Kayak Rudder 101: What It Is, Do You Need One & Is It Better Than A Kayak Skeg

Paddling in a straight line – such a simple concept, yet so challenging for many new kayakers.

There were times when it felt like my ‘yak had a mind of its own and was – for lack of a better word – acting like a stubborn mule. Sometimes it’s due to inexperience. Other times, it’s the elements. And to a degree, it could be the kayak, too.

The point is:

You’re not alone in your struggles to keep the bow pointed in the right direction.

Could a kayak rudder be the answer?

Let’s find out! 

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The Basics Of Kayak Handling: Tracking & Steering Explained

woman paddling  blue sea kayak with kayak rudder

The key term here is – straight. It’s the most efficient way to paddle from point A to point B; aim the bow at the desired destination and then hit your mark.

But as you’re about to see, things aren’t that simple.

What Is Kayak Tracking? 

Tracking has become somewhat confusing – I’d even say ambiguous – term in the kayaking community.

All you want to know is how well the kayak stays on track and if you’ll have a hard time keeping it bow-forward, right?

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Many paddlers will tell you – and with utmost confidence, too – that it has to do with how easy it is to turn the kayak:

If the kayak’s hard to turn, you must have a “good” kayak that tracks well. And on the flip side, if it turns easily, you probably have a “bad” kayak that doesn’t track very well.

I’d say this is mostly a matter of perspective.

Either way, here’s the problem with that good kayak-bad kayak mentality:

Unless you’re about to participate in a sprint-style race, you’ll probably appreciate being able to turn your kayak when you want to – preferably without too much hassle.

Going with a hard-to-maneuver kayak because you deemed it better tracking-wise would only make your life way more difficult. The second you encounter wind, you’ll find you can’t get it to turn toward your intended destination.

And you can’t stay on track if you can’t get your kayak to get on course in the first place, can you?

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Where do kayak rudders and skegs fit in with all this?

Kayak skegs are the simplest way to give your kayak’s tracking a little boost in windy conditions. And kayak rudders can help with the kayak’s maneuverability – on top of providing tracking assistance.

Keep reading; you’ll see.

Staying On Course: Can You Steer A Kayak – And How?

Sea Kayaker paddling with a kayak rudder in the water

I am often asked how to steer a kayak effectively – so let me explain your kayak steering options.

There are two ways to go about steering your kayak to keep it on course, make it turn when needed, and counteract the effects of weathercocking.

The two options are:

  • Steering by relying solely on paddling technique, namely edging, sweep, and rudder strokes, or going all-in with a series of different stoke combinations when needed
  • Steering by utilizing additional kayaking equipment, and more specifically, by deploying the kayak’s rudder system

In essence, the primary purpose of a kayak rudder system is to help a kayak that has – for whatever reason – become difficult to navigate track straight. Wind, currents, waves, unevenly distributed cargo weight, lack of experience; there’s a lot that could knock you off your path.

You’d also use a rudder to turn a kayak that is, for all intents and purposes, designed to go straight.

But here’s the thing:

Steering and turning a kayak can be done without the rudder. Going “naked” – as in choosing not to install a rudder or a skeg – is certainly an option, although a sometimes overlooked one.

I’d say that knowing how to steer your kayak using only your paddle is a fundamental skill every kayaker should master.

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Kayaks with rudders can be more efficient on longer paddling expeditions and are particularly helpful to beginners who are still working on figuring out the whole how-to-paddle thing.

But the technique is – and always will be – king. 

What Is A Kayak Rudder?

sea kayaking with a kayak rudder

First, a definition of what a kayak rudder is:

A rudder is a long and narrow fin-like blade that, fully deployed, extends into the water off the kayak’s stern, where it can pivot side to side.

That doesn’t tell you much about what it does – but this next section will.  

What Is The Purpose Of A Rudder On A Kayak, Then?

Yes, it can be used as a steering aid – but that’s not its main purpose.

Gasp.

The main purpose of a rudder on a kayak is to help you counteract different factors that will try – and often succeed – in making your kayak go off course. In short, it’s there to keep the kayak moving straight, even when everything’s working against you.

The most common scenario in which you’ll use a kayak rudder is when you’re counteracting something known as weathercocking.

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That’s when side winds cause the kayak to turn into the wind – or cock into the weather side. You know, like a weathercock.

