Understanding Kayak Stability: What It Means & How To Improve It

Raise your hand if you enjoy spending most of your time on the water struggling to keep a tippy kayak upright and prevent it from capsizing.

No one? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Stability is at the very core of kayaking and vital for enjoying your time on the water; even total beginners know this. But understanding kayak stability – what it means, what factors go into making a kayak stable, and how you can improve it?

That’s where things might get a bit confusing.

Worry not, though. I’ve prepared this guide to help clear things up! 

What Is Stability? 

Kayak loosing stability and rolling

I’m guessing that the general definition of kayak stability is pretty clear to most people. I mean, it can be explained as simply as:

A kayak that keeps you out of the water is stable. One that keeps tipping and dumping you into the water is not.

All jokes aside, though, stability is defined as the ability of an object – in this case, a kayak – to develop forces needed to restore its initial condition, even when it’s disturbed from the state of equilibrium.

I’m sorry if this next section brings back memories of high school physics. But to define – and understand – kayak stability, we have to talk about the two primary forces that are at play here:

The first one is the center of gravity, where the sum of the weight is concentrated and affected by gravity, pushing down. The second one is the equal and opposite force, known as the center of buoyancy.

The interaction of these forces – and their relative distribution – will play its part in the kayak’s stability.

If there’s something that disrupts the equilibrium, like waves, strong wind, or the paddler making a sudden movement, the center of gravity will shift as the kayak tips to the side. And unless the center of buoyancy follows in response to that shift, you will capsize.

So, in essence, when a kayak is stable, that means that buoyancy forces can “rearrange” as the kayak starts tipping to the side. The center of buoyancy moves in the direction of the center of gravity and beyond it, forcing the kayak back into an upright position.

But sure, we can keep the explanation as simple as:

It won’t tip easily. 

Types of Kayak Stability: Primary Vs. Secondary Stability 

Red kayak edging

A kayak’s stability is a matter of two different – but interconnected – aspects of how steady it will feel on the water. One defines how stable the kayak is initially when resting on flat water, while the other refers to how steady it is when it’s leaned to the side or on its edge.

That’s where this discussion about kayak stability becomes a bit trickier as we dive deeper into the definition and expand it to cover primary and secondary stability.

There’s one thing you should be aware of right off the bat:

You typically have to choose one or the other depending on the type of kayaking you’ll be doing.

If the best of both worlds in terms of primary and secondary stability were a thing, I’m pretty sure someone would’ve made it by now. Sadly, though, no such thing exists – not that I’m aware of, anyway.

More often than not, you’ll have to give up some initial stability for more secondary stability and vice versa. That’s not necessarily bad; just something to keep in mind.

With that said, here’s a bit more about the two types of kayak stability and how they will affect your time on the water. 

What Is Primary Stability?

Primary stability is what many tend to confuse with the kayak’s general steadiness, even though it’s mostly just its initial stability on flat water. That can be particularly deceiving for beginners, as they often make the mistake of assuming that it translates into a more stable kayak.

Does that mean that primary stability doesn’t mean much?

No – but, it does mean that you shouldn’t assume that a kayak will be equally stable when water conditions change based on how solid it feels initially in flat water.

You’ll be in for a disappointment – and an unplanned swim – as soon as you lean past a certain point or encounter choppy waters.

Primary stability is meant for calm waters, like lakes and slow-moving rivers, and a must-have in recreational and beginner kayaks. 

What Is Secondary Stability?

Secondary stability is defined as how stable the kayak is when it’s leaned far over to its side and how well it can resist capsizing – or, simply put, how high its capsize threshold is. So, when you hear someone talk about secondary stability, what they’re essentially talking about is that, even with the kayak far over on its edge, it doesn’t feel like it will roll over and capsize.

The funny thing is that most kayaks with superior secondary stability tend to feel rather tippy at first, especially in flat water. 

But make no mistake about it; they’ll remain upright, track well, and feel responsive even in the most challenging environments. 

Tippy vs Stable Kayaks in Rough Conditions - Hull Design Basics - Kayak Hipster

Rough seas, waves, adverse weather conditions, and long-distance paddling are where kayaks with secondary stability shine. 

What Affects Kayak Stability? 

shot from behind of man in Sit-in kayak

The stability of any given kayak is, broadly speaking, a function of its width, hull’s shape, length, center of gravity, and, in a sense, the type of kayak, too. These factors interact with one another and appear together in different combinations to contribute to – or take away from – the stability.

And once you understand the basics of what affects kayak stability, you’ll be better prepared to decide which type of kayak will best suit your paddling goals.

There’s a lot to unpack here – so, I suggest we get straight into it. 

Kayak Type: Is A Sit-In Or Sit-On Kayak More Stable?

