Points to Consider When Buying an Inflatable Boat

Purpose - People use inflatable boats for many reasons, and your personal reason influences your choice of boat style. If you want to go whitewater rafting, you do not want an inflatable sport boat with a motor. Some of the many purposes people have in mind when purchasing an inflatable boat include the following.

  • Family recreation
  • Water sports
  • Fishing
  • Hunting remote spots
  • White water rafting
  • Canoeing
  • Exploring waters
  • Short-distance travel, i.e., cabin to cabin, dock to a beach area, etc.
  • Scuba diving excursions
  • Serve as a tender for transporting people and supplies between a boat and shore
  • Gunkholing shallow creeks

What type of water will the inflatable boat need to handle? Is it a calm or choppy lake, running river, or wave-riddled sea?

Type of fabric – Nearly all inflatable boats are constructed of PVC or Chlorosulfonated Polyethylene (CSM) (once called Hypalon fabric before Dupont sold the formula).

  • PVC – PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is much cheaper than CSM fabric. Today’s PVC is lighter, which makes the inflatable boat easier to handle. It has the better air-holding ability because the seams are heat welded together for strength and tightness. However, PVC is not as resistant to UV rays, chemicals, and heat aging and will deteriorate over time. It is also more susceptible to damage from oils and chemicals. The recommendation is to buy an inflatable made from PVC that is at least 1.2 mm thick. The average life of PVC is 8-10 years.

    Double Wall Fabric (drop-stitched PVC) is the type of fabric construction. It is used on inflatable stand-up paddle boards and inflatable boat flooring. Two layers of drop-stitched fabric are bonded together with thousands of tightly woven fine polyester threads, and a PVC coating is applied.

  • CSM - CSM fabric is highly rated for UV rays resistance, chemical resistance, and heat aging due to weather conditions. It does not have the air-holding ability of PVC because of water wicking. You will have to add air more frequently than you would with PVC fabric.

    However, to overcome the air-holding drawback, manufacturers now mix CSM and neoprene because neoprene holds air very well. CSM/Neoprene is very flexible and good at resisting abrasions and impacts. The two main drawbacks are that it is more than twice the cost of PVC and can still lose air faster than PVC. The average life of CSM is 15-20 years.

Construction – The type of construction is a significant factor in estimating the life of the inflatable boat. For example, welded PVC boats have a longer life than glued boats. An inflatable boat can have a lifespan of up to at least 10 years in most cases, but the use you give the boat and faithful adherence to boat maintenance recommendations have a considerable influence. For example, if the fabric has prolonged exposure to UV rays, it will degrade faster. The type of fabric is another factor.

Some more points to keep in mind that are related to construction are as follows:

  • An inflatable boat that can reach a plane needs a semi-rigid floor, so it is likely not a fully roll-up boat
  • Look at the capacity label, which should list the person capacity, maximum weight, and horsepower rating for an outboard engine (if applicable)
  • The premium standard for inflatable boat brands (especially the larger boats) is the National Marine Manufacturers Association certification (NMMA)
  • Ask if there are multiple chambers in the tubing, so the boat stays afloat should a puncture happen
  • A perimeter strap installed around the boat’s outer edge gives a person something to hold onto to get back into the boat should he or she fall out or was in the water for recreational purposes
  • Keep in mind the weight of the boat in terms of how many people it will take to carry it, if the boat is not on a trailer
  • An inflatable with a keel is more vulnerable to abrasions and tears, so think of the use you will give the boat to determine if a keel or flat bottom works best
  • Also consider the type of air pump, which can be a hand or foot pump (you can use an electric pump to fill the tubing to approximately 90 percent and then use the hand or foot pump to reach the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.
  • If possible, test the oar arrangement at the boat dealer’s place by sitting in the boat to make sure it is comfortable for you

Flooring – There are several types of flooring.

  • Roll-up floor - The roll-up floor is made with the same material as the inflatable boat (least stable) or with lateral slats that are evenly spaced and constructed of wood or aluminum. Lateral slats are not the sturdiest type of flooring but are sturdier than plastic flooring. It is used in boats from 5-9 feet.

