Section 5: Folding Kayaks

Authors: Ralph Diaz, Edward Hasbrouck (for travel limit questions)

"It is impossible to exaggerate the usefulness of a folding kayak. Even the hackneyed phrase 'flying carpet' is appropriate to this ingeniously conceived craft . . . There is an immense amount to be learned about this deceptively simple boat. I suspect the reason for the folding kayak's complexity is inherent in the boat's design. All other craft have conventional similarities--a little plastic motorboat has many features in common with the QE II, but these have nothing in common with a folding kayak. Consider the shape and construction of the folding kayak, or any skin boat, and you have to reach a conclusion that its nearest equivalent is an animal's body, not a fish but a mammal, a vertebrate. It has an interior skeleton, ribs, joints, a spine; it has a head and a tail, it has a hide, it flexes. To this animal shape the paddler brings a brain, and energy, and guts."
- from the Foreword by Paul Theroux to Ralph Diaz's _The Complete Folding Kayaker_ published in 1994.


Is a folding kayak a sea kayak?

Yes, in every sense of the term, i.e. it's a kayak that is at home on open water. Since they first started a small-boating revolution in the early part of this century, folding kayaks have been paddled safely and successfully on every body of water from the Arctic to Antarctica. While they were first conceived as a convenient, knock-down craft to take in the overhead luggage compartments of trains heading to Alpine lakes and streams, intrepid types turned their prows to the sea almost from the very beginning. For example, the English Channel was crossed in one of the first ones in 1909.

Since then, they have proven time and time again that they are the quintessential open water boat, particularly for extreme conditions and expedition use. They have crossed 3,000 miles of the open Atlantic, first in 1928 and then later in 1956; neither voyage with any support craft hovering nearby. In the 1920s, adventurers paddled folding kayaks in journeys following the coastlines from Europe to India and beyond. These seaworthy kayaks were used in long-distance open-water races during the 1920 and 1930s. For example, in 1933 Fridel Meyer paddled her folding kayak to win a contest involving more than 1,000 miles of exposed waters off the British coastline.

Paddlers today suffer from a "born yesterday" syndrome. They tend to think that sea kayaking only began in the late 1950s with the advent of the first workshop-built British hardshells and the factory production boom that followed in the mid-1970s, but between the World Wars, hundreds of thousands of folding kayaks were being built and paddled everywhere by ordinary people. While the sport is currently growing by the proverbial leaps and bounds, it still pales by comparison to the impact and ubiquitous presence folding kayaks had during that earlier period.


Should you consider a folding kayak only if you require its foldability feature?

No. That suggestion is seen in general sea kayaking manuals, most of which, in essence, say that foldables are dogs to paddle and that you should only get one as a last resort because you have no place to store a hardshell or you plan to do a lot of air travel. Such conventional wisdom aside, foldability is far from the only thing going for these versatile boats.

First, they are inherently seaworthy by design. They owe this strength to their underlying skin-over-frame construction. This form of construction closely resembles that of kayaks of Northern native peoples, and it is what made them such seaworthy craft. Like their ancestors, modern skin boats and folding kayaks flex with the action of the sea rather than fighting its forces as a hardshell does. The flex comes from the way that the internal frame blends the boat to the contours of the surrounding water, giving you a feel for sea's action much as early roadsters gave a driver "road feel". The soft sides of a skin or folding kayak also play a role in seaworthiness. They dampen the impact of waves and wakes, so you are tossed around less.

Stability is another advantage. Most foldables made since the early 1950s have air tubes running along their sides called air sponsons. These tubes, encased in the soft sides of folding kayaks, provide unbelievable stability both in initial and final phases. The soft sides themselves also play a part in stability. No matter how taut the skin, water pressure forms small indents in the hull between long pieces of the frame along the entire length of the boat. These concave pockets tend to grip or take a bite in the water to slow and control any sideways tipping process caused by beam waves or wake or by your moving around in your boat.

The built-in seaworthiness and stability of folding kayaks tend to make them safe boats on open water, especially for the majority of sea kayakers who have not developed expert skills or been able to keep these constantly honed. The superb open-water handling function of a foldable results from design; it is not so dependent on operator skills as, say, a narrow Greenland style hardshell. Your learning curve in a foldable is less sharp, allowing you to reach skill levels that enable you to handle rougher conditions more quickly.


How do folding kayaks compare in efficiency, performance, and speed with hardshell boats?

"Common wisdom", again, says that folding kayaks are typically less of a "performance boat" than hardshell kayaks. This is only partially true and requires some examination.

Folding kayaks are not all inherently slow; their models run a range of speeds just as hardshell models do. Real life experience and races in which a mix of hardshells and foldables participate tend to indicate that foldables are as fast or faster than about 80% of hardshell kayaks. If you are in a folding kayak on a club trip or paid tour, you will not find that every hardshell will be ahead of you. Only some might.

