Do I actually want a folding kayak?
March 23, 2020 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I've enjoyed kayaking with rentals and thinking of getting my own. But, I live in a small apartment, don't own a car, and live a few miles from the nearest access point. The primary use would be slow-moving (but highly trafficked) urban river, followed by occasional use on small lakes or creeks near campsites and possibly paddling around next to the shore of Lake Michigan when conditions are absolutely ideal. Is a folding or inflatable kayak actually a good idea? They seem too good to be true.

I'm a strong swimmer, generally pretty fit and safety conscious, but totally inexperienced in boating. I've spent a total of around 15 hours in kayaks on calm water. I've been really enjoying rentals on the river the last few years, but the restrictions on where you can travel and the operating hours are frustrating.

The alternative is to get a traditional kayak and find some place to store it. The nearest public access is a few miles away from home. There's one racing boat club that offers storage, but it will cost $100/mo and require a half hour bus ride to a much less interesting part of the river, which doesn't seem much better than the rentals. My alternative plan is to make some paper signs and post them within a block of the nearest launch (I'm not even sure if that's the right word, which probably tells you how little I know) offering $50/mo for a corner of someone's garage. Any other ideas?

(Note that I'm not going to make someone ship me a kayak during a pandemic. This is a question for the future.)
posted by eotvos to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's a very dated single point of reference, but I kayaked down the river Rhône in France back in the 1960s in a folding kayak. We didn't do whitewater or anything really strange, but the boats (which we rented) were fine for river travel. The boat I was in was a two-person kayak with rubberised skin on a wooden frame, which we took in a bag on the train from London to Lyon, paddled and rode the current to Avignon, and took back to Britain after the trip. The kayak was stable, fairly easy to assemble, easy to use and hard to swamp; bagged it was two units, carrying both was hard for one person, but carrying each bag alone was OK.

Since then materials and designs must have improved vastly, and I'd love to have a modern folding kayak.
posted by anadem at 8:48 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]

Both are totally viable options for what you want to do. Inflatable will likely be cheaper but the modern plastic folders probably easier to transport.
posted by fshgrl at 9:06 PM on March 23

I bought a Folbot sea kayak, a Kodiak model, about 20 years ago when I lived in a tiny apartment and only had a small compact car and I still love it. I’ve been out on Georgian Bay with it, it is very stable and easy to use. The one I got is large enough for extended trips. I’ve gone out for over a week with it. They are certainly much more expensive then a hard shell kayak. I upgraded to the rudder model, which was worth it. Sadly, Folbot recently went out of business after over 80 years of business.

Skin-on-frame kayaks are very stable and easy to use in rough water, and difficult to flip. There are still a few manufacturers out there, Pakboat, Feathercraft, Klepper (often considered to be the gold standard).

The current hot thing in folding kayaks are the solid origami-style boats. I have no idea how they compare to a traditional skin on-frame boat though.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:10 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

As for whether they are “too good to be true”, folding skin-on-frame kayaks are renowned for being used in expedition use in harsh conditions, on the ocean, and in the arctic. They have been around for over a century. Of course, the traditional Inuit kayaks they are based on are skin-on-frame, so there is a very long history to the design.

But you do pay a premium for them as they are complex boats with many parts.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:24 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

I dunno about too good to be true: the main drawback to folding kayaks seems to be that they're much more expensive than traditional ones. That said, could be worth it for this use case.

I would recommend trying to buy from a kayak retailer that offers test days. I have basically the same use case for a kayak as you (I'd like to be able to bike my hypothetical kayak to a reservoir a few miles away), and am planning on some kind of tryout before I invest that kind of money.

In the unlikely event I spot a used one for a song, I might not care so much about all those other decision factors, but new? Try it.
posted by asperity at 9:40 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

I am not a kayak person, but I know a guy who is and he has a couple of folding kayaks (Oru Kayak) and he's happy with them. They are small, light, fairly easy to set up, and quite durable. They are also expensive as hell. Inflatable kayaks, even the high end ones, are cheaper, and regular kayaks are cheaper still.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:20 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Lots of bad advice here. You don't want a skin on frame for your uses, it takes 45 minutes to a few hours to assemble a folbot. They're very expensive performance folding boats for extended fly in trips not recreational boats for flat water noodling. Get an origami style plastic boat or a cheap inflatable like an Advanced Elements Packlite $300 at rei, and go have fun. Both will set up and break down much more quickly and wont break the bank and are fine for your uses. If you get more hardcore you can buy a fancier boat.

Keep in mind you'll need some other gear when pricing it all out.
posted by fshgrl at 11:10 PM on March 23 [12 favorites]

Are you handy? Yostwerks has plans and instructions for several DIY inflatables and folders.
posted by Mitheral at 5:02 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

it takes 45 minutes to a few hours to assemble a folbot

It takes me 20 minutes, tops, to get my folbot put together, and it has all the bells and whistles. When I Set it up for the first time it took maybe 30 to 40 minute. But a few hours?!? No way! Are you building a boat from scratch?!?

