Parts of a Kayak: Bow to Stern Anatomy

Parts of a Kayak

There are a surprising number of parts on a kayak … for such a simple vessel. Knowing what parts are on your kayak will help you become more knowledgeable about the sport and better able to communicate with other kayak enthusiasts.

What are the basic parts of a kayak? There are 7 main components of a kayak: the bow, stern, kayak deck, kayak hull, cockpit, foot rests, and kayak seat. Knowing the proper names and locations of parts on your kayak will help you interact with other kayakers and communicate with kayak shops about repairs, maintenance and purchasing decisions.

The rest of this article will be an in-depth look at each part of a kayak, what it does, possible ways it can be damaged, and how to pick a kayak that’s going to fit your needs. Knowing each of these parts is crucial to having a good understanding of your kayak.

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Below, you’ll find a table with a brief description of each part of a kayak.

Kayak PartDescription
BowThe front of a kayak
SternThe rear of a kayak
Kayak DeckThe top half of a kayak
Kayak HullThe bottom half of a kayak that sits in the water
CockpitThe opening where you sit in/on a kayak
Foot RestsThe pegs inside the hull where your feet rest
Kayak SeatThe bench you sit on while paddling a kayak

Several other minor parts of a kayak, include the handles, bulkheads, rudders, and deck hatches. We’ll cover these below as well. It’s essential to know these terms because they’ll allow you to evaluate potential kayaks better, assess the difference between the various types available, and pick the best one to suit your needs.

1. The Bow

First up on the list is the bow of your kayak. Very simply, the bow is the front portion of the kayak. While you’re out on the water, the orientation of your bow is your direction of travel. You can usually tell the bow from the stern quickly because it typically comes to more of a point. 

Whether it’s a huge cruise ship or a kayak that you’re riding in, the bow will always refer to the front of the boat. It’s pronounced in the same way as when you bow after a performance, not the “bow and arrow” way. Luckily you only have to remember it once to know that every boat’s front is called the bow.

Different types of kayaks have differently bow designs and each serves a specific purpose. When you’re choosing which kayak to buy for either whitewater or touring, you’ll want to understand the differences between bows.

Whitewater kayaks are designed to ride on top of rough water, not for long trips on open still water. They typically have much more snub-nosed bows for easier maneuverability and control. 

Longer touring kayaks will instead have a much longer and slimmer bow to help them cut or plow through the water more efficiently.


Touring kayaks, which are the more extended variety, will often have what’s called a bulkhead. Bulkheads are located in the bow of the kayak, in front of where your feet rest. This is a walled-off, hollow portion of the kayak that allows you to store your belongings and gear to keep them from getting wet. It usually has a water-tight cover called a hatch that you can open and close.

The size of the bulkhead may vary depending on the size of the kayak. How much gear you’d like to carry in your kayak will help you determine the best location for the bulkhead.

2. The Stern

If the bow is the front of the kayak, the back has to have a name.

What is the back part of a kayak called? The back part of a kayak is called the stern. The rear part of any vessel is called the stern. From a small one-person kayak to a huge freighter or battleship, the back is the stern. 

The stern will usually be tapered to a point, similar to the bow, but it may be shorter than the bow. Like the bow, the stern may have a bulkhead inside of it to allow you to store even more gear and equipment safely.

Different types of kayaks have different sterns, with whitewater kayaks having a shorter, stubbier stern and touring or sea kayaks having a more extended stern for stability.

Okay, so the bow and stern are the front and back, what’s the right and left called?

What’s the left side of a kayak called? The left side of a kayak is called the port side. You can remember this fact, as opposed to the right side which is called the starboard, by realizing that the words “left” and “port” both have 4 letters in them.

The Rudder or Skeg

At the stern of your kayak, you may or may not find a rudder or skeg. These devices are slightly different in nature, and you may find you prefer one over the other. 

A rudder is stored on the top side of your kayak and is dropped into the water. It is controlled by foot pedals that allow you to steer it. It increases your stability and helps you navigate, especially in rough conditions. 

What is the purpose of a skeg on a kayak? A skeg on a kayak helps you track straight. A skeg is stored in a small compartment in the hull of your stern and drops down into the water when you want to use it. Unlike a rudder, it doesn’t turn, so it won’t help you steer, but it will help you stay on a straight course when it’s windy out.

Each of these devices comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The best way to figure out which you prefer is to try them both out. Or ask someone who has used them in adverse weather conditions, which they’re designed to assist with.

3. Kayak Deck

The deck of your kayak is the top portion that sits outside of the water. This may be the portion you sit on if you have a sit-on-top vs a sit-inside kayak. There are a lot of sub-components of the kayak deck, which we will further discuss below.


