Photograph by Becca Skinner
Read Caption

The Oru kayak gave an above-average performance on smooth waters.

Photograph by Becca Skinner

Foldable Boats for Space-Challenged Adventurers

These collapsible craft are rugged enough to run rivers and lakes, but they fold up to fit in small apartments and cars.

In this day of tiny homes, city dwelling, and #vanlife, space is at a premium. And among the many types of adventure toys out there, boats are probably the biggest hog for storage and transportation. To tackle that problem, a number of clever engineers have been coming up with intricate designs to save on space while minimizing loss of performance.

Inflatables are still, by far, the main way to collapse a boat down. Rafts, inflatable kayaks (duckies), and even stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) have taken advantage of improvements in materials technology to become lighter and perform better once in the water. And now there are more rigid collapsible vessels to choose from, but they come at a cost.

Suitable for Smooth Seas

The most sophisticated of the latest collapsible boats are from Oru Kayaks. The company’s ambitious team of engineers has taken origami to a new level. They figured out how to cut out a single sheet of plastic material (it’s similar to, if not the same as, the dual-walled plastic bins often found at the post office) and fold it into the shape of a kayak. Once snapped together it is indeed a seaworthy (or lake- or river-worthy) vessel. And by “river” I’m talking about smooth water: These are not white-water kayaks. Nevertheless, the higher-end “plus” models, especially the Coast+, will take on some ocean surf without any problem.

As one might expect, some compromise is made in performance with folding boats, but not much. In our testing process on the Maine coast and lakes, we felt the higher-end models performed above-average for the range of kayaks on the market. They easily beat out lower-end and mid-range rigid kayak models.

Most casual paddlers probably won’t notice any differences between a folding boat and a traditional boat. Likewise, beginner paddlers will be very comfortable in these space-savvy boats.

More serious paddlers will appreciate positives like the relatively comfortable seat, how nicely it rolls, and the boat’s stability. Among the shortcomings, the cockpit is a little large for smaller paddlers, and the craft is easily pushed around by the wind.

Experienced paddlers will notice a decline in stability when really pushing the limits, but that hasn’t stopped users from circumnavigating islands in the Caribbean, or completing the longest paddle so far—787 miles from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska.

Finally, once practiced, the boat is pretty easy to set up and break down—it takes about 15 minutes. Oru kayaks come in five different models ranging from $1,175 to $2,475.

View Images

The Ally folding canoe proved very durable, but paddlers should empty these boats before portaging.

White Water Ready

Another model we tested was a collapsing Ally canoe from Bergans of Norway. The set up and break down process is a little more involved considering its many parts, so it’s not at all like the origami of the Oru kayaks. Rather, it’s more traditional in build, with ribs and skin, except the ribs and internal structure are composed of lightweight Norwegian-made 6082-T6 aluminum tubing, and the skin is made of two different types of woven fabric that is coated on both sides with a flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The upper walls are 700 g/m² and the underside is thicker at 1050 g/m² that proved very durable. Having the included rubber mallet handy makes getting the final ribs in place a little easier and is the only tool needed.

The collapsed state of the canoe is significantly larger and heavier than the Oru kayak, but then again, it’s quite a bit more robust and larger once built out—rated to carry more than 800 pounds. Like the kayak, however, the Ally canoe has the propensity to catch the wind since it’s much lighter than most rigid canoes and sits higher in the water.

For our test, we took the Ally on a four-day river trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. Flow rates were about average, which meant there were plenty of shallow spots to scrape along and rocks to bump into. Both happened a number of times and the PVC skin took it all, with only minor markings as a result. Other than when dealing with any significant wind (light breezes were not a problem), the Ally’s performance was on par with most other rigid canoes.

We exposed the Ally canoe to no more than Class III white water. But it's run bigger water and been on huge expeditions with explorers Rune Gjeldnes and Cecilie Skog, who took these boats through the Arctic Ocean (on an aborted attempt to the North Pole) and down 410 miles of the Rio Merevari in Venezuela, which included some pretty big water and lots of portaging.

The only performance issues we ran into occurred when portaging the canoe. When we started to pick up the Ally with some weight in the middle, we could feel it flex and thought it best to completely unload. We weren’t willing to break our boat partway along our expedition! But if you do end up breaking part of the boat, each of the parts is numbered and spares can be ordered from Bergans. (A repair kit is included with the boat.)

With practice, the canoe can be built in about half an hour and broken down in about 15 minutes.

Ally canoes come in five sizes. The 15-, 16.5-, and 18-foot lengths are described as “allround” canoes and are the best bet for rivers and white water. The 15.5- and 17-foot models are their “flatwater” canoes and are designed accordingly. Prices range from $1,599 to $2,099.

Are Folding Boats a Fit?

Is a collapsing boat right for your space-challenged lifestyle? The hefty price tag might make you hesitate—but consider that, in some areas of the country, the cost of renting a storage space for a rigid craft will quickly equal the foldables’ price. Another plus: The folded boats will fit in the back of a compact car, no roof rack or trailer required as with a typical kayak or canoe. And for expedition-driven types, it’s much easier to throw a foldable in the back of a small plane or helicopter instead of strapping a rigid boat to the outside of the aircraft.

Do you have a collapsible boat, or are you looking for one? Share your thoughts about them in the comments below.