Kayak History | How Kayaking Has Evolved Over The Years

Fact Checked By James A Rockey | Post Updated On: February 11, 2020
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“Man’s boat” or “hunter ship” is what the word kayak means. The meaning makes sense as kayaks were first developed in northern regions of the world for the purpose of hunting and traveling around. Originally, kayaks were a one-person boat. 

Somewhere in time, kayaks might have been specifically built by and for the hunter. His wife might have been the main craftsman, who sewed the skins to build the boat. 

The earliest kayaks show that they were accustomed to the hunter’s size for maximum maneuverability. These kayaks were lightweight and they were primarily used in rivers, lakes, and seas. 

Fast forward to 2018, the kayak is extremely popular worldwide for both sport and recreation. Surprisingly, kayaks are now hardly used for hunting, as it was in the early days. A kayak user relies on a paddle with two blades to operate a kayak.

Two blades are located on each end of the paddle, which is useful for steering and balance. 

Many people sometimes confuse a kayak with a canoe. The canoe is a different type of watercraft. However, they do look similar in some aspects. Kayaks and canoes behave in similar ways, but they have differences too. Their design is one main difference one has to note.

Canoe vs Kayak

Typically, a kayak requires the operator to sit in the craft with legs relaxed in front, whereas a canoe requires a user to sit on a raised seat or sometimes kneeling. Some kayaks really look strikingly similar to canoes, such as the “sit-on-top” variety. 

The paddle types are another difference you have to note between the kayak and the canoe. The kayak comes with a blade on each end of the single paddle, whereas the canoe has a blade only one end of the paddle. 

This creates a different style of paddling.


The Inuit people were the first ones to develop kayaks. The indigenous peoples of the Arctic region showed the signs of first development of kayaks. These residents of the Arctic relied on these boats for fishing and hunting along the coast of the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean, as well as the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.

Kayaks have 4000 years of legacy to boast. Old kayaks are housed in museums. You can be able to see some of these old boats in the Museum of Ethnology in Munich Germany. The kayak was the primary transport for most Inuit peoples, from the Aleutian Islands, all the way to Greenland. 

These people relied on kayaks for hunting a variety of prey, such as seals, whales, bears, and caribou.


Traditional kayaks, circa 1880, illustrate the way Yupik and Inupiak hunters built kayaks off the coast of Alaska in the 19th century.

There were 3 main types of traditional kayaks experts note.

The Baidarka or Aleutian kayak utilized an older architecture and sometimes a double or triple cockpit, with a rounded shape. The shape, which was intended for hunting and transporting passengers or goods. These kayaks needed to be extremely long-lasting to undergo the notoriously tough Alaskan seas.

You can look for YouTube videos to find out what navigating those waters in a kayak is like. Such a voyage is certainly for experts! Beginners aren’t encouraged to try out this. The Qajaq people of West Greenland relied on a more angular design and fewer chines (angles). This is combined with beginner gunwales at the bow and stern.

The Qajaq natives of East Greenland, relied on a kayak which to some extent looked like the ones in West Greenland, but often included more strictly with the paddler, and entailed a steeper angle between the gunwale and stern, which offered better handling and was exceptional for performing rolls.

Arctic indigenous people also utilized the Umiak, a huge wooden (or whalebone) canoe covered with sealskin, for the carrying of goods, women/children, and whaling. Simple paddles allowed several paddlers to use this transport system.

The structure of these customary Greenlandic kayaks was very realistic, and the people used what was in their setting to perform the job. Seal skins and sometimes skins from other maritime mammals were sewn and extended over wooden frames. The skins were cleaned, washed, and fermented in the urine. The women removed the skins, (removed the hairs), before performing the sewing. 

The seams were covered with seal fat to make sure a better deal. The wood was typically driftwood since many of their territories were virtually treeless. As they were constructed with the elements themselves, these kayaks were made to complement these same elements in order for hunters to travel into the dodgy waters and hunt large prey.

The elements of the structure were traditionally combined with wooden pegs and leather links. Native builders devised and built their boats with their experiences and traditional expertise, which was passed down verbally.

Kayak building is a labor-intensive procedure, even now. Here is what it looks very similar to make one of these kayaks today…

In the past, the creator of the kayak utilized an individual measurement system of his own body to generate a kayak of the perfect size for him.

