Common Kayaking Terms You Have to Know

Kayaking is a lovely way to spend a day in the sun. The clear water and warm breeze is enough to lull anyone into a relaxed mood. 

It’s quite straightforward, but there are a few common terms that you’ll benefit from knowing. Terms like blade, hull, spray skirt, and shaft are all vital to understanding when kayaking. 

Braving the open water can be daunting, especially on a sea kayak, so it’s imperative that you understand what to do and how to do it, if necessary.

Most Popular Kayaking Terms and What They Mean

In this article, we run through the most commonly used kayaking terms and provide an explanation of each.

Kayaking Techniques – Terms

  • Back stroke: This refers to paddling backwards.
  • Bow draw: This is a more intermediate stroke used to turn the boat at the bow.
  • Brace stroke: This stroke helps correct a kayak if it feels like it’s about to capsize and involves placing the paddle across the boat with the blades flat over the water. 

You lean towards the side that is tilting into the water, slapping your paddle against the water while pushing your knee up against the cockpit. This prevents your boat from capsizing by shifting it into an upright position.

  • Edge control: This is a paddler’s ability to maintain balance and control of his/her vessel.
  • Forward stroke: Using the paddle to go in a forward direction.
  • Eskimo roll: This involves correcting the kayak if you’ve capsized without getting out of the boat. Lift your torso upwards, move your hips quickly to the right and use your paddle to push yourself upright.
  • Reading water: This is the act of observing the water currents before navigating them.
  • Sculling draw: This is a figure eight stroke that you do with a paddle to pull the kayak sideways.
  • Side draw: This is a paddle stroke in which you pull the blade towards yourself, which positions the kayak in the position you’d like to go in.
  • Sweep stroke: This is the most basic turning stroke that is used to turn a kayak. You place the paddle in the water and, with a sweeping motion, pull the blade into the side of the boat.
  • Wet exit: The act of leaving a capsized kayak while you’re still in the water because rolling it over is not possible.

Kayaking Technical Terms

  • Baja sleigh ride: This term refers to when a fisherman’s kayak is dragged around in circles by a large fish.
  • Bent shaft paddle: This is an additional piece of equipment that kayakers use to keep their hands in neutral positions. This is especially useful if you want to protect your wrists and avoid aggravating an injury.
  • Bow: This is the front part of the boat.
  • Bow lines: Bow lines are used to ensure that your kayak is secure. You tie it to the bow of your kayak to secure it to the dock or a vehicle.
  • Bulkhead: This is a vital part of your kayak. It is a protective layer inside the bow and stern of a kayak, which ensures that no water gets inside the body and protects anything you have inside of it. 

It also helps you correct your kayak if it flips in the water.

  • Cockpit: This is where the paddler sits in the kayak.
  • Creek boats: This is a kayak specifically designed with greater depth to make it more buoyant and easy to maneuver. Creek boats are ideal for whitewater kayaking.
  • Deck bungees: Flexible straps that are used to safely secure items to the kayak’s bow and stern.
  • Downriver boats: These are also known as river running boats and are a mix between a creek boat and a play boat. They are fast boats that allow you to cruise comfortably in a straight line but also do some moves.
  • Drytop: This is a jacket specially designed to keep your upper body dry when on a kayak.
  • Float bags: These are inflatable bags that keep your kayak afloat if your boat capsizes.
  • Foot braces: The foot braces are found in the kayak’s cockpit. They can be used to control the rudder if your kayak has one.
  • Grab loops: These are also sometimes called grab handles. They are essentially rope handles on the bow and stern. 
  • Hatch: A storage compartment at the back of your kayak.
  • Paddle blade: This is one of the key components of kayaking. The blade is located at the end of the paddle and is a flat, wide piece. 

It is used to propel the boat forward and navigate in the water.

  • Play boats: A play boat is a vessel with a flat, narrow end that is designed to tolerate being submerged in water, so they are ideal for doing tricks. They are named play boats because whitewater paddlers “play” in the turbulent water.
  • Port: The left side of the kayak.
  • Personal flotation device: A personal floatation device, or PFD, is a life jacket that keeps you afloat if you capsize.
  • Primary and secondary stability: A kayak’s primary stability refers to how stable it is on calm water, when you first get on. A kayak’s secondary stability refers to how easily the boat can rectify when tilted.
  • Recreational kayaks: Also known as rec boats, these are designed for beginners or those who prefer to paddle on flat water.
  • River left and river right: This is the left or the right-hand side of the water and how kayakers refer to direction.
  • Roof racks: These are metal bars you attach onto the roof of your car to secure your kayak, or other gear.
  • Rudder: A fin at the rear underside of the kayak which can be used to steer the kayak in the direction it needs to go in. It is either operated by pulling rope lines or by foot pedals.
  • Shaft: The pole of the kayak paddle that connects the blade to the handle.
  • Shortie: This is a paddling jacket that has short sleeves.
  • Skeg: This is a steering fin that is adjustable and used to keep sea kayaks straight.
  • Spray skirt: This is a nylon skirt worn around a paddler’s waist that covers the opening of your kayak to prevent water from getting into your cockpit.
  • Tandem kayak: This is a two-person kayak that is sometimes also called a double kayak.
  • Tow leash: A long piece of webbing that’s typically secured to the kayaker at the waist or to a rescue harness. It is used to drag a kayak back to shore during a rescue or if the paddler is too tired.
  • Water sandals: Waterproof, non-slip shoes.

Water Classification While Kayaking

Note: In the US, the standard measurement of water flow is cubic feet per second (CFS).

  • Class A rapid: This is completely calm water.
  • Class i rapid: This is slightly more turbulent water which has a few obstacles within it.
  • Class ii rapid: The water is faster and a bit more difficult to navigate. Waves will rock the kayak, so it’s better for intermediate kayakers to navigate this type of water.
  • Class iii rapid: The water is more tricky to navigate but not impossible. Water passages will likely be narrower, and the water will run faster.
  • Class iv rapid: These water conditions are quite rough and difficult to navigate usually caused by the currents and the wind flowing in an opposite direction. They require a higher level of expertise and should only be paddled by experienced sea kayakers. 

You’ll need flotation bags attached to your kayak to safely make it through.

  • Class v rapid: These conditions need specific kayaking equipment and expertise in order to safely navigate them. These rapids feature steep drop-offs, rough waters, and fast currents and should only be attempted by a seasoned kayaker.
  • Class vi rapid: These conditions can only be safely navigated by professionals with extensive knowledge. This is the most challenging water condition you will face while kayaking.
  • Downstream: The water of a river always flows in one direction, downstream.
  • Downstream V: The portion of the river that is open and free from obstacles where a kayaker can enter into the river or choose to go downstream.
  • Eddy: Where the water current hits an obstacle in the water and flows back upstream.
  • Open water: Any body of water where there is no shoreline.  
  • Rapid: When the water current begins to move faster, usually when the incline of the river increases.
  • Riffles: Small rapids in more shallow water.
  • Upstream: The opposite direction of the way the water flows.
  • Whitewater: When flowing water mixes with air which is usually found around rocks and other obstacles when on a whitewater kayak.


Kayaking is an exciting sport that intrigues the brave of heart. But it is important to understand basic kayaking terms and familiarize yourself with the equipment that you will be using before setting off on your adventure.

This is applicable whether you’re in turbulent white waters, sea kayaking, or you’re on recreational kayaks and touring kayaks. 

Learning about these terms will allow you to have a better kayaking experience overall.