What is a Kayak? Understanding the Anatomy & Uses of A Kayak


What is a kayak—aside from a boat-ish thing that floats on the water? For first-timers, learning all the minute details of a kayak can be a rather stressful experience. After all, kayaks come in various types, brands, models, and so on. If you are completely new to kayaking, it is completely normal to sit and wonder: what is a kayak anyway? On this page, we will break down this question in full detail.

There are many questions that need to be answered if you wish to try kayaking for the first time. What’s a kayak? How does a kayak work? Do I need lessons? What type of kayak do I need? And so forth. For your reference, each of these questions will be answered below. Finally, we will finish by illustrating a few of the many types of kayaks.

What is a Kayak?

Kayaks are small boats which normally sit one or two people. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this rule. Many people with small children will undoubtedly like to bring their children along. However, keep in mind that the vast majority of kayaks will be for one or two people.

There are many different details of kayaks that are important to recognize. Let’s go ahead and break down the important details so that you can be more informed on this topic and decide whether or not you wish to pursue a kayaking hobby.

How a Kayak Works

A kayak is a small boat which can be used for extreme sports, casual boating, fishing, and much more. Since they are capable of quick turns and provide an excellent level of control while turning, they are popularly used in whitewater rivers. Other types of boats would be extremely dangerous in this same environment.

Of course, a kayak can be used for many different hobbies. A kayak typically comes with a paddle to help the user guide and steer the boat. They may also have a rudder attached to the rear, a seat, and a narrow build for easily gaining speed. Typically, you sit very close to the water.

what is a kayak
Getting Kayaking Lessons

Getting kayaking lessons is something that many people will ponder while learning more about what a kayak is. Typically, once people hear about the dangerous conditions that can come while using a kayak improperly they consider getting lessons.

Those who have a “trial by fire” sort of personality will likely do everything they can to avoid getting kayak lessons. Then, there are those who would never step into a kayak without some sort of professional help. Of course, if you go out kayaking for the first time on a lake in the middle of a sunny day you will have a hard time flipping the boat.

Kayaking Tips for Beginners

Before you go out kayaking for the first time, there are many things you need to be prepared for. As a beginner, you probably have no idea where to even start. Here are some tips for you to keep in mind on your first adventure out on the currents with a kayak.

Go Out on A Sunny Day

Before kayaking for the first time, make sure to check the weather. Although it is not always accurate, it will still give you a general idea if today is the right day to go out. If you are in the middle of summer, for example, and there is little-to-no chance of wind or rain, it is definitely the right day. The last thing you need is to run into climatic issues on your first kayaking trip.

Start on a Calm Body of Water

Sure, you might envision yourself kayaking down a whitewater river in the future. You will get there in time. As long as you practice and continue the hobby. On your first time, you might scar yourself for life and quit the hobby without even really trying it if you choose a day which is rainy, snowy, and so on.

Go with the Wind

If you have tried using a paddle before, you might already know the pain that comes with trying to paddle into the wind. With a tailwind, however, things can be much easier for a beginner. Additionally, having the wind behind you will help you see how fun the hobby can be.

Of course, you might have to experiment with the headwind on the way back. However, try to relax and take things easy as much as possible during your first adventure. With the wind behind you, rowing will be a lot easier on your muscles.

Bring Sufficient Supplies

Rule number one for survival: always have adequate living supplies. You hopefully already apply this to every aspect of your life. Kayaking is no different. Never step foot into a kayak without ensuring that you have everything you need. Imagine, for example, boating out for a couple hours only to realize that you don’t have food or potable water. In this scenario, you can quickly switch from a relaxed mindset to one full of fear and stress. This is not ideal for a first-time kayaker.

Inform Other People Nearby

This is specifically relevant for people who are kayaking for the first time in public reservoirs, lakes, and so on. Whether it be family members, a lifeguard, or whoever is nearby, let them know that you may need speedy emergency assistance. This will give you much more peace of mind should things go wrong.

