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Whether your favorite water is a riffly river, a placid lake, or a local swimming hole, a float tube—also known as a belly boat—always adds to the experience. We’re not talking about those old rubber inner tube floats that smell funny and get super-hot in the sun. Today’s float tubes are optimized for different activities, with features such as seats, abrasion-resistant coverings, tow ropes, cup holders, and storage compartments.
The best float tube for you depends on whether you want to fish, drift calmly, tackle river rapids, or just hang out in the pool. Check out our guide to the best float tube options in every category.
- Best for Fishing: Outcast Fish Cat 4-LCS Float Tube
- Best for Rivers: NRS Big River Float Tube
- Best for Lakes: FLOAT-EH Loon Pool Float for Adults
- Best For Kids: Big Summer Inflatable Pirate Boat Pool Float for Kids with Built-In Squirt Gun
- Best Budget: Intex River Run I Sport Lounge
Features To Consider As You Shop For The Best Float Tube
A float tube is the ideal vessel for exploring calm to moderately choppy waters. Casting for fish while floating down a slowly flowing stream, cruising down a river, and simply bobbing around a pond or pool are all classic float tube activities. You wouldn’t want to take them out on the open ocean or a whitewater river, of course, but float tubes are a popular choice for many more relaxing waterways.
How to choose perfect water floats? Several factors can help you narrow down your choices. One, check out the shape: The classic donut-shaped float tube is great for casual lounging and splashing in a river on your belly, while more sophisticated U-shaped designs let you sit higher in the water and are well suited to fishing. Some tubes have a mesh center for easier sitting, while others are open and require a little more effort to ride comfortably. Materials also matter: Lightweight vinyl is cheaper and fine for pools or calm waters, but you’ll want heavy-duty materials if there’s any chance your tube will scrape against rocks or trees.
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Some float tubes feature fun and useful accessories, such as handles, rings for attaching floating coolers, or linking up with other tubes, head rests, cup holders, and storage for fishing tools. And think about the size, too: Some tubes are made for one, while others can accommodate extra riders.
And keep in mind that a float tube alone isn’t always enough. Flippers come in handy for maneuvering a fishing float tube, and you might even want a paddle for steering. Make sure you have a personal flotation device (PFD) anytime you’ll be in faster-moving water.
Do you want a fishing float tube?
There’s something special about casting from a fishing float. You’ll drift along quietly, feeling the current and various eddies and counter-currents. You’re close to the fish and part of their environment, which gives you a perspective that you can never get from a boat or by wading.
Some tubes are specially designed for fishing. These tubes are usually U-shaped (or sometimes A- or V-shaped), providing a comfortable seat that rides high above the water’s surface so you have room to cast. The best ones include an easy-access spot for your gear, such as a zippered pocket or pouch. If you’re going to fly fish, consider a tube with a stripping apron for holding your fly line. Angling-specific water floats cost more than your average casual float, but the thoughtful details are worth it for serious fishing fans.
Best Fishing Float Tube: Outcast Fish Cat 4-LCS Float Tube
Shaped like a V and featuring a foam seat with a backrest, the Outcast Fish Cat 4 float tube keeps you high in the water. The stripping apron is adjustable, and two zippered cargo pockets on the arms keep gear at the ready. A tough PVC bottom protects it from scrapes and punctures, and it comes with a repair kit.
Do you want a durable river tube?
If your tastes run more toward thrill-seeking than mellow floating, river tubing is for you. A classic summer activity on slow- to moderately flowing waterways, river tubing involves starting your float at one access point and letting the water whisk you downstream to a takeout point. You walk or shuttle back to the put-in and repeat all day. Depending on the river and the season, river tubing can be a fairly laid-back experience, too, involving towing a floating cooler of drinks or tying up with friends to form a party barge. Swifter waters make for an adrenaline-filled outing (and more risk: Wear a PFD).
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Because you’ll be dealing with the unpredictability of moving water, river tubes should be sturdy, with durable materials that can withstand running into rocks and logs and rubbing against gravel river bottoms. Gripping handles also come in handy when the water gets choppy. Look for a tube with a mesh bottom so you can sit on top of the tube, or simply lie across it.
Best River Tube: NRS Big River Float Tube
A urethane-coated polyester bottom and PVC inner bladder bolster this round water float with plenty of toughness. Padded handles give you something to cling to when the ride gets exciting, and makes it easy to carry back to the put-in). A D-ring allows you to lash other items to the tube, or tie to another tube. There’s also a mesh floor for extra security.
Do you want a lake float for calmer waters?
Bobbing along in tranquil waters, catching some rays or watching the sun set…if that’s your idea of the perfect summer day, look for a lake float. And if you also plan to log pool time this summer, floats for the lake work well in any kind of pool. Since you won’t be dealing with fast-moving water, durability isn’t as important. In fact, you might prefer a lighter tube that’s easier to inflate and deflate for packing.
A note on safety: Not all lakes are created equal. A smaller body of water ringed with cottages is one thing, but Lake Michigan is more inland sea than lake. If you’re planning to hit up the country’s bigger lakes, consider upgrading to a tougher tube, like the river model above.
Best Lake Float: FLOAT-EH Loon Pool Float for Adults
Why should kids get all the fun? This Loon float stands out at the lake or pool, but its thicker vinyl makes it stronger than your average novelty tube. It’s big enough to hold two adults, and features handles and a loop attachment.
Are you looking for floating tubes for kids?
There’s no question that the most devoted float tube enthusiasts of all belong to the under-12 set. Lake floats and pool floats can help beginning swimmers feel more confident in the water, and even the most advanced swimmers appreciate a place to relax in between splashing sessions. Some of the most creative designs are targeted toward kids, from unicorns to flamingos to elephants.
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Floating tubes will provide kids with hours of fun, but make sure to use them safely. No inner tube is a proper alternative to a PFD for kids who can’t swim well, and all require constant adult supervision. Most kid-themed tubes tend to be on the lightweight end of the spectrum, and therefore not suitable for river tubing or rougher waters.
Best Floating Tube For Kids: Big Summer Inflatable Pirate Boat Pool Float for Kids with Built-In Squirt Gun
Ahoy, matey! Kids can channel their inner pirates with this fun lake gear, which sports a Jolly Roger flag and its own squirt gun. The float is sized for kids 3 to 7,and has leg holes so kids can sit comfortably while they play.
Are you looking for a bargain?
Float tubes can be surprisingly expensive—you’ll pay hundreds of dollars for the highest-end fishing floaters out there. But if all you want to do is splash around and float a bit on calm waters, there are plenty of options on the shelves that cost $20 or less. Keep in mind that bargain models often keep costs low by using less-durable materials, so they might not last as long as a beefier tube. And that means they’re usually a no-go for wilder waterways.
The best bargain float tubes still offer some useful features, though, such as handles, backrests, and cup holders. If your favorite floating activities involve low-key lounging with a favorite beverage in hand, a cheap float tube might be just the ticket.
Best Cheap Float Tube: Intex River Run I Sport Lounge
You don’t have to sacrifice comfort in this one-person float tube. A backrest, handles, and mesh bottom make drifting for hours feel great. A pair of cup holders and a grab rope round out the features, and it weighs just 5 pounds for easy transport.
The Final Word On Choosing The Best Float Tube
The best float tube for you will add a ton of fun to your summer leisure time. When you’re shopping, consider your budget, the bodies of water you visit most often, and the activities you spend the most time doing. Once you’ve narrowed things down, also look at the durability, weight, and features. From lake floaters to river runners, there’s a float tube for every swimmer.