  • Hard Floor – A hard floor makes standing and moving around in the boat easier because it adds stability. Many hard floors today are made in connected sections that you can fold together to make storing the deflated boat possible in the smallest amount of space. The floors are made of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood. This flooring works well with outboard motors that are 9.8 HP or more. The addition of a floor makes it possible to have an inflatable V-shaped keel which adds maneuverability, makes turning easy, and adds stability so you can do more activities like diving. It also makes it possible to get the inflatable boat on a plane. The floors are available for boats 7-23 feet long.

    The deep-V hulls are on RIBs. They are made of fiberglass or aluminum, creating a rigid hull. They are deeper in the water, giving you more control, greater stability, and enhanced ability to handle big waves. The drawback is that the design incorporating a deep-V hull makes the boat less stable because the boat sits higher.

  • Air deck (air floors) – The air floor or air deck is made of drop-stitched PVC and inflates but is designed to handle high-pressure inflation. You can stand, walk, and jump on this floor. This makes them rigid but not as rigid as an aluminum or wood floor. The floor is deflated when it is time to store the boat.

    The air deck makes it possible to have a V-shaped inflatable keel on the boat. Air floors are a good choice when you are concerned about the boat’s weight and will inflate and deflate the boat regularly. A drawback to this kind of floor is that it can be punctured, so you need to put anything that could puncture the floor on a piece of carpet or vinyl.

Space – You could call this feature “people and equipment capacity” because the size of the boat, coupled with the construction features and the gear you will carry, determines how much space you need. The inflatable boats range from 5-18 feet, with a few models even longer. You should decide how many people you will typically want in the boat. For example, a 5-foot inflatable raft could hold 1-2 people, while a 13-foot inflatable raft could carry up to six people.

Total weight of people and gear – While assessing how many people you want to fit in the inflatable boat, also consider the weight of the people and the equipment you usually carry. The average inflatable boats hold from 1-8 passengers, but there are larger, specially designed inflatable boats that can hold even more people. The total safe weight is the sum of the weights of the outboard motor with fuel plus the gear plus the people.

Ease of assembling and inflating – You need to investigate how the boat is assembled, inflated, and deflated to determine how well you can handle it. One of the reasons people buy inflatable boats is because they can get the boat on and off the water with ease. For example, the RIB is much heavier than an inflatable boat with a PVC bottom.

Storage – Another primary reason people buy inflatable boats is that roll-up boats can be stored in a much smaller space than a rigid hull boat. It can be stored on a boat deck, bag, garage, basement, storage building, etc. The inflatable boat that can be completely deflated and rolled up requires the least storage space. An inflatable with a floor that cannot be deflated or rolled up somehow will require more storage space, of course. It will probably have to be stored on a trailer.

Maintaining Your Inflatable Boat

Maintaining an inflatable boat is important to getting the maximum life out of it and ensuring you get into a boat that keeps you safe. Maintenance is not complicated.

  • Apply a protectant on the PVC fabrics
  • Rinse and preferably also wash off the boat after each use and especially if you used it in salt water
  • Maintain the recommended air pressure in the tubes
  • Inspect the inflatable boat’s seams regularly
  • Inspect the air valve closely and regularly
  • Always inflate the boat according to the manufacturer’s recommendations
  • Never use an outboard motor with more horsepower than recommended
  • Store the boat only when it is dry
  • Store the boat indoors where it is not exposed to the sun or the weather in general
  • If you must store your inflatable outside because you cannot fully deflate it, be sure to cover it with a UV-rated tarp, and in the winter, make sure the piping does not have water trapped inside
  • Carry tear tape specifically designed for the type of material – CSM or PVC – for emergency repairs or a repair kit

If you need your boat patched, you are advised to let a professional do the patching. Mariner Exchange makes it easy to find an inflatable boat dealer selling boats, supplies and repair services in your area. You can also find a marine mechanic to keep your outboard motor running smoothly and make necessary repairs. Be sure to use mechanics that are certified to perform the work, like the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC).

Happy inflatable boating!