can make them feel unwieldy on tight, winding rivers and rapids, where you want more maneuverability.

For the most part, hard-shell kayaks track and maneuver better than inflatables. Even the slightest give in the hull of a boat can dramatically impact its performance: While high-end inflatables can blow up to create an extremely rigid hull, but most inflatables do feature a small amount of give.

Ultimately, you should choose the size of your kayak to fit the kind of paddling you plan to do and the number of people coming along. That said, inflatables offer a great opportunity to size up if you’re on the fence. A kayak that is a foot longer inflated will likely only be a few inches larger deflated and the extra space can offer the benefit of being a landing spot for a dog or a cooler.

There's no reason to use an inflatable kayak if it's too heavy to carry around. Perhaps surprisingly, they come in a wide range of weights–our picks alone range from 5.5 to 48 pounds. Always look for the lightest option available in a given size.

An ultralight boat, usually most suited for fast and light expeditions and packrafting, should come in at under 10 pounds. Core whitewater boats and heavy duty touring ones are largely going to be made from heavier duty plastics and will weigh 40 pounds or more. If you’re shopping for a heavier type of kayak, make sure it comes with a pack or wheelie system to help you transport it.

While you can get a great inflatable kayak at a more reasonable price than you’d find with the best conventional kayaks, be careful about digging too deep into the bargain bin. Raft guides often refer to sub-$100 boats as "K-mart Coffins" because a poorly made inflatable can actually be quite dangerous. The plastic used in the cheapest boats was not made to handle the rigors of kayaking, and their seams are fickle—rarely holding air for more than a season.

A well-made recreational inflatable kayak can be quite affordable. If you let go of any plans for whitewater rafting or taking on the open ocean, you can get by with a barebones boat that may cost somewhere around $150-$400. If you kayak frequently and want your boat to last, though, you may want to consider spending a little more on something more durable.

If you’re looking for a specialty kayak rafting or fishing, which should feature high-grade PVC materials or rigidity champion-drop stitched floors, you should expect to spend around $800-$2,500.

A kayak that can safely hold more air will be more rigid. A more rigid kayak will hold its shape better, allowing it to track without deviating from its path over longer distances and turn quicker. Some manufacturers will tell you how much air a kayak can hold, measuring rigidity pounds per square inch or PSI. That said, not every company discloses the spec, so you may have to do some research to find it.

Most boats will inflate to 1.5-2.5 PSI. An exceptionally rigid model can reach 2.5-3.5 PSI, which should hold a straight line in open water and hold an edge when paddlers lean out, similar to what you’d get from a hard-shell kayak.

If you are interested in saving space but are concerned about the overall performance of an inflatable, perhaps consider a folding kayak. Folding kayaks have a hard frame that folds up, allowing you to pack them up for storage. Inflatable kayaks are usually lighter and more portable than folding kayaks, but foldables track and maneuver more like a hard-shell kayak.

I have placed my bottom in over a hundred inflatable kayak seats over the years and can spot wonky geometry from a nautical mile away. If I haven't personally tested one of my picks, I have tested another member of its brand-family and draw from that experience. I also pull from my 15 years of boat testing by closely researching inflatable kayak geometry, dimensions, and materials. On top of performance, I also took price, storability, and materials into account when picking these kayaks.

The Chelan 140 is a versatile kayak with a winning combination of sturdy Duratex tube construction and a drop-stitch hard-bottom floor. Ideal for pairs or a solo journey with extra gear, it's designed for speed and paddling efficiency.

The front and rear spray guards keep occupants dry while ample deck bungees allow for attaching your gear. Two seats with an inflatable base and high backrest enhance paddling comfort and can easily be moved or removed to accommodate one or two kayakers.

It also comes with plenty of storage, including ample mesh pockets and integrated fishing rod holders. At 33 pounds, it's easy to transport in its backpack-style storage bag.

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Chelan 140


This affordable two-person kayak from Intex is an affordable pick for paddling around lakes and mild rivers. It comes with everything you need to get started, including two aluminum oars, an air pump to inflate the kayak, and adjustable seats for paddler comfort on the water.

According to user reviews on Amazon, it's surprisingly sturdy and easy to enter. We wouldn't recommend bringing this one to the rapids or a long trip, but it's no "K-Mart coffin," and a solid casual pick for an easy day on the water.

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Explorer K2


The Intex Excursion Pro K2 is a durable two-person fishing kayak made from a sturdy three-ply material with laminate PVC and a polyester core, all of which is designed to stand up to be highly damage-resistant and endure the the effects of gasoline, oil, and salt water.

It features an I-beam floor, two removable skews, two floor-mounted footrests, plus two adjustable seats, and two integrated recessed fishing rod holders. There are stainless steel D-rings in the bow and stern for stowing bags and gear. Included are a pump, two paddles, a pressure gauge, and a carrying bag.

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Excursion Pro K2


If you need extra weight capacity to go out with a group, the Sea Eagle 370 Pro can handle a larger-than-average 650 pounds from up to three riders and is suited for up to Class III rapids. Large l-beam tubes on the bottom of the kayak create a durable floor as well as improve speed and tracking when in motion.

Weighing only 32 pounds, the Sea Eagle has two moveable kayak seats as well as a pair of paddles, foot pump, and a carrying bag. Users say the Sea Eagle 370 Pro is a great entry point for beginners and veteran kayakers alike.

