Sales of relatively cheap, easy-to-store inflatable boats have blown up (pun intended) in recent years. At long last, that demand has begun to fuel innovations that significantly improve both performance and ease of use while keeping price points low.
Oru Kayaks Beach LT ($1,199)
This year, folding-boat disruptor Oru Kayaks answered the call for accessibility and made its entire line significantly easier to assemble and more water capable. Beefier clipping buckles and a tension strap over the deck give the updated Beach LT some welcome rigidity. This increased tension helps the hull maintain its shape, so the boat tracks better in flatwater. Sturdier footplates enabled testers to really lean into wide turns and crank tight ones with confidence.
Hobie Mirage iTrek 9 Ultralight ($2,199)
Getting your craft from the car to the water can be a struggle. Boats featuring Hobie’s industry-defining MirageDrive system are always remarkably efficient and a breeze to navigate, but previous models were bulky and difficult to transport. That’s why the Hobie Mirage iTrek 9 Ultralight blew even the saltiest old testers’ minds. It weighs just 37 pounds with its drivetrain and accessories (20 pounds without) but still offers top-notch performance. The beloved drive system is just as efficient as those on Hobie’s hard-shelled offerings. The strong PVC build is so light that one tester lugged it for three blocks before feeling any fatigue. Meanwhile, rigid pontoons (inflatable up to ten psi) and surfboard-like geometry made this craft extremely playful at full speed, even in choppy lake waters.
Star Rival ($945)
Those who want one watercraft for both flatwater family paddles and mellow whitewater should look no further than the Star Rival, which looks like a SUP with a seat but paddles like an inflatable kayak. We found that its extremely rigid drop-stitched hull had just the right amount of rocker to effortlessly navigate small rapids. That sturdy hull, coupled with rigid pontoons, makes standing up in flats and slow-moving water easy—and provided a stable play space for a water-savvy toddler. Two spacious bungee tie-down zones and a whopping 64 gear loops at the bow and stern allowed us to secure a full load of fishing gear and a soft cooler for a serious lunch break.