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Understanding Kayaking terms

Kayaking terms:


Listed below are some terms associated with kayaking (mainly recreational and sea). This is by all means not a complete list – however the more common, and perhaps not so common items. If there is not a term listed on here, please reach out to us, and we shall be happy to add it.


Angle (low and high) – Expressed as the type of position the paddle is held during a forward stroke. A low angle paddler will keep the shaft relatively horizontal to relationship of the water surface – upwards to about 40 degrees (give or take). A high angle paddler will have an angle greater than 45 upwards to 90 degrees.

Assisted rescue – This is the ability to help another kayaker who has fallen out of the kayak back into their kayak. There are numerous variations to accomplish this, some examples are: bow rescue, T-rescue, scoop, hand of god, and crab.

Base layer – The clothing which acts as a protective element in cooler weather paddling. Choice materials would include synthetics, fleece, wool. Usually non-restrictive to body movements and multilayered.

Bilge pump – Handheld device, manually operated to extract excess water from the kayak. There are also foot operated and electric options.

Blade – The main portion of your paddle, located at the ends which powers your kayak through the water. Also, the general overall description of your paddle.

Boots/gloves – Protective gear for your feet and hands

Bow – This is the front of the kayak.

Bow rescue – This is an assisted rescue with two kayakers involved. One paddler may need assistance getting back upright (example, after a failed roll) and remains within the kayak, however upside down. A rescue kayak approaches, presenting their bow near the cockpit. The upside-down kayaker reaches up, grabs ahold of the bow and rights themselves. (See also, T-rescue)

Bracing – A paddle method in which offers temporary stopping from capsize.

Broaching – Depicting to waves: if a kayak is running parallel to a wave, the wave can crash along side of the kayak. Depending on strength of wave, and the inability of the paddler to brace may result in a capsize.

Bulkhead – A wall which seals off a section stopping water from entering. These are either made out of foam, or composite materials, and usually located just in front of your feet, and behind your seat.

Capsize – A moment in time when the paddler and/or kayak are tipped over from an upright position. This may be the result of a wave, current, wind, inattentiveness, or just fooling around.

Car kayak rack – A system in which to transport your kayak on top of your car. There are various systems: J-hooks, cradles, rollers, or even foam pads which may be used.

CFS- Stands for Cubic Feet per Second. The measurement of water flowing in a river (READ MORE)

Channel marker – Guidance for boat traffic usually near marinas, aids in directional traffic control. Red right returning. Can also be located on rivers, and larger lakes near boat landings

Chart – Item used by kayakers to visualize their location while on the water. Denotes many features such as water depth, obstacles, hazards, shipping lanes, harbors, distance, ship wrecks, and many others. Not to be confused with a map, which is a land-based reference material.

Chine – The sides of the kayak. This can be described as ‘hard or soft’. Hard referring to squared off/flat sides. Soft refers to a more rounded side. Chine also aids in primary or secondary stability.

Clothing – What one wears while kayaking. One should dress for the water temperature, never the air temperature alone. There is a saying within the paddling community, ‘Cotton kills.’ Cotton, when wet, draws heat away from your body and becomes heavy (which may impede your ability to swim). Synthetic blend materials are a better choice.

Cockpit – The area in which the paddler enters the kayak, and sits down.

Cockpit cover – A device which goes around the combing of the cockpit, sealing off the elements from entering the cockpit. Materials used in making this are nylon, plastic, or neoprene. An elastic cord is sewn into the edge of the material to keep it attached to the combing.

Combing – Raised ‘lip’ around the cockpit. This is an attachment location for a spray skirt, or cover.

Compass – Either hand held or deck mounted tool to aid the paddler in the right direction. Used in conjunction with a navigation chart, a seasoned kayaker will rarely get lost, even miles off the coast.

Current – Flow of water from one direction to another. Within rivers this is from a point of higher elevation to lower.

