If you’re just starting out in the world of kayaking, it’s normal to find yourself intimidated by the lingo. Say you’re searching for the best kayak spray skirts and you stumble upon an article talking about the size of the kayak coaming. You don’t even know what that is! How are you supposed to learn the basics if you don’t understand the terminology?
Don’t worry, that’s where we come in. Before you start learning the paddling strokes and picking out the best kayak, you first want to familiarize yourself with some basic kayak terminology. This will give you a solid knowledge base you can later expand on during all your kayaking endeavors.
Is it a paddle or an oar? What’s a hull, anyway? Is starboard the right or the left? Whatever questions you have, you should be able to answer them easily after looking through our beginner’s guide to kayak terminology.
Kayaks aren’t just one type of boat. While they all have the same basic structure, the actual build of a kayak varies greatly depending on it’s use. Kayaks built for rivers with rapids will usually be short, easily maneuverable, and made of plastic. Kayaks made for long trips on open water will be long, narrow, and made from fiberglass or plastic, with areas for dry storage.
Whatever type of paddling you want to do, there’s a specific style of kayak for you. American Kayak has a basic guide that will show you what each style looks like, but here’s a more in-depth review:
Kayaks designed for whitewater river rapids fall under three main categories. While any of them will work on rivers with rapids and strong currents, each type is made to be ideally suited for a specific type of water and paddling environment.
Creek boats are the highest-volume variety of whitewater kayak. They are designed for easy turning and have more depth for buoyancy, which prevents either end of the kayak from being submerged. Creek boats are best for tight turns, steep drops (like waterfalls), and paddling through some serious whitewater.
Play boats are designed to be easily submerged in water. Their name comes from the way whitewater paddlers use them to “play” in the rapids. These boats are perfect for doing tricks. They have narrow and flat ends and look a little squished, which makes them very easy to maneuver.
River Running or Downriver Boats
River running or downriver boats are a cross between creek boats and play boats. They are longer than play boats, but not quite as big and buoyant as creek boats. They’re easier to keep in a straight line but are maneuverable enough that some rapid play is possible, too. They’re fast and good for paddling downriver, but can just as easily be used for surfing on the rapids.
Sea Kayaks or Touring Kayaks
These boats are long, narrow, and built for speed over maneuverability. They will have more added features than river boats, from bungee cords to rudders and dry hatches. If you’ll be venturing out into the open ocean or any large body of water, this is probably the type of boat you’ll want. The longer shape means that it’s easier to paddle long distances in a straight line and the extra storage space ensures you’ll have enough room for all your gear (and snacks).
Recreational kayaks, or rec boats, are generally built for beginners or flat-water paddlers. They’re wide and flat (which increases stability), easy to control, and usually affordable. If you want to go fishing from your kayak or paddle with a cooler full of food and drink, this is the boat for you. They’re not recommended for open water or rapids but are ideal for slow-moving rivers or calm lakes.
Sit-on-top kayaks are as straightforward as they sound. Instead of sitting inside a cockpit with your legs inside the boat, you sit on top of a flat kayak. These aren’t great for long trips or whitewater, but they’re perfect for an easy afternoon on the beach, hot summer days, or a laid back paddle (if you don’t mind getting wet). They’re also very low-maintenance and easy to clean.
Tandem kayaks can be a type of touring, recreational, or sit-on-top kayak. Though uncommon, there are even tandem whitewater kayaks! A tandem boat is simply a two-person kayak. It will either have a single open cockpit with two seats in it or two individual cockpits. Tandem kayaks are a great option if you’ll be paddling with someone who’s not as strong, or if you just want to be within easy talking distance during your trip. They’re not as easy to control or maneuver, so I’d steer clear of these if you’ll be on tough waters.
Kayaks are made out of many different materials that serve different purposes. Most of the kayaks you’ll find are a type of plastic or fiberglass. The type of material will depend on what you’re looking for in terms of durability, weight, and cost.
Fiberglass, Kevlar, and Carbon
Most high-end sea kayaks are made of fiberglass or a fiberglass composite material. Kevlar and carbon fiber are also popular. All of these materials allow the boats to be strong and lightweight, allowing for easy loading and maneuvering. The downside is that these boats are usually more expensive to buy and to repair. Fiberglass, kevlar, and carbon (and any composite combination of the three) all cost a lot more than plastic. While they’re strong, it can be a big hassle to get them fixed if you damage kayaks made from these expensive materials.
