Alfred Heurich was a student in Bavaria. He was fascinated with the Inuit kayak constructions he saw at the ethonological museum in Munich. He wanted to build his own and paddle it on the Isar river which went past his hometown of Bad Tölz. However he didn’t want to build a replica of the Inuit skin & frame kayaks. Instead he wanted his kayak to be easy to disassemble and reassemble for easy transport to give him access to the rivers with a minimum of effort. He spent many hours experimenting with materials and finally chose bamboo and waterproof sailcloth.
In 1905 he took his first kayak to the Isar river in Bad Tölz. He assembled it and paddled it 50 km downriver to the city of Munich where he took it apart and returned with it back home. This was the birth of the folding kayak. He filed for a patent in 1906.
Over the following years Alfred Heurich travelled many 1000s of kms on rivers, popularising his sport. He introduced many innovations, wrote river guides and built many more kayaks that he sold to his fellow student. Finally he sold a licence to Johann Klepper who started a commercial production facility.
The timing of the folding kayak was superb. Germany was in the throes of a ‘back to nature’ fashion with scores of people participating in outdoor sports. Folding kayaks provided a new form of travelling. Instead of hiking with overloaded backpacks, people could travel in relative comfort. ‘Kajakwandern’ or kayak hiking became a concept that is still well known in Germany today.
Evolution of the Kayak — The Skin
Over time the folding kayak evolved, but most innovations occurred within the first 20 years. The bottom part of the hull’s sailcloth was soon covered with rubber, making it water proof (today’s Klepper kayaks still use canvas for the top deck). Multi layer sandwich constructions of canvas and rubber were introduced to make the hull material tougher, able to withstand the demands of fast flowing rivers. These skin materials had the imaginative names of ‘Elefantenhaut’ (elephant skin), ‘Panzerhaut’ (armour skin) and Hammerit ( = ‘hammer it’).
Later, Dupont introduced an artificial rubber material called Hypalon. This material replaced the natural rubber because it was much more abrasion resistant and especially UV resistant, reducing the need for continuous waxing of the skin. This resolved most of the issues and skins that lasted decades were no longer uncommon. However they still required good care. You could not fold wet kayak skins because this introduced dry rot, which would creep under the hypalon material and start to erode the underlying cotton fabric. It was only in the 60s that polyester based fabrics came to the rescue. Today most kayak skins are made out of hypalon coated trevira fabrics.
Today the only other alternative to Hypalon is PVC. Its lifetime is much longer than hypalon. But in colder climates it becomes hard and assembling a kayak at low temperatures can become an ordeal. Over time both materials have become accepted, although the discussion about which of the two is the better material has raged for so long and been undecided for so long that many kayak forums have since banned this topic.
From Bamboo to Modern Materials
Bamboo was used for a while because it was simple, already in the right basic form and very flexible and light. It was soon replaced by Ash, which is a tough wood but not too heavy and easy to process. Today most frames in a kayak are made of Ash ply. The other frame material introduced was aluminium. It is cheaper to build and results in a lighter kayak. The downsides are that it is harder to repair and that in salt water environments, it slowly degrades.
The most modern kayaks have started to use fibreglass and carbon for the frame. The Firstlight kayaks made in NZ weighed less than 10kgs, which compares with 25-30kgs for many standard wood-frame kayaks.
Aerius — Airbags to the Rescue
A major issue with kayaks was that the inner frame needs to provide stretch so that the skin is taut. If it fails to do so, for instance, when some skins stretch in warm weather, the paddler feels as if they are paddling a hammock – the sides wobble all the time with disturbing hydraulic effects on tracking and stability. Many ideas were promoted, lever based extenders, spring loaded shock absorbers etc. They however were all prone to failure based on their complexity.
In 1950, Klepper introduced the biggest innovation for folding kayaks: inflatable sponsons inside the hull. Once the kayak had been assembled, these sponsons were inflated with a few lungfuls of air. The expanding sponsons stretched the skin and the kayak started to look like a real boat. This technology gave its name to the most successful kayak model, the Aerius. This model, introduced 50 years ago is still used today and often is copied by many other makers.
