Everything about buying a blow-up yak
Inflatable kayaks are awesome. In fact that's why I started kayakudos.com to begin with.
I bought my first inflatable kayak several years ago, and it's still going strong - I haven't had any issues with leaks or tears or anything. And it's so cool because I can just put it in my car if I'm going on a trip, camping for instance, and it's there if I need it.
It's so portable, so easy to store - once I'm done with it, I give it a rinse off and let it dry then just pack it away. It folds up into a package about the size of a sports bag, which I can carry on my back like a rucksack.
It's true, the performance isn't quite that of a hardshell kayak, but it's more than adequate for most recreational kayakers. If you want a cheap kayak, you really can't get less expensive than an inflatable - although you will be sacrificing performance for price at the really low end.
I'm not suggesting you should get one of those PVC lilos you can buy at the seaside. A proper inflatable kayak is a real watercraft - you can get models designed for sea, for fishing, for whitewater.
In this guide, I'm going to help you decide which to buy from among all the different types available. I'm going to look at the various types as well, and what you should consider before making your final choice. But first...
So first off here's a quick choose comparison guide. If you want more in-depth info, scroll down past this. Beyond that, you'll find information on types of kayaks and more.
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Sevylor Big Basin
Intex Challenger K2
Sea Eagle SE370
There are many benefits of choosing a blow-up over a rigid or hard-shelled kayak. As I mentioned, the thing I like the most about mine is that it can be deflated and packed away into something the size of a backpack. I can keep it in my car just in case; I can even hike with it on my back. Sure, I won't carry much else, but still!
So if I'm going away on a trip or even if I'm just driving along the coast road and I think "looks like a nice day for a paddle..." I can just pull over, pump it up and off I go. And as I said, it has lasted me a few years so far. It was definitely worth the money if you ask me.
In fact, a good quality inflatable is pretty tough - they can just bounce off rocks and almost glide along the shingle on a beach; the rubberised fabric is very durable. The main downside of inflatables is that they tend to have more drag, so they are slower, and they don't track as well (travel in a straight line). Also, because they're very light, they can be blown around a bit, especially the ones with a higher profile.
Imagine the alternative - a rigid bodied kayak. You are going away on a weekend trip; there may be suitable water for paddling, but the weather is on the turn, and you're not sure if you'll get the opportunity to go out. Do you strap your boat to your roof rack or do you skip it? If you skip it, you might miss the best conditions you've seen for ages.
What a shame.
What about a trailer - do you have a trailer? Do you even have anywhere to store a 12-foot long kayak, let alone a trailer? It really is a luxury, being able to own such big, expensive items.
You can get an inflatable for virtually any purpose, be it:
One thing I love is that if you decide to go touring in an inflatable kayak, or just spend a few nights under the stars, you can sleep in your kayak - it's basically a really comfortable inflatable camp bed!
So how does one choose the best inflatable kayak for one's purposes? The main thing you absolutely need from your yak is reliability. You don't want to unpack it after a few weeks of months of storage to find it's riddled with holes. Although most inflatable kayaks can be quite quickly repaired and many of them come with puncture repair kits, you don't want to have to do that by the waterside.
The kayaks I'm going to recommend here all come very highly rated, and there is something for everyone's needs here - if you want something for fishing trips, you've got it; recreational paddling, no problem; seagoing kayak - I have just the thing!
Advanced Elements make inflatables with incredible performance - this is down to the fact that the AdvancedFrame is technically a hybrid kayak or a convertible - it has a rigid aluminium frame which folds out, and the body is inflated.
The lightweight ribs improve the rigidity of the kayak, lending it excellent performance on a par with a hardshell kayak.
Here is a video that explains what is going on:
The AdvancedFrame convertible kayak has three seating positions, suiting one or two paddlers. WIth just one there is plenty of room for gear.
It is suitable for grade I to II whitewater, coastal oceans, lakes, rivers, and handles well even in rougher conditions such as a windy bay.
It folds up small enough to go in a car's trunk, but it's not as small of some of the other boats on offer. It's also quite a bit more expensive, the most costly of the bunch in fact. But you get what you pay for - a brilliant yak that will handle most things you throw it at!
It is 13' long inflated and is rated to carry 205kg (450lbs).
The Sevylor Big Basin can carry up to three paddlers, but I would recommend two at the most. Maybe two and a dog or a child, but unless you like your kayak trips to resemble budget airline flights then don't try to fit three in here for any length of time.
It's actually a bit shorter than the AdvancedFrame above, at 12-foot three inches. But it is rated to carry an extra 40 lbs (490 lbs total).
Sevylor are an outstanding brand, in my opinion - I have a Colorado that is still going strong. In fact, I have a review of this popular kayak here.
The Big Basin, like the Colorado, has two directional strakes and a skeg to help with tracking. The skeg makes all the difference in my opinion, but overall this model tracks pretty well for an inflatable. You can even paddle it solo without difficulty.
