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Inflatable vs Plastic Kayak

Which boat is right for you?

If you're looking to buy your first kayak for navigating calm rivers and lakes, or wondering which boat you want your first white water lessons to be in, the choice between inflatable and hard shell plastic kayak can be a tricky one. This article will explore the key differences between inflatable and hard shell kayaks, focusing on their performance in calm waters and the white water environments. 

Entry Level Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable kayaks can be a fantastic gateway to the waters. For families and people just looking for a splash about, entry level IK's offer a brilliant way to get on the water and make playing together on the waterways a really fun and accessible activity.  These designs are great for very sheltered water environments like canals, lakes on still days, very sheltered coastal bays, or rivers with no flow. It isn't worth pushing them outside of sheltered water, as they may be susceptible to puncture and other types of equipment failure, and their paddling performance is very limited meaning you won't be able to combat the elements. These are usually made from Vinyl plastic, and work on low inflation pressures, meaning they often balloon out to look a lot like pool inflatables. These are OK for a splash about but if you want to go journeying they're unlikely to give the performance you want.


Advanced Inflatable Kayaks

Thanks to evolutions in material manufacturing, we also have good options of inflatable craft for rougher terrain like white water, tidal waters and larger lakes. The key is looking at the construction and design to make sure you've got something that will work when you need to to.

Inflatable Kayaks can vary hugely in performance based on their construction.  More durable options, such PVC or Hypalon work much better for journeying  because they will become far more rigid, allow you to go faster, and be more resistant to puncturing. This goes doubley for if the inflatable chambers have their rigidity increased with internal 'Drop Stitching'.  

Inflatable kayaks can be packed down to a compact size making them easy to transport and without the need for a car roof rack. This portability is ideal for those new to the sport and those with limited storage space at home, especially if you’re buying multiple boats. Inflatables are generally the most stable kayaks on the market and easy to handle. In years of kayak guiding we haven’t yet had somebody capsize one of our inflatables on calm water unintentionally.

However, inflatable kayaks do have some drawbacks.  They typically have slower speeds and less efficient tracking. This can be a disadvantage for those looking to cover longer distances or paddle more efficiently. IK users should be very wary of offshore winds, as the high flotation and poor speed efficiency of these boats can make them really susceptible to being blown around.  While modern inflatable kayaks are quite robust, they are still more susceptible to punctures than hard shell kayaks. 

Hard Shell Kayaks

Hard shell kayaks are usually made from plastic, but high performance models will be a carbon-kevlar construction. They are the usual choice for experienced kayakers, with hard shell kayak designs being tailored more uniquely for specific activities.

The rigid structure of hard shell kayaks allows for superior hydrodynamics, resulting in better speed, tracking, and overall performance. This makes hard shell kayaks ideal for longer journeys and more efficient paddling. They are also highly durable and can withstand rough use. With various designs available, you can purchase the kayak most suited for you, whether that’s a white water creek boat, freestyle kayak, a touring boat with a dry hatch and skeg, or 16ft sea kayak.

The main disadvantages of hard shell kayaks for calm water use is transportation. Their size means for all but small freestyle boats you will need a roof rack to get your boat to the river. Hard shell boats can be less stable than inflatables and, if buying a sit-in kayak, they will be much more difficult to get back in after a capsize. These kayaks will rely on your balance to keep them upright, at all times, as they don’t have buoyancy on the sides balancing the boay. Once filled with water they cannot be emptied without reaching the shore or help from an experienced kayaker with rescue training

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Performance in White Water


In white water environments, inflatable kayaks provide several advantages. They tend to have higher buoyancy and stability. These kayaks are less likely to capsize and are easier to re-enter if a capsize does occur. They are also self-bailing, meaning any water taken on mid rapid will slowly flow out of the boat, negating the need for a spraydeck.


However, inflatable kayaks have some limitations in white water. They are generally less manoeuvrable than hard shell kayaks, which can be a drawback as you move up the grades into harder white water. Despite having a robust construction, the risk of a puncture from sharp rocks or debris remains higher for inflatable kayaks in white water. If you are padding somewhere remote you will need to take a puncture repair kit and an small pump to reinflate the boat.


Rigid kayaks excel in white water once you have mastered the art of controlling the boat, especially once you can roll it back up after capsizing. They can be used in all sorts of white water environments and is what all our coaches use when paddling white water recreationally. This being said, the learning curve is a lot steeper and it will require a lot of time invested into the sport before ‘sending’ grade 3 rapids.




The cost of new inflatables is generally lower than that of their hard plastic counterparts, but while the second hand market for hard shells is a great place for a starter boat, you may need to be more vigilant when looking for inflatables.

If you don't already have a roof rack for your vehicle, this along with cam straps will need to be factored into you budget when buying a rigid boat.



Ultimately the decision of Inflatable vs Hard Shell Kayak will be down to where you see your paddling going in the future, will it be on flat water or white water? Will you be looking to do long distances or keeping it local?

Both styles of boat will allow you to have many enjoyable adventures, now it's time to head onto the water and make some memories.

If you would like to learn more or try them both out, consider booking a private lesson to get feel confident in your boat.

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