Best Kayak Rudders and Skegs: Expedition-Grade Control Options

Rudder on kayak
Rudder on kayak

Taking your touring kayak out on a long paddle can lead to breathtaking moments. Whether that’s whale watching, viewing a spectacular sunrise, or just experiencing the serene calm that can descend over you when you’re alone with your kayak and the sea, it’s not hard to hear your boat calling to you as the weekend begins.But as any experienced kayaker knows, extended paddles are demanding. And when you add wind to the equation, things just get that much tougher. To keep you on course and make every stroke count, you need a rudder or skeg.

But if you’re new to paddling, these two accessories might be puzzling. And unless you own a high-end sea kayak that comes equipped with a skeg or rudder, you may be in the market for something that can keep you pointed in the right direction.

We’re here to help. As you plan your first touring adventures, you need to think through your options carefully. That’s why we offer the following buying guide and reviews.

Rudders and Skegs? The Basics Explained

Why use a rudder or skeg?

It may sound counterintuitive, but the main purpose for rudders and skegs isn’t improved steering–it’s improved tracking. In crosswinds, your ‘yak will act like a weather vane, turning into the wind. This behavior is called weathercocking, and on long paddles in high wind, it’s a real nuisance. In more dangerous conditions, it can be deadly.

A rudder or skeg helps you stay on course, allowing you to paddle more efficiently. That’s because the shortest path is the straightest line, and spending valuable strokes keeping on course steals the energy you need to make forward progress. Rudders have the added benefit of being useful for steering, too, making them far more popular than skegs.

But keep in mind that for recreational kayaking, it’s generally better to learn to steer with your paddle and edging, saving rudders for the purposes for which they’re designed. Otherwise, you end up giving short shrift to basic paddling skills. Overview of rudders and skegs

How are rudders and skegs different?

It’s important to know the difference if you want to make a smart choice. In either case, the larger the blade, the more effect it’ll have on tracking.

  • Rudders are usually mounted on the stern. When lowered into the water, they’re controlled by foot pedals in the cockpit, allowing hands-free course correction. The chief advantage rudders offer is that you can turn them, giving you more control over weathercocking in a wider range of conditions. And when not needed, they’re raised from the water, protecting them from impact during launching, for instance.
  • Skegs are fins that can be lowered from a skeg box in the stern, attached to the underside of your ‘yak, or fitted through a slot in the stern well. The longer the skeg–or the more of the skeg that’s lowered into the water–the greater its effect on tracking. But skegs don’t turn. Why do people like them? The answer’s as simple as they are–there’s not much that can go wrong with them!

How do rudders work?

Rudders are mechanically controlled, depending on foot pedals and cables. By pushing one pedal or the other with your legs or foot, you pull on a cable attached to one side of the rudder.

There are generally three different mechanical pedal configurations:

The problem with the sliding pedals in A is two-fold. First, they can’t provide a stable platform for a kayaker’s feet, a necessary condition for proper form. They’ll just cause the rudder to move if you push into them! Second, they create a ‘spongy’ steering feel that lacks precision. For elite kayakers, these are things that matter.

The other two systems create a steady platform, with the adjustable pedals being fixed in position. For serious tourers, and certainly, for anyone looking at a multi-day expedition, this is something to look for.

How do skegs work?

Skegs are either adjustable or fixed. Because they’re mounted under the stern, but not all the way to the rear like most rudders, they tend to stay in contact with the water even in rough seas.

  • Adjustable skegs – An adjustable skeg uses a small slider near the cockpit to control how far it descends into the water beneath the skeg box. The more skeg you drop, the greater its effect on your course in the wind. Keep in mind that too much skeg can be as bad as no skeg at all!
  • Fixed skegs – A fixed skeg is either permanently attached to your hull, fitted into a holder from which it can be removed, or dropped into a purpose-made slot for use.

Rudder vs Skeg: Pros and Cons

Among the touring crowd, there’s an ongoing–and heated–debate about the pros and cons of skegs and rudders. Purists don’t like either one, preferring to use strokes and edging to keep their ‘yaks on track. But the truth is that both rudders and skegs can provide greater efficiency, improved maneuvering, and potentially life-saving control.

  • Rudders: 
    • offer more control and more options.
    • can’t maintain contact with the water as the stern rises in swells and waves.
    • are more prone to damage and malfunction.
  • Skegs:
    • offer less control and fewer options.
    • maintain better contact with the water in heavy seas.
    • are generally more robust.

