Inflatable and portable boats make it easy for RVers to enjoy the delights of waterborne exploration.
By Peter D. duPre
“… there is nothing “” absolutely nothing “” half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
My family enjoys RVing, as well as fishing, boating, and kayaking. For years, we faced a decision before every motorhome trip: whether to tow the boat or the car behind the coach. We couldn’t take both, and it often came down to leaving the boat behind or renting one at our destination. Then, in the early 1980s I purchased a large, oceangoing sailboat and found the answer to my RV dilemma.
Although it was quite roomy belowdecks, the 40-foot sloop had limited deck space for stowing a tender, so the boat’s previous owner had purchased an Avon inflatable for use as a yacht tender. Once he demonstrated how easily the rubber tender inflated/deflated and stowed, I was completely hooked. Within weeks I had purchased a similar inflatable and stowed it in the basement of my motorhome. It was the perfect solution to our RV/boating problem. The 10-foot inflatable took up little room when stowed, inflated in just minutes, and even allowed the use of a small outboard on the stern. Best of all, we didn’t need to tow a trailer to enjoy boating, and neither do you.
Portable boats that either assemble or unfold for use are another option. Like an inflatable, a portable boat weighs less than a hard-hulled boat, takes up little stowage room in or on the RV, and assembles in minutes, so you won’t waste any time when the fish are biting.
While either type of stowable boat is a great choice for RV use, each type of boat has its advantages and disadvantages, so it is wise to think about what you expect from such a vessel before you start shopping for one. No one specific boat type is best for every purpose, and no one particular boat style is right for every RVer. Let’s look at the different boat types and the possible advantages and disadvantages of each.
When it comes to inflatable boats, the mental picture that often comes to mind are the inexpensive, brightly colored, vinyl blowups often seen at lakeside resorts or used in swimming pools. These blowups are usually inflated by mouth power and cost less than $50 at discount stores. As anyone who has owned one will tell you, they are prone to seam fatigue, sun damage, and pinhole leaks, and are easily punctured. For serious weekend and vacation use, the RV owner needs to invest in a heavy-duty inflatable model that has strong seams, resists puncturing, and has a reasonably long life expectancy. These are not generally sold at giveaway prices, but starter models can be had for as low as $299, and ruggedly built tenders with hard transoms can go as high as a few thousand dollars.
As you might expect, the most important aspect of an inflatable boat is the material from which the air bladder is constructed. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the air bladders of inflatable boats were made from rubberized canvas, and because of this, many people still call these watercraft “rubber boats.” Modern inflatables are not really made from rubber but from synthetic materials that contain polyurethanes, plastomers, PVC, Hypalon, rubber, and a host of other chemicals. Likewise, the “rubberized” coating (usually PVC or Hypalon) is attached to a multi-ply material that is no longer made of canvas but of polyester, nylon, and other fabrics. The result is that today’s inflatables are very rugged, have stronger seams, resist puncture, are less vulnerable to sun damage, and generally hold up to hard use well.
The key reason that inflatables are so popular among both boaters and RVers is the fact that they are so much easier to store and carry than a conventional open boat. A typical inflatable is about 8 feet by 3 feet when inflated, weighs approximately 80 pounds, and seats two to four adults. Yet, when deflated and packed in its storage bag/case, it only takes up a 3-foot-by-2-foot space “” including the collapsible paddles “” meaning that it can fit easily in an RV’s basement bin or even a large closet. Best of all, setup time is only about 15 minutes if the boat is inflated using the traditional foot pump (if a power inflator is used that time can drop to as little as five minutes).
In addition, inflatables are very stable in rough water, almost impossible to flip, and virtually unsinkable. The wide, flat bottom forms a stable platform for the crew to sit on and makes it difficult for the boat to flip over. And because all well-made inflatable boats are constructed with multiple air chambers, they retain their buoyancy even if a main chamber loses its air.