Day trip – Kayak outing involving planning your time on the water, put-in/take-out locations, shuttles, river level reports, stopovers/ emergent exit points, total distance, bathroom facilities, and meal stops – to name a few.

Deck – The top side of your kayak.

Deck lines - Made from non-stretchy, water resistant cord. This is found on all sea kayaks, and some recreational kayaks. One purpose for these are to provide a place for a swimmer to hold onto during a rescue. These are located around the parameter of both the front and rear deck.

Down/up river (stream) – Used to describe the kayaker’s perspective, relative to a destination or object. Down river would be where the current is flowing away. Up river is against the current.

Drain plug – Found on most white water, and some rec kayaks – these are usually found near the stern. The intention for these is to assist in the draining of water from the entire kayak once on land. This is completed by unscrewing the plug, and lifting the bow upward until the water expels outward.

Dry bag – Water tight, flexible container which houses essentials in which you do not want to get wet.

Dry/wet suit – Both offer protection from the water temperature and extend your paddle season. Dry suits encapsulate your body (except your hands and head) made with water resistant materials such as nylon or gortex.  Wet suits vary by thickness (the thicker the more protection), however the thicker it is, mobility is reduced. Neoprene is the material used in the construction.

Eddy – A quiet area contained within moving water (current or tide). This can be located behind large rocks, along the embankment, or behind stationary man-made structures. These are a great area in which a paddler can rest, use as a staging area, or use as a launch/landing zone.

Edge/edging – A term and technique in which the side of the kayak is used in order to create a unique end result. This is encouraged through various skills such as balance games, turning the kayak, side surfing, or bracing. This is design specific to each kayak model, and has direct correlation to primary and secondary stability. This is accomplished by lifting up a knee in the thigh brace, when the opposite butt cheek drives downward.

Entrapment – Result of the paddler unable to remove themselves from the cockpit, or when the paddler and/or the kayak becomes pinned between rocks or under a strainer. This can be a life endangering moment; immediate response is required.

Feather – Feathered or Feathering (also, off-set) are synonymous with each other. When looking at the blades of a paddle if both are completely lined up with each other, they are non-feathered. If angled, they are considered feathered. Usually, the dominate hand will be the control hand on the shaft, and never adjust – whereas the non-dominated hand will have to change grip around the shaft as one paddles.

Feature – These are highlights on the rivers which host dynamic paddling experiences. Examples of these may be drops, ledges, rapids, or play spots.

Ferry – Ability to move the kayak from one side of the water to the other side - in a relatively straight line- with opposing forces from current or tide working against you. The bow of the kayak is either directly facing the opposing forces, or at a slight angle.

First aid bag – Essential part of a rescue kit. Can contain various dressings to stop bleeding, medications, tourniquets, or blankets. The owner should be able to knowledgeable about how to use the items contained within.

Flare – Signaling device used to indicate there is a need for assistance. These can either be hand held, aerial, or a hand held electronic wand. Red is the normal color to indicate immediate aid.

Float bag – Rescue device to assist the paddler back into the kayak after a wet exit. There are two types, manual inflated or closed cell foam. Both have pros and cons associated.

Float plan – A way to communicate your paddle trip plans to those who will not be on the water with you. This can be done electronically, filed with a local DNR/national park service, or even the USCG (please check with each organization prior to completion). One should be placed on the dashboard of your car as a means of further communication.

Foot pegs – Area where the paddler places the foot. These are used to slightly push off with the tips of the toes, during a paddle stroke. This aids in transference of your leg power to the torso. Pushing off the foot pegs can also assist during various bracing, rolling, or other paddle techniques.

Forward stroke – Paddle action which propels your kayak forward through the water.

Grab loop/handle – Located usually on both bow and stern, they can be used for assisting in carrying the kayak, a point in which to use tie downs, or a contact location during rescues.

Hatch – This is a storage well in which kayak camping or extended day trips plays a big role. While only as good as a form fitting cover, these will keep your items dry. These also act as an air tight chamber, which aids the kayak’s buoyancy.

