Many of the same things that make folding kayaks desirable are also characteristics of inflatable kayaks, and indeed, there are a lot of good (and not-so-good) inflatable kayaks on the market these days. These range from cheap ($100 and under) boats made of unreinforced fabric to quality ($600 to $1,000 and up) boats of reinforced hypalon or heavy-duty vinyl from Avon, SOAR, NHS, Jack’s, and many other suppliers. Prices depend on both quality and where the boat was made. US and Western European made boats command the highest prices. Eastern European boats, like Innovas, and South American boats, like the SOAR canoes, are significantly cheaper while still maintaining high quality. The very cheapest boats are those coming from the Pacific Rim; these vary widely in price and quality.
Many inflatables have been advertised as having significant advantages over folding kayaks, and inflatable kayaks do have a number of very attractive characteristics. First, some collapse even smaller (and weigh less) than folders, owing to the lack of any rigid parts. The downside here is that they’re generally not as rigid as folders, and hence not as seaworthy in difficult conditions. (Some inflatables do have rigid floors, but these do pack larger.) Second, they’re even more stable and unsinkable than folders, something very attractive to not only ww kayakers but to beginners in general. Finally, many are self-bailing, something not really possible with rigid kayaks (except for sit on tops) and they’re superb at handling collisions with hard objects. These last three characteristics make them the ideal white water boats.
But these characteristics also work against their use as expedition boats. They’re generally slower than folding kayaks, owing to the shape- the lack of a rigid frame makes it harder to create the kinds of efficient hulls found in folders and rigid boats. The flat bottoms make them less seaworthy in high seas, as they can’t roll. They typically have much less space for storing gear, owing to the large inflatable sections, although some inflatables do allow a fair amount of gear stowage. The large inflatable tubes generally give them a high profile, while makes them vulnerable to being blown about by high winds. And most lack things like spray decks, D-rings, deck lines and other features considered necessary for serious travel, although these can be added easily enough.
So which is best? It depends what you have in mind. If river running is your priority, definitely consider an inflatable. If your planned use requires the smallest possible boat and you don’t plan to haul much gear, paddle in other than calm conditions or encounter high seas, an inflatable would probably be a good choice. Inflatables also make great diving platforms in warm water, owing to their stability and ease of entry. In fact, I had a prototype SOAR Cat I purchased for use on Michigan whitewater and as a compact fishing platform. It was a load of fun, but it required constant paddle corrections to keep it tracking straight. I ended up selling it to someone who planned on using it for river travel- a good use for that boat. If you plan on serious travel, encountering anything other than calm, warm weather, or would like to try sailing, rowing or other alternate uses, or if speed and efficiently is a major concern, folders are probably the better choice. (Of course, I’m sure someone will now come along and prove me wrong by paddling the Arctic in an inflatable.)
Here’s a brief list of some of the better inflatables out there, and links to sources of more information. I’ll try to expand this list, and add my own opinions as I get experience with some of these boats.
The Alpacka Raft is one of the smallest quality inflatables you can buy, but for many campers it may be the perfect one. Comes in three sizes, too, to accomodate a wide range of paddler sizes. Packrafting, as it’s called, is an increasingly popular way of traversing many of the canyons of the Southwest.
Aire makes a wide range of high performance sea and white water inflatable kayaks (and other boats) starting at around $900. The $1800 Sea Tiger, with its 750lb payload capacity, rivals many double folders for capacity.
Grabner makes a line of boats of high quality boats with fairly high prices. The kayak used by Audrey Southerland in her well-known adventures was a Grabner that cost about $2700 when I last looked (Spring 2001).
Innova makes a range of sea and white water kayaks constructed from a nylon/rubber laminate that is claimed to be both light and very strong. Prices range from just under $300 to under $900. Available from New York Kayak, REI and many local dealers, as well as direct from Innova. Their top-end Helios has gotten some good reviews, but almost every reviewer notes that the optional rudder is an absolute necessity for paddling open water. Their whitewater boats do look intruiging.
