If you’re in the market for a recreational kayak, I’m betting you’ve wondered whether to opt for a hardshell or an inflatable.
Just 15 years ago, that choice didn’t really exist as hardshells 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. If you’re lucky enough to live near a body of water, I’m sure you’ve witnessed this first hand, as I have.
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! 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!
Maneuverability, Durability And Stability On The Water
Once you’re out on the water, hardshells 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. 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 etc. will considerably reduce your inflatable’s life expectancy.
Hardshells 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.
Hardshell vs. Inflatable: the pros and the cons
The ups and downs 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, faster than an inflatable, durable and are 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 downside 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.
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. 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 their hardshell counterparts 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!