Inflatable vs Folding Kayaks: What’s the Difference?

Kayaking is one of my favorite water-based pastimes. I love the freedom of paddling comfortably on almost any stretch of water. However, what I don’t like is transporting kayak. They’re long, unwieldy, and you’ll probably need a trailer to do the job properly. Then there is the issue of storage – you can’t really keep a full-sized kayak in your spare bedroom.

The good news is there are ultra-portable inflatable and foldable kayaks, which, like inflatable stand-up paddleboards, are easy to transport and store.

Choosing between an inflatable and a foldable kayak can be tough. They both offer advantages and disadvantages. In this short guide, I am going to explain the pros, cons, and differences between these two options so that you can buy the best kayak for your needs.

Inflatable kayaks: Easy Transportation And Reduced Performance

Inflatables are the most common type of portable kayak. They come in a wide range of prices, from very budget-friendly to much more expensive. Constructed from high-grade PVC, Hypalon, or Nitrylon, inflatable kayaks come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles, from single-seaters designed for white water, to family-sized kayaks that are ideal for a leisurely calm lake or river trip.

Setting up an inflatable kayak is easy – if a little time-consuming. Most can be inflated using a hand or foot pump (usually supplied), or you can use an electric pump powered by your car. Of course, having to carry a pump along with your kayak makes it slightly less portable.

Inflatable kayaks can be a little on the heavy side, especially the larger models and those made with double (or triple) thick skins. That’s not really a problem if you can park your car close to the water’s edge. But if you have to carry your kayak any distance to reach your paddling destination, especially if you are on your own, this could be a drawback.

Easy transport and durability makes inflatables a valid option for most casual paddlers.

Inflatable kayaks float more on the surface of the water than rigid kayaks. This means that they aren’t as fast, and don’t track and glide as well either. Some inflatables attempt to get around these problems by using removable internal frames and external rigid panels, but this adds to the weight, cost, and set up time, resulting in a semi-inflatable kayak.

Being inflatable, this type of craft can cope with bumps and scrapes better than most rigid kayaks. That doesn’t mean that inflatable kayaks are indestructible – they can still be punctured. However, a good quality inflatable should be able to survive bashing into underwater rocks or over-exuberant beachings that would damage a rigid kayak.

If you are looking for an affordable portable kayaking option and you don’t mind the extra weight, the time required for inflation, and reduced performance, an inflatable is a good option. However, in my opinion, they are not really suitable for “serious” paddling, unless you are prepared to spend a lot of money on a high-end or semi-rigid kayak.

Foldable kayaks: Portable But Very Durable Kayaks

Folding kayaks are basically portable rigid watercraft. They aren’t as common as inflatables, but they’ve actually been around a lot longer. We used to use foldable kayaks in the British Royal Marines, and they saw a lot of nighttime action in commando raids all the way back in the Second World War.

Modern-day folding kayaks are light and easy to set up, and it takes just a few seconds to unfold and prepare one for launching. Once set up, folding kayaks look, feel, and perform much like regular rigid kayaks. There is still a little bit of frame flex to contend with but, compared to an inflatable, it’s as close as you’ll get to a rigid kayak without losing that all-important portability.

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Speaking of portability, folding kayaks are usually lighter than their inflatable counterparts. And, because you won’t need to carry a pump too, you won’t be weighed down with any additional kit.

Folding kayaks generally have displacement hulls, which means they more sit in the water and less on it. This increases stability and, as an added benefit, means you can store equipment inside the body of the craft. This makes them ideal for touring and camping. Because of their inherent rigidity, folding kayaks aren’t as impact resistant as inflatables, but, in return, performance is much better. Speed and tracking are all superior in a folding kayak.

If folding kayaks have a downside, other than their higher price, it’s their lack of versatility. Most inflatable kayaks, such as the INTEX K1, can be used on a wide range of conditions, at least at a recreational level. In contrast, folding kayaks tend to be designed with specific conditions in mind. If you want a foldable kayak that is suitable for a range of paddling activities, expect to pay more for the privilege.

If you want a portable kayak that feels like a regular kayak, foldable is your best option. Made with both portability and performance in mind, this is the ideal choice for more serious paddlers who don’t want the hassle of using a car roof rack or trailer to transport their watercraft. Foldables do tend to be more expensive than inflatables, but you get more for your money too – in terms of lightness, performance, and ease of set up.

Folding vs Inflatable Kayaks: Which Is Best?

Having owned and used inflatable and folding kayaks, I have to say I enjoyed using them both. Subjectively, I believe that inflatables are better for more casual paddlers who don’t mind sacrificing performance for a lower price. However, if you want a portable that feels just like a rigid kayak, a folding kayak is definitely worth the higher price tag.

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