Hazards – Any item (man-made, or natural) which may cause harm, injury, or even death to a paddler. Examples of these are: strainers, rapids, rocks, dams, bridge pylons, downed trees, and other boats on the water.

Heel hook – A type of method to get oneself back into the kayak. A swimmer will bring a foot out of the water, and “hook” it under the cockpit opening and use their leg muscles to aid themselves back into the yak.

Hull – The bottom of the yak. Each kayak will have a specific design. A flatter hull provides stability and does not feel ‘tippy’, whereas a more V shaped hull provides more playful abilities. Manufactures provide an assortment of variations to create a kayak matching the needs of the water environment.

Instructor – Someone who has passed training with a national organization (such as American Canoe Association, British Union, Paddle Canada), and can offer mentorship and education to those seeking training. Within the American Canoe Association (ACA) the hierarchy is: Instructor, Instructor Trainer, Instructor Trainer Educator. There are numerous pathways, as well as specialties or endorsements an Instructor may obtain.

Kayak – A item which is used for travelling on the water – can be utilized for both enjoyment and exercise. Commonly constructed from materials ranging from plastic, wood, cloth, or composite materials such as Kevlar, carbon fiber, or fiberglass. These are designed for either one person or two people to paddle. There are three main categories of kayaks: recreational, white-water, and sea kayak. There are numerous subclassifications to these three.

Keel – This is the mid-point which runs length wise along the hull. Some kayak designs are more pronounced than others.

Launch/land – These are access points on the water. They may be a well-developed public boat launch, or a simple path down to the water. Public launches are clearly marked – and could have fees associated for use.

Lead/sweep – For larger group paddles a lead and sweep are dedicated paddlers who are committed to safety. The role of the lead is to provide the best route on the water – this may not be the shortest, but is the safest. The sweep is the last person in the group – they ensure all participants remain with the group, and ensures no one is left behind. Communication between lead and sweep is paramount, which can be easily done via the use of the VFH radio.

Neoprene – A material in which acts as a partial repellant of water, but more as an insulator between the surface of the skin and the water temperature. Water does pass through this material, and the heat of your body warms up this water, which helps keep you warmer. Paddler gear, such as gloves, boots, head ware, and wet suits are comprised of this material. This also has an added buoyance ability.

Off /on shore – Mainly related to the direction of where the wind is coming from. Off shore are winds coming from land, going out to the water. This can be dangerous on larger bodies of open water, especially to the unsuspecting paddler who doesn’t look behind them and is further away from the shore than they realized. On shore is wind from the water to the land. This can also be associated with increased wave height and periods.

Oil canning – This occurs with plastic made boats when the kayak is placed on a firm and narrow object (such as a 2x4) for a prolonged period of time. The direct heat from the sun onto the kayak will soften the plastic and will cause a warping at the contact point. Lack of padding between the kayak and resting place, or using ratchet straps to secure your kayak to your car can also be culprits in forming oil canning. A remedy to fixing this would be to place the affected area upright to the sun and let it ‘pop’ out naturally.

On side/off side – Relates to the non-dominated area of the paddler, or the opposite side currently being used. For example, when rolling if the paddler naturally has the tendency to set up on the left and come up on the right – this is the on side. If the paddler attempts to set up on the right and comes up on the left (the non-dominate side), this is the off side.

Paddle leash – Device which wraps around the shaft of the paddle, and is connected to the kayak. The purpose of this is keep the paddle from floating away from the kayak.

Paddler’s box – Think of this as what it would look like if you were sitting down, holding a 2 foot square box. While paddling, imagine you are constantly holding onto this box as your hands are on the shaft. This technique is used to encourage beginners in form, and to reduce potential injury.

Pfd/life vest – The single most valuable item a paddler has. This is only as effective when properly fitted and worn on the body while paddling. A kayak specific PFD has larger openings around the shoulder and armpit. They are also labeled as USCG approved. They are five types of life vests on the market – types III and V are specialized for paddle sports.

