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All You Need to Know About the History of Kayaking

There’s nothing better than getting to the summer season, going down to the beach, or down to the lake, or maybe even the river, and renting out a kayak to go on an adventure.

person paddling a kayak

Or maybe you even own your own kayak, so you can venture into the water for an infinity of fun whenever you feel like it!

Kayaks are truly multi-purpose. Whether it’s for travel over water, for some fun, for racing and fitness, or even for fishing or water-rescue missions, they offer a stable and sturdy form of transport that is perfect for one or two people. 

But where do kayaks come from? What is the origin and history of the kayak? Well, let’s get right into it!

When Were Kayaks Invented?

Kayaks were invented by the native people of arctic North America, so they were first invented in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.

inuit homes in greenland

They originate from the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik people and their tribes are often referred to as the Eskimo people.

The origin of kayaks dates back all the way to 4000 years ago, at the very least. The very first kayaks were made from light driftwood, fallen tree trunks, and animal skins stretched over whale bones.

inuit kayaks on a rack

Most of the oldest kayaks are no longer around, but the Museum Five Continents in Munich, Germany, has a North American Section in which it displays some of the world’s oldest surviving kayaks.

These kayaks date back to the year 1577, so not that old considering the very origin of this type of boat! During the 1800s, kayaks were first brought to Europe, and they began to be used for sport by the French and German.

inuit kayak storage

Then, in 1936, the first kayak exhibition took place in the Berlin Olympic Games, with flatwater racing. In the 1950s kayaks began to evolve, so they started to resemble the modern versions we have today.

In the 1980s, polyethylene was established as the main material used for the construction of kayaks, and it remains as such nowadays.

inuit kayaks in storage

Although kayaks keep evolving, there are many different designs and types available in the market! Although, in the surviving native tribes, kayaks still resemble their original designs, as they are still used for the very same purposes!

Why Were Kayaks Invented?

Almost everything is invented for a reason, as almost everything has a specific purpose that it fulfills or helps with. So why were kayaks invented, and what for?

inuit kayaks in storage

As we mentioned, kayaks were invented by the native people of North America, especially by the Inuit of Greenland. And why did they invent the kayak?

Well, the simple answer is: out of need. The Inuit are a people of the water, so the kayak served as a means for their livelihood.

inuit kayaks being used for hunting in old photograph

The kayak served as their transport so that they could be connected amongst each other, and travel to different places when needed. The kayak also served as their means for fishing, and hunting.

The Inuit would fish and hunt inland during the summer, but during the winter they would venture out into the arctic sea to hunt whales, seals, and other sea mammals.

whaling monument in alaska

These would then provide them with materials and animal skins for their homes, clothes, tools, and weapons. And they would also provide them with their food, and therefore, survival.

So the kayak was key to the survival and development of these people, as it was a multi-purpose tool for their lives by the water.

Kayaks nowadays are still used in this way by the surviving Inuit tribes of the North. However, in the rest of the world, the kayak has expanded and become a tool for fun and sport out in the water.

people kayaking

Kayaking has become an Olympic sport and a summer activity. Whether it’s for water racing, fishing, exploring, and many more types of adventures, the kayak fulfills a purpose of enrichment of life, rather than survival.

Where Does the Word “Kayak” Come From?

The word ‘kayak’, which is how we refer to this type of boat nowadays, was first introduced in the 18th century. The word comes from the Inuit name ‘qajaq’, which was the original name for the kayak.

inuit family in greenland

To the Inuit, this name meant ‘hunter’s boat’ or ‘man’s boat’, and it is a clear reference to the purpose the kayak fulfilled.

It was their means for hunting and for providing for their people, which was typically done by the men, as it was one of the riskier parts of providing for the tribe.

What is the Difference Between a Canoe and a Kayak?

Kayaks and canoes might seem similar, and they can often be used almost interchangeably during summer vacation or for a fun day out with the family.

kayaks and canoes on a rack

However, they are not the same thing, and there are plenty of differences to tell them apart. To begin with, the kayak and the canoe have completely different origins and therefore were created with different purposes and designs.

The kayak, as we’ve explained, originated from the Arctic tribes of the Inuit, the Aleut, and the Yup’ik, and they are around 4000 years old.

girl on a kayak

The canoe, on the other hand, originated from many different places around the world, during many different time periods, deriving into many different variations of the same type of boat.

Canoes are better suited to travel down rivers, in mild conditions. Kayaks, meanwhile, are better suited to competitive or intense use, in harsh conditions.

couple canoeing in front of mountains

So kayaks were mainly used for hunting in the Arctic sea, while canoes were used all around the world as a means of transportation from one place to another, down or up rivers. Nowadays, the main difference between both boats is the design.

Kayaks usually have a closed deck, so you can’t see the lower part of the people in it. Canoes, on the other hand, usually have an open deck, and the people kneel on top of them instead of being seated.

two people in large canoe

Both have their own sport, and both can be used in a variety of different ways and in plenty of similar activities!

Final Thoughts

We hope you found the history of kayaking as interesting as we did! Humans have been utilizing kayaks to hunt and survive for thousands of years, and they’re still around today because of how much fun they are to use. Nothing beats a beautiful day on a kayak!

Rocco Smith

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