Ranking The Best Inflatable Boats
Intex Excursion 5-person
Sea Eagle PF7K Packfish Inflatable Fishing Boat
Bris 12ft Inflatable Fish Hunter Boat
One of the best and cheapest ways to get out on the water is to invest in an inflatable boat. The word “inflatable” might not inspire much confidence, but modern inflatable boats are far more advanced than the little blow-up pool toys that you remember from your childhood. They’re tough, durable, rugged vessels that can handle brutal conditions and take serious punishment.
These boats come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, with varying levels of equipment, with very different customers in mind. They range from inexpensive oar-operated paddle rafts for a leisurely boating experience aimed at entry-level boaters, to more advanced ocean-ready dinghies that can accommodate powerful outboard motors. Some are designed for determined fishermen with trolling motor attachments and rod holders, while others are tailored towards thrill-seeking white-water enthusiasts, featuring added protection and nimble handling.
With so many different types available, and at such polarizing price points, separating the good from the bad is no mean feat. Luckily, we’ve put together a list of our favorites, along with a handy buying guide to make your shopping experience as hassle-free as possible. Here’s all you need to know about inflatable boats.
An Inflatable Boat Buying Guide
As you can see from our suggestions above, inflatable boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes, kitted out for a wide range of purposes, and are marketed to very different groups of customers. This makes buying one a little more complicated than hitting the buy button on the first dinghy-shaped air-bladder that you see with the cheapest price tag.
With that in mind, we’ve got a handy buying guide for you, which should give you an idea of what questions you should ask yourself before investing in a boat, and what features you should be looking out for when you’re searching.
Why Buy An Inflatable Boat?
First things first: why buy one? What advantages does a blow-up boat have over a conventional solid-body vessel? Why do people buy them? Here are the three most important reasons why people buy inflatable boats.
Inflatable boats are collapsible in nature, and can be deflated, rolled up, and packed down into small carrying case. Since they can be reduced down to a compact size, it makes them an ideal choice for those who want to take their boat with them wherever they go, without the need of a trailer or a roof rack. Since they can be taken from A to B with absolutely no hassle, they can be used on lakes, rivers, and on the ocean.
Full size boats can’t collapse down into a small package and put in your garage, so you need somewhere to store them. Not everyone has access to a boat-sized storage shed, or has the space to park their boat and trailer on a driveway. With an inflatable boat, there’s no need for intricate storage solutions, or worse: extortionate permanent mooring costs.
Arguably, the most important reason people choose to buy an inflatable is simple economics. Full-bodied boats are far more expensive than their simpler, inflatable cousins. An inflatable boat is essentially a glorified balloon, with a simple design, made from relatively inexpensive materials. Since they’re much cheaper than regular boats, beginners and budget-conscious boaters often prefer these vessels, since they don’t require such huge investment.
Naturally, there are other reasons why inflatable boats are such a hit, but these three are easily most popular. But what type should you buy?
Types Of Inflatable Boats
There are a variety of inflatables out there, designed for very different purposes. They can be used for leisure, white water sport, fishing, and purely for ferrying passengers. Here are the most popular types of boats available:
Raft-style inflatable boats are oval in shape with an air-filled bladder that follow the perimeter of the boat. Generally, they’re flat in design, supporting an inflatable floor. They’re popular for white water rafting, since the flat bottom and wide shape boosts stability, whilst allowing space for more occupants, and more rowing power. They can be used for a variety of purposes though.
Dinghies are some of the most popular types of inflatable boats. They’re instantly recognizable thanks to their U-shaped design. They boast a U-shaped air bladder that often connects to a solid transom at the back. They’re perfect for ocean applications, since they’re very robust, and the solid transom allows for the easy addition of a motor. Boats like these are ideal fishing vessels, perfect for ferrying passengers, and useful in emergencies too.
Inflatable kayaks are air-filled equivalents of the solid-hulled kayaks. They’re great for navigating rivers and coastal bays, and some can be used for white water too. Most of the time they require paddle-power, though some can accommodate a trolling motor. We’ve covered inflatable kayaks in more detail here.
Pontoon boats are made from inflatable pontoons, often with a fishing chair suspended between the two pontoons. These inflatables are almost exclusively designed for anglers, packed with handy fishing accessories and practicalities—some can even accommodate a trolling motor. We’ve covered the best pontoon boats before. Float tubes are similar to pontoon boats, but they’re more like pocket-sized single-bladdered dinghies that you can sit in, with your legs dangling in the water.
No matter what style appeals to you, or what you plan to do with your future boat, it’s important to pay attention to the materials used in the craft’s construction. Especially since you’ll be using it on the water!
Generally, most inflatable watercraft are made from PVC, Hypalon, or in some cases, Nitrylon.
PVC is lightweight, strong, durable, and cheap. It’s a material that is waterproof, can handle high air pressure, fold without tearing, and can easily be bonded using plastic welding methods. When combined with other materials, it can be puncture and abrasion-proof too.
Hypalon is tougher than PVC, but less practical and more expensive. While it’s incredibly abrasion-resistant, it’s not very flexible. Generally, this material is used with PVC as a reinforcing element. It’s particularly good at resisting the effects of UV rays, salt water, and general oxidization.
Nitrylon is another popular material. It’s a synthetic fabric that’s generally more eco-friendly than PVC, but not by much. It’s a combination of man made and natural rubbers that coat a 1200D fabric for unparalleled abrasion and puncture resistance. It’s quite heavy though, so it’s seldom used as the primary construction material, and more like a reinforcement.
