little girl in a kayak

Photo: Beth Skwarecki

When buying my first kayak and discussing options starting at $ 250, I came across a $ 99 inflatable kayak that seemed too good to be true. There must be a catch, I thought. This is by no means a real boat. Later, after I bought my real kayak, I noticed that the inflatable boat had dropped to $ 50. I picked it up. I had to know.

The one I bought is a Intex K1 Challenger. In the two or three years since I got it, I’ve noticed more and more inflatable kayaks popping up on the local lake, most of the same brand as me. The two K2 Explorer is also popular; I’ve seen kids fishing from them and couples enjoying using them to paddle around the lake.

From my experience I can say that a cheap inflatable kayak does the bare minimum of what a kayak needs to do. It keeps you afloat and lets you float through the water. It’s not a good boat, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Here are some things to keep in mind when feeling tempted.

What is the weight limit for an inflatable kayak?

Regular kayaks usually have weight limits between 200 and 450 pounds. We mentioned last time that you want to have a higher capacity than you think, but it is especially important to be careful with inflatable boats as their weight limits are often very low.

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My Challenger only goes up to 165 pounds; The two person explorer I keep seeing around the lake is 400, which sounds like a lot until you remember having to put two people in there. There are likely other inflatables out there with higher weight limits, but if you are an adult, read the label carefully before purchasing.

That said, these kayaks are great for kids. My 120-pound son has no problem paddling around the lake in the Challenger. My kindergarten daughter loves it too; When I paddle with her, I tie her inflatable boat to the back of my regular kayak so I can pull her behind me.

How hard is it to inflate a kayak?

folded kayak before inflating;  You can see my foot as a yardstick and the kayak paddle in the corner.

Photo: Beth Skwarecki

One of my concerns was that it would take forever to inflate the kayak, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it doesn’t. It only takes a few minutes to unpack the boat and get out on the water once you get the hang of it – including how the valves work.

Mine has a Boston valve that takes air in but not out, so it can be easily inflated without accidentally losing air. What makes it difficult is that it is stacked on top of a regular screw top valve for quick draining. The screw cap needs to be completely closed when inflating, but luckily you can open it all the way – for example, remove the valve from the boat – to quickly deflate.

The first time I used the kayak, I found one valve but not the other: we swam well around the lake and then had a hell of a lot of time to squeeze out the air to grab it and go home. Another time I ran into a couple who were having trouble inflating their kayak for the first time because the drain valve was loose; at this point I knew how both valves work and was able to show them the trick.

Once you know how to do it, it will take less than ten minutes – maybe five if you’re good – to get the boat ready. The included hand pump (it looks like a bicycle pump) is sufficient for the job; I don’t think an electric pump is necessary.

How does an inflatable kayak behave on the water?

To be completely honest, this isn’t a great boat. But you knew that when you bought it for $ 99 (or $ 50 on sale). Be sure to attach the plastic fin to the bottom and don’t set your expectations too high.

The boat turns on its opposite side with every stroke of the paddle, but that’s the nature of short, flat-bottomed craft. The supplied paddle isn’t the best either, but you can always buy your own paddle if that bothers you. (When I’m in the dinghy because I’m letting a kid or friend use the real kayak, we often switch paddles to make things a little fairer.)

In theory, an inflatable kayak could leak, but the material is tough and that has not happened to me yet. Nevertheless, I am glad that I only drive the boat where I could easily swim ashore in an emergency.

What is it like to store an inflatable kayak?

This is the part they won’t tell you about. Yes, an inflatable boat can be packed up in a confined space, but if you pull it out of the water it will get wet and likely muddy. In this state you don’t want to roll the thing into your little suitcase.

Maybe if you use your kayak on the beach and have plenty of time to dry it off in the sun before heading back, this could work. But often at dusk I find myself with a dripping boat in a gravel parking lot.

So I can get started quickly: First I remove the seat and footrest from the boat and throw them in the trunk without venting them. I break the paddle in half (instead of separating all five segments and folding them into its smallest shape) and toss it in too. Then I open the valves on the kayak itself. After a minute or two, I declare that it’s deflated enough. I roughly fold the thing in thirds and tip it, not yet completely dry or clean, onto everything else in the trunk.

I keep the dinghy in the trunk between trips and don’t clean it thoroughly until I put it back in the suitcase at the end of the season.

Conclusion: is this a good kayak? No. But is it a great way to get out on the water if you’re not ready to invest in a full size boat? Absolutely.