Inflatables come in a variety of styles and sizes: traditional yacht tender or dinghy, sport boat, rigid inflatable boat (RIB), kayak, and pontoon boat or sailing catamaran.
Yacht tenders or dinghies lend themselves to all-purpose use as a rowboat, fishing platform, and general getting-around craft. They are available in sizes ranging from 6 to 12 feet, carry up to five adults (depending upon boat size), are easy to paddle, and with the use of a strap-on bracket can be powered by a 4-horsepower outboard motor. Dinghies have soft floors and a soft transom. They are also quite rugged; a heavy-duty 12-footer can be used for riding the surf or whitewater rafting.
The main differences between a sport boat and a dinghy are that the former has a hard transom (so the boat can carry up to a 40-horsepower outboard) and a sectional floor that is installed after the boat is inflated. Sport boats also have a small wood or inflatable keel for stability. They are more comfortable, go faster, and are easier to steer than a standard dinghy. Sport boats are available in a variety of sizes ranging from 8 to 14 feet and can carry up to seven adults (depending upon boat size).
Roll-ups are almost identical in size and performance to the sport boat. With a hard transom, the roll-up’s main advantage is that it can be deflated and rolled up with the flooring material left in place, saving on assembly/disassembly time and making storage easier.
The rigid inflatable boat (RIB) is a hybrid that falls between a traditional open boat and an inflatable. It has a rigid hull made of fiberglass or aluminum that cuts into the water and is combined with large air chambers on the topsides. The main advantage to a boat like this is that it can carry a very large outboard, and it offers superior performance and handling in the water. However, because only part of the boat can be deflated and it is never smaller than the rigid hull section, an RIB is not practical for RV use unless it is towed on a trailer.
Inflatable kayaks may look more like poolside toys than serious boats, but don’t be deceived. The inflatable kayak has a proven history for offshore touring and whitewater use. These two-to-four-person boats paddle easily, take only minutes to inflate/deflate, and compare favorably against fiberglass and PVC models.
Inflatable catamarans and pontoon boats are extremely stable and virtually impossible to flip over. They are perfect for use as fishing platforms, can carry up to four adults, are available in sizes ranging from 8 to 15 feet, and easily powered by a 4-horsepower outboard. In addition, many manufacturers offer an optional sailing package that makes gasoline-free operation a real breeze.
Although the inflatable boat offers huge advantages in weight savings, storage room, and ease of assembly, there is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch. First off, getting an 80-to-120-pound inflatable out of the storage locker, unpacking it, inflating it, and setting it up for use can take as long as 15 to 20 minutes “” longer if you install an outboard.
Second, while these boats are fairly impervious to chemicals, sunlight, and regular beaching, they still will need a periodic leak test and an occasional patch job.
Third, although it is possible to power a small dinghy with a 4-horsepower outboard, performance with such a small power plant is limited. These boats do not like to get on plane unless there is plenty of power at the stern, because they have a tendency to suck the rear down as the boat powers forward. This phenomenon is less noticeable in an inflatable with a hard floor and not at all apparent in an RIB.
Fourth, the inflatable air chambers are round in shape and protrude into the interior of the vessel all the way around the hull, taking up some 30 to 40 percent of the available interior room.
Finally, it is vital that these boats are completely dry before they are put away, or mold will develop while the boat is in the storage bag. Make it a practice to completely beach the boat every day after use and let it air dry, so it can be packed quickly should the need for a hasty departure arise.
If the idea of pulling the inflatable out of storage, pumping it up, patching holes, deflating it, and putting it away wears you out, fear not; another RV boating alternative is available “” the portable. These boats come in two basic varieties: those that fold/unfold and those that are assembled.
The foldable portable is a rigid-hull boat and handles pretty much like any other hard-shell vessel. What makes this boat unique is that it is constructed out of hard panels made of either polypropylene or aluminum that hinge, so a boat that is 3 feet wide and 11 feet long can fold flat to a thickness of 4 to 6 inches. This means that it can be stowed on the roof of the RV without affecting overhead clearance or hung from a rack on the side of the vehicle. Of the two material types, choose polypropylene if you are a serious fisherman or duck hunter, as it is a quieter material than aluminum.
