Inflatable VS Hard Shell kayaks: Which Is Better?

by Jason | Last Updated:   November 7th, 2021
Inflatable VS Hard Shell kayaks: Which Is Better?


So, you’re in the market for a new kayak; that’s excellent news. But you’re having a problem choosing between an inflatable vs. hard kayak.

And it’s an understandable dilemma; each style has its advantages and disadvantages you need to consider…. Especially when you’re spending so much money.

In today’s article, I want to explain the difference between a hard and an inflatable kayak to give you a better understanding of the two options.

And to make things better, I’m going to put the two styles head to head, and answer some of your burning questions

If this sounds like what you’ve been looking for, don’t go anywhere; you’re in for a treat:

Inflatable Kayaks: Everything You Need To Know

inflatable whitewater kayak on mountain river

If you’re wondering what inflatable kayaks have to offer you, this is the section for you. I’m going to start by explaining what they are and finish with their pros and cons.

As I’m sure you can imagine, inflatable kayaks… well inflate, making them great for traveling and storing away.

They are usually constructed with a PVC material, which varies in strength and quality if I’m honest. 

Over the past few years, inflatable kayaks have taken the market by storm, mainly because they are lightweight, easy to store/transport, and great for beginner kayakers.

To make things better:

Thanks to technological advancements, inflatable kayaks have progressed great and almost match the performance of hard-shell kayaks.

That being said, they still come with their pros and cons, which is what we’re going to talk about in the next section:

The Pros & The Cons

Okay, you want to know the pros and cons of an inflatable kayak before you make a purchase. And I really don’t blame you! Inflatable kayaks can cost a pretty penny, so it’s worth knowing everything you can before you make a purchase.

So, let’s take a closer look:

Pros

Durability & Stability 

The great thing about the new age of inflatable kayaks is that they’re built much better than before. Inflatable kayaks are now made to take bumps and scraps without puncturing (of course, there is still a risk).

Due to the inflatable nature of the kayaks, they tend to bounce off rocks quite nicely, which makes them easier to control if you’re a beginner.

And to further our claims of durability, the kayaks use high-pressure “drop-stitch technology,” but what does drop-stitch mean for you? It means the tiny fibers inside interlock when it’s inflated, which creates a very tough surface.

And on the outside of the kayak, they use a solid PVC material, which gives it a very durable feeling.

The last thing I want to talk about is stability. Inflatable kayaks tend to have a lot wider base, which means they don’t flip very easily at all. In fact, the broader bottom and inflatable sides usually result in the kayak being more stable than a hardshell kayak.

Weight & Size

One of the best things about having an inflatable kayak is how lightweight and small it can pack down.

The lightweight nature of the inflatable kayak makes it extremely easy to lift on and off the car, and more importantly, out of the water once you’ve finished.

If I have to pick a downside of it being lightweight, it would probably be that it’s easily manipulated in the wind. In other words, the wind can make it extremely hard to paddle.

Thanks to the inflatable kayak being able to deflate, it means you can pack it down into a duffle bag. Again this makes the kayak extremely easy to transport and store in the garage. 

Yep, that means you don’t need a roof rack on your car to transport the kayak to the river.

Cons

Inflating And Deflating 

It might sound weird listing this as a con, considering it’s one of the main selling points of an inflatable kayak.

Yes, they’re easier to transport back and forth from the lake/river. The problem is, you have to spend at least 10 minutes pumping up the ‘yak before you can get in the river. And if you’ve only got a hand pump, it can take a lot of energy out of you.

To make things worse:

Once you’ve inflated the ‘yak, you then have to do the seats, which takes more time out of your day (although not much longer).

And if you want to reach optimal efficiency, you have to make sure the PSI (Pounds Per Square Inch) is perfect, which can be pretty tricky. This is something you don’t have to deal with when you’ve got a hardshell kayak.