I’ll talk a bit more about the effects of the center of gravity on the stability of a kayak and how it differs between sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks. For now, you must keep in mind that one isn’t necessarily more stable than the other; their perceived differences stem from varying degrees of primary and secondary stability.

All other dimensions being equal, a sit-inside kayak will offer more secondary stability than a sit-on-top simply because it has a lower center of gravity. 

Are sit-on kayaks less stable, then? 

No – well, at least not initially. Manufacturers of SOT kayaks are clever; they make up for the higher center of gravity by changing the hull shape and making it wider, which increases their primary stability. 

There’s way too much to discuss in terms of why you’d go with a sit-on-top or a sit-in kayak, and I don’t think I could cover it all here. So, if you’d like to learn about the two types of kayaks – and how they compare to one another – check out my sit-on-top vs. sit-inside kayak comparison.

Kayak Width (Beam): Is A Wider Kayak More Stable?

The width of the kayak – known as the beam – is generally considered the most significant factor in what most call “kayak stability.” And yes, there’s some truth to it:

A wider kayak is generally more stable than a narrow one. Other kayak dimensions aside, extra width – and the larger surface area that comes with it – can make a kayak feel more stable and resist side-to-side tipping.

How wide should a kayak be for stability?

Well, kayak beams that measure over 28 inches are wide enough to be considered “stable” by most paddlers. Recreational kayaks, for example, typically have 28- to 34-inch beams, and you can find fishing kayaks that measure up to 42 inches in width.

Stability Explained - What Makes Fishing Kayaks Stable

The increased width certainly has its advantages stability-wise. It’s a wide-held belief – and one that is true for the most part – but it’s also a generalization with some practical limits.

Wider isn’t necessarily always better.

Take touring and racing kayaks, for example; they wouldn’t benefit from a wider beam because their design prioritizes speed and efficiency over side-to-side stability. 

Kayak Length 

To understand the role that the kayak’s length plays in its stability, we must introduce two more terms – displacement and length-to-beam ratio.

The first one mostly has to do with the volume of water displaced by the hull, but it can explain the relationship between width and length.

Have you ever noticed how shorter kayaks tend to be wider while longer ones typically boast a significantly slimmer silhouette?

That’s where displacement comes in. As you shave inches off the kayak’s width, you’ll have to increase its length to keep the kayak’s displacement unchanged.

As for the kayak’s length-to-beam ratio, it’s not a science-based metric. But dividing the boat’s length by width can be a pretty good indicator of “sleekness” and can, in turn, tell you a bit more about how it will feel and handle on the water.

What is the best length for a kayak for good stability, then?

Recreational kayaks, which prioritize stability and ease of use, tend to measure 9 to 12 feet in length. I’d say that’s a solid indicator of the range you should aim for if primary stability is your main concern. 

Centre Of Gravity (CG)

Let’s say you get a chance to test two kayaks with similar hull shapes and beam width, and you notice a significant difference in their stability. Whenever something like that happens, there’s a pretty good chance that their center of gravity (CG) is to blame.

Changes in the height of the kayak’s center of gravity – due to the seat or any other factor – will usually impact the kayak’s stability.

Sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks are a prime example of this:

SOT kayaks have a wider beam and a higher center of gravity, which results in a higher degree of primary stability. On the flip side, sit-in kayaks have a lower center of gravity, usually paired with a narrower beam, meaning they’ll offer more secondary stability. 

Hull Shape

Another aspect of the kayak’s design that will offer further insight into the degree of stability you can expect is the hull’s shape. By looking at the hull’s cross-sectional design, you can typically get a pretty good sense of how it will “behave” on the water.

Let’s look at the four basic hull shapes and their respective stability characteristics:

  • Flat Hull – Is a flat-bottom kayak more stable? Yes – and also, no. Kayak hulls that are flat on the bottom are the classic examples of planing hulls, typically offering a great degree of primary stability, as they essentially ride “on top of the water.” Their secondary stability is lacking, though. Inflatable kayaks are an example of boats with flat hulls.
  • Rounded Hull – Hulls rounded on the bottom fall into the category of displacement hulls and offer better secondary stability. Their shape also improves speed and makes them quite maneuverable, it’s easy to see why they are a popular hull design for whitewater kayaking. The only downside being the not-so-great tracking performance.
  • V-Shaped Hull – A sharper V-shape contributes to the kayak’s ability to cut through the water, resulting in superior tracking, acceleration, and an overall lively feel. It also boosts their secondary stability, a desired feature for a sea kayak or touring kayak.
  • Pontoon Hull – Featuring a rounded and inverted tunnel-like bottom, pontoon hulls offer an outstanding amount of primary stability –   a sort after characteristic for those into stand up kayak fishing.  However, they lack the maneuverability and speed of other hull types.

Chine & Rocker Profile

When assessing a kayak’s stability, you also need to consider the chines and the rocker profile.

