Inflatables vs Fixed Hull Canoes

Is anyone interested in inflatable canoes. I have long used fixed hull canoes, but since trying inflatables, I wont be going back. I have posted a list of reasons why I like them over fixed hulls at my blog - see Its not just the portablility, it goes much deeper than that.

Okay, I’ll Bite.

– Last Updated: Jan-10-08 2:23 PM EST –

First off, Wow! I'm not much of one for looking at people's blogs, but I'm amazed that you seem to have comments and advice on so many things. It might be worth a look later on.

As to the subject of inflatables versus rigid hulls, I think it's great that you like your inflatables so much, but since most of your reasons wouldn't be valid for me or the people I paddle with, I thought I'd play devil's advocate. Hey, it's winter here so what the heck.

I've copied each of your remarks and inserted my own comments after. Don't take any of this personally. My remarks reflect my own paddling needs and my own values, as far as what I enjoy about canoeing.

"The benefits are:"

"1. Inflatables ride over river gravels better than fixed kayaks because the plastic material glides over smooth rocks much better. This is facilitated by the more even weight distribution, which also gives you better clearance. I find that I can get even better clarance or weight distribution by suspending my butt in the air so the weight is on the front and back. But I find the material readily slides over these rocks."

This may be true, but on the rivers I deal with, long stretches of gravel shallows too "scratchy" to navigate are seldom an issue. For the gravel shallows I see, most of the people I know just go ahead and slide on through anyway. They figure "so what" if they gain a few scratches in the process. At worst, a person might have to get out an walk for a few yards a few times per day, which is a small price to pay for a boat that will more than recover any time lost walking once it's under paddle power again. A typical rigid-hull solo canoe only needs about 1.5 to two inches (4 to 5 cm) of water to float a medium-sized person, and maybe three to four inches (7.5 to 10 cm) with a few days of camping gear, and none of the rivers I paddle are consistently that shallow. I'm not sure I buy the idea of "more even weight distribution" with an inflatable either. If you load a rigid-hull and maintain proper trim, and the whole hull settles the same amount, without the formation of low spots. In fact, with a rigid hull, you can concentrate most of your gear weight in the middle to improve handling (the ends rise over waves better and the reduced angular momentum allows much quicker pivot-turns than are possible if anything heavy is stored near the ends).

"2. Inflatables are much more comfortable to ride because you can more easily flex your limbs and the hull gives, so your weight is more evenly distributed. Some designs are better than others because they are equipped with a separate air cushion. Another design uses straps to support the seat...I dont like that type."

I paddle on my knees, using the seat as partial butt-support only, and find it much more comfortable than sitting. It's better for my back and allows me to use my whole upper body for paddling to a much greater extent than I can do while sitting. Personally, I'd never give up kneeling (we'll see if I can still say this when I'm 70) because the boat control I have when kneeling is many times better, and this includes the avoidance of tipping when subjected to sudden changes in sideways velocity, such as what happens when crossing eddylines. There are many really basic maneuvers that are best done kneeling, and some that can only be done that way. To make kneeling more comfortable and to "connect" a person to the boat for the best possible boat control, a pedestal seat is used. For people who DO like to sit, there are all kinds of special seats that cater to anyone's special comfort needs, and they are easy to install.

"3. Inflatables are more easily transported. I have taken my inflatable canoe on public transport in Japan (though I suggest taking a collapsible paddle). The benefit is that there is very little portage required if you live near a station and the train follows the river valley. The same portability makes them great for storing them in the rear compartment of a car. Being inside the car means they are moe secure. I dont want people to know what I am doing in the local area for safety reasons, and I want my possessions secure inside the vehicle."

You've got me there. For a world traveler who wants to take his own boat overseas, that makes sense. For the rest of us, putting a boat on top of a car really has no major downside, or at least none that justify using what we'd consider a second-rate boat.

"4. Inflatables are lighter to carry. Whether you need to portage your canoe to a remote river, or negotiate a steep forest trail to avoid an impassable section of river (eg a waterfall), you will appreciate avoiding the safety and exhaustion issues that plague fixed hull canoes. If you slip with a fixed hull canoe you could very easily do some real damage. I dont even bother deflating my inflatable. I can carry it in one hand or carry it overhead for greater visibility and 'hands free' in slippery situations. The light weight of inflatables makes them cheaper to transport overseas. They weigh about 20kg."

