Inflatable kayaks are a bit like mountain bikes. You can buy a blinged-up piece of overweight junk with ‘full suspension’ from a superstore for under a hundred quid. Or, if you’re serious about enjoying cycling you can buy something decent that’ll be a joy to own and ride.
They don’t make crap hardshell kayaks or canoes as far as I know; perhaps it’s down to manufacturing costs and demand. But they sure make some ‘inexpensive’ IKs which leads to the assumption that all forms of inflatable watercraft are slow, floppy, over-wide pool toys little better than a lilo. That’s what I used to think until I actually tried one in Idaho back in 2004. As with owning a nice bike, a quality IK inspires you to go out and try new things. Below is my ‘IK 101’.
Revised September 2017
is for an IK’s advantages over hardshells, including Sit On Tops (‘SoT’) and folders. IKs offer compact storage of course, as well as lightness in manhandling and ease of transportability in a car or on a train or plane or on your back (left).
Most IKs are undecked and open and so, like canoes and SoTs, are easy to load up, get in or remount from the water. And compared to a ‘skin on frame’ folder (see F) they’re more robust in terms of bashing into rocks and getting knocked about. You can lash an inflated IK straight onto a car roof without damage to either. And even when full of water, an IK can’t sink or get trapped in a hydraulic lock.
is for self-bailing, the ability of an undecked boat to shed water through drain holes in the floor. It means in rough conditions a boat won’t swamp and need bailing with a pump or bucket, as I needed to do ever 20 minutes while crossing Shark Bay – left. Notice too that in the red IK below right, all the stuff is floating in the boat full of water following passing through the not so rough rapid at the back.
Whitewater rafts need to be self-bailing of course, but in a raft you sit well off the wet floor. SoTs (Sit on Top hardshells) are self bailing too, but an IK is not so well suited to self-bailing because the inflated floor must be thick enough to be above the water line to keep your butt dry. On a kayak that extra floor height creates instability (high centre of gravity), which (as with SoTs) can only be mitigated by adding width, and that reduces speed and efficiency. The better solution to swamping in an IK is a deck – see below. More on self-bailing here.
B is also for bladders – see Construction.
is for capsizing, the fear of which draws many beginners to SoTs and open IKs. If you fall out of an open IK in deep water it’s easy to flip the boat back upright and crawl back on, all without help, paddle floats and in as little as 30 seconds. That can mean less risk of hypothermia. Doing the same in a hardshell takes several minutes and can be difficult alone in rough water; and once in, the flooded hull will require pumping out. That’s why if paddling alone and far from shore, being able to roll a hardshell is an important skill. With an IK the ability to roll out of rough conditions is unnecessary, were it even possible.
C is also for IK construction. There are two ways of making an IK: having ‘sleeves’ in an ordinary fabric hull, which then take inflatable tubular bladders or sponsons (right, an Aire ‘cell’), rather like an inner tube gives shape and firmness to a tyre. Or a more expensive ‘tubeless’ method – simply sealing a tough hull fabric skin and then fitting valves. More on construction here and here.
is for an IK’s disadvantages over hardshells and folders. These include some 20% less speed over a comparable hardshell, and up to a point, less control in white water and rough seas when things get technical, although see thigh straps. An IK’s lightness, buoyancy and greater hull mass above the water line also makes it more susceptible to winds, especially at sea. And if you fall out of an IK in such conditions, the boat can get blown away quicker than you can swim after it. Like canoes, open IKs will swamp in rough conditions. After a river rapid this isn’t usually a problem, but at sea it could be, without a bailing jug or bilge pump (right).
Talking of which, D is also for deck. Some IKs have them, either permanently fixed like the Gumotex Swing and Framura, some which can be zipped to one side (Incept, above) or are attached with velcro as on the Gumotex Seawave (left) or less elegantly with straps for Grabner IKs (above right) which must be laboriously glued to the hull. When combined with a spray skirt, a deck saves swamping and splash and also keeps you warm, but it can also mean getting too hot, plus loading or hopping in and out is less easy if the hatch is small. There’s more compelling evidence for open boats here.
D is also for drying. You want to dry your IK properly before long storage to prevent mildew and odour. I’ve found the tubeless type of IK without a deck (left, a Grabner Amigo) is much quicker to wipe dry than bladder-type boats. If you live in the UK and not southern California, that makes a difference.
I haven’t finished yet! D is for drop-stitch panels. There’s more in that link or here at NRS, but basically it’s a way of constructing hull shapes using panels which are constrained to hold their flat shape by 1000s of ‘drop stitches’ (left). Normal IK chambers are most easily made as round tubes because, like a balloon, the pressure is spread equally. The problem is that takes up masses of space, making IKs both wide and yet cramped. Flat DS panels are used in inflatable iSUP boards, as floors in rafts and some IKs – and have started seeing full use in IKs (right and below).