Pin – This is an emergent event which can occur when the paddler and kayak become immobilized between rocks, under a tree, or other stationary object and can not extract themselves. Additional and immediate assistance from others is needed for rescue.

PLB – Personal Locator Beacon is a battery-operated device which can be used during emergencies to guide responders to your location. There is no verbal communication to the responders, just a signal. This works with GPS and satellite positioning.

Portage – The ability to leave the water, go onto the land, and walk/carry your kayak around the object blocking your path. This could be because of a dam, downed trees, or lack of water.

Primary/secondary Stability – Refers to the kayak’s overall ability to remain stable as the paddler sits within. This is commonly referring to how ‘tippy’ the paddler feels in the kayak. Primary stability is how stable the paddler feels while the kayak is flat on the water. Secondary stability is the use of the sides of the kayak when edging. The kayak’s chine design can dictate the support of the secondary stability.

Rapids – There are six classifications and difficulties. Ranging from class I upwards to class VI, the lower the higher the class, the more difficulty and skill is required to paddle.

Rash guard – A piece of clothing, usually a shirt, which acts as a buffer between your skin and outer materials. As the name implies, this will reduce the friction onto your skin. This is usually made out of synthetic materials

Raft up – More than one kayak, alongside of each other. Can be useful to create a more stable platform in rough water conditions, such when there is a need to reach into a hatch for an item, or to stabilize a paddler who is sea sick. Placing paddles across the decks will create a bridge.

Rec boat – This is a recreational kayak. Built for quieter waters, slow moving rivers (lazy rivers), and small lakes. These are popular and sold in most retail stores, and the starting kayak for grand majority of kayakers.

Repair kit – Contains materials which aid the paddler to make a quick fix and repair items related to paddling. This can contain a multi-tool, duct tape, rope, plastic, epoxy resin, or an assortment of other items.

River left/right – While going with the flow of the current, items on the right side is considered river right, while the items on the left, river left. When going against the current, the terms are reversed.

Rocker – Part of kayak design, depicts the upward angle from the hull to the bow and stern. The more pronounced, the greater the ability for the kayak to pivot on the water.

Roll – Ability for the paddler to complete a full or partial rotation laterally while remaining in the seat of the kayak. This ability to self-right the kayak is a valuable skill for both white water and sea kayaking.

Safety items – Any item in which aids the paddler, or others while on and off the water. With proper training and understanding of these items, can safe a life.

Scratch/scrape/gauge/crack – As the kayaks get used, we paddle over rocks, trees, or other man-made items. The kayaks are not impervious to damage. Light scratches are usually cosmetic where as large cracks can be a hazard to both the paddler and kayak. Depending on the depth and severity of the damage, this can be repaired. Kayak materials vary, and so does the specific repair style.

Scupper holes/plugs – On majority of SOT kayaks, they are designed as a self-draining kayak, meaning water will come up from the surface (or splash in), and gravity will pull the water through the holes. This process occurs naturally, given the weight capacity has not been exceeded. However, if the kayak is nearing the capacity, or you prefer not to constantly have a bit of water in your SOT, scupper plugs may be placed in specific or all the holes. One may have to then sponge out unwanted water.

Sea yak – Kayak made to handle large open waters, winds and waves. Largest of the three classifications of kayaks. These have specific built in safety features in which both the rec and white-water boats do not have.

Section/segment – A particular area on the water (mostly rivers) which is either named or numbered which is frequently visited by paddlers. Since these are paddled most frequently, there is abundant information about what that river entails (class, features, hazards, portages, etc)

Self-rescue – The ability for a paddler to get back into the seat of the kayak after falling into the water. This is preformed without the assistance of any other kayaker.  There are numerous variations for the paddler to complete a self-rescue, however some examples are: paddle float, scramble, ladder, roll, and re-entry and roll.

Setup – The starting position for either a specific paddle stroke, or a roll. The setup provides time for the paddler to ensure the body and paddle position is in the correct area. This also allows the paddler to think about the following steps of completion.

