Revised by BoatUS editors in April 2012
Storage, environment, and purpose are all factors you should consider when choosing your inflatable. Some fabrics and designs are better suited for certain conditions. The following questions will help you determine which type of inflatable is best for you.
- How will I be using the inflatable?
- Where will I store the boat when I’m not using it?
- Will I deflate it for storage and, if so, how often?
- Am I going to use the boat in a lower latitude area of unusually harmful UV rays?
- Do I have an outboard motor that I would like to use with the inflatable?
- Will I be primarily using an outboard motor or rowing the boat?
Following is a general discussion of options. It’s important to know that you have many options and to investigate them thoroughly before you buy.
In recent years there have been many developments as to different types of inflatables and the material used to construct them. Hypalon ® and Neoprene are still widely used for the fabric. Hypalon is a synthetic rubber material originally patented by DuPont. Hypalon has many applications in many industries: holding contaminated wastewater, a roofing material, cable covering, and other uses where high temperatures, oil, and UV rays could weaken other materials. Many inflatable boat manufacturers choose Hypalon as an exterior coating, and neoprene to coat the interior side of the fabric. Neoprene was the first synthetic rubber and has been in use for many years. It has proven itself as a material with excellent air holding capabilities and oil resistance.
Hypalon has good properties for resisting abrasion, extreme temperatures, UV degradation, ozone, gasoline, oil, chemicals, and environmental factors like mildew and fungus. When manufacturers use neoprene as the interior coating the blended fabric only gets better. The neoprene increases strength and tear resistance and provides good air holding ability. Hypalon coated onto polyester or nylon fabric with an interior coating of neoprene is considered to be very reliable and durable and can last for more than a decade even in the harshest environments —which is the reason for warranties of five and 10 years.
There are also PVC constructed inflatables available. Seams of PVC-coated inflatables can be fused together using several different welding techniques. Some manufacturers use either high heat pressure, radio frequencies (RF), or electronic welding. Large, specially developed welding machines may be used to fuse the fabric together. Fabrics coated with PVC are also more difficult to repair than those coated with Hypalon and generally considered to be not as long lasting. PVC fabric inflatables are generally considerably less expensive than those of Hypalon/neoprene material.
The seams in inflatable boats are very important and often a primary point of failure. They are usually either overlapped or butted, and then glued. Butted seams, if properly done, can produce an aesthetic, flat, airtight seam, without the ridge or air gaps left by some overlapped seams. However, butted seams are more labor-intensive, thus the boats are usually more expensive. It is always wise to look for an inflatable boat with seams that are double-taped, and are glued on the both sides.
It also helps greatly if the inflatable has extra wear patches in areas of expected abrasion as under towing straps or at the bottom of the prow. There should also be extra reinforcing at areas such as around oarlock attachments and tow rings. It is especially important to have extra reinforcement between the tubes and the stern. Outboards exert extreme stress on a transom.
There are many designs and types of inflatables available in the marketplace today. From rigid to soft—inflatables come in just about every combination you can imagine.
There are smaller, lighter boats with soft transoms that can be used with oars, a paddle, or even a low horsepower motor if a motor mount is attached. There are also inflatables with a hard transom, and a sectional floor made of wood, fiberglass, composite, or aluminum. They usually have inflatable keels. These boats can be rolled up once the floor is removed, and can be stored in a relatively small space.
There are also inflatables which have a hard transom and that that can be rolled up with the hard floor remaining in the boat. The main benefit is easy assembly and storage.
Some Inflatables have high pressure inflatable floors. This decreases the weight of these boats and makes them easier to handle if you must inflate/deflate your boat often, although they generally don’t have the rigidity underway which is helpful for performance.
And then there are the increasingly popular RIBs which have inflatable tube hulls supported by a rigid material, usually fiberglass. The main benefits of these boats are superior performance and easy assembly (just inflate the tubes). However, storage can be a problem because they can’t be made smaller than the rigid portion of the boat. Since a RIB is heavier, a davit system is usually required to bring it back onto your boat. These boats are also less likely to be damaged while beaching.
There are many inflatables out there to choose from, but a careful analysis of your boating lifestyle and needs should help you make the right choice.