Inflatable VS. Hardshell Kayaks

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If you paddle using a rented or borrowed kayak quite often, you may have found yourself thinking about buying your very own kayak and kayaking gear. But as many first-time kayak buyers soon find out, purchasing a kayak isn’t always as straightforward as it first appears to be. To ensure that you only spend your money on a kayak that you’ll enjoy using, you need to consider certain details like the kayak’s size, what features it should have and many others. You also need to choose between inflatable vs. hardshell kayaks and which of the two will be most suitable for the type of kayaking you intend to do.

Both inflatable and hardshell kayaks have their own pros and cons, and you’ll want to familiarize yourself with these two types of kayaks and the features that make one better than the other so you can make a more informed buying decision.

Hardshell Kayaks vs. Inflatable Kayaks

Obviously, inflatable kayaks and hardshell kayaks are two very different water vessels.

Hardshell kayaks are what most people typically think of whenever they hear the term ‘kayak’. These have a rigid frame made from solid materials like polyethylene plastic, fiberglass, and thermoform ABS. There are also wooden kayaks available, though they’re not widely popular as the other three materials mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, inflatable kayaks are constructed from different types of fabrics and need to be inflated with a manual or electric air pump before you can use them.

What Are Hardshell Kayaks Made From?

As mentioned earlier, hardshell kayaks can be constructed using different types of materials. It is important to know which type of material is used in making the kayak because this will influence its durability, performance, and price.

Polyethylene

Polyethylene is a resilient plastic which is used for a variety of purposes like automobile body panels, storage containers, and kayaks. Some kayakers like polyethylene kayaks because:

  • They are extremely durable and will last for many years with proper care.
  • They are the least expensive type of hardshell kayaks.

However, polyethylene kayaks also have disadvantages. For one, these types of kayaks can be really, really heavy. Also, they are very susceptible to damage caused by the sun’s ultra violet rays, which means you need to apply a sun protectant on its surface regularly.

Composite

Composite kayaks are made from laminates of fiberglass, carbon fiber, or a blend of these and other similar materials. There are some good reasons why you’ll want a composite kayak.

  • They have a stiff and rigid frame which makes them fast and responsive in the water.
  • Scratches and abrasions on the hull do not affect its speed.
  • Hairline cracks can be easily repaired with minimal tools and equipment.
  • Lightweight and easier to carry than polyethylene kayaks.

If a composite kayak sounds more like your choice, then you should definitely be prepared to spend more since these kayaks can be quite expensive. In fact, they are some of the most expensive types of hardshell kayaks available in today’s market.

Thermoform

Thermoform kayaks use plastic sheets of compatible hybrid plastic materials with substrate layers to form the kayak. Whereas polyethylene and composite kayaks are formed ‘inside’ a mold, thermoform kayaks are formed ‘over’ a mold. Thermoform kayaks are becoming more and more popular for a number of good reasons:

  • They tough and durable like polyethylene kayaks but not as heavy
  • Their finish is harder and more scratch-resistant compared to polyethylene kayak
  • They have a nice sleek finish almost similar to a composite kayak
  • They are only a little more expensive than polyethylene kayaks but certainly cheaper than composite kayaks

As you can see, a thermoform kayak forms the middle ground between a polyethylene kayak and a composite kayak. The only downside to thermoform kayaks is that although they look and feel like a composite kayak, they aren’t as fast.

Inflatable Kayak Materials

Inflatable kayaks (sometimes referred to as duckies or IK) are generally made from specialized fabrics and materials, namely PVC, Hypalon, Nytrylon, or polyurethane.

PVC

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a multi-layer fabric which is way tougher than the single-layer plastic that is used in pool toys. There are several reasons why PVC inflatable kayaks are poplar.

  • It is the most affordable type of inflatable kayak
  • Damages are easy to repair by welding and gluing new sheets of PVC

Like any other kayak material, PVC has its own shortcomings. For one, it doesn’t hold well against exposure to the sun and outdoor elements, as well as to gas or oil damages. In addition, PVC kayaks use plasticizers, UV and heat stabilizers, and other chemicals which can leach out in the water, thus making PVC unsafe for the environment.

Hypalon

Hypalon is often considered as the best material for inflatable kayaks and boats. It is made by combining CSM rubber (chlorosulfonated polyethylene) and neoprene. Most manufacturers of inflatable kayaks use hypalon as exterior coating and neoprene as interior coating. So what makes hypalon an excellent material for inflatable water vessels?

  • It is more durable and lasts longer than PVC
  • It is extremely air tight and holds pressurized air much better
  • It is more resilient to damages from the sun’s ultra violet rays
  • It is extremely resistant to mold, mildew and even fungus

Although it may sound like hypalon kayaks are the best in the field, it is not without disadvantages. First of all, inflatable kayaks made from hypalon are some of the most expensive types of inflatable kayaks. Secondly, hypalon kayaks tend to attract more dirt given their porous surface.