Shaft – Part of the paddle in which the paddlers hold onto.

Sit in /sit on top – Refers to the type of kayak: Sit in, one’s legs are contained within the inside of the kayak. Sit on top (SOT), the paddler is exposed fully to sun/wind/waves.

Skeg/rudder – Item found on some kayaks to aid the paddler in staying on track to the destination. Both are manually operated (or deployed). A skeg is located on the hull near the stern. When deployed, it drops down like a fin and will keep the kayak mostly straight – the depth in which it is deployed can be manually adjusted. A rudder is located on the top deck of the stern when not deployed. When deployed it drops into the water behind the stern. The paddler is able to control the direction they wish to ‘steer’ towards by pushing on the foot pegs.

Skirt – Item used by most sea and white-water paddlers. This normally fits around the paddler’s waist and then gets attached to the combing, after sitting in the cockpit. The main principal for the use of the skirt is to keep excess water out of the kayak, especially with rolling or during crashing waves or large rapids. A solid wet-exit skill is essential prior to donning a skirt.

Spare paddle – A back-up paddle which is normally placed within reach of the paddler on the deck.

Sponge – A simple tool to have within the kayak. This aids the paddler to remove the last remaining bits of water within the kayak – what the bilge pump could not remove. The sponge is also helpful when cleaning off kayak of water scum, mud, or invasive species.

Strainer – One of the hazards a paddler will encounter. These are branches of trees which have either fallen into, or are severely leaning over the water into the path of the unsuspecting paddler. These can be both a hinderance as well as extremely dangerous.

Stern – The very back of the kayak.

Stirrup strap – Rescue tool used to aid a swimmer back into the yak. Usually made out of nylon, and can be individually customized to your leg length.

Surfing – A method in which the paddler ‘catches’ a moving wave (in open water), which then propels the kayak forward towards the beach. This can also be accomplished in rivers. The bow faces up river, the paddler will use the design of the kayak and various paddle actions to hold position, as the water rushes underneath them.

Swamped – This happens when the kayak completely fills up with water, either during a capsize or a wet exit.

Sweeps – A paddle action in which will pivot your kayak around in an arc. There is a forward and reverse sweep.

Swimmer/going for a swim – Term used for a person who is no longer inside the kayak. They are either separated from their kayak, or unable to perform a self-rescue and needing an assisted rescue.

Synthetic /cotton – Types of materials majority of clothing worn by kayakers. Synthetics are the material of choice, as they do not retain the weight and temperature of water when wet. Cotton however loves to soak up water and draw away heat from your body. There is a common saying in the kayaking world, ‘Cotton kills’.

T-rescue – This is an assisted rescue skill with two terms white-water vs. sea kayaking.

(White-water) the paddler is still in the kayak (paddler A), another kayak will paddle up and present the bow of the kayak (paddler B) near paddler A’s cockpit. Paddler A will use their hands on the bow of paddler B to right themselves.

(Sea kayaking) paddler A would be outside the kayak (swimmer), paddler B moves the empty kayak perpendicular to their kayak (forming a T), and then slides the kayak over their lap to empty the excess water. The swimmer gets back into the yak.

Tandem yak – A kayak which has two seats in which two people control the kayak. These are the longest of all the kayaks. A couple who works in unison paddling this craft can out preform most solo kayakers.

Thigh braces – Found within the cockpit of most sit in kayaks. The function for these is to offer support to the legs as a paddler engages their knee/thigh during a specific paddle maneuver. This is executed during rolls, edging, or recovery during braces, driving the knee into the thigh brace.

Tide – A moment in time when water either moves into the land surface, or away from the land. Common saying is the tide is either coming in, or going out.  There are tide tables which depict the exact moment this change happens. Coastal kayakers will use the tides to their advantage, as this acts as a down river current, providing an increase in speed.