Once you’ve finished with the kayak, you then need to completely deflate, wash and dry the kayak before packing it away. And this can take a lot of time.

Hard Shell Kayaks: Everything You Need To Know

Man sitting in kayak using paddle on lake

Okay, we’ve spoken about inflatable kayaks, but know it’s time to talk about the original hardshell counterpart.

Hard shell kayaks are considered the more traditional option, and for many avid kayakers, it’s the only option to go for.

They are made with a variety of materials, including:

  • Wood
  • Plastic
  • Fiberglass
  • And other materials

This gives the frame a more rigid feeling and a lot more strength. As you can imagine, this is very different from the PVC material inflatable kayaks use. 

The problem with having a more robust material is it adds to the weight, costs more, and makes it harder to transport.

Another great thing about hardshell kayaks is they’re a lot easier to control and can be used on rougher water without the fear of getting a puncture.

So, let’s take a look at how the pros and cons compare with an inflatable kayak:

The Pros & The Cons

Hardshell kayaks can cost a lot more money than an inflatable ‘yak, so understanding the pros and cons is vital:

Pros

Durability 

One of the significant benefits of hard shell kayaks is how durable it is. With a hard shell kayak, you don’t have to worry about punctures due to the materials it’s made with.

That being said, that doesn’t mean you can use the ‘yak without caution. If you don’t take care of it, you can still damage it, and it’s a lot harder to repair if it does get damaged.

More Control

The kayak’s design and weight mean you can usually control a hardshell a lot easier than you can with an inflatable kayak. 

That makes it a lot easier to switch between the different styles of kayaking without much effort. If you’re looking for something easy to control in any type of water, whether it’s flat or rough then a hard shell kayak is the way to go.

It’s Ready To Go

One of the best things about having a hard shell kayak is it’s ready to go straight away, but that does come with the issue of transportation (but more of that later).

Because it’s ready to go, it makes transitioning from the land to the water a lot quicker and a lot easier.

And to make things better:

You don’t have to worry about deflating or packing away the kayak once you’ve finished. It’s a simple case of strapping it to your car and getting going.

Cons

Storage & Transport

As I mentioned easier, transporting a hardshell kayak isn’t nearly as easy as getting your inflatable kayak to the river. The main reason is you can’t collapse it as you can an inflatable kayak.

To transport a hardshell kayak, you need to have a roof rack, kayak cart, or a trailer available, which not everyone has. And for this reason, it can make it extremely difficult for the average person to get to a lake.

And then you have to think about storage.

Again, the kayak doesn’t deflate or fold, which means you need a lot of room to store the kayak, especially if you have something like a sea kayak.

Due to these few reasons, you need to really think if you have enough space for the kayak before you make a purchase.

Maintenance

Although hard shell’ yaks are more durable than an inflatable kayak, it takes more maintenance to keep it in top conditions.

The bumps and scraps a hardshell kayak takes can make it extremely difficult to take care of. And this makes it very expensive to fix hard shell kayaks if something gets damaged and needs to be prepared.

It’s Not Very Lightweight

Because of the material that’s used to make hard shell yaks, it’s not very lightweight. This makes carrying the hard shell kayak to the river extremely difficult and can sometimes be a job for two people.

Another thing to consider is the weight capacity isn’t as high as inflatable kayaks due to them already being so heavy.

If you have a lot of gear to take with you on your kayaking trip, it’s something you need to consider before purchasing a hardshell kayak.

Inflatable Vs. Hard Shell Kayaks Head To Head

Okay, you know a little bit about both kayak styles, but how do they compare head to head? Well, this is the question I want to answer in this section.

Let’s take a look at how inflatable kayaks vs. hard shells compare:

Materials & Build

When it comes to materials and the build, a hard shell kayak is a lot more reliable than inflatable kayaks. 

They have a lot less chance of puncturing or tearing. That being said, if you do damage to hardshell kayaks, it’s going to cost a lot more money to get it fixed.

