Anatomy of a Kayak: Parts of a Kayak Explained

Anatomy of a Kayak: Parts of a Kayak Explained

Do you want to invest in a kayak? Maybe you’ve recently bought a kayak or are doing some research. Whatever the case, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the boat before you’re ready to take it out on the water.

Before you learn the correct paddling strokes, safety procedures, and perfect paddling spots, you’re going to want to start with the basics. What makes up your kayak’s anatomy? Do you know what each part does and what it’s called?

Before you buy, having the parts of a kayak explained can give you a better understanding of what to look for in your new boat. We’ve put together this guide so you’ll know all the different aspects of your boat.

This information helped me choose the ideal kayak and explain the fundamentals of kayaks to others. It may seem obvious, but there’s actually a lot more to a kayak than you might think!

Different Parts for Different Boats

There are several different types of kayaks, but most of them share similar features.

Whitewater or Play Boats

Whitewater (or play) boats are some of the simplest, as they are usually made out of plastic have few additional parts. Their design is optimal for rough waters where ropes, rudders, or fiberglass hulls can easily get damaged.

Their minimal design is perfect for playing in river rapids, but not for longer trips on open water. In the latter case, you’ll be thankful for the added features of bigger touring or sea kayaks.

Sea or Touring Kayaks

Sea kayaks or touring kayaks have a lot more additional parts. They are designed for open water excursions and include extra room for storage. These kayaks will have more technical features, ropes and cords, hatches, and sometimes even rudders or skegs.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are a bit of a combination of whitewater and sea kayaks. They are usually made of plastic, but they’re larger than whitewater boats and have some of the same features as sea kayaks.

They’re not as technical as touring boats, but they’re bigger and more stable for easy paddling on flat water.

When deciding what type of kayak to get, it’s a good idea to learn about all the different features available, from minimal design to extras like ropes and cords.

But every kayak will have many of the same parts and their core design is the same. Familiarizing yourself with the parts of a kayak is the perfect first step in becoming an expert paddler. Let’s get into it!

The Basics

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The Hull and Deck

The body of the boat has two main parts: a top and bottom. The bottom part, the portion that submerges in the water when you’re paddling, is called the hull. The hull of a kayak primarily comes in two different varieties: a displacement hull or a planing hull. (NRS has a full guide on hull types for a more in-depth breakdown.)

  • Displacement Hull: Most kayaks have a displacement hull which features a centerline (also called the keel) running down the middle of the hull. These hulls are long and straight with rounded sides and are ideal for going fast and straight through the water.
  • Planing Hulls: These hulls are found on whitewater kayaks and feature a flat bottom with angled sides. They’re not great for speed, but are ideal for maneuverability and control. It’s much harder to make these kayaks go in a straight line, but if you’re playing in the rapids and need to be able to make quick movements, this type of hull is necessary.

The deck is simply the top half of your kayak. Decks can vary greatly, from plastic with very few added features to fiberglass with hatches, deck lines, and more.

Sea kayaks are designed for longer trips on open water, so their decks will have hatches and lines to store items in. The decks of whitewater kayaks or river boats will be streamlined, making them best suited for rapids and easy movement. The look of the deck is based on practicality most of the time.

The type of kayak will determine what features the deck is equipped with.

Unless you’re in some seriously turbulent waters, the deck will always remain above the surface of the water.

The Cockpit

The cockpit is the opening in the deck of your kayak that allows you to sit inside. These can come in all different sizes, but are usually round or oval. Recreational kayaks have larger cockpits that are easy to get into if you’re a bigger person, or if you just like having a little more room and easy access to the water from your boat.

Whitewater boats and sea kayaks have smaller cockpits that are easily covered with a spray skirt, like this one, to keep the water out.


The coaming is the edging around the cockpit. It’s watertight and used to attach your spray skirt to the boat. This is also sometimes called the cockpit rim. It’s usually rounded with a lip underneath. Some boats are made with a detachable fiberglass coaming, while others are simply molded to the boat. Plastic boats usually don’t have a detachable coaming.

Grab Handles

Pretty much all kayaks will have two grab handles, one on each end of the kayak. If you’ve ever tried to carry a kayak, you know why these are vital! Kayaks can be heavy, so the grab handles make it easy to pull your boat out of the water or carry it with another person.

Grab handles can be small rope loops with a plastic hold at the end, thick rope, or plastic stretched through an opening at the end of your kayak. Without these handles, getting your boat out of the water would be a lot harder!

Inside Your Boat

You might think the parts of your kayak are just what you can see from the outside. But that’s not true at all! The inside of a kayak has many different features and moving parts. The first thing you’ll notice is usually the most obvious, the seat, but there are other important parts of your kayak that you can’t see from the outside.