Foldable portables generally weigh less than a packaged inflatable and are easier to load or unload. They set up and collapse in only a couple of minutes. Furthermore, the rigid hull does not suck into the water under power, so it will plane with an outboard as small as a 2-horsepower or 4-horsepower. (Most inflatables need a 20-horsepower outboard to achieve plane.) Foldables range between 8 to 14 feet in length, seat up to five adults (depending upon boat size), and keep passengers dryer than in an inflatable because of their deeper freeboard. Plus, they can be collapsed and stowed while wet.
Assembled portables are essentially kit kayaks and range in length from 12 to 16 feet, seating up to two adults. They have a disassembled frame in one bag and a fabric skin in the other bag. Because of the way they are packaged, they take up very little stowage room “” only a foot or so wide by about four feet long. Plus, they can be stacked to take up even less room. For serious kayakers, an assembled boat makes sense; these unique craft are every bit as rugged as conventionally built kayaks. However, for the weekend boater, the time needed for assembly/disassembly should be considered. Beginners should expect to spend about 30 to 45 minutes putting together the craft, though an experienced boater can assemble one in less than 20 minutes.
Just as no one type of motorhome is right for every RVer, no one type of inflatable or portable boat is right for everyone. People have different boating needs, vastly different skill levels, and different interests. Some people just want a rubberized skiff for the kids to fool around in, and others may want a sport boat or even a folding boat for fishing. Then there are the explorers out there who may want to paddle along the shore in a kayak, or those who would rather lazily sail a catamaran. Available storage room and your physical condition may also play a role in which boat you end up choosing.
It is impossible, therefore, to recommend one type of boat over another. However, when choosing an inflatable or portable boat, it is vital that you give careful consideration to what you expect to do with the boat and how many people will regularly be going with you. After that, examine your budget, look at the available models, and choose the boat that best fits your needs and your pocketbook.
Manufacturers And Models
While literally dozens of manufacturers offer inflatable and portable boats suitable for RV use, space doesn’t allow me to list them all. Instead, I have put together a collection of models from various companies to represent the full variety of vessels currently on the market.
Apex Inflatables “” Now in its 23rd year, Apex Inflatables has built a well-deserved reputation as a small, independent manufacturer of high-quality inflatables, supplying the yacht, military, and commercial markets. The company currently offers full lines of tenders, sport boats, small and large RIBs, roll-ups, and river rafts that range from 8 feet to 36 feet in length. Apex literature points to the use of larger air chambers said to provide more buoyancy, increased passenger safety, and improved ride. They use Hypalon-Neoprene reinforced fabric, which resists damage from ultraviolet rays, oil, and gasoline spills, and from life’s other little knocks. One model particularly good for RV boaters is the A24ri roll-up, which features twin air chambers and seating for four adults, weighs 66 pounds, and measures 8 feet by 5 feet. This model will carry up to a 6-horsepower outboard, and when stowed in the included storage pack it measures 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 1 foot high. A five-year warranty is included with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $2,595.
Avon Inflatables “” With almost 50 years of experience, this British boatmaker is one of the “heavy hitters” in the world of inflatable boats. The Redstart and Redcrest dinghies are designed for paddling, feature multi-chamber construction, come in 8- or 9-foot lengths (with a 5-foot 9-inch or 6-foot 7-inch beam), and carry 3 to 4 passengers (depending upon model). The larger Rover inflatables run from 8 feet 6 inches up to 11 feet 2 inches in length, with a beam of just over 5 feet. Rovers are outboard rated for motors between 3 horsepower and 20 horsepower.
Avon products are constructed from Hypalon-coated fabrics that are virtually unaffected by weather (including excesses of heat, cold, or humidity), fuel, oil, strong sunlight, and everyday abrasion. They feature internally seamed buoyancy tubes designed for superior air retention. All Avon products come with a 10-year transferable, no-quibble fabric guarantee and a five-year seam warranty. The models mentioned range in price from $1,950 to $2,795. In America, Avon Inflatables are distributed by Zodiac of North America.