Nitrylon

Nitrylon is a lamination of natural rubber and nitrile synthetic rubber and is mostly used only on the outer part of the kayak where most wear and tear occur. There are certain benefits to using this type of material for making kayaks such as:

  • Stronger and more resilient against abrasion and punctures than PVC
  • Much easier to patch or repair than PVC
  • Can perform better in colder temperature than other fabrics
  • More environment-friendly than PVC

There aren’t a lot of disadvantages with nitrylon, and in fact the only complaint that most people have about kayaks made from this fabric is that they are heavier than most other types inflatable kayaks.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane (also called urethane) is a relatively new type of fabric. However, more and more manufacturers of inflatable kayaks are embracing this particular material because of it various benefits like:

  • Ability to withstand abuse better than PVC and hypalon
  • High-level of resistance against abrasions
  • Durable and puncture-resistant

But like other materials, there is a downside to polyurethane fabrics. For instance, inflatable kayaks made from polyurethane are some of the most expensive in the market. Also, it much harder to repair when it does get damaged.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Durability

One of the main concerns of many kayak buyers, especially those who plan to take their kayaks out for an adventure very often, is durability.

In general, hardshell kayaks, particularly the ones made from high quality polyethylene, are very strong and durable and are considered to be the sturdiest among the different types of kayaks available. High quality polyethylene kayaks will have no trouble bouncing off from rocks and other debris in the water. However, this does not mean that they are invincible and will not get damaged after taking significant amounts of abuse.

On the other hand, many new kayakers and non-kayaking folks often think that inflatable kayaks are not very durable. This is quite understandable since they’re made from fabric and air, so there’s this possibility that they will get punctured and even blow up like a balloon.

However, thanks to constant advances in technology, modern day inflatable kayaks are made to be tough and resilient and can take a significant amount of impact before showing signs damage. High quality inflatables made from hypalon and polyurethane can withstand pressure and abuse even in the most unforgiving waterways. Also, most inflatable kayaks are constructed with multiple layers of fabric, a design which helps to make them more resilient against puncturing.

As such, there are inflatable kayaks which are made specially for whitewater kayaking and can take a good amount of beating. There are also inflatable kayaks which are made for fishing and are designed to handle hooks, fins, and even knives. It should also be noted that the coast guard and military use inflatable boats all the time for their patrol and rescue missions.

However, these are only true for high quality inflatable kayaks made from hypalon or polyurethane. So if you’re willing to spend more instead of going cheap, you will definitely find an inflatable kayak that is strong, durable, and will be up to whatever kind of kayaking you want to do.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Price

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Between hardshell kayaks and inflatable kayaks, the former is generally more expensive than the latter. Inflatables nearly always cost less than half the price of their hardshell counterparts.

Hardshell kayaks can cost anywhere between a few hundred dollars (like these fishing kayaks that cost less than $500) to several thousand dollars. In addition, polyethylene kayaks are significantly cheaper than composite or thermoform ABS kayaks.

Although plastic kayaks are relatively affordable, you’ll notice that inflatable kayaks are still usually much cheaper than hardshells. Even high quality inflatable kayaks from renowned manufacturers will cost less than most hardshell kayaks sold in the market.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Maneuverability

One of the most often cited advantage of hardshell kayaks over inflatable kayaks is their excellent maneuverability. One of the reasons for this is because hardshells sit lower in the water. Another is because they are much heavier than inflatable kayaks, which means that they don’t get tossed around as easily. Lastly, hardshell kayaks are narrower so it is easier for kayakers to lean to one side, paddle and turn the kayak towards the desired direction.

Paddling or steering an inflatable kayak should pose no problem when you’re on calm waters like in ponds, lakes, or slow moving creeks. It’s a different story though when you start talking about choppy ocean waters and fast flowing rivers.

Still, inflatable kayaks are getting better and better over time. Many manufacturers are incorporating designs and using materials than can improve their inflatable kayak’s maneuverability in moving waters, which is the case with many inflatable kayaks for whitewater kayaking. It’s only a matter of time before we see inflatables that have the same responsive handling that hardshell kayaks offer.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Portability

Because of the materials that they’re made from, hardshell kayaks can be relatively heavy, sometimes weighing twice or thrice as much (or even more) as an inflatable kayak. Even a lightweight composite hardshelll kayak will be considerably heavier than its inflatable cousin. And polyethylene hardshells? Most people would describe them as a beast and you’ll have to wrestle them whenever you bring them up to your kayak roof rack. The case even becomes worse when we’re talking about two person or tandem kayaks, which are almost impossible to carry alone or without a kayak cart.

For some kayakers, they really don’t see any problem when it comes to the weight of composite kayaks. Because they are lightweight, they can be hoisted to the shoulder by following proper kayak lifting and carrying techniques. Still, bringing a composite kayak (or any other hardshell kayak) onto a roof rack is best done with a partner.

