Affordable Gear List for Inflatable Kayaking

Meet the Guide!

Andy is a jack-of-all-adventures, master of none. Depending on the season, you might find him rock climbing, trail running, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, surfing or good ol’ hiking.

Gear Guide Introduction

Who This Guide Is For:

This Gear List is for beginner and intermediate kayakers interested in inflatable kayaking on lakes and rivers. With the right kayak, you can paddle up to Class 3 or 4 whitewater!

With the right inflatable kayak, you can explore any of the following:

  • Class 1 and Class 2 Rivers (sometimes Class 3-4!)
  • Lakes, lagoons, bays, marshes, ponds
  • Easy shoreside sea kayaking

You can enjoy overnight adventure trips. And with a premium inflatable whitewater or expedition kayak, you can even tackle Class 3 or Class 4 whitewater!

Take it from me. I’ve paddled the banks of Lake Superior, the kelp forests of California, the oyster beds of the Gulf of Mexico, the mangroves of the Florida Everglades, the surf off the Outer Banks, the bird sanctuaries of the Mississippi, the slot canyons of Lake Powell, the trout-laden spring waters of the Current River, and the whitewater rapids of the Colorado.

You really can do almost anything in an inflatable kayak!

Who This Guide Is NOT For:

I love inflatable kayaking. It’s allowed me to travel on some of the biggest lakes and rivers in the country. But like every adventure activity, it does have its pros and cons.

  • This guide isn’t for families who just want to get out on the local lake. I still highly encourage you to read this post, because you’ll learn a lot about adventure kayaking, but some of the recommendations might be overkill. You probably don’t care if your paddle is feathered, for instance.
  • Secondly, this guide isn’t for hardcore (Class 4+) whitewater kayakers. While there are a few inflatable kayaks rated for Class 4 whitewater, they’re usually not the best watercraft for the job.

By their nature, inflatable kayaks excel at “boofing” on short drops and cresting over standing waves. But they can’t roll or surf as well as hardshells. This is one reason they are preferred for guided trips: Inflatable kayaks are more stable in the water than most hardshells. But that stability comes with a loss of agility.

But unless you’re an expert kayaker, ignore everything I said. Many inflatable kayaks are far more capable than you and me!

Visual Inspiration

Activity Demonstration

Safety & Risk

What Are the Dangers of Inflatable Kayaking?

You can drown. You can break a leg. You can smash your skull. Water is dangerous, people!

The two biggest hazards on rivers are holes and strainers.

  • Holes are recirculating water currents, usually formed when water drops over an obstruction, like a submerged rock. Powerful recirculating currents also exist at the edges of an eddy or at the base of a low head dam. Many a kayaker has died in a hole, sucked down to the cloudy depths below.
  • Strainers are formed by obstructions in the waterway, such as a cleft between two rocks or a submerged tree. Water can pass through, but a human cannot. Many a kayaker has died by getting a foot trapped between two rocks, with the strong river current forcing their bodies sideways and underwater. You can die in 2-3 feet of water if the current is strong enough.

A full description of safety while inflatable kayaking is beyond the scope of this article. Dangers include everything from drowning to hypothermia to bacterial infection.

Here are several of my personal recommendations:

  1. Wear a helmet! ‘Nuff said.
  2. Wear a PFD life jacket. Also ‘nuff said.
  3. Tell someone where you’re going. And preferably, don’t go alone!
  4. If the water’s cold, wear a wetsuit. The shock of cold water alone can stun your muscles and render them partially immobile, leading to drowning.
  5. When in doubt, scout. Never run a rapid you aren’t familiar with.
  6. If you fall out of your craft, float with your feet pointing downstream, your head out of the water, and your arms guiding you.
  7. Bring a whistle and know the accepted signals for calling for help. Better yet, bring a GPS tracker.
  8. Double-check your watercraft. Check for holes and other damages before and after every voyage.
  9. Hypothermia can set in the ’50s or ’60s! Water conducts heat away 25x faster than air!

What Is Inflatable Kayaking?

Before I go any further, we need to talk about inflatable kayaks themselves, because there are a LOT of misconceptions about these watercraft. I’ve paddled thousands of miles in my Sea Eagle 330 everywhere from the Gulf of Mexico surf to Colorado whitewater rivers, and the questions never cease!

If you already own a hardshell kayak, you have to accept that an inflatable kayak is really a hybrid between a kayak and a canoe.

  • You can’t Eskimo roll in an inflatable kayak.
  • You can’t surf giant waves (just smaller ones, up to 2-2.5 feet) or spin 180 degrees.
  • A stiff wind blows you around like a feather. Because most inflatable kayaks have rudders or skegs instead of a formed hull, they don’t track as well as hard shells.
  • Even the paddling stroke is slightly different: higher elbows, shorter stroke. Somewhat more tiring. 