If you are looking to make a more extended trip, this is an excellent choice - you can sleep in this, it's actually really comfortable. You just need a tarp or a sleeping bag! I've also heard from others who have taken their dog down the river in one of these and had no problems with scratchy claws. The construction is heavy duty and will be able to take quite a beating.
In fact, it's so strong that others have said that it can do whitewater, but it's not that manoeuvrable so I wouldn't recommend it. Because it has three air chambers it won't sink even if you do get a puncture; although it will suffer from it, you will almost certainly stay afloat!
Finally, if you get the Big Basin, I'd recommend an electric pump. You can easily inflate it with a hand or foot pump, but it's a big fellow so an electric pump will speed things up considerably.
The K2 and K1 are pretty similar, but for the size. The K2 is bigger and designed for two passengers. They're both really good quality for the price; these are superb kayaks for someone on a limited budget, they're also excellent beginners kayaks. At less than $200 it's a steal.
It's rated to carry about 160kg (350lbs) - quite a bit less than the previous two options. You do get what you pay for, and I would say that this kayak isn't as good as the Big Basin, and doesn't come close to the AdvancedFrame.
This model isn't suited to rougher conditions in my opinion and doesn't track as well as other kayaks. Nonetheless, it is very stable with a wide beam at 30 inches.
If you're on a budget, Intex is a great choice - I'd recommend the K2 over the K1 even if you mean to paddle solo because the extra length does help tracking and it's just a bit more roomy in general.
The alternative to the Intex Challenger series is the Explorer range - click here to read my review of the Intex Explorer K2.
The Coleman Quikpak is another Sevylor option - if you're after a cheap inflatable kayak then this might be just the thing. It's a nifty little single person kayak. The thing I love about it is one of Sevylor's little Things - the backpack system. It folds up into an integrated backpack with shoulder straps, so you can just carry it on your back between the car and the water.
Like a lot of Sevylor's boats, this is very quick from packed to paddling - about ten minutes for the first time. This is at least partly down to the use of Boston valves. A hand pump will suffice to inflate this easily.
The drawback is that it is only rated to carry 110 kg (250 lbs) - so for bigger fellows, it may not be the ideal choice for a camping or fishing trip.
Another Advanced Elements beauty - this time designed for whitewater. It has a rocker hull to improve its manoeuvrability in the rapids, and abrasion resistant rails to help it resist the battering it will inevitably get in the water.
It's quite a bit smaller than a lot of the other choices here, and that's deliberate - the shorter body allows it to turn on a pin, as does its light weight at about 15kg. It also comes with straps to keep you in the boat rather than where the action is (that is, in the rapids).
The three air chambers are another safety feature to help keep you afloat if the worst happens!
You may be a bit apprehensive about taking an inflatable down grade III or IV whitewater, but the Attack is very capable, and for the price, it's as good as you'll get.
You can fish from pretty much any kayak, and many inflatables have the stability required to cast a line and reel in your catch. But the NRS, being specifically designed for fishing, does have some advantages over less specialised models.
To begin with, it has a drop stitched floor which is remarkably rigid - something you don't appreciate until you try to fish from a floppy inflatable kayak in cold water. It also has a pretty good capacity at about 160kg (350lbs) - plenty of storage for your gear (and your catch!) - and three air chambers, like the Sevylor model, in case something goes awry with your hooks. I bet it happens! But it's made from pretty strong 40oz PVC tarp so that'll go some way to preventing any punctures too.
I wonder whether the spines on a bass would pop it? Probably not...
This yak is also covered in D rings so you can probably set it up however you like. It also has three Scotty mount pads for rod holders or a fish finder.
It is super stable which, as you know, is essential for fishing. It also comes with carrying handles and two removable fins for tracking.
Sea Eagle is famous for their inflatable kayaks, and they've been around for decades so you know that they should know their stuff.
The SE370 is billed as a three-person kayak, and although you can get three in it, I would prefer two - much like the Big Basin. Also similar to that yak is that people mention taking their dogs with them and having no issues with claws.
Do dogs really like kayaking? I know that mine would be such a nuisance, and probably jump out and get washed away. But they're very spirited dogs.
Back to the SE370 - it is rated to carry 295 kg (650 lbs) which is a pretty hefty load. You could definitely pack away a lot of stuff in here too, it's about 10'8" by about 15" internally, or 12'6" total length. It's pretty roomy.
It also comes with spray skirts which need to be lashed down - they do help to keep the water out of the boat especially in a bit of a swell.
You can read a full review of this kayak at https://www.kayakudos.com/sea-eagle-se370/
If you want to go more in-depth in choosing your inflatable kayak, you need to take into account the various types that are on offer. With inflatables you have sit-on-top, sit-in and canoe-style kayaks. Some people include SUPs (stand-up paddleboards), but they're so far removed from kayaks that I think they deserve their own treatment entirely. They are cool though...
