Inflatable Boats: Things to Know
Inflatable boats are watercraft popular for being affordable, reliable, compact, versatile, and easy to use and store. It’s an “everyman” boat that pretty much anybody can have.
Whether used as rescue rafts, for fishing or simply joyriding, it’s good to know what types of inflatable boats exist and what to look for when buying one. Here are some important things to know about inflatable boats.
The most basic of inflatable boats can be folded and stored in small spaces. Some even come with carrying bags for easy transportation. Inflatable boats are especially popular among fishermen because they’re easy to set up and launch, and usually have enough space for fishing gear and coolers.
Inflatable Boat Types
The term “inflatable boat” is a broad one, as even an inflatable raft, kayak or canoe can be classified as such. But there are basically three popular types of inflatable boat.
Roll-up Inflatable Boats
These are the cheapest, most popular and easiest to use inflatable boats. Roll-up inflatable boats are prone to damage and puncture easily, so sharp objects like fishing knives and hooks should be used with caution. The upside is they provide a cushy surface to place your feet; are easy to roll up after being deflated; and take up very little storage space. They’re great for solo riders because of their ease of use, but are only recommended for short trips, since they can’t withstand long exposure to high heat.
Roll up boats also don’t have a keel, which makes them slower, although some may include an inflatable keel. These boats make great tenders that can support a small 5HP or 6HP outboard if they have a motor mount, and are better suited for flat water.
Hard Floor Boats
These inflatable boats have a V-shaped hull for faster speeds and increased stability. Their floors are typically made of hardwood or aluminum. Hard floor boats are more durable, and perform much better than roll-up boats. The keel also makes it much easier to maneuver and get on a plane. Hard floor boats make great fishing boats as well as tenders.
Rigid Inflatable Boats
Better known as RIBs, these boats are made of an impact-resistant solid shell. They’re heavier and less portable than traditional inflatable boats. RIBs outlast and outperform cheaper inflatable boat types. Their hard V-shaped hulls and keels allow for much higher speeds and easier maneuverability, even in choppy waters.
Rigid inflatable boats are commonly used by the military and law enforcement for public services such as water rescues, especially since they can support higher-horsepower outboards and cut through water easily, even in rough conditions. RIBs are harder to capsize, so their stability makes them a popular choice for public service as well as for recreational activities like fishing.
PVC vs Hypalon
Most inflatable boats are made of either PVC or Hypalon material.
- Lightweight and strong
- Easy to clean, fold and store
- Flexible and waterproof
- More affordable than Hypalon
- Thicker and more impact resistant
- Can withstand high heat and air pressure
- Doesn’t need to be deflated
- More durable than PVC
If you’re on a limited budget and only need a basic personal watercraft for short trips, PVC boats are a good choice. However, if you need a more rugged, heavy duty inflatable boat that can go longer distances, Hypalon is the better choice.
Inflatable Boat Deck Types
Any boat deck should be stable and strong, including on inflatable boats, which come with two main types: rigid decks and air decks.
- Rigid decks are made of aluminum or plywood boards and provide superior strength and stability.
- Air decks are padded surfaces that provide cushioning for your feet for a more comfortable ride. They’re also easy to inflate and deflate. However, air decks get slippery and potentially dangerous, and can be punctured easily.
When choosing the deck type for an inflatable boat, it's important to consider their maximum weight capacity. Air decks can handle a fair amount of weight, and offer a more comfortable ride experience, plus easier assembly than a rigid deck. However, rigid decks allow for higher operating speeds with a more solid structure.
Inflatable Boat Movement
Most inflatable boats are lightweight enough to be driven with paddles and oars, and can also sport a mounted outboard engine. Check the user’s manual for the specs on the maximum horsepower motor the boat can support, if any.
Never buy an inflatable boat that doesn’t include a compatible air pump. Whether it’s a hand pump, a foot pump or an electric pump, it should be able to inflate the boat quickly. Obviously an electric pump requires the least amount of effort, but regardless of which type of pump you use, if it didn’t come with the boat, make sure it can inflate it.
Keels vs No Keels
With Keels: Keels greatly improve a boat’s performance and value. They allow greater stability on the water, can easily cut through waves, and help keep the boat on a horizontal plane.
Without Keels: No keels means the boat is cheaper, but the simple design allows for easier set-up. The absence of keels also makes the boat easier to deflate and store. However, no keels means less stability and speed, and more difficulty navigating choppy waters.
Inflatable Boat Safety and Comfort
Any inflatable boat should be comfortable and of course, safe. It should also be able to withstand strong winds to keep it from drifting and/or capsizing. A wide inflatable boat with cushy seats and plenty of legroom is recommended.
Never over-inflate nor under-inflate a boat. To prevent over-inflation, seek out a boat with a pressure relief valve to reduce excess pressure. And no matter how durable the inflatable boat, it can still deflate and sink. Make sure your inflatable boat has multiple air chambers as an added safety feature to keep it afloat.
Inflatable Boat Accessories
If you’re going to buy a new inflatable boat, seek one out that comes with accessories. Besides the air pump, other accessories to get your money’s worth on a quality inflatable boat include:
- Carrying bag
- Repair kit
- Oars or paddles
- Inflatable keel
- Extended tiller
- Transporting wheels
- Lifting points
- Motor mount
Even a basic inflatable boat should come with some accessories. If you plan on using your inflatable boat for fishing, make sure it has room and mounting capabilities for fishing gear, including tackle boxes, rod holders, and of course the rods themselves.
One last thing to consider when buying an inflatable boat is whether or not it has a US Coast Guard rating. While not absolutely necessary, this rating helps ensure you’re getting a reliable vessel, so it’s a good thing to check for one before you buy.