Everybody who has a love for water absolutely needs some form of transportation on the water.
Whether you want to go fishing, find new beaches, go kayaking or need a tender for a larger boat, you should consider inflatable boats.
If you’ve ever seen an inflatable boat being set up at the beach, being paddled on the water or even driven with a motor, you’ll have seen how great they are both in terms of economy and usage. They are much cheaper than traditional wooden or fiberglass boats, are more portable and easier to maintain.
There are several categories of inflatable boats, with each type having a specific purpose.
Please choose wisely with a clear purpose, otherwise you will find yourself regretting your choice. The type of inflatable you will ultimately pick will depend on how you will use your inflatable watercraft.
What is an inflatable boat exactly?
An inflatable boat is a lightweight water craft whose sides and bow (forward part) are made out of a flexible, inflatable tube. The tubes are made of rubberized synthetic fabrics, like PVC and polyurethane. The tubes provide bouyancy, and are less expensive than traditional boats.
The transom of an inflatable boat (back side of the boat) may be rigid, providing a place to mount an outboard motor.
The flooring of inflatable boats will vary, depending on the size and purpose of the boat. We can classify them as roll-up floor, hard floor and air floor. If you want to find out more, read this article on inflatable boat floor types.
Now let’s have a look at the different types of inflatable water crafts you need to know about
This first category of inflatable water crafts may be somewhat subjective, but I think many people will agree that the words “inflatable raft” usually refer to an inflatable boat suited mostly for water fun and play.
Such simple water rafts are not seaworthy, they are recreational in nature. They will have inflatable floors making them comfortable to sit on and jump around, which is great for a day at the beach with kids.
The quality of inflatable rafts will vary a lot, which is reflected by their price.
Models at the lower end of the price range are toys. As the price increases, the rafts get bigger and more features are added, such as multiple air chambers, safety valves, grab ropes, multiple handles, oar clasps, fishing rod holders, or even motor mounts and an inflatable keel for added maneuverability.
|INFLATABLE RAFT CHARACTERISTICS|
|Price range||$30 – $300|
|Ideal usage||recreational, beach, fishing, floating around on a pond|
The most expensive inflatable raft is the Sea Eagle SE9 ($450), which creates a category of its own for budget-conscious fisherman. This boat is the exception though, not the rule when thinking about inflatable rafts.
Inflatable pontoon boat
Inflatable pontoon boats, or catamarans, are most popular with fisherman. An inflatable pontoon boat is made up of 2 large air tubes, which are held together by a curved air bladder or a metal frame.
The seat is directly in the middle of the boat, providing a stable and high vantage point for fisherman.
Since fisherman will sit on the boat for extended periods, the seat of the boat is an important consideration. Inflatable pontoon boats have 2 kinds of seats:
- Inflatable seat (mostly on frameless boats) which is built-in and inflates with the boat, or separately inflatable and to be secured with straps
- Real boat seat (on metal-frame boats)
Many inflatable pontoon boats include features built specifically with fisherman in mind, like rod holders and other accessories to make fishing easier. These features vary greatly among different manufacturers. It won’t come as a surprise that the more expensive the boat, the more features it will have.
One of the most important “features” of an inflatable pontoon boat is its weight capacity. Fishermen tend to have lot’s of gear, so if that’s you, make sure the boat you choose has room and capacity for everything you like to take with you on the water.
Pontoon boats maneuver well, since the tubes slice through the water with ease. The pilot uses oars or an outboard motor to propel the craft.
|INFLATABLE PONTOON BOAT CHARACTERISTICS|
|Price range||$800 – $4,000|
|Passengers||1 (2, 4)|
|Ideal usage||fly fishing|
The single seater pontoon boat is the popular version, but 2 and even 4 seat pontoon boats are also available. However, these are much larger, are therefore less portable, and due to the difficulty of setting up, are usually hauled with a trailer.
Inflatable kayaks have become very popular over the years. What’s not to love, right? They are fun on the water, light weight & compact, maneuverable, safe and versatile.
Inflatable kayaks come in many sizes and with various features, depending on the intended use. As such, they have become the go-to choice for whitewater rafters, campers, RV owners and even fisherman.
Specialized inflatable kayaks have been developed with each usage in mind:
- Lake recreation: Light weight and low profile, they are easy to paddle on lakes. The V hull makes maneuverability easy, even for beginners. Kayaks with a directional skeg allows the boat to track (almost) perfectly straight.
- Fishing kayaks: Are usually 3-4 m (10-12 feet) long, which gives the fisherman enough room and comfort. The seats are raised, making casting easier.
