Kayak Rudder or Skeg: What’s the Difference & Do I Need One?

Learn about kayak rudders and skegs, their differences, uses, and how they enhance your kayaking experience by improving tracking.

Kayak Rudder or Skeg

Even after 4,000 years, kayaks continue to be tweaked and modified. Perhaps no topic has been a subject of more extensive discussion than the various methods to improve a kayak’s tracking. For many, the biggest hurdle to a successful kayaking career is minimizing the frustrating zig-zagging inherent in a kayak’s design.

Today, the two primary ways to keep you on course are with a specially designed kayak rudder or skeg. Using drag to slow the stern of the kayak, both have been instrumental in improving kayak efficiency and have become more refined as the sport grows in popularity.

But, deciding which is best for you depends on various factors, such as your kayak and experience level. In this article, we’ll discuss all of these variables to help you determine whether a skeg, rudder, or even a naked kayak is right for you.

Understanding How a Kayak Travels Through the Water

Kayaks move by displacing the water in front of the bow. Using the force generated from the paddle, the hull is pushed through the water. As the kayak travels forwards, the hull and keel are subject to a wide range of external factors. 

Since kayaks aren’t the fastest vessels on the water, keeping a straight course and maintaining the shortest path will cut down on travel time and bump up your paddling efficiency.

What is Kayak Tracking?

You may find that the interpretation of tracking varies from person to person. In general terms, tracking refers to how well a kayak paddles in a straight line. Very rarely will you have the luxury of paddling in perfect conditions. Sometimes wind, tide, boat wakes, or your paddling inefficiencies can make a kayak pivot side to side and knock you off course.

There are several ways to combat this. Improving your paddling and learning proper techniques can be helpful. Long kayaks also tend to track better, as do those with narrower hulls. 

You can also install a rudder or skeg, which will help improve a kayak’s tracking by mitigating some paddling inefficiencies and poor weather.

What is Kayak Weather Cocking?

As a kayak moves, it displaces the water in front of the bow. That water must go somewhere, so it runs along the side of the hull. Imagine this water forming an inverted V as your kayak slices through the water. This band of water creates pressure, hugging the hull and keeping the kayak’s bow pointed straight ahead.

But once it passes the kayak’s widest point, it won’t follow the narrowing keel. Instead, it continues on its inverted V, leaving the stern without this natural version of “hydro-tracking.” This leads to the kayak’s stern moving downwind and zig-zagging, throwing you off course.

What is a Kayak Rudder?

A rudder helps combat the effects of weather cocking. From its location on the kayak’s stern, the rudder sits vertically in the water. When aligned straight, the rudder creates drag, slowing down the kayak’s stern and helping you maintain course.

Kayak rudders are user-friendly and easy to master, regardless of your paddling experience. Steering is simplified and can take away the challenge and frustration of paddling in a straight line. 

A rudder can be raised or lowered from the cockpit. The most common and basic way is with a line attached to the base of the rudder, which runs along the top of the stern to the side of the cockpit. Other boats have levers that play a similar role. 

Attached to the rudder are two cables that run the length of the stern and into the cockpit. Inside the cockpit, the rudder lines are connected to foot pedals. By tapping the foot pedals, you have complete control of your kayak’s course by turning the rudder left and right.

Many newcomers expect the rudder pedals to operate like the steering wheel in a car. But unlike turning a wheel, a kayak rudder takes longer to change course. This can cause paddlers to overcompensate with the pedals, which leads to an unsatisfying zig-zag pattern similar to weather cocking.

When I’m using a rudder-equipped kayak, I paddle with my knees slightly bent and the foot pedals resting on the balls of my feet. Most of my steering is simply done by pivoting my ankles back and forth. These minor adjustments work great when paddling long crossings where all I’m trying to do is maintain course.

If you’re dealing with a severe crosswind or challenging waves, you may need bigger turns of the rudder. The same goes for cramped paddling scenarios where tighter turns are required. Going “pedal to the metal” and extending your legs straight will enable sharper turns in these situations. But for most cases, you’ll find less is more when it comes to steering with a rudder.

