A Brief History Of Kayaking – From Early Kayaks To Modern Designs & Beyond

I have been a part of the paddling community for years – and even I am surprised by the history behind kayaking. Seriously, the evolution of kayaks over millennia – yes, MILLENNIA – is insane. Have you ever looked at your ‘yak and wondered:  How old are kayaks, really? Who ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

I have been a part of the paddling community for years – and even I am surprised by the history behind kayaking. Seriously, the evolution of kayaks over millennia – yes, MILLENNIA – is insane.

Have you ever looked at your ‘yak and wondered: 

How old are kayaks, really? Who invented them? Why is a kayak called a kayak? And when did kayaking become popular and make its way into the Olympics? 

Now that you think about it, you probably have a few questions about your kayak’s history, huh? Great – because I intend to answer each and every one in this guide. 

So, if you’d like to learn about the history of kayaking, stick around. I can guarantee some of this info will blow your mind! 

Kayaking History – Key Takeaways 

  • Who invented the kayak? The kayak was invented by the Inuit and Aleut tribes roughly 5000 years ago and was primarily used for hunting on coastal waters, rivers, and inland lakes of the Arctic region.
  • How was the first kayak made? The first kayaks were typically made from driftwood or whalebone used as a frame, with animal skins stretched across it and whale fat used as a waterproof coating.
  • When was the modern-day kayak invented? Modern ‘yaks were invented in the 1900s – with the biggest breakthrough being the invention of the Sit-On-Top kayak in the 1970s and the introduction of rotomolded polyethylene in the 1980s.
  • When did kayaking become popular? Kayaks came to Europe in the mid-1800s, with French and German men embracing kayaking as a recreational activity.
  • When were kayaks first used for sport? John MacGregor organized a regatta in 1873, introducing kayaking as a competitive sport. However, kayaks made their appearance at the Olympic Games much later, in Berlin, in 1936.

Origins Of Kayaking: Who Invented The Kayak? 

An Inuit kayaker clad in waterproof seal skin
Image of David Stanley  (CC BY 2.0)

The Inuit and Aleut tribes, who, at the time, inhabited Arctic North America, were the first to build and use vessels we know as kayaks – roughly 5000 years ago. These boats were mainly used for hunting in coastal waters, inland lakes, and rivers of the Arctic region. 

The oldest known example of a kayak was displayed in the North American department of the Ethnological Museum in Munich. Here’s one that is part of the Vatican Museums’ collection of Indigenous artifacts: 

Rare Western Arctic kayak is out of the Vatican’s vaults after decades in storage

And, while we’re on the subject: 

Where did the word “kayak” originate

In Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit tribes, the word kayak – or, more precisely, “qajak” – roughly translated to “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat.” However, the first actual use of the word “kayak” in the English language came much later, in 1757. It was probably introduced by Danish (or Dutch) whalers who may have interacted with Inuit Eskimos during their journeys. 

The meaning of the word “qajak” says a lot about the role these boats had in ancient times. The kayak was made with one goal in mind – and that was basic survival. 

These vessels have been around for thousands of years, and yet, the English word “kayak” is only a few centuries old. 

How is that possible? 

Well, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that kayaks made their way to European countries, as a stable of explorers to the north and south poles, and turned into more than a means of hunting from the water. That’s a whole different story, though – and I’ll get to it later. 

Early Kayaks: How Did Indigenous People Make Kayaks? 

Inuit Kayak frame
Image by Thomas Quine  (CC BY 2.0)

Based on the way these “ancient” kayaks were constructed, they could basically be split into two distinct groups: 

In the first group, you have vessels made of light driftwood. The second group includes kayaks constructed by stretching animal skins – most commonly seal or walrus skin – over a frame made of whalebone, with whale fat used as a waterproof coating.  

The choice of materials used by kayak builders was primarily a matter of what was available in the area, of course. The Arctic region was, for the most part, treeless – which compelled these tribes to make kayaks out of whatever materials they could find. 

There was a difference in their size and intended use, as well:

In addition to these one-person kayaks that were primarily used for hunting – and looked quite a bit like the kayaks we have today – there was a second kind of kayak, known as “umiaqs.” 

These were much bigger and designed to accommodate an entire family with their possessions. There’s even evidence of umiaqs that were up to 60 feet (18.3 meters) long – which is massive by today’s standards of kayak length. Often seal bladders were used, to help improve buoyancy and stability, to reduce the risk of these massive craft from tipping over or capsizing in rough conditions. 

Interestingly enough, umiaqs are still used today – although their construction had changed quite a bit, especially in the 1920s, when driftwood was replaced by oak, hickory, cedar, or Douglas fir bent in the desired shape by heating it up with boiling water. 

