Inflatable boats and inflatable rafts are quickly becoming the preferred choice for marine professionals, first-responders, recreational boating companies, and joyriders. They're incredibly versatile and offer a surprising number of advantages over traditional hard-hulls. Inflatable boats are cost-effective and offer high performance and reliability that you can't find in other types of vessels.
Rigid inflatable boats get their name from their construction — a hard v-hull with inflatable siding. The unique design is what gives them their versatility and toughness. Originally developed as a high-performance, rough-water rescue craft, inflatable boats can handle any conditions, and their functionality has led to wide public use. Many groups from the United States Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement to recreational boaters recognize the benefits of inflatable boats.
Below, we present a comprehensive inflatable boat buying guide to help you navigate the inflatable boat market and buy the right vessel for your professional or recreational needs.
How Do I Choose an Inflatable Boat?
The right boat depends on your sailing experience, how many people you plan to take out regularly, the max number of people you want to be able to take, and generally how you plan to use the boat. This inflatable boat buying guide covers the essentials: boat types, maintenance, safety, materials, deck design, weight limit, portability, storage, accessories, and useful features.
Prioritize Safety and Stability Features
Ultimately, boating safety depends on the operator, as boating manufacturers must follow safety compliance regulations when building inflatable boats. However, when it comes to design and performance, there are components that you should look for in a safe inflatable boat.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) is the OSHA of marine vessels. NMMA Certification is designed to help boat manufacturers comply with industry safety and construction standards and federal regulations. To be NMMA Certified, boat manufacturers must build boats that meet or exceed industry standards. You should avoid any vessel that is not certified by the NMMA or a similar association. European sold boats are required to be CE certified meaning that CE marked boats meet or exceed the proper health, safety and environmental standards.
Many people believe that puncture-resistant inflatables are vulnerable to water environments. However, the design of an inflatable can withstand harsher environments. The heavy-duty vinyl material is puncture-resistant and reinforced by an I-beam floor.
Multiple Air Chambers
Regardless of how well built your inflatable is, a puncture can happen, causing your boat to deflate and sink quickly. For this reason, manufacturers add multiple chambers or an auxiliary chamber to the boat design. It is a core safety feature that keeps your boat afloat if you accidentally puncture one of the chambers. We recommend having Tear Aid Tape (Type A for Hypalon / CSM / EPDM Rubber and Type B for PVC) or equivalent as a semi-permanent peel & stick emergency repair in the field.
Perimeter Lines Around the Boat
One of the most convenient and safe inflatable features is a perimeter line. It is a rope or strap that fits around the outer edge of the boat. If you fall out of the boat or have difficulty getting back in the boat, you can grab the perimeter line and pull yourself back into the craft.
To keep your boat from being under-inflated, you may be tempted to add too much air to the chambers. However, an over-inflated boat can be more dangerous than an under-inflated boat. As a precaution, quality manufacturers add a pressure relief valve that will release excess pressure generated by over over inflation or by the sun heating up the air in the hulls.
Choose the Right Boat Type
Which type of inflatable boat type is right for you? The answer depends on a variety of factors, notably your reason for buying the boat. Let's compare the different types of inflatable boats.
Rigid Inflatable Boats
Rigid inflatable boats cut through the water easily, making the ride smoother in rough conditions. The hull structure adds support and accommodates powerful motors. A RIB is hard to capsize, and the rigid construction makes it stable at higher speeds. It will also remain afloat even if the hull is flooded. RIBs offer a variety of uses that range from leisure boating activities to commercial use.
Inflatable boats generally are easy to maneuver. Newer inflatable boats respond to changes in motion and direction quickly. RIBs are resistant to low-impact collisions. The separate tube chambers lessen the impact. Most RIBs have a pressure release valve that prevents a dangerous increase in pressure. The deep V-hull design is ideal for hydroplaning and adds to the stability of the ride when on the plane.
Console Rigid Inflatable Boats
Center console RIBs offer maneuverability and manageability. Their lightweight design makes for easier towing and increased load capacity. They're popular with divers, deep-sea anglers, surfers, and families. Console RIBs include a sophisticated steering system, controlling all the main functions of the boat from a single point.
Keep in mind that console RIBs are heavy and provide less free space than standard RIBs. They require complex gear to be transported out of the water. Plus, if you are going to purchase a console RIB, you need to consider your budget. Console RIBs have a starting prices above $9000.
Inflatable Floor Boats
An ideal inflatable floor boat strikes a balance between portability—ease of assembly and compact storage—and the rigidity needed for boat performance. Rigid boats with high-performance planing hulls offer the best performance but often must be stored on a trailer or hanging davits. Boats with more flexible fabric floors fold to a light, compact shape, but their flexibility can compromise their performance and stability on the water.