Pros and Cons of a Rudder

  • Hands-free turning
  • Great for beginners
  • Turns can be done without changing your paddle stroke or edging
  • Makes crossings through rough and dangerous water safer and easier
  • Easily raised and lowered from the cockpit
  • Can be hard and expensive to install on your own
  • Several moving parts and components increase the likelihood of failure or damage
  • Allows paddlers to “cheat” and get away with poor paddling technique
  • Easily damaged if improperly stored for rough landings or paddling over underwater hazards

What is a Kayak Skeg?

A kayak skeg is similar to a rudder; however, it cannot be turned. A skeg also helps with a kayak’s tracking capabilities, but you don’t get the same flexibility and maneuverability provided by a rudder. 

A skeg has a similar shape to a rudder, but it tends to be a little skinnier. They’re located in the underside of the keel and at the kayak’s stern.  

Like a rudder, a skeg creates drag and slows down the kayak’s stern to improve tracking. However, it’s only helpful when there’s wind or waves. It’s not capable of changing your kayak’s direction. This can make turning more challenging. 

Skegs are best on kayaks that are more maneuverable and easy to steer with your paddle or by edging (more on this later).

In these cases, it’s easy to paddle a straight course when the water is calm, and the only time you’d want the additional tracking provided by a skeg would be when paddling through rough and windy conditions.

Like a rudder, a skeg can be raised or lowered from the seat. 

Pros and Cons of a Skeg

  • Helps develop a cleaner paddling technique than using a rudder
  • No rudder lines or foot pedals to maintain or manipulate
  • Fewer moving parts means less can go wrong
  • Easily deployed from the seat
  • No purpose in deploying it if there isn’t any wind
  • Situated below the keel, so it’s difficult to troubleshoot on the water
  • Takes up stern storage space
  • No turning assistance

Does a Kayak Need a Rudder or a Skeg?

Woman Paddling a Touring Kayak

There isn’t a binary yes or no answer to this question. A skeg or rudder can be helpful for all the reasons we’ve discussed above. But depending on your paddling ability and your goals, a rudder or skeg may not be necessary.

I prefer a kayak with either a rudder or skeg for longer paddles. The same goes for when I know I’ll be fighting wind or tide. Even if I feel like I’m capable of handling the conditions, using a rudder or skeg to help me stay on course saves my shoulders and back the extra exertion of compensating for these external factors.

It may not seem like much, but if the paddle itinerary calls for several long days, anything I can do to save my strength will keep me going longer.

Some kayaks built for longer paddles don’t come with a rudder or skeg, but don’t look at this as a red flag. Instead, these narrow, longer-keeled kayaks have excellent tracking on their own. And they’re designed to minimize the weather cocking effect that can wreak havoc on wider kayaks.

Can You Put a Rudder on a Kayak?

In most cases, the answer is yes. But, first, you’ll need a kayak that either has a foot pedal track or can have one installed.

This rules out the majority of sit-on-top kayaks, which mostly have footwells instead of foot pegs. Footwells look like large divots, usually three or four on both sides of the kayak, where you can brace your feet. 

Since these boats are generally for fishing or light recreational use, there are few scenarios where it would be worth going through the time, trouble, and cost of installing a rudder. 

Installing a rudder is more practical on a sit-in kayak built for touring or longer paddles. Some kayaks don’t come with a rudder but have pre-drilled holes that make installation easier.

If your boat doesn’t come rudder installation-ready, be prepared to drill a few holes. This isn’t the most straightforward do-it-yourself project, and installing a rudder can be pricey.

It feels weird drilling holes in your kayak, so go slowly and double-check your measurements. Once you start drilling, there’s no going back.

How to Install a Rudder on a Kayak

1. Attach the mounting bracket to the stern. If there are no pre-drilled holes, drill an appropriately sized hole. Make sure the hole is far enough from the stern that it won’t weaken the hull. But not so far towards the bow that the rudder won’t sit vertically in the water when deployed.

2. Place the rudder in the mounting bracket and tighten all bolts. Stainless steel or similar corrosion-resistant material for the nuts and bolts is recommended, especially if you’ll be paddling in saltwater. Use washers where bolts interact with the rudder and mounting bracket. This will ensure a snug fit without damaging the hardware.

3. Run the rudder lines into the cockpit. Like the mounting bracket, this may require drilling holes in the stern of the cockpit. If you must drill holes, make sure they run along the line between the foot pedals and the rudder’s mounting bracket.