I get it; that’s a lot to take in at once. 

So, to sum up, the most notable variations in the design of early kayaks were: 

  • The Aleutian kayak – named after the Aleut (or Unangan) people of the Aleutian Islands – was made of soft skin stretched over a rigid frame. The early Russian settlers named it the “baidarka,” meaning “small boat.”
  • The umiak was made from a driftwood or whalebone frame, with walrus or bearded seal skin stretched across it. It was significantly bigger, measuring 30 feet in length and up to 7 feet in width, and was meant to accommodate up to 15 people. 
  • The Ulutax was relatively similar to the baidarka; the main difference was that it featured two separate cockpits. 

Modern Kayaks: How Have They Evolved?

Photo showing a line of different kayak designs

And finally, only a few millennia later… modern kayaks were born. It might have taken us a while – but at least we got there eventually, am I right? 

All jokes aside, the evolution of kayaks that occurred during that time was insane. 

Nowadays, kayaks are constructed using a wide range of materials, most commonly rotomolded PE, thermoplastic, and composite materials (fiberglass and Carbon fiber, for example). 

That wasn’t always the case, though. 

In fact, fiberglass kayaks weren’t introduced until the 1950s. They remained the golden standard of manufacturing ‘yaks until plastic – or, more specifically, polyethylene – took over in the 1980s

However, the most significant moment was, hands down, the invention of the sit-on-top kayak a decade earlier:

This ground-breaking moment can be attributed to Tim Niemier – a teenager who created a SOT kayak in the 1970s by modifying a surfboard. He then founded Ocean Kayak, one of the biggest kayak brands today – and the rest is history. 

To say that, these days, kayaks come in a variety of “flavors” would be an understatement. Here are the different types of kayaks you’ll see today: 

  • Touring and sea kayaks – specialized boats with long, sleek hulls designed for navigating open waters and long-distance travel 
  • Whitewater kayaks designed for tackling whitewater rapids 
  • Surf kayaks, designed for catching waves and playing in the ocean surf  
  • Racing kayaks, also known as performance kayaks, designed for speed and efficiency 
  • Inflatable kayaks, designed to be lightweight and portable 
  • Folding kayaks designed to bridge the gap between inflatables and hard-shells 

That’s quite a variety, isn’t it? 

Then again, we have had thousands of years of collective knowledge to get to that point; I would be disappointed if we somehow failed to introduce these innovations. 

Modern Vs. Ancient Kayaks: A Comparison

Signs showing old vs new

Have you ever stopped to consider how much the modern kayak has evolved and how it differs from its “ancient” origins? 

The most obvious differences can be seen in the design and materials used – the manufacturing process has come a long way in that regard. There’s a lot more to the modern vs. ancient kayak comparison, though; intended use, size, and propulsion methods have changed, as well. 

Design 

When you think of a “traditional” kayak, a sit-inside ‘yak is probably what comes to mind. There’s a reason for that: 

Design-wise, sit-in (SIK) kayaks are direct descendants of the traditional boats made by the Inuit people – which featured a closed cockpit that protected the hunter from the freezing cold waters. 

That’s why the introduction of sit-on-top kayaks in the 1970s marks one of the most significant moments in the evolution of the kayak’s design. Removing the closed cockpit of traditional sit-in kayaks and creating an open deck revolutionized kayaking – marking a new era of SOT kayaks

Materials 

Due to the limited resources available, traditional kayaks were not made of durable, long-lasting materials. While the frame could last up to 40 years – with good care, of course – the animal skin used to cover the boat had to be replaced every two to three years. 

I’m sure you don’t need me to point out the obvious – but: 

Kayaks have come a long way from the traditional, handmade boats constructed from driftwood, whale bones, and stretched seal or walrus skin. 

Modern kayaks are made of rotomolded polyethylene, thermoform ABS, or composite materials, such as fiberglass and Carbon fiber – with PVC being the common material for making inflatable kayaks

Imagine the face of someone who invented kayaks thousands of years ago if you told them we’d have inflatable boats one day! 

Dimensions 

Another major difference between ancient and modern kayaks is their size

Ancient kayaks also came in a variety of lengths, just like today’s kayaks. However, compared to today’s boats that measure 22 feet at most – and I’m talking about two-person touring kayaks – it wasn’t uncommon for ancient kayaks to measure 60 feet or more in length. 

These massive kayaks were designed to accommodate an entire family – up to 15 people, to be exact. There were smaller, more agile kayaks, as well, but those were primarily used for hunting and sneaking up on animals from the water – which brings me to my next point… 

Intended Use 

Back when kayaks were first invented, the purpose of a boat like that was to carry hunters – and, generally speaking, make traveling to seasonal hunting grounds possible. 