- River running: Developed for whitewater enthusiasts, many say inflatable kayaks are even better than solid hull kayaks, since inflatables bounce off rocks. The method of construction and materials used will determine whether the kayak can handle Class III or even Class IV whitewater. Self bailing floors are also an important feature of quality river running inflatable kayaks.
- River voyages: Surprisingly large capacity kayaks (180 kg to 270 kg) means that they have ample room to store plenty of camping gear, enough for river trips of 1-2 weeks.
Generally speaking, inflatable kayaks are probably the category of inflatable boats that will appeal to the most people. They are:
- simple to set up
- easy to use even by beginners
- safe and hard to tip over
In my opinion, every family needs an inflatable kayak.
|INFLATABLE KAYAK CHARACTERISTICS|
|Price range||$80 – $1,500|
|Ideal usage||recreation, whitewater, multi-day voyages, fishing|
As you can probably guess, the large price range is due to the quality differences between the kayaks.
Inflatable dinghy a.k.a. inflatable sports boat
Inflatable dinghies are high-quality inflatable boats, developed with the main purpose of being a tender for larger boats.
However, an inflatable dinghy can be used as a great water-vessel on its own as well. Modern-day dinghies are:
- rugged and durable
- roll up small enough and weigh little enough for 1 person to handle
- store neatly
- are versatile
An inflatable dinghy will have oar clasps, as well as motor mounts. They are usually used with 1-15 HP outboard motors mounted on the transom.
The flooring of inflatable dinghies varies. You’ll find models with roll-up floors, hard floors made of 3-4 pieces and high-pressure air floors alike.
Inflatable dinghies are also called inflatable sports boats, but I would reserve this term for the models which come with an inflatable keel and can plane well. Such vessels are seaworthy to a degree, as choppy waters and high wind will challenge inflatable dinghies due to their light weight.
|INFLATABLE DINGHY CHARACTERISTICS|
|Price range||$1,000 – $2,500|
|Ideal usage||boat tender, RV owners boat of choice for getting on the water quickly|
Some companies categorize their rigid inflatable boats in the sports boat category as well, but since RIBs are really a whole other ball game, I’ve set a separate category for that class of inflatable watercraft.
Rigid inflatable boat
Rigid-hulled inflatable boats are also called RIBs. They are a hybrid between an inflatable boat and a traditional boat, since their hull is rigid. This brings the best of both worlds together, since the inflatable tubes provide excellent buoyancy even if the vessel gets filled with water under harsh sea conditions, while the shaped rigid hull makes the boat seaworthy, maneuverable and increases performance.
The trade-off for performance is portability. The rigid hull cannot be taken apart, therefore these boats are no more compact than regular boats. Foldable RIBs do exist, but are still nowhere as compact as traditional inflatable boats. They break down to 3-4 large pieces.
RIBs are usually 3-9 meters long. Shorter models are used as tenders, while larger ones are often used as versatile utility workboats by corporations to move crew, as well as the military, coast guard, etc. RIBs are virtually unsinkable.
The rigid hull allows for the addition of a traditional boat console.
|RIGID-HULLED INFLATABLE BOAT CHARACTERISTICS|
|Price range||$1,000 – $150,000|
|Ideal usage||tender, speed, utility workboat|
RIBs are just like traditional boats, only better.
Summary of each type of inflatable boat
Because tables are great fun, let’s sum up the above in a table.
|PRICE RANGE||PASSENGERS||IDEAL USAGE|
|Inflatable raft||$30 – $200||1 – 4||beach fun, floating around on a lake, general recreation|
|Inflatable pontoon boats||$800 – $4,000||1, 2, 4||fly fishing|
|Inflatable kayaks||$80 – $1,500||1 – 2||whitewater, multi-day voyages, fishing, recreation|
|Inflatable dinghies||$1,000 – $2,500||1-5||boat tender, recreational, all purpose|
|Rigid inflatable boats||$1,000 – $150,000||1-20||tender, speed, utility work boat|
This should give you a quick overview of the various categories of inflatables.
Which inflatable boat is best for you?
Inflatable boats can be great, but a lot of people regret their choice. Why?
Because they buy the wrong kind of boat.
Before deciding on an inflatable boat, consider the following:
- How will you use the boat?
- In what water and weather conditions will you use the boat?
- How many people will ride in it?
- How will you transport it?
- Where will you store it?
Once you answer the above questions, consider the pros and cons of each specific boat type, as well as what features you expect of the boat.
After all of this, you should have a good idea of what kind of boat would be suitable for your needs, what size it should be, and what extras you need.
Also, check out my list of the best inflatable boats in 2023, where you will learn a lot more about how to choose the perfect boat for your needs.