There are many different types of kayaks. Each type of kayak has a specific design for specific uses.
Each specific design has its own hull shape. The hull of the kayak is the bare-bones bottom of the kayak. The hull provides the base for how the kayak will maneuver in water, and what type of water the kayak will work best in. Different types of kayaks will have drastically different types and shapes of hulls, based on what the kayak is designed to do.
Why the hull shape on your kayak matters
The hull is the bottom part of the kayak. The hull is the main part of the kayak that is connected to the water. Depending on what type of hull you want, it could mean the difference between paddling in a straight line or going in circles. Similarly, it could mean the difference between paddling fast or paddling slow. This is why hull shape is so important when choosing a kayak. You need to find the correct kayak hull shape for your kayaking style.
The most important thing to consider when choosing hull shape, is where you will be kayaking. Will you be kayaking on a lake, river, or in the ocean? Additionally, will the water be calm, choppy, or whitewater? And is your goal going to be maneuverability, stability, or speed? These are all things to consider when choosing your kayak hull.
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Kayak design basics
Sit-On vs. Sit-In
The biggest difference between different kayak designs is whether you will be sitting on top of the kayak, or inside the kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks are mainly used for recreational or fishing purposes on flat bodies of water. They are easy to use, don’t require a sprayskirt or any sort of cockpit cover, and can be a better choice for people who feel the sit-in kayak is too claustrophobic.
Sit-in kayaks have a hollow interior where your legs sit, stretched out. They are better for packing with gear, paddling in rough water (whitewater or big ocean waves), or even paddling in flat water if you prefer to be inside the kayak. Sit-in kayaks are often used with a sprayskirt, spraydeck, cockpit cover, or whatever you like to call it. This is a neoprene covering that covers the cockpit hole while you are sitting inside the kayak. This allows you to be splashed with
water while you are kayaking without the kayak filling with water. A sprayskirt will also allow you to roll the kayak back upright while still sitting in it if you happen to capsize.
The majority of kayaks these days are made out of plastic. Plastic kayaks are durable and can withstand the harsh environments of whitewater rivers. Plastic kayaks bounce off rocks and keep the kayaker inside the kayak safe when this happens. They can become scratched and dented, and they can break, but they are still by far the most durable of all kayak materials. Most recreational, fishing, and whitewater kayaks are made out of plastic.
Most sea kayaks are made out of fiberglass. Fiberglass is lightweight and will last for decades. Fiberglass is not as strong as plastic, and therefore is not often used in making whitewater kayaks. However, sea kayaks do not usually need to withstand as much abuse as whitewater kayaks, so fiberglass hulls work well in sea kayaks.
Some professionally-used whitewater kayaks are being made out of carbon fiber. These kayaks are usually playboats, and are designed for doing aerial tricks on river surf waves. Carbon fiber is more durable than fiberglass, but not as durable as plastic. It can withstand some abuse, but not much, and these kayaks often will need to be repaired. The benefit of using a carbon fiber kayak as opposed to a plastic kayak is that it is stiffer and lighter weight than plastic. This allows the kayaker to have faster reaction time with the water, and to save energy paddling a kayak that weighs less.
Cockpits are found in sit-in kayaks only. These are the holes that you sit inside while kayaking. Recreational kayaks have larger cockpits, while sea kayaks and whitewater kayaks have smaller cockpits. Sea kayaks and whitewater kayak cockpits almost always have rims around the edge of the cockpit. These rims hold the sprayskirt on the cockpit so it keeps water out of the kayak. This is imperative when kayaking in big ocean waves or whitewater, because getting water in your kayak could cause the kayak to become heavy and difficult to maneuver, and possibly even capsize.
The length of your kayak will affect how easily it turns and maneuvers, and also how fast it will go. The longer the kayak, the quicker it will pick up speed and the faster it will move across the water. The shorter the kayak, the easier it will be to maneuver and make turns on the water.
A wider kayak (and thus a wider hull) will be more stable on the water, thus not capsizing as easily. A narrower kayak will be faster and easier to turn and maneuver.