Understanding The Physics Of Weathercocking

kayak weathercocking - Rooster weathervane

Water will hit the sides of your kayak and flow around it as you paddle forward. Near the bow, it remains relatively undisturbed and, for the most part, “hugs” the hull, pinning the bow down in place.

But as the water moves past the center point – often the kayak’s widest part – and continues moving to the back, things get more turbulent.

Water no longer hugs the kayak and, as it reaches the stern, separates from the hull entirely – meaning the stern won’t be “pinned in place” the same way the bow is.

The kayak’s bow remains anchored by water pressure, but the stern doesn’t; it will start moving downwind, making it look like the bow is turning into the wind.

And just like that, your kayak’s weathercocking.

How Do Rudders Work: Main Parts Of A Rudder System Explained

The four main parts of a kayak rudder system are:

  • The rudder blade located at the stern that moves up and down, as well as side to side
  • Foot pedals used to control the rudder directly from the cockpit
  • Lift lines – often long loops knotted near the cockpit – that allow the paddler to deploy and stow the rudder as needed
  • Stainless Steel cables run along the side of the kayak and connect the rudder blade to pedals in the cockpit, allowing the paddler to direct the rudder blade remotely via foot control.

That said, this largely depends on the kayak manufacturers. Rudders for Hobie Mirage kayaks, for example, don’t utilize foot pedals and feature a hand-activated lever, instead.

But how do rudders work, exactly?

In essence, a kayak rudder works by creating drag and affecting the water flow:

When it’s deployed straight, it makes your kayak’s stern move slower than the bow, keeping it on its course. It very much acts as a fully deployed skeg.

But unlike a skeg, a rudder can also move side to side, affecting how the water flows along the blade. The force applied to the blade when it’s turned to the side is what changes the kayak’s direction, aiding steering and maneuverability and helping you counteract weathercocking.

Does A Kayak Need A Rudder? 

Ocean kayak with kayak rudder

You don’t need a rudder per se; proper use of paddling strokes can give you the level of control you’re after here. Then again, there are scenarios where it does make a difference.

“Maybe” would perhaps be a much better answer than a simple “Yes” or “No.”

It depends on the kayak’s design, your skill level, how and in what conditions you’ll use it, and, of course, personal preference.

Generally speaking, the longer the kayak, the more likely it will need a rudder. Moreover, if you intend on paddling in open water, such as ocean kayaking, where wind and waves will be a factor, you’ll probably be better off with a kayak rudder installed.

Keep one thing in mind, though:

If a kayak is meant to be paddled with one, it likely has to be deployed at all times.

Can You Install A Rudder On Any Kayak?

Not all kayaks have – or need – a rudder system, but the good news is that installing one is generally doable. They are relatively easy to install, but be prepared to drill a few holes in the hull if you don’t have a rudder-ready kayak, though.

Here are some guidelines regarding how to install a rudder to a kayak:

  • Attach the mounting bracket to the stern. Rudder-ready kayaks will have pre-drilled holes, but if not, you’ll have to drill them yourself.
  • Slide the rudder into the mounting bracket.
  • Install the lift lines into the designated – often pre-drilled – holes and check if they can move freely.
  • Install the foot pedals for maneuvering the rudder using foot control.
  • Feed the rudder cable, aka control lines, through the holes in the back and connect them to the foot pedals on both sides.

You could also get creative and make a DIY kayak rudder.

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What Is A Kayak Skeg? And, What Does a Skeg Do?

inflatable kayak on a sea shore with kayak skeg

If you want the simplest, most straight-to-the-point explanation of what it is, this sums it up nicely:

A skeg is essentially a rudder that doesn’t pivot.

Sure, that’s an oversimplified way to put it. But the key mechanical difference between rudders and skegs is that the latter only moves up and down – which, more or less, proves my point.

Now, for a proper definition of what a skeg is:

A skeg is a blade – or fin – that sits dead center on the keel, near the kayak’s stern, and acts as an incremental correction device, assisting the kayak’s tracking.

Either way, the point of having one is that a deployed skeg adds resistance to the kayak’s stern, matching it to the resistance at the bow. This “equilibrium” is what helps correct your kayak’s trajectory – meaning a skeg is only useful as long as there’s wind.

Does A Kayak Need A Skeg?

For skegs, as with the rudder, the answer is both “Yes” and “No.” It depends on your particular kayak and what you expect to achieve by adding one; that’s a good way to put it.

Allow me to explain:

The purpose of a skeg is to keep an otherwise maneuverable and easy-to-turn kayak going in a straight line.