Brig Boats “” This Canadian company got its start in 1991 and quickly built a name for itself as a supplier of rugged, high-quality inflatables. The company offers a full line of dinghies, tenders, and sport boats ranging from 6 feet 7 inches to 16 feet long. Of particular interest to RVers is the lightweight Dingo line of tenders that is offered in six models. The D200 is the smallest model at 6 feet 7 inches long, with boat lengths increasing about a foot for each succeeding model. Passenger capacity is between two and four persons (depending upon boat size). Five models have twin air ballast construction, while the D330, the largest, features three-chamber construction. All models come with an inflatable buoyancy keel that helps the boat handle better, and all can carry an outboard ranging from 2 horsepower to 12 horsepower (depending upon boat). Apart from durable construction, the Dingo line’s main appeal is its light weight. The diminutive D200 weighs 49 pounds, and the larger 10-foot-10-inch-long D330 weighs 93 pounds. Pricing was not available at press time, but the company will answer e-mails with specific pricing should you inquire.
Folbot “” The world’s longest continuously producing manufacturer of folding kayaks, Folbot has been making boats since 1933. The company currently offers seven models that are designed for serious kayak touring. Although billed as a folding boat, the Folbot is actually an assembled portable that comes in two bags “” one for the long frame members, anodized aluminum struts, and polycarbonate hardware used to frame the boat, and another for the fabric boat skin and the crossframes (some models come in one bag). All hardware is marine quality. The skin is made from Hypalon laminated to both sides of 1000-denier tire cord for the hull, and a sun-resistant, urethane-coated polyester has been selected for the deck fabric. The company backs its product with a lifetime warranty and, within the first 30 days, will buy back a boat if for any reason a buyer is dissatisfied with it.
For single paddlers, I suggest the lightweight (38 pounds) and stable Cooper model, which measures 16 feet 6 inches in length, with a 24-inch beam and a 12-inch height. MSRP is $1,645.
If you’re looking for a two-person boat, then the 17-foot Greenland II, with a 34-inch beam and generous 16 inches of height, is a good choice. The Greenland II has plenty of belowdeck space for storing camping gear, and while designed for two adults, the boat is big enough to safely carry along a small child as well. MSRP is $2,495.
Instaboat “” With an assembly time of just two minutes, this portable canoe is manufactured from aluminum panels with neoprene joints vulcanized to metal that allow it to fold and unfold hundreds of times without any noticeable joint wear. When fully assembled, the boat is 10 feet 8 inches long, 44 inches wide, and 13½ inches deep; seats two adults; and can carry a 2-horsepower outboard. When collapsed, the measurements are 11 feet 4 inches long by 6½ inches wide by 15 inches deep. It easily rides on the roof of any motorhome without compromising overhead clearance, and an optional rack allows the 66-pound canoe to be stowed on the side of the vehicle for easy access. The Instaboat comes with a 5-year warranty and has a suggested retail price of $1,595. The RV mounting bracket retails for $169.
Mercury Marine “” Known primarily for its outboard motors, Mercury Marine has been offering a full line of inflatable boats for some time, all designed to carry an outboard. The company offers two roll-up models, a line of sport boats, and the Air Deck line “” all of which are suitable for RV use. The smaller, two-chamber, roll-up models include the 6-foot-7-inch-long 200 Rollup, which seats two and weighs 45 pounds, and the 1-foot-longer 240 Rollup, which seats three and weighs 62 pounds. The two models can carry a 3.5-horsepower and a 5-horsepower outboard, respectively.
The Sport Boat line includes four models that range in size from 6 feet 7 inches long to 11 feet 2 inches long. All feature three-chamber construction and have numbered floorboards for ease of assembly. The Sport Boats weigh between 92 and 123 pounds depending upon model, have a capacity of three to five adults, and can carry an outboard rated from 6 horsepower to 15 horsepower.
