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Kayaking Glossary of Terms

Kayaking can sometimes feel like an intimidating sport to break into given all the different lingo and equipment you often see associated with it. Even if you’re an experienced kayaker, there are often new terms or gear popping up for you to familiarize yourself with. Don’t let that scare you off, though. This just adds to the appeal of kayaking: it’s a mental exercise as well as a physical one!

Beginner Kayaking Terms

Here are some terms that will be helpful to jump start your interest in the kayaking sport:

  • Blade–this is the wide part at both ends of your paddle that dips into the water to propel you through the water.
  • Bow–the front end of the kayak that points towards the direction you’re moving.
  • Cockpit–this is the opening in the deck of the kayak that you sit in while paddling.
  • Deck–the top-side of the kayak that prevents water from getting inside the kayak.
  • Downstream–a direction that follows the current of the water you’re in. If you’re paddling “downstream” you’re paddling with the current.
  • Dry Bag–this is a helpful piece of gear that’s 100% waterproof and keeps its contents dry. Many find dry bags useful to hold extra clothes or electronics that they want to protect.
  • Hull–the bottom of the kayak that sits in the water when you’re kayaking.
  • PFD–this acronym describes a “Personal Flotation Device”, which is an essential piece of safety equipment that keeps you buoyant if you tip into the water.
  • Portage–carrying your boat/kayak and its cargo over land, usually between bodies of water but also around obstacles.
  • Roll–a maneuver that rights the kayak after capsizing. You remain inside while performing a roll and use your momentum to pull the boat right-side-up again.
  • Sit-In Kayak–a kayak style with hollowed out hull space for your legs and lower body to slide into. In this type of kayak, you are literally sitting inside it with just your torso exposed while paddling.
  • SOT Kayak–this stands for “sit-on-top” kayak in which the hull is closed off and your cockpit is entirely exposed on the deck of the kayak.
  • Sweeping Stroke–this is a basic paddling stroke used to turn the kayak.
  • Stern–the back end of the kayak that’s behind you from the cockpit.
  • Tandem Kayak–this style of kayak, also known as a double kayak or two-person kayak, is longer and wider than a single kayak to accommodate a second cockpit so two people can kayak together in the same boat.
  • Upstream–this refers to the opposite direction of the water’s current. You’d be paddling against the current if you were headed upstream.

More Advanced Kayaking Lingo

Once you’ve got the basics down, here are some more terms you’ll come across as you learn more about kayaking:

  • Anchor pulley system & anchor polethese are common items to keep your kayak in position on the water, particularly useful for kayak anglers. An anchor pulley system secures your kayak in such a way that the pulleys allow you to change direction of the ‘yak to mitigate the dangers of swamping. An anchor pole is very useful for a kayak in skinny (shallow) water as you can simply drive the pole in the bottom and secure your kayak.
  • Base Layers–moisture-wicking and sometimes insulating layers that kayakers wear closest to their bodies under outer layers as further protection against the elements.
  • Boof–an advanced whitewater kayaking maneuver in which a kayaker hops the boat over an obstacle while going downstream as opposed to paddling around it.
  • Bow Draw–an efficient turning stroke executed at the bow, or front, of a kayak.
  • Drytop–a jacket made for paddling that keeps your upper body completely dry while kayaking.
  • Eddy–a water formation that occurs when the current shifts around an obstacle. Eddies are nice places to pause for a rest or get out and scout further up the river.
  • Fish Finder–device that aids in the detection of fish below the surface of the water. They come in a range of prices and features.
  • Foot Pegs–also known as foot braces, these are add-on, adjustable pegs that you can place in the cockpit for your feet to brace against while paddling.
  • Gear Tracktype of mount on a kayak that allows different equipment and instruments to be secured to the ‘yak for easy on and off. Some kayaks come with gear tracks and some tracks can be added to kayaks.
  • Hatchopening in a kayak that allows for storage inside the craft.
  • Low Head Dam–(aka drowning machines) barriers (often man-made concrete) that span a river. Used to control water flow but create undertows, enormous pressure and currents and eddys that can be extremely dangerous.
  • Outfitting–this refers to adjustable features related to your kayak seat fitting more comfortably in your boat, like back bands, foot braces, and thigh braces.
  • Racks–racks used to mount or store your kayak(s). Roof racks are bars secured on the top of a vehicle for transporting kayaks, skis, bikes, boards, etc. Other racks can be mounted to walls for kayak storage.
  • Rapids–a section of water with a faster current and increased turbulence. You should be very comfortable in a kayak before paddling in high-speed rapids.
  • Reading Water–typically related to whitewater kayaking or paddling in intense rapids, this refers to a kayaker’s ability to look downstream and identify the safest path through the water.
  • Rudder & Skeg–this is an optional steering device that attaches to the stern-side hull of your kayak. It helps you keep a straighter path, and can be particularly useful for anglers. Like a rudder, a skeg helps to steer but it is permanently positioned on the ‘yak, unlike a rudder which can usually be raised and lowered.
  • Sculling Draw–a stroke in which you paddle in a figure eight formation in order to steer sideways across the current.
  • Spray Skirt–a helpful add-on for sit-in kayaks, especially if you’re paddling on the ocean or in rapids, that fits inside the cockpit and prevents splashes from getting inside.
  • Stackers–this is a rack accessory for your vehicle that helps you stack and secure multiple kayaks.
  • Tow Leash–a piece of rescue gear that can attach to a kayaker's waist or rescue harness to allow them to tow a fatigued paddler and their boat to shore.
  • Trolling motor–a small motor that can be added to a kayak to allow for mechanized movement. Adding it might require registration of your craft as any motor can come under laws governing motor-powered vessels.
  • Wet Exit–this is a self-rescue technique in which you exit and swim out from under your kayak in the event of it capsizing.


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