4. Fit the lines through the holes and ensure they can move freely. You want the holes to be large enough that the lines don’t get caught, but not so large they’ll let in excess water when it rains.

5.  Install the pedal tracks. This gives you a chance to customize your kayak to your leg length.  Sit in your kayak first and see where your feet rest naturally. It helps to have another person mark where you want the tracks to rest.

6.  Drill holes in the side of the kayak’s hull to secure the pedal tracks. I recommend using locking bolts on the inside of the kayak. I’ve found that traditional bolts loosen over time and can fall out, causing the whole pedal track system to break.

7.  On the outside of the hull, use a combination of rubber and metal washers to form a tight seal that will prevent water from seeping into the cockpit. Place at least one metal washer between the kayak’s hull and the pedal tracks. This will prevent cracking.

8. Spray WD-40 or similar product along the pedal tracks. This will help the foot pedals slide easier and prevent sticking. Reapply once a year.

9. Install the sliding foot pedals and fasten them to the rudder line. If the foot pedals are catching the bolts and nuts of the pedal tracks, add more washers to take up more of the bolt.

10. Make sure that your rudder lines are the proper length so that when your legs are even and resting on the foot pedals, the rudder is straight. Extend your legs all the way out and check the rudder. You want to have a full range of motion that allows for sharp turns.

11. Disassemble your rudder and all the components once a year, washing in warm soapy water and applying WD-40. Check for rust and corrosion and replace any nuts, bolts, or washers that appear damaged.

What are the Alternatives to Using a Rudder or Skeg?

Even if you choose a kayak with a rudder or skeg, and intend on always paddling with it deployed, it’s vital you have at least some ability to paddle and maneuver your kayak without them. 

No matter how tough or durable your equipment is, bolts rust and fall off, skegs jam, and if it happens in treacherous water, knowing a few basic paddling techniques can make all the difference.

Hone Your Paddling Skills

I’ve seen many kayakers, both beginner and experienced, flounder in the waves while their frustration boils over. In many cases, the wind or tide blows broadside to their kayak and sends them off course. Generally, their response is to paddle hard and furious on one side of their kayak while omitting the other.

In addition to being inefficient, this is a great way to quickly fatigue your arms and shoulders, setting you up for an even more challenging paddle. Instead, understanding when to deploy different paddling strokes helps maintain speed and course better.

The most important and easiest of these is the sweep stroke. Longer and wider than the standard forward stroke, a sweep stroke improves your kayak’s maneuverability and allows for sharper, more powerful turns. 

Imagine there’s a strong wind with waves hitting your kayak on the left and pushing you steadily to the right. One way to compensate for this is by doing a normal forward stroke on the left and a wider sweep stroke on your right. This will combat the wind and keep you on a more consistent course. 

Edging a Kayak

Many touring kayaks have chines to help with maneuvering. 

Chines refers to the point where the bottom and side of the hull come together. If the transition between the bottom and side is steep enough, you can use them to steer by dipping the chine into the water. This is commonly referred to as edging. It requires the paddler to pivot the boat side to side, which is best done by flexing or shifting the hips.

This can be a delightful way to paddle once you’ve gotten the hang of it. But it does mean you’re relying on your balance and the kayak’s secondary stability to remain upright. It can get tricky if you’re paddling through rough water or lack experience. For beginners or cautious paddlers, a rudder is the safest way to go. 

Kayak Rudder, Skeg, or Naked: Which is Best?

As great as it would be to give a hard and fast answer to this age-old kayaking question, what’s best for you depends on your kayak, budget, and the type of paddling you plan on doing.

Rudders are the safest and easiest way to go. They allow paddlers of all experience levels to steer with ease with a smaller learning curve. But, unfortunately, they’re just more expensive and require more upkeep to maintain good working order.

Skegs are more of a niche market. They’re at their best on kayaks that are naturally maneuverable and easy to steer. They’re helpful for those who struggle to maintain their course in windy, wavy weather. 

If you’re looking for a challenge and feel comfortable in your ability, I suggest at least trying a kayak with neither a rudder or skeg. Finding your groove and the perfect balance of edging and adjusting your paddle stroke is rewarding and adds to the overall experience. It makes you feel like an extension of the boat. Just be sure to practice in calm conditions first.

Whatever route you decide, I hope this article helped set you on the right path, and I can’t wait to see you on the water!