Sail and Motor
Kayaks were the poor man’s weekend yacht. Because they were built of wood, they attracted people who liked to build and extend their own boats. Many of them decided to extend the capabilities of them. Sails were and are a common sight in folding kayaks. And these are not the kind of sails found on hardshell kayaks. Instead they are often complete rigs, with main, jib and sometimes mizzen masts. Sail areas of 5 square meter are not unheard of. Side boards give the kayak the ability to point into the wind and hence be able to tack into the wind.
Another alternative was the sideboard motor. The first motors were two stroke engines with a few horsepower. The model below was used for expeditions into the Arctic Sea.
Today there are few commercial suppliers. One interesting prototype attached a propeller to the engine of a four-stroke whipper snipper.
Decline and Revival
Folding kayaks had their big boom in the 1920s. They became a common sport for many families. In 1928 Franz Romer crossed the Atlantic in a two-seat Klepper. In 1932 Oskar Speck took his folding kayak on a trip down the Danube with the intention of trying to find work in Cyprus. On the way he changed his mind and kept going — until he landed on Thursday Island in 1939 and was promptly interned by the Australian government — WWII had broken out in the meantime.
Post WWII, folding kayaking started to decline, except in the GDR where it continued to be popular until the end of the republic. Even today it is not uncommon for families to still have an old and serviceable folding kayak in the attic.
Since the revival of kayaking, the fortune of folding kayaks has strongly recovered. Klepper whose future looked grim for a while is now a publicly traded company. There are many international companies building kayaks and innovation is taking off again.
The granddaddy of folding kayaks still builds the famous Aerius family of kayaks. The expedition model of the Aerius is in use of by many marine combat units who like it for its toughness, carrying capability and speed of assembly. This does come at a price with the effort it takes to paddle. It has been likened to paddling a clothes cabinet. Besides the single, the Aerius also comes as a two and a three — four seater. www.klepper.de
This is the only surviving East German folding kayak builder. After the collapse of the GDR it was on the brink of insolvency when it was taken over by a passionate paddler. For many years it survived as a joinery & cabinet making business. These are skills that served it well in developing new models. Pouch has brought in a series of new models over the last few years, leading the industry by introducing innovative designs and construction techniques.
This boat is designed and manufactured in China which makes it quite unique. Called a ‘light duty boat’ in foldingkayaks.org it would probably be a good buy for rivers and lakes.
This company is located in Christchurch, NZ. These are very unusual kayaks. Built in carbon fibre they weigh less than 10kg. They are built for paddling in the sea but their load carrying capability is limited. A special feature is their transparent bottom skin. You don’t have to roll to see the underwater world beneath you.
This Canadian company makes high quality sea worthy kayaks. They are very light, due to the use of aluminium frames and welded urethane skins. The flagship is the Khatsalano, a 5.4m slender boat whose shape competes with glass sea kayaks. Accordingly these boats are not cheap.
Simple, lightweight, aluminium frame kayaks that are cheap and yet good quality. These boats are said to have a good stable ride that makes them a good choice for beginners.
This is a Japanese company. For its frame it uses fibreglass longerons with plywood frames, which reduces the weight considerably. The hull is Kevlar reinforced polyester core with PVC.
These boats are based upon the Klepper design. The use of stainless steel makes it an extremely tough boat but it also adds to the weight. They are cheaper than Klepper and offer a few design improvements. The two seater is available as a ‘commando’ version in black.
This French company was founded in 1935 but received its name only in 1984. Nautiraid kayaks offers a family of boats both in wood and aluminium frame connection. They also offer an intriguing butterfly style sail.
A Russian builder who offers very cheap and robust kayaks that are known for their ability to carry large loads. These kayaks are very good for enclosed or semi-open waters.
This Russian company offers tough, simple and cheap kayaks. They cost about half what others ask. They have a one seater, 2 and 3 seater kayaks. The frame is made from aluminium. The one seater Ladoga has had favourable reviews in the German folding kayak forums.
There are, apart from vendor sites, a number of organisations dealing with folding kayaks. In the English language space, the prime web site is foldingkayaks.org. If you speak German then www.faltboot.de is a good site of discussion and access to resources. If you are interested in modifying your folding kayak then www.faltbootbasteln.de is a great resource. Even if you do not speak German, it is worthwhile to browse as there are many pictures and drawings available.
In Australia a number of kayak resellers carry folding kayaks or can organise the purchase of one. The most common brands are Klepper, Feathercraft and Folbot.