Kayaks give you unrivaled access to quiet lakes, rushing rivers and hidden inlets. And, on calm water, they require little-to-no technical skill. The only problem with ‘yaks is when you’re out of the water — most are heavy, bulky and take up a ton of space in your home (if you live in an apartment, you’ll need to get creative).
Enter: Inflatable kayaks. (While most collapsible kayaks are inflatable, there are a few others that use frames and folds instead of air; some are good, some are more cumbersome than convenient.) Inflatables simplify that process. They pack down small, which means they’re easy to store and transport. While an inflatable kayak will never outperform a hard boat, they do handle well on most water thanks to advancements in materials and boat designs, says Wes Eads, Gearhead and Sales Associate at outdoor e-retailer Backcountry.
Take note: inflatable kayaks offer less control since they sit on the water instead of in it, and they require perfect air pressure for optimal performance. But, generally, inflatable, collapsible and foldable kayaks make everything else easier — from transportation to storage. Plus, they open up a world of new paddling possibilities; put one on your back and you can hike in five miles to a hidden lake, or check it underneath a plane for international travel. They’re usually lighter on your bank account, too.
Don’t fall for the $100 boats you can get at Walmart, though. “To ensure you’re getting a quality boat, you need high-quality materials and construction methods,” says Eads. Look for vessels made from Hypalon (like commercial rafts) and PVC with high-pressure valves (especially C7s produced by Leafield), and ideally welded seams instead of glued, which are tougher on rough water. And, bonus if the boat has an internal cell of air (called an air chamber) as well as an external shell. “This acts as a second layer of defense against puncturing,” Eads adds.
Here are seven high-quality collapsible kayaks worth your money.
Best Budget Kayak: Sevylor Quikpak K5
The QuikPak hits the sweet spot of relatively cheap without compromising quality with the bonus of being quite convenient to carry. Made of 25-gauge PVC with a few skegs, which are similar to a rudder but immovable, on the bottom to help with tracking, this inflatable kayak is reliable enough for a riled-up lake or light river paddle. The built-in spray skirt stretches across the cockpit and is an excellent guard against weather and water. Multiple air chambers are a must when working with inflatable boats — these are your first guard against having the boat pop when there’s a leak. Most intriguing, the whole kayak (minus the pump) packs down into the seat to become a 25-pound backpack for easy transport, and it can be off your back and on the water in under 10 minutes. You’ll probably want to upgrade to a less finicky pump and paddle, but $300 for a ‘yak is still a pretty sweet deal.
Best For White Water Paddling: NRS MaverIK I
From legacy-brand NRS, the MaverIK is one of the most trustworthy traditional duckies — that’s kayaker jargon for an inflatable vessel — available to tackle whitewater. The sizable width and higher rocker angles on the tip and tail make the boat secure and super responsive on big rapids, yet it’s also easy to exit and enter if you get dumped. Multiple air chambers are sealed with the gold-standard of valves, the Leafield C7, and NRS’s Pennel Orca material, a super high-quality Hypalon, is so durable that the MaverIK I comes with a 10-year warranty. For an extra $100 you can upgrade to the performance pack — it includes thigh straps and a factory-installed foot peg, which you’ll want when you hit Class III rapids.
Best for Beginners: Oru Beach LT
Oru’s origami kayaks are maybe the coolest thing to happen to the category since, well, inflatables were created. The hull is one piece of a custom polypropylene — the same material used on plastic mailboxes — that’s been pre-folded (20,000 times). With strategically-placed straps, buckles and neoprene fairings, the polypropylene sheet easily transforms into a legit kayak — and one that stays afloat, keeps water out, isn’t threatened by rough rocks and tracks decently, even in open water. When you’re done, unfold and refold it into a box the size of a large portfolio case, complete with a carrying strap.
As cool and reliable as the design is, an Oru kayak can still be awkward to lug around. But you can buy a backpack case that lets you load the 26-pound hunk up a short hike more easily or even check it on a plane. The company offers four different designs for various types of paddling, including a new tandem model this Spring. We love the entry-level, 12-foot Beach LT for a kayak that’ll keep up with any spontaneous day trips on a lake, bay, or calmer river.
Best for More Than One Person: Sea Eagle 370
Sea Eagle’s tandem offering is the poster child of why people have been turning to the company for reliable inflatable kayaks for over 50 years. It weighs just 32 pounds and packs down small enough to throw in the trunk, yet it can fit three people and ferry up to 650 pounds, making it an excellent option for bigger guys or overnight trips on flat water with a ton of gear. It’s made from a toughened PolyKrylar (a PVC material that will hold up to UV light, oil and gas) and all of its seams are welded. Plus, the I-beam floor has five inflatable tubes and two skegs underneath, making for a speedy and relatively responsive 12-foot vessel.
Best for Clean Tracking: Advanced Elements AE1012 AdvancedFrame Kayak
A hybrid of a folding frame kayak and an inflatable, this boat packs down relatively well (it fits into a medium duffel). At 36 pounds, it’s a little heavier than others — but it performs way above most. The aluminum ribs in the bow and stern give the boat more control and tracking in the water so it handles as close to a hard-shell kayak as you’ll find in an inflatable, which, to many, makes it worth the extra weight. Plus, the construction is top-notch: the boat is made from a triple-layer of polyester material with a double PVC coating, has welded seams, convenient carrying handles, multiple air chambers and the right amount of onboard storage room for long trips. (Advanced Elements also make a cool tandem-convertible kayak in a longer version of the same frame that’s worth checking out).
Best for Tackling Rapids: Cronin Ugly Ducky
While most inflatable kayaks are notoriously terrible in white water, the Ugly Ducky is made specifically to help you tackle rapids. It may look like a glorified pool float (hence the name), but the huge rocker nose and tail allow you to plow through lateral waves rather than dive into them as traditional or inflatable kayaks tend to do (no rolling required, either). Instead of the typical I-beam floor of a ducky that forces you to sit higher in the water, Cronin’s has a drop-stitch floor, putting you essentially at water level, making you more stable on rapids. It won’t treat you well on a calm lake since the square front isn’t ideal there, and the rocker nose catches the wind, but in white water, fans say the goofy-slash-ingenious design lets them tackle rapids a class above what they can handle in a hard boat. One downside: while the boat does pack down to about the size of a carry-on suitcase, it doesn’t come with a carrying case or a pump.
Best for Long Hikes In: Kokopelli Rogue-Lite
Kokopelli’s new Rogue-lite, on pre-order now, is a pack raft, not a kayak — but considering it rolls up to be just 4.8 pounds and the size of a paper towel roll, it’s the most ideal boat on this list for stuffing into a backpack or on a bike for hike-in launches and high-alpine lake fishing. Don’t be fooled by its compact size, either — the boat, crafted for easy white water, moderate rivers and lakes, is made from Kokopelli’s uber-durable proprietary blend, in addition to a Kevlar-reinforced floor with seams that are bot stitched and double-taped. The lighter weight does come with some comfort compromises — there’s no seat back — and just a single inflation chamber, but with the featherweight of this boat and reliability of the Kokopelli brand, the payoff is well worth it.
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