High-pressure inflatable floor boats have a rigid transom and an inflatable floor that can be left in the boat and rolled up for quick and convenient storage. Like sport boats, HPIFs have an inflatable keel, enhancing directional stability and improving performance when turning. HPIFs jump on planes quickly and achieve fine performance using only a small outboard, thanks to their low weight.
Roll Up Boats
Roll up boats are the most portable type of inflatable boat. They can be unrolled, inflated, and launched in minutes. Roll up boats lack a keel and have flat floors with wooden slats enclosed in fabric pockets. As such, they do not need to be removed for storage. They have a hard transom, which enables a small outboard motor of five or six horsepower.
Roll-up boats excel as tenders. Due to their small size, flat bottom, and low horsepower rating, roll up boats are not able to plane and are best used for in-harbor, relatively flat-water travel. If you own a small cruising sailboat or a powerboat, enjoy anchoring out, and need a tender but do not have the space to store or set up a larger sport boat, a roll up inflatable boat may be right for you.
Hard Floor Boat
A hard floor boat offers high durability and increased performance. This type of floor is made of aluminum or wood. The hard floor makes the craft rigid and more durable than roll-up floors. You can think of hard floors as the backbone of the boat, providing more rigidity and stability.
The added rigidity allows inflatable V-shaped keels, which run along the bottom of the boat. The hard floor and keel combination makes maneuvering and turning easy (even in choppy waters) and allows the boat to get on a plane. The added versatility of hard floor inflatable crafts gives them the ability to be used for many things, including fishing boats, yacht tenders, dive boats, and more.
Keel or No Keel
Similar to a yacht or other sailing vessel, inflatable boats come with an optional keel. Inflatable keels form the backbone of the inflatable boat, running longitudinally along the center of the bottom of the hull. It prevents the boat from being blown sideways by the wind. It also holds the ballast that keeps the boat right-side up. However, keels boats are not always necessary. What's the difference?
Having a keel significantly increases boat performance, versatility, and value. A keel allows the inflatable boat to easily get on a plane, offering greater performance on the water. Keels also allow a boat to cut through the water and provide great handling with stable turning performance.
It is essential for anyone traveling in the open ocean, getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Individuals can use keels boats as a tender for a quick excursion away from primary boats. They are typically found on inflatable tenders and RIBs, offering exceptional performance.
Boats Without Keels
Boats without keels give you more options for compact storage. Inflation and deflation time along with initial cost might be reduced without a keel. You won't have to spend extra time inflating and deflating the air keel chamber when you are the inflatable for an excursion or when you are finished and ready to pack it up. Thus, the process of getting from land to water is faster.
While the quick setup is a benefit, there may be some disadvantages. Without the ability to get on a plane or ride through chop as easily, your range and speed are limited compared to boats with keels. These inflatables can still be useful and worth purchasing for applications involving short, ship to shore trips on flat water, such as short fishing trips.
Compare Hull Shapes
As with a traditional boat, the hull shape allows the inflatable boat to displace a volume of water equal to the boat's weight. Since much of the submerged area is air, the average density is less than that of water, thus allowing it to float. Therefore, a better hull shape gives the boat better buoyancy. There are three main types of hull shapes in inflatable boats.
Flat Hull Boats
A flat hull inflatable does not have a keel. Hulls can be made from either PVC or CSM, although their performance is underwhelming with a lower price point. Without a keel, these inflatables lack directional stability, the ability to get up on a plane to reach higher speeds, and the capability to cut through rough water.
Boats with flat hulls are not recommended for open ocean travels and cannot reach higher speeds. These hulls are ideal for traveling short distances at slower speeds. They are a great inflatable used for tendering short distances or short fishing trips on flat water.
V Hull Boats
V hull inflatables are constructed out of PVC or CSM with an inflatable keel. These boats have a high-pressure air or hardwood floor to help the high-pressure keel cut through the water. With an inflatable hull, inflatable boats can get on a plane with increased top speeds, directional stability. They can also cut through wakes and waves more easily than flat hulls.
Inflatable boats with V hulls are exceptionally stable. These qualities make these hulls a great choice for different applications. They can be used as tenders, family runabouts, anglers, divers, crabbers, wildlife photographers, and more. Whatever the excursion, a V design offers the best balance of cost, performance, and size.
Deep V Hull Boats
Deep-V hulls are found on RIBs and can be designed from aluminum or fiberglass. These will be the most expensive types of rigid hulls. However, these hull types extend farther into the water than an inflatable keel. This will add extra control, stability and be able to cut through big waves like a knife. Deep-V hulls made from aluminum will be lighter, more durable, and easier to repair than fiberglass.
