What Is a Skeg on a Kayak? (Spoiler: They’re Incredible!)

Kayaks are the best–I’ve been using them for decades and they keep getting easier to use and more affordable. When I was a young man, the thought of owning a kayak with a functional skeg was a beautiful dream, but now, it’s well within grasp.

Skegs have been around a long time, but they weren’t always available in affordable models (as they are today).

Q: What is a skeg on a kayak? 
A: A center fin on the keel (bottom) of the boat that helps with tracking. They are most often retractable (you pull a cable with a ball attached to the end that activates the skeg) but sometimes they are permanently attached to the keel. 

I recently bought an Old Town kayak with a retractable skeg, and after having used a boat without a skeg for the past few seasons, I can confidently say: skegs really help with navigation! 

“Do I need one?” you’re asking yourself. 

Read ahead to find out. 

What Is a Skeg On a Kayak? Why You Might Need One

It’s a beautiful day, and you’re paddling side to side, slicing through water; suddenly, your kayak wavers. The wind picks up. You’re having a hard time keeping your line–sounds to me like you need a skeg!

A kayak skeg helps maintains a direct course, especially in challenging conditions.

(And if you are planning to hit the water, don’t forget to file a float plan and be sure to wear the proper attire.)

Understanding Kayak Parts

When I think back to my early kayaking days, I can remember constant confusion about kayak parts. Let’s dive into this, because it will be helpful for understanding skegs, starting with the stern, hull, and bow of the kayak.

The Anatomy of a Kayak

At the stern (rear) the kayak, you may find a rudder or a skeg mounted for steering purposes. But there a few skeg positions (more on that later).

The hull, the bottom of the boat (not visible from the top of the deck), is designed for stability and speed in the water.

And the bow is the front of the boat.

The Role of the Skeg

Overall, it plays a role in keeping your kayak straight and on course. Skegs help kayaks resist side-to-side motion, especially in inclement weather.

Whether your kayak already has a skeg installed or you plan to add one, keep in mind: they can make all the difference between battling the water and smoothly cruising through it.

Embedded discreetly inside the boat, the skeg box is an inconspicuous storage box where the skeg, when not in use, hides out. It retreats back up inside the boat, nestled safely in the skeg box, away from possible damage, until you activate it. (This is only for retractable skegs, which are most common.)

The Difference Between a Skeg and a Rudder

Skeg and rudder are often used interchangeably, which confuses people. They aren’t the same thing.

The main difference between a skeg and a rudder is that a rudder is a hinged blade at the stern that can pivot from side to side–they’re often controlled by footrests and cables inside the kayak.

A skeg drops down from the hull. It doesn’t pivot but can be retracted up into the kayak’s skeg box by pulling on the skeg rope or wire.

The Steering Debate

Both systems have their pros and cons when it comes to steering. With a skeg, you may have to employ different stroke techniques to turn, whereas most rudder systems allow you to steer the kayak with your feet.

When to Use Skegs 

Are you wondering when you should use your skeg? And how often? 

Well, you don’t always need to use it. 

I use a skeg to keep the kayak on course, which can be necessary in choppy water. Skegs help your kayak track straight and minimize the boat’s tendency to veer off course.

What Is a Skeg on a Kayak

I don’t use mine constantly because it does add a slight bit of drag and makes your boat a little bit slower (the amount is barely perceptible, though). So I use it when I want to go straight and the waves aren’t letting me; on glassy water, I wouldn’t deploy a skeg.

Windy Conditions

We’ve all been there: a calm day suddenly becomes blustery, which affects the kayak’s course. In windy conditions, a kayak with a skeg performs much better than one without.

When the wind comes from the side, it may push the bow around more than the stern, causing the kayak to turn into the wind, which is known as weathercocking.

Skegs are great for this–they will increase the water resistance at the stern, making it harder for the wind to push it around and helping your kayak to keep its course.

It’s all about finding that sweet spot where your kayak is maintaining its course. Understanding your kayak’s behavior in various wind conditions is important, and will set you on the path to a wonderful recreational paddling experience.

Skeg Protection

Be sure to protect your skeg, as it can get damaged. Added security for your skeg, especially when paddling in shallow waters, is always a good idea.

If you hear it striking rocks or other hard surfaces, retract it. Keep in mind: there are plenty of situations when you shouldn’t need a skeg. Not using it in unnecessary situations will keep it in good shape.

The decision to paddle your kayak without the skeg is a good one if it makes sense, but this is largely dependent on the weather.


It should be clear by now that I love skegs. By seeking out knowledge on what exactly is a skeg you’ve significantly improved your kayaking and paddling knowledge, so well done!

This simple yet ingenious piece of equipment helps you control your kayak and maintains proper tracking.

If you haven’t tried one, consider renting a kayak with a skeg. Give it a shot and get paddling. You won’t be disappointed!


How is a skeg different from a rudder?

They work in different ways. The main difference between a rudder and a skeg is the way they function. A skeg is fin-like and is used to control the kayak’s tracking (and is often retractable), while a rudder is a movable device that can be connected to the kayak’s foot pedals and provide precise steering control.

Another key difference is that a rudder, usually mounted with stainless steel cables and controlled by a separate system, is used for steering the kayak. Skegs are used to keep the kayak straight and counteract weathercocking.

How do I add a skeg to a kayak?

It usually involves mounting the skeg on the stern of the kayak. Some kayaks come with pre-installed skeg systems, while others may require you to purchase and install a kit.

Can a skeg be connected to the rudder on a kayak?

It can, but should it? I’d recommend choosing one based on your needs. 

How do I use the skeg to guarantee my kayak stays on track?

When properly used, kayak skegs enhance the responsiveness of your boat and keep your kayak on track, but there are no guarantees–if you’re kayaking in dangerous winds, it might not have much of an effect. 

Are skegs beneficial for all boats or just kayaks?

You can enhance the performance of both kayaks and canoes by adding one to the keel. They are particularly useful for boats that need something to aid with directional stability. 

When should I use my skeg and when might it not be appropriate?

Use your skeg when your kayak is weathercocking to keep it straight. Don’t use it in shallow water when it might hit rocks or jagged surfaces. 

Image Credits
Photo 1 by Jürgen Friede
Photo 2 by Joe Pohle
Photo 3 by Jake Leonard
Photo 4 by Johny Goerend

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