Chines are the hull part where the bottom meets the sides and generally come in two types – hard and soft chines.

A well-defined hull edge, known as a hard chine, will contribute to the initial stability while also assisting you in leaning the kayak and allowing better control. Soft chines, where the transition from the bottom to the sides is much smoother, will allow edging at unlimited angles.

A kayak’s rocker profile refers to the curvature of its hull, looking from the bow to the stern. A more pronounced rocker – as in, a higher degree of bow-to-stern curvature – will help the kayak “roll” with the water and avoid capsizing in turbulent environments.

A whitewater kayak is a perfect example of what I mean.

What Type Of Kayak Has Good Stability? 

Man in stand up fishing kayak

That’s probably the single most crucial question beginner paddlers are interested in when in the process of choosing a new kayak. And that’s perfectly understandable.

The answer won’t be as clear-cut as you’d expect, though.

Most modern-day kayaks are stable – for their intended use, that is. Ocean and touring kayaks are stable in choppy waters. Recreational kayaks offer plenty of primary stability for casual days on the lake. And fishing kayaks are designed to act as stable fishing platforms.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

It’s never about one type of kayak being inherently better than the other stability-wise. There’s a reason why kayak designs can vary so much from one model to the next – the reason being that they’re made to match different paddling environments and uses.

So, it’s essential to keep in mind that kayak stability can sometimes be an individual “issue” – as in, it’s a matter of intended uses, water conditions, and performance-related preferences.

That’s not to say that some kayaks don’t have a reputation for being more stable than others. I mean, look at inflatable kayaks, recreational sit-on-top kayaks, and extra-wide fishing kayaks that are often stable enough to allow for stand-up fishing.

They’re the perfect example of what most beginner paddlers think of when they picture a “stable kayak.”

But again, it almost always comes down to what you want and expect from your kayak.

Ask any long-distance paddler, and they’ll swear by their long, skinny boat that, to the untrained eye, looks like the complete opposite of “stable.” 

How To Improve Kayak Stability: What Makes A Kayak More Stable? 

Now that you know what makes a kayak more stable, there’s one more burning question I’d like to address before wrapping things up:

What can you do to make a kayak more stable?

The most important thing you can do regarding achieving a higher degree of stability is choosing the right kayak. And when I say “right,” I mean:

That would be the first step – but it’s far from the only one.

Another piece of advice I have for my fellow kayakers when it comes to better stability – and an obvious one, at that – is equipping your kayak with stabilizers or outriggers.

You’ll essentially add two floats to the sides of your kayak – like training wheels on a kid’s bike – to prevent it from tipping while improving its buoyancy in the process, too. Most of these kits are relatively cheap and easy to install and can boost the kayak’s steadiness almost instantly.

If a set of outriggers doesn’t make your kayak more stable, I don’t know what will.

And even if you still feel like you’re stuck with an overly tippy kayak, all is not lost. There’s plenty more you can do to make up for it – including making additional modifications to your kayak and working on your balance.

Excercises to overcome tippy-ness & why it's useful - Kayaking Tips #43 - Kayak Hipster

So, with that said, here are a few extra tips that could come in handy:

  • Balance the load when packing your cargo. Weight distribution can make an impact on how the kayak “behaves” on the water. And yes, that also includes its stability. Keep heavy items close to the middle of the ‘yak, and reserve bow and stern storage for lighter items.
  • Keep the center of gravity low. I already explained that your center of gravity affects stability, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. You generally want to keep your CG low. If that means replacing your lawn-chair-style seat for something more low-profile, then so be it.
  • Use ballast if needed. I know that I tend to go on and on about how the load capacity is an essential factor and that you can never have enough of it. But if your ‘yak sits higher on the water, you’ll notice a drop in the stability. Even 8 to 12 pounds of ballast can make a big difference in that sense.
  • Understand your kayak’s tipping point and learn to control it. No one can fix kayak stability issues caused by poor technique; that’s on you. Work on improving paddling skills, your control over the ‘yak, master your rolls, and learn how to hold an edge; it will make a significant difference not only in how stable the kayak feels but in your confidence, too.

Last but not least, work on improving your balance, flexibility and building core strength through yoga and Tai Chi. You’ll see how much of a difference improving your balance can make.

Understanding Kayak Stability: Conclusion

There’s a lot more to understanding kayak stability than going by the simple “wider is better “rule. Yes, width has quite a bit to do with how steady the kayak feels initially, but other factors need to be considered, too – including:

  • The degree of primary stability, or initial steadiness on flat water
  • The degree of secondary stability, or the ability to remain stable when tipped on its side
  • The shape of the kayak’s hull and other design characteristics, like chines and rocker
  • The kayak’s length-to-beam ratio
  • The center of gravity
  • Your paddling goals, intended use, and skill level