Of course, things look a lot different today: 

During the mid-1800s, as kayaking gained traction throughout Europe, there was a huge shift in perception. Kayaks were no longer associated solely with hunting; they’ve branched out into the domain of recreation and leisure activities – eventually evolving into a competitive sport. 

When it comes to intended uses, we now have specialized boats designed for specific purposes and environments – running whitewater rapids, fishing, and ocean kayaking, to name a few – and performance-oriented, Olympic-grade kayaks. 

Propulsion Method

One factor that may get overlooked when comparing modern and ancient ‘yaks is the propulsion method. That’s probably because a paddle is still the primary means of propulsion – so not much has changed in that department since ancient times.

However, in recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of pedal-drive systems – Hobie introduced the first pedal-drive kayak in 1997 – and electric trolling motors

Sure, not everyone has switched to one of these “alternative” propulsion methods; I, for one, still prefer the good, old paddle. The introduction of new methods of propulsion still counts as one of the most notable differences between traditional and modern kayaks, though. 

Kayaking Today: A Look At Its Growing Popularity

Friends kayaking on river in bright kayaks

According to the most recent reports, nearly 18.6 million Americans went kayaking at least once in 2021. Even more so, there was a steady 4% increase in participation in the 6-to-17 age range over the past six years. 

That would make kayaking the fifth most popular outdoor activity – which, you must admit, is pretty impressive. And, in case you were wondering, hiking, camping, fishing, and biking are the activities that ended up ranking higher on the list. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic back in 2019 seemed to have tipped the scales in favor of kayaking even further. As much as 15% of people who started a new activity opted to try kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding. 

Why is kayaking so popular, though? 

I’d say that the popularity of kayaking is more than justified – especially if you consider the many benefits it offers: 

  • It’s an inclusive sport, suitable for people of all ages and sizes 
  • It is easy enough for people of all ages to learn 
  • It’s a low-impact, full-body workout that targets all major muscle groups 
  • It’s a fantastic way to spend time outdoors and immerse yourself in nature 
  • It’s relatively cheap to get into it 
  • There are many variations of the sport, including whitewater, touring, and fishing 
  • It’s a family-friendly activity 

Kayaking As A Sport: A Brief Overview

Kayaking at a sport Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Kayaks made their first appearance in Europe in the mid-1800s. And while it was still viewed as a pastime reserved exclusively for men, France and Germany immediately embraced kayaking as a recreational activity. 

In that sense, the 19th century marked a monumental shift in the way kayaks were perceived: 

They went from boats made for hunting and survival to boats used for leisure and recreation. 

However, the popularity of kayaks didn’t take off until 1866, when John MacGregor founded the Royal Canoe Club in London – which is still active today. 

John MacGregor (nicknamed “Rob Roy) was a British sportsman who used his canoe to explore western Europe’s rivers and lakes in 1865. He even wrote about these adventures in a book – “A Thousand Miles In The Rob Roy Canoe.” 

Okay, but how did kayaking become a sport? 

A few years later – more precisely, in 1873 – MacGregor introduced kayaking as a competitive sport by organizing the Royal Canoe Club’s first regatta. The Club’s annual Paddling Challenge Cup and Sailing Challenge Cup were established soon after, in 1874 and 1875, respectively; the latter is still held in the UK. 

The next big milestone in the history of kayaking as a sport came about in 1924 when the first international governing body for canoe and kayak sports – the International Canoe Federation, now known as ICF – was formed. 

The ICF was responsible for the development of the sport – shaping it into what we now know as modern kayaking – and has helped kayaking make its first debut as an Olympic discipline. 

Fast forward to today, and there’s a long list of kayaking competitions and events around the globe – the most notable ones being: 

The History Of Whitewater Kayaking 

The story of whitewater kayaking followed a slightly different timeline: 

Adolf Anderle’s trip down the Salzachöfen Gorge in the Austrian Alps in 1931 is regarded as the moment whitewater kayaking was born. Not too long after, in 1938, the so-called “French Trio” – Genevieve and Bernard de Colmont and Antoine de Seynes – set out to become the first people to kayak down the Green and Colorado rivers, bringing whitewater kayaking to America. 

Genevieve and Bernard de Colmont and Antoine de Seynes 2021 Induction and Acceptance

Genevieve, who was only 21 years old at the time, became known as the first woman to paddle her own kayak on these rivers. 

Roughly a decade later, the first annual Royal Gorge Boat Race – one of the oldest whitewater races to date – was held in Salida, Colorado, in 1949.

