By Larry Rice
The first time I took on Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rogue River, other experienced paddlers joined me for a three-day run in hardshell boats down 45 miles of remote, challenging whitewater. We used every trick in the book to avoid capsizing in the 80-odd ever-changing rapids and ripples. Flash forward 10 years and I’m back for more. Only this time, my group consists largely of beginning paddlers, from a nervous 13-year-old who looks like he’d rather be gripping a Game Boy joystick to a fit woman in her 70s who’s never visited the inside of a boat. Neophytes on the wild and scenic Rogue? What gives?
The answer is inflatables, those bright, rubbery floating bathtubs that allow novice paddlers to attempt bigger waves and trickier rivers than they would normally ever dare. With near bombproof stability and a much faster learning curve than traditional hardshell kayaks and canoes, inflatable craft offer beginners a great alternative to 1) staying home or 2) being stuffed like waterlogged sardines into one of those colossal commercial rafts.
Make no mistake; I wasn’t always a cheerleader for blow-up watercraft. Like many other "serious" paddlers, I was doubtful at first about the ruggedness and usefulness of these nylon/polyester boats. I certainly wasn’t going to entrust my life in the wilderness to some pool-toy duckie. But, oh my, how time and technology can change a stubborn man.
After watching those dozen greenhorns bounce through the frothing rapids of the Rogue in single-seat inflatable kayaks, ricocheting off boulders unscathed, emerging triumphant into emerald pools, I quickly revised my opinion of blow-ups. I’ve since gone on to rely on these sleek, efficient, extremely durable, easily transportable craft for many of my paddling safaris. I’ve carried inflatables to far-flung rivers and oceans where it wouldn’t have been feasible to launch a heavily loaded hardshell-from the Bahamas’ coral reefs to Mongolia’s high steppes to Canada’s Far North-taking family and friends who had little to zero experience. Not bad for a boat that can be inflated or deflated in about 10 minutes, rolled into a bundle not much bigger than a golf bag, and thrown into the trunk of your car. (Or onto a train, plane, or the back of a sturdy mule.)
Thanks to a decade’s worth of technological advances in materials and design, now is a great time to explore the possibilities that these boats can bring to your next-or very first-grand paddling adventure. And although no inflatable boats can guarantee you an absolutely safe, dunk-free ride, their relatively wide girths and flat bottoms offer built-in stability and tracking not always found in hardshells. I’ve seen complete amateurs and families with kids take on not only the Rogue but also Utah’s Green, Montana’s Yellowstone, Wisconsin’s Wolf, and countless other rivers no sensible beginner would have risked when I started paddling my ancient hardshell years ago.
Totally convinced? Before running out to buy your first rubbery rig, you need to know that inflatables come in four basic types: kayaks, canoes, rafts, and catamarans. To decide which best suits your needs, first ask: What kind of water will I be paddling the majority of the time? If it’s easy waves or mellow flatwater that beckons you, consider a utilitarian, low-end recreation boat that will hone your paddling skills without blowing out your wallet. If it’s high-volume rivers with big rapids you’re eventually after, consider a mini-raft or catamaran. Both can be paddled or rowed and provide excellent stability because of their size, width, and buoyancy. For rocky, more technical rivers with lower volume, go for an inflatable kayak or canoe, shorter, narrower boats that are playful yet relatively stable. The latest models are quite rigid, respond quickly to leans, and turn on a dime. If ocean coastlines or the Great Lakes are calling your name, your best bet is a well-designed inflatable sea kayak that includes a foot-operated rudder.
Do you prefer paddling alone or partnering? Inflatables are available as solos or tandems (some work as both) and come in a variety of lengths. In general, the longer the boat, the more difficult to maneuver, but you gain in stability, tracking, and storage space. Some boats come with higher sidewalls and wider beams for increased safety in whitewater for beginners. By contrast, the shorter and skinnier the boat, the more speed and precision in handling. As a novice paddler, you’ll need to appraise your skills and comfort level and find the compromise that works for you: speed and performance vs. stability and safety.
Many air boats now come with self-bailing floors, allowing the boat to drain rapidly and ride higher in big waves, ensuring a drier, safer ride-and saving you the drudgery of bailing. You’ll pay more, but it’s definitely worth the splurge. And if you intend to keep your craft for many years and paddle beyond the local pond, look for one constructed of quality, heavy-duty fabric and coated in vinyl or Hypalon, a form of synthetic rubber.
These days there are more inflatable manufacturers than ever, creating models for everything from ocean touring to steep-creeking, so you’ll want to do your homework. A great place to compare manufacturers, styles, prices, and recommended uses is the Canoe & Kayak 2005 Buyer’s Guide. If you can’t find it at your local paddle shop, call (800) MY-CANOE or visit www.canoekayak.com. For a casual recreation boat suitable for flatwater or Class I rapids, expect to pay from $400, while $4,000 will get you a six-person raft ready for the Grand Canyon. A two-person, inflatable kayak or canoe will run $1,000 to $2,000, comparable to a top-end hard boat, but no expensive car rack is needed.
When comparing inflatables, carefully read the manufacturer’s statement and product specs: What is its deflated size and weight? How is it rated for whitewater? Can seats be adjusted? Are there convenient lash-in points for dry bags? Foot pegs for comfort? Hand grips in case of an overturn? Is it self-bailing? Which features come as extra-cost accessories and which are standard equipment, including air pumps, carry bags, quick-release thigh straps, break-down paddles, and no-slip wooden bench seats? Boat review articles can help you compare recommended models, tested by discerning pros. Better yet, test-ride a friend’s inflatable in the kind of water you’re likely to be running-or join a commercially outfitted group. Many manufacturers offer on-water trial periods as well.
Whether you’re interested in short sojourns or full-blown expeditions, river running or sea kayaking, or simply exploring that small stream or neighborhood lake, I guarantee there’s an inflatable to meet your needs. And after putting 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. See you on the Rogue!
Larry Rice is a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak Magazine and proud owner of two inflatables (not to mention a dozen hard boats).