The Air Deck line matches the Sport boat line for size and features but utilizes an air bladder floor that is more comfortable than floorboards.
All Mercury inflatables are manufactured with PVC-coated fabric. The 310 and 340 Air Deck models are also available with Hypalon fabric. Rollups and Sport Boat models come with a five-year warranty. Air Deck models come with either a five-year (PVC) or a 10-year (Hypalon) warranty, depending upon model. MSRP ranges between $1,009 and $1,086 for Rollups. Sport Boat MSRP ranges from $1,283 to $1,729. Air Deck models have a starting suggested retail of $1,508 and range up to $2,712.
Porta-Bote “” This company has been making high-tech folding boats for more than 35 years. The Porta-Bote is available in four lengths: 8 feet 9 inches, 10 feet 8 inches, 12 feet 6 inches, and 14 feet. Beam (width) is 56 inches on the 8-footer and 60 inches on the other three lengths. Constructed of polypropylene, which is much quieter than aluminum, the Porta-Bote hull is virtually indestructible and has foam flotation bonded to the inner hull and inside the seats. The boats carry between three and five adults (depending upon model) and are rated for outboards. The fold-flat boat has a collapsed thickness of just 4 inches and a collapsed width of 2 feet. It will easily store on the roof of an RV or can be hung on the side with an optional RV rack. Weight ranges between 47 and 96 pounds (depending upon model), and the boats can be handled easily. Set up and stowage time is only a couple of minutes. The hull carries a 10-year limited warranty, never needs painting, and is unaffected by salt water, fuel, battery acid, and other chemicals.
As for performance, Porta-Bote needs only half the horsepower of a similar-sized aluminum or inflatable boat “” a 4-horsepower outboard will put the boat on plane and push it as fast as 15 knots. The company quickly responds to pricing queries via e-mail or phone.
Sea Eagle “” Offering a broad range of inflatables, from pontoon boats and kayaks to yacht tenders and sport runabouts, this company has built a reputation for manufacturing high-quality, moderately priced boats for more than 40 years. If you are into fishing, try the 375fc Fold Cat pontoon boat, and you can be on the water in only five minutes, fishing from a stable platform that features two independent air chambers fixed with aluminum tubes and with a full fabric floor. The 12-foot-4-inch by 4-foot-6-inch pontoon boat can be propelled at speeds of 8-10 mph by a 3-horsepower outboard and when collapsed, requires only 56 inches by 21 inches by 10 inches of basement storage room.
The Sport Runabout series features a fiberglass-reinforced transom, high-strength polyethylene maintenance-free floorboards, and an inflatable air keel; it ranges in size from 9.2 to 14 feet, carries up to seven adults (depending upon model), and can accommodate up to a 40-horsepower outboard. The 8-foot-10-inch Yacht Tender seats four adults, weighs 59 pounds, and can carry a 5-horsepower outboard. The company also offers two different models of inflatable kayaks, one of which is rated for whitewater use.
Sea Eagle boats feature either Polykrylar or 1000-denier fabric construction. All Sea Eagle boats come with a three-year warranty. MSRP starts at $299 for the SE330 kayak and ranges between $899 and $999 for the Explorer series. The Yacht Tender lists for $999, and Sport Runabout boats range from $1,299 to $2,299. The Fold Cat pontoon boat lists for $1,199.
Sevylor “” If you’d like to pack an inflatable in the RV but aren’t sure you’ll use it enough to warrant a large cash expenditure, then budget-priced Sevylor inflatables are just the ticket. The company offers two-person to four-person PVC inflatables that are suitable for occasional use and can carry a 2.5-horsepower to 3.5-horsepower outboard. The roll-up Super Caravelle ($132.99) and the Fish Hunter ($157.99) are both 9 feet 2 inches long with a 5-foot beam and weigh in at just 31 pounds. The company’s inflatable kayak/canoe line includes the world-famous 25-pound Tahiti ($146.99) inflatable kayak that measures 10 feet 7 inches in length by 2 feet 7 inches wide. Also in the lineup is the 10-foot-6-inch-long, 32-pound Colorado canoe ($455.99), which has the advantage of being fully covered with sturdy nylon and tarpaulin materials for greater durability and rigidity. Both carry two adults.
