Skeg VS Rudder: Pros And Cons, How They Work & When To Use

by Jason | Last Updated:   October 8th, 2022
Skeg VS Rudder: Pros And Cons, How They Work & When To Use

If you’ve been looking into getting a new kayak, you may have heard the phrases “Skeg” or “Rudder” being chucked around.

And if you don’t know the difference between a skeg VS rudder, it’s going to be a nightmare knowing which one will benefit you the most.

Most people will have heard of a rudder due to them being found on most boats. And while you might think of it in a kayak as being a device for steering or maneuvering a boat, this isn’t the case for sea kayaks.

Rudders are more of a device to aid you in maneuvering the kayak.

And when it comes to skegs, there aren’t many newbies that would have heard of them or even knew it was an option for a kayak.

This is why I wanted to write this article. During this article, I’m going to explain what a skeg/rudder is, how they work, and what the differences are.

Sound good?

Great, let’s get started: 

What Is A Skeg, And How Does It Work?

skeg vs rudder: skeg

If you’re new to kayaking, you may have heard the term “skeg,” but you might not know anything about it and how it works.

Luckily for you, it’s a pretty simple feature to get your head around. So, what is it?

A skeg is a small triangle-shaped narrow fin-like blade found on the stern section of the kayak’s hull. And you should not mistake this for a rudder.

Unlike a rudder, a skeg offers no directional assistance; instead, it aids the kayak’s tracking abilities when the weather conditions are getting rough.

There are a few styles of skeg blade that you should be aware of:

You have some skegs that are fixed to the bottom of the kayak, and these are usually found on inflatable kayaks. And it can be pretty annoying to remove the kayak skeg when it’s in the water.

And some skegs can be lifted and dropped from inside the kayak by sliding the hand control forward or aft. And this can make it a lot easier for you when you start paddling in shallow waters.

By using the skeg, you’ll find the kayak will hold its position a lot better in strong crosswinds without having to make too many adjustments.

The downside is:

You might find it slightly harder to maneuver a kayak when the skeg is in the downward position. 

  • Solid foot pedals make it easier to roll and brace the kayak
  • Fine-tuned adjustment when you use a skeg of varying depths
  • It helps you keep the kayak going in a straight line
  • Clears back deck and reduces windage 
  • The skeg doesn’t assist you in steering the kayak 
  • The skeg system is difficult to repair
  • You might not be able to use it in shallow water, depending on what style you have.

What Is A Rudder, And How Does It Work?

skeg vs rudder: rudder

If you have some basic boating knowledge, you may have heard of a rudder before, but you might not understand what it is or what it does.

So let’s take a bit of time to explain the basics to you:

You’ll find the rudder mounted to the kayak’s stern, and it can be lowered or raised by hand with the help of a pulley system.

And to control the direction of the rudder, you can use the foot pedals found in the cockpit, which allows you to paddle simultaneously.

One of the biggest mistakes people make regarding rudders on touring kayaks is they rely on them too much for steering the boat.

And you’re probably wondering, “what’s wrong with that?”

The biggest problem with rudders is that people don’t develop the necessary paddling skills to control a kayak.

And this is very apparent when you watch people paddling in waters where you can no longer use a rudders blade.

Another downside with rudders is that it restricts the amount of rocker on the kayak’s hull, making it a lot harder to maneuver.

But this isn’t to say using a rudder is all bad:

They actually make your life kayak fishing a lot easier. When you’re catching a fish, your hands are occupied, which means you can’t use the paddle to steer. But, you will be able to direct the kayak with the rudder’s foot pedals.

  • The rudder can significantly change the kayak’s direction, making it easier for the paddler.
  • The rudder is easier to fix and replace any parts that might break.
  • When the skeg is fully deployed it enhances the kayaks ability to turn downwind.
  • They can provide more space than touring kayaks with a skeg box at the stern. A skeg box removes space in the stern hatch making it harder to store equipment.
  • It requires constant attention from the paddler
  • There are many moving parts that have a chance of breaking or failing.