One problem is the flat floor – OK for a board or a raft but not so good for tracking in a kayak. The rounded tubes of a conventional I-beam floor (see images under H and I) adds a useful tracking element as well as resistance to side winds, though a skeg can see to that. And these DS-IKs do seem to have massive skegs and even frontal skegs.
that’s paddling efficiency. The greater width, freeboard (above-water height) and hull flex of an IK are all disadvantages over hardshells. Minimal width, high hull pressures and certain types of IK fabrics and hull designs minimise this.
is folding kayaks. While they have the same advantages of storage and portability as IKs, they’re usually a little heavier and are more fiddly to assemble quickly (left). But once on the water they appear and perform more like a hardshell. They’re also more expensive and possess a kind of enthusiast’s/traditionalist’s cachet which IKs will never acquire.
I prefer IKs over folders because:
• they’re less effort to set up and break down – no awkward frames to assemble
• they’re more robust: you can bash into rocks and generally knock them about – framed folders can snap or bend poles in shallow rapids, or grind on the hull skin, and need care lashing down securely (on a car roof) when assembled
• with robust brands of IKs the puncture risk is much smaller than people think. Me: 8 boats since 2005; only 1 puncture.
• most IKs are open decked – I prefer that. The blue Pakboat (above right) is an example of an open, canoe-like folder
F is also for flotation. One good thing with an IK is that it cannot sink which is why in the US many first descents of extreme white water are done in IKs; there’s less chance of getting pinned or otherwise entrapped. Check out the videos on this page; the same boat at sea and, bottom of the page, skimming over a massive wave train.
is for gluing. If you get into IKs you want to get good at this. Rubber- or PVC/PU-based boats require different glues. On the left, from the left: Gumotex Nitrilon glue (crap), Grabner EPDM glue (never tried), Bostik 1782 (not bad) and SeamSeal and Aquasure (‘Aquaseal’ in US) for pretty much everything. There’s more here.
G is also for glide: what most IKs won’t do as well as a light hardshell as it doesn’t have the weight-momentum or bow shape to slice through the water. That’s why minimal width and high hull pressure (or other stiffening measures) are worthwhile.
And G is for Gumotex IKs, sold as Innova in North America. Made in Czechia, their range includes the Solar 410C, Safari, Twist, Swing, Framura and Seawave, some of the best-value proper IKs around.
is hull shape and design. A folder or hardshell’s hull skin, including the floor, is a fraction of an inch thick. An IK’s side is made of a tube up to 8 inches thick and a floor at least half that. This means less storage space inside a slim boat, as well as added height and so centre of gravity, which needs added width to preserve stability; and width reduces performance. More about that on the construction pages.
An IKs floor is wide and also flat. That means in side waves the boat leans over with the wave where, for example, a narrower hardshell with knee braces will remain, or can be kept upright and in balance. On the right you can see this yard-wide IK was so buoyant it popped out of the pile like a cork and I was ejected. A narrower hardshell may have driven through the pile.
H is also for hypalon and its derivatives (Pennel Orca, Nitrilon, EPDM); all tough [synthetic] rubber-based fabrics once commonly used for whitewater rafts and these days on many better IKs and folders. More here.
is for I-beam floor – a way of making a thick floor of parallel tubes, but which is prone to coming apart at high pressures. More here and see also under PRV, below. See also drop stitch, above and IK autopsy.
I is also for the image of IKs, what they look like and what people think of them. If a sleek, kevlar sea kayak is an Italian stiletto, then a dumpy IK like the one below left, is a fake Croc. Even my old Incept – among the fastest touring IKs you can buy – looked like a squashed torpedo and my later Grabner could be a prop out of 1001 Nights.
Holidaymakers with no interest in BCU accreditation or mastering J strokes buy cheap IKs for the beach, zig-zag about, get blow down the coast when the wind turns, and get into trouble. The same calamities befall inexperienced holidaymakers in hardshells too, but IKs’ user-friendly accessibility over hardshells attracts less serious recreational users. In the UK the categorisation of all inflatable watercraft as ‘beach toys’ estranges you from some hardshell enthusiasts. In the US and Europe, I and other have found paddlers are much less judgemental towards IKs.
J is for the letter that comes between I and K. Also a type of canoe stroke. Besides Feathercraft’s Java IK, your suggestions are welcome.
is for hardshell kayak, what you may well progress to if you really get into paddling and/or acquire the space to store and means to transport a hardshell. Or live right by the water.
It sure is great to just hop into a boat on a whim and paddle away, although when by the sea I leave my IK pumped up for months.
is for loading and getting in. An open IK is as easy to load and mount as a canoe. You feel less hemmed in than in a hardshell, and more out in the fresh air. It’s like driving a convertible. Because of this you’re much more inclined to hop out and explore a remote beach or uninhabited island, compared to all the faff of the skirt and the dismounting dance of a tippy hardshell. What is not to Like?
