One thing you probably appreciate about hard-shell kayaks is their zero-effort, hassle-free setup process. I know I do. Then again, they do take up an insane amount of space and, at times, feel like they weigh a ton.
When it comes to portability and storage-friendliness, there is arguably no better choice than an inflatable ‘yak. It might take some time to get the hang of the whole inflate kayak–deflate kayak ordeal, but don’t worry:
By the end of this in-depth guide, you’ll know everything there is to know about how to inflate a kayak, how to deflate it – and how to deal with some common issues you might encounter along the way.
- What equipment and tools do you need for inflating and deflating a kayak? You will need a high-pressure pump – electric or manual – a pressure gauge, valve adapters that work with the kayak’s valves, and a basic repair kit for inflatables. If possible, pack a tarp to protect the kayak from debris and sharp rocks.
- How to inflate a kayak: Unpack and unfold the ‘yak in a flat area, attach the pump, and inflate the floor chamber first. Once the floor is at around 60% of the recommended PSI, move onto the side walls, then fill up the floor chamber. Once it’s inflated, move on to the accessories and seat. Most importantly, remember to inspect the kayak before hitting the water.
- How to deflate a kayak: Remove the seat and other accessories, and thoroughly wipe it inside and out to dry it off. Then, open the valves and let the air out; you can use a pump to speed up the process. Fold and roll your kayak to squeeze any remaining air out, then place it in the carry bag.
- How long does it take? The inflation time takes 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the type of pump – electric pumps may cut the time to under 5 minutes – the number of chambers and the required PSI level.
Required Equipment & Tools For Inflating And Deflating A Kayak
Inflating a ‘yak requires a bit more effort than blowing up your typical pool toy – which means you need to prepare a few things and make sure that you have the right equipment before you get to it.
On that note, here’s what you’ll need:
1. High-Pressure Air Pump
Obviously, the most important piece of equipment you’ll need to inflate a kayak will be the pump. It’s not like you could fill it up by blowing directly into it; that’s just a recipe for feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
Now, when it comes to air pumps, you actually have a few options:
- Manual hand pumps come in single- and double-action configurations, the latter being the preferred choice because it’ll pump air on both upward and downward strokes.
- Manual foot pumps are, in my experience, much easier than use, primarily because you don’t have to spend the entire time bent over.
- Electric pumps are definitely the most efficient option – especially if you own a kayak with a high PSI, like Sea Eagle’s 393RL RazorLite, for example. They can inflate the kayak in under 5 minutes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. However, it is important to note they do require a power source, but most electric pumps are capable of being powered using a car battery via the cigarette lighter outlet. Some models even have integrated batteries, providing an additional degree of flexibility.
If you can afford it, get yourself an electric pump AND a manual one.
2. Pressure Gauge
You may be wondering, “Why would I need another pressure gauge when my pump already has one?” And you have every right to ask that, considering that most air pumps these days – decent ones, at least – do come with a built-in pressure gauge.
But if you’re using one of those manual hand pumps that came with your inflatable ‘yak as a part of a budget-friendly, all-in-one kit, I have some bad news for you:
Those things can be wildly inaccurate – which sets you up for improper inflation. You could end up over- or under-inflating the kayak without realizing it, which may damage the seams and lead to performance-related issues.
3. Valve Adapters
If the air valves are the main “entry points” the air will flow through to go inside your kayak, then the valve adapters can be seen as the connection points between the inflation valve and the pump’s hose.
In essence, an adapter is a fitting that connects the pump to the kayak, ensuring that your pump is compatible with that specific type of valve. So, instead of carrying several pumps – one for each of your inflatables – you can use one and switch the adapters as needed.
You’ll find that most inflatable kayaks these days feature either Boston valves or Halkey-Roberts valves.
Both are one-way check valves, meaning they’ll only allow the air to move in one direction and won’t let it out unless you open them manually. The latter is more commonly seen on higher-end inflatable kayaks, though.
4. Repair Kit
A large branch here, a sharp rock there – and, all of a sudden, there is a puncture in your kayak. Don’t get me wrong; modern-day inflatables are way tougher than that, but my point is:
You need to be prepared to deal with these unexpected issues.
That’s why you should always have a repair kit onboard. At the very least, the kit should include repair patches and adhesive (for fixing small leaks on the go), a valve wrench (a specialized tool for adjusting, tightening, or removing valves), spare valves, and quick-drying sealant.