Final Thoughts

For most situations, rudders are probably superior to skegs. They offer more course-correcting options and can be easily raised from the water for launching and landing.

That said, if your kayak didn’t come with a rudder already mounted, it’s much easier–though not as easy as you might think–to mount a skeg. Moreover, many kayak manufacturers make kits designed only for their brand of ‘yak.

In that sense, it may not make sense to compare one rudder to another–you may not have a choice! But my general sense is that if you’re handy enough to attach a rudder kit, you’re probably going to be able to make a model work for your kayak, even if it isn’t specifically designed for it. There are no guarantees here, so shop carefully, take a hard look at the hardware and your ‘yak, and make the best decision you can.

Rudder performance between brands is relatively consistent, so you can expect that all premium kits will deliver the course-correction you need. The principal difference is how complicated the installation process is, and that’s a potential headache you’ll need to consider carefully before you make your selection.

If your kayak didn’t come equipped with a skeg or rudder, you’ll need to choose between the two options. Generally speaking, neither are easy to install, but skegs are generally a lot more budget-friendly.

Skeg Reviews

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

MAYMII Kayak Skeg – Our Pick!

Height: 8.2”

Width: 4”

MAYMII’s kayak skeg is similar in design to its competitor’s model, offering a base and a removable skeg. Like all aftermarket skegs, you’ll need to spend some time and effort to get the base mounted on your ‘yak, though in this case, the base comes with two pre-drilled holes for mounting screws.

If you’re concerned about keeping your skeg in place, it might be worth finding the right stainless steel screws, washers, and nuts, breaking out your drill, and really securing that mount. At the very least, you’ll need strong, marine-grade sealant. It may help, too, to have some hot water ready to help you mold the base to fit, and some cold water, too, to freeze the shaped mount in place.

Whether you decide to augment the sealant with screws or not, once the base is in place, you simply slide the skeg into the mount’s slot, and secure it with a cross pin.

Customers report immediate improvement in tracking but warn that the cross pin can fail.

PROS
  • Removable
  • Durable
CONS
  • Can be challenging to mount

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

Lanyar Kayak Skeg

Height: 8”

Width: roughly 4”

Lanyar’s kayak skeg features a base that mounts directly to the underside of your hull. It’s best to attach this with powerful marine sealant, and depending on precisely where you choose to place it and the shape of your yak’s hull, you may need to have some hot water handy to help you mold the base to fit.

Once the mount is in place, this removable skeg can be slipped into position and secured with two pins. Made from tough PVC, it can take a beating, too.

Customers really notice the difference this skeg makes, especially on flat-bottomed kayaks.

The only issues reported concern quality control, and some users note that the base arrived warped and unusable.

PROS
  • Removable
  • Durable
CONS
  • Can be challenging to mount
  • Poor quality control

Rudder Reviews

IMAGE

Check out the latest price on:
Austin Kayak

SmartTrack Rudder Kit – Our Pick!

Most rudder systems are specific not only to the company that makes them but to particular lines of kayaks, as well. That means that typically, few choices are available, and it can be a real pain to find a good rudder kit for many kayaks. The SmartTrack rudder kit is a welcome exception, and according to the manufacturers, if your ‘yak was designed to take a rudder, they’ll have a model to fit it!

This promise is based on a universal mounting bracket and various pin sizes available with these kits. While perhaps not truly compatible with every kayak, this is a fantastic place to start if one of the proprietary options can’t work for you.

Another great detail this kit offers is elite pedal controls. The pegs themselves are adjustable until fixed at the right length for you, and the rudder is steered by actuating smaller pedals mounted to the pegs, as in system B above. That’s an elite detail I really like, and if you’re looking for firm pegs and a rudder system, this might be the best option for you.

As is the case with all premium kits, you can expect quality and performance to be excellent. The differences in performance between them will be negligible, though in this case, the foot controls really do offer an improvement over the competition.

Here are video instructions and an explanation of pin sizes for various models of kayak

PROS
  • Excellent quality
  • Full kit
  • Fantastic foot controls
CONS
  • Expensive
  • You’ll need to be handy

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

HOMSPORT Kayak Rudder Kit

HOMSPORT’s rudder kit is something of a rarity in the kayak world–it’s an affordable option! If you’re looking to try a rudder, but you’re not sure you want to commit to the pricey alternatives, this kit is a good place to start.