Polyethylene or Plastic
Most commonly referred to as plastic, polyethylene boats are durable and affordable. Whitewater boats are made out of plastic so they can be banged against rocks and debris without needing to worry about damage to the hull. The downside, however is that they are heavier, bulkier, and often don’t look as nice. Plastic is practical, but carbon fiber boats definitely win on the wow factor!
The majority of recreational kayaks and those priced in the mid to low range will be made of plastic, too, since it’s easier and cheaper to produce. You can find tandem boats in any material, but because they’re bigger, they’re often made out of plastic.
Wooden kayaks are a rarity these days, but the very first kayaks were made of wood. They’re heavier and not very practical, but if you can find a wooden kayak, you’ll probably fall in love with it. They’re beautiful! The biggest downside to these (apart from the hefty price tag) is that they’re not very durable, so you have to be very careful with them. The wooden kayaks that are made are most often sea kayaks. You’re just as likely to find them in museums as on the water!
We have a full guide on all the parts of the kayak. Check it out for a more thorough synopsis. Here’s a brief rundown of the parts of a kayak:
Hull: The bottom of the boat (the part that sits in the water).
Deck: The top half of the kayak.
Cockpit: The opening in the top of the kayak that the paddler sits in.
Foot braces or Foot Pegs: The plastic foot rests that sit on rails inside the kayak. These are used to give the paddler more leverage and stability.
Coaming: The raised lip around the cockpit. The spray skirt attaches to the coaming.
Hatches: Sea kayaks have hatches that provide the boats with dry storage. They are sealed with watertight rubber hatch covers.
Bow: The front of a kayak.
Stern: The back of a kayak.
Paddling a kayak is more complicated than it sounds because it involves a lot of different strokes. Here are some of the most basic ones:
This is the most basic stroke that propels your boat forward. The paddle enters the water at the front of the boat and pulls back toward your hip. It is then drawn out of the water and repeated on the other side.
This stroke either moves you backward or helps you come to a stop. The paddle is entered into the water behind you and drawn forward. Several short backward strokes on either side will help you come to a stop.
This is the basic turning stroke. For a forward sweep, the paddle enters the water at the front of the kayak and then is drawn away from the boat and back toward the paddler in an arc. The reverse sweep does the same thing in the reverse direction. The wide arc of the stroke helps push the kayak in one direction or the other.
This stroke is used to draw the boat directly to the left or right without moving forward or backward. The paddle enters the water directly to the side of the paddler and is then drawn back toward the boat. You repeat this stroke as often as needed until you’ve moved as far as you want to one side.
Like the side draw, the sculling draw is used to move the kayak to the side. This stroke utilizes a back-and-forth motion in the water in order to move the kayak directly to one side. The paddle moves back and forth in the water, parallel to the center of the kayak, to propel it horizontally. Think of the motion like spreading icing back and forth a foot away from the side of your boat.
While it can be a little trickier to get the hang of the sculling draw, most paddlers find it easier than the side draw since you don’t have to keep lifting your paddle out of the water. Try them both and see what works best for you!
Braces are used to regain your balance so you don’t capsize. A low brace uses the back face of the paddle pushing down against the surface of the water.
The high brace looks almost identical to the low brace except that you are pushing down on the front face of the paddle.
This is definitely not something you want to do, especially if you’re paddling in cold water! Capsizing just means tipping your kayak over while you’re still inside it. This can be scary, but for beginner paddlers, it’s pretty common. Getting a boat with a wide and flat hull will make capsizing much less likely.
When you capsize your kayak (particularly if you are wearing a spray skirt) you can lean forward and roll out of the boat while under water. This is called a wet exit simply because you’re exiting your boat underwater, and you will definitely get wet!
Unlike a wet exit, you never exit your boat in an Eskimo roll. When you capsize, you simply roll back up. This only really works if you’re wearing a spray skirt, and trust me, it’s a lot harder than it looks!
Cartwheels, Squirts, and Enders
These terms all describe moves used in whitewater kayaking. They are methods of maneuvering your kayak in the rapids and flipping the ends of the kayak up in the air. It takes a lot of skill, but once you’ve mastered it, they can be really fun!
