Kayak Anatomy 101: What Are The Basic Parts Of A Kayak?

Every sport and outdoor activity has its jargon. Kayaking does, too – no surprise there. Each and every part of a kayak’s anatomy has a specific name – and you may even be familiar with some kayak parts. But others might be confusing – as in, scratch-your-head-in-wonder confusing.

Either way, I think it would be a good idea to go over this basic terminology and all the different parts of a kayak before you enter the vast world of kayaking. 

So, welcome to kayak anatomy 101! 

Introductory Lesson: History & Anatomy Of A Kayak 

Traditional skin on frame west greenland kayak closeup

I figured we should start at the very beginning – with a definition of what a kayak is – before we take a closer look at all the different parts of a kayak. Otherwise, I feel like we would be skipping the introductory lesson – the one that’s supposed to set the tone and prepare you for the rest of this “course.”

A kayak is defined as a non-motorized vessel that is propelled by a two-bladed paddle.

That’s the most simplified definition of a kayak I could come up with, meaning it doesn’t factor in the vast number of variations in design, types of kayaks, and their purposes.

And believe me – there are more varieties here than you could imagine:

From sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks to hard-shells and inflatables, kayaks are easily some of the most diverse types of boats you’ll find in the world of paddle sports. 

Now, how many of you consider yourself a history buff?

Well, either way, prepare to have your mind blown: 

The history of kayaks reaches much farther than the modern-day watercraft you and I might use for recreational purposes. Kayaks were developed more than 4000 years ago by the Indigenous Inuit people of North America.

Given their long history, it’s funny to think that kayaks didn’t arrive in Europe until the mid-1800s. That means kayaking became a popular form of recreational paddling less than 200 years ago – and you’d be surprised how much these vessels evolved during that relatively short time frame.

The materials and manufacturing processes have changed, the accessories are more advanced and widely available than ever – but some basic parts of kayak remain to this day. You know the saying:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Kayak Anatomy 101: Basic Parts Of A Kayak

Basic Parts of a Kayak

Bow

The bow refers to the front portion of the kayak – or, you know, the part that points to where you are headed. It’s worth noting that this is a universal term, meaning that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a canoe, kayak, or a motor-powered boat; the front is always known as the bow.

It typically has a pointed shape, which minimizes water resistance and ensures improved efficiency. However, you’ll notice that in some ‘yaks, especially sit-on-top recreational kayaks, the bow is much “pointier” than the stern. 

Stern

The rear end of the kayak – so, in essence, the one opposite to the bow – is usually referred to as the stern. It’s typically pointed because pointy sterns create less drag and allow water to flow smoothly past the stern.

But as I already mentioned, depending on the kayak’s overall design, it can sometimes be more rounded than the bow. 

However when it comes to kayak parts, knowing the differences between bow and stern can help you avoid future frustration and embarrassment –  so, if you take anything away from this article, please remember this.

Hull

The kayak’s body generally has two distinct parts – top and bottom. And the bottom part of the kayak, the one that sits in the water while you paddle, is typically referred to as the kayak hull. There are several types of kayak hulls, the two main ones being: 

  • Displacement hulls, characterized by a rounded and more streamlined profile and a V-shaped keel, which allows them to move through the water efficiently and track better
  • Planing hulls, characterized by a flat bottom paired with sharply angled sides, offering a high degree of primary stability and – in the hands of a skilled paddler – maneuverability

Rocker

The term “rocker” refers to the banana-shaped curvature of the hull. And yes, “banana-shaped” is the official technical term for it. 

All jokes aside, though, the rocker is a part of the kayak that’s defined by the degree of the hull’s curvature from bow to stern and impacts the dynamics of the ‘yak in the water:

The more pronounced the rocker profile, the more maneuverable the kayak.

Chine 

The chine is defined as the part of the kayak’s hull where the bottom meets the sides.

You might hear people referring to the chines as either “soft” or “hard.” What they mean by that is that the shape of the hull, and more specifically, the transition from the sides to the bottom, is either rounded or boxy:

A kayak with soft chines will appear more rounded, with a gradual slope at the bottom. On the other hand, “hard chine” refers to kayaks that feature sharper, more angular – or flat-out boxy – transitions from the bottom to the sides.

Depending on the design, kayaks can have one chine per side or multiple chines, typically with not-so-sharp angles. 