This is, as you guessed, a kayak that you sit-on-top-of. If you look at one in profile, you'll see that the seat is basically level with the top of the sides. It's like a raft in this respect. A good example is the Coleman Quikpak K1.
This is more like the Big Basin or SE370 - the sides are noticeably higher than the seat. Unlike a rigid kayak, an inflatable sit-in is less enclosed. You usually don't have a covered cockpit to sit in, or a spray deck surrounding you. This makes them much more like....
The NRS pike fishing kayak above is a bit more canoe-like than kayak-like - it is wider, somewhat deeper. Great for things like fishing where you need a bit more space.
I think the canoe-style/sit-in line is pretty fuzzy. Most inflatable kayaks don't look like a rigid sit-in kayak and look more like an open canoe.
Obviously, a sit-in kayak (with a spray deck, if possible) will keep you drier in rougher conditions, while you will get wet on a sit-on-top kayak unless it's flat-calm out there. You can bail out much more easily with a sit-in kayak if you capsize for instance. But you are really unlikely to capsize with an inflatable (I've tried a few times, it takes a lot of effort). And in addition to that, most of the sit-in inflatable kayaks don't actually enclose you, so if you were to capsize you would just drop out anyway.
I like the sit-in inflatables because you can have your things on the deck without fear of them rolling off into the water. The downside is that the water accumulates in the kayak while most of it just washes over a sit-on-top style. Which brings me to...
A self-bailing kayak has a drain hole or drain holes to allow water incursion to escape. It's not necessary if you are only going to be going out on flat waters such as a nice lake, but if you are on the ocean in any kind of swell, you will probably get water in the yak. Which means if there is nowhere for it to get out you will eventually get bogged down.
The thing with a blow-up yak is that it probably won't sink even if it's filled with water because it has integral buoyancy due to the air-filled sides and floor. But it does make it harder to manoeuvre, and you do, of course, get very wet.
Where does the water go, if there's a hole in your boat? Doesn't it just flow in rather than out?
Well, yes, to some extent if you have a hole in the bottom of your yak it will let the water in, so you will get wet regardless. But because of the buoyancy of the boat, it tends to ride high on the water so that you won't get filled up, and when more water breaks over the sides, the kayak will buoy up, and the water will drain out.
I've tried going in the ocean with the drain plug closed, and I got bogged down pretty quickly. I didn't sink, but I did get wet, and it dragged a lot.
Then when I landed on the beach, I had what was essentially a rubber bathtub with several gallons of water to drag up the beach, which i could barely turn over because of the weight of water. That was a lesson learned!
Are you going to go out alone, or with a friend? I would tend to steer clear of the three-man kayaks if you want to go with three - splash out and get a tandem and a solo yak. Three people do fit in a SE370 or Big Basin, for sure, but they're more comfortable with two. But if you're just going out casually, three will be no problem.
You do get more speed up with a tandem; they are a bit harder to manoeuvre, but the extra length makes them good for getting places.
If you're going to use it for fishing, I'd recommend a tandem kayak for a single person. It allows you to have more gear with you. I'd also look for a fairly heavy-duty construction, the NRS yak above is a great choice. The fact that it has a drop stitched floor for rigidity makes it a winner; the drop stitching technique is just like what they use to make paddleboards.
If it's just for recreation, you can choose anything, but something that packs up small and is easy to transport would be ideal. A Quikpak for me and my buddy would be my choice, I think.
A whitewater kayak will need to be something smaller, ideally one that is designed for whitewater because of the improved manoeuvrability.
Remember, if you're a big fellow you should take the stated capacity with a grain of salt. You won't get three big guys in a SE370. If you're going camping, don't forget about the equipment you'll need. Heck, even if you're just going out for a quick paddle at the beach, you should have room for some of the essentials just in case.
Regardless of your level of experience, there is an inflatable kayak for you out there, somewhere. If you have trouble getting in and out, a sit-on-top style might be better. But they are more prone to tipping you off, especially in rough waters, because you're.. Well, you're sitting on top, so your centre of gravity is higher. But if you can overcome that hurdle, most inflatable kayaks are great for beginners and experienced people alike - they are very versatile but pretty stable as a rule.
The last point I should make is: buy your own paddle and gear. The paddles that come free with your yak are usually a bit second rate. Same goes for any PFD or dry bag or anything else that comes free as part of a package.
Your paddle is your number one safety tool. If you lose it, you're not going anywhere in a hurry - unless the current wants to take you there. So make sure it's fit for purpose, and maybe lash it to your boat. Number two is the PFD (personal floatation device). I'd definitely recommend getting a decent one. And in an ideal world, you should have something like a roll-down dry bag to store your phone and anything else you want to keep safe.