Despite these disadvantages, there’s a lot to love about inflatable kayaking! The big benefit is ease of transportation! You can stash your boat in your backseat, the trunk, a roof rack, cargo carrier, or check it in as baggage on an airplane or train. 

Most inflatable single or tandem kayaks weigh 50-100 lbs once packed up. When packed up, they’re not too difficult to carry for up to 100 yards. Any further than that, and you’re better off dragging or portaging. 

Affordable Gear List for Inflatable Kayaking

Gear List for Inflatable Kayaking

Kayak$320 - $2,200See Gear Notes
Pump(Often Included)Get both manual and electric pumps!
Spray Skirt(Often Included)If available with model
Paddle$30 - $100Make sure you can twist the ferrule on the shaft so you can feather the blade for long-distance trips.
Seat(Often Included)See Gear Notes
Helmet$60 - $150Certified to BS EN 1385:2012 standard.
Life Jacket$20 - $80USCG-approved. Must still allow flexibility for swimming!
Wetsuit$50 - $200Look for used models on Ebay! | Optional in warm water AND weather conditions | 2mm or 3/2mm is recommended for colder water.
Water Shoes$5 - $50Flip flops or booties for easy water | Soled water shoes for whitewater.
Safety Whistle$5Wear as a lanyard.
Dry Bag$30-$50Recommended size 20-50 liters. Bring 2-3 sizes, including single zippered dry bag for smartphone. And no, Zip-Loc bags don’t work!
Towline$5At least 10 feet of paracord if you need to anchor your craft.
Water Bottle/Bladder$10Plan on 3 liters per person per day.
Change of Dry ClothesFreeKeep in vehicle or in dry bag!
RegistrationVariesMany states require registration for all watercraft, even small inflatable kayaks! This is partially to protect waterways from invasive species.
Quick-Dry Towel$10
Paddle Float/Paddle Leash$10Everyone drops their paddle eventually!
Headlamp$30Because you can’t hold a flashlight when you’re paddling.
Sponge$10For sopping up water.
Hat$20-$50Wide-brimmed is best!

Gear List Explanations & Footnotes

This Gear List does not include the 10 Essentials, which you should bring on any adventure outing!

If you’re planning an overnight trip, you’ll need to bring quite a bit more, obviously. Plan accordingly. If you’re avoiding high-adrenaline whitewater, you can attach a floating cargo raft to the stern of your craft and lash your equipment to it!

Gear Advice

Choosing an Inflatable Kayak

I highly recommend you avoid the cheap $100 inflatable kayaks found at Big Box stores like Walmart. These are squirrely watercraft only suited for flatwater kayaking in good weather. Do yourself a favor and invest in a high-quality inflatable, such as a Sea Eagle, Bote, Aire, or AquaGlide. Only buy an Intex if it’s one of their premium lines, like the Excursion series.

You get what you pay for, and a $100 kayak isn’t good for anything except paddling around an open lake.

(I know, I know, this Gear List is all about affordable kayaking. And I support saving money wherever you can – except the kayak! Buy the nicest one you can get your hands on. Call the company and ask about show models, demos, returns, whatever. Offer a bribe. Do whatever you need to.)


I own a Sea Eagle 330. It’s rated for Class 3 whitewater (which I can attest to). It’s a great kayak! But it does have its limitations.

One of the big differences is pressure. In rough water, my 330 flops around like a half-boiled noodle. More expensive inflatable kayaks can be inflated to a higher pressure, which makes them more rigid. You can really tell the difference when the water turns frothy! I’d like to upgrade to the Explorer series.

Here are some more recommendations for choosing an inflatable kayak:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of bailing valves! One or two isn’t enough for stiff Class 3 or Class 4 whitewater.
  • If you plan on using your craft for both rapids and flat water, try to buy a unit with a removable skeg.
  • Think about aftermarket options. If you want to upgrade, does the OEM (or any other company) offer additional equipment, like a sail?
  • If you want to fish, does the inflatable kayak have a location to mount a small trolling motor?
  • If you plan on expedition kayaking, can you easily hoist and carry the kayak for a portage?

Don't Buy Cheap Seats!

Speaking as someone who hates his seats … don’t get cheap seats. They’re not worth it.

My seats are simple inflatables, like a kid’s water wings. They just never hold air for more than an hour or two. Then I get to sit in 2 inches of frigid water for the rest of the trip, cursing my cheapskate-ness.

Your seat should strap or buckle in place. And it should have excellent back support. These are both critical features for rough water and long excursions.