A folding kayak is a manually propelled, waterborne craft that is similar in appearance to a conventional, rigid-body kayak. The folding versions of these crafts differ from the hard-body counterparts in as much as they share more in common with the original Inuit kayak. Inuit kayaks were constructed from a framework of bones and wood with a waterproof outer layer consisting of animal hide that was stretched over the frame.
The construction method of modern folding kayaks has dispensed with the organic materials of the original design. These craft are now constructed from a framework of metal, wood, or plastic and utilize an outer skin of heavy-duty fabric that has been subject to a waterproofing coating. Commercially available folding kayaks were introduced in 1906 by Johannes Klepper of Germany. These were referred to as Klepper kayaks, and variations of the craft were used by the German military during the Second World War.
A folding kayak will occasionally have air flotation chambers built in to the hull. This, added to the construction method, makes this variation of kayak very stable and extremely hard wearing. Some Klepper kayaks have been reported to still be in regular use some 70 years after they were first purchased.
Although the general design of the folding kayak has remained unchanged for most of its production life thus far, some advancement has been made to the materials used and the adaptability of the craft. Most notably, in 2007, the Canadian kayak manufacturer TRAK Kayaks introduced an aluminum-frame kayak with a polyurethane skin. This model incorporated a hydraulic system to maintain the level of tautness of the skin in varying water temperatures. The hydraulic system could also be used to alter the shape of the hull slightly to adapt to different paddling conditions.
Several kayak enthusiasts prefer to use a folding kayak instead of a standard rigid-body vessel. Although generally slower on calm waters, the structure of the folding versions allows for greater speed when cutting through waves. This is due to the flexible nature of the outer skin being able to absorb water impacts, while rigid-body kayaks are slowed by the full impact of the waves.
Despite the name given to these craft, they are not actually designed to fold and are usually constructed from a variety of rigid keels and collapsible braces. Assembling and disassembling the craft can be quite time intensive. The time required to assemble a folding kayak can range generally from 10 minutes for a simple structure up to in excess of 50 minutes for a competition craft.