Often referred to as edges or chines, these are more important in whitewater kayaks than in recreational kayaks, as they have a major impact on how tippy the kayak will be in current. This is referring to the part of the kayak where the sidewalls meet the hull. If it is a kayak with hard chines, these will feel like grooves, or corners on the outside of the hull. If the kayak has soft chines, the “corners” will feel more rounded and the sidewalls will simply roll into the hull, without any hard edges connecting them. Hard edges are most often on a flat bottom kayak.
This means the hull of the kayak is flat, making it more maneuverable and more surfable on river waves. Playboats and downriver boats are most often designed with hard edges and flat hulls. Rounded edges are connected to rounded bottom kayaks, often referred to as displacement hulls. These hulls allow for the kayak to skip over large features in the river like holes, or waterfalls, and have soft landings on the bottom, thus easing stress on the kayaker’s body from the impact of the whitewater. Rounded edges do not turn as easily, but they tend to be more stable and have less chance of capsizing. Additionally, kayaks with round chines/edges are often easier to roll than kayaks with hard chines/edges.
Rocker is referring to the shape of hull from the bow to the stern. A kayak with a high rocker profile might look like a banana. It would be curved front to back, with the bow and stern sitting higher out of the water than the center of the kayak. The purpose of adding rocker to a kayak is to add maneuverability. A kayak with more rocker (more curvature) is going to turn much easier than a kayak with less rocker because of the lessened resistance by the bow and stern being out of the water. Alternatively, a kayak with less rocker is going to have more resistance in the water and thus be less maneuverable. However, kayaks with less rocker will tend to be faster and track in a straight line better than kayaks with more rocker.
Whitewater kayaks can have both continuous rocker or kick rocker. Continuous rocker is when the boat has a continuous rocker profile throughout the entire hull of the kayak. Kick rocker is when the center of the kayak has a flat hull and just the bow and stern are kicked up a little bit with rocker.
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Creekboats (for whitewater) often have lots of rocker. Playboats (also for whitewater) have just a bit of rocker. Sea kayaks often have rocker in the bow but not in the stern. Recreational and fishing kayaks usually have no rocker, as it is not needed as much in flat water.
Outfitting includes anything within the kayak that makes the kayaker more comfortable. This can include a seat, seat pad, hip pads, thigh braces, thigh pads, backband, or foot blocks.
Outfitting is adjusted according to the kayaker’s needs and wants and is entire based upon the kayaker’s comfort. Outfitting is most often made up of a plastic seat with added foam on top for added height or comfort. Some kayak companies use rope systems to adjust outfitting, while other kayak companies use ratchet systems for outfitting adjustments. Which type of outfitting the kayaker prefers is entirely based on their kayaking style and comfort while inside the kayak.
Foot Pegs or Foot Blocks
Foot pegs and foot blocks are what the kayaker pushes their feet up against while their legs are inside the kayak. These can be adjusted to fit each kayaker’s leg length, and are meant to allow the kayaker for something to rest their legs against. The idea is to prevent the kayaker’s lower body from sliding around inside the kayak, and instead, allow them to fully use their upper body and core to paddle without worrying about slipping about.
In whitewater kayaks, foot pegs and foot blocks are a must-have accessory in the kayak. Foot blocks are often made out of foam in playboats, and they can be adjusted by cutting the foam down with a knife, or adding more foam as needed. Foot pegs are often made of plastic in creekboats and river running kayaks, and they can be adjusted by either pulling or pushing a rope system through the kayak’s outfitting, or by adjusting the entire peg system with a bolt and screw method.
Rudders and Skegs
Rudders and skegs are accessories that are often found in sea kayaks or kayaks designed for paddling long distances. They are drop-down fins in the hull that help you turn the kayak. Rudders are fins in the stern of the kayak hull that move up and down and also side to side. They help turn the boat right or left when they are rotated from side to side. Rudders are controlled by pedals at the kayaker’s feet inside the kayak.
Skegs are fins in the stern of the kayak hull that move up and down, but not side to side. Skegs are only useful when kayaking through very windy conditions. They are made to be used as a correctional tool when the wind is pushing the kayak in an off-course direction. Skegs are not useful for turning the boat unless there is wind affecting the kayak.