For example, the length of the kayak was typically identical to three times the expanse of his outstretched arms. The thickness at the cockpit was equivalent to the hip thickness of the manufacturer, adding two fists (sometimes less). The typical depth was a clenched fist over a tense thumb.

The typical dimensions were measured roughly 5.2 m. long, 51-56cm. wide, 18-cm. depth. This custom measurement system had baffled early European explorers, who tried to copy the kayak because each kayak was a little special. 

Kayaking dimensions got a bit mixed according to the user, and his surroundings. They were lengthy and steady to steer the ice-free water, or they could be light, little, and useful, for when they encountered uneven ice.

As you can visualize, an encounter with ice flows will make some areas impassible, regardless of a kayak’s construction…


The talk was a water-resistant anorak with a hood and thin sleeves, en suite around the face, and firmly fitted around the manhole or (cockpit).

A waterproof apron (agivilisaq, ancestor of the modern skirt) draped around the cockpit, and around the chest of the paddler. This created a seal between the bust of the man and his vessel, which allowed the ‘Eskimo roll’, a method used to improve its early place after turning over. Few individuals could swim, and the waters were too cold for a swimmer to endure long.

The paddles could be solo or dual. They were constructed with wood, with reinforcements made of bone or ivory ends. 

The Greenland paddle was double (two blades), more extended and slimmer than the present-day European paddle, and was more maneuverable in strong winds. The customary wooden paddle of Greenland was approximately 2.10 m long.

The deck of the kayak was prepared with all the tools and weapons for hunting – knives, harpoons for hunting maritime mammals, spears for hunting birds, harpoon thruster (norsaq was also a backup tool for the Eskimo), stopgap parts (to fix skins), hover (inflated sealskin), tow straps, and a carrier strap (spherical support for the flaking leather straps between the float and harpoon head)

At the end of the 19th century, gun racks started being used (keeping the guns dry and ready to fire), as well as camouflaged shooting screens. These elements were utilized on the deck by leather straps tensed by small elements of bone or ivory.

Change Is Coming

Aboriginal people started modifying their vessels after contact with Europeans. This gradually created changes in the way they used to transport. Started around the 17th century, some Inuit began to purchase Scandinavian wood from merchants. And, with materials, they started manufacturing kayaks.

Over the centuries, kayaks began to lose variety and decoration.

The Inuit peoples started to use nails, nylon strings, and metal plates. Anthropologists mentioned that by 1968, some kayaks were made entirely of plywood.

Despite the acute skill of the hunters of this Ammassalik region, for instance, kayaking accidents were recurrent, and this contributed to one of the main causes of death for the men. By the 1900’s, the explorer Knud Rasmussen mentioned that some tribes, in contact with the whalers since the 1860s, dumped kayaking and hunting marine mammals, to focus on whaling with up to date techniques.

Around 1960, the Inuit of Greenland took a keen interest in powerboats and left behind the kayaks and umiaks. Likewise, the inactive populations chose the desertion of hunting by kayak, as it was very unsafe compared to other hunting techniques such as using nets. 

Spending time hunting finally dissuaded many young people from pursuit, and thus abandoned the skill of learning to kayak.

Kayaking Today: Modern History of Kayaks

Today many Arctic peoples almost abandoned or otherwise forgot traditional kayak culture. Since the 1960s, fathers no longer introduce their children to kayaking. It is an elective subject in their schools.

Around the 20th century, Europe and North America started using kayaks in a different way. They started adopting kayaks for recreational purposes. It took some time to be considered a recreational medium. Perhaps the art of building kayaks was no longer in practice or too difficult for the new generation. 

A boat such as the French périssoire, which was popular from 1900 to 1960, was perhaps inspired by the kayak.

From 1970 on, the first kayaks relied on molded plastic for construction; this boat began to have racked commercial success, especially in France. Although the traditional kayak was reserved for navigation at sea, modern kayaks are manufactured and built mainly for whitewater navigation.

Kayaks, with their firm short deck, allowed navigation in previously remote rivers. By 1990, the vogue for this sport attracted many young people. On calm lakes and rivers, kayaking became appealing for beginners because it was more maneuverable. 

With increased maneuverability, kayaks became lighter and cheaper than the canoe, and it allowed the solo practice.

Bottom Line

Kayaking is one of the most popular watersports in the world. Its appeal as a recreational sport is on the rise. People kayak as a way to connect with nature. Its evolution is synonymous with the development of human civilization. 

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