Guide to Inflatable Rafts

Inflatable rafts are truly versatile floating platforms for waterborne activities. Whether you need a boat for fly fishing or just a lazy float down a Montana river, inflatable rafts provide superb versatility for both anglers and general recreational floaters.

Sea Eagle 9 Inflatable Raft
A Sea Eagle 9 Inflatable Raft. A smaller, easily transportable raft deal for recreational floating and fishing in a wide variety of conditions. Read Review or get more Information at Sea Eagle.Com

Here in Montana, inflatable rafts are by far the most popular boat—whether for fly fishing or scenic floats. Their excellent versatility allows everyone, from licensed fishing guides to overnight floaters, to find uses for their rafts.

Yet, inflatable rafts also have drawbacks. For many people, an inflatable raft might not be the best choice of boat.

And that’s why I’ve created this article on Big Sky Fishing—to help anglers and floaters decide whether an inflatable raft meets their particular floating needs. Moreover, this article will also help people understand the different types of inflatable rafts available, what types of rafts work best for specific uses, and where to buy quality inflatable rafts that won’t fall apart after one season.

This article covers the following topics:

Reviews & Info About Specific Inflatable Rafts

Read reviews and get technical information about specific inflatable rafts. If you haven't already done so, I'd suggest reading the rest of the article on this page before reading the reviews.

Sea Eagle 9 Review & Info Sea Eagle 9 Inflatable Raft - I own the smaller sibling of this raft, the SE 8 (now discontinued). The Sea Eagle 9 has always been a superb raft, and the recent redesign made it even better. More Info About This Raft or View Detailed Info at Sea Eagle

The Different Types of Inflatable Rafts

Inflatable rafts can fairly simply be categorized by type - reasonably inexpensive recreational rafts (such as those made by Sea Eagle) and much more expensive guide-quality rafts (such as those made by NRS and Otter, among others).

Each of these different types of rafts have their own best specific uses and benefits. So let's over a few.

Recreational Rafts

Recreational rafts are lightweight, portable, and reasonably affordable - usually costing $500 or less after all accessories are included. These rafts are easily assembled/disassembled by one person. Once deflated, these rafts typically roll up into a small storage bag that is easily liftable by one person.

Sea Eagle 9 Inflatable Raft
A typical recreational raft, in this case the Sea Eagle 9. Recreational rafts are small, lightweight and easily transportable. Ideal for solo floaters or couples, but can be expanded in a pinch.

These recreational rafts vary in quality. Good quality rafts, like those made by Sea Eagle, can last forever with proper care. Lower quality rafts are typically hopeless when it comes to longetivity and often find the landfill within a year or two.

One reason recreational rafts are much less expensive than guide-quality rafts is due to their construction. Guide quality rafts are constructed from a very tough, almost puncture proof fabric.

By contrast, recreational rafts are constructed from various types of lighweight PVC. Depending on the PVC type, the PVC thickness and other construction methods used, recreational boats are easier to puncutre. My well constructed Sea Eagle raft, despite being 15+ years old, has yet to develop a single puncutre. But many of my friends boats (not made by Sea Eagle and often bought at Wal-mart), develop leaks nearly ever time the boat is used.

Recreational rafts, since they are made from a lightweight PVC, also aren't meant for use in cold (sub-freezing) weather. Below freezing, the PVC becomes brittle. While the boat can be safely stored in freezing weather, it should never be inflated since that puts stress on a brittle fabric.

Some recreational rafts are self-bailing, such as the Sea Eagle 9. Most recreational rafts, however, aren't self bailing. If water gets into the boat due to hitting a wave wrong or just through paddling over the course of a day, the paddler needs to bail out the water manually. Fortunately, since these boats are so light, "bailing out the water" is as simple as pulling to shore and then flipp;ing the boat over.

Guide Quality Inflatable Rafts

Unlike recreational rafts, guide-quality rafts are almost always made from high quality materials and well constructed. While differences in construction methods, inflation/deflation and how accessories are mounted vary among the different brands - in terms of quality and durability - virtually all guide-quality rafts will last a liftetime with proper care.

A "guide quality" inflatable raft, in this case the NRS Otter Self-Bailing raft. These rafts are ideal for rough water and other rugged uses. More Info about NRS Rafts at NRS.Com.

The top manufacturers of quide quality rafts are NRS and Aire, but other quality raft manufacturers do exist.

Guide quality rafts are made from a very tough PVC fabric that is inflated to a very high air pressure. Where-as recreational rafts are inflated to low PSI's and have a lot of flexibility, guide quality rafts are basically rigid (you can't press your thumb into the side of the raft) due to their high PSI.

Most guide quality rafts are also self-bailing. This means that when water enters the raft (due to paddling or hitting a wave), the water naturally flows out of the raft. In short, the paddler doesn't need to bail out water - the boat takes care of that itself.

Guide quality rafts are quite expensive, typically starting at about $1000 for the smallest, least expensive models. The price can shoot-up drastically for larger rafts. Moreover, most people will want to buy various accessories for their rafts (such as a rowing frame, which is almost a mandatory purchase). Other accessories usually bought with a guide-quality raft are high-quality rowing paddles and more comfortable seats.

River v Lake Floating

Like every inflatable boat, inflatable rafts have their ideal uses. Conversely, some water activities are "less than pleasant" when using an inflatable raft. So let's go over a few ideal/not so ideal uses.