There's nothing lightweight about 20-kg boat. That's about 44 pounds, which is the same weight as my favorite general-purpose canoe made from Royalex. Sure, there ARE canoes that weigh twice as much as that, but no one who chooses a boat for its light weight is paddling one of them in the first place (the boat I use as a tripper is 14 kg or 31 pounds). On a portage, a Royalex boat can slide along on rocks if the going is really tough, and dropping it won't ruin your day either. Few people portage canoes farther or over more difficult terrain than the more serious long-distance travelers in the BWCA and Quetico, and though no one wants to drop a lightweight Kevlar canoe on the rocks, no one traveling in that region would trade their Kevlar boat for an inflatable that weighs 50-percent more, especially since that would mean that they'd also have to PADDLE the darn thing. Can you keep up with a good tripping canoe in your inflatable?

"5. Inflatables are more compact. The relative compactness of inflatables makes them well suited for taking overseas as normal luggage. You can even store them in some train station compartments, though these services are disappearing because of the terrorist threat."

Again, this is one of those specialty issues where an inflatable is really the only choice. As for me, I don't need my canoe to fit inside a suitcase.

"6. Inflatables are surprisingly robust. I've taken my inflatable on about 8 rivers with no signs of wear & tear. I had a puncture on the 6th occasion, but I just packed up the canoe, walked up to a bus stop and took it home for repair. They give alot, wrapping around rocks and sticks. They tend to just absorb the impact so you dont get punctures. Firstly because of the air cushion, and secondly because the plastic stretches. The puncture I had was actually more of a slash than a puncture. That is evident from the cleanliness of the cut, so I suspect there was broken glass in this very shallow river. I actually deserved the damage given the shallowness of the river. A fixed hull canoe could not even have passed this section. Generally there is very little sign of wear and tear apart from this puncture, so I am convinced its a rare occurrence."

Well, I've seen both Royalex and fiberglass hulls with so many scratches from 10 or 20 years of frequent river-running (sometimes many 100s of trips, not just a handful as in your example) that it looked someone got really mad at the boat and attacked it with a power grinder, but they are in fine shape in spite of the scratches. Certainly these boats have tolerated more abrasion than any inflatable could. We all try to avoid wrapping a canoe around rocks, and most of us succeed most of the time, but a Royalex boat is often quite servicable after being wrapped. You'll probably have to replace the gunwales afterward, but for most people on most rapids, the sure-footed maneuverability of a ridged-hull boat is highly valued, and we "plan" on using that quality to avoid wrapping the boat around a rock in the first place. Failing to avoid wrapping is a risk we take so that we can enjoy using a better-behaved boat.

"7. Water Discharge: All canoes eventually accumulate alot of water in them requiring you to flip them over. Rest assured its alot easier to discharge an inflatable canoe."

This might be a moot point anyway. One guy here on P-net told me that the best inflatable boats, the one's a serious paddler might find suitable, are self-bailing, meaning that they let the splashed-in water run right out the bottom. Still, in response to your statement, I've never seen anybody flip their canoe to drain the water, unless it was in the water and already swamped, where they lift it and drain it in one motion. The rest of the time, bailers and sponges usually do the job. Whitewater canoers install air bags both for floatation and to minimize the space which splashed-in water can occupy (so there's less bailing required).

"8. Boarding the canoe: I think boarding a canoe from land or water is alot easier than with an inflatable than a fixed hull canoe because the inflatable absorbs or gives, whereas the fixed canoe will rock causing instability. Similarly boarding from the water is easy from water because the canoe gives and does not rock as much."

Hmmm. I stopped worrying about how "difficult" it is to enter and exit a canoe a long time ago, and really don't even give it a thought anymore. Using the kind of logic you presented here, it makes a lot more sense to ride a tricycle than a bicycle, but I don't see anyone other than the disabled and the elderly making the switch.

"9. Stowing gear: I find the inflatable very good for stowing gear because you can wedge gear in the front and aft of the canoe, and you can secure it with the straps or just the inflatable seat that comes with the canoe."

I tie my gear anyplace I want, using the tie-down points I installed. These are cheap and available in any paddlesport shop, and it only takes minutes to install them. As far as it being an advantage to cram gear into the ends, the exact opposite is true. See the remarks under #1 (above) for why it's a really bad idea to store most of your gear in each end of the boat. Experienced paddlers try to keep the heavy stuff in the middle unless manueverability and seaworthiness are NOT going to be important issues.

"10. Repair: You might argue that an inflatable is more likely to get a puncture than a fixed hull canoe, but I would argue that its easier to fix an inflatable on the river than a fixed hull (fibreglass or plastic) canoe."