5. Tarp (Optional)
I recommend adding a tarp – any sort of protective sheet made from a strong, waterproof fabric will do – to the list of things you’ll need for successful kayak inflation and deflation.
It’s not a must-have, but depending on the launch site, you might not be able to find an area that is clean – free of debris, sharp rocks, and branches – and dry enough to unpack a kayak on.
How To Inflate A Kayak – A Step By Step Guide
You’d think that the process of inflating your kayak will vary significantly depending on the model you have – but the truth is, it is actually more or less the same. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should ditch the instructions manual; there’s some pretty important info in there.
Here’s what the process of inflating a kayak typically looks like:
1. Unpack & Unfold The Kayak
Okay, the first step is finding a flat surface where you can unpack your kayak and accompanying accessories. Ideally, it should be an area with enough space that’s free of debris, sharp rocks – or anything else that could potentially puncture your ‘yak during the inflation process.
If you can’t seem to find a spot that fits that description at the put-in point, use a tarp as a layer of protection.
2. Prepare The Valves For Inflation
Obviously, this step will look a bit different depending on the type of valves your particular model of kayak has. But the main idea is that you need to ensure that they are in the right position; you can’t attach the pump until you prepare the valves for inflation:
- With Boston valves, all you need to do is remove the cap and check if the valve body is tightly in place on the valve collar.
- With Halkey-Roberts valves, make sure that the spring in the middle is positioned high in the valve, indicating that it is closed. If it’s open, and the spring is in the down position, release it by pressing on it and twisting counter-clockwise.
3. Attach The Pump
Again, different inflatable kayaks may feature different types of valves, which is why you need to attach the correct valve adapter. Most pumps include a set of different attachments – so, it’s best to refer to the manual and ensure that you’re using the right one.
Here’s how to attach the pump:
- If your kayak features Boston valves, get the right-sized adapter (the side walls and floor chamber can use slightly different adapter sizes), insert it into the valve, and press firmly to ensure it stays in place.
- If your kayak features Halkey-Roberts valves, insert the pump head with the adapter into the valve and twist clockwise to secure it.
4. Inflate The Floor (To 60-70%)
Most inflatable kayaks will consist of three separate air chambers – the floor and the side walls. So, the question is:
Which of those air chambers should you inflate first?
The general rule of thumb is to start with the floor section. That is because the floor air chamber serves as a base around which the rest of the kayak will be inflated.
You don’t want to inflate it all the way right now, though; leave it at around 60% of the recommended air pressure to make enough room for the other chambers to settle.
5. Inflate Side Walls
Once the floor chamber has been inflated to roughly 60%, you can move on to the next section – the remaining two chambers that form the kayak’s side walls (unless your ‘yak features more than three chambers, of course).
Again, it would be best to take it slow:
Inflate the side walls partially, just like you did with the floor. That will give you a chance to check if the floor is still positioned correctly (it may shift out of place during the inflation process) before topping both side chambers up to the required air pressure level.
Go back to the floor and inflate it to the recommended PSI, as well. And don’t forget to close the valve covers once you detach the pump!
6. Inflate Accessories (Seat & Foot Braces)
At this point, you have a fully inflated kayak, and that’s great – but you’re not done yet. If the ‘yak has a seat, foot braces, or additional spray skirts that require inflation, you’ll need to take care of those, too.
It should be a pretty straightforward process; you’ll be done in no time.
7. Attach Seat & Accessories
You’re almost there! All that’s left to do now is to attach your seat and any other accessories you may have – including the foot braces and the kayak’s tracking fin or skeg. Plus, now’s the time to secure other gear, like dry bags, fishing rods, and whatever else you plan on bringing with you.
8. Inspect Before Hitting The Water
This part should go without saying, but – be sure to double-check everything before you actually launch the kayak.
What if there is a leak or something isn’t secured properly? I’m sure you’ll agree it’s better to find out about it now than when you’re already in the water.
How To Deflate A Kayak – A Step By Step Guide
So, you’re back on dry land, and you’re looking at your kayak, thinking:
“How the heck am I supposed to fit this thing back in its original bag?”
And again, I have you covered.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to deflate a kayak and pack it up:
1. Find A Suitable Location
Remember what I said about finding a relatively flat and spacious surface where you can set up your kayak?
Well, the same goes for packing it up:
Look for a clean and dry area, free of sharp objects and, preferably, cool to the touch, where you can lay down your kayak. It’s not just about the kayak, though. Ensure you have enough room to move around and set aside your accessories, too.