Innova owner Dale Caldwell wrote with this opinion:
I’ve paddled one for probably 2500 miles or more on just about every kind of water. it’s not a kayak, it’s an inflatable, a distinction which I think you keep clear. I have never found a rudder necessary, but I do find it sensitive to trim. I have a friend with whom I used to paddle frequently in the green sun, and the first couple of outings we tried to make were disasters, until we discovered that he, who had started in the bow, was about 6 pounds heavier than I. Changing places (an easy thing to do in the warm waters around Charleston where I lived then) made all the difference, and saved the $100+ the rudder would cost. In the nearly three years now that I’ve had the Helios the only problem has been a torn valve-plug retaining strap (an awfullly fancy-sounding term, but i don’t know what else to call it) on one of the foot braces, which cost a whole $10 to replace.Encouraged by the helios, I now have also a Safari, which is probably the boat I would choose if I were limited to one. It is
extremely versatile, having a skeg, and weighs less than 25 pounds. It comes with a dry bag big enough to carry the boat and enough gear for at east six weeks wandering (I know, ’cause that’s how I used it this past summer wandering around Central Mexico with a side-trip to the Rios Chama and Grande in New Mexico) and still qualify as carry-on luggage in the Boeing.
I would also add that Tim Rosenhan, who imports the boat, is a great person with whom to do business.
And dealer Tim Rosenhan himself wrote to add these comments:
I have had considerable experience paddling Innova kayaks in the San Juan Challenge races against rigid kayaks over the last five years. I have also trained for those races in a buddy’s FeatherCraft K-2, so I can compare the Innova’s to that folding kayak. The performance of our kayaks is much better in rougher conditions than the conventional wisdom about inflatable kayaks.For example, in the ’97 San Juan Challenge, a 40-mile 2-day race, on the second day of the race the winds blew 25-29 knots with a peak gust to 45. Eleven of the 41 kayaks stayed on the beach that windy day. Our Helios 380EX was the only inflatable in the field (and no folding kayaks). It was so rough, 4 kayaks dropped out during the race and were picked up by chase boats, and 9 paddlers capsized in conventional sea kayaks and could not self-rescue. They also had to be picked out of the water by chase boats, and one paddler was treated for hypothermia. In the Helios we were not threatened with capsize and averaged 3 knots over the whole course, winning our predicted log (closest to estimate time) section. We finished ahead of several rigid kayaks.
In dead calm water we could sustain 3.7 knots, about half a knot slower than most of the rigid doubles, but when the wind was blowing against us and the chop was running 2-6 feet in Rosario Strait, we found ourselves pulling away from many single and double conventional sea kayaks. Why? Our experience is certainly counter to what most people imagine about wind performance of inflatables. First, being more stable and buoyant we didn’t have to brace to stay upright as often and could paddle for thrust. Second, at 12.5 feet we didn’t have the length of the other kayaks and were able to ride up and over the waves without burying our bows in green water and slowing down. And third, the Innova Helios is a low volume design and when loaded has a deeper keel and lower profile topsides than most rigid kayaks–and so has less windage.
This year we entered the 15-mile Guemes Challenge section of the San Juan Challenge races in a prototype Innova inflatable that’s 16.8 feet long. We took a second in doubles averaging 4.5 knots over the course in flat water. This was a speed race, not a navigational one. Our inflatable kayak was about the same speed as conventional rigid single sea kayaks of the same length in that race. I therefore have to conclude that that the biggest factor for flat water top speed in a kayak is waterline length, not whether the boat is inflatable, folding, or rigid. Of course, speed differences will occur between designs of the same length.
I have used the boat so far only on flattish water (the tidal Thames) and in pool training. (Give me a break, it’s winter in Britain!)The hull form is effectively V shaped, which gives it rather low initial stability relative to rigids I have paddled. This makes it quite easy to turn, and would probably make it (and its larger cousins) more effective sea-boats than other (generally flat-bottomed?) inflatables
Final stability rises substantially as the side tube becomes immersed, which should keep a beginner out of the water (if a little alarmed) most of the time.
I haven’t so far found tracking a particular problem relative to white water rigid boats, though in Europe the boat does not come with the tracking skeg supplied in the US. Sea use with head or beam winds might well be a different matter.
It’s a little, but not hugely, more difficult to roll than a rigid boat in the pool, (haven’t done a live or an involuntary roll with it yet, and to be honest haven’t done many involuntary rolls in anything) BUT I find when coming up I’m usually partially out of the straps, which would probably result in a second unsuccessful roll in a live involuntary situation.
This is probably mostly due to the inflatable footrest, which isn’t very effective and also tends to deflate spontaneously under pressure. I intend to experiment with rigid footrests lashed to the side tubes and have some hopes of an improvement.