There’s always been a theory about inflatable kayaks being expensive pool toys, but that’s not necessarily fair with the newer generations. 

The new generation of inflatable kayaks is exceptionally sturdy, allowing them to be inflated to high pressures and still withstand any sharp objects on the water.

And the benefit is:

If it does puncture, it’s a lot easier to fix the repair, not to mention a lot cheaper, which of course, is a huge benefit.

How Do They Perform In The Water?

When it comes to performance, a hard shell kayak is easier to control. That being said, an inflatable kayak isn’t uncontrollable.

The problem with inflatable kayaks is that they are so broad and lightweight, making them feel highly sluggish, especially in windy weather.

As for hardshell kayaks, they sit low in the water, which makes the center of gravity easier to handle. On top of that, the narrow shape of the kayak ensures it glides through the water with ease.

If you’re looking for something that can turn cut through the water and turn quickly and efficiently, then you should go for a hard shell kayak.

Transportation And Storage: How Easy Is It?

Okay, it shouldn’t be too hard to work this one out. But just in case, quality inflatable kayaks are a lot easier to transport and store.

Inflatable kayaks are super lightweight and can pack down to a small size. This allows you to put the kayak in the boot of your car and store it in the cupboard.

When it comes to hard shell kayaks, they are a lot heavier, and sometimes it requires two people to lift them, which isn’t ideal. Not only that, but you have to use a roof rack or a trailer to transport it from one destination to another.

The other downside is, you can’t pack it away the same way as you would with an inflatable kayak. This means you need to store it in an oversized garage, but it will take away room that could be utilized for other things. 

How Much Can The inflatable and hard shell Kayaks Hold?

When it comes to how much an inflatable vs. hardshell kayak can hold, inflatable kayaks tend to have the edge unless it’s a hardshell sit-on-top kayak.

Most sit-on-top inflatable kayaks can hold around 500 lbs, which is more than most people will ever have to carry.

The other advantage they have is they are open top, which gives you more room to store your equipment.

Closed-deck hard shell kayaks are heavier than inflatable kayaks, and they have less storage room.

For that reason, if you need something that holds a lot of equipment, you should 100% go for an inflatable kayak.

How Much Do They Cost?

When it comes to price, an inflatable kayak probably does edge the race. For a top-of-the-range hard shell kayak, it can set you back well over $1000. Which, as you can imagine, doesn’t suit everyone’s budget. 

On the flip side, a top-of-the-range inflatable kayak will cost around half that cost. So, if you’re on a budget, you should look for an inflatable kayak.

Just remember, you get what you pay for!

Key Insights & Takeaways

Hopefully, this has opened your eyes to the hardshell vs. inflatable kayak war. Unfortunately, it really comes down to personal preference. And if you asked me, it would be hardshell kayaks, but that’s due to the style of kayaking I do.

To find the right style for you, you need to think about what you need from the kayak and work out which one suits your needs the best.

Luckily, if you take note of my inflatable vs. hard shell kayaks guide above, you’ll have no issues finding the right kayak style for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Inflatable Kayaks As Good As Hard Ones?

Inflatable kayaks are made with PVC and have got a lot better; if you’re looking for something easy to transport and store, then yes, an inflatable kayak is as good as a hard one. But, if you are looking for something more durable and easier to maneuver, you should be looking for a hard shell kayak.

How Bad Are Inflatable Kayaks?

The main bad point of quality inflatable kayaks is they are harder to maneuver and a lot slower. Other than that, they are pretty effective and not as bad as people make out.

Do Inflatable Kayaks Last?

With proper care and maintenance, your inflatable kayak can last around five to ten years, which is a lot better than the earlier versions.

Do Inflatable Kayaks Tip-Over Easily?

One thing you can say about inflatable kayaks is they don’t tip over very quickly. And this is down to the broad inflatable base the kayak offers. It’s nearly impossible for them to tip over unless you’re on rough water.

Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.