Hardshell Kayaks vs Inflatable Kayaks

Hardshell kayaks and inflatable kayaks both have their pros and cons. Inflatables are perfect for some people and hardshells are perfect for others.

If you’re wondering what the differences between hardshell and inflatable kayaks are, and want a quick answer, we’ve outlined each type below:

Hardshell Kayaks: Hardshell kayaks are usually made from moulded hard plastics. These are the more traditional kayaks you will see. They come in both sit-in and sit-on designs.

Inflatable Kayaks: Inflatable kayaks are usually made from PVC and Hypalon. Being inflatable, they can be carried to the bank in a small case and inflated fully at the waterside. You will only really find this style of kayak in sit-on designs, with their shape looking more canoe-like than anything. .

In this article, we will be looking at what both types are, what they are best for, their strengths and weaknesses, and finally, which type suits you best..

What are Hardshell Kayaks?

Hardshell kayaks (also known as rigid kayaks) are usually constructed from hard plastics, but wood, fiberglass, and Kevlar materials can be used also. It is most common to see hardshell kayaks made from plastics as the material can be easily and cost-effectively moulded to form the vessel.

They come in both sit-in and sit-on styles and are extremely durable. Their solid construction makes them wear resistant, meaning they can take a proper beating on the river. Their durability also means they will last for years without failure or loss in performance.

Performance wise, the hardshell kayak beats the inflatable kayak. Although inflatables have come a long way in recent years, the tracking of the hardshell kayak is far superior. They are generally much more stable in a wide range of conditions, and because they sit lower in the water, tracking is truer, turning is easier, and paddling requires less effort.

With excellent strength, durability, and performance comes some drawbacks though. The main drawback being the weight and size of the hardshell kayak. Most single person kayaks weigh in the range of 50 – 70 pounds and depending on type, can be anywhere from 6-foot – 12-foot plus. This can be a drawback for some as storage and transport may not be as accessible.

Although a little on the bulky side, hardshell kayaks have the best balance of durability, versatility, and performance. Most professional kayaks are rigid and with good reason too. They’re also not too bad to transport, providing you have a large enough car with a roof rack and a set of trolley wheels for getting it to the water.

What are Hardshell Kayaks Good for?

Hardshell kayaks are extremely versatile and there are many designs fit for different purposes. You’ll find hardshells fit for touring, whitewater, casual paddling, fishing, coastal use, and more. Recreational kayaks are the most versatile design, being able to cope in most environments including some whitewater situations.

Whether you are planning on heading out to your local lake on the weekends for some casual paddling, taking to the waterways for some fishing, or tackling raging whitewaters around the world, there is a hardshell kayak that’ll suit.

In our opinion, hardshell kayaks are the best type of kayak for multiple uses. They provide the best comfort, stability, and usability in the water. However, if you’re short on storage space or don’t have an appropriate vehicle for transportation, an inflatable may be better.

Hardshell Kayaks Pros and Cons

Like anything, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the hardshell kayak. It’s up to you to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons for your specific purpose. To help you sift through these, we’ve outlined the pros and cons below:
  • Extremely durable
  • Great versatility
  • Stable in the water
  • No setup required
  • Much more nimble

  • Heavier than their inflatable cousins
  • Large and difficult to transport and store for some
  • Usually more expensive than inflatable kayaks
  • Requires more balance in turbulent waters

What are Inflatable Kayaks?

Inflatable kayaks are much better than they used to be. They are no longer the puncture-prone death traps of the past and they are arguably just as durable as the hardshell kayak (if you acquire a high-quality model).

They are constructed from PVC, Hypalon, or Nitrylon. Construction consists of multiple air chambers that require inflation at the water’s edge. It’s pretty rare to find inflatable kayaks in sit-in styles and their design is more similar to a canoe in the fact that they have a flat bottom and high sides.

Because they are filled with air, they sit higher in the water. This means they can usually hold more weight than their hardshell cousins, but manoeuvrability and tracking is sacrificed. Although not noticeable on a casual paddle, inflatable kayaks require much more effort when paddling as they don’t cut through the water as well as hardshells. This may not affect you if you’re heading out for a recreational paddle on the weekend but if you’re planning on touring, this extra effort can become a burden.

They are much lighter than hardshell kayaks weighing in at almost half the average weight of a hardshell. They are also much

more compact when collapsed. This means they can be stored and used even if you live in a tiny apartment and drive a small city car.

Although this aspect is great for ease of transportation, it does mean you’ll have some set up to do when you get to the water. You will have to pump the kayak up before taking to the water, otherwise you won’t be getting very far at all!

What are Inflatable Kayaks Good for?

Inflatable kayaks are perfect if storage and transport is an issue for you. If you live in a small apartment and want a kayak, an inflatable is ideal. They can be folded up and stored in the corner, cupboard, or big enough drawer.

They are also easier to transport, and even if you’re driving the faithful classic mini, you’ll still be able to squeeze it in the boot. Their light weight also means without a car it’s not impossible to carry your vessel down to the water, providing you live within walking distance to a waterbody.

Although less nimble, Inflatable kayaks are extremely stable in the water and require less skill and balance to use. This makes them perfect for beginners. The flat bottom and high-buoyancy make them incredibly difficult to capsize. If you’re looking for a casual kayak to use on the weekend in calm waters, an inflatable kayak is a great option.

They are a little less versatile than the hardshell kayak in terms of useable situations. Being sit-on kayaks, they aren’t great in whitewater and although materials and construction techniques have come on leaps and bounds, there is always a risk of puncturing them on a sunken log or hidden rock.

You will find inflatable kayaks that are designed for casual paddling, touring, light coastal use, whitewater use, and fishing. However, although they do perform well, in some of these situations a hardshell kayak will outperform an inflatable.

Inflatable Kayaks Pros and Cons

There are both advantages and disadvantages to inflatable kayaks. Whether the pros outweigh the cons is down to you. To help you decide whether the inflatable kayak is best for you, we have devised a a simple list of pros and cons below:
  • Extremely lightweight
  • Compact when deflated
  • Easy to store and transport
  • Stable in calmer waters
  • Great for beginners
  • Generally cheaper than hardshell kayaks
  • Setup is required bankside
  • Although durable, there’s always a risk of puncture
  • More effort needed to paddle
  • Less manoeuvrable
  • Not as versatile as hardshells
  • Less design options available

How to Choose the Best Kayak for You

Choosing the best kayak for you ultimately comes down to your situation. In our opinion, there are three determining factors that will affect your decision — transport, storage, and budget.

If you desperately want a kayak but storage or transport is a big issue for you, then an inflatable kayak is an option that’ll unlock the water for you. However, if storage and transport isn’t an issue, a hardshell kayak is a much worthier investment.

If you’re on a budget, then finding an inflatable kayak may be easier for you. You should remember that price usually aligns with quality though. If you go bottom of the range with an inflatable kayak, don’t expect durability and longevity. That being said, you will still find an inflatable kayak for sub 200 that’ll serve you well on calm waters.

To help you figure out which option is best for you, we have another couple of handy lists below:

Get a Hardshell Kayak if:
  • You consider a kayak a long-term investment
  • Storage and transport aren’t an issue
  • You expect to explore a variety of waterways
  • You want the best tracking and manoeuvrability
Get an Inflatable Kayak if:
  • Storage space is at a premium
  • You have no vehicle or your vehicle is too small for a full-size hardshell kayak
  • You want a budget-friendly way to explore your local lake every now and then
  • You want to bring a kayak with you on casual camping trips and holidays

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