Your kayak’s deck may come equipped with tie-down bungees, which will allow you to secure gear that you don’t mind getting wet. These may be on the bow, the stern, or both. You may attach things like a cooler, an extra paddle, or a water bottle.

Extra bungee cords typically come in either 4mm or 5mm thickness. Bungees give you a little more security if you’re attaching something bulky or heavy. Either way, make sure the bungees you purchase, if you’re replacing a set, are rated for marine use.


Parts of a Kayak - Handles

The handles of your kayak allow you to carry your kayak more easily. A kayak will typically have a handle on the bow and stern of the kayak.

There are two basic types of kayak handles and they’re both made for carrying the kayak:

  1. Handles that are integrated or rotomolded-into the kayak’s deck
  2. Handles attached to the kayak with a lanyard/rope

I have kayaks with both types and they both function really well. If I had to choose, I’d go with an integrated handle. Because if the rope breaks on a lanyard handle and you don’t have spare rope, it’s tough to keep carrying it.

When buying a kayak, check to ensure the handles are secured to the kayak with some quality hardware. You don’t want the handles to pop out while you’re carrying it, causing you to drop and dent the hull.

4. Kayak Hull

Parts of a Kayak - Hull

What do you call the bottom of a kayak? The bottom half of your kayak is called the hull. The hull is the portion of the kayak that sits below the water. There are two types of kayak hulls—displacement and planing hulls.

There are many different types of kayaks, but two main types of kayak hulls.

Displacement hulls have a rounded shape and push or plow through the water. Most recreational kayaks have displacement hulls

Kayaks with planing hulls have angled sides with flat bottoms. Planing hull kayaks are designed for higher speeds and they skim on top of the water. Most whitewater kayaks have planing hulls.


There are 4 main materials that the vast majority of kayaks are made from. These materials are:

  • Polyethylene
  • Fiberglass
  • Inflatable
  • Thermoform

Most beginners will eventually ask, what is the best material for a kayak? The best material for a recreational kayak is Polyethylene. Polyethylene is durable, inexpensive, and will last a long time.

But that doesn’t tell the full story…

See below for the pros and cons of each kayak material:

PolyethyleneDurable and resists impacts well. Tends to be less expensiveDifficult to repair when cracked or punctured, tends to be heavy
FiberglassLightweight, maneuverable, fairly durable, and simple to repairMost expensive material doesn’t handle direct impacts particularly well
InflatableInexpensive, portableMay not track well and is susceptible to damage
ThermoformProvides similar performance to polyethylene and fiberglass at a lower priceThe outer layer of acrylic may be damaged over time

Hull Shape

Kayak Hull Shapes
Kayak Hull Shapes

There are also four main types of kayak hull shapes you’ll find when shopping for kayaks. As is the case for the materials kayaks are made of, each of these hulls offers various pros and cons and are better suited for different types of kayaking. As such, you’ll find that whitewater kayaks usually have different hull shapes than touring kayaks. These four shapes are:

  • Pontoon-style
  • V-shaped hull
  • Round hull
  • Flat

Pontoon-Style Hull

Pontoon-style hulls are among the most stable hull shapes available. You won’t be reaching great speeds on them because there’s so much contact with the water. However, you have the least chance of tipping over in them.

V-Shaped Hull

The v-shaped hull is also known for providing speed, although its main claim to fame is its greater ability to cut through the water. Touring kayaks that need to track well on flat water often have v-shaped hulls to help the rider keep them straight without having to constantly course-correct.

Round Hull

Round hulls are built for speed. Its rounded shape provides less surface area for water resistance. They also provide exceptional maneuverability, making them a popular choice for whitewater kayaks.

Flat Hull

Finally, you have flat hulls, so named because their hulls are, well, flat on the bottom. These offer exceptional stability as well, and similar to the pontoon style, you won’t be breaking any speed records in these types of kayaks. Many fishing kayaks have a flat hull to allow you to remain stable in calm or choppy water conditions.

Kayak Gunnels

What are the sides of a kayak called? The sides of a kayak are called the gunnels. But technically, rounded kayaks, unlike canoes, don’t have a long side edge called a gunnel. So the more accurate term for the edge of the kayak’s cockpit. And that’s called the coaming.

5. Cockpit

What is the large hole in a kayak called? The large hole in a kayak where you sit is called the cockpit. There are two main cockpit designs that you should be aware of—keyhole cockpit and ocean cockpit. Each offers advantages and disadvantages. Keyhole cockpits are easier to get in and out of, while ocean cockpits keep water and waves out.