For sit-in kayaks, volume is very important to consider when choosing a kayak. The amount of volume in your kayak will affect how the kayak moves in the water, how comfortable you are in the kayak, and how much gear you can fit inside it.
Types of Hull Shapes
Each hull shape serves a specific purpose for different kayaking styles. Some hulls allow the kayak to turn and maneuver easier, while others allow the kayak to track and go in a straight line easier. Although some hulls are meant for whitewater or paddling through large ocean waves, others are meant for flatwater. Some hulls allow kayaks to pick up speed and move quickly through the water, while others are slower and more stable.
A rounded hull makes maneuvering and turning the kayak much easier. These kayaks are best used in the river in technical whitewater with lots of rocks. Rounded hulled kayaks are commonly used in difficult whitewater because they are good for kayaking over waterfalls and rocks, since the rounded hull (also called displacement hull) will “displace” the water as it lands off a waterfall, thus decreasing the impact that the kayaker receives when they land in the water.
Rounded hulls do not track as easily as flat or v-shaped hulls. They are slower at gaining speed and going in a straight line.
Rounded hulls have less primary stability than flat hulls, but more secondary stability. This means that the kayak can stay upright when it is farther on edge
A flat hull basically means it is a flat bottom kayak. The hull is smooth without any rounding, and will often have harder edges/chines connecting the hull to the sidewalls. A flat hull will
provide good primary stability while kayaking. This means that when put on edge, the kayak will remain stable. However, the secondary stability of a flat bottom kayak is less so than a round bottom kayak. This means that when the kayak is leaned beyond it’s chines, the risk of capsizing increases.
Flat hulls are seen in fishing kayaks, recreational kayaks, and whitewater kayaks, including both creekboats and playboats.
V-shaped hulls are fast. They track better through the water than any other hull shape, thus allowing the kayaker to gain speed quickly and keep momentum up while traveling in a straight line. Some v-shaped hulls tend to be less stable than other hulls. Additionally, a v-shaped hull will not turn as easily as a flat bottom hull or a round hull. Most sea kayaks have v-shaped hulls. Wildwater kayaks, which are specifically built for racing, also have v-shaped hulls. Wildwater kayaks are so unstable that if you are not consistently paddling forward in one, you are very likely to capsize.
There also exist kayaks with combinations of the different types of hulls. There are some recreational and fishing kayaks that have flat bottom hulls for stability and a bit of a v-shape just in the center to allow the kayak to track well.
Often referred to as “tunnel hulls”, pontoon hulls have an inverted shape on the bottom. The hull is inverted in either a rounded or v-shape, creating a tunnel-like appearance. Pontoon hulls are potentially the most stable hull out of all kayaking hull designs. The primary stability in pontoon hulls is very good. Pontoon hulls are most often found in fishing kayaks. They are also found in flatwater recreational kayaks, and not often found in whitewater kayaks.
Types of kayaks and their respective hull shapes
Fishing kayak hull designs can vary immensely from kayak to kayak. Different types of fishing kayaks are built with different hull profiles, rocker profiles, and amounts of chine in order to provide the fisher with the most stable and maneuverable kayak for their needs.
The majority of fishing kayaks are built with flat hulls in order to maximize stability. It is important that fishing kayaks are as stable as possible so that the kayak does not capsize when the fisher reels in large fish!
The majority of fishing kayaks are also sit-on kayaks, rather than sit-in kayaks. Lots of fishing kayaks are even built for standing on, so the fisher can ideally see the fish they are reeling in, or can have more leverage when reeling fish in. Being able to stand on a kayak requires lots of stability from the hull. This includes both primary and secondary stability, which is provided by a flat bottom with more rounded chines.
Fishing kayaks vary in size and shape according to where you are fishing and what type of fish you are looking for. Wider fishing kayaks will be more stable. Longer fishing kayaks will move faster through the water, but will be less maneuverable.
Fishing kayaks are also often equipped with straps, bungee cords, and rod holders to aid in the process of carrying gear.
Some fishing kayaks have pontoon hulls in order to add even more stability. These fishing kayak hull designs do not maneuver as well as kayaks with flat bottom hulls, however, they are more stable. It is all about finding which design works best for your needs.
