What’s the Difference Between Self Bailing Kayak vs. Bucket Boat?

Last Updated on April 25, 2021 by KayakPro

If you’re looking to buy your first kayak and unsure about whether to get a self-bailing kayak or a bucket boat, you’re in the right place. I remember the struggle of having to figure out which kayak was best suited for my camping trips. Personally, I wish I read an article like this that told me everything I needed to know.

There are major differences between each kayak and if you don’t know them, it could cost you hundreds of dollars and be quite dangerous when paddling in rough water conditions. Stay tuned, by the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of each and will know which boat is the right one for you.

What is a Self Bailing Kayak?

Self Bailing Kayak

Self Bailing Kayaks are built with scupper holes that are well positioned on the floor to allow water inside of the kayak to be drained out. The name “self-bailing” means that when the water splashes into the raft and it automatically drains out of the Kayak instead of having to manually bail out water.

Typically these kayaks are sit-on-top kayaks instead of a sit-inside kayak. A sit-on-top kayak is something like an upgraded surfboard and canoe all rolled up into one.

These kayaks have a sealed hull and molded seats for straightforward entry and exit. A sit-on-top kayak has an open cockpit which gives paddlers more room to work with and much more difficult to sink due to its overall shape.



Prevent Sinking

Since water is drained out continuously, there’s no need to worry about your kayak sinking. Say you are paddling in heavy rain conditions. You can still continue your trip since the holes on the floor will simply drain out.

Saves you the hassle

Personally, I wouldn’t want to bring a bucket or a small container to drain the water out after every ride. The purpose of the self-bailing kayak is to keep you safe from an excess of water coming into your kayak and prevent leakage.

Keep your boat stable

When kayaking, too much water in your raft will make it difficult for you to steer and maneuver in. This gets extremely dangerous when trying to navigate around sharp rocks, sweepers, banks, or large waves.

Stay dry

When you sit inside this kayak, you won’t have water sloshing around inside making your feet cold. You wouldn’t want your fishing gear or change of clothes to get wet!




For a self-bailing kayak, you can expect to pay anywhere between $600 to $1000. Just for perspective, inflatable kayaks cost on average $70 and fishing kayaks about $300.

Better Used for High Speeds

Naturally, the downstream trajectory of rivers tends to be conducive to these Kayaks. Drainage holes aren’t necessary when paddling in slow waters. When paddling in Class III waters and above, you’ll need to use this kayak to better navigate.

Although if you do paddle in calmer water, rather than having water coming up through the scupper holes, we recommend getting scupper plugs to cover them up.

What is a Bucket Boat?

Bucket Boat

A bucket boat is a raft where the floor is flat and sealed to the outer tubes. There is no way to bail out water unless you manually do so with a bucket, pump, or container.

However, the outer shape of the boat provides a higher clearance than other bailing kayaks do. This negates water from easily entering when you sit inside unless it splashes over the boat.



The bucket boats are much lighter. This makes it easy for you to carry them, especially on camping or hiking trips.

Dryer in Class I or Class II White waters

Since water levels are lower, this reduces the chance of your kayak overflowing. The silky finish of the bucket boats allows you to slide over rocks, while self bailing kayaks have a rigid floor causing you to sometimes get stuck on rocks.


Bucket boats typically cost $170 to $700 which is much cheaper than other types of kayaks,

Easier Set-Up

Since there are less inflatable chambers, it’s much easier to inflate and deflate the bucket boat. These bucket boats are very comfortable for paddling and can be deflated, rolled up, and carried in a backpack.



Not Ideal for Class III Waters

A bucket boat isn’t built to withstand the rigors of Class III rapids or above. Class III rapids are defined as having numerous and high irregular waves. Also, the passages are narrow and require expert skill to navigate. If water flows inside, the boat will be too heavy to properly navigate through these waters.

A lot of Effort

It takes quite a lot of effort to manually bail out water from your bucket boat. If you get caught in rain during your time rafting, that would be a big hassle to deal with. Although it doesn’t happen often, tipping over will cause your cockpit to be flooded. That’s when a self-bailing kayak would come in handy.

Things to Consider


Where will you be kayaking (type of water)

When deciding which boat to purchase, you want to think about where you’ll be kayaking in. For recreational activities such as riding through a pond or small lake, there’s not much use for self bailing kayaks. You won’t need the fancy interior bailing system when the water won’t flow in anyway. Of course, remember to keep a bucket or container around in case you need to bail out water in the middle of your trip. An overflow of water in your kayak can make it difficult to maneuver or even worse, start sinking!

You never want to be in a position where you sit inside of a kayak and you tip over because the waters are too rough. Bucket Boats aren’t the most narrow rafts which increase the odds of tipping over if you fail to maneuver them properly through any narrow passages. The harsher the paddling conditions are, the safer it is to use a self-bailing raft instead.

We recommend using a self-bailing kayak on trips where you plan on navigating through rougher waters. Although if you do paddle in calmer waters, we recommend getting scupper plugs to cover the holes up as they aren’t needed.


Self-bailing kayaks may cost on average $1000, while bucket boats will only cost you a few hundred bucks. If you have the budget, it’s worth the extra insurance that they would provide you. If you love to go down rough waters, it’s best to air on the side of caution.


Bucket boats are lighter and make it easier to carry them around on your trip. Just like other inflatable kayaks, they also have a simple and convenient set-up process.

Ease of Use

Both rafts are quite easy to use. Inflatable kayaks such as the bucket boat are more beginner-friendly and make maneuvering very simple much like hard shell kayaks. Just make sure water doesn’t flow in which will make steering your bucket boat much more difficult. Both kayaks are sit-on-top kayaks which means they are stable, easy to get in, and have no feeling of confinement when you sit inside. However, if you don’t enjoy getting wet, you may want to consider a sit-inside kayak that has large cockpits to stay in.


Paddling hard the kayak

Contrary to popular belief, neither boat is better than the other. Instead, each is suited for different water conditions. If you want to save a bit of money and don’t have a need for an internal bailing system, a bucket boat will work wonders! But having a more secure stable bailing system is helpful in case you do ever get into more aggressive waters. You don’t want to risk having your kayak flip over or spend hours taking out water. You could also buy a Kayak Bilge Pump to save you time if you have to manually bail out water. The job of a bilge pump is to pull water from the cockpit and spit it back out. Part of your decision will come down to what you sit well with. For self-bailing kayaks, there’s no harm in being extra cautious to protect yourself and ensure a safe paddling experience.


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Ryan Stoltz

Ryan Stoltz

Avid kayaker and lover of the outdoors. Having been kayaking for over 7 years, I love sharing my experiences and learnings along the way. Currently kayaking in upstate New York and always open to new adventures!

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