Inflatable Kayaks on Lakes, Rivers and Oceans: a How-To Guide

Just as there are clear differences to the size, shape, and movement to a lake, river, and ocean, there will be differences in your inflatable kayak paddling experience with each one. There are major factors for each body of water and universal considerations as well. It doesn’t stop here though. Not all lakes, river sections, or ocean areas are the same and in response, not all paddling watercraft are either, including inflatable kayaks.

So, you might have an inflatable kayak and want to know its range on the water or you may possibly be on the hunt for a specific type of inflatable kayak to match your desired future plans with it. Either way, there are questions to ask. Let’s start with the basics to these waters then.

Waves and Currents

Besides the size and shape of a body of water, the deciding difference is in how it moves. To the recreational paddler, and not those deeply engrossed in the science of hydrology, water movement comes down to currents and waves generated. An ocean is a prime example of a mesh of currents and non-stop waves. But, I know for me, it’s hard not jump to the immediate thought of, “oh yeah, lakes just have waves and rivers just have currents.” It’s not quite that clear cut though.

Lakes

Here is a body of water, larger than a pond and smaller than an ocean, closed off by land with no where to go. So why would there be currents or even waves, now to think of it? Waves are the result of wind presence and the momentum created with the initial waves – just think of the ripple effect to dropping a rock in the water. While the waves are the generated and noticeable force on a lake, the currents are providing the direction thanks to wind mostly. So they actually have a working relationship with each other.

Why is this relevant to a paddler? While lake currents are a thing, don’t expect them to be that of a river. You’re not going to stumble across secret currents that take you from one edge of the lake to the other. It’s going to take a whole lot of paddling, but you’ll catch some currents, or waves with direction, and added momentum along the way.

Rivers

Here is a body of water on a mission to get from one place to another with no turning back. No matter the river, they all start with and end with water. Some initiate from mountain snow melt and run off and others from large bodies of waters or other rivers. The end result is typically the largest body of water, the ocean. With hundreds to thousands of miles of water movement occurring, the obvious element involved for paddlers is a river’s current.

view of a small river in fall from the bank on a cloudy day

Volume of water has a direct impact on the velocity of a river and therefore it’s currents, but so does water depth. As water depth changes, so does the exposure of rocks, small islands, etc. that alter currents. It doesn’t stop with currents though. Waves are generated based on river velocity, water depths, and exposure, along with less wind impact.

So why is this relevant to a paddler? To start, safety is the biggest concern here. If you’ve ever experienced whitewater rapids, from even a large raft, you’ll understand. A river has much more of the unknown in it with its uncertain water depths and hazards to it. Depending on the river, they are going to vary in water depth throughout the paddling months, creating new currents and exposed hazards. So, guidance, along with past experience and knowledge of a river is a must. And it’s not a round trip type of deal, where you can just come right back to where you began, so be as prepared as possible.

Oceans

This is the most obvious combination or partnership of currents and waves. And these are the largest bodies of waters, so everything is larger, from wind effect to wave size and current force. Oh and then there is even moon effect and tidal waves created. So you’ve got the even larger than lake waves, mixed with stronger and less distinguishable than river currents. Everything is maximized or super-sized out there.

What does this mean for the paddler? You are a speck out there in the ocean. Currents and other elements can easily take you away from land if you aren’t paying attention or just inexperienced. So it takes some self-questioning of, “is this for me or worth it?”, and plenty of experience and knowledge. If you choose the pursuit of experience and knowledge, try to progress your way up to the point of paddling out on the ocean.

With the same quality inflatable kayak, start with smaller, safer bodies of water, like ponds or small lakes. Continue onto small rivers or creeks that are smooth and calm, getting a feel for currents. Keep at this progression, moving up in difficulty and expertise needed. Bigger lakes and rivers, with their large waves, currents, and variables, would be the final steps before climbing the ladder of ocean experiences too.

Environmental Factors to Remember

There are a few environmental factors to keep in mind before you head out on the water in your inflatable kayak.

The Size of the Lake You’re Paddling

The larger the lake, the larger the waves, most likely. And with more open space to a larger lake, there is less stopping strong gusts of wind. The likes of large waves and intense wind makes for a troubling experience, even for the most experienced paddler. So don’t just jump from paddling your local lake to one of the Great Lakes.  

distant view of a small lake in the fall

How Large the River Volume Is

Higher volume means stronger velocity and currents. This means you as the paddler are in less control, leaving less room for error. Lower volume should start slowing things down, but this is also where water hazards start to emerge, so be aware. No matter the volume or the river, take precaution and gain general paddling and specific river expertise in time.

view of a river in fall that has a small volume of water

The Shore Range for Ocean Paddling

If you enjoy being on the ocean water in your inflatable kayak, but don’t want the extremes to it, you are likely to stay close to shore. Just like with swimmers, it is important to understand in your inflatable kayak where currents start pulling you away from the shore. It’s not a universal distance away from shore that this can occur for each section of ocean, so get informed.

