The History of Kayaks

Kayaking is a well-loved sport today. It is practiced by people all over the world and is featured in many competitions and tournaments. People use these vessels in all environments. From ocean to stream, people have trekked all the world’s types of waters looking for both adventure and serenity. There are many different types, so any individual can find something they’re looking for which will suit their needs. However, kayaks did not always have the convenience and variance that they have in the modern age. They have a long history, which begins thousands of years ago.

The History of Kayaks

Native Americans

Native Americans are the inventors of kayaks, specifically the Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut. Most Native Americans settled their tribes around water, especially lakes and oceans. Fish and seafood became an obvious source of protein and calories. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the first ideas behind this type of vehicle were beginning to come to fruition. Canoes had already been invented, but they were not practical for hunting due to their size and girth. The first kayaks were made for the intention of making fishing easier and more effective. They are not very similar at all to the models we see on the market today. They were typically made from animal skins stretched out over a skeleton frame. The animal skins used were typically mammals that spend a lot of time in the ocean, such as seals, because the skin would not absorb water. They also rubbed whale blubber on the outside to increase buoyancy.


When the Eskimos heard of this new invention, they began making their own versions as well. Eskimos had typically feared water, as their natural environment meant that the water was too cold to explore without manmade craft. Because of this fear, Eskimo design was slightly different than that of the Native American’s. Typical length was 15 feet or longer and nearly two feet wide. European settlers would later try to copy this design.

Types of Design

Once they had brought the Indians success with fishing, word spread quickly and different usages were thought of. They were not mass-produced in those days. They were made to conform specifically to the user or purpose. Some boats were meant for long-term travel, and had multiple paddlers. Some were meant for transporting goods and therefore had a large cockpit. There were even some that stretched as long as 60 feet in order to carry large amounts of people, food, or possessions. If a man was making has own hunting kayak, measurements were taken to ensure it would be the exact right fit. They were also very personalized, with paintings or different sewn patters. The word “kayak” means “man’s boat”, and each man was very protective and proud of his individualized vessel.There were three typical designs, and many of the designs today are heavily based upon them. The Baidarkas had sharp angles in the hull and a round body. They were specific to the tribes in the Aleutian Islands. The types found in West Greenland didn’t have the sharp angles of the Baidarkas, but instead had a slimmer body and raised edges at the bow and stern. The East Greenland style was very similar to the West Greenland design, but this was more individualized to the user. The raised edge at the back of the boat was more angled into the water, which allowed for a wider turning radius.

The Introduction of Kayaks in Europe

European captains were still sailing around the world in the mid-1800s, which is the first time that kayaks were introduced to their society. They had probably tried to copy the designs they saw from the Native Americans and Eskimos, but the first real wave of success came in the 19th century. Those who were still on missions to explore began to use kayaks as a means of transportation. If a large ship was too big to bring close to land, the much smaller vessels would be deployed so sailors could survey the land. Those who were commissioned to explore the Poles preferred kayaks over canoes or other boats for their practicality.

The Beginnings of Recreation

As the world moved into the 20th century, Europeans found other uses for the vehicle. The Germans and French in particular began to use kayaking beyond its practical means of hunting, and starting racing and using the vehicles for recreation. This quickly gained in population, and in 1936, the Olympics included kayaking as an official competitive sport. It has only gained in popularity since then.


Modern kayaks have many designs specific to its intended use. Any individual can find one best suited to his or her needs. Even inflatable kayaks, such as the SeaEagle SE370 have made waves in the market. The next time you’re out on the water, consider the 4,000 year old history of this activity.