Inuit Kayak – Ground Zero for Personal Watercraft

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Inuit Kayak – Ground Zero for Personal Watercraft. 

The traditional Inuit kayak is the precursor of the modern kayak. The earliest Inuit kayaks called “the hunter’s boat” are believed to be 4000 years old.

The traditional Inuit kayak is also known by a number of names including: 

  • umiak 
  • umiaq
  • anyak, among others.  

The first known traditional Inuit umiak was made of dried animal skin and frame by whalebones or driftwood.

After the skin was dried, the fat from the seal was typically used on the seams to make it waterproof.  


Inuit kayaks were the true definition of ultimate craftsmanship gear. The boat was made specifically to suit the height and the size of a person making each kayak a unique creation.

It was said that the early European explorers were dumbfounded by the measurement system used by the Inuit, and it was quite impossible to replicate the kayak. 

In this post about the Inuit kayak, I will take you through a number of questions related to this unique sea boat and attempt to answer them to the best of my knowledge.

Let’s begin.  

What transportation did the Inuit use? 

  • The transportation in the arctic is typically dictated by the season and the condition of the landscape.  
  • Transportation in summer – The short season of summer provides an open area for the Inuit to travel as well as hunt. The Inuit used both the kayak and the umiak for transportation in summer.  

The Eskimo kayak was typically used for hunting, while the umiak was used for transporting people and their belongings.  

  • Transportation in winter – During the winter, the Inuit used sleds called unieks as their primary form of transportation over the ice. These sleds are pulled by dogs.  

Of course, they also resorted to traveling on foot in winter. To make their boots better with gripping, they also attached a crampon or spikes made from animal bones at the bottom.   

Where was the first kayak invented? 

  • The first kayak is believed to have been invented by the arctic tribes, including Inuit, Aleut, and the Yup’ik. The oldest kayaks date back to 1577 and are currently exhibited in the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich, Germany.  

The first kayaks were made out of whalebones or driftwood, which was attributed to the woodless landscape of the arctic.

The frame was covered with animal skin, usually a seal. 

The fat from the same animal was used to coat the length and breadth of the kayak to make it water-resistant.

Sewing of the skin was usually completed by the wife of the hunter. The final touch of tying the skin to keep it in place was done by using a caribou’s sinew.  

What is the difference between a kayak and an umiak? 

  • The main difference between a kayak and an umiak is their size. 

Although the name was used interchangeably, there are some significant differences between the two boats. They are: 

  • A kayak is comparatively smaller in size and measures up to 17 feet in length and up to 22 inches in width. On the other hand, an umiak can measure up to 32 feet in length and up to 8 feet in width. 
  • A traditional kayak can carry one person while an umiak can carry up to fifteen persons.  
  • Kayaks are typically used for hunting, while umiaks are used to transport possessions as well as the family for seasonal migration. Umiaks may also be used for hunting, but it was usually for hunting larger games such as whales that require groups of hunters.  
  • Kayaks can be easily paddled and maneuvered on and off the water by a lone hunter. On the other hand, umiaks usually required the men to steer while the women rowed using an Inuit kayak paddle. The Inuit kayak paddles came in many different sizes and shapes.
  • Kayaks are lightweight and can be carried by one person. Umiaks, although not heavy, generally required to be carried by a number of people. Sometimes it was pulled by a sled.  

What is an umiak used for? 

  • The Inuit Umiak was primarily used by the arctic folks as a means of transport while migrating from one camp to the other. Traditionally, the women and the children paddled the umiak during their migration while the men paddled kayaks. This is also the reason why the umiak is sometimes referred to as a ‘woman’s boat.’  

Umiaks were also used for hunting larger game such as a whale. Whaling requires more than one hunter to make a successful kill.

A large umiak could comfortably carry up to 15 adults, which is why it was used for group hunting.  

These boats were similar to the kayaks as they were made of the same materials. They also had the same design as their smaller counterparts.

However, umiaks were much bigger in size and dimensions. 

Umiak typically had a lifespan of three years, which is almost the same as a boat made of aluminum. But the skin boat has a number of advantages over the metal boat.  

One, replacing the skin is a lot easier than replacing the metal. Two, whale hunting is not possible with an aluminum boat as the metal noise of the boat drives away the bowhead whale.  

What did the Inuit use whales for? 

  • Whales were hunted as a means of sustenance by the Inuit.  

Whales or bowhead whales, to be precise, were killed as they provided meat, oil, blubber, baleen, and bones to the people living in the arctic.  

While some of the meat was consumed immediately, the rest was preserved. The Inuit also made a dish called muktuk, which was made out of blubber and whale skin.

The mixture was cooked and preserved in mustard and was considered a delicacy.  


Apart from the uses of a whale as food, other uses of the whale include: 

  • The blubber of the whale was often used as fuel for the lamps. 
  • The baleen from the whale was used to make items such as fishing lines and snares to catch birds.  
  • The skin of the whale was dried and used to make kayaks and umiaks, while some of it was given to the dogs as a special treat. 
  • The bones of the whale were used in the construction of houses and boats. 
  • The fat from the whale was used to coat the kayak to make it waterproof. 

Inuit, the original whalers

The process of hunting and harvesting the different parts of the whale is known as whaling. The bowhead whale makes a perfect target for whaling for a number of reasons.  

  • They are slow swimmers. Under normal circumstances, they cover anywhere from 1 to 3 miles per hour. For comparison, Orcas can swim up to 23 miles per hour.  
  • They are loners and typically travel alone. The largest pods of bowhead whales consist of no more than six whales.  
  • They also seem to prefer the shallow waters for swimming and only go for deep diving occasionally. 
  • When they die, their massive bodies float to the surface, which makes it easy for the hunters to harvest. 

Commercial whaling is banned in almost all parts of the world. Currently, only the Inuit and the Siberian Yup’ik are allowed to hunt these majestic marine creatures for their subsistence.  

However, the number of whales allowed to be hunted is regulated by two bodies, the International Whaling Commission and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.  

What are Inuit kayaks made out of? 

  • Inuit kayaks were made out of animal skin and bones.  

The Inuit typically used the bones of whales as the frame for the kayak. However, using pieces of driftwood for the frame was also not uncommon.

The use of ivory and antlers for the frame was also practiced. The frame was usually lashed or pegged together.  

This frame was covered by the skin of an animal that was scrapped of hair and dried. The skin of a seal was the preferred material as it was stretchy.

Sometimes whale skin was also used to make the kayak. This was then sewed together by using a waterproof stitch that was soaked in the fat of the whale or the seal. 

Caribou’s sinew was often used to tie the skin on the edges to the frame to prevent it from falling apart.

The whole structure was then coated with the oil from the animal to make it water-resistant.  

The animal skin and frame have been replaced by other materials, including polyethylene and other synthetic fibers in modern-day Inuit kayaks.

Check out this kayakfrom Liquidlogic. It has a traditional Eskimo kayak design but made of modern-day materials, which make it an excellent choice.  

Final thoughts.  

As you might have concluded by now, the Inuit kayak was the true definition of personal watercraft.

It was constructed ingeniously using the best materials that the cold arctic provided.

The kayak was born out of men’s desire to conquer the waters and the ice and come out victorious.  

At the heart of it, I think you will agree with me when I say that men’s ability to make the best use of our surroundings is matchless.

Thanks to the arctic folks, we now have different types of kayak and forms of kayaking to boast about.  

Learn more about the kayaks of the Mackenzie Inuit at the Canadian Museum of History. Or the story of the Throps and Squallhoots at Athropolis.