Kayaks come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but they all have common characteristics. Generally, the shape of a kayak determines its performance characteristics while various utility and artistic features define its versatility. So while every genre of kayak has its own unique components, the basic anatomy of a kayak remains the same.


Length is a primary factor that determines the overall performance of a kayak. Longer kayaks have greater speed, better tracking and larger carrying capacity while shorter kayaks of the same design are typically lightweight and easy to maneuver. So given two kayaks of identical specifications, a longer kayak will be faster and track (move in a straight line) better than the shorter one. However, shorter kayaks are easier to turn and handle. Longer kayaks are ideal for touring and cruising in open water, but not appropriate in tighter areas. Shorter kayaks are suitable for exploring estuaries and small rivers and lakes, though unlikely to have enough space or speed for overnight outings and longer day trips.


Also called beam of a kayak, width is a primary factor that determines the overall stability of a kayak. Width or beam is measured at the widest area of a kayak, usually the middle section of the craft. Typically, the wider the kayak the more stable it is, though the added width tends to reduce speed. Consequently, wide-beamed kayaks provide greater stability but are somewhat slow while narrow-beamed kayaks are less stable but offer greater speed and efficiency. A wider kayak is appropriate for people planning to take pictures, watch birds or fish during their trip. Narrower kayaks should be considered by those looking to cover longer distances with greater speed and efficiency.

Deck Height

Deck height determines the carrying capacity, water-shedding ability and maneuverability of kayaks. Generally, higher decked kayaks have increased carrying capacity and superior water-shedding ability, but they are heavier and more difficult to handle in windy conditions. Lower decked kayaks are easy to paddle and maneuver in difficult water conditions, but have limited carrying capacity and inferior water-shedding ability.


For kayaks, the two terms commonly used for capacity are volume and maximum carrying capacity. The volume of a kayak in liters is the amount of space in the kayak, including the spaces in the cockpit and dry storage areas. Maximum carrying capacity is the amount of weight a kayak can carry without diminishing its maneuverability or getting it swamped. When selecting a kayak, it is advisable to go for one that is too large rather than one that is too small.


Structurally, kayaks have two types of stability: initial (primary) stability and secondary stability. Initial stability refers to the tendency to shift or lean away from a perfectly upright position while secondary stability refers to the tendency to actually tip over. Stability is determined by the shape of a kayak and no boat can have both good initial stability and good secondary stability. The degree of stability you want should depend on how you intend to use your kayak. If you are a beginner, good initial stability is advisable. Experienced paddlers, however, can go for boats with good secondary stability. Also remember that a highly stable kayak is typically wider and slower while a relatively less stable boat will be narrower and faster.

Entry Lines

Entry line is the bow of a kayak. It is the place where a kayak cuts water and that will affect the overall performance of the boat. A blunt bow adds fullness and gives buoyancy in waves, making the ride drier. But a very sharp and knife-like bow cuts through the water with ease and provides efficiency.


Keels boost resistance to crosswinds, enhance tracking in shorter kayaks and minimize side slipping when surfing. However, they are not appropriate for kayaks used in whitewater and are not advisable in quick maneuver situations.

Kayak Sides

A good number of wider kayaks have tumblehome designs, which means that their sides curve inward as they come up creating narrower beams on their decks. A tumblehome design enables a paddler to reach the water more easily while still enjoying the stability of a wider kayak. Alternatively, kayaks may have flared sides, meaning that their beams increase as they sit deeper in water. Flared sides provide enhanced stability with increasing cargo weight and ensure that kayaks are stable when on their sides or when in unsettled water. Some kayaks have straight sides, a compromise between tumblehome design and flared sides.

Cross-Section Shapes

A cross-section shape is the outline that would be achieved when the body (hull) of a kayak was sliced into two at the widest point. It includes the shape of the bottom and the sides of a kayak and offers a good sense of how stable a kayak would be in water. The bottom view from the cross-section shape provides a glimpse into what goes on below the waterline and plays a huge role in kayak stability. From the cross-section of a kayak, three main types of bottom shapes can be observed. The flat bottom shape means a kayak is stable in calm waters but less comfortable in bigger waves. The shallow arch bottom implies the kayak is initially less stable but is better behaved and faster in unsettled water. V-bottoms imply kayaks with better tracking but less initial stability.

Common terminology used for kayak elements

Although there are many kayak genres, such as sea, whitewater, surf, recreational and touring kayaks, the terms used to describe basic elements are the same. By knowing these terms, you can learn the sport quickly and be able to communicate with other kayakers with ease. Here are the most common terms used to refer to various parts and design features of kayaks.

  1. Bow: The front part of a boat. The term is used for all boats, whether canoe, motorboat or kayak. It is pronounced similar to the “bow” in “take a bow”.
  2. Stern: The rear or back of any boat. The term is used universally for the rear of all boats.
  3. Deck: The top of a boat. Things such as bungees, hatches and cleats are all attached to the deck.
  4. Hull: The entire body of a boat. However, kayakers also may use hull to refer to the bottom of a boat.
  5. Starboard side: The right side of a boat.
  6. Aft Side: The left side of a boat.
  7. Cockpit: The area where a kayaker sits in a boat. For a sea kayak, the cockpit is limited to the section between the rear and forward bulkheads.
  8. Coaming: The rim or lip of the large hole leading into the cockpit. It is the rim of a kayak where the skirt is attached.
  9. Foot pegs, braces or pads: While every kayak has a unique design, all kayaks will have some kind of adjustable foot support usually called foot pegs.
  10. Thigh braces or hooks: Kayaks come with supports that are pressed up and out by the thighs during paddling. The braces or hooks are located on the underside of the cockpit’s top and help kayakers with various maneuvers and strokes and in controlling the kayak.
  11. Outfitting: Anything that makes a kayak suitable for the needs of an individual boater is called an outfitting. It can be adjustable or permanently placed in the boat. Examples are ratchet assemblies, pneumatic (air) adjustments, paddles and foam. Components where outfitting are usually attached include the seat, foot pegs, backrest, bulkheads and thigh hooks, among others.

Lastly, it is important to remember that while kayaks have a basic anatomy, each genre has unique elements. In fact, design features may even vary within specific genres. For example, within the broader whitewater kayaking category, there are several subcategories, like creek boating, river running and play boating kayaks. The design of each subcategory includes certain features that may not be found in other subcategories. Likewise, there are small structural differences between sea kayaks and touring kayaks. So when choosing your kayak, consider both the implications of the overall anatomy and the value of the smaller structural inclusions that may be appropriate for your kayaking trip. For more information, visit the site Captain Mike’s Kayak Academy.



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