Much depends on conditions. In absolutely flat, calm water, foldables, which tend to be wider, are a bit less efficient to paddle, i.e. you may have to put more effort into your stroke to accelerate and maintain the same constant speed as a narrower hardshell boat. As conditions get rougher, though, the inherent stability and seaworthiness of their design makes them the more efficient craft.

You can concentrate on your forward paddling for a high speed-made-good; in a hardshell you would likely need to shorten your stroke or skim your paddle in a semi-brace to stabilize your boat, which would rob you of some forward speed efficiency.

If performance means that a kayak easily allows you to Eskimo roll, use a sculling brace, and the like, then most folding kayaks do lack "performance." You'll generally find it harder to do such tricks in a foldable, except for in of the narrower ones, but since such skills are not as necessary to keep a folding kayak upright as they are in a hardshell under extreme conditions, "performance" is almost a moot point for open-water paddling, unless it's an objective in itself.


Are folding kayaks delicate or damage-prone?

Not necessarily. You should treat the hull of a folding kayak in much the same way as you would treat a fiberglass kayak, i.e. you avoid dragging it on gravel beaches and the like. The frames can take a lot of punishment. Parts don't readily break because both wooden and aluminum frames have enough flex in them to absorb shock and avoid cracking. If conditions are severe enough to crack a frame member of a foldable, they are also likely to crack or cause fissures in a fiberglass hull, or put some serious dents in a plastic one.

Folding kayaks are tough enough to be used by the military of some 20 nations. These boats handle the punishment that special forces tend to dish out while keeping crews alive to complete their missions. Simply put, if the boats weren't up to the rigors of special operations, the military would not entrust their highly trained personnel to them, period.

Folding kayaks tend to be long-lived. It is not unusual to see 25 year old hulls still going strong. Frames have proven to last 50 years or more with only a modicum of care.


Do they cost more than hardshells?

Initially many folding kayaks carry a higher price tag than similar hardshells. Most are considerably costlier than plastic models, but the price differentials are not so great when compared to top-of-the-line fiberglass hardshells, especially ones made of kevlar and other special materials. When considering cost, your decision also should be related to other factors such as useful life, depreciation, and the like.

Folding kayaks tend to last longer than hardshells. Hulls on foldables are good for 25 years and more, whereas plastic boats are good for perhaps a dozen years, and fiberglass will last about 15 to 20 years. You can replace a hull on a foldable to give it a second life; you can't on a hardshell.

Depreciation on foldables is absurdly low. You can see this in the prices of used ones versus used hardshells, which reflect the relative useful life of the boats. It is not unusual to see a 10-year-old used foldable sell for more than the price the original owner paid for it. Hardshells, on the other hand, sell for only a fraction of their original price after 5 to 10 years.


What are the best materials for the frame and skin in a folding kayak?

There are no "best" materials. In frames you have a choice between foldables with all wooden frames and foldables with aluminum long pieces combined with cross pieces made of a range of materials including aluminum, polyethylene, polycarbonate, and fiberglass filled nylon. All of the materials have their pluses and minuses.

Avoid listening to any of the common wisdoms about the materials. Wooden frames don't necessarily need more maintenance than aluminum, as you may have heard, and aluminum isn't a problem to fix in the field, again something that is often said.

Buy a foldable with a wooden frame because you like the boat or you have a passion for wood and its feel. The same is true for one with an aluminum frame, i.e. follow your heart and/or the seat of your pants.


Is assembly of folding kayaks difficult? How long does it take?

Much depends on the model. Some can be assembled in about 10 to 15 minutes once you get the hang of it. Others can take a half hour or more. For the record, the fastest assembly of a folding kayak, a double Klepper, is a little over 4 minutes starting from the parts being in their bags.

It should be noted that you don't have to assemble and disassemble a folding kayak around each outing. They can be left assembled for years if you have a place to store them that way. They can be cartopped like any hardshell. Storage and cartopping will do no harm to the boats.


Can I take a kayak on an airplane?

With respect to airline travel with folding kayaks, it's important to realize that for international air travel there are two completely different systems for calculating the amount of allowable free baggage: the piece system and the weight system.

The "piece" rule applies to flights to, from, and within North America (the USA and Canada); on other flights included in through fares to or from North America; and in certina other countries.

Under the piece rule, each passenger is allowed two pieces of free checked baggage. Size and weight limits are set by individual airlines, but the weight limit is usually 70 pounds (32 kg) per piece.

On flights covered by the piece rule, excess baggage is generally charged per piece, with the same weight limit (usually 70 pounds) per piece, and with a typical charge of US $100-150 for a transoceanic flight.

The "weight" rule, the international default, applies to all other flights in the rest of the world (except where overridden by specific local or airline rules to the contrary).