Keyhole Cockpit

A keyhole kayak cockpit is shaped similar to a keyhole, with a round hole towards the stern for you to sit in, which then narrows as it moves toward the bow for your legs. The narrow portion provides some way for your knees or thighs to contact the kayak, which helps you stabilize. The hard plastic also provides you an armrest where you can rest your arms from paddling.

A keyhole cockpit is relatively easy to get in and out of, and it also gives you more legroom to lift a knee and put your leg in a different position. It reduces the amount of contact you’ll have with your cockpit, so you may find yourself less able to stabilize your kayak using leverage from your legs.

Ocean Cockpit

The alternative is an ocean cockpit, which has a considerably smaller hole than the keyhole cockpit. This makes it more difficult to enter and exit but provides your legs and body with more contact with the kayak. 

The ocean cockpit can help you stabilize better. It’s also easier to find a cockpit skirt to cover the hole, so you don’t get a bunch of water in your hull.

Cockpit Covers

Also called spray skirts, a cockpit cover is a neoprene cover that hugs your body and keeps water from entering the kayak hull. It’s generally only used in sit-in kayaks, not sit-on-top varieties. If you’re riding on rough seas, you’ll want a cockpit cover to keep a ton of water from getting in. It’s much easier to find a spray skirt to fit an ocean cockpit since they’re smaller.

6. Foot Rests

Here’s a question you might ask if you are new to kayaking.

Where do you place your feet in a kayak? Footrests are where you place your feet in a kayak. Foot rests can be found on most modern kayaks, but some kayaks don’t have them. Kayaks with foot rests either have adjustable foot rest pegs or multiple foot rest locations molded into the hull. Some foot rests also control the rudder.

Many kayaks come with footrests, but you can still purchase after-market footpegs/foot braces for those that don’t. You’ll have to mount them yourself, which will require screwing into your kayak, so if you’re not the most confident DIYer, you might want to find a professional to do it. 

Apart from controlling a rudder, foot braces give you another thing to brace against when you’re in a rough current. Sliding around inside your kayak isn’t going to give you a lot of control. But, having ways to brace yourself against the inside of your kayak will help you regain control and keep it tracking.

7. Kayak Seat

The kayak seat is the bench you sit on while riding the kayak. You want to pick a comfortable seat so your butt won’t get numb and your back will remain comfortable on long paddle trips. Look for seats with a good shape for your butt and good back support. 

The best way to evaluate the comfort of any kayak seat is to simply sit in it before you buy it. If you can, rent the type of kayak you are interested in buying and paddle it for a while to test out the seat’s comfort and support.

One important item to consider when choosing a seat is the size of your kayak’s cockpit. If you have a sit-inside kayak, you don’t want to get a seat that’s too large to fit in the hole. If you have a ride-on-top kayak, you won’t have to worry quite as much about it fitting. But, you want to make sure the seat will fit in whatever space you have.

Some seats don’t anchor to the kayak or only have a couple of anchor points. That’s something else to consider, as you want to make sure your seat is sturdy and doesn’t move around when you’re out on the water. A seat with a non-slip pad underneath may be easy to install, but it might not be entirely non-slip either.

The type of seat you choose will depend a lot on your body type, your kayak type, and where you intend to ride. If you’re going to be fishing out of your kayak, get a back to the seat to make your ride more comfortable. If you’re heading out on rapids, a minimalist seat can help avoid being too encumbered. 

Another key consideration is cost. Kayak seats can range anywhere from $25-$250 for seats with all the bells and whistles. However, don’t go too cheap because the really cheap ones will likely wear out and need to be replaced quickly. If you’re new to the sport, you probably don’t need a high-end one either. A middle-of-the-road seat from $50-$100 will do the trick.

Kayak Scupper Holes

One part of sit-on-top-kayaks that are often misunderstood by beginners are the kayak’s scupper holes. These holes are built into the bottom of sit-on-top kayaks. There are usually 6-8 self-draining scupper holes in the bottom of a sit-on-top recrational, touring, or fishing kayak.

Those hole are to prevent water from accumulating in the cockpit of the kayak. They also aid in draining water from the cockpit of a sit-on kayak should your kayak flip over and fill with water.

But even more confusing is the fact that many paddlers choose to use kayak scupper plugs to seal off those holes and prevent water from coming upo through the scupper hole in the hull. Our article on kayak scupper plugs details kayak scuppers and how and when to use kayak plugs to block them off.

Parts of a Kayak Wrap Up

By now, you’re becoming an expert on the major and some of the minor parts found on your kayak.

From bow to stern, port to starboard and everything in between, you should have a general idea of what you’ll be looking at when you evaluate a potential new kayak or talk to a kayak shop about repairs, maintenance and accessories for your kayak.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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