However, fiberglass is considered more stable than aluminum hulls. Fiberglass hulls can be expensive. If they are damaged, they can also be difficult to repair. Due to the deep V hull design, these boats sit up higher on the water. This makes them less stable and more susceptible to rocking or tilting if there is wind. This is the ideal hull for the individual looking to get the most performance without leaving the inflatable boat category.
PVC Boats vs. Hypalon Boats vs. Fiberglass Boats
Most inflatable boats on the market are made of PVC or Hypalon. The main differences between both materials are their resistance and durability.
A PVC boat is lightweight and strong. PVC boats are also easy to fold and can be stored in compact spaces. The best PVC boats are reinforced with threads woven into the fabric. It is also very flexible and waterproof, making it ideal for inflatable boats. If you are on a limited budget, you will also appreciate the low price of a PVC boat.
One of the drawbacks of PVC boats is that the PVC material is highly porous. As a result, it soaks up dirt more than Hypalon. Thankfully, PVC is easy to clean. However, you may have a tougher time removing stains from the material.
Hypalon is thicker and more UV and chemical resistant than PVC. It can withstand high impacts, UV rays, heat, and high air pressure. It is the best material for rugged excursions. So, if you intend to use your boat too often, Hypalon is the best choice. In addition, Hypalon boats do not need to be deflated after each use, as is the case with PVC boats.
Storage may be an issue for Hypalon boats. You can fold up Hypalon. However, folding is not good for the material. So if you are not one to leave your boat open, PVC will be the better material for you. You can stuff PVC boats in the bag for months at a time without damaging the PVC.
Fiberglass makes inflatable boats safe and highly maneuverable. They are also surprisingly affordable boats. This type of inflatable boat has fiberglass hulls with extremely low gunwales that have been modified to accept tubes. It has a rigid floor that comes in either a single-hull configuration or a double-hull configuration.
Single hulls have a single, relatively thin fiberglass rigid floor, while double hulls have a deck on top, voided areas full of air, and a traditional hull. In this way, fiberglass boats are similar to a Hypalon boat. You can choose either a small boat or a larger boat depending on your boating needs
Consider Deck Material and Design
The inflatable boat deck supports your body weight offers rest for your feet. For maximum comfort, the deck should be strong and stable. Inflatable boats carry two main types of decks.
Air decks come in many different styles: small, single-chamber boats meant for pool use, multi-chamber dinghies with a capacity for several passengers, and heavy-duty canoes and inflatable kayaks for a day on the river. Most air floor boats are relatively lightweight for their size and may have a relatively small weight capacity. Air floors are easy to inflate and deflate, easy to carry and require very little assembly.
Some air floors come with a built-in mount for trolling motors and electric power, while others have to be paddled. Due to its lightweight, though, a high-pressure air floor is easy to paddle. As with any boat, it's important to pay attention to the maximum weight capacity. Keep in mind that, for air floor boats, it may be less than you expect. That said, most air floor inflatables are quite buoyant and can handle a pretty fair-sized load.
Rigid Deck Slats
Rigid deck slats have a similar design to air decks but come in lots of different sizes. Regardless of size, they have a bullet-shaped hard aluminum floor with a transom at the back and one or more air chambers wrapping around the front and sides. The aluminum floor must be inserted and removed every time the boat is inflated and deflated, making assembly a bit more time-consuming.
The aluminum floor also makes the boat heavier. However, rigid deck slats are generally tough boats that can handle maximum gear and passengers for their size. Nearly all rigid bottom inflatables support a trolling motor or larger motor and other equipment mounted on the transom. Again, pay attention to the weight capacity and be careful not to overload the boat, as it is possible to become overconfident in the hauling power of your aluminum floor inflatable.
Other Items to Consider
When shopping for an inflatable boat, there may be some items that you didn't think of. After all, you don't know what you don't know. Some of these items can make or break your experience on the boat.
The right accessories can enhance your trip and provide additional safety. However, your craft can only handle so many items and so much weight. Therefore, it is important to prioritize which cargo stays and which cargo goes. Some suggested accessories include:
- Carrying bag
- Extended tiller
- Fins or tabs
- Foot pump
- Inflatable keel
- Inflatable thwart
- Lifting points
- Motor mount
- Repair kit
- Transporting wheels
Inflatable Boat Features
You can customize your inflatable boat and add a variety of features to suit your needs. For instance, you can get multiple that improve the float-ability of your boat, providing maximum stability on the water. Inflatable boats also come with a dedicated space on the deck for storing fishing tools and other gear.
If you like fishing, you may want to grab some rod holders. They are useful for anglers who need a safe and stable space to place their fishing rods. Make sure you choose the right seats or provide additional seating for comfort and safety. Inflatable seats are soft and cushy, providing the most comfortable support for your back.
We have hand picked some of the best inflatable boats on the market, covering nearly every category. Take a look at our full boat lineup by clicking here.