Keel

The keel, or keel line, is the centerline that you can see running straight along the bottom of the kayak, bow to stern. Depending on the type of the kayak, the keel can be V-shaped (usually seen on touring and sea kayaks), flat, which is a standard feature on planing hulls, or rounded, commonly found on recreational kayaks. 

Cockpit

The cockpit is the opening in the kayak’s deck where the paddler is seated. But as you might be able to tell, not all kayaks have a cockpit; this is a feature exclusive to sit-inside kayaks.

As for the cockpit’s size, it generally depends on the type of kayak.

For instance, recreational kayaks will have a large, oval-shaped opening to make it easier to get in and out, while ocean and whitewater kayaks tend to have smaller cockpit openings to make it easier to keep the water out of the kayak. 

Deck

The lack of an enclosed cockpit is what makes sit-on-top kayaks unique and different from their sit-in counterparts. Instead, the paddler sits directly on the deck – the top side of the kayak, that is.

So, broadly speaking, the deck can be defined as the top half of the kayak’s body.

Design-wise, decks can vary greatly based on the type of kayak you’re looking at – from simple, with very few features to fully rigged and equipped with deck lines, tank wells, hatches, and the like. 

Steering & Tracking Kayak Parts 

When you see kayaks on the water, you only get to see them top-side up – well, if the paddler is doing the whole paddling thing right, anyway. That also means you probably didn’t get much of a chance to see what’s going on below the water surface.

If you ever wondered, “What is the fin on the bottom of a kayak called?” the following section will provide some answers. 

Rudder

A rudder is an adjustable fin-like blade that extends from the kayak’s stern and can pivot side to side. Many consider it a form of “steering aid,” but its primary role is controlling your direction of travel – as in, keeping the kayak on a straight path, even when strong winds and currents try to take you off course.

The rudder can be operated from the cockpit using foot pedals and can be deployed or flipped up as needed. 

Skeg

A skeg is a fin located on the underside of the hull, near the stern of the kayak – which sounds a bit like the rudder I mentioned earlier, huh? 

And in essence, yes, a skeg is pretty much a rudder that doesn’t pivot.

It works similarly to a rudder, except for the fact that it’s static and doesn’t move left to the right; you can only raise or lower it – if it’s a retractable skeg, that is. You’ll find that inflatable kayaks feature at least one – and up to four – detachable skegs.

Kayak On-Board Storage Parts 

Deck Hatches

A hatch is essentially an opening in the kayak’s deck that serves as access to the dry storage compartment formed by the bulkhead below the deck. 

They come in a range of sizes, but their main purpose is to close off the storage compartment and prevent water from getting inside it, creating a dry and safe area for storing your gear and valuables while on the water.

On that note, most – but not all – hatches are designed to be completely watertight.

Kayak hatches are more common on sit-inside touring and sea kayaks, usually one in the front and one in the back of the kayak. Some kayaks will also feature the so-called day touring hatch – a third one located within arms’ reach.

As for sit-on-top kayaks, they might have a hatch, too – but it’s usually a single, center one near the seat. 

Tank Well (Open Cargo Space)

Tank well refers to the open area found on the deck of a sit-on-top kayak that’s used as storage space. More often than not, it’s located in the back, near the stern of the ‘yak, but depending on the model, smaller ones can be found at the front of the kayak.

These open cargo spaces are generally used for storing kayak coolers, dry bags, tackle boxes, a crate, and the like. On some kayaks, the tank well is accompanied by a cargo net or bungee cord as an added way of securing the gear. 

Bungee Cord Rigging

Elastic bungee cords found on the kayak’s deck serve a variety of purposes, the most common one being on-deck storage. Whenever paddlers require a secure but flexible hold on their gear, bungee cords come to the rescue.

The rigging is typically organized in an X-shaped or “II” pattern, although the actual spacing and the width of the bungee cords depend on the kayak model. You’ll usually find this type of rigging parallel to the seating area – or, more specifically, the cockpit rim of sit-inside kayaks.

Either way, you can use bungee rigging to strap pretty much any loose items to the deck of the ‘yak – from water bottles to spare paddles and more.

Deck Lines – An Intricate Webwork 

Broadly speaking, any rope found on the deck of the kayak is referred to as “deck line.” Perhaps you haven’t noticed this, but decks of most kayaks look like this intricate webwork of elastic and static cords of varying lengths and connections.