L is also for length. soft or hard, a longer kayak is a faster kayak. A typical solo sea kayak (right) is 17 feet long, but when an inflatable gets beyond a certain length (and has a heavy paddler) it inevitably sags in the middle and – like an under-inflated tyre – that takes more effort to move. Some makers get round this longitudinal sag with metal frames, or twin side tubes or relatively high hull pressures, including very high pressure drop stitch chambers. I’ve found the latter three are most effective.
L is the first letter of the word light, too. The boat on the guy’s head left weighs just 11kg, and that’s made from tough Nitrilon suited to white-water rafts. My Seawave with newer lighter Nitrilon weighed just 16kg once I ditched the original seats. That can be just about be managed alone under arm or on the shoulders between a car and the water, or of course checked in as airline baggage. The best touring IKs with room for up to two people need not weigh more than 18kg or 40lbs. See table below.
Along with the innate buoyancy, this lightness can work against you if you fall out on a windy lake or at sea – the boat could blow away quicker than you can swim after it. Attach yourself or your paddle to the boat (it will act as an anchor) if you think this may happen.
L might also include leaks. Legitimate PRV activity excepted, I’ve found my IKs will barely lose air for weeks on end. If you do have to make repairs, see here.
is for material – or more correctly the fabric from which an IK is made. Proper IKs are made of a nylon or polyester woven fabric (‘skrim’) base onto which PVC, PU or a type of rubber is bonded to coat both sides with a waterproof and durable layer. Cut sections are then either glued by hand or heat/RF welded. This is what proper IKs, RIBs and commercial whitewater rafts are made from. There’s more here.
Cheap IKs are made from thin PVC that’s squeezed out of a giant tube somewhere in southeastern China and has no fabric base to contain stretching. Pump too much and it’ll burst like a novelty globe. Like slackrafts, these cheapies can be punctured by a sharp noise, and may only last a few months, or as I’ve found, days.
Well, the best I can come up with is names, the regrettable European practice of using infantile IK names like Sunny, Fun, Twist, Guppy, Amigo and Holiday, which doesn’t help shake the beach-toy image, though probably helps sell them to the masses. Elsewhere and lately they seem to come up with better names: MaverIK; Lynx; Trinity, Mega and Seawave.
is for overheating. Because an IK is a closed, lightly pressurised vessel, if left out of the water and in a hot sun the fabric and air inside quickly expands and can burst a boat or rupture an I-beam floor or bladders as I found. Some IKs like Incepts have PRVs (see below) on all chambers which will purge excess pressure, though when the boat cools down back in the water it’ll be less firm and may need a quick pump up.
Never leave an IK without full PRVs in the sun on a hot day for long. Left in the water, the floor will be OK and a splash on the exposed hull sides won’t do any harm once in a while. I have since fitted PRVs to all the chambers of my Seawave.
Punctures and repairs. I’ve owned eight IKs and had a small puncture in one. In other words, with less care than you might expect, proper IKs are very robust, while paddling with a PVC slackraft, it punctured within minutes. Barnacles and concrete will leave surface scratches, just as they do on hard plastic. If it’s a deep gouge down to the fabric, apply a coat of Aquaseal sealant. More on glue and repairs here.
P is also for pressure release valves (PRVs) as explained under O and here. The one on the right is working correctly. Try and keep your pressure release valves clean. If sand or grit drops into the well, it can lodge on the seal as the valve purges and cause a poor seal until it’s blown free. Until recently I never used a pressure gauge, I just pumped until firm or until a PRV hissed. My Grabner had no PRVs but ran high pressures so I used a gauge (right). See also inflation valves.
P is also for pumps and let’s not forget P is for our good friends: packrafts!
equals quickness aka: speed. The fastest IKs I’ve had are around 15% slower than a comparable hardshell sea kayak – flat-out at just over 5 mph vs 6 mph. It’s probably the same for whitewater IKs over a day including flat water. Speed – or at least efficiency – can be an important factor if heading out to sea. You want to be sure you can get back in against an offshore wind before you run out of steam.
Rudder. I’ve had one IK with a rudder, a long 4m+ boat, but being a fair-weather paddler I can’t say I miss it on other longer boats, even if it did make sailing a little easier. However, I may be changing my mind.
R is also for rinse – what you want to do after a sea paddle before drying up for long-term storage.
Rocker is another thing starting with R, and doesn’t mean chap in a leather jacket beating up mods on the seafront. In kayak terms rocker refers to the curve of the hull in profile, bow to stern. More rocker or curve (blue boat, right) makes turning quicker; less rocker improves tracking. A long boat will also track better than a short one, and a skeg can make anything track well, while a rudder helps a long boat turn fast.
is for skeg (left) a fixed rudder or fin to help you go straight. Hardshells don’t have one, do you need one on an IK? See here.
