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A kayak is a small, narrow watercraft which is typically propelled by means of a double-bladed paddle. The word kayak originates from the Greenlandic word qajaq.

The traditional kayak has a covered deck and one or more cockpits, each seating one paddler. The cockpit is sometimes covered by a spray deck that prevents the entry of water from waves or spray, differentiating the craft from a canoe. The spray deck makes it possible for suitably skilled kayakers to roll the kayak: that is, to capsize and right it without it filling with water or ejecting the paddler.

Man sitting with legs covered in boat that tapers to a point at each end holding long, pointed, wooden pole

Interior 360 degree photosphere of a kayak at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Click for an immersive 360 degree view

Some modern boats vary considerably from a traditional design but still claim the title "kayak", for instance in eliminating the cockpit by seating the paddler on top of the boat ("sit-on-top" kayaks); having inflated air chambers surrounding the boat; replacing the single hull by twin hulls, and replacing paddles with other human-powered propulsion methods, such as foot-powered rotational propellers and "flippers". Kayaks are also being sailed, as well as propelled by means of small electric motors, and even by outboard gas engines.

Photo of person sitting in boat holding paddle with otters swimming in foreground. Boat is approximately 12 feet long and only slightly wider than paddler.

Kayaks are often used to get closer to marine animals, such as sea otters

The kayak was first used by the indigenous Aleut, Inuit, Yupik and possibly Ainu hunters in subarctic regions of the world.

Typically, kayak design is largely a matter of trade-offs: directional stability ("tracking") vs maneuverability; stability vs speed; and primary vs secondary stability. Multihull kayaks face a different set of trade-offs. The paddler's body shape and size is an integral part of the structure, and will also affect the trade-offs made.

As a general rule, a longer kayak is faster: it has a higher hull speed. It can also be narrower for a given displacement, reducing the drag, and it will generally track (follow a straight line) better than a shorter kayak. On the other hand, it is less manuverable. Very long kayaks are less robust, and may be harder to store and transport. Some recreational kayak makers try to maximize hull volume (weight capacity) for a given length as shorter kayaks are easier to transport and store.

Kayaks that are built to cover longer distances such as touring and sea kayaks are longer, generally 16 to 19 feet (4.9 to 5.8 m). With touring kayaks the keel is generally more defined (helping the kayaker track in a straight line). Whitewater kayaks, which generally depend upon river current for their forward motion, are short, to maximize maneuverability. These kayaks rarely exceed 8 feet (2.4 m) in length, and play boats may be only 5–6 feet (1.5–1.8 m) long. Recreational kayak designers try to provide more stability at the price of reduced speed, and compromise between tracking and maneuverability, ranging from 9–14 feet (2.7–4.3 m).

Today almost all kayaks are commercial products intended for sale rather than for the builder's personal use.

Fiberglass hulls are stiffer than polyethylene hulls, but they are more prone to damage from impact, including cracking. Most modern kayaks have steep V sections at the bow and stern, and a shallow V amidships. Fiberglass kayaks need to be "laid-up" in a mold by hand, so are usually more expensive than polyethylene kayaks, which are rotationally molded in a machine.

Plastic kayaks are rotationally molded ('rotomolded') from a various grades and types of polyethylene resins ranging from soft to hard. Such kayaks are particularly resistant to impact.

Wooden hulls don't necessarily require significant skill and handiwork, depending on how they are made. Kayaks made from thin strips of wood sheathed in fiberglass have proven successful, especially as the price of epoxy resin has decreased in recent years. A plywood, stitch and glue (S&G) doesn't need fiberglass sheathing though some builders do. Three main types are popular, especially for the home builder: Stitch & Glue, Strip-Built, and hybrids which have a stitch & glue hull and a strip-built deck.

Stitch & Glue designs typically use modern, marine-grade plywood — eighth-inch, 3 millimetres (0.12 in) or up to quarter-inch, 5 millimetres (0.20 in) thick. After cutting out the required pieces of hull and deck (kits often have these pre-cut), a series of small holes are drilled along the edges. Copper wire is then used to "stitch" the pieces together through the holes. After the pieces are temporarily stitched together, they are glued with epoxy and the seams reinforced with fiberglass. When the epoxy dries, the copper stitches are removed. Sometimes the entire boat is then covered in fiberglass for additional strength and waterproofing though this adds greatly to the weight and is unnecessary. Construction is fairly straightforward, but because plywood does not bend to form compound curves, design choices are limited. This is a good choice for the first-time kayak builder as the labor and skills required (especially for kit versions) is considerably less than for strip-built boats which can take 3 times as long to build.

Strip-built designs are similar in shape to rigid fiberglass kayaks but are generally both lighter and tougher. Like their fiberglass counterparts the shape and size of the boat determines performance and optimal uses. The hull and deck are built with thin strips of lightweight wood, often cedar, pine or Redwood. The strips are edge-glued together around a form, stapled or clamped in place, and allowed to dry. Structural strength comes from a layer of fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin, layered inside and outside the hull. Strip–built kayaks are sold commercially by a few companies, priced USD 4,000 and up. An experienced woodworker can build one for about USD 400 in 200 hours, though the exact cost and time depend on the builder's skill, the materials and the size and design. As a second kayak project, or for the serious builder with some woodworking expertise, a strip–built boat can be an impressive piece of work. Kits with pre-cut and milled wood strips are commercially available.

Skin on frame boats are more traditional in design, materials, and construction. They were traditionally made of driftwood, pegged or lashed together, and stretched seal skin, as those were the most readily available materials in the Arctic regions. Today, seal skin is usually replaced with canvas or nylon cloth covered with paint, polyurethane, or a hypalon rubber coating and a wooden or aluminum frame. Modern skin-on-frame kayaks often possess greater impact resistance than their fiberglass counterparts, but are less durable against abrasion or sharp objects. They are often the lightest kayaks.

A special type of skin-on-frame kayak is the folding kayak. It has a collapsible frame, of wood, aluminum or plastic, or a combination thereof, and a skin of water-resistant and durable fabric. Many types have air sponsons built into the hull, making the kayak float even if flooded.

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