With that said, here’s an overview of different types of deck line configurations and their primary functions:

Perimeter Lines

Perimeter lines are the static chords running along either side of the kayak, from bow to stern.

These types of deck lines are secured snuggly against the kayak’s deck but still loose enough to allow the paddler to reach under it and grab the line with their fingers. Perimeter lines are mainly used as a way to hold onto the kayak after capsizing and play a crucial role in rescue situations. 

Rudder Lines

I already explained what a rudder is and how it works. If a kayak has one, it will also feature the so-called rudder lines – the rope that essentially allows you to deploy the rudder or raise it back up as needed, directly from the kayak’s cockpit. 

Anchor Trolley

An anchor trolley is, in essence, the extension of the anchor line. When set up right, an effective anchor trolley creates an adjustable attachment point on the ‘yak, allowing the paddler to adjust the positioning of the anchor along the kayak’s side based on changing tides or wind conditions. 

SOT Only: Additional Parts Of A Sit-On-Top Kayak 

Basic Parts of a Sit-On-Top Kayak

Scuppers & Scupper Plugs

Scuppers are built-in holes that go from the deck to the hull and are found on sit-on-top kayaks as part of their self-bailing design. Their primary role is to allow any excess water that splashes onto the deck to drain.

However, since they can also allow water to get onto the deck from underneath, it’s advisable to pair them with scupper plugs – rubber plugs that will close off the scupper holes when additional drainage isn’t needed. 

Tank Well

The term “tank well,” as I explained earlier, is just another name for the on-deck storage wells – and it’s a standard storage solution found on most sit-on-top kayaks.

These are open gear storage compartments, usually located near the bow or stern of the kayak that can, in some cases, be accompanied by bungee rigging or a cargo net. Most paddlers use the open cargo area for storing a kayak cooler or a dry bag, but anglers will use it for storing tackle boxes and other fishing gear. 

Footwell

Footwells are pretty much the SOT kayaks’ equivalent of the foot braces commonly used in sit-inside kayaks. However, unlike foot braces, footwells are molded into the deck – and aren’t adjustable:

You’re just getting a series of multiple “bumps” on the kayak’s deck to find a comfortable place to rest your feet in while paddling.

Which ones you choose comes down to your height. So, for example, a taller paddler will opt for the footwell that’s further away – and shorter folks will use the ones closest to them. 

SIK Only: Additional Parts Of A Sit-In Kayak

Basic Parts of a SIt-Inside Kayak

Bulkhead

Bulkheads are one of the internal parts of a kayak, so you might not be able to see one – but if you have a sit-inside kaytak, the chances are, it’s there.

Bulkheads are “walls” inside the kayak – front, back, or even both – that split it up into separate waterproof compartments.

Most people associate bulkheads with hatches, which shouldn’t come as a surprise; they are in charge of creating dry storage compartments that can be accessed through the hatch. However, they play a vital role in terms of safety, too:

Bulkheads will also trap air inside these compartments, which adds to the kayak’s buoyancy and prevents the ‘yak from flooding completely in the event of capsizing.

Compass Recess

Another thing you’d usually only find on the deck of sit-in ‘yaks – and, more specifically, ocean and touring kayaks – is a compass recess. As the name suggests, it’s a built-in nook designed to accommodate a kayak compass.

More often than not, it’s found on the kayak’s deck, right in front of the cockpit – and for obvious reasons, if you think about it:

That’s where the kayak compass is the easiest to read from a seated position. 

Thigh Braces

And now we get to the parts of a kayak that’s all about making you as comfortable as possible inside the cockpit – while also helping you maintain control over your kayak.

Thigh braces are located inside the cockpit, near the rim, and serve as contoured brackets that allow the paddler to lock in their thighs. So, in essence, they’ll provide secure points of contact between the paddler and the kayak, which is vital for bracing and rolling maneuvers.  They often team with hip pads1

Hip Pads

Kayak hip pads, removable cushions placed on the edges of the seat to make paddling more comfortable. They improve the support and stability provided to the kayaker by the seat, so they don’t swing side-to-side when paddling. They are most commonly seen in whitewater kayaks, where the rider will be subjected to constant bouncing, but they’re also useful on sea kayaks and touring kayaks.

