Kayak vs Packraft: Comparing Inflatables

4-minute read

Inflatable kayaks have become very popular while packrafts are still being discovered by many paddlers. Both are great options for the right situation. We compare them here so you can decide which is the best choice for you.

[NOTE: In both cases we’re talking about inflatables made by respected manufacturers in the industry—not box store or warehouse budget models. We always recommend buying watercraft that’s backed by a good name and a solid warranty.]

man on an inflatable kayak on a river

Inflatable kayaks can perform very well on both flatwater and rivers (photo courtesy of GoPaddle)

What is an Inflatable Kayak?

Inflatable kayaks are widely available from many different manufacturers. They come from brands like Advanced Elements, Sea Eagle and Aquaglide.

These kayaks are inflated with a manual pump, come in both sit-inside and sit-on-top models and usually include a carrying bag.

Depending on their design, inflatable kayaks are great for use on flatwater and some rivers. Select models are able to handle the open ocean and other big water environments, too.

These boats deflate to fit inside a bag the size of a large (or extra large) suitcase. They fit in the backseat or trunk of a vehicle, and store easily inside a closet. They weigh significantly less than comparative hardshell models, in the neighborhood of 25-35 pounds, depending on length.

What is a Packraft?

Packrafts are inflatable watercraft designed to be transported easily on wilderness excursions that will include paddling remote lakes and/or rivers.

Most are not dependent on a manual pump, but use a nylon inflating bag that weighs nothing and can fit in your pocket. Packrafts themselves can weigh as little as 3-4 pounds (most are under 15 pounds) and roll up to stuff in a backpack or bikepack. They’re the most portable boat available.

For the lengthiest and most remote wilderness excursions look at the Alpacka Raft and Kokopelli brands. Other high-quality packraft brands are Advanced Elements and Sea Eagle. All packrafts can handle flatwater and some rapids, while a few are designed for the challenges of whitewater.

several packrafters with bikes and gear on a river

It’s possible to load a fair amount of gear on a packraft for multi-day expeditions (photo courtesy of @fourcornersguides)

Which is the Right Choice for You?

An inflatable kayak is your best option if:

  • You plan to paddle on waterways you can drive to, or where you’ll store your kayak (i.e., the family cabin or lake home).
  • Weight isn’t much of a factor, but you still like the idea of a very portable boat that’s easy to store.
  • You’d like your boat to be less sluggish than a packraft on flatwater. Many inflatable kayaks perform quite well (though not as well as their hardshell counterpart).

A packraft is your best option if:

  • You dream of backpacking and bikepacking excursions that’ll take you to backcountry waterways you can’t reach any other way.
  • You live in an urban area with lots of paddling opportunities and love the idea of carrying your boat in a daypack either by foot or on a bike.
Minneapolis resident Jakob Riddle said, "I haven't had a car in 10 years and bought the packraft specifically because it is a boat I can own and use without a car." He bikes from his home to any of several nearby waterways, packs his bike on his packraft while he paddles, then heads home on his bike when he's through.

    To learn more about specific brands and models for either type of boat, search online for the brands we’ve mentioned and on expert paddling-specific websites like Paddling Magazine and Paddling.com.

    Which Paddle Should You Use?

    Kayakers and packrafters both use double-bladed paddles like kayak paddles. We always recommend choosing the lightest paddle your budget allows. You’ll thank us when you experience much less fatigue than you will with a heavier, clunky paddle! Think of your paddle as your motor and your connection to the water—it’s not an item you want to skimp on.

    kayak blades in three different colors, red, white and black

    A kayak paddle is your choice for either inflatable kayak or packraft (photo courtesy of Five2Nine)

    Most kayakers are happy with a paddle that breaks down into 2 pieces for storage and transportation. But if you want one you can take on a wilderness excursion—or even in a carry-on bag on a plane—consider a 4-piece paddle that breaks down into smaller segments.

    Serious packrafters who take extended trips regularly usually opt for a carbon model to keep the weight as low as possible. But our fiberglass models are almost as light, easier on your bank account and come in eye-popping colors that may even match your boat.

    We have kayak paddles for every budget that have well-designed blades, a comfortable grip, and an easy-to-use and snug ferrule system.

    Check out our kayak paddles here.

    To ensure the right length see our Kayak Paddle Sizing Guide. We also have a Packraft Paddle Sizing Guide—which may be helpful to use with wider inflatable kayaks, too.

    Enjoy the water!

    Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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