man in a blue kayak on lake

Inflatable Kayak vs HardShell – Which is Better and How They Compare?


If you’re reading this then you will most likely have made the decision to take up kayaking.

Come on in – the water is warm.

Now you’re almost ready to join the club, but there’s one huge obstacle in the way. A burning question every paddler has asked at one time or another – and will no doubt continue to ask long into the future.

Inflatable kayak vs hardshell – which one is better?

And, just like everyone else, when you think you’ve settled on the answer, another factor you’ve overlooked will throw a spanner into the works and you’ll be right back to square one.

Tearing your hair out in the process.

Well, no more! For here we endeavor to end the debate once and for all!

Who will come out on top? Let’s find out.

The Inflatable Kayak

At one time, all but the most foolhardy of watersports enthusiasts would have balked at the very idea of inflatable kayaks.

What happens if there’s a puncture? What if it pops? What if you snag it on a rock?

Thankfully, the advancement of inflatable kayak technology ensures that they are a lot tougher and more durable than many give them credit for.

They’re a far-cry from that manual blow-up dingy you had when you were in kindergarten.

Take a look at the video below to give you an idea just how far inflatable kayaks have come.

What Are They Made From?

Today, the best inflatable kayaks are usually made from rugged materials such as neoprene, nitrilon, PVC, or polyurethane coated cloth (tarpaulin).

Hypalon (which is under the neoprene umbrella) is especially durable and stands up well against UV rays.

These kayaks are built to be puncture-proof with double-coated, rip-stop fabrics that are guaranteed not to leak.

Many of the high-end inflatable kayaks have an additional aluminum frame for increased durability and performance on the water.

They will also include more than one air-chamber – so even if you do happen to get a puncture in one, you can be sure you’ll make it back to dry land safely.

And for the most part, inflatable kayaks should be NMMA certified. (National Marine Manufacturers Association).

persons feet in a green kayak

The Pros


The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is just how much cheaper an inflatable kayak is compared to a hard shell.

The difference is astounding. In some cases you could well end up paying more for some of the best PFD’s that you will for the actual kayak.

Having said that, some top-of-the-line inflatable kayaks can cost a pretty penny, too.

But if you’re on a budget, or you’re just starting out in the hobby, then an inflatable kayak is a solid choice in the financial department.

Lightweight and Portable

Inflatable kayaks are considerably lighter than their hardshell counterparts.

As a ball-park figure, they will usually weigh somewhere in the region of 20-50 lbs.

But aluminum-framed inflatables or tandem craft could weigh considerably more.

The simple fact that you can pack them down into their own carry bag and throw them into the trunk of any vehicle is a considerable advantage. No need for additional trailers or roof-racks at all.

You can even travel across the world with it for kayaking in an exotic location.

And It only takes one person to transport this kind of kayak down to the water.

Going toe-to-toe with hardshells, inflatable kayaks win this round every single time.


A follow-on from an inflatable kayak’s portability and another huge plus-point is how easy it is to store them.

You don’t need racks, rails or any kind of specialized shelving hardware.

And you barely need any space in the home. You can stick your kayak behind the couch, under the bed or in the closet.

Wherever you decide to keep it, it’ll be ready to go at a moment’s notice, but nobody will notice it’s there at all.

group of people kayaking


Now, you might be scratching your head a little with this one – how is this an advantage with an inflatable kayak? Well, hear me out.

The material an inflatable kayak is constructed from (see above) is highly durable. Imagine if you were to hit a rocky bank with one – what would happen?

It would bounce right off.

Would a hardshell kayak do that?

Certainly not without taking a heavy, eye-sore of a dent – that’s for sure.

I’ll once again refer you to the above video -that guy actually drives over the kayak in a car!

The Cons


Or lack of it, I should say. Inflatable kayaks simply won’t last as long as hardshells.

Even with the more expensive models, they will give out sooner or later and you will need to replace them eventually.

While the cheaper models in this category will have a significantly lower shelf life.

Inflating and Deflating

Alright, so they might claim that this process can happen in minutes with the right pump and a Boston valve, but let’s be honest – it’s still a pain in the ass to do.

Waiting for it to be launchable can be a frustrating experience – especially if your friends out there with the hardshells have set off without you.

Not only that, waiting for it to dry when you’re having to deflate the thing is even more of a chore.

And woe betide you if your pump stops working or if you leave it back at home.

Because you’re not going to be able to blow that baby up like a balloon, let me tell you.

Upkeep and Care

Literally, after every single time you take out your inflatable kayak, you’re going to need to wash it and make sure it dries out completely and thoroughly.

Much like a tent, packing something like this away when it’s still damp is a sure-fire way to damage it.

Added to that, it will result in your house smelling like a toad’s fart in a stagnant pond.

Punctures are Possible

Yes, so I know I’ve banged on about how durable modern inflatable kayaks are.

But they come with puncture repair kits for a reason.

For the most part, they will stand up to just about anything you throw at them – but accidents can and do happen. A rogue tree branch could ruin your day at any moment.

And while you’re not going to be sinking like the Titanic, it’s a serious – but necessary – inconvenience to return to shore and repair the damage.