S is also for stability, why people prefer IKs compared to some kayaks.
S is also for sponsons – see construction.
S can be for sea kayaking too, within limits and typical coast-hopping norms, quite achievable in many IKs. It’s what I mostly do in the UK.
In case it’s not obvious, if your IK runs an inflatable seat, like an air bed, the base is much more comfortable when partially inflated. On the other hand I’ve never found a one-piece seat with an inflatable backrest to be comfortable. You need solid support from a backrest, not anti-butt-numbing comfort. I’ve found an Alpacka packraft seat base and a separate SoT backrest (above left) work best in terms of comfort, support and lightness, especially when combined with a solid footrest tube. More here.
And S is for sailing – my inconclusive experiences here, though I’ve not given up yet.
is for thigh straps. The problem with an IK is that you sit on it like a log in the water. You have a seatback to lean on to improve paddling efficiency, as well as footrests (ideally solid tubes (left and above and below right), not mushy inflatable thwarts), but critically you’ll be missing a knee-bracing element to triangulate you with the boat, which hardshellers do with their knees under their top deck. This allows much greater control of the craft in rough water – river or sea – and in particular makes eskimo rolls possible. While they’ll never replicate the near-direct bracing advantage of a hardshell, thigh straps (as found on SoTs), are the next best thing. When you feel your boat is tipping over, a hip flick against a knee brace, combined with a paddle slap, may be enough to keep you upright. Thigh braces add up to more control in rough water and better paddling efficiency too.
T is also for transportability and touring. An IK makes a great touring craft as it’s so much easier to get to a destination, set up your boat and set off while incurring no extra cargo expenses or knocking someone’s head off in the duty-free shop. I took my packraft and IK to Ozzie once without going over my baggage allowance.
Another T is for tempering. On a warm day when you inflate your IK on the shore and then put it in the cool water the floor and maybe the sides will cool, losing some pressure and rigidity. With something like a K-Pump (right) it’s easy to top up the half psi that may have been lost to get your IK as rigid as the maker intended. Stiff IKs are fast, efficient, responsive IKs. Or, just adjust for the water cooling effect by over-inflating your IK a little in the first place on chambers with no PRVs. In cool places I ran my Grabner at 0.35 bar – 0.05 over what they recommend. In the warmer Med I’d stick to 0.3 bar.
is for UV. It pays to spray the sunny side of your IK and all your kayaking fabrics with either Aerospace 303 Protectant (right) or the similar ArmorAll product in the US. If nothing else, it’ll make your boat look newer and brighter. It works great for tyre changing too.
is for valves. Proper one-way IK valves are the same as those used on commercial whitewater rafts, but may require occasional tightening into the hull fabric with a special tool (left). I’ve never had a valve malfunction but am always careful to replace the valve cap to keep grit out of the mechanism. Some valves have bayonet fittings like a light bulb; this makes a secure fitment for the air hose and may be needed when using hoses with high pressure boats, otherwise the push-in hose method on old Gumotexes works surprisingly well. Older or cheaper IKs have less good Boston valves or even simple lilo plugs (right). There’s more here.
is for wind, the enemy of IKs, especially at sea. Depending on ambient temps, F4 (Beaufort Scale, above right and at sea on the left) is at the limit of what I’d choose to paddle in. I’ve tried sea kayaking in stronger winds in the tropics with head-on speeds down to 1 mph and the boat barely controllable when blown from behind. In such conditions a light IK with most of its hull above the water was ill-matched with a four times heavier hardshell sea kayak.
W is also for width. The nature of an IK’s hull makes it wider than a hardshell, which affects paddling efficiency and speed. I was out once on a rental Hyside Padillac IK that was over a metre wide and the Neris Smart 2 (left) comes in at 95cm.. Such boats are extremely stable, easy to get into and hard to flip over. To the average holidaymaker who doesn’t know a kayak from a canoe, they make whitewater look fun rather than scary. In my opinion some widely advertised American-branded boats are in this over-wide category. I think an IK need not be more than 30 inches or 76cm wide. Anything more is getting to be a raft more than a kayak and my table above now includes a Length Width Index (LWI).
W is also for whitewater, something that any sub-4-metre IK can manage up to grade 3. That will swamp a non-bailing boat, but if it’s in southern France in summer, you won’t be complaining. There are plenty of vids on youtube showing what IKs and packrafts can manage on white water.
X and Y
Submissions invited. Best entry wins a PVC D-ring.
might be for zig-zagging – the motion beginners encounter until they try a kayak with a skeg. But after a while you can get the knack or fit a skeg.
Z is also for Zodiac, invented by Alain Bombard, who also crossed the Atlantic drinking only seawater and eating fish. Read about his fascinating story here.