Before we move on to the differences between a skeg and a rudder, I first want to explain the two styles of rudder you have available:

The Two Styles Of Rudder

When it comes to a sea kayak, there are two styles of rudders you need to think about, and that’s what I want to explain in this section:

  1. Smart/Gas Pedal Rudder Systems: They are the most superior style as they provide paddles to both steer and brace independently without sacrificing either function.
  2. Sliding Foot Pedal Rudder Systems: They are the least expensive option of the two but are also a lot more dated. They also feel pretty limited because you can’t brace and steer without sacrificing one or the other.

It really depends on your budget and how you plan to paddle when it comes down to which one you should go for. 

What Is The Difference Between A Skeg Vs Rudder

Okay, you know about both the rudder and the skeg are now, but what are the differences between them, and why should you pick one over the over.

Before we go into details about when you should and shouldn’t use it, let’s first mention some of the differences between the two:

  1. The kayak rudder is mounted to the stern while the skeg protrudes from the bottom.
  2. The rudder system has a more complicated cable mechanism, resulting in failures.
  3. The rudder blade can steer the kayak; the skeg just keeps it going in a straight line.
  4. Some kayaks allow the skeg to be partially deployed, which is excellent for shallow water.
  5. Kayaks with skegs have solid foot braces which help to support your feet and legs.
  6. The foot pedal for rudder kayaks can move, making it harder to gain support when needed.

They’re the most noticeable differences between a rudder and a skeg. But know it’s time to learn when you should and shouldn’t use a skeg or a rudder:

When Should You Use A Skeg/Rudder?

One of the most important things you need to know is when you should use a skeg or a kayak rudder. And when it comes down to it, there are two main reasons you should think about using a rudder or a skeg, which we’re going to talk about here.

So, let’s take a look:

1. When The Weight Distribution Is Affecting Tracking

If you don’t load your kayak correctly, your tracking is going to pay for it. But packing your kayak equally isn’t easy when you’re touring or fishing.

And this is why some kayaks come with a skeg or a rudder. The skeg helps to keep the kayak going in a straight line, even if you’re slightly unbalanced.

And if you have a rudder blade, you’ll be able to make minor adjustments with the footrests to push you back in a straight line.

But of course, the best thing you can do is learn how to pack your kayak correctly to achieve neutral trim.

The best way to spread your load and achieve neutral trim is by having an even weight distribution. One thing to point out is if the wind is strong, you’ll need to shift the weight from the front to the center.

2. When The Weather Conditions Are Affecting Your Tracking  

Unfortunately, due to the shape of kayaks, they are naturally affected by the wind, making it challenging to stay on course if the weather is terrible.

It’s called weathercocking, and when you’re paddling forward for long distances, it’s an absolute nightmare trying to stay in a straight line.

And this is when using your rudder or skeg can come in very handy. The kayak skeg provides protection from being pushed sideways by the wind, which will stop you from blowing too far.

And, of course, you can make some minor adjustments in direction to counteract the wind with the rudder.

When Should You Not Use A Skeg/Rudder For Kayaking?

Although there are a few times you should be using your skeg or rudder, there are a few times you should put them away and paddle old school.

So, let’s list a few of these times where it’s time to put them away:

  • If you’re paddling in water that downed trees or rocks near the surface.
  • If you’re paddling in very shallow waters.
  • If you’re paddling on whitewater, you should put your skeg/rudder away.

If you’re planning to paddle in any of these conditions, you will raise your skeg/rudder. If they come into contact with anything under the water, it will throw you off course, get you stuck, or break/damage the boat.

How To Make A Rudder For A Kayak

skeg vs rudder: DYI kayak rudder

If you think you need a rudder for your kayak, and you can’t afford to buy a kayak with one or buy one to add to your kayak, then you have another option…

You could build one!