A tarp can be of great help here. Wet kayaks are a magnet for all sorts of debris – including mud, grass, and sand – and it will be much easier to dry your ‘yak off and clean it when you don’t have to deal with all that muck that keeps sticking to it.
2. Remove The Seat & Accessories
Your next job? Stripping the kayak down to its hull.
It’s time to remove all the gear and accessories you’ve attached to it before the outing, including the following:
- Kayak seat
- Foot braces and thigh straps
- Accessories, such as cup holders, camera mounts, and rod holders
- Removable skeg or tracking fin on the bottom of the hull
- Additional items, such as dry bags, repair kit, and kayak cooler
Of course, this list will look different depending on what you typically bring on an outing – but you get the idea.
Set these accessories aside and give the kayak a quick once-over to ensure you haven’t missed anything. Now would also be a good time to rinse your kayak and gear to get rid of any lingering dirt and debris.
3. Towel-Dry The Kayak’s Interior & Hull
Assuming you’ve listened to my advice and given your ‘yak a quick rinse, you might be thinking, “Okay, time to deflate it.”
Nope, not so fast:
You still need to drain any excess water and dry your kayak – inside and out. A wet inflatable kayak quickly turns into a breeding ground for mold and mildew.
Now, in an ideal scenario, you’d leave the ‘yak to air dry, but that might not always be an option – especially if the weather isn’t exactly working in your favor. Don’t worry, though:
You can speed up the process by using a towel (even an old T-shirt would do, really) to wipe the whole thing dry.
Start by turning the kayak upside-down; that will help you get rid of any water that is still trapped inside. Now, grab a dry towel and get to work. Be sure to wipe it down thoroughly – everything from the kayak’s interior to the bottom of the hull should be clean and dry.
4. Open The Valves & Let The Air Out
Okay, you’re ready for the actual deflation process. Go ahead and open all the valves, but keep in mind that simply removing the valve covers won’t release any air.
Here’s what you need to do to get things going:
- If the kayak uses Boston valves, unscrew the valve body, not just the cap
- If the kayak uses Halkey-Roberts valves, remove the cover and push the spring down to open the valve.
You can speed things up by using your pump to deflate the kayak. Many pumps these days – both electric and manual – have separate settings for inflation and deflation, which basically just means you can connect the hose to a different outlet, depending on what you need.
If your pump isn’t one of those… well, then you’ll just have to wait for your kayak to deflate on its own.
5. Fold, Roll & Dry (At The Same Time)
As you continue to let the air out of the chambers, the kayak will become “softer,” and the fabric no longer feels as tight and firm to the touch. That’s a good sign:
Everything is going according to plan, and it’s time to start thinking about your next move, which is folding the kayak.
One thing to keep in mind is that how well you fold and roll the ‘yak at this stage determines how well – if at all – it will fit in the carrying bag later. That is to say, don’t rush and try to do it as neatly as possible.
Here are some tips:
- Fold the side walls toward the middle of the kayak so that everything is properly aligned.
- Then, starting at the non-valve end, roll up the kayak toward the opposite end, where the valves are located. That way, you’ll avoid trapping any remaining air inside the chambers – and ensure you’ve squeezed it all out.
- Roll the kayak in stages, taking the time to wipe it down with a towel in between rolls just to be sure that it’s completely dry.
- You can close the valves if you are worried about debris. However, I prefer to leave them open to let any lingering moisture escape.
6. Pack It Up & Go
Your inflatable ‘yak is now officially ready to be packed away in a carry bag and stored until your next outing.
And hopefully, you’ve folded it just right to be able to fit it inside the storage bag!
I suggest leaving the bag open because – you guessed it – it allows the moisture to escape. That said, be sure to close the bag if you’ll be storing it for an extended period – or you might find that bugs and other critters now call your kayak their home.
Troubleshooting Tips & Tricks
You’ve followed the steps outlined in this guide to a T and double-checked the user manual – but you’re still experiencing some issues.
Don’t worry; I have you covered.
Slow Air Leak
In an ideal scenario, you would notice the leak before you hit the water. That’s why I recommend a quick inspection every time you inflate your ‘yak.
But even if you don’t notice it until you’re already in the water, there’s no reason to panic. Even if one of the chambers develops a leak, the others remain unaffected, meaning you’ll have time to return to shore and repair it.
It won’t just sink like the Titanic.
That said, here’s how to repair a slow leak:
- Pinpoint the leak (on an inflated kayak, of course). Mix up water and dish soap in a spray bottle and spray it onto the kayak, one section at a time. Look closely for any bubbles on the surface; they’re the telltale sign that there’s a leak.