Contrary to general claims for inflatables, I have not found it possible to re-enter the boat in the water. This is probably due to the V-hull form rendering it unstable, whereas boats claiming this capability (eg Custom Inflatables Thrillseeker) are flat-bottomed. A much bigger and more experienced club member was able to this in the pool, BUT IT DIDN’T LOOK EASY. I’m unsure whether weight or skill was the most important factor in his success.
This is a disappointment in view of my intended use of the boat as a self-contained “sports tourer”. I’ll experiment with floats for self rescue.
I have some doubts as to its load carrying capacity as a tourer. I’ve only carried my “shore clothes” in the dry bag so far, but the rear (self bailing) deck is occasionally wet and would be wetter with more gear, which might influence handling. I was surprised by the comments of your (much more experienced) correspondent Dale Caldwell, who found it “comes with a dry bag big enough to carry the boat and enough gear for at east six weeks wandering (I know, ’cause that’s how I used it this past summer wandering around Central Mexico with a side-trip to the Rios Chama and Grande in New Mexico)” He must be an expert at traveling light. There isn’t that much spare room in the bag, though it would hold many credit cards and quite a lot of dollar bills! Since it has no hip-belt it would be a strain to carry far on its own. Short – haul tests with it strapped onto an external pack-frame rucksack (now unobtainable in UK, but you may be able to still get them in the USA) were encouraging, (the pack is then a stowage problem in the boat, but maybe a source of rigid footrests?…hmmm) .I’ll also look into wheels / folding luggage trolleys but that’s even more of a stowage problem. Still, it’s generally robust, relatively low price, and maybe my tourer aspirations were unrealistic for what is essentially a smallish white water boat.
Thanks for a great report, Ed.
Jack’s Plastic Welding makes a tremendous range of heavy-duty boats made of reinforced vinyl fabric, including the little Pack Cat, a boat similar in concept to SOAR’s Cat. Jack’s boats have a very good reputation among Western river runners.
Sea Eagle makes a range of inflatables including dinghys, kayaks and a Catamaran rowboat. There are two Sea Eagle kayaks: The SE-330 is a relatively inexpensive (about $299) craft made with a thick hull material that looks to be a cut above the cheaper boats made of unreinforced fabrics. The more expensive 380x ($795) has a fiber reinforced PVC skin and is said to be suitible for class-4 waters. The 380rc is a rowed catamaran made of reinforced fabric that looks interesting at $495. One thing I find attractive about Sea Eagle boats is the optional glue-on skeg they offer; this takes care of one of the major problems with many inflatables, poor tracking. I’ve gotten some good feedback about the 330 and 380 from a couple of users; the boats seem to be good values.
SOAR (Somewhere On A River) makes a range of canoes and a catamaran that may be of interest to readers of this page. The canoes range from 12 to 16 feet, hold a lot of cargo and have an enthusiatic following among adventurers. Prices range from $895 for the Cat to $1550 for the big 16 foot canoe. I like the Cat as a river boat but on open water it’s just too easily blown about.
Sotar makes a wide range of boats, including rafts, catamarans and 1 and 2 person inflatable kayaks in the $2,000 range. The boats are reputed to be very rugged, and were used in the 1999 ECO Challange.
Sterns, known mainly as a maker of life jackets and inflatable towed toys, introduced an inflatable river kayaks in the late 90s. Meant for white water, shaped not unlike a Pokeboat, this $350 boat has received some positive reviews from fans out there. Sterns has since introduced a range of boats, including touring singles, doubles and youth boats. The low-end boats are single-wall PVC, but the better boats have laminated construction. These aren’t high performance river kayaks, but rather wide, flat bottom boats designed for recreational boaters.
Vanguard Inflatables, recommended by reader Tauno Hogue, who reports that he used them when he was a guide on the Middle Fork in Idaho, and that the boats are very rugged.
New York Kayak sells Grabner and Innova inflatables as well as a number of folding boats. Owner Randy Henriksen is an exceptionally helpful and knowledgable fellow.
The Boat People is a firm that specializes in inflatables, importing and selling new and used boats. They seem very knowledgeable. Ed Lithgow writes “I have found them very forthcoming with knowledgable advice, even after I bought a boat [Gumotex (aka Innova in the USA) Safari inflatable] from a dealer in the UK, importing from them in the US not making economic sense.”
Any other suggestions?