Tote-N-Boat “” Storage room on any RV is always an issue, and if you’d like a boat that takes up less room than a suitcase, then this is the vessel for you. Offered in both canoe and kayak versions, Tote-N-Boat models require a storage space 48 inches long by 4 inches deep by 16 inches wide. The boats are constructed from polypropylene copolymer that is treated with UV stabilizers to protect it from the sun. When fully unfolded, the canoe model measures almost 10 feet long and 3 feet wide at the center, with 14 inches of freeboard. It weighs 32 pounds, carries two adults, and is rated for an electric trolling motor. The kayak model will carry one adult, is about the same length, measures 31 inches wide, and has 12 inches of freeboard. It is also rated for an electric trolling motor. MSRP for either model is $359, and both come with a five-year warranty.
Walker Bay “” Using a completely new technology, Walker Bay’s Airis inflatable kayaks feature AirWeb high-pressure construction (patent pending), formed from a heavy-duty, seven-layer, polymer-coated fabric that is joined inside by thousands of drip-stitch fibers. This fiber web allows the two-chamber Play and Sport models to be inflated up to six times the maximum air pressure of other inflatable kayaks. The result is an extremely rigid hull that handles superbly, paddles easily, and rolls up to fit in its own backpack (included). Each model is offered in two sizes. The Play is available in 8-foot and 9-foot lengths, which weigh 15 and 18 pounds, respectively. The Sport models are designed for light expeditions and feature integrated dry storage for gear. They are available in 10-foot and 11-foot lengths and weigh 20 and 21 pounds, respectively. Both versions have a 33-inch beam, two-chamber construction, and carry a single passenger. MSRP for the Play is $749 for the 8-foot version and $849 for the 9-footer. Sport models retail at $1,149 for the 10-foot version and $1,249 for the 11-foot version. All models come with an adjustable backrest, high-pressure air pump with gauge, custom backpack, and a limited two-year warranty. The company also makes inflatable yacht tender-style boats (featuring a choice of air floor or slatted floor) that are suitable for RV use.
Zodiac “” When it comes to inflatables, this French company literally wrote the book. They started in 1909 by making inflatable airships and have been manufacturing inflatable boats since 1934. They are the number one manufacturer of inflatables in the world and currently offer five different model lines of inflatables. The ones most suitable for the RV boater are the Cadet and Zoom lines, which offer models ranging from 6 feet 7 inches in length up to 11 feet 2 inches, with passenger capacities from two to five people, and weights ranging from 46 to 121 pounds. Both lines are outboard-rated for motors up to 15 horsepower. All Zodiac boats come with Thermobonded seams and a five-year warranty. Prices for cadet and zoom models range from $1,230 to $2,110. FMC
919 Bay Ridge Road
Annapolis, MD 21403
540 Thompson Creek Road
Stevensville, MD 21666
Canada Gate Ltd.
452 Millway Ave., Unit 1
Canada L4K 3V7
Folbot North America
4209 Pace St.
Charleston, SC 29405
163 Fourth St.
Canada G5V 3L6
W6250 W. Pioneer Road
P.O. Box 1939
Fond du Lac, WI 54936-1939
1074 Independence Ave.
Mountain View, CA 94043
Sea Eagle Inflatable Boats
19 N. Columbia St., Suite 1
Port Jefferson, NY 11777
1100 Stearns Drive
Sauk Rapids, MN 56379
P.O. Box 624
Lititz, PA 17543
Walker Bay Boats
120 W. Third Ave.
Canada V5Y 1E9
Zodiac North America
540 Thompson Creek Road
Stevensville, MD 21666