Inflatable boats still get a bad rap in the minds of some people. They are considered lifeboats or recreational boats only suitable for small quiet lakes and easily damaged. The reality is far different. Inflatable boats are affordable boats made with various features and tear-resistant materials ready to handle most types of water. You may be surprised to learn that high-performance inflatable boats are sold today that can reach a speed of 64+ knots, though most inflatable boats top out at 35-40 knots, and some styles can hold as many as 6-8 people. The following sections are intended to share the different types of inflatable boats on the market.

What is an Inflatable Boat?

While it may seem a silly question at first glance, checking out the inflatable boats that the boat dealers on Mariner Exchange sell and maintain gives you a good idea of the many options available today. The new generation of inflatable boats is surprising. One of the largest inflatable boats is 17-foot long, can hold an outboard motor, has a captain’s console, holds 10 people or 2,750 pounds, and comes with options like a ski pole. It is barely recognizable as an inflatable boat, but a boat like this with a trailer competes with hard-hull traditional boats in terms of price. It is also not the typical inflatable boat people buy. Fortunately, many types of inflatable boats are sold today that fit all budgets, personal needs, and preferences.

An inflatable boat is a much lighter watercraft than a boat constructed of aluminum, steel or fiberglass. The inflatable boat is constructed with tubes made of synthetic materials like polyurethane or PVC. The tubes are filled with pressurized gas to provide buoyancy.

As mentioned, there are numerous styles of inflatable boats. Some boats can be fully deflated and rolled up, while others have tubing that is deflatable and a rigid floor that is not. A rigid transom can hold an outboard motor, but the vertical section is usually laid down or removed when it is time to roll up the boat. If the inflatable boat has a keel, it can only be rolled up if the keel is inflatable too.

These are the essential elements, but a wide range of designs and options have turned the classic inflatable raft into a sturdy watercraft, with some even seaworthy to a certain point.

Types of Inflatable Boats

We live in a world of options, and the inflatable boat industry segment is no different. There are different ways to classify inflatable boats, and the following are some inflatable boat categories.

Inflatable raft – The inflatable raft is basically a recreational watercraft used in calm waters like a pond or small lake or at the beach near shore and in protected waters. Many options are available for inflatable rafts in terms of price and construction. On some, you can add motor mounts and trolling motors, plus fishing rod holders. The inflatable raft does have a floor that is ideally at least semi-rigid. Many are guided only with paddles or oars. You can buy inflatable rafts for recreational use or more serious long-haul rafting on waters like those that kayaks can handle.

Inflatable cataraft – The inflatable cataraft (catboats) are rafts but are constructed differently than the regular inflatable raft. It has inflatable side tubes, a seat, and may or may not have a floor. The versions without a floor are the most lightweight, so are more responsive.

Inflatable pontoon boats – The inflatable pontoon boat looks much like the sturdier traditional pontoon boats. It has two large air pontoons or air bladders (tubes) that are connected together with a metal frame. The boat’s seat is located in the center between the two pontoons, making this boat design a favorite for fly fishing. Behind it, you can add options like a basket for storing items you want to carry, like a cooler or fishing gear. It works well on a lake or river, making it popular with fisherman.

Various bars are available on larger pontoon boats, like a two-seater, adding stability and a place to stand up. There is also a style with a platform placed on the pontoons, and the seat is installed on the platform. The inflatable pontoon boat can be used with a motor or paddle. It may surprise you that some of these boats can hold as much as 750 pounds. There are two basic pontoon shapes. One is the traditional cylinder shape. The other is a cylinder shape with a curve in the front and back ends for handling more turbulent and adventurous waters.

Inflatable kayaks – An inflatable kayak is like a hard shell kayak in terms of shape, except it is made of softer material like PVC and has air chambers to provide buoyancy. You will find kayaks designed for recreational purposes and kayaks designed for more vigorous use, like Class IV or Class V whitewater. The kayak manufacturer will indicate the class of whitewater rapids the kayak can handle. The high-quality kayak brands won’t easily rip or tear when hitting rocks hard. Referred to in the kayaking world as an IK, the inflatable kayak is used mainly on lakes and rivers and requires a paddle(s) for steering.

Inflatable Catamarans - Inflatable catamarans also have two pontoons, but they are flatter and broader than traditional cylinder pontoons. There is low hydrodynamic resistance which is good since it is used for fishing or skimming water. There is an inflatable deck that is stable for standing while tossing out a line and is powered by an outboard motor.

Inflatable sailboats – Yes, there are inflatable sailboats! If you have wanted to try your hand at sailing before buying a hard-hull sailboat, cruise the water in an inflatable sailboat. You buy an inflatable dinghy, kayak or catamaran and add a sail kit to learn if you are sailor material.

Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) – This is the most common type of inflatable boat. RIBS have aluminum or fiberglass hulls that are sturdy, highly maneuverable and resist abrasions from rough materials like gravel and sand. Most have a V-hull for better handling, especially in more turbulent waters. The inflatable tubes on the top side add stability and buoyancy. These inflatable boats are not nearly as portable as most others, and the hulls on many brands cannot be dissembled for storage. However, folding RIBS are appearing in the marketplace, and they are more portable and take less storage space. If you want a RIB, check with one of the boat dealers on Mariner Exchange to discuss options. Technologies change fast, and a boat mechanic can give you the scoop on performance.

Inflatable Sports boats – Inflatable sports boats are versatile boats. The boat inflates all around the edge. There is a choice of molded plastic floors or a rigid drop-stitch inflatable floor. Drop-stitch is a state-of-the-art technology that uses low-stretch aramid fibers between the top and bottom surfaces made of reinforced PVC. This gives the flooring a much stiffer profile compared to a molded plastic floor. You can use oars, an outboard motor, or add sails or a canopy.

There are also sports boats with a removable rigid floor system made of aluminum or plywood. The boat may have a tapered keel tube that inflates. The two hull chambers and tapered keel add stability and improve maneuverability. The more complex design takes more time to assemble than a boat you deflate and roll up.

These are only the more common types of inflatable boats, and the previous description does not begin to describe the hundreds of options available for each boat type. The United States Coast Guard lists 12 inflatable boat styles, including canoes, stand-up paddleboards, and fishing and river float tubes.