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(The Gear Loop) - There was a time when seasoned paddlers thought of inflatable kayaks as a novelty. For many, they were nothing more than glorified beach toys – certainly nothing to rival traditional hard-shell kayaks in terms of performance and safety. Those days are gone.

Today, inflatable kayaks rival the finest hard-shells, much like iSUPs, offering a whole raft of advantages. No longer are they scorned as inferior to traditional kayaks, as illustrated by the fact they are a mainstay with many nations’ military forces. If they’re good enough for the Navy SEALS, they get our seal (ahem) of approval, too.

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The most obvious plus is portability; an inflatable kayak will typically pack down to the size of a kit bag and weigh between 10 and 18 kilograms. Once inflated, their broad hulls give paddlers reassuring stability, while they are also unsurprisingly buoyant. Generally speaking, inflatable kayaks are also less expensive than their hard-shell cousins.

This cocktail of portability, price and stability makes inflatable kayaks the perfect choice for beginner paddlers. However, with everyone from supermarkets to established outdoor brands championing their own models, it can be tough to know if you’re getting a quality product. 

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So, if you’re looking to obtain your first portable kayak, we’ve compiled this guide to the best entry-level options – featuring a range of great options for all budgets, from the value represented by Intex’s entry-level K2 Explorer to the high-end quality of the Oru Beach LT and the Advanced Elements AirVolution.

The best inflatable and portable kayaks for beginners

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Driftsun Voyager 2

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For

  • Paddles included
  • Generous capacity
  • Lightweight
  • Versatile

Against

  • Repair kit not included
  • More expensive than some

For a sleek and versatile inflatable that marries generous capacity, lightweight qualities and wonderful performance, look no further than Driftsun’s Voyager. It can be used as either a solo craft or a tandem vessel, with fully adjustable seats and just under 205kg of capacity – more than enough for you, a mate and your gear.

The Voyager is a pleasure to paddle in once on the water. The removable tracking fin gives you great performance, whether gliding across mirror-still lakes or taking on something a little choppier. Stability and buoyancy are provided by its high-volume side tubes, while the safety net provided by three separate air chambers gives additional peace of mind.

It’s durable too, boasting a heavy-duty PVC tarpaulin hull, double threaded Boston valves and tough coated 840D nylon oxford fabric tube covers. All the usual D-rings, webbing and handles are present for storage, while paddles, pump and travel bag are also included.

Our only real qualm is that a repair kit is not bundled in, too. However, this is a seriously classy inflatable kayak that ticks most boxes and comes at a reasonable price.

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Advanced Elements AirVolution Kayak

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For

  • Handles beautifully on the water
  • Drop stitch technology makes it extremely rigid
  • Durable

Against

  • Pricey
  • Oars not included
  • Can be tiring to inflate

Californian brand Advanced Elements’ AirVolution kayaks are extremely rigid, high performing inflatable watercraft. Weighing just under 18kg, the solo model is a great option for those looking to head out on watery adventures alone. Once offshore, it’s a wonderfully stable craft that glides, tracks and generally handles superbly.

Crafted with heavy duty PVC and featuring drop stitch technology, the AirVolution is just as durable as most would demand, considering its hefty price tag. Drop stitch construction is also often used in the best inflatable paddleboards, enabling greater air pressure and, therefore, a more rigid, stable frame. 

Assembly and inflation are straightforward but it can be tiring if you’re aiming for the recommended 10-12psi. A dual-action pump with pressure gauge allows you to inflate the two air chambers, while the adjustable seat is strapped in easily enough.

Padded neoprene handles on the bow and stern, coupled with bungee deck lacing, allow for easy stowage and D-rings enable you to easily attach gear. The whole thing packs down into a shell case with backpack straps and small roller wheels. A repair kit is also bundled in.

In summary, this is an excellent craft for flat water adventures on lakes, inlets and easy rapids (up to Class II).

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Decathlon ITIWIT X500

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For

  • Drop stitch PVC enables high pressure for rigidity
  • Safety net provided by five separate air chambers

Against

  • Pump not included
  • Low backrest

Decathlon uses the same drop stitch technology employed by Advanced Elements in its ITIWIT X500 to create a quality portable kayak at an attractive price. There are no less than five air chambers here, three in the hull and two for the cockpit.

This gives you peace of mind on the water, though it does mean that you’ve got five rounds of pumping to do. However, inflation is straightforward and takes just 3 minutes with a double-action pump - although allow longer if you don't have arms like Arnie.

Once offshore, the reinforced V-shaped hull allows you to glide across the water with great straight-line stability. It’s not quite as manoeuvrable as some of the competition, due to its shape, but this is a minor qualm. The backrest is a little low for our liking, but if a correct sitting position is adopted, discomfort is kept at bay. 

Along with the included backpack, the X500 weighs in at 18kg, which is on the heavier side of the kayaks in our guide. Its capacity is 125kg, so there’s plenty of leeway for your dry bags and there are two storage areas. Though there are no D-rings for secure attachment here, which is a shame.

