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by Buoy Watersports 27 Jul 2022 0 Comments

Written by Denny Hugo, co-founder of Buoy Watersports

Good question. Kayaks come in a wide variety of shapes, materials, and designs. The one you buy should reflect where and how you intend to use your kayak. There are big differences between whitewater kayaks and recreational kayaks used on lakes or flat rivers. This article is going to concentrate on the differences, advantages and disadvantages of an inflatable kayak versus a hard-shell kayak when used on lakes or calm rivers. Let’s start with definitions.


Inflatable kayaks are typically made up of several air chambers of either a vinyl material at the low end or PVC and Hypalon fabric at the high end. Vinyl kayaks have a thin material and typically have no fabric core making them very susceptible to damage while transporting or when bouncing off rocks and other obstacles. PVC and Hypalon kayaks have a core layer of nylon or polyester and are coated with PVC or Hypalon, giving them much more strength and durability. The use of multiple air chambers is for design and safety reasons. A good inflatable kayak should have at least 3 air chambers. Two chambers are for the tubes and one chamber is for the floor. If you get a hole in one of your air chambers, there are another 2 chambers to keep you afloat so you can paddle to shore. Inflatable kayaks can also have additional parts to enhance your paddling experience such as footrests, high quality seats, storage areas, universal mounts for fishing rods and other accessories, and spray shields. Inflatable kayaks should also have at least one skeg on the bottom of the kayak to help the kayak track better when paddling in calm water.

Hard-shell kayaks are typically constructed out of either hard plastic, wood, or a composite such as fiberglass or carbon fiber. Some hard-shell kayaks are molded from one solid piece of plastic or carbon fiber, while others have two separate molds with the hull and upper deck fused together. The interior section is where the seat and the storage areas are located. Hard shell kayaks come in many different designs from flat bottoms with skegs to bottoms that have a V-shaped hull, depending on how the kayak will be used. 


There is a wide range of prices for both inflatable and hard-shell kayaks and they overlap until you get to the very high-end kayaks. Like most things, you get what you pay for in terms of quality and performance. You can purchase inflatable and hard plastic kayaks for as little as a few hundred dollars and a high-quality carbon fiber kayak could cost up to $3000. The best inflatable kayaks will typically cost less than $1500.


If you need to carry your kayak a long distance, an inflatable kayak will make your trek a lot easier. Inflatable kayaks typically weigh between 35-40 pounds whereas a hard-shell will weigh in at 10-15 pounds heavier. If you are solo, it is not a lot of effort to carry your inflatable kayak to the water. Some of the high-end carbon fiber kayaks can compete with inflatables on weight but they typically cost over $2000.

Storage and Transportation 

If you plan on traveling with your kayak, there are HUGE differences between hard-shell and inflatable kayaks. Your hard-shell kayak will most often require a specialized roof rack for your car that you can attach to your kayak. The racks can be rather expensive to buy, and it takes some time to ensure the racks are mounted correctly each time you decide to go kayaking. On the other hand, inflatable kayaks are normally stored in a carrying bag that will fit into the back seat or trunk of your car. It’s not a stretch to put 8 inflatable kayaks into the back of a small pickup truck. If you are traveling by air, inflatable kayaks can be checked as luggage, and most will weigh less than 50 lbs with the pump, paddle, kayak and bag so there are no extra fees. On the other hand, it would cost up to several hundred dollars to travel by air with your hard-shell kayak.

(Buoy Watersports Backpacks are perfect for checked luggage! Or fit 6 kayaks in a truck bed. No need for a trailer to haul your favorite watercraft.)

As for storage, you won’t have nearly as much trouble finding storage space for an inflatable kayak as you will with a hard-shell. If you don’t have a good-sized garage, it’s very difficult to find a suitable space for a hard-shell kayak and if you live in an apartment, it will probably need to be part of your décor! After you’ve properly cleaned and dried your inflatable kayak, it can be stored in a closet or any other out-of-the-way place.  


Although inflatable kayaks are not hard to paddle, a hard-shell is typically going to perform better on the water. Inflatables are wider, lighter, and they handle differently. They can feel a little sluggish compared to a hard-shell and take a little more effort to turn. A hard-shell is heavier and sits lower in the water so it won’t get tossed around as easily, even in adverse conditions. It’s also narrower and shaped to cut through the water.

Of course, performance depends on the style of inflatable or hard-shell you purchase as there can be large differences, depending on how much you want to spend on your kayak. When it comes to performance, hard-shell kayaks are built for speed, tracking, and maneuverability. If you are venturing beyond recreational use and need performance for speed or maneuverability, a hard-shell would be appropriate.


You’ve probably heard that hard-shell kayaks are tippy and easy to capsize. This is true. But how about  inflatable kayaks? Inflatables have a wider beam and inflatable tubes so they tend to be much more stable and harder to flip. That’s not something that can be said for hard-shell kayaks.

So, while hard-shell kayaks have some performance advantages on the water, beginning and recreational paddlers will typically have an easier time and feel more comfortable in an inflatable kayak. 

Maintenance and Longevity

Both inflatable and hard kayaks require maintenance from time to time but it is usually minimal unless you damage your kayak. You have to rinse and dry your inflatable kayak before you store it in your bag to alleviate the risk of mold and mildew forming on it. Hard-shells should also be rinsed after use and may require some occasional waxing. 

Assuming you take proper care of your kayak, both inflatables and hard-shells should give you many years of great adventures. But, a hard-shell probably has the edge on longevity.

So which kayak is right for you?

Inflatable kayaks are generally better if:
  • You are a beginning or recreational kayaker and paddle mostly in calm waters
  • You have limited space to store your kayak
  • You want a kayak that’s lightweight and easy to transport
  • You have a limited budget and don’t need a high performance kayak
Hard-shell kayaks are generally better if:
  •  You are a seasoned kayaker and want a higher degree of control, maneuverability, tracking, and speed
  • You like running whitewater rapids or paddling in open waters
  • You have plenty of storage space and don’t want to bother inflating and deflating your kayak
  • You don’t mind the extra weight of the hard-shell kayak

Whether you decide on an inflatable or hard-shell kayak, you will love the experience of being out on the water and enjoying the great outdoors.

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