The Seat

Kayaks come with a wide array of seat options. Some are built in, removable, soft and cushioned, or hard and rigid. The type of seat you have will depend largely on your preference and the type of boat you’re paddling. Keep in mind, though, that almost all seats can be customized to your preferences.

If you want a soft, cushy seat and your kayak doesn’t have one, you can purchase a padded seat insert or even adhesive foam to make for a more comfortable ride. If you’re not happy with the seat that comes with your kayak, change it! Check out our list of the best kayak seats and pick the one that’s right for you.

The Foot Pegs and Rails

Most kayaks have foot pegs inside the boat. These braces help you stay balanced and keep control of your boat. Some footpegs are stationary, while others can be adjusted along a moveable rail. If your kayak doesn’t have foot pegs in it, you can easily purchase your own and have them installed (or do it yourself). Foot pegs are especially vital if you’ll be paddling on rapids and will need extra control over your kayak.


Sea kayaks and touring boats have bulkheads. These are essentially walled-off compartments at either end of your boat. Their purpose is twofold: First, they provide watertight storage so you can keep your valuables and extra supplies safe and dry while you’re paddling.

This is perfect if you want to bring your phone, electronics, or even dry clothes with you on your trip. Second, bulkheads help with floatation if your kayak takes on water. When you capsize or your cockpit fills with water, the bulkheads ensure the water doesn’t fill the entire boat and needlessly weigh it down. This can make it much easier to drain your kayak or get it back to land.

On the Deck

There are a number of features you’ll find on the deck of your boat. Play boats used for whitewater will have minimal features on the top of the kayak, while sea kayaks have a lot of added parts.

Hatches and Hatch Covers

Most sea kayaks have two to three hatches. These are openings on the deck into the bulkheads below. They are sealed with rubber hatch covers to keep the water out.

You can throw your extra supplies, snacks, cell phone, and anything else you want to keep dry into the hatches and feel safe that they’ll stay dry. Keep in mind, though, that these hatch covers can become dried out and sun-damaged easily.

To keep them pliable and in good condition, I highly recommend spraying them with 303 Protectant Spray. There are lots of varieties of protectant sprays available, but 303 is one of the most widely-used and it’s the one I use for my own kayaks.

Deck Lines

You’ll see a variety of ropes and cords on the tops of many kayaks. These all fall under the umbrella category of “deck lines,” but they all serve unique purposes. These come in handy on longer trips when you’ll be carrying extra gear with you.

  • Perimeter Deck Line: This cord goes along the outside edge of your kayak’s deck. It’s ideally placed to make it easy to grab or hook your fingers underneath. This is especially useful during a capsize, when you’re trying to grab hold of your boat but the hull is too slippery to grip. The perimeter deck line gives you something easier to grab.
  • Gear Stowage Sines: These usually come in an X-shape across the front or back of your boat. Sometimes you’ll see parallel lines instead. These lines are great for storing an extra life jacket, waterproof map, or even a collapsible spare paddle. Any gear you don’t mind getting wet can be stored under these lines, as long as it’s not too small or fragile.
  • Rudder Lines: Some kayaks have rudders that can be controlled from the cockpit. In these boats, you’ll see a line on one side that runs parallel to the perimeter line. This line can be pulled to raise and lower the rudder easily while you’re paddling.

Rudder or Skeg

Some kayaks have rudders or skegs. A rudder is a blade that’s attached to the end of your kayak. In choppy waters or on windy days, a rudder can help you paddle straight. Rudders can also be purchased separately, like this one, and installed on your kayak.

A skeg is similar to a rudder, but instead of being attached to the top of your kayak and dropped into the water, it is stowed in a small opening in the hull and dropped down for use.

The skeg can’t move from side to side, but can be lowered and raised to different depths. Its purpose is the same as the rudder: to help keep your boat under control and going straight in windy conditions.

There is some debate as to whether rudders or skegs are better, and some people think that neither is the best option. Personally, I’m partial to skegs.

I find them easier to use, less cumbersome, and unlike many rudders, they’re not controlled by foot pegs. This makes it easier to use your feet and legs for leverage when paddling. But to each their own. Try them both and find out which you prefer!

As you can tell, there’s a lot more to a kayak than meets the eye. Understanding the anatomy of a kayak, the way it’s put together, and all the different parts, is vital to becoming a great kayaker.

Knowing about the makeup of your boat will help you learn to maintain it and use it best. If you haven’t bought a boat yet, this information will help you know what features to look for and what type of boat will be best for you.

If you have any questions, or want to know more, let us know in the comments!


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Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.