The Language of Kayaking

By: Adam Edwards + Save to a List

Here's a quick list of words and phrases to keep you in the loop with your new hobby!

Starting a new sport or activity is daunting. You've navigated getting the gear, gotten to the river or lake and are ready to go and paddle. Your new friends strike up a conversation and there are so many words you don't have context for. Here's a list to help you navigate kayaking lingo a little more easily so you can spend less time worrying about what "fluffy" means and more time focusing on enjoying your "run".

This list is primarily whitewater kayaking specific but there is plenty of cross over of vocabulary between whitewater, sea kayaking and recreational kayaking. 

Types of Kayaks

Playboat - low volume whitewater kayak whose design is made to surf waves cartwheel, or allow the user to do some combination or variation of that

River runner - a kayak made for maneuvering through waterways and rapids that require the ability to generate speed and punch through or cross current lines and features

Creek boat - a kayak designed to descend steep creeks and rivers that excel at propelling the user over current lines and water features

Sea kayak - kayak primarily designed for touring or paddling for longer distances and through a variety of conditions.

Recreational kayak - a kayak designed primarily for flat or very slow moving water. Think lakes, ponds and the slow river.

Fishing kayak - a kayak designed specifically for fishing. This may include extra placement for mounting gear or a wider hull base to allow for standing. Generally both features and more are present in these highly customizable craft.



Ben Mckenzie running a rapid with style - Photo Adam Edwards

Kayak Lingo

Bow- nose of craft

Stern- tail of craft

Deck- top of craft

Hull- bottom of craft

Edge -  a hull feature that allows carving (turning sharply) or surfing more easily

Planing hull - A kayak with a flatter hull, better for river running, surfing or playboating

Displacement hull - a rounded hull with minimal or no edge, " slower" and better for creek boating, turns on a dime

Kayaking Gear 

PFD (personal flotation device)- life jacket

Skirt -neoprene and bungee (or rubbber) affair that seals water out of your kayak  while paddling or capsizing by creating seal from you waist to the cockpit of the kayak. Imagine a water resistant kilt or skirt. A spray deck is the nylon version that won't keep water out if you capsize.

Immersion wear - dry suits ( think of a gore tex onesie), splash jackets (nice raincoat), paddling pants (nice rain pants)

Paddle - single or double bladed for solo craft primarily kayaks, sea kayaks, playboats, stand up paddle boards, canoes=

Dry bag - a small bag, usually roll top or beefy rubber ziploc, that holds personal items, emergency supplies and other gear

Cam strap - an easy to use high strength strap with spring loaded buckle.

Float bag - a sealed (or sealable) and inflatable dry bag for filling negative space in a kayak to prevent it from sinking in the event of capsizing. These are so you don't lose your craft if you swim...and so your friends don't have to chase a +300lb anvil down the river (water weighs ~8lbs/gal...50-90gal kayak...)

Throw rope - a length of static, semi dynamic, or dynamic rope from 1/4”-1/2” thick. It comes packed in a bag from the user to throw to an imperiled user and pull them back to “safety”.

Pin kit - specific to whitewater, a set of gear utilized to remove kayas or rafts that have been stuck in rocks, wood piles, or tight spots in rapids or open water ways.

Tow rope - a length of roope packed into a small waist pack, usually 1/4” and 8-20 ft long. It is used to tow another kayak.

Sea kayaking terms (the other whitewater)

Bilge pump - a small hand pump for removing water from the cockpit of a kayak without exiting the craft. (sea kayaking primarily)

Paddle float - an inflatable sleeve that goes over the blade of a paddle. Used in some re entry techniques in sea kayaking and rec kayaking (sea kayaking primarily)

Rudder - A vertical piece of material, rectangular in shape affixed to the back of the kayak with wire lines that connect to pedals in the cockpit. These help steer the craft by turning the piece to the left or right. (sea kayaking primarily)

Skeg - A piece of material that can drop down out of a recessed enclosure in the stern of the kayak. These are fixed, they do not move side to side just up and down, and help the kayak stay on a straight direction of travel more easily. Only present in certain long whitewater kayaks. More common in recreational or sea kayaks but some long whtiewater kayaks have them.

Deck line - a length of chord that runs around the deck of the kayak and is used to affix additional gear or items. Only present in certain long whitewater kayaks. More common in recreational or sea kayaks


For the Culture

Booty beer - Drinking a cheap alcoholic beverage out of a shoe. "Penance" in the whitewater community for swimming (ie your paddling group had to rescue your gear, you may be encouraged to drink booty beer as penance to the “river gods” -ie your friends.

Swim - to exit your kayak in a lake, ocean or river. An out of boat experience. To be avoided wherever and whenever possible.

Fluffy - very high water, usually to mean high side of good but not quite terrifying

Stout -  Beyond  the high side of good. Scary. Formidable. Type III-IV fun for the unintiated or unprepared. Both a personal and communal assessment. Someting may be stout for you and not stout for someone else. But certain things are stout for everyone. Ask questions. Look before you leap.

Gnarly -  see "stout"

Mank-  low water, bony. You hit a lot of rocks unintentially. You're not in the SE of the USA and rocks are wrecking you and your kayak.

Boof - the paddle stroke that allows whitewater kayakers to launch their kayaks off and over obstacles.

Beta - Pertinent information about a kayaking run includes but not limited to character, hazards and recent changes.

Beater - to crash, mess up, or otherwise not do something stylishly in a whitewater kayak. Also a verb, pronoun and noun. You can "beater" and or be a "beater". Not  associated with "grom" though they can be used in a sentence together.

Eddy - a circular current of water that forms behind rocks, obstacles or between very strong currents

Lap - one complete run of a river section

Eddy out - to stop the kayak in an eddy

Hole -  The hydraulic feature created by the combination of gravity and water interacting with an increase in gradient. Depending on the shape, volume and strength...imagine a black hole in space. Youre gonna have a bad time if you go in one uprepared.

Waterfalls - no longer just for looking at. You can fly (for a moment).

Jangle - to run, or be in the act of running, late for one reason or another. Finding many other things to do while needing to be somewhere.

Church - an extremely pleasant experience. Used as a verb  - "that was church"

Ferry - to use a wave or hydraulic to ferry across river currents or ocean currents at high speed

Run - a section of river 

Roadside -  a kayaking run that is within one to two miles of a road or you can "easily" hike up to the road...or climb. Not a great barometer of "safety" but a great barometer of access.

Remote or Exploratory - You're on your own out there. Plan accordingly.

Put in - the beginning of a run, the access point where kayakers place their kayaks in the river and head downstream

Take out - the end of a run, the egress point where kayakers take their kayaks out of the river and go back to their transport

Shuttle - the act of driving kayaks and persons too and from the put in and takeout. Often needlessly complicated. Mostly just complicated. Requires two cars, two drivers, sometimes a plane or a hike, and  a paddling partner, long suffering friend or potential romantic partner.

A perfectly set shuttle means all vehicles at the takeout. Almost impossible, but desirable. - photo Adam Edwards

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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