Kayak Rudders, Skegs & Kits

Last Updated on April 25, 2021 by KayakPro

The kayak rudder debate …

Rudder Mutter …
Trackinga straight course through the water
Flatwaterwater without currents or turbulence
Dragresistance on movement
Weather-cockthe reaction on the kayak from wind
Footbracea pedal fixed on a track
Hand Controla lever or line to control the rudder
Bowfront of the kayak
Sternback of the kayak
Transomthe rear flat surface of a boat
Trimreduction of surface area [of a fin]

For decades there exists some banter between sailors and power boaters. Sailors call power boaters “stink pots” and power boaters call sailors “rag baggers”. Now, it’s just chuckles between boating friends, but there is an underlying message in it.

The argument is … power boaters rely on an engine for power, so they may take good seamanship lightly when getting from point A to point B. Sailors utilize wind power – they are more challenged by weather conditions, currents and tides – they have to rely on their experience and skill to get from point A to point B. This boils down to a “my skills are better than your skills” argument.

Why do I mention this? Because similarly, a kayak rudder is an aid for tracking and called on to manage difficult conditions. Like the controversy between sailors and power boaters, top kayaking purists who never use a rudder or skeg, will argue that paddling is an art, a practiced skill that relies on experience and agility to track, steer and turn.

I like simplicity in my life and don’t think the use of a rudder should be a political debate. I also like options. Sometimes, I like to simply enjoy a relaxing paddle instead of exhausting myself, so I use my rudder. Other times, I don’t use my rudder, I like the challenge of paddling against wind and water – this keeps me in tune and ready when necessary as well as healthy exercise.

A kayak rudder is not a substitute for paddling experience. You need to practice how to manually track, steer and turn your kayak under your own physical power. It is a an awesome experience to feel “one with the boat”. Once you learn these skills – enjoy a rudder if you want!

kayak rudder

What is a kayak rudder?

A rudder is a mechanical device that is mounted off the stern of a kayak. It looks like a fin or a wing. It is controlled by hand or by a foot pedal. the primary purpose of a rudder is to aid in “tracking”, that is, to keep the kayak on a straight course. When positioned in the center, it functions the same as a skeg.

The second feature of a rudder is steering.While the rudder helps the kayak track straight – wind, water turbulence, currents or waves can force the kayak off course, the steering capability of a rudder compensates to make course correction easy.

Some kayaks come with a rudder already installed. If you want to add a rudder to a kayak, you can purchase a kit like the ones posted in the right column.

What’s the difference between a rudder and a skeg?

kayak skeg
Source: Austin Kayak

A skeg is typically (a fin) fitted through the hull and located anywhere from the cockpit to the stern. Like a rudder, a skeg also aids tracking. It is deployed by hand, through an opening in the hull, into the water. Some skegs are molded into the hull or attached directly to the hull, those types cannot be adjusted.

Unlike a rudder, a skeg is in a fixed position and is only used for tracking. A skeg can be “trimmed” to allow less surface of the fin in the water when you just need a little help for tracking. But a rudder offers the additional feature of repositioning (left or right) for steering and turning.

Why do some kayaks have rudders and some don’t?
Manufacturers install rudders on some of their flatwater models but especially on Touring and Fishing styles. These types of kayaks have a longer hull length and are paddled in offshore or more severe conditions.

Most production Touring styles or larger Fishing kayaks range in lengths between 12′ and 24′ which make them more difficult to turn. These are often used for coastal or open water and long distances. A rudder is especially useful for this kind of paddling to control the elements with less fatigue.

When to use a rudder?

weather cocking
Source: Pinterest

A rudder is deployed when the paddling conditions are affecting the performance of the kayak. Simply, a rudder set in the center position will help keep you on track but setting the rudder to one side or the other aids steering and turning.

Wind, water turbulence, current or waves all contribute to moving a boat off course. The effect of wind blowing across a kayak broadside, turns it into the wind. Here’s why – the water flow in the forward to mid section of the kayak, on both sides, are supported by the water. This forms a “wake” (parts the water) from the mid section past the stern. The stern sways between the wake and it’s not supported by water like the bow – the wind forces the kayak to turn into the wind. This is referred to as “weather-cocking” or “bow-cocking”. When this happens, a rudder stabilizes the stern within the wake by applying resistance – adjusting it left or right forces it back on track. The rudder does the job of extra paddle strokes necessary on one side to keep it on course.

How to use rudder?

Up, down, left or right – a rudder is simple to use. They typically are controlled by foot pedals or some, like the Hobie, have a hand lever on the side of the kayak within reach of the paddler. Cables attach from the foot or hand controls to the rudder. These raise and lower the rudder and move it side to side for steering.

When the kayak rudder is raised, it rests on the deck. Some sit in a groove like the example in the first video. Some paddlers don’t like it in this position because it can act as a sail, it catches wind and causes some drag. Other models, like the Hobie (yes, it is my favorite), are designed to lay flat as it rests on the deck avoiding wind resistance.

Can you add a rudder to a kayak that didn’t come with one?

retractable rudder
Source: Flickr

Yes. You can purchase a kayak rudder kit. The average price ranges between $100 – $350. If you are thinking of adding one, take a look at the video I have posted for an installation overview.

The first video shows a basic kayak rudder kit installation. Since kayak models are all different, you need to find the kit that will fit your kayak. The second video is about the Smart Track rudder mounts. This is a good look at the different shapes of “transom” area to consider before you buy a kit. The videos give you a head start.

Kayak rudder cautions.
There are a few things to be aware of with a rudder, mainly obstacles and handling. When transporting, launching or hauling, make sure the rudder is raised and secured to avoid bending or worse, snapping the fin. When paddling in shallow water, also raise the rudder to avoid damage from rocks or the bottom surface. You don’t want the rudder to be bouncing off of any objects.

Besides the obvious removal of any weed or debris that the kayak rudder picks up:

    • Silicone (WD40) a few times during the season and when storing will clean and lubricate the cables and help the moving parts glide easier.


    • Dry wax works well too. Apply to cables wherever they rub.


    • Salt water leaves dried salt that will deteriorate equipment, especially metal parts. If a kayak is used in salt water, it is especially important to wash off the salt after each use to avoid corrosion.


  • Over exposure to the sun and elements can fade and deteriorate the material. When not in use, simply cover it. I recommend storing it indoors during the off season.


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Ryan Stoltz

Ryan Stoltz

Avid kayaker and lover of the outdoors. Having been kayaking for over 7 years, I love sharing my experiences and learnings along the way. Currently kayaking in upstate New York and always open to new adventures!

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