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Best Inflatable Kayak for Whitewater

What kinds of kayaks are there, and why should you go for an inflatable one for whitewater rapids?

Buying your first kayak means two things, usually. One, you’re pretty excited to be getting into a new sport, and can’t wait to go out on the water, and two, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the number of options and it is very easy to make a mistake.

The first one is always good, and you should be excited as kayaking is actually a very interesting sport. However, the second one can spell disaster if you fail to do your research, which is something that more people do than would care to admit. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, it is actually easier to mess up your purchase than you’d think. When you’re shopping for a whitewater kayak, you will find plenty of options. However, the first thing you will run into is hard shell kayaks, collapsible kayaks, and inflatable kayaks. Let’s dive deeper and see what each of them is.

You may want to click here for the best inflatable kayak in the market this year, now, let’s begin with…

Hard Shell Kayaks

white water rapids kayakingThese are also known as rigid kayaks, or hard sided kayaks. They are high upkeep in terms of maintenance, which only adds up to the cost.  Nowadays, you will find mostly plastic kayaks, as they have been picking up steam these past few years. They’re the heaviest material for a hard shell kayak, but the cheapest, which is what leads people to buy them. They are in no way bad, but they are expensive to repair if you happen to damage them. However, damaging them is actually much more difficult than you think, since they’re very resistant. You will also find fiberglass and carbon fiber or Kevlar kayaks, but those are pretty exotic models, with a price to match. They’re extremely lightweight though, and easy to maneuver.

a grey kayakCollapsible Kayaks

are more expensive than both hard shell kayaks, as well as inflatables. They are basically made of fabric, which stretches over a frame, usually a wood or metal one, and takes the shape of a kayak.

Even though they’re expensive, they are very durable, and pretty tough, which means that you will really have to try if you want to damage them, and their resale price is also pretty good.

a man kayaking in rapidsLast but not least, we have

Inflatable Whitewater Kayaks

They will be the focus of the guide, and you will see who should get one, and why.

First of all, inflatable kayaks are the best choice for people who are buying their first kayak. They are very lightweight, tough and durable, which also makes them good for rougher situations such as whitewater rapids. They also have one more benefit that you won’t find anywhere else, and that is portability. You can deflate them and put them in a backpack, which means that you don’t need a kayak trailer or even roof racks to carry them, and you can throw them in the corner of your garage, without them taking up a lot of space. And, last but not least, they’re pretty cheap, which is great for anyone looking to try out the sport, without being sure if you want to completely invest yourself.

a man in an inflatable kayak in rapidsEven though plenty of people seem to think that inflatable kayaks are not made for whitewater rapids, it is actually quite the opposite. The materials used for inflatable kayaks nowadays are very durable and increasingly resistant to damage. And, obviously, it is much less damaging to hit a rock with an inflatable kayak, which only bounces, instead of hitting it with a hard shell and getting a hole that is very tricky to repair afterward. One of the greatest things about these kayaks is that even though they can carry multiple people and their gear, which totals multiple hundred pounds, they can be carried to the water by a single person and only weigh a few pounds themselves. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s see what an inflatable whitewater kayak consists of, and what things you should look for when buying.

 What Are Inflatable Kayaks Made Of?

When you see an inflatable kayak next to a hard shell kayak, the differences are immediately visible. There are plenty of parts that are unique to inflatable kayaks, and they’re often completely different from what you will find on a rigid kayak. For anyone who is looking to purchase their first inflatable whitewater kayak, you should know what these parts are and how they work.