Bring a Friend

Having a friend with you the first time will eliminate the possibility of most bad scenarios from ever occurring. Especially if this is someone who is experienced and knowledgeable on how to properly kayak. Since you will probably both want to use a separate boat, start by making an agreement to stay within a certain distance of each other. Shouting distance is a good general rule of thumb.

Check the Water Temperature

The water temperature is more important than you might think. When the worst occurs and you fall into the water, freezing temperatures can quickly translate into health problems. As long as the water is above 60°F (or 15.6°C) you can expect to survive in the water for at least 2 hours before developing hypothermia. Of course, this also depends on your swimming ability, physical fitness, will to live, and so on.

Test Your Life Vest

There is no point in having a life vest if it doesn’t work. Before trusting your life on a personal flotation device (PFC), do a basic water test. For best results, do the test with your body. Go to your local swimming pool, ocean, reservoir, or whatever is most relevant. Slowly submerge yourself into the water with your PFC and ensure that you don’t need to paddle or swim to keep your breathing channel open.

Plan Your Route First

Finally, a great thing to do before you embark out onto the water is to ensure that you know what you are going to do once in the boat. This will help you on several fronts. For starters, you can quickly get an estimate as to how long your route will take, which direction you will be heading, and worst case scenario, how you will receive access to emergency assistance.

what's a kayakGear You Need:

Do not set foot in a kayak for the first time without the proper gear. After all, this can be a dangerous sport. Imagine kayaking as being the same as hiking, camping, or other outdoor sports where things can quickly turn south. When the worst happens, you need to be prepared.  Here is a list of items that you will need to have with you the first time you venture out into the abyss.

  • Kayak (hopefully this one is obvious). **
  • **
  • Life vest. **
  • Bilge pump (removes water from the boat).
  • Spray skirt (helps keep you warm & dry). *
  • Long sleeve shirt. *
  • Rain gear. *
  • UV-blocking sunglasses and hat. *
  • Plenty of food and water. **
  • First-aid kit. **
  • Emergency Whistle. **
  • *
  • Zip-lock bags to keep items dry.
  • Watch (keep track of time).

* Optional depending on the weather

** Absolute Necessity

All of the items above are not entirely necessary. For your reference, we did our best to help you narrow down items which are absolutely needed, those which are only sometimes necessary, and those which you might be able to live without. At the end of the day, however, you are the only one who can decide which items will be necessary. Use the above list solely as a reference.

Where You Can Use Kayaks

Once you decide to pursue a kayaking hobby, deciding where to kayak is the next step. Since there are many bodies of water that are suitable for kayaking, let’s go ahead and break down each of these in full detail. Below you find the various pros and cons of kayaking in each body of water.

River Kayaking

River kayaking can be the biggest thrill of your life. However, it can also lead to your death. As a result, choosing a river to kayak on is a process that needs to be treated with the utmost sensitivity. Make sure to contact your local authorities before setting foot on any river and ensure that it is safe for kayaking.


  • Easier to paddle
  • Faster speeds
  • More scenery


  • Can be very dangerous
  • Usually not for beginners
  • Easier to damage the kayak

Canal Kayaking

Canals are one of the best kayaking options to pursue if you are a beginner. In case you are wondering, a canal is a manmade river, whereas a river is completely natural. Since it is manmade, it comes with the benefits of predictable currents and water levels. This makes them wonderful for beginners.


  • Easier to paddle
  • Stable current and seabed
  • Excellent for beginners


  • Long distance from start to finish
  • Manmade canals mean less surrounding scenery

Lake & Reservoir Kayaking

Lake and/or reservoir kayaking provides the means for some of the safest kayaking around. Additionally, kayaking on one of these bodies of water will help you learn how to use a kayak before you feel the confidence to go on some of the more daring bodies of water.