You might even have to call it a day.

man in kayak by mountains

Onboard Storage

Inflatable kayaks are cute – they might offer a mesh pocket to put your valuables in.

They might even have shock-cord webbing to store some gear or belongings.

But they haven’t got a hope when it comes to matching the storage compartments, hatches, tank wells, consoles or any other incredibly useful stowaway options that hardshell kayaks can offer.


They don’t have any.

Hardshell Kayaks

Kayaks have been around for thousands of years, first thought to have been used by people indigenous to the subarctic regions of the world.

Now they come in all shapes and sizes, all types and styles, all targeted at a variety of users.

Touring kayaks, ocean kayaks, fishing kayaks, recreational kayaks, lake kayaks, hunting kayaks, whitewater kayaks, military kayaks, world-record-circumnavigate-the-globe-kayaks…

The list is seemingly endless.

man in a blue kayak on lake

What Are They Made From?

Our ancestors likely would have used kayaks made out of seal skin and whalebone, with later models being hewn from wood.

Modern, hardshell kayaks only started to become popular in the 1950s – when fiberglass was introduced.

Today, kayaks are largely made out of tough, durable materials such as polyethylene. Most recreational kayaks will be constructed with this rugged plastic.

However, more expensive and professional kayaks (for those round-the-world-attempts) will be made of carbon fiber, fiberglass or kevlar.

Kevlar kayaks are the most expensive hardshell kayaks on the market due to their extremely lightweight yet highly durable properties.

You’ll need to remortgage your house for one of those.

The Pros


Generally speaking, a hardshell kayak is going to give better performance across the board than an inflatable version.

Disclaimer – that’s not to say there isn’t a cross-over. More expensive inflatables will outperform lower-end hardshells with ease.

But overall, when it comes to speed, tracking and maneuverability, you just can’t beat a quality hardshell kayak.

This is especially true when being used in choppier, rougher waters.

And when it comes to kayak performance, this is a HUGE plus point.

Ready for the Water

You don’t have to wait for a hardshell kayak to inflate.

You don’t have to wait for a hardshell kayak to deflate.

The time you save here alone is so worth it. Just bring it to the water’s edge and you’re good to go.

girl in a yellow kayak


Whereas this was a CON for the inflatable kayak, it’s very much a PRO for the hardshell.

Given a little bit of TLC, your hardshell kayak should last a lifetime.

But it’s a very good idea to learn some basic kayak maintenance in order to prolong its life. I suggest checking out the video below to get you started.

Weight Capacity

While some inflatables do claim they can take up to 500 lbs as maximum weight capacity, by and large they’re not going to be able to compete in this field with hardshells.

Hardshell fishing kayaks for example – they’re built to stow everything – including the kitchen sink – onboard.

The Cons


Sure, some hardshells might be “ultralight” or “superlight” or however a manufacturer wants to call it – but they just can’t match inflatable kayaks when it comes to weight.

Only if you’re spending silly amounts of money for a kevlar boat are you going to be able to match an inflatable in this department.


You can’t just sling a hardshell kayak in the back of your car – unless you seriously want to break some windows.

Actually getting a hardshell kayak to the water is a mission in itself. You need to have a kayak rack or trailer for your vehicle – and those things don’t come cheap, either.

Added to that, the act of carrying, lifting and attaching the kayak safely can be some effort – and it’s nearly always a two-person job.

Then you have to do it all again down by the water.

When you’ve dropped one on your toes a few times, you could well be cursing that you never bought and inflatable in the first place.

man in kayak in forrest

Maintenance and Storage

Although it seems like a pain to wash and dry an inflatable – it’s nothing compared to the overall maintenance a hardshell needs.

It needs to be thoroughly cleaned after every use, treated if required and any dinks, dents, warps or serious scratches taken care of.

If you’ve been kayaking in salt water – it needs to be thoroughly given the hose with freshwater. (If you are only thinking about fishing in the open waters, take a look at the best ocean fishing kayaks and maybe you find the right one for you.)

Then you need to make sure you actually have the space to store a hardshell. A cool, dry place such as a garage or large shed.

Much more challenging than hiding it behind the couch.


While at the bottom end there’s not much to separate them, if you really want a quality hardshell, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Because when all is said and done – good kayaks aren’t cheap and cheap kayaks aren’t good.


According to my calculations, I have the hardshell just coming out on top in this particular article – but maybe that’s because I’m biased.

In all honesty, it really is a close call and they both make excellent claims for the title.

But that still begs your question:

Inflatable Kayak or Hardshell – Which One is Right for Me?

The answer is deceptively simple.

If you’re a beginner, you’re on a budget or you have limited space – you should purchase an inflatable kayak.

If you have more experience, a good bit of coin to spend and have plentiful room to store it – then a hardshell just might be for you.

Also, if you just want much better performance on the water all-round then just get a hardshell and be done with it.

man in lifejacket in kayak


There you have it, folks – there’s no clear winner in the battle of the inflatable kayak vs hardshell.

(Cough* hardshell.)

I hope this has provided some entertaining food for thought and has helped you make a decision. Either way, kayaking is an excellent pastime and I’d urge anyone to give it a go.

And do let me know in the comments which kayak you think should win the title and why.

Happy kayaking!