Buyers Guide to Inflatable Boats


Inflatable dinghy with two passengers

Our PRU-3 is a flat-bottom dinghy that stows compactly without the hassle of removing a floor.

By Brian Gordon, Last updated: 6/9/2021

Inflatable boats are used to carry boaters from a larger boat to shore, or as boats for fishing, exploring and recreation. The main advantages of inflatable boats over hard-sided dinghies are better performance, increased stability, light weight, compact stowage and greater safety. West Marine offers four types of inflatable boats: Roll-Up Boats, Sportboats, High-Pressure (HP) Inflatable Floor Boats and Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RIBs). Which type of boat is right for you?

Four Steps for Selecting a Boat

  • Decide if you want a boat that can plane. (Do you want to go fast?)
  • Choose the floor construction that best balances portability and performance.
  • Select the right fabric for where you will use the boat.
  • Buy the biggest boat that fits within your budget and space requirements.

Floor Construction and Boat Category

An inflatable's floor construction is the key to the tradeoff between portability—ease of assembly and compact storage—and the rigidity needed for boat performance. RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) with their high-performance planing hulls offer the best performance, but often must be stored on a trailer or hangig davits. Boats with more flexible fabric floors fold to a light, compact shape, but their flexibility exacts a performance penalty. If you want a boat to plane, allowing you to exceed 5 mph, a semi-rigid floor is required.

Roll-up style inflatable boat

Roll-Up Boats

Roll-ups are the most portable type of inflatable boat that West Marine offers—and they can be unrolled, inflated and launched in minutes. Roll-ups lack a keel and have flat floors with wooden slats enclosed in fabric pockets that don’t need to be removed for storage. Roll-up boats have a hard transom, which enables use with a small outboard motor of up to about five or six horsepower. Roll-ups excel as tenders. Due to their small size, flat bottom and low horsepower rating, roll-ups are not able to plane; and are best used for in-harbor, relatively flat-water travel.

Trade-offs: The excellent portability of roll-ups is offset by limited performance due to their lack of a rigid floor, marginal hull stiffness and the absence of a keel.

Is a roll-up boat right for you? If you own a small cruising sailboat or a powerboat, enjoy anchoring out and are in need of a tender, but just don’t have the space to store or set up a larger sportboat, then a roll-up inflatable boat might be right for you. Also, if you are looking for an inexpensive, small boat for yourself or your kids that you can easily transport in the trunk of your car, put roll-up boats at the top of your list.

Sportboat style inflatable boat

Sportboats

Sportboats offer a big step up in performance from roll-up boats. They are distinguished by a removable rigid floor system made from plywood, composite plastic or aluminum. The floor assembly is made stiffer with the addition of stringers, which run fore and aft to hold the floorboards in place. With the floorboards assembled and the port and starboard hull chambers and small tapered keel tube inflated, the boat’s hull fabric is stretched taut and takes on a shallow V-shape. This gives the boat directional stability and enables it to cut through chop and track better in turns than a flat-bottomed boat. While the floor does make these boats heavier than dinghies, they are nevertheless fast and lively with outboards from 6–25hp and offer great performance for the price. Compared to roll-ups, sportboats, with their rigid floorboards also offer greater cargo carrying capacity.

Trade-offs: Assembling and inflating sportboats with their floorboards and stringers requires more space and takes more time compared to inflating roll-ups. Where floorboards are made of wood, regular maintenance is required. Deflation of sportboats requires that floor components (stringers and floorboards) be removed prior to storage.

Is a sportboat right for you? If you are looking to upgrade from put-putting around in a roll-up dinghy to zipping across the water on a plane, a sportboat just might be for you. Cruisers who need to move fuel and supplies from shore to their boat will also benefit from the greater cargo capacity of sportboats. In general, anyone looking to upgrade from a roll-up to the increased rigidity and performance of a sportboat will benefit.

High pressure inflatable floor boat

HPIFs (High-Pressure Inflatable Floor Boats)

HPIFs have a rigid transom and an inflatable floor that can be left in the boat and rolled up for quick and convenient storage. Like sportboats, HPIFs have an inflatable keel, which enhances directional stability and improves performance when turning. HPIFs jump on plane quickly and achieve fine performance using only a small outboard, thanks to their low weight.

Trade-offs: HPIFs are not quite as stiff as sportboats and are therefore a little less responsive at high speeds. Inflatable floors may not be as durable as other floor designs. HPIFs are more expensive than sportboats due to the more complex floor.

Is an HPIF boat right for you? HPIF boats are popular among cruisers who frequently need to setup or break down a tender in a limited amount of space, such as the foredeck of a sailboat. They are also a great choice for anyone for whom the compact storage and easy setup of HPIFs outweighs the slightly better performance of a sportboat.

High pressure inflatable floor boat

RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats)

RIBs offer the “real boat” performance with the strength of a rigid, vee-shaped hull. RIBs are offered with a choice of fiberglass or aluminum hulls that carve through turns and cut through chop like conventional boats. Their hard, durable hulls shrug off abrasion from cruising gear, sand, gravel and dive tanks, but unlike conventional boats, the addition of inflatable tubes to the topsides makes them more stable, more buoyant and less likely to scar the topsides of other vessels when used as a tender.

Trade-offs: A lack of portability is the price you pay for a RIB’s performance. The hulls cannot be disassembled, and therefore you can’t stow your RIB in a bag in the lazarette. You can deflate the tubes and stow the boat on deck in far less room than the inflated boat, but it still takes up space.

Is a RIB right for you? We generally recommend RIBs to owners who are looking for the ultimate in inflatable boat performance and who either intend to stow their dinghies inflated on deck, on davits, or deflated and lashed on a weather deck. Their light weight also makes them a cinch to trailer on a light-duty boat trailer.