  • Stable water levels
  • Water stays still
  • Excellent for beginners


  • Harder to paddle
  • Less speed & movement

Ocean Kayaking

Ocean kayaking, although very fun and rewarding, is not at all for those who are just starting this hobby. It has many benefits such as being able to pursue other hobbies simultaneously like fishing, wildlife spotting, and looking at the scenery. However, be aware of the various dangers that come with ocean kayaking if you do not have the right experience level.


  • Wonderful for reaching remote destinations
  • Can be used for a variety of different hobbies
  • Helps you improve kayak control and maneuvering


  • Absolutely not for beginners
  • Very dangerous
  • Hard to paddle
  • Waves can easily flip you over

Kayak RentalsRenting vs. Buying a Kayak

There are various reasons that you may choose to either buy or rent a kayak. Of course, renting a kayak is the cheaper option. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you should choose to do this. After all, there are many benefits that come with owning your own kayak.

Why Rent a Kayak

  • No need to store it in-between uses
  • You don’t need to worry about it being stolen overnight.
  • Renting usually comes with shuttle
    • You don’t need to carry it around before/after.
  • No further upgrades to your car
  • Maintenance and cleaning aren’t necessary
  • Only use the kayak when you want
  • Great for people who kayak every now and then

Why Buy a Kayak

  • Having your own kayak to keep for years
  • Only paying the price once
  • Buying will pay for itself quickly with continued use
  • Never worry about your kayak being in stock
  • Freely put in aftermarket upgrades
    • You can easily make it nicer than a rental.
  • Customize and build a kayak according to your own personal needs.

As we can see, there are many reasons why you might choose to rent a kayak or buy one. Those who only see themselves kayaking once a year or so might choose to rent. However, those who want to make a routine hobby out of kayaking will likely need to purchase one unless they want to pay more than what is necessary. After all, renting is much more expensive in the long term.

What is a Kayak: Understanding the Anatomy of Kayaks

Finally, let’s finish by breaking down the anatomy of a kayak. Each of the following are common terms used by professional kayakers. Learning how to use a kayak will require you to have a basic knowledge of the boat’s parts. Here are the basic terms that you need to learn, if you don’t already know them.


The bow of the kayak is the front of the boat. As you are seated in your kayak, the furthest point of the boat that you can see is called the bow.


The term ‘bow’ is just a different term to describe the front of the boat, similarly, a stern is the rear-end of the boat. It is the part that you won’t be looking at while riding down the river.


This term is just as simple as the ones before. A “port” on the kayak is just a simple word that indicates you are discussing the left side of the boat.


Finally, a starboard is the right side of the boat. Although it isn’t quite as easy as the other one-syllable words present here, it is the term you must know.


Those who are familiar with planes probably already know this one. The cockpit is the part of the boat where all the action takes place. This is where you will be sitting down rowing the boat.


The deck of a boat is the part which sits above the water. It is the top part of the boat that you will typically keep dry. Well, probably not entirely dry. You get the idea here.


Having a seat in a kayak is not actually required. In many cases, kayaks won’t come equipped with a seat. However, if you wish to ride on the water for an extended period of time, you should purchase one.


The hull of the kayak is the part of the ship that is sealed off from water and will be predominately underwater. The hull is something that you need to carefully look out for while riding down rocky rivers.

What is a Kayak: Summary

This article was created to answer the question: What’s a Kayak? Although we have provided adequate information for beginners who are just getting into this topic, there are undoubtedly questions that will still remain. We’ve created a lot of content about kayaks! Consider checking out:  the different types of kayaks, or learn how to strap a kayak to a roof rack. Remember that kayaking isn’t for everyone, and that it is a considerably dangerous activity.

If you are just beginning your kayaking hobby, you might opt to start by renting a kayak and trying it out on a canal or lake. In any case, remember to take all safety precautions necessary, bring the proper gear, and know the basic anatomy of the kayak before ever stepping foot into one.