Granted, they aren’t the best choice of boat for chucking in the water for half an hour of messing around then going home. One of those origami boats is probably better for that scenario.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:06 AM on March 24

My dad bought an inflatable kayak last year after realizing getting his traditional kayak off and on his truck wasn’t really great for his body anymore. He bought a fishing kayak from Sea Eagle, and he loves it. He does use it for fishing, but he mostly uses it to paddle around lakes and on some rivers. I’ve tried it out (as a non-experienced kayaker) and found it really easy to use. (Note: he had a Folboat for a while and never really liked it.)
posted by heurtebise at 6:34 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

Re set up time, don't forget pack up time afterwards. And if you're taking this to group activity, you should allow extra time as folks stop to chat during set up. But pack up is likely on you so plan your arrival time accordingly for that after kayak event.
posted by beaning at 6:52 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]

An inflatable kayak will move much more slowly through the water than a folding kayak, and more slowly than just about anything else on the water. But at the same time, an inflatable kayak will probably be more stable than a folding kayak.

Although a beginner might be more likely to flip a folding kayak than an inflatable, it's easy to learn to eskimo roll a kayak back upright, generally speaking. The exception is inflatables. Inflatable kayaks are almost impossible to eskimo roll, for reasons including the fact that they're not enclosed. What the idea of enclosure means is, most non-inflatable kayaks, including most folding kayaks, will accept a large oval flap of neoprene called a skirt, which a kayaker wears to close off the big hole kayakers climb into to get in a normal kayak. With a skirt on, it's easy to roll a kayak; without one it's very diffficult, and in an inflatable there's no way to fit a skirt on because the boat's not enclosed.

So, inflatables are horrendously slow but they are less likely to flip; if you do flip, however, there's no way to roll back up, so you're going to go for a swim, and all the junk in your boat will fall into the river, too. A folding kayak would be a lot faster and a lot more maneuverable, and it could potentially hold hundreds of pounds of gear safe and dry inside the boat if you want to go on longer trips, and you can bring yourself upright if you flip over, but unless you spend a few days learning an eskimo roll you'll end up swimming anyways if you flip a regular kayak, skirt or not.

That said, tons of kayakers (the ones who don't spend time on whitewater) don't know how to eskimo roll, and they go all over the place in folding kayaks, hardshell kayaks and of course inflatables, with no problems.

It's fun to paddle inflatables and regular kayaks (folding or not). But if you want to get a boat for exercise, or to learn a skill, or to move efficiently through the water, then the folding kayak seems to me like the obvious choice, especially if it has a cockpit that takes a skirt. If you don't plan to use it much, and you don't mind taking your time getting places, and you want to just relax on the water, the inflatable would make a great choice.
posted by cthlsgnd at 7:44 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

We purchased an inflatable two person Sea Eagle two years ago and it works nice on a lake or clam river, that the only place we have used it. It is heavy. Some you may think about is how often will you use it. If only a couple times a year, then it might be cheaper and less hassle if you rent.
posted by tman99 at 8:37 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]

Ah! I bought an Oru Bay ST around this time last year so I could kayak to work. It is one of the best purchases I've ever made. (Note too that I had pretty limited kayaking expertise before buying the Oru.)

The tl;dr is that it's as seaworthy as any other kayak, but it weighs less than 20lbs and folds up into a box you can wear as a backpack. It usually lives in the trunk of my car, but it winters comfortably in one corner of my 550 sq ft apartment. I've used it at put-ins across NYC and lugged it on at least a dozen flights, everywhere from Florida to southern California to Hawaii. You can get it to any urban put-in you can find. You can assemble and dissemble it in five minutes, with some practice.

My strongest recommendation is that you join the Oru owners group on Facebook. These folks represent a wide range of geographic regions, urbanicity, age and kayaking expertise, and they are very friendly and will answer all of your questions. Plenty of them lug their Oru on public transit.

But you should definitely buy one. My only regret is that I waited two years after posting my original Ask before making my purchase.
posted by thejoshu at 12:23 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]

So, inflatables are horrendously slow but they are less likely to flip; if you do flip, however, there's no way to roll back up, so you're going to go for a swim, and all the junk in your boat will fall into the river, too.

You don't need to roll an inflatable as they won't hold you underwater and are easy to get back into. Rolling is for safety so you don't get trapped upside down and drown or have to climb out and can't get back in to a tippy boat and drown. Neither of those applies to an inflatable. And if you keep your stuff in dry bags and clip it in, it will not get wet or fall in the river. Source: have done numerous whitewater and camping trips out of an inflatable kayak. They do SUCK in windy conditions though, absolutely horrendous.

Also i told you the wrong Advanced elements design. Get one of the ones with a partial frame like the Sport, if the size and weight works, it'll be much easier to paddle and more durable while still quick to set up.
posted by fshgrl at 4:53 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all for the very useful answers. I marked a best for the one I'm most likely to act on, but all are thoughtful and appreciated. (I'm struggling to suppress my urge to build a home-made version. . . 'cause life is short and becoming good at making kayaks isn't really a goal. But, it sure sounds like fun.)

Looking forward to the day when I can put this to use.
posted by eotvos at 9:51 AM on April 23

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