During the 1950s, a few different clubs began to form across North America that allowed kayakers to practice and compete – this led in 1954 to the formation of the American White Water Affiliation (AWWA), now called American Whitewater, which is the primary governing body of whitewater kayaking in the United States. 

American Whitewater was instrumental in the advancement of whitewater racing and spearheaded its regulated growth. Moreover, they generated a system -the International Scale of River Difficulty- to precisely differentiate rapids based on their difficulty level. This allowed for an easier evaluation process when it comes to classifying different river runs around the world.

American Whitewater was instrumental in the advancement of whitewater racing and spearheaded its regulated growth. Moreover, they formulated revolutionary standards such as the International Scale of River Difficulty – a system to carefully and precisely categorize rapids into classes according to their degree of difficulty.

The sport had a major growth spurt during the 1970s, with new materials like fiberglass and Kevlar being used to construct kayaks that were more durable and lightweight than ever before. At this same time, different classes of racing began to take shape. 

Fun fact

The International Whitewater Hall of Fame was established in 1993, recognizing the extraordinary accomplishments of whitewater paddlers from around the world.

Today, whitewater kayaking has evolved into a sport with its own distinct style and technique, with competitions held around the world every year. It has become one of the most popular extreme sports out there, attracting enthusiasts from all over the globe.

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, whitewater kayaking is a thrilling experience that will take your breath away – both literally and figuratively!

Here’s a list of the most notable whitewater kayaking festivals and competitions just to show you how much this sport has grown over the past few decades: 

Kayaking & The Olympics 

The history of kayaking as an official Olympic sport spans nearly a century, with the two main disciplines today being Sprint and Slalom

  • Sprint, where the competitors are assigned lanes and race in flatwater in single, double, or four-person kayaks 
  • Slalom, where the competitors navigate a series of hanging gates in whitewater rapids – with the goal being to do it in the fastest time possible 
Quick Guide to Olympic Canoe

It wasn’t until 1936 that kayaking made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in Berlin as part of Flatwater Racing. Slalom racing wasn’t introduced until much later – at the Olympics held in Munich in 1972

The Future Of Kayaking

Man sea kayaking with mountain backdrop

It seems that the time of the biggest breakthroughs and innovations is behind us – but there’s no reason to believe that these changes and advancements won’t continue in the future. 

Of course, it’s never easy to say – at least not with absolute certainty – what the future holds. But one key factor that can contribute to and “steer” the future of kayaking in the right direction is the sport’s growing popularity

As shown in the Outdoor Participation Trends Report, participation in recreational kayaking was up by 4.3% in 2020. As more and more people get involved in paddling sports, and the sales go up, the industry can grow and expand – supported by profits. 

Demand creates supply – and competition drives innovation. 

That’s true for virtually every industry. 

That means we can look forward to more innovations and – hopefully – even better kayaks in the future. We’re already seeing improvements in the manufacturing process and design, as well as crossovers between different paddling sports, such as SUP kayak hybrids. 

And as manufacturers keep pushing the limits of existing kayak materials and new materials get introduced, we can also expect ‘yaks to become lighter, more durable, safer, perform better, and – hopefully – become more affordable, too. 

So, the history of kayaking definitely doesn’t end here. 

Frequently Asked Questions On Kayak History

Why is a kayak called a kayak?

The word “kayak” first appeared in the English language in 1757. It likely came from the Danish word “kajak,” derived from the language of the Inuit tribes – where the word “qajaq” translated to a “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat.”


What is the purpose of the kayak? 

This small, human-powered vessel was initially created for hunting and sneaking up on animals from the water. Today, however, the purpose of the kayak is just as varied as the actual range of designs they come in, from racing and long-distance paddling to angling and tackling whitewater rapids – and everything in between.


What do you call a person who kayaks?

A person who kayaks is called – get this – a kayaker. That said, most kayakers don’t mind being referred to as “paddlers.” The only term you should avoid using is “canoeists” – unless you want a lecture on the difference between kayaks and canoes, that is.


What is a group of kayakers called? 

There’s no standard collective noun that can be used for a group of kayakers. Depending on the context, many different nouns may serve as collective nouns. Ask kayakers for their take on this, and you’re in for a laugh. It’s called a “wobble of kayakers” if the group consists of beginners – or a “swell of kayakers” if they’re advanced paddlers. “Flotilla” and “YakPack” are hilarious, too. But you can always go with something simple, like “fleet.”


History Of Kayaking: Summary 

The history of kayaking began thousands of years ago, with the hunting boats made by the Inuit and Aleut tribes out of driftwood, whalebone, and stretched animal skin. A few millennia went by, and kayaking is now an official Olympic discipline – and an incredibly popular outdoor activity, as well.

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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