This isn’t going to be easy, and you’re going to need to have a bit of DIY knowledge, but it will save you a few pennies.

Here are the materials you’re going to need to get things going:

  • 2ft x 3ft sheet of ¼” thick ABS plastic
  • Plastic blocks for the rudder hinge
  • 6mm and 4mm tubing
  • ¼” shock cord and non-stretch cable
  • Fasteners and hardware to suit your kayak

And it’s not just the materials you need to think about. You’re also going to need a few tools to get everything started, so let’s take a quick look at them:

  • Jigsaw
  • Hack saw
  • Sandpaper/files
  • Drill and drill bits
  • Tape measure
  • Marking tools
  • Pliers
  • Allen wrench
  • Screwdriver and wrenches

Before you start gathering these materials, I suggest you read this walkthrough guide, which features pictures and DXF files, so you can make adjustments as and when you need to:

Step One: Build The Rudder Hinge

One of the first steps you need to take is to build the two rudder hinges, which are the base of the whole system.

You will permanently connect one of the mounts to the mount, and you will use the other to mount the pivoting rudder.

The width of the rudder mount needs to match the thickness of your rudder materials and a little bit extra. 

For this, you will use the plastic blocks to build the hinges and drill holes to hold the pins and rudder in place.

Step Two: Build The Rudder, Side Plates, And Steering Yoke

Once you’ve built your hinges, it’s time to cut out all the other parts you’ll need for the rudder system.

This includes:

  1. The Rudder
  2. Side Plates
  3. Steering Yoke

You can make the rudder design for the depth and shape you desire, but it’s worth copying designs from manufacturers.

You make cardboard cutouts of all the components you need to cut before going straight to the plastic. This will help to reduce the amount of plastic waste and mistakes.

Step Three: Put The All The Parts Together

Once you’ve got all your parts cut out and ready to go, it’s time to put all the pieces together. It will include bolting the pieces together and connecting cables where needed.

Check that the steering plate can freely turn on the axes when the cables are pulled. You should also check if the line can pull the rudder up to lift it out of the water.

Step Four: It’s Time To Get The Steering Cables Working

When you’re happy that everything is functioning correctly, you’re going to need to put the steering components together.

And this will probably take you a few times to get the rudder cable up and running. 

You’re going to make some sliding foot panels connected to the rudder so you can use it with your feet.

Step Five: You’re Ready To Go!

The rudder assembly is not going to be an easy task, and I wouldn’t take it on unless you had a great understanding of DIY. But if you put everything together correctly, it can be very beneficial.

I didn’t go into too much detail here because it’s such a long process, but I’ll leave a link here again for a detailed guide on building a kayak rudder:

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

Although skegs and rudders seem like very similar devices, they provide very different outcomes. And I hope I’ve helped explain that to you here.

If there’s one thing you should take away with you, it’s the fundamental principle of these devices!

A skeg is used to help your kayak track and keep you going in a straight line. But a rudder gives you some directional assistance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is A Skeg Used For?

A skeg is used to provide tracking assistance while you’re paddling. It also helps to prevent your kayak from losing its line when the winds are too strong.

How Important Is A Skeg On A Kayak?

Skegs aren’t massively important if you have excellent paddling technique. But there are a few occasions when they come in handy:

1) When your kayak is loaded correctly
2) In strong winds
3) If you have an inflatable kayak

If any of the above count for your kayak, then a skeg can definitely help you stay in a straight line.

What Does A Rudder Do On A Kayak?

The rudder on your kayak gives you directional assistance when you need it. It’s often controlled using the foot pedal at the bottom of the kayak. And this is excellent when you need to make minor adjustments to your direction.

Do I Need A Rudder On My Kayak?

The average recreational paddler will have no need for a rudder on their kayak. But, if you’re touring, sea kayaking, paddling long distances, or fishing, a rudder is very beneficial. It allows you to make the minor adjustments you need to keep your sea kayak moving in a straight line or navigate obstacles without your hands.

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Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.