Inflatable boats have come a long way in the past several years—with better, more durable construction, and real sport-boat performance. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more excitement for the money than an inflatable boat.
Definition of Terms
An inflatable boat consists of:
- Tubes—cylindrical components made of fabric—this is the part of the boat that inflates
- Fabric—describes the material that the tubes and other portions of the boat are made of—usually PVC-coated polyurethane cloth, or Hypalon® neoprene-coated nylon
- Transom—the vertical portion of the back of the boat—this is where you’d put a small electric motor or outboard
- Floor—the inside of the bottom of the boat—made of fabric, segmented or un-segmented floorboards
- Bottom—the part of the boat that is in the water—may be fabric, fiberglass, or aluminum
Inflatable boats are available in varying degrees of portability. On one end of the spectrum is the inflatable boat that you can deflate, and stow in a duffle bag—and on the other end is the inflatable with a fiberglass or aluminum hull that takes up about the same amount of space whether it’s inflated or not.
The most basic, least expensive inflatable boat is the soft-stern dinghy. Set-up is quick and easy—just inflate the boat and go. Let the air out and stow it when you’re done.
These little inflatables are right at home in very calm, protected waters.
Oars are the primary source of power, although a tiny electric trolling motor works well, too.
Boat Roll Ups
A roll-up inflatable, as you might’ve guessed, rolls up for storage. The floor is often made of sections of plywood that provide a greater sense of security underfoot than a soft fabric floor.
Whether you choose to row or use a small outboard motor, these boats make great tenders (a small boat that shuttles back and forth from a larger boat). With their flat bottoms, roll-ups are somewhat stable at rest, and right at home on reasonably calm water.
Inflatables in the sportboat category feature semi-V bottoms for quicker planing and better handling than you’ll experience in a flat-bottom inflatable boat.
Add a small outboard with the sportboat’s semi-V bottom design for an exciting ride—zipping across moderate wakes and waves are suddenly a lot more fun.
Sportboat inflatables may have a segmented floor (that’s removable when it’s time to stow the boat) or a high-pressure inflatable floor (no floor panels=easy storage).
Rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), or rigid hull inflatables, are an awesome combination of the semi-V fiberglass or aluminum hull of a traditional boat, surrounded by the tubes of an inflatable boat.
The net result is the best of both worlds: the outstanding handling and performance of a non-flexing V-bottom—and the stability, buoyancy, and bump-forgiving nature of an inflatable.
The downside of the rigid hull design is that a RIB doesn’t stow in as little space as some of the other styles of inflatables. RIBs are better suited to situations where lack of storage isn’t an issue.
Inflatable boats can be a lot of fun, but don’t forget that they’re “real boats”, and as such, you still need to wear your personal flotation device (PFD), carry the appropriate safety gear, and register them with the proper authorities (display registration numbers on the boat), if required.