Air Chambers

Air chamber inflatable kayakWe’ll begin with the obvious – air chambers. Inflatable whitewater kayaks are all made of multiple air chambers, which make sure that even if there is a problem, the kayak will leak pretty slowly instead of popping suddenly and causing serious problems. This way, if one of the chambers happens to have a leak, you still have a few others to keep your kayak floating and make sure that you get to shore safely. For example, if your floor air chamber goes, that still leaves you two side chambers and your kayak won’t completely deflate this way. Most of the inflatable kayaks available today, especially those for whitewater rapids, are constructed like this, to keep you safe in case something happens.


kayak valvesTo inflate the aforementioned air chambers, the air is filled through valves. Those valves are one-way valves, which only let air get inside the air chambers, but not leave them afterward. There are two commonly used valves, a Boston valve, and a military valve. Most of the high-quality inflatable whitewater kayaks will come with one or the other. A Boston valve screws into a fitting in each chamber, and comes with a rubber flap that lets air in, but not out. There’s also a top cap that covers the hole. A military valve has six screws that hold it in place and is usually installed in a recessed boot. It is a very dependable valve, and it has been used for years.


This is another key part of inflatable kayaks.Kayak ring image D-Rings are usually found all over the kayak, and the more you have, the more things you can attach to them. You can secure anything you want, from seats, to dry bags and backrests, and even your gear. The good thing is that even if you think that you need extra D-Rings, with an inflatable whitewater kayak it’s as easy as buying extra ones and gluing them on.

Seats and Footrests

TUBEFTRSTWhen you buy a kayak, they usually come with some kind of seat. The difference between a hard shell and an inflatable kayak is that with an inflatable kayak, the seats are usually inflatable as well. This also gives you the flexibility of getting a seat that suits you better. As far as footrests go, they’re often inflatable as well, and you can always add them in if your kayak doesn’t have them.

Drain Holes

NRS Outlaw II Inflatable Orange kayakEven though almost all inflatable kayaks come with self-bailing drain holes, you will find that they are a staple feature of whitewater rapid kayaks. Their main purpose is to let the water that collects into your kayak drain out, and lighten your boat. This isn’t so necessary in a recreational kayak, but kayaks made for rough water will experience water getting inside of them pretty often, and drain holes are a welcome addition. However, even if your kayak of choice doesn’t have drain holes, don’t worry. An inflatable kayak is made so it doesn’t sink even if it is filled right up with water. The air chambers will keep it floating, so you don’t have to worry. However, it is pretty heavy, so if you don’t have drain holes, you might want to bring a bilge pump with you, to help you empty your kayak.

Rudders and Skegs

kayak finsSkegs and rudders are different, even though you might think otherwise. Rudders are usually used on the ocean or touring kayaks, as they help with maintaining a straight direction. However, in conditions when your direction is affected by waves or wind, such as in whitewater rapids, you will need a skeg. The skegs can help with the skidding, and keep your kayak on track. They can truly make a big difference in the performance, and you might want to look into getting one.

What Should You Keep An Eye Out For When Buying?

When you’re buying a whitewater inflatable kayak, there are a couple of questions you need to ask yourself, and I will elaborate below. There are plenty of styles and a lot of issues you might run into when buying, so make sure to read what is written below carefully, and then make a decision.

  1. What are your weight and size, and how much weight do you need to carry?

a woman carring a red kayakA whitewater kayak should be comfortable, as rough conditions will put a lot of stress on your body. You should look at the design of the kayak, as well as the width and the legroom. If you’re tall, is more of your height in the torso, or your legs? This can make a massive difference, so check accordingly. Also, you will need to check the carrying capacity, to make sure that you can fit along with your gear, and are below the limit.

  1. Are you always going to paddle solo, or are you always bringing along someone for the ride? Or do you want both options?

people in a inflatable kayakIf you want to go solo, there is no need of getting a tandem kayak. However, if you often bring someone along, you should get a larger kayak so you can both fit inside. Or, if you want both options, or are unsure of whether you need a solo or a tandem inflatable kayak, you can get an inflatable with multiple sitting positions. This way, you have front, rear, and center options. The front and rear can comfortably seat two people, and you can remove one seat and shift the other one to the center if you’re going solo.

  1. Will you carry a lot of gear?

a packraft backrestIf you want to bring along plenty of gear, you will need storage options. D-Rings can give you that flexibility, but you can also look for attachment options for storage bags, both at the rear and the front. Some whitewater inflatable kayaks even offer bungee cord storage options at the stern and hull.