Both the bow and stern feature the usual handles, allowing you to carry the vessel when you return to dry land. All in all, this is a solid performer at a decent price.

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Intex K2 Explorer

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For

  • Great value
  • Waspish, sporty looks
  • Repair kit, pump and oars included

Against

  • Not suited to faster water or challenging weather
  • Not as durable as pricier options

This bright, tandem kayak is a great entry-level option for those looking to paddle glassy lakes and mild rivers with a buddy. You might think that its waspish yellow and black design gives it a sporty, Lamborghini-esque visage, or you may think its pointed prow makes it look like a floating banana. Love or hate its appearance, the K2 has enough going for it to mean it doesn’t matter either way.

Its 181kg weight capacity means it comfortably fits two adults and a little luggage, while Inflation of its three air chambers takes around 10 minutes using Intex’s high-output pump. For novices, the three chambers provide reassurance, as if one deflates, you’ve still got the buoyancy provided by the other two to see you safely to shore. 

The K2 is also superb value, especially considering the pump is included, as well as a repair patch kit and two 86-inch, double-blade aluminium oars. The inflatable seats are adjustable and, most importantly, comfortable. 

Unsurprisingly, considering its low price point, it’s not as high performing or as durable as more high-end watercraft and its soft air chambers give it the feel of casual, fun boat rather than a professional vessel. Nevertheless, its rugged vinyl construction will perform fine in clement conditions on calm water.

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Oru Beach LT

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For

  • Extremely durable
  • Remarkably quick and easy to set up
  • Excellent performance

Against

  • Pricier than most
  • A bit awkward to walk with when packed down

Oru says that its Beach LT is 'perfect for fun, easy and casual paddling' and 'ideal for beginners' to kayaking. We agree. We’d even go as far as to say this is right up there with the very best portable kayaks around, though this is reflected in its hefty price tag. 

Unlike the other watercraft in our round-up, the Beach LT is not an inflatable, but rather an origami-style hard-shell that folds from box to boat and back, packing away to the size of a sofa cushion.

Featuring a body constructed from double-layered polypropylene, the Beach LT is more durable than its inflatable counterparts, while also weighing in at a featherlight 12kg. Oru guarantees that the vessel can be folded down up to 20,000 times before its watertight qualities are compromised.

So, even if you were to take it out every day, in theory, it should last almost 27 years. When folded down it resembles a large, rigid suitcase, which can be a little more awkward to carry than comparable inflatable kayaks. 

Never mind all of this, how does it perform on the water? At almost four metres in length, the Beach LT glides through the water beautifully, despite the lack of skegs.

Its low weight and streamlined design make it wonderfully maneuverable, though you’ll be glad of water shoes, as it doesn’t rise particularly high above the waves, so expect a small amount of water to build up in the cockpit. Speaking of which, its large footprint gives you space for canines, kids, coolers and the rest. 

In summary, a magnificent and innovative product that punches way above its weight.

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What to look for when buying an inflatable kayak

Solo or tandem

Consider how and who you intend to use your kayak with. If you’re a lone wolf (or a black swan, if you will), the weight saved by choosing a single seater may be prudent. However, a tandem model may represent better value, as there may be a day you want to take your better half, children or four-legged friend on the water.

Something to keep an eye on here is a kayak’s weight rating. Even if a kayak is advertised as a tandem or three-person craft, it may not actually have a high enough weight rating to accommodate the specified number of fully grown adults alongside any cargo you may want to take with you. 

Materials

Most inflatable kayaks are constructed from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is often bonded to nylon for added durability. 

The advantages of PVC are that it is lightweight, easy to pack down and relatively cheap. Look out for drop stitch technology, which is a mainstay of inflatable paddle boards and is used increasingly on inflatable kayaks, too. 

It’s even utilised in the aviation industry to make inflatable airplane wings. Woven threads of polyester can handle high pressure, which allows the inflatable to be pumped up to rock-hard rigidity.

Design features

Most portable kayaks either have a V-shaped or a flat-bottomed hull. The shape of the hull has a bearing on the stability of the vessel and its ability to steer straight. A flat-bottomed boat will usually feature a detachable skeg, which is basically a fin that helps to stabilise matters.

When it comes to your kayak’s carry bag, look for something that can be carried like a backpack. Some feature roller wheels, though these are often so small as to only really be suitable for even, flat surfaces, which is fine for urban escapades but not for wilderness expeditions. 

It is common that you’ll want to carry your kayak when it is fully assembled too, so look out for padded handles on the bow and stern. Some vessels boast storage compartments for dry bags and the like, while others feature D-rings for the attachment of gear. If you’re likely to take your kayak on an expedition, make sure you’ve got the gear capacity to suit your needs.

Some portable kayaks are sold with all the additional extras you could possibly need: oars, repair kit, pump and carry bag. However, this is not always the case, so it’s worth making sure you know what you’re getting. The last thing you want to do is blow your budget before you’ve considered oars and the like.

Writing by Alex Foxfield. Editing by Leon Poultney.