Kayaks and Canoes vs Inflatable Kayaks and Packrafts
My bicycle tour from Romania to the UK followed Eurovelo 6 along some of Europe’s major rivers, the Danube, Rhine and Loire. I frequently passed people going up and down the river in kayaks and one night spotted a group camping on one of the islands on the Danube. Ever since then I have dreamed of doing a similar trip, starting at the top of a river and wild camping all the way to the bottom.
So I recently started investigating the options for more waterborne adventures and quickly worked out there are four basic options:
- Inflatable kayak
They all have different uses and advantages, I have grouped the two ‘hard shell’ watercraft together and the two ‘softshell’ together. There are also standup paddleboards (SUP) of both types which I have not included.
Hard shell watercraft
Hard shell simply means that the boat is constructed out of rigid material (wood, plastic, fibreglass, etc) and is not designed to be deconstructed. They do not bend or absorb the impact when hitting floating logs, navigating rapids and other obstacles. There are two options:
Kayaks are usually closed deck, which you sit in with legs stretched out and paddle with a double bladed paddle. There are also ‘sit on top’ kayaks which are more casual use or provide better mobility for fishing.
You can get kayaks designed for the sea which are longer, more sleek and designed for multi-day trips. Or river kayaks which are shorter and wider, and designed to be more stable.
Canoes are usually open decked, where you sit similar to how you would on a bench or kneeling, and paddle using a single bladed paddle. You are less protected from water and splashes with an open deck and so canoes have higher sides to help prevent the water splashing you.
Pros of hardshell
+ Always ready to go, you do not need to inflate it.
+ Tougher exterior when hitting pointy things and won’t puncture.
+ Kayaks are better at maneuvering, this depends on the model and how good you are at kayaking, but generally hardshell kayaks have more control.
+ Kayaks are more versatile, there are more hardshell kayaks that can run higher class rapids than other watercraft.
+ Kayaks are great for white water.
+ Canoes are spacious, for people, dogs and gear.
+ Canoes are very stable.
Cons of hardshell
– Not as easy to store, unless you have a mansion or huge garage.
– Also not easy to transport, unless you have a trailer or large car.
– When on the water, it will be harder to portage over sections of a river. Especially on your own.
– The hard exterior can get bashed up easier than an inflatable.
– Canoes are more affected by the wind and waves, so a bit harder to steer.
Soft shell watercraft
Soft shell means that the boat is constructed out of flexible material (plastic, nylon, etc) and designed to inflate. They are designed to be filled with air which provides buoyancy and creates a rigid hull.
Inflatable kayaks are similar to a normal kayak but inflatable, this means that you can easily pack it into a car for holidays. Whilst being more transportable than their hardshell counterpart, most are more than 14kg so too heavy to carry on your back or bike for long distances. There is a large range of inflatable kayaks available for both river use and sea use.
Packrafts are primarily designed for river use and to be ultra-portable. They can pack down to a small size that fits in your hiking rucksack and the weight ranges from 1kg to 6kg. This means packrafts are perfect for expeditions where you want to combine hiking with water travel over multiple days. Most of them also have an optional internal storage system which allows you to store your gear inside the packraft tubes themselves.
Pros of softshell
+ Easy to transport as packs down.
+ Easier to portage.
+ Can be more durable in some instances, as designed to absorb collisions.
+ Can take more weight than hardshells, though this doesn’t help if there isn’t anywhere to put luggage.
+ Packrafts can be carried on your back with other gear.
+ Packrafts are very stable, as tend to have wider base on the water.
Cons of softshell
– Can be harder to control and are more susceptible to wind and waves.
– You have to inflate and deflate it each use.
– Needs more care when packing away to ensure completely dry.
– Could spring a leak on a sharp rock, though they are made of very durable material nowadays.
– Packrafts are slow on flat water, and also all round slower than kayaks.
The main difference between hardshell and softshell is how easy it is to pack and take with you, so which route you go down can be narrowed down to whether you have the space to store a hardshell, and the means to transport it (or don’t mind buying the means). If the answer to both is no then you are floating towards the softshell route.
To round up, generally:
If you want to run a lot of white water or be faster on the water and have the means to store and transport it… get a hardshell kayak.
If you want something for family use where you are in the same boat, lots of storage or room for dogs and have means to store and transport it… get a hardshell canoe.
If you want to run a lot of white water but don’t have much room… get a softshell kayak.
If you need it to be light enough to carry on your back with other gear… get a packraft.
If you want all of of the above, then… get a packraft. There are plenty of options designed for every niche.