While a budget-friendly choice, you’ll need to be pretty savvy with your kayak to make this rudder work. “Kit” is a generous term for what you get, given that it’s just the rudder and housing. That means that you’ll need to supply the foot pedals, hardware, and cables to work this rudder. If you’re up to that, this is a fantastic option. But you’ll need to tinker with this a bit, and if DIY projects aren’t your thing, you may want to give this rudder a pass.

To save on costs, the housing and blade are made from high-grade plastic, though the pivot pin is stainless steel. While plastic isn’t the most durable material, you can buy several of these kits and still not touch the price of the alternatives.

Once installed, users report excellent performance and straight tracking.

PROS
  • Super affordable
CONS
  • Plastic construction
  • Rudder only
  • You’ll need to be handy

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

Ocean Kayak Universal Rudder Kit

Ocean Kayak’s Universal rudder kit isn’t exactly what its name suggests. Designed for “the Ocean Kayak Trident 11 and 13, Prowler 13, Prowler Big Game Angler, Tetra 10 and 12, the Zest 2, and Drifters model years 2013 and newer,” if you’re handy and your ‘yak is similar to one of these models, you might be able to make this kit fit.

Be warned that you’ll need a range of power and hand tools to install this ruder, including a jigsaw, a drill, a rivet gun, a hot glue gun…you get the idea! If you’re not already well equipped for DIY projects, and if you feel intimidated after watching the video below, you may want to look for something that’s a bit less involved.

This kit comes with all the hardware and cables you’ll need, and like most of the alternatives, it offers replacement foot peg rails as well. While not the type of pedal controls that are ideal, these will certainly work.

Once installed, customers notice immediate improvements to tracking and report great performance. And the quality level is what you’d expect from a product with a premium price-tag.

Here are video instructions to show the level of complexity

PROS
  • Excellent quality
  • Full kit
CONS
  • Expensive
  • You’ll need to be seriously handy

IMAGE

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

Native Ultimate Rudder Kit

Native’s rudder kit for its Ultimate line of kayaks might be a good choice if you own one, or if your ‘yak is similar at the stern. Take a good look and decide if you’re up to the necessary modifications if you paddle something else, though.

Users report that installation isn’t quick–think two to three hours–but that it doesn’t require more than basic tools, like a drill. That’s good news and a welcome change from more involved mounting instructions. This kit also comes with everything you’ll need to get your rudder working. Like most of its competitors, don’t expect elite pedal controls, but rather simple, sliding foot pegs attached to cables.

Performance and quality are what you’d expect from a premium product, and some customers swear they’ll never go out without a Native rudder again!

PROS
  • Excellent quality
  • Full kit
CONS
  • Expensive
  • You’ll need to be handy

IMAGE

Check out the latest price on:
Amazon

Necky Vector Rudder Kit

Necky’s Vector rudder kit is–you guessed it!–intended for that specific line of kayaks. If you’re a regular DIYer, you might be able to make this rudder kit work on your ‘yak, too, but there are no guarantees.

If you paddle a Vector, the assembly is pretty simple and you won’t need more than a Phillips and flat head screwdriver, a 7/16” wrench, and a 3/8” wrench. If you’re trying to make this work for another ‘yak, you’ll need to add a drill to that list, at the very least. Here, Youtube and careful research will be invaluable, and if you decide to go with this option, be sure to think through the installation process. You don’t want to drill any extra holes!

As you’d expect, this kit comes with everything you’ll need to get your rudder working. Like most other options, expect basic foot controls.

Once installed, quality and performance are excellent.

Here is a link to the instructions to give readers a sense of the complexity.

PROS
  • Excellent quality
  • Full kit
CONS
  • Expensive
  • You’ll need to be handy

Our Picks! — the MAYMII Kayak Skeg and the SmartTrack Rudder Kit

Better control of your kayak in windy conditions will make long paddles a lot more fun, and when the water gets dangerous, a rudder or skeg can make a life-or-death difference. But not all kayaks come equipped with rudders, and skegs are also pretty rare except on truly premium sea kayaks.

If you’re thinking about enhancing your ‘yak’s track, we can recommend the MAYMII kayak skeg and the SmartTrack rudder kit.

MAYMII’s skeg