Hidden Water Hazards

There are the exposed hazards to a river or even ocean and then there are hidden ones. Water depth and visibility is a giant factor here for rivers. For example, a large rock could be hidden just below the flowing water surface, just as a current could take or suck you into an overhang rock surface. So follow the lead of someone more experienced with this specific water at first.

paddling on a lake that has a hidden log submerged below the surface

What Kind of Wind Will You Face?

Be ready for this to have more of an impact on larger, more open waters. Just the wind itself, blowing you in the opposite of your intended direction is a drag. But don’t forget how wind can ramp up out there on ocean and lakes, along with making it difficult staying where you want to be on a river. It is the extra element to always take in before starting your paddling experience.

Inflatable Kayak Pros and Cons

Just like anything in life, there are pros and cons associated with using an inflatable kayak on lakes, rivers or oceans. Below you’ll find pros and cons for each type of water, as well as a popular alternative to an inflatable kayak that is best suited for that body of water.

Lake Pros

  • Design; models out there for speed and efficiency in calmer waters.
  • Lightweight; easy turning and maneuvering.
  • Sits on water surface; more access to shallow areas.
  • Low seat and flatter bottom; better balance for paddler.

Lake Cons

  • Lightweight; more turn than desired with alternating strokes.
  • Lightweight; wind and waves can have more influence.

Popular Alternative for Lakes: Canoe

River Pros

inflatable kayak on the banks of a river in fall
  • Design; models out there made for varying river experiences (calm to whitewater), with efficiency and safety in mind.
  • Lightweight; quick turns more capable for the paddler, especially in rapids.
  • Sits on water surface; less trouble with rocks near water surface.
  • Low seat and flatter bottom; less stability and balance worrying for the paddler.

River Cons

  • Lightweight; wind and current influence stronger.
  • Lightweight and narrow; more vulnerable to capsizing from wave impact.
  • Low seat; more difficult to read the water to come, scoping out hazards, etc.

Popular Alternative for Rivers: Inflatable Raft

Ocean Pros

  • Design; models out there made to address the strength to ocean waves and currents, maximizing everything to the vessel.
  • Low seat and flatter bottom; shorter drop into the water if you do fall in and easier transition back into it.

Ocean Cons

  • Lightweight; vulnerable to high end wind force and current pull.
  • Lightweight; less control of your vessel and susceptible to dangerous situations, including drifting out to sea in it or it getting away from you after falling in.
  • Lightweight and narrow; capsizing from waves very possible with poor technique.

Popular Alternative for Oceans: Hardshell Kayak

Inflatable Kayak Scenarios to Keep in Mind

Scenario 1: I have an inflatable kayak, but am not sure what type of experience or water I want to pursue.

Let’s start with the inflatable kayak. What type is it? Some are specializations in design for rafting or speed on flat water, while others can serve a more universal purpose in solid paddling experiences, no matter the body of water (for the most part). From here, it takes understanding what type of experience you are looking to attain in your paddling time.

paddler on a small lake in fall in an inflatable kayak

As you’ll see in the next scenario, desired experience may be calm and relaxing, physically demanding, or technical and adventure filled. Some people may already know where they fall here, but actual experiences can’t hurt. Overall, understand your inflatable kayak’s capabilities and limitations, reflect on what you are looking for in an experience, and see what matches this in water around you.

Scenario 2: I have a desired paddling experience, but no inflatable kayak or body of water figured out.

Calm, Peaceful, Nature-Seeking Kayakers

Small ponds and lakes and slow creeks or rivers are your best bet on the light side of things. Here, the waves, currents, and wind are likely to be minimal, while the view can be just as satisfying as the rough waters to a larger lake or demanding river.

Example: Sea Eagle’s FastTrack inflatable kayaks, designed for speed and efficiency in calm waters.

Fitness Paddlers Looking for Physically Demanding Paddling

Larger lakes, with stronger winds and waves, are great for the fitness focused paddler. You can challenge yourself in different ways here, from a given distance, route, or time on the water, to repeatedly trying your hand at different waves. You really can’t go wrong.

Example: Sea Eagle’s Inflatable Sport Kayaks, designed for high durability in all sorts of waters.

Adventurous Paddlers Looking for Technical Challenges

Adventures can be had on fast moving and rapid filled rivers, along with the ocean in general. But for starters, get plenty of experience mastering the ins and outs of your inflatable kayak on small scale challenging water. Your technical skills don’t stop there though, as it takes distinct understanding of each river or ocean section before hand.

Example: Sea Eagle’s Explorer inflatable kayaks, designed for adventurous whitewater rapids and ocean waves.