Inflation is a Good Thing

I wasn’t always a cheerleader for inflatable paddlecraft. Like many “serious” paddlers, I was suspicious about the ruggedness and usefulness of these blow-up rubber boats; I certainly wasn’t going to entrust my life in the wilderness to any “pool-toy” ducky. But things have changed. Starting with a trip down Oregon’s wild Rogue River 10 years ago, I have come to rely on inflatable kayaks, catyaks, and canoes on many of my paddling safaris.


These easily transportable, utilitarian, tough-as-nails craft have taken me to places where I didn’t dare use a heavily loaded hardboat–Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon and Colorado’s Gunnison Gorge, for example–and to far-flung, exotic destinations I previously could only dream of paddling–rivers in Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Siberia, and Canada’s far north–where the only way to reach the put-in is by airplane, truck, ferry, horseback, or even foot. Not bad for a boat that can be rolled into a bundle not much bigger than a golf bag and stored in an apartment closet.


Thanks to technological advances in inflatables in the past decade, now is a great time to explore the possibilities that these boats can bring to your next grand paddling adventure. There are also more inflatable manufacturers than ever today, making models for everything from steep-creeking to ocean touring. But for this review, we have narrowed the field to only those inflatables suitable for backcountry use–boats large enough to accommodate one or two paddlers and their camping gear. To this end, we asked nine manufacturers to send us boats that they personally would use to head into the boonies on a three-day (or longer) self-supported wilderness paddling trip.


Whether you’re interested in short sojourns or full-blown expeditions, river-running or sea kayaking, small, quiet streams or big, brawny lakes, I guarantee there’s an inflatable in the following mix that will meet your needs. And after you’ve put it to the test, don’t be surprised if you, too, become a cheerleader for these eminently practical–and amazingly efficient–blow-up rubber boats.


REVIEW CRITERIA: All of the watercraft in this survey were paddled by myself and an opinionated crew of boat-savvy friends in a wide variety of river and lake conditions. Each boat was rated on a scale of 1-4 in the following categories:


Baggage Capacity: Even for a weekend outing, most paddlers will be packing a large and small drybag and possibly a camera case–and that’s per person. Add to that a spare paddle, jugs of drinking water in some cases, and a toilet system and fire pan where legally required. Is it all going to fit inside and still leave room for you and your partner?


Comfort: Seats and thwarts are usually an integral part of an inflatable’s structural design. Are they comfortable for long periods of sitting or kneeling? Does the boat have a self-bailing floor (which drains quickly and increases safety), and if so, can the drain holes be plugged for a dry ride in mellow paddling conditions? Are there adequate tie-down points for gear? You’ll be lugging the boat from shoreline to campsite every day. Are the grab handles well positioned and padded? Are accessories available (thigh straps, adjustable foot braces, back rests, retractable rudders, motor mounts, backpack carrying bags, etc.) to help customize the craft to fit your specific needs?


Handling: What’s the primary use of the boat: ocean and lake touring; high-volume rivers and very large rapids; low-volume rivers with lots of rocks; flatwater tripping; all of the above? And within its category, does it perform as it should: track well; ride high on the water; spin on a dime to catch eddies; respond crisply to dynamic paddle strokes? True, these are inflatables, but when properly designed, they should handle almost as well as their hardshell cousins.


Details: It was impossible in the course of this field test to evaluate how a particular boat will hold up to the rigors of hard use over time, but by noting the quality of workmanship and choice of materials used in construction, we arrived at an informed opinion. All of the boats in this review, if properly maintained, should provide many years of paddling pleasure.


NOTES:To be consistent, and to simulate field conditions, all boats were inflated with a hand or foot pump (rather than electric inflator). Some boats take longer to assemble than others, but on the average it takes only 8 to 15 minutes to fully inflate and outfit the inflatables tested.


All weights and dimensions listed below have been supplied by the manufacturer. Many of the manufacturers in this review offer liberal warranty and on-water trial periods. If possible, test ride before you buy. This is only a sampling of the models and designs available from each manufacturer. For a complete product line, accessories, and dealer list, call for a brochure or visit their Web sites.


S14, SOAR Inflatables



Manufacturer’s Statement: There is simply nothing that can’t be done in the S14. It’s an exciting tandem whitewater playboat, and nimble for a solo paddler. You can load it with gear for both solo and tandem wilderness trips.