Tie downs/straps – Items used to secure your kayak to the car kayak rack. Straps are made from nylon webbing materials, and has a metal cam with micro teeth to hold the strap in place. These are manually tightened by sliding the strap through the cam and pulling it tight. Ropes can also be used, and will offer the same amount of support and stability, when done properly. Tie downs are used on both the bow and stern and are meant to lessen the horizontal swaying during transportation. A kayak should never just be placed on a vehicle without properly securing it.

Tippy/stable – Tippy refers to a feeling the paddler has as they sit inside, and on the water. It may feel as though the paddler can not balance themselves while in the seat, and the kayak wants to flip to one side or the other. A stable kayak, the paddler will feel very comfortable moving around without concern for falling into the water.

Torso rotation – Form used to engage the abdominal muscle groups, not just the muscles in your arms.

Tow belt – A safety device used to hook up to another kayaker(ers) who may be too tired, injured, or weak to continue to paddle at full strength. This is normally placed around the rescuer’s waist, and a desired amount of rope is deployed behind, and attached to the bow of the one being towed.

Tracking – The ability for the kayak/paddler to remain on a relatively straight course.

Up/down river – The direction in which a kayaker travels: up river will be paddling against the current. Down river the paddler uses the current to their advantage.

VHF – Communication device used while on the water. This is very similar to a walkie-talkie in operation, however has many channels. There are emergency specific channels (channel 9 or 16), as well as common open channels. Range of communication is based on power of the unit, line of sight to receiving unit, terrain features, and length of antenna. They are very useful for large group paddle communication.

Volume/capacity – This can be used to express two areas of the kayak. The general space inside the cockpit and/or the space inside the hatches. Larger volume will accommodate a larger paddler more comfortably. Capacity is the overall weight limit a kayak can hold (paddler and the gear).

Water line – A reference point where the water will rest along the edge of the kayak. When exceeding the weight capacity, the kayak will have a higher water line, and will handle/preform poorly.

Waterproof box – As the name implies, this will keep the items contained within dry. Some items to keep inside would be your wallet, cell phone, or car keys. If possible, keep this attached to your body, or in your pocket of your worn PFD.

Wave sets/period – Sets express the number of waves which resemble each other – they do vary and change from location and time of day. Wave periods is the timing between each wave as they crest. This is timed by seconds. A 2 second wave period will produce numerous waves in succession, where as a 6 second period will provide spacing between waves. Kayak surfing is more enjoyable during longer timed sets.

Waves – Naturally formed by winds and distance across the water. The stronger and longer a wind blows, combined with the distance the wind pushes the water, will create larger and more frequent waves. There are components to the wave: peak, trough, height, volume, and spacing.

Weather report – An essential item for the kayaker. Listening to the forecast and understanding what the weather will entail, will make your time on the water the most enjoyable. Not considering how the weather will affect your paddle trip may result in an undesired outcome. Seek out weather reports for the area in which you will be paddling, not just your home. There are numerous web sites, newspapers, and weather apps to utilize.

Wet exit – A method in which the paddler will either intentionally, or unintentionally remove his/her body from the normal seated position. This is a separation of paddler from kayak. More commonly referred as, falling out of your kayak into the water, or going for a swim.

Wet one/dry one –Describes which paddler is a swimmer (wet one), and the rescuer (dry one).  Aids in explaining the roles of padders during rescues.

White water – Specialty kayak used to handle more dynamic water features contained within rivers. They are shorter than most rec boats, nimbler, and usually the design is more durable than most kayaks. These are sold in specialty outdoor sporting goods stores, and usually not found at big box stores.

Yak/boat – General term used when talking about a kayak. Usually interchangeable terms.

Yard sale – Expression used during a wet exit, when the paddler had way too many items not secured either within, or on the kayak. These items fall out, and usually will scatter and float on the water. Everyone gets to pick up an item off the water.



As you improve your skills and experience level on the water, your terms should match what you have learned. We hope these terms will leave you with a better understanding with the paddler's lingo.


For the paddler within....