Some fishing kayaks even have a v-shape in the middle of the hull, to add to the tracking and speed of the kayak. This is advantageous if the fisher is hoping to go fishing farther from shore, or if they are needing to kayak longer distances in order to access the good fishing spots.
Fishing kayaks aren’t usually built to be as maneuverable as other types of kayaks. The main focus in fishing kayak hull design is to make them as stable as possible, with ample room for storage on top of the kayak. There is not often any rocker included in fishing kayak hull designs, as it is not needed for maneuverability or for whitewater use. Additionally, edges/chines are most often rounded rather than hard. This adds to the stability of the kayak, but yet again, detracts from the maneuverability.
Recreational kayaks come in both sit-on and sit-in designs. Most of the sit-in designs of recreational kayaks do not require sprayskirts, since they are not designed to be used in whitewater or rough seas. The kayak will most likely not be splashed by the water enough to cause it to sink, and therefore a sprayskirt is not needed.
Recreational kayaks are made out of plastic. They are durable and can withstand some abuse, however, the plastic used to make recreational kayaks is usually not as strong as the plastic used to make whitewater kayaks. This is because recreational kayaks do not need to be as strong as whitewater kayaks.
Most recreational kayaks have a flat hull design. Recreational kayaks are designed for use in flat water on lakes or ponds or calm rivers. Therefore, they require high amounts of stability, while also keeping some maneuverability.
Most recreational kayaks do not have much rocker in their hull design, because that much maneuverability is not needed. Some recreational kayaks have a little bit of kick rocker at the bow, but that rare and not necessary.
Some recreational kayaks are made with a flat hull that has a slight v-shape in the center. The slight v-shape allows the kayak to track well in a straight line, while not losing the stability and maneuverability from the flat hull.
Recreational kayaks are usually designed with rounded chines/edges, giving them a high amount of secondary stability.
Whitewater itself has such a broad range of styles and difficulties that whitewater kayak brands have in turn created a broad range of designs of kayaks.
Playboats are meant for playing on the river. Their primary purpose is to catch surfable river waves and throw aerial tricks. Playboats have flat hulls with hard chines/edges. They are commonly quite short (less than 6’ long) and contain the majority of the volume around the kayaker’s body and knees. Playboats are almost always sit-in kayaks with sprayskirts being necessary to keep water out.
The flat hull and hard chines on playboats allow them to be quite maneuverable in the whitewater and on surf waves, but also contribute to the playboat’s instability. Playboats are very unstable, and the possibility of capsizing in one is quite high. Most playboats are made out of plastic, but in recent years, playboats have been being built out of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is lighter and stiffer, which allows the kayaker to gain more air on their tricks and save energy while doing so.
River running kayaks are meant to go down river in a stable and efficient manner. River running kayaks most often have flat hulls with hard chines, like playboats, but instead of being short, they are longer (closer to 9’). There are also river running kayaks made with round hulls and round chines as well. These kayaks will be a little more stable in the whitewater, but not quite as maneuverable as the flat hulls. River running kayaks track well and will pick up speed quickly. They are meant to go fast in a straight line, while not losing the maneuverability that is necessary in whitewater. River running kayaks are made out of plastic.
Creekboats serve the purpose of going down river, similar to river running kayaks, however, creekboats serve a smaller niche in that they are good at running very difficult whitewater. Creekboats often have rounded hulls and lots of rocker. The rounded hulls (also called displacement hulls) will displace water as a kayaker lands off a waterfall, thus providing a softer landing and a softer impact on the kayaker’s body as they land. The rocker in the kayak allows the kayaker to skip over holes, rocks, and crashing waves in the river without losing speed.
Rocker will allow the bow of the kayak to stay dry while the hull continues forward over the waves. Creekboats are always made out of plastic. It is necessary that they are made to be durable and able to take some abuse on the rocks in the river.
In recent years, kayaking companies have started coming out with “slicey boat” designs. These designs combine the speed, rocker, and length of a river running kayak, with the playfulness of a playboat. These kayaks often have the bow of a river running kayak, while the stern is squished down to be “slicey”. They allow the kayaker to perform tricks, while also allowing the kayaker to have the speed and rocker needed to get over difficult features in the river. These kayaks are always made out of plastic.