Baggage Capacity: Paddling tandem, there’s ample room for most expeditions. Going solo, there’s no way you’ll max out the gear capacity of this tripping canoe.


Comfort: Kneeling or sitting, the S14 can be paddled comfortably all day. Grommet strips that run the length of the tubes provide convenient seat-adjustment locations and gear lash-in points. The self-bailing holes on the floor work flawlessly in big rapids; on flatwater, the holes can be closed by gluing in rubber patches. Beefy bow and stern grab loops make the boat easy to carry. A variety of accessories are available, including thigh straps, a conversion piece that turns two breakdown canoe paddles into a three-piece kayak paddle, and a nifty motor-mount attachment.


Handling: Good news to open boaters: this inflatable canoe performs just like a hardboat in most respects. On lakes, the S14 tracks well and at a good clip. On rivers, it handles everything from shallow rock gardens to Class IV rapids while fully loaded. If you’re not sure whether you want a solo or tandem boat, no worries: the S14 can be used either way with equal efficiency.


ORINOCO, Innova Inflatables



Manufacturer’s Statement: A huge load capacity. Selectable self-bailing. Ideal for river trekking. Goes from limited hall space to limited trunk space to the great outdoors easily.


Baggage Capacity: Thanks in part to its canoe design and ample space, this boat holds enough gear for a week or longer–and that’s for tandem. Solo paddlers can go for a month without being cramped.


Comfort: A great river-running boat, the Orinoco comes with several nice features, including quick-release thigh straps, adjustable no-slip bench seats fore and aft, hand grips along the bow and stern tubes in case the boat overturns, and a self-bailing drain tube in the stern that can be opened in whitewater or rolled up on calmer waters. The only improvements our reviewers would like to see are seat grommets for a solo paddling position and gear tie-down points amidships.


Handling: Like the other inflatable canoes in this review, the Orinoco is an impressive gear-toting river boat. With its upturned bow and stern, it exhibits excellent agility when weaving through rocky shoals and rapids. Even in Class III and IV water, the boat doesn’t miss a beat. But all this maneuverability comes at a price: on flat stretches the Orinoco starts to stall, and its swept-up ends tend to catch the wind.


OUTSIDE PRO, Grabner



Manufacturer’s Statement: Beyond a doubt, the most versatile boat that exists. Although its greater strengths lie in river touring and whitewater travel, you can use the Outside for almost everything.


Baggage Capacity: Paddled tandem, the Outside is roomy enough for a weeklong journey. Solo paddlers will have so much cargo space that they might be tempted to take the kitchen sink.


Comfort: Whether kneeling or sitting, the Outside is a boat that makes you feel right at home and in control. Lash-down points are numerous, grab handles are user-friendly, and a single bilge tube in the stern allows any water that sloshes aboard to funnel right back out (on flatwater, the tube can be drawn in and closed). Accessories include contoured stow bags, thigh straps, three-piece breakdown paddles, carrying bags, and even a motor-mount and sail kit.


Handling: The Outside excels as a river-runner, and performs equally well paddled solo or tandem. With one of the highest inflation pressure ratings on the market, the boat can be pumped up rock hard. Rigidity equals performance, and with its hardshell feel and pronounced rocker, the Outside is in its element on moving water, whether technical Class II or hairboat Class V. However, that same rocker can become a frustrating liability on flatwater, when you want speed and the ability to track straight.


4-POINT RATING SCALE


S14: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 4/3; Comfort: 4; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 4/3.5; Details: 4; ORINOCO: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 4/3; Comfort: 4; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 4/2.5; Details: 4;

OUTSIDE PRO: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 4/3; Comfort: 4; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 4/2.5; Details: 4;

EXPLORER 380X: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 3/2; Comfort: 4; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 3/2.5; Details: 3;

RIVER XK2: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem) 2.5/1; Comfort: 2; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 2/3; Details: 2.5;

SEA TIGER: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 4/2.5; Comfort: 4; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): */4; Details: 4;

MAVERIK II: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 3/2; Comfort: 2.5; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater); 3/2.5; Details: 4;

STARLITE 100: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 2/na; Comfort: 2; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 3/2; Details: 3;

FAT PACK CAT: Baggage Capacity (Solo/Tandem): 3/na; Comfort: 3; Handling (Whitewater/Flatwater): 4/3; Details: 4;


*= not designed for whitewater

na = not applicable

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Buyer's Guide

Buyer's Guide