On the other hand, inflatable are extremely lightweight and portable. Even children should have no trouble carrying this kayak around. When deflated, an inflatable kayak will fit nicely in your car’s trunk or even in the back seat, which is perfect if you don’t have a kayak roof rack or have no intentions of having one installed in your vehicle.

Deflated kayaks can be carried around in a large duffel bag or backpack (which may or may not come with the kayak when you purchase it). This can be helpful if the parking lot is quite far from your launch area.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Storage

Hardshell kayaks in general are big and bulky, which then makes storage a challenge. But that doesn’t stop kayakers from getting one because there are a handful of convenient kayak storage solutions for hardshells available if you have the space for it.

In general, it is best to have an indoor storage space like a garage, shed or basement for your hardshell kayak since this is still the safest storage option and because it offers complete protection from the weather. This doesn’t mean though that you can simply leave your kayak on the floor or leave it leaning against the since this will certainly damage the kayak. Besides, it is simply not safe to store kayak this way. What you should do instead is to get a kayak rack or have a suspension system installed in your ceiling where you can hang your kayak.

However, if additional indoor space is a luxury you don’t have, then you have the option of storing your kayak outdoors like in your backyard. You’ll have to take extra precautions to keep your kayak safe while it is stored outdoors though. You’ll have to make sure that is covered to keep the weather elements from damaging it and have a cockpit cover to prevent critters from nesting inside your kayak. You’ll also need to tie and secure it to a post or a tree and keep it hidden from view to prevent thieves from stealing it.

That certainly sounds like a lot of hard work for most people. And it can be quite disheartening for those kayakers who don’t have a garage, shed or basement.

Storage for inflatable kayaks are certainly much easier compared to traditional hard-shell kayaks. An inflatable kayak can be kept and stored just about anywhere in your home. Unlike its hard-shell cousins, inflatables can be deflated and packed into its own storage bag, which you can then push under the bed or keep on the shelf. This makes inflatables an excellent option for people living in dorms or apartments.

Still, certain steps must be taken in order to ensure that they are well-protected from dust, mold and rodents. Also, if you’re storing your inflatable kayak for a long-time, consider taking it out of its bag at least once every few months and let it air outside.

Should You Get a Hardshell Kayak?

If you’re looking for a kayak that offers solid durability, then a high quality polyethylene kayak is something you should consider. This would make a perfect choice if you must get in and launch your kayak from rocky beaches. It is also a good choice if you are planning to paddle in rough waterways (i.e. Class III and higher rapids) where you expect your kayak to be banged around very often.

Also, if you’re planning to use your kayak for overnight or multi-day kayak camping trips, a hardshell kayak would be a better choice. This is because the rigid frames of hardshells allow the manufacturers to increase the storage area both in the front and rear of the boat, thus providing you with ample space for your camping gear and equipment.

Is an Inflatable Kayak for You?

An important consideration when buying an inflatable kayak is where you plan to paddle. Are you a kayak angler who likes fishing for trout or bass in lazy rivers? Or maybe you’re just looking for a vessel to take you out in the middle of a calm lake where you can enjoy the serene surroundings while in a contemplative mood? If so, then an inflatable kayak would make a nice choice.

Inflatable kayaks made from hypalon and polyurethane can be tough and suitable for daring whitewater expeditions. However, they are still made of fabric and rubber, which means that they are still at risk of puncturing especially if you constantly crash against razor-sharp rocks.

Because they are cheaper, inflatable kayaks are excellent for someone who is just getting into the hobby and unsure how far they want to progress in the sport. So if the kayaker has lost interest, it shouldn’t be a big deal financially. It’s always a shame to see folks who are still learning how to kayak buy brand new composite kayaks and then sell them shortly afterwards because they’re no longer interested in kayaking or because it doesn’t suit their type of kayaking activity. The same is true for not-so-serious kayakers who only take their kayaks out once or twice a year.

Inflatable kayaks are also suitable for apartment-dwelling kayakers who don’t have storage space for hardshell kayaks. They’re also a good choice for kayakers who don’t have their own cars and use public transportation to reach their kayaking destinations. Since inflatable kayaks can be carried around in a duffel bag or backpack, they’re a good choice for paddlers who like to hike and paddle around backcountry lakes and backwaters.

Globo Surf Overview

Different kayakers will have different opinions about which type of kayak is best, but the ultimate choice will all boil down to your own personal preferences and how you intend to use the kayak. As can be seen above, both hardshell kayaks and inflatable kayaks have their own pros and cons. As such, the choice between inflatable vs. hardshell kayak will depend on the trade-offs that you’re willing to make. Nonetheless, whatever type of kayak you choose, be sure that you do your research first before committing to a particular purchase. Doing this will ensure that you are more likely to end up spending your hard-earned money on a kayak that will give you years of outdoor fun.

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!