This Origami-Inspired Canoe Folds Up So Small You Can Take It On The Subway

Even if you have the tiniest apartment, the Onak canoe will let you get out on your local waterways.

When he has free time after work, Otto Van De Steene likes to head out with friends to canoe down local rivers. But because he lives in a city–Ghent, Belgium–owning a canoe has always been a challenge.


“Storing a canoe if you live in the city is not so easy,” Van De Steene says. “The other thing was always doing the same tours in the city, beginning and ending in the same spot, gets boring.”

One day, while folding an origami canoe by hand, he started to wonder what it might take to make a life-size paper canoe–something that would be easy to move out of the city without a car, and easy to store in an apartment.

Because Van De Steene worked at an outdoor store (picture the Belgian equivalent of REI), he had been able to try out portable canoes in the past, and saw the limitations.

“You have the canoes that have really good performance on the water–they’re fast, but they’re quite heavy and take an hour to assemble,” he says. “Nothing to do in an evening after work.” Inflatable canoes, though good for whitewater rafting, barely moved in calm rivers.

Van De Steene, along with engineer Thomas Weyn (a friend and canoeing partner), spent more than two years building prototypes. The result is Onak, a canoe that can fold up to the size of a suitcase in about 10 minutes, and can fit in a closet or be wheeled to a train station.

It’s even small enough that it’s possible to awkwardly squeeze it onto a cargo bike:


Unlike Oru–an origami kayak that was one of their inspirations–the new canoe is made from a custom-made polypropylene rather than corrugated plastic. “It’s way stronger and lighter and stiffer,” says Van De Steene. “Because of that we can make a very stiff canoe, and the stiffness of the boat is important for the performance.”

The team has tested it in strong winds and paddled it through ice. The boat is also hard to knock over, and easy to get back inside if you happen to fall out.

The material, which the designers are in the process of patenting, is also fully recyclable. Equally important, it’s made to last. “You need a boat that lasts and is tough enough to handle life, because what’s the point of a boat that is maybe slightly better–recyclable–but not as strong so you have to make more boats?” says Van De Steene.

He’s hoping it will inspire more city dwellers to start canoeing with friends. “You can canoe together very easily,” he says. “People who don’t know about canoeing at all, if you step in a canoe with me and you don’t have any experience with a canoe, in less than 10 seconds you can be my co-paddle.”

Onak launched a crowdfunding campaign today on Kickstarter.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."