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370 Pro


The Aire Force is the most expensive kayak in our guide, but the hearty, self-bailing inflatable from iconic whitewater brand Aire is worth every penny. Running rapids beats the hell out of a kayak and the wildly durable 1100-denier urethane plastic used to build the Force can take a tough beating. In fact Aire is so confident in its work that it offers a 10-year warranty on the craft.

The highly adjustable cockpit and thigh straps allow paddlers to lean into their most important boof strokes, which make it class-V-capable if being steered by the right paddler. The Force's heavy-duty mesh self-bailing floors — one of the brand's signature features — gets water out of the cockpit of the boat quickly while adding an extra layer of durability to the base of the boat.

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The Star Rival isn't exactly your average kayak. It takes the best parts of an inflatable paddle board and a kayak, blending them together to make a unique hybrid that's perfect for floating around with a tike in tow.

The floor uses drop stitching, a technique that creates more chambers inside the inflated area to make the craft more rigid. It creates an impressive 3-psi capacity that, when coupled with its generous 38-inch width, makes it incredibly stable.

That stability makes it my boat of choice for bringing my rowdy, river-ready, 5-year-old daughter out on lakes. The large stable floor and SUP style open deck give her plenty of room to run around. The rigidity and performance-focused details, including 12 inches of kick off the bow, make it a boat I can crank out a solid workout in — making both of us happy.

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Packrafting has blown up in the last five years, and for good reason. These compact inflatable rafts, built to be hauled out to remote areas, offer a ridiculously high amount of fun per square-inch. After testing over half a dozen of them, the Kokopelli Rogue-Lite floats to the top of the heap because it performs well in mellow whitewater or flatwater, and packs down into an astonishingly small 12- by 8-inch stuff sack.

That's about the same size as a gallon jug of OJ. At 5.5 pounds it has come with me on multi-day backpacking trips to alpine lakes, and it blows up to just over 8 feet. It tracks well, so it's perfect for a less ambitious spin around a local lake.

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At 36 inches wide with a large cockpit, the Star Paragon XL is a big kayak that gives larger paddlers room to stretch out. The wide frame, coupled with a rigid bow and stern floor inserts, make this kayak a tracking machine on open lakes. The drop-stitched floor gives the frame enough structure to maneuver as well as a hard-shelled boat when you use the inserts.

It also features some smart flourishes, like a removable fin to improve its tracking, and splash coverings on the bow and stern. Though we’ve highlighted it for its accommodating design, the Paragon XL is an excellent kayak for any paddler.

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Paragon XL


If you’re going fishing in your kayak, you need to look for both stability (to fight fish) and maneuverability (to find them). The Advanced Elements Straitedge Angler delivers both of these in spades.

Aluminum ribs are built into the hull of this boat, which deliver the dual benefit of enhanced rigidity on the floor and better tracking thanks to the lines they add to the bottom of the craft.

The high-backed aluminum framed seat makes the Straitedge plenty comfortable to float in for hours, even if you aren't getting into any fish. Additionally, Advanced Elements’ accessory frame system is remarkably efficient at holding all the fishing gear you need for a successful day on the water.

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Straitedge Angler Pro


PM: How do I store an inflatable kayak?

JJ: While you can really brutalize a well built inflatable while on lakes, rivers, and in oceans, we suggest giving your inflatable the white glove treatment when storing it. The plastics that most of these craft are built from don't handle long term sun exposure well and even the heartiest of PVCs can be rendered useless if left in direct sunlight for a few months.

Mold is another scourge that can ruin a fancy inflatable boat when they are rolled up wet. We highly suggest storing an inflatable indoors and dry in a relatively temperature controlled setting.

PM: What's the best way to blow up an inflatable kayak?

JJ: Whether you own a high-end drop-stitched inflatable that can get nearly as rigid as fiberglass, or something more casual, you always want to get as much air in your boat as possible. With a higher PSI in the inflated space, you’ll get better tracking than if you leave your boat soft and floppy.

Personally, I prefer using an old fashioned hand pump to fill up my boat. Electric pumps can save your breath, but hand pumps deliver more force, which you need to make the kayak's hull as stiff as possible.

Always top off your boat with a hand pump, even if you use an electric pump to fill it up 99 percent of the way, to make sure the boat is as stiff as possible.

PM: When should I get a new inflatable kayak?

JJ: If your boat is leaking air from difficult to repair places like along a seam or at a valve, you should probably think about replacing your inflatable kayak.

If your boat isn't holding air well, look for the leak by washing the inflated kayak with sudsy, soapy water—we like to use a teaspoon of dish soap in a gallon of water. When you pour the water on the boat, look for spots with big bubbles, which may be caused by a stream of leaking air. While you can patch a clean leak with a simple patch kit (which should come with any inflatable worth its brass), the valves and seams require more work than the average person can handle. At that point, it's time to buy a fresh boat.

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Spend Your Summer On The Water: The Expert: General or "recreation" kayaks Fishing kayaks Whitewater kayaks Packrafts PM: How do I store an inflatable kayak? JJ: PM: What's the best way to blow up an inflatable kayak? JJ: PM: When should I get a new inflatable kayak? JJ: You Might Also Like