  1. Do you need a spray skirt?

a woman kayakingSince we’re discussing whitewater inflatables here, yes, you do need a spray skirt. Especially useful in waves, or cold weather, having a spray skirt surrounding your cockpit and body can make a huge difference. It keeps much of the water out, as well as maintaining temperature inside the cockpit.

  1. Do you need self-bailing options?

a gray inflatable mk1205b-2 kayakNot to be confused with drain plugs, a self-bailing kayak is especially useful in whitewater situations. There are holes in the bottom, and the water that spills inside when you pass through the rapids will go out through the holes. However, in calm waters, the water will come back in, but you shouldn’t worry about this since you’re looking for a whitewater kayak anyways.

  1. What are the dimensions and weight of the kayak that you would be able to carry?

a man carriying a kayakPeople who buy inflatable kayaks often buy them because of their portability. However, you still need to carry this kayak around before you inflate it and get into the water. There are even situations where you will need to hike with a backpack to get to the rapids you’d like to go in. For this purpose, you should be careful with the dimensions of the kayak and its weight.

What Brands To Go With?

multiple kayak brandsThere are plenty of brands that offer kayaks, especially inflatable ones. You will find plenty of cheap options, as well as plenty of expensive ones, but buying from a reputable brand can mean a lot in terms of quality and durability. These brands all have extensive lineups of kayaks, and you can see the customer reviews for them, in case you decide to investigate any one of them, they are usually positive.

The first brand worth mentioning here is definitely Sea Eagle, as they have been around for years and offer some of the best kayaks you can buy. Other brands worth mentioning are NRS, Advanced Elements, Coleman, Solstice, Pelican, and Intex. All of them can be trusted, and they range from cheap beginner inflatable whitewater kayaks to more expensive and advanced models.

There Are A Few Myths That You shouldn’t Trust, Regarding Inflatable Kayaks

Since the internet is an obvious place to find information on just about anything, you will undoubtedly run into some myths about inflatable kayaks, and here are a few that you should avoid.

  1. They can’t perform well in whitewater.

    This is outright wrong, as there are a lot of manufacturers that sell some very good inflatable whitewater kayaks, and they do well even in class IV whitewater rapids.

  2. They are slow and difficult to maneuver.

    This is true only for the cheap pool toys that you probably got when you were a kid, but a well-made inflatable whitewater kayak will be incredibly quick to maneuver, and will also track well across the water.

  3. They’ll leak on the first sight of a rock.

    Another lie. Yes, this one could also happen with those pool toys, but a serious inflatable kayak is made of heavy-duty PVC and will bounce off the rock instead of popping.

  4. They’re made for people who aren’t serious about kayaking.

    First of all, kayaking is all about having fun. There are plenty of people who enjoy an inflatable kayak, and there are even whitewater competitions for inflatable kayaks. How much more serious can you get?

  5. They are not as stable as a hard shell.

    When you see the construction and the fact that an inflatable kayak’s base is usually wider than a hard shell, you realize that they’re actually very stable.

  6. They aren’t as fun as a hard-shell kayak.

    There are quite a few things that you can’t really do in an inflatable kayak, such as blunts, an Eskimo roll, the McNasty, etc. However, if these few tricks aren’t a big deal there’s really not that much you can do in a hard shell that you can’t in an inflatable.

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About Julian Thompson

cb787c59d2808e1f609076e790ca977e?s=90&d=mm&r=gCertifications: Certified Kayaking Instructor (AKA)
Education: American Kayak Association
Lives In: Denver Colorado

I am a kayaking expert/instructor who has been fishing for over 15 years. Fishing is my passion, but kayaking keeps me on the water. I love to share my knowledge of techniques and tips with others. I live in Colorado with my wife and two kids and own a small kayak rental business On Grand Lake where I rent and instruct.