Folding rigid inflatable boat

Compact CR or Folding RIBs

Compact RIBs have a hinged folding transom, which allows the boat to be stored in much less space, and they are are super portable—we’re talking roof rack to water in just 10 minutes! The hull is made from fiberglass and has a shallow V-shape. The transom is a plywood sandwich that is firmly bonded to the inflation tubes. A flexible fabric hinge connects the floor to the transom, allowing the transom to fold flat when stored. A large zippered bag is included for storage, and the stowed boat looks like a giant surfboard in a travel bag. While still large, the Compact RIB will fit on a foredeck or under a boom much more compactly than a normal RIB. They also fit nicely on vehicle roof racks or in the back of a small pick-up truck.

Trade-offs: Compared to other inflatable boat designs, folding RIBs are still large but the folding transom makes transport and stowage much easier.

Is a Compact Folding RIB right for you? If you really want a RIB but are put off by their hard-to-stow design, the folding transom of these boats might make them a good fit for you. 

Summary of Inflatable Boat Features

 Roll-Up-BoatsSportboatsHigh-Pressure (HP) Inflatable Floor BoatsRigid Inflatable Boats
Performance••••••••••
Portability••••••••••
Rigidity•••••••••
Key FeatureSlatted FloorInterlocking floorboardsHigh-pressure inflatable floorRigid one-piece hull
MaterialPVCHypalon or PVCHypalon or PVCHypalon or PVC
Hull ShapeFlatV-hullV-hullV-hull

Fabric Types—Hypalon versus PVC

Inflatable boat fabrics consist of a woven base cloth and a coating. The coating can be either Hypalon or PVC. Each type of coating offers advantages and disadvantages compared to the other. Hypalon and PVC fabrics differ in terms of their chemical resistance, UV-resistance and air holding ability.

Chemical Resistance

Compared to PVC boats, Hypalon boats offer superior chemical resistance to gasoline, oil, and other compounds.

UV Resistance

If you plan to use your boat in the tropics or regardless of location store it for long periods in the sun, UV-resistance becomes an important factor to consider. Hypalon boats offer superior UV resistance compared to PVC boats which can suffer a short life in the tropics, while Hypalon boats are relatively unaffected. An easy way to extend the life of a PVC boat (or any inflatable boat) is to shield it from the sun when not in use with a fitted inflatable boat cover.

Air Holding Ability

The seams of PVC boats are heat welded together. This results in better air holding ability compared to Hypalon boats which have seams that are hand-glued. The reason for the slight difference is that Hypalon boats are susceptible to a process called “wicking” which occurs when air inside the boat enters the fabric at a seam, travels laterally through the fabric weave around the circumference of the tube and exits on the outside edge. PVC boats do not have this problem, because the fabric edges are sealed in the heat welding process. While wicking may sound like a serious problem, as a practical consideration, this just means that your Hypalon boat might need  to be topped off with air more often than boats made of PVC.

Chemical Resistance, UV Resistance and Air Holding ability of Hypalon versus PVC boats.

 HypalonPVC
Chemical Resistance••••
UV Resistance••••
Air Holding Ability•••••••

Buy a Reasonably-Sized Boat!

There is a good reason we make this recommendation, which may seem self-serving. Bigger inflatables handle dramatically better than smaller ones. The differences between an 8'6" sport boat and a 10' sport boat in handling, carrying capacity and ride, due to the small surface area of the small boat hulls, are greater than you can imagine until you actually try them side-by-side. A sport boat less than 9' long is capable of planing, but tends to be squirrelly on the water, and will fall off a plane easily. 10' boats (and especially 11' boats) have less bow rise when they accelerate and will stay on plane at lower speeds. They are less sensitive to steering inputs so you can relax more while driving them and their larger tubes with slightly greater freeboard will give you a drier ride. Longer boats also have more usable interior volume.

Helpful Questions

  1. How many people will be using the boat at one time? Knowing this in advance will ensure you select a boat with capacity that matches the intended use.
  2. Do you intend to use the boat as a tender for a larger boat or all by itself? Our recommendation is that boats that are used by themselves (primary boats) should emphasize performance, while boats that are tenders (secondary boats) should emphasize portability.
  3. Do you have an existing engine that you want to use with the boat? If you do, make sure you do not exceed the recommended maximum horsepower for which the boat is designed.
  4. Will the boat be used in the tropics? Are you a cruiser or more of a weekender? Depending on your answer, UV resistance may be an important consideration.
  5. How do you plan to store the boat? On deck or in a bag? Inflated or deflated? On a swimstep or suspended from transom davits? Would you consider a trailerable inflatable? Answers to these questions will determine if portability or performance is more important to you.

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Other Considerations

Outstanding warranties: West Marine boats have a five-year air-holding warranty on hull construction and a one-year warranty on parts and accessories.

Accessories, valves and hardware: Each of our manufacturers fits excellent accessories like stainless steel towing eyes, strong aluminum oars, reliable inflation valves and heavy-duty pumps to help you inflate your boat quickly with minimal effort.

Safety

Make sure that you carry some basic safety gear aboard your inflatable when you go exploring. We recommend putting the following items in a bag and tying it securely to the dinghy:

Signaling equipment, including a signaling mirror, small flares and a flashlight, and possibly a Personal Locator Beacon, SPOT or Garmin inReach satellite messenger (if you use your boat in offshore conditions)

Communication equipment: Keep a handheld VHF onboard. Models that include a GPS receiver also function as a distress beacon with Digital Selective Calling.

Oars or paddles, engine spares including spark plugs and a spark plug wrench, basic tools, a small anchor and 200' of small line, and of course life jackets for everyone onboard.