Fiberglass is pretty darn easy to patch, especially an emergency patch that doesn't have to look good. It might take longer than applying an "inner-tube patch" to an inflatable, but puncturing a canoe in the first place is not something that ever happens to most of us. There are some pretty serious whitewater boaters on this board, but I seldom hear anything about fixing holes in boats. Duct tape works pretty well in a pinch anyway.

"11. Sleeping compartment: According to the design specs for inflatables they are not designed for sitting in on land. But I wonder if they could in fact be used for sleeping as a substitute for a tent. The obvious advantage is that you could reduce your weight and bulk stowage needs - for a tent and sleeping bag. Modern tents though are pretty light though. There is some appeal to the idea of sleeping in a wet suit, whether on land or the river (depending on the design specs), but I have yet to test this concept."

As noted in #7 (above), the good-quality inflatables are self-bailing, and if overturned for use as shelter would let the rain come through the "roof". Non-self-bailing inflatables wouldn't provide any better shelter than a rigid boat. The voyageous and native Americans slept beneath their overturned ridged-hull boats, and many people still do. Bring along a tarp that weighs a few ounces and stretch it out away from the hull to increase the protected area, and you have a dandy shelter. It doesn't keep the mosquitoes out though. By the way, let us know how you slept in that damp, funky wetsuit. I'll change into nice, comfy dry clothes once I'm camped for the night.

"The cons of inflatable canoes"

"The only things I don't like about inflatables are:"

"1. Navigability: Inflatables don't steer as well as fixed canoes because they are not rigid. Having said that I think this is only a problem for technically difficult rapids. I also think the sluggishness of the navigability is offset by the lightness of the inflatable canoe."

For many of us, maneuverability is a big issue in a wide variety of conditions. Further, I know I'm not alone in getting quite a bit of enjoyment and satisfaction out of making the boat act as if it's an extension of me, rather than just being on board and going along for the ride. On the practical side of the issue, the ability to ferry, sideslip, eddy-turn, peel-out, and pivot are important skills on a great many rivers, not just whitewater. Doing these things WELL is often the difference between bouncing off rocks or logs or trees and generally "winging it", and winding your way through with style and grace and "looking like you know what you are doing." Just the other day I was going upstream on a tiny little creek where the ability to pivot, then sideslip and immediately fade into a forward ferry was critical to negotiating a couple of 90-degree bends where there was no room to cut the turn wide and just "paddle around" the bend (the current coming across the bend was too strong to just steer around the bend normally within the available space). There was nothing particularly difficult about that creek either. As to the "sluggishness" (your words) being offset by lightness, well, I've already pointed out that 20 kg (44 pounds) is a pretty NORMAL weight for a durable rigid-hull, and it's downright heavy compared to a lightweight tripping boat.

"2. Weight: A fixed hull canoe offers greater weight carrying capacity. This is not a problem for short trips or if you are very careful with your stowage weights, but it might restrict touring trips. I however think there is the opportunity for using an inflatable as an air mattress, which means you dont have to carry a tent (assuming you are one person per canoe)."

Another option would be to take a lightweight composite boat, a tent, AND an air mattress, and enjoy the increased speed and boat-handling for the same weight, or less, as the inflatable alone. However, (extracting tongue from cheek now), the weight of a tent and backpacking-style air mattress will hardly be noticed while paddling. Most of us wouldn't want to give up the weather- and bug-protection of our tents anyway.

And, I’ll take my rigid canoe over
an inflatable for lake cruising, especially on windy days.

I’d love to have an inflatable canoe
that had just 80% of the performance of my composite canoes. Right now there are some inflatable kayaks that meet that criterion, but no inflatable canoes.

I’ve used both. The advantages in portability of an inflatable don’t offset the performance advantages of a solid hull canoe and when I’m on the water, performance is all that matters to me.

Most of the other advantages of inflatables listed are specious at best.

LOL now I gotta dig out the dictionary.


specious (adj)

Definition: plausible but not true; based on pretense; sophistic

Webster’s New Millennium™ Dictionary of English -

is part of the binomial nomencalture system. Everthing is broken down in to genius and specious, An example being kayakus plasticus.

My Innova Solar II
is marketed an inflatable kayak, however, it is really an inflatable canoe.

It’s pros: It handles really rough water well. I paddle it in the ocean.

It transports easily in the trunk of my car.

It’s very durrable.

It won’t sink. When swamped it stays floating.

Cons: It’s slow.

It’s sensitive to temperature extremes. (the air pressure)

I’ve always been attracted to Innova’s
inflatable whitewater kayak. It’s unlikely to approach modern hardshell whitewater kayaks, but for just getting down class 1-3 rivers it should be fine.

With gas getting real pricey, I’d like to travel without racks and boats on the roof.