Under the weight rule, each coach/economy/3rd class passenger is allowed a maximum of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of free baggage, including all checked and carry on baggage, regardless of the total number of pieces. Business class passengers are allowed 30 kg each, and first class passengers 40 kg each.

On flights covered by the weight rule, the default charge for excess baggage is one percent of the full unrestricted first-class fare per kilogram of excess baggage (even for coach passengers).

Under both the piece and weight rules, passengers traveling together are explicitly permitted to pool their baggage, as long as each piece is within the relevant limits per piece, and as long as the total number of pieces or weight is within the total permitted for that many passengers.

Many airlines have their own specific rules for certain kinds of excess or oversized baggage, including in particular "sporting equipment". Where such rules exist, they are almost always more favorable than the default rules applicable to other excess, oversized, or overweight baggage. Sometimes there is a relatively small charge for the nuisance value of handling oversize or overweight sporting equipment, sometimes not. (These rules also affect bicycles, surfboards, golf bags, skis, etc.)

Boats other than folding kayaks are sometimes too large for airlines to accept as checked bagggage at any price, but the limits and charges vary from airline to airline. (It's possible to ship larger items as unaccompanied air cargo than as checked baggage, but the charges tend to be substantially higher than for similar amounts of accompanied baggage.) Folding kayak bags are small enough to be acceptable, but may surcharged if they exceed the limits for free size and/or weight.

There are exceptions to every rule, especially for "very frequent flyers" with premium memberships in frequent flyer programs. It never hurts to ask, but you have to plan for the possibility that the rules could be strictly enforced.


What does this mean for air travelers with folding kayaks?

Under the piece rule, someone traveling alone with a single kayak or two people traveling together with a double kayak (and pooling their total free allotment of four 70-pound bags) might just be able to come within the free baggage limits, particularly if the airline allows one or more of the bags to be oversize and/or overweight under a special rule for sporting equipment.

Under the weight limit, even the most spartan kayaker or pair is almost certain to be over the free baggage limit unless the airline makes some special exception for their sort of gear.

It's thus crucial to figure out in advance whether any flights you might take outside North America will all be included in a through fare to or from North America. If they are ticketed separately, or at a separate fare, they will be subject to the weight rule. Per-kilogram excess baggage charges on a 70-pound kayak bag for even a short flight ticketed separately within Europe or another part of the world could be surprisingly high.


Where do I get more information on foldables?


The Complete Folding Kayaker, by Ralph Diaz, McGraw-Hill (Ragged Mountain Press) 1994.

Folding Kayaker newsletter
PO Box 0754
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212)724-5069
author of this portion of the FAQ; he will respond to all e-mail, phone calls and snail mail.


1244 Cartwright St.
Granville Island
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6H 3R8
Phone: (604)681-8437
Canadian company that makes a double (K-2) and several sizes of singles including a Greenland styled model being introduced in Spring 1995. Most popular kayak is the K-Light, which weighs as little as 29 lb.

PO Box 70877
Charleston, SC 29415
Phone: (800)744-3483
US company makes a double and a single plus some accessories such as boat carts, sails, etc. The models are the least expensive of the major manufacturers.

Folbot Canada Inc.
Phone: (902)894-7842
in Canada: (800)263-5099
FAX: 902-894-7842

Kayak Lab
P. O. Box 3162
Wayland Square
Providence, Rhode Island 02906
Priced between Folbot and Feathercraft. One single and one double model available.

100 Cadillac Drive #117
Sacramento, CA 95825
Phone: (916)921-9411
Toll free: (800)323-3525
North American headquarters for German company that makes a range of foldables. Oldest kayak manufacturer in the world and a principal supplier to the military as well as outfitters. Boats are pricey.

Nautiraid USA
Distributed by:
Seda Products
PO Box 997
Chula Vista, Ca 91912
Phone: (619)336-2444
North American distributor for a French company that makes a range of folding kayaks. Excellent quality at a price between Folbot and Klepper.

Pouch USA
6155 Mt. Aukum Road
Somerset, CA 95684
Phone: (916)626-8647
German foldables from the former East Germany. Just above Folbot in price. Wood frames and vinyl type hulls. A single and a double available.

576 South Arlington Avenue
Des Plaines, Illinois 60016
Phone: (847)297-5953
Expensive boats, high performance. These boats have no air sponsons and can be rolled and sculled like a hardshell. Singles and doubles available.


Baidarka Boats
PO Box 6001
Sitka, Ak 99835
Phone: 907-747-8996
Dealer in folding kayaks for 21 years, offering Klepper, Nautiraid and Feathercraft. Good source of parts & advice as well as kayaks.

New York Kayak Company
P.O. Box 2011
New York, NY 10011
Offers kayak sales and demos as well as private and group lessons. Sells Nautiraid and Feathercraft.


Continue to next section

Return to Table of Contents