- Mark the spot with a pen and fix the leak using the items in your repair kit. If it’s a pinhole leak, the sealant should be enough; otherwise, you’ll need to use a patch with adhesive.
Instead of a regular mix of dish soap and water, try mixing water with glycerin. It makes stronger bubbles, making it easier to pinpoint a not-so-intense leak.
– Sam O’Brien
Punctures and seam-related leaks aside, the third part of an inflatable ‘yak that may fail, causing a slow but steady loss of pressure, is the valve. But contrary to what you might think, it’s not due to the kayak’s poor construction:
The rubber seals around the valves can accumulate quite a bit of dirt and grime over time – and the lack of good kayak maintenance certainly doesn’t help.
In other words, don’t go pointing the finger at the manufacturer just yet.
Here’s how to deal with a leaky valve:
- Check if you closed the valve properly and, if needed, readjust and tighten it with a valve wrench.
- Check the valve for signs of damage and debris that could be interfering with its ability to maintain a tight seal.
- Clean the valve opening and, if needed, take it out entirely to clean the underside, too.
If you are struggling to inflate your ‘yak, the first part you should check is – drum roll, please – the pump. Maybe you accidentally set the pump to the wrong mode, and it’s on “Deflate” rather than “Inflate.”
Hey, it happens to the best of us… me included.
The second possible “point of failure” is the pump hose. The air might not be flowing from the pump and into the kayak as freely as it should, causing the inflation process to slow down. That is typically caused by kinks in the hose (due to improper storage) and clogs and blockages.
Finally, remember to check if you closed the air valve. I know, I know, this was the most “Well, duh!” kind of troubleshooting tip ever – but it doesn’t hurt to check.
Poor Tracking Or Stability
There’s not much you can do on the spot to fix stability issues related to your kayaking skills and technique; that’s something that requires a bit more time and practice.
But if you’re certain that your skills aren’t the problem here, then sure, what you’re experiencing might be related to the kayak – and, more specifically, the inflation pressure.
Here’s the thing:
If your ‘yak loses pressure – meaning there is not enough air in its chambers – it won’t be as rigid as it should be. And since the performance of an inflatable kayak is directly linked to its rigidity… Well, you can tell where I’m going with this.
It won’t perform as expected and might feel unstable, slow, and track poorly.
Here are some tips on how to deal with this:
- Check the inflation pressure of each air chamber – floor and side walls – to ensure they’re inflated according to the manufacturer-specified PSI and top them off if needed.
- Inspect the kayak to ensure there aren’t any leaks that went unnoticed. If you do find any – no matter how small – be sure to repair them before using the kayak again.
- If that doesn’t work, either, then check if you’ve properly attached the skeg. Maybe that’s messing with your kayak’s performance.
Frequently Asked Questions on Inflating and Deflating Inflatable Kayaks
How long does it take to inflate a kayak?
Inflating a kayak can take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes on average. Do note that this depends on several factors, including the type of pump you’re using – electric pumps cut the time to under 5 minutes, compared to a hand pump or foot pump – the number of air chambers, the size of the kayak, and the recommended PSI level.
Can I use an electric pump to inflate my kayak?
Of course, you can! However, using an electric pump might not always be an option – especially if you’ll be in a remote area with no access to electricity. That’s why it’s generally recommended to always keep a manual pump onboard as a backup.
Can I use an air compressor to inflate a kayak?
You should generally not attempt to use an air compressor to inflate your kayak. They have way too much power – compared to a typical electric air pump – making it easier to overinflate the kayak by accident, damaging the seams and potentially causing the chamber to burst. If you’re looking for a way to speed up the inflation process, an electric pump is a better – and safer – option.
Is it OK to leave the kayak inflated?
Ideally, you want to deflate the kayak after every trip – especially if you’ll be storing it away for an extended period, like over the winter. But if we’re not talking about long-term storage, it’s okay to leave it inflated. That said, let a little air out to leave enough room for potential air expansion, which often occurs when there are changes in temperature.
What PSI should an inflatable kayak be?
There’s no standard PSI for inflatable kayaks; you’ll find that even inflatables made by the same brand often have different pressure levels. That said, in most cases, non-drop-stitch kayaks will require a PSI level of 2 to 3.5, while inflatables that have drop-stitch construction can go up to 8 to 10 PSI. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the specific model (it’s typically stated next to the valve or in the instructions manual) before proceeding.