Pay attention to the other materials used to, such as any metal components or wooden sections. All metals used should be rust-resistant and able to withstand marine applications. Similarly, any wood used, for the transom or floorboard areas, needs to have a marine-quality coating that will prevent rot.
When it comes to choosing an inflatable boat, you need to pay attention to the size. They can be quite large, and depending on your needs, bigger isn’t necessarily better. For example, a larger raft will require more hands to paddle it. A larger dinghy may require a larger (and more expensive) motor to power it. And of course, the larger a boat is, the harder it is to assemble, deflate, and store.
Larger boats are harder to setup and take-down, so many owners decide to leave them fully inflated at all times, which then makes transportation and storage a problem. No problem if you have an inflatable boat trailer, but if you have no plans to buy a trailer, then perhaps it’s a wiser idea to purchase a smaller water craft instead.
Similar to the boat size, it’s important to keep a look out for the boat’s overall weight capacity and how many passengers it can accommodate. If you’re looking for a little boat for solo adventuring, buying a large 5-person craft won’t be a wise idea. Larger boats require more hands to steer and paddle it. If you’re planning on only going out on the water with company, then make sure you find one that’s appropriate for your group size.
Many boats oversell their capacity. A 5-person inflatable boat may only have room for two adults and three small children, so keep that in mind.
If you’re planning on taking your boat on fishing trips, or want to install a motor, take into account the weight of your equipment and gear, and check that the boat you’re looking at can handle them, as well as well as your own weight and any passengers you plan on bringing along.
Since inflatable boats are designed to be practical, easy to pack down and store, lightweight, and compact, the overall portability and transportation of your boat should be one of its most attractive features. However, there’s more to the overall portability of a boat than its packing dimensions. Almost all of them will pack small and fit into the trunk of a car, but you should take note of a boat’s assembled weight before investing in it.
Can you lift it alone when its fully inflated? Does it have enough grab handles to make it manageable? This is something many people overlook. If you can’t lift your boat up, you’ll have difficulty getting it in and out of the water. Take note of the inflated weight before buying!
When searching for a boat, see what additional features are thrown in. While you’d think that an inflatable boat would obviously be sold with paddles, or a pump, and perhaps even a puncture repair kit as standard equipment, that is not always the case. Look out for those items, or at least factor them in as additional expenses before you hit the buy button.
Other features to look out for could be motor mounts for boaters who want to add a motor into the mix, rod holders for fishermen, storage areas for drinks and snacks, and splash guards to protect your passengers from spray.
While they’re almost never included, make sure you set aside some of your budget to invest in personal flotation devices, and other safety equipment such as whistles, torches, and a lifebuoy.
Lastly, there’s the price. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. While there are bargains to be had, when it comes to buying a boat it’s better to spend some real money. Anything that’s sold for under $100 is going to be a toy, or something designed for incredibly low stress environments. These aren’t the kind of things you should be relying on when traveling over fast moving or deep water.
That doesn’t mean that you have to break the bank though. Most of the expensive gear is designed for specific purposes intended to be used by professionals. For a couple of hundred dollars, you can get something tough, hard-wearing, practical, and fun. It all depends on what your expectations are, of course.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a boat license for an inflatable boat?
Generally speaking, if your boat is equipped with a motor that can propel it to speeds over 10 knots, then you will need an operator’s license. If not, then you won’t need a license. However, rules vary from state to state, so it’s worth checking with your local authorities for further clarification.
Do I have to register an inflatable boat?
Registration of an inflatable boat is dependent on your local state laws. Some states require inflatable watercraft to be registered and bear a registration number. If you need to register your vessel, you will be required to fill out a registration form, and provide the boat’s invoice, manufacturer’s statement of origin, a bill of sale, and provide details of the boat’s propulsion system for full registration.
In Summary: What Is The Best Inflatable Boat?
Since there is a huge range of inflatable boats out there, coming in diverse shapes and sizes, and designed and engineered for a wide range of different purposes, there’s no single model that’s better than the rest. Similarly, no two customers are the same, and a boat that’s the right fit for one customer won’t be the right tool for another. However, if we had to whittle down our favorites to three distinct models, a best of the best, then it would be these three:
Our standout choice for budget-boaters would have to be the Intex Excursion. It’s cheap but effective, and comes with a surprising number of features that you wouldn’t expect from such a budget-focused product. It’s tough and durable, with clever valves, and a well-engineered design. Plus, it ships with everything you need for instant boating fun, including oars, a pump, a carry bag, and a puncture repair kit. It’s cheap, but highly effective.
If you’re shopping with deeper pockets and you’re looking for a premium inflatable boat that’s versatile in nature and won’t let you down, then our number one choice would be the Bris 12ft Inflatable Fish Hunter Boat. This is a serious vessel that can be used day in, day out, in a wide range of conditions. It’s made from top shelf materials and components, and is designed for professional use. It’s pricey, but it’s incredibly capable. Plus, it has a three-year warranty.
Finally, if we had to choose one inflatable boat as our overall favorite, one that offers premium performance at a reasonable price, with all the bells and whistles, then we’d choose the Sea Eagle PF7K Packfish. It’s a one-person boat that’s designed for serious fishing. It has plenty of high-quality components, handy fishing accessories, and a comfortable and capable ride experience. What’s more, it packs down and can easily be carried on your back. It’s our number one choice.