Carrying your kayak around a rapid, obstacle, or patch of dry land is called a portage. It basically just means carrying your boat on land before re-entering the water.
Some terms regarding bodies of water are pretty straightforward. You’ve probably heard of a lake, river, and rapids. But there are some terms you might not hear outside the context of kayaking that are useful to know when paddling.
You’re probably familiar with this term, but a rapid is simply a section of river where the flow has sped up. The strong current usually combines with obstacles, like rocks in the riverbed, which creates turbulence in the water.
An eddy is a place of calm water next to a rapid. Eddies are formed when there is an obstacle in the water, like a rock, that creates a rapid. The water flows around the obstacle and then back up to the side, creating the eddy. Eddies are great for resting outside the rapids when you’re paddling on rivers with rapids.
Not everyone knows this, but you can surf in a kayak just as you would on a surfboard! The surf just refers to the waves, either in the ocean or Great Lakes that make for good surfing.
Whitewater is what it sounds like—white water. Flowing water mixes with air to create a frothy, white-colored foam. The more whitewater, the bigger the rapids and stronger the current are likely to be. You can find whitewater in any body of water depending on how strong the wind is, but you’re most likely to see it on rivers with rapids.
The severity and strength of rapids are divided into classes from 1 to 5. Class 1 rapids are easy to navigate. The current is flowing, but there’s little risk of capsizing. Class 5 is for serious paddlers only. The rapids are huge and the current is strong. Without much experience, you’ll likely be fine on class 2 rapids, but when you get up to three or four, you’re going to want a lot of experience, especially with Eskimo rolling. Don’t enter big rapids if you’re a beginner!
This is the most vital kayak accessory you can have. Without a paddle, you’re not getting very far. Paddles can be made out of lots of different materials, from wood to plastic to fiberglass.
Blades: The wide, flat part of the paddle that enters the water is called the blade.
Shaft: This is essentially the handle—the pole connected the paddle’s blades that you hold on to when paddling. Shafts can be bent or straight and can come in one piece or two connectable parts.
PFD or Lifejacket
Your second most important accessory is your personal flotation device (PFD) or lifejacket. Never go paddling without a PFD. If you ever capsize or get knocked unconscious, they can save your life. Check out our list of the best life vests to see what we recommend.
A spray skirt is one of the most critical pieces of equipment for whitewater paddlers and sea kayakers. Spray skirts are worn around the paddler’s waist and are connected to the cockpit of the kayak to prevent water from getting inside the boat. These are great for paddling on cold weather days to stay warm, too. Always look for a reputable brand, like Seals, to make sure your skirt won’t leak! Check out our full list of recommendations here.
A wetsuit is pretty common for surfers and divers, but is also popular amongst kayakers. If you’re paddling in rapids or cool weather and might capsize or get splashed, a wetsuit can keep you warm. They are usually made from neoprene and are worn tight against the skin. They don’t keep you dry, but help warm you when you get wet.
A dry suit is a waterproof suit with tight-sealed closures around the extremities. These are used for really cold weather paddling when you definitely don’t want to get wet. They’re perfect for layering warmer clothes underneath when paddling.
Dry bags are waterproof, flexible containers that are used to store clothing, valuables, or electronics when paddling. Everything inside stays dry even if the bag gets thrown in the water.
Float bags are inflatable bags that are inserted into kayaks to help keep them afloat if the boat capsizes or takes on water.
Roof Racks or J-cradle
Roof racks are metals bars that are attached to the roof of your car that can transport kayaks and other sporting gear. J-cradles are angled, J-shaped attachments that attach to the roof racks and are specifically designed to hold kayaks. They’re not necessary, but they really help keep your kayak stable and secure while you’re driving.
Tow or Rescue Bag
A tow or rescue bag is an important piece of equipment that contains a cord, usually around 25-feet long, that can be thrown to someone in need of rescue. It can be used to pull in a paddler or can be tied to another boat in order to tow them to safety.
You might not be an expert paddler yet, but at least you’ll know how to talk like one! Hopefully reading this guide has given you insight into the world of kayaking. Now that you understand the terminology, it’s time to put it to use and start paddling!