Foot Pegs (Foot Braces)

Much like footrests found on sit-on-top kayaks, foot braces give you a comfortable place to rest your feet and push against while paddling to ensure comfort and better power transfer. They will help you maintain a proper paddling posture, which will, in turn, help you paddle more efficiently.

But unlike standard footwells, foot braces are designed to be adjustable. If a kayak is equipped with a rudder, foot braces will also double as a way to control it from the cockpit. 

Cockpit Coaming

Coaming is just the technical term for the rim – or the raised outer edge – of a sit-inside kayak’s cockpit. There’s not much else to add – except that it’s typically curved, with a lip underneath, to allow the paddler to hook a spray skirt onto the coaming.

You’ll find that some kayaks feature a detachable fiberglass coaming, but more often than not, it is molded to the ‘yak. 

Additional Parts Of A Fishing Kayaks

Basic Parts of a Fishing Kayak

Gear Tracks

Gear tracks, which also go under the name accessory rails, are a top kayak mod and the key to customizing a fishing kayak. You can use these metal rails to mount everything from additional rod holders to GPS or tackle trays. 

Or, in short:

The majority of accessories you’ll ever mount on your fishing kayak will fit in these standardized gear tracks.

Gear tracks feature long, metal strips with grooves that can accommodate the T-shaped bolts of the corresponding kayak accessories. You slide the T-bolt into the gear track’s groove and turn it to tighten it; that’s about it. 

Accessory Mounting Spots

Similar to gear tracks purpose-wise – but not quite the same. Accessory mounting spots are, as the name clearly implies, dedicated base mounts for any additional gear or accessories that will attach directly to the kayak’s hull or to the kayak deck.

That includes camera mounts, GPS and compass mounts, rod holders, and fish finders.

The most common accessory mounting spots would be the ones designed to accommodate fish finders – transducer and all – to ensure seamless integration of this essential fishing gadget.

Rod Holder

Okay,as kayak parts go this one should be pretty self-explanatory. Rod holders are – well, designated holders for fishing rods.

The general idea is to have a spot to set your rods in and forget about them, rather than having to keep them in your hand at all times – which isn’t exactly doable when you’re also in charge of paddling.

Most fishing kayaks will feature two – or more – rod holders incorporated into their design. But if yours doesn’t, the good news is that you can still install a few as an aftermarket kayak upgrade. 

High-Low Seat

Another feature that’s commonly found on fishing kayaks would be the so-called high-low seat – a kayak seat that allows the paddler maximum level of adjustability height-wise. They also go by the name “lawn-chair-style seats” because – well, they look like lawn chairs.

Yes, all kayaks have a seat, but let’s face it:

Sometimes those generic seats that come with the kayak can be a royal pain in the “backside.” Comfort, adjustability, and support are certainly not a given. 

Trolling Motor Mount Point

Most kayaks aren’t designed to accommodate a trolling motor – so, I guess fishing kayaks are pretty unique in that sense.

I’m sure you can tell what the purpose of a trolling motor mount point is; it’s a dedicated spot for mounting a trolling motor onto a kayak. Call me Captain Obvious, but it needed to be said.

You will usually find a trolling motor mount point on the bow, stern, or on the side of the kayak – which, by the way, is called the gunwale.

Pedal Drive System

If there’s one feature that could make you draw a comparison between kayaks and bicycles, it’s a pedal drive system:

It’s a mechanism that transfers the power generated by the foot pedals to the propellers or to a pair of side-moving fins – depending on the type of pedal drive system in question.  

Granted, this feature isn’t exclusive to fishing kayaks; I’ve had the pleasure of taking a few great recreational kayaks that were fitted with a pedal drive system for a spin, too.

But generally speaking, adding pedal propulsion makes the most sense when you need to free up your hands for other things – catching fish, for example. 

Basic Parts Of A Kayak: Summary

Congratulations – you’ve made it to the end of my Kayak Anatomy 101 course!

Tell me, do you feel like an expert yet? Honestly, you should – you’ve learned the basic parts of a kayak and went over all the fundamental terminology in one go.

I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty darn impressive in my book. 

Feel free to show off your knowledge among your paddling buddies – or, better yet, recommend that they check out this guide, too. 

And if you ever feel like it’s time to brush up on a few things, you know where to find it!