River Floating - An inflatable raft is ideal for floating rivers. A quality, inepensive raft like the Sea Eagle 9 can handle Class III whitewater. A much more expensive guide-quality raft, such as those made by NRS, can safely zip through Class V whitewater.

Lake Floating - Plan to fish on lakes? If you do, and want to buy a raft instead of a dedicated fishing boat or an inflatable kayak, make sure that whatever raft you buy has a motormount.

You see, inflatable rafts are superb for rivers. But on lakes, where paddling is required, rafts are - quite simply - a real, real pain to row. You can do so, and I've rowed my small raft across many small lakes, but it isn't much fun. Compared to an inflatable kayak, inflatable rafts are terrible for paddling.

As such, if you plan to fish or float on lakes, you'll want to use a motor. And to use a motor, your raft needs be compatible with a motormount attachment. Sea Eagle rafts have this accessory, as do many quality rafts made by NRS and Otter. But some rafts aren't compatible with a motormount, so shop with care.

Good v Bad Inflatable Rafts

I'll never forget the story of a friend who bought a camo covered inflatable raft at Walmart. He used it for hunting waterfowl on a Montana river. On his first day out the boat developed a tear in the bottom while he was on a remote waterway in Montana. The result wasn't happy. He ended up hiking a very long ways in very wet clothing in rather chilly weather - leaving the remanants of his boat behind. Needless to say, the hunting trip wasn't enjoyable!

And really, that sums things up on inflatable raft quality. The world consists of many inexpensive inflatable rafts. However, these rafts can be divided into two categories - those that are good (and thus float and will last many, many years) and those that are bad (and will be lucky to last a season).

Where can you find these cheap inflatable rafts? Simple, go to K-Mart or Walmart of some such place. You'll find plenty of rafts around $150 or so. And you know what, these work ok for the kids to play in on a pond or something.

However, never, ever take these rafts into remote areas or on longer river floats (and this includes long day trips, too). These cheap inflatable rafts are cheap for a reason - they are poor quality! And they will almost certainly fail you at a critical time.

I've travelled hundreds of miles in my Sea Eagle inflatable raft in all sorts of weather and through all sorts of water. And yet it hasn't developed a single hole or a leak. And on top of that, my raft cost only about $100 more than the junk at Wal-Mart.

So, if you are serious about floating rivers in a raft, do yourself a favor and get a good one. In the end, you'll be happy you did.

Shopping Considerations

Weather Considerations - Gonna float or fish in sub-freezing weather? If so, be sure to buy a raft designed for colder weather. Many boats, including my own Sea Eagle raft, can't be used in sub-freezing weather as the fabric becomes brittle when the temperature is below freezing. Unfortunately, boats that are fully useable in cold weather are quite expensive.

Weight & Storage Considerations - Some rafts are light and portable, such as the Sea Eagle 9. Other rafts are heavy and require a trailer or a small army of men and boys to move, such as a large NRS Raft. Other rafts fall somewhere in-between these two extremes.

Since I typically float alone or with just one other person, I chose a lightweight, portable raft that I could easily inflate/deflate and transport inside my vehicle. When not in use, the raft stores nicely inside it's storage bag in a dark corner of my garage. For my uses, the Sea Eagle raft I own meets my needs perfectly.

Guide quality rafts, on the other hand, typically aren't deflated after each use. Instead, they remain inflated all year - and are typically moved from location to location by trailer. Moreover, a single person will often have great difficulty moving the raft when it is off the water.

Moral of the story here is to make sure you know where and how you'll be moving and storing your raft before you buy one!

Size - It is tempting to buy a big raft. Better too big than too small, right? Before you do so, however, I urge you to change your thinking. While larger rafts are great for storage, they are a bear to maneuver - especially if you're paddling alone. If you plan to use your raft in whitewater, this lack of maneuverability poses a significant problem.

In short, if you plan to float alone or with just one other person, I suggest going with a smaller raft. Most rafts, including the Sea Eagle 9 raft, can "stuff" in a few extra people when needed without issues.

Similarily, if you plan to float in a large group, don't buy a raft larger than needed for that group size. Even with additional paddlers, four people in a eighteen foot raft is a recipe for a slow moving raft that is difficult to maneuver around obstacles in the river.

Where to Buy Inflatable Rafts

  • Sea Eagle - Manufacturers their own inflatable raft, the Sea Eagle 9. I have the smaller sibling of that raft, the Sea Eagle 8, and it works superbly. The Sea Eagle 9 is an excellent and versatile raft, at a very attractive price compared to larger, guide-quality rafts. I've owned my raft for 15+ years and have yet to put a puncture in it, despite floating hundreds of miles in Montana.
  • NRS - NRS is the premiere outfitter for adventures that happen "on the water." NRS has the largest selection of quality guide-quality rafts anywhere. In addition to selling the full line of NRS rafts, they also sell Aire rafts, too.
  • Inflatable Rafts at Amazon - Amazon carries a massive selection of inflatable rafts. Some are good quality...some aren't. One good quality raft they carry is the Intex Mariner. While not of the same quality as a Sea Eagle raft, this particular model from Intex is a decent raft - and might be a good way for beginner paddlers to "get their feet wet." That said, my own opinion is that it is better to spend the money on a higher quality Sea Eagle boat than to take your chances on a boat likely to last two seasons or less.