Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell: What’s Best?

If you’re in the market for a recreational kayak, I’m betting you’ve wondered whether to opt for a rigid or an inflatable kayak.

Just 15 years ago, that choice didn’t really exist as hardshell kayaks pretty much dominated the market.

However, thanks to advancements in technology, inflatables are now much more commonplace than they used to be and the range of craft available is growing exponentially.

Ocean Kayak Malibu

ocean kayak malibu


  • rigid kayak
  • Easy to carry
  • Comfortable seat

Emotion Spitfire

sit on


  • Comfortable built in seat
  • Weigth: 45 lbs
  • Carries up to 350 lb

Perception Sound 10.5

Perception Sound 105


  • Length: 9'6" - weight: 38lbs
  • Ideal fishing/recreational kayak
  • Tracks well - very stable

Storage and Shoreside Sweats

Right off the bat, your standard sit-on hardshell has something going for it that an inflatable doesn’t: you can pretty much drop it in the water, grab your paddle and lifejacket and just go! No inflation required.

On the other hand, if, for example, you live in an apartment or have limited storage, you may have to pay your local yacht club etc. to look after it for you during the winter season, which increases the cost of owning one.

Inflatables, on the other hand, can be stored in relatively small spaces and most models come with a handy bag and even a two-piece paddle that all fit snugly under your bed or in a cupboard at home. The downside to them is that they (obviously) need to be inflated!

Intex Challenger K1



  • Includes Aluminum Paddle and Air Pump
  • Easy & Quick setup
  • One of the best beginner choices available

Most entry-level inflatables come with manual pumps – foot or hand. Depending on how many paddlers your kayak is designed for, you’ll need up to 20 minutes of pumping to get it inflated to the recommended pressure, which is no joke if it’s the middle of summer and shade is scarce. Take my word for it: I’ve been there!

Hardshells are more difficult to transport but usually more stable.

Maneuverability, Durability And Stability On The Water

Once you’re out on the water, rigid kayaks are more maneuverable than their inflatable counterparts as their polyethylene structure creates less drag than hypalon, Nytrylon or PVC the materials most commercially available inflatables are made of. This can be an issue if you’re planning on coast hugging for a few miles.

I use both types of kayak and I really notice the difference between the slicker hardshell and the more sluggish inflatable, especially if I’m out for a few of hours. Some of the higher range inflatable models can be pumped up to six PSI and this does increase your speed over water as drag is reduced but it also means that initial outlay will probably be greater.

When I purchased my first inflatable, I was very concerned about its durability.

I live on an extremely rocky coastline and I wasn’t sure that my kayak’s soft hull was going to stand up to the sharp, pointy edges. All necessary precautions would be taken but you never know if a wave is going to drive you uncontrollably onto the rocks or shale-covered shore when you’re beaching.

Airhead Montana


Sit On

  • Inflates quickly
  • Easy to transport
  • Ideal for traveling

Perception Sound 9.5

perception sound

Sit Inside

  • Ideal for fishing
  • Perfect for slow moving waters
  • Comfortable ergonomic seat

Old Town Vapor

old town vapor

Sit Inside

  • Size: 10ft
  • Adjustable Comfort Flex seat
  • Ample space to store supplies

At the end of the summer, I was very impressed at how sturdy inflatable kayaks are, even the cheaper ones like mine (Sevylor Canyon). Sure, I had a few rubs and scuffs after about three months’ of constant use but it stood up to the test very well indeed. That been said, you absolutely must remember to wash your inflatable down rigorously and dry it off before storing it again.

Salt water and mildew will considerably reduce your inflatable’s life expectancy.

Rigid kayaks are fearless when it comes to rocks and jagged shorelines. Where I live, there are literally hundreds of them on the water all spring and summer and a large percentage of them are used by holidaying amateurs who don’t really know the peculiarities of this particular stretch of coast. Yet I have never seen a seriously damaged hardshell kayak.

Even the cheaper ones like mine (a Galaxy Fuego) appear to be almost indestructible. Numerous kayaking clubs and schools rent this type of kayak to tourists during the tourist season and, as is to be expected, they suffer quiet a lot of abuse but they rarely if ever split or suffer and sort of damage beyond scuffs and the odd gouge.

My Galaxy Fuego Hardshell kayak – I use it in Spain all the time and I love it

Hardshell vs Inflatable Kayaks: the pros and the cons

Hardshells Kayaks

The pros of a hardshell could be summed up as follows:

  • Once you’re shore-side with them, you’re good to go.
  • Little or no set up required.
  • They’re maneuverable and faster than an inflatable
  • Very durable
  • Easily maintained – they just need a quick rinse when you’re done using them. although it’s a good idea to soak any seating or other material that is not PVC.

The cons to owning a hardshell kayak is that you either transport them to the water on top of a roof rack every time you want to use it or pay for shoreside storage.

You also need somewhere to keep them at home, so they don’t usually suit city-dwellers living in apartments etc.

Inflatables Kayaks

Storage won’t be an issue if you opt for an inflatable.

They deflate very quickly to a manageable size (even kayaks designed for two or three paddlers) and can be stored it a backpack-style bag (usually included in the price) under a bed or in a wardrobe.

The INTEX Explorer Inflatable…

Check Price on Amazon

Although they’re light, technological advancements over the last 15 years or so doesn’t mean that there is a huge trade-off in durability. This is simply no longer the case. You obviously need to take more care around sharp rocks and beaches with a lot of shale etc. on them but if you exercise normal precautions, your inflatable will stand up to more wear and tear than you might imagine.

The downside to owning an inflatable is that, you guessed it: they need to be inflated! Unless you invest in an electric pump that can connect to an outlet in you car, you’ll be pumping for 10 to 20 minutes before you hit the water.

They’re also more sluggish on the water than hardshell kayaks and need a lot more care once you’re done using them: you need to wash it down thoroughly and wait for it to dry before storing it back in its bag.

So, What’s The Best Option? Hardshell or inflatable?

At the end of the day, the question you need to ask yourself is: what are you going to use the kayak for? If you’re looking for something the whole family can fool about with during the summer holidays, I would opt for an inflatable.

If, on the other hand, you want to use it to do a few miles of shore hugging and visit coves etc., then perhaps a hardshell will suit your needs better. Price is, to some degree, also a factor although if you’re planning to get something simple that is designed for beginners, there really isn’t a huge difference in price.

Whatever you decide, enjoy your kayaking and stay safe!

2 thoughts on “Inflatable Kayak vs Hardshell: What’s Best?”

  1. I have both. Obviously if performance is the most important, go with a hardshell. But keeping a couple of quality, (I own advanced Elements and Innova) in the trunk just in case you pass a great lake you’d like to try. You can’t beat the portability.


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