Deploy it when you’re paddling across longer sections of flatwater and want the bow to track straight – without having to put too much effort into keeping it that way.

However, a skeg does not aid in changing direction – and could end up working against your otherwise responsive kayak. When you want your kayak’s maneuverability to shine, it’s best to keep it retracted.

Can You Add A Skeg To A Kayak?

You can, but the real question – as discussed previously – is if your kayak needs one or not. If you’re set on adding a skeg to your kayak, though, the next logical question would be:

How?

If you’re up for some DIY, here’s a quick summary of the instructions:

  • Select your kayak rudder mounting location – ideally, the center of the keel at the kayak’s stern.
  • Use sandpaper to sand the area and remove any leftover dust using a cloth.
  • This step is optional, but heating the area with a hairdryer can help the glue bond in some cases.
  • Apply the marine glue and mount the skeg base on top.
  • When the glue has dried, attach the fin.
  • Drill a hole in the skeg’s back and secure a paddle leash to ensure it won’t get lost if it separates from the base.
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What about attaching a skeg to an inflatable kayak?

Is that even an option?

In short, yes, the installation method described above also works for inflatable kayaks – minus the marine adhesive part. Skegs specifically designed for inflatables attach to the existing mounting points and don’t require glue.

What Is The Difference Between A Skeg And A Rudder On A Kayak?

pros and cons of skegs vs rudders

The matter of rudder vs. skeg has become somewhat of a divisive issue in the kayaking community. And as the debate rages on, you’re free to pick a side; everyone else in your local paddling group probably did.

Which one will it be, then – rudder or skeg?

Here’s a quick rundown of both – with a focus on their respective advantages and disadvantages.

Pros and Cons Of A Kayak Rudder

Some kayaks track as good as a cruise missile and don’t change their footprint substantially when edged. The strong tracking component makes them fairly predictable in varied conditions – but, as you already learned, it also means they aren’t regarded as particularly maneuverable.

If you have one of those kayaks that track well but will be relatively hard to turn, adding a rudder makes more sense.

Rudders are known for having a strong corrective component and deflect huge amounts of water – enough to make a relatively “static” stern feel a bit more responsive.

Beyond that, there are quite a few advantages of using a rudder:

  • The strong corrective component makes overcoming weathercocking effects and windy conditions easier
  • Helps compensate for the lack of skill
  • Handsfree steering using foot pedals and toe control
  • Allows you to focus your energy on paddling forward
  • Makes steering and turning the kayak easier without edging the hull
  • Intuitive and beginner-friendly
  • Doesn’t affect hull drag when stowed

But rudders have some disadvantages, too:

  • More moving parts means there’s more that could fail
  • Beginners might become too dependent on the rudder’s assistance
  • Installing a kayak rudder is more expensive than a skeg
  • Susceptible to damage when paddling backward

Pros and Cons Of A Kayak Skeg

What if you have a maneuverable kayak that feels highly responsive – lively, almost – on the water but doesn’t track as well?

Adding a rudder to an already free-to-move stern doesn’t make much sense.

On the other hand, a skeg could come in useful, making the stern feel more “anchored” and stationary – for lack of a better word – in windy conditions.

Here are some other advantages of using a skeg worth noting:

  • Fewer connection points and moving parts mean there’s less chance of something failing
  • Controlling the skeg doesn’t require the use of legs, meaning you can focus on using the footpegs for bracing
  • Doesn’t catch the wind when it’s not deployed
  • Cheaper to install than a rudder system

And, of course, some disadvantages:

  • Doesn’t help steer the kayak when there’s no wind
  • Has less corrective ability than a kayak rudder, meaning you’ll have to rely on paddling technique more
  • Won’t help reduce the yaw
  • Takes up rear hatch storage space if it comes with a skeg box 
  • Prone to getting jammed 

Rudder, Skeg, Or Going “Naked” – Which One Will It Be?

The longer your kayak is, the higher the chances that you’ll need some assistance keeping it straight in windy conditions. A kayak rudder will be able to get the job done – but depending on the kayak in question, so would a skeg:

Personal preference aside, your choice comes down to the handling characteristics of your ‘yak as is. Some work better with a rudder system; others lend themselves better to skeg applications.

If you still don’t feel like you have a preference, that’s fine, too. If possible, try both and see which one’s more beneficial – and feel free to revisit the things discussed in this guide if you need it.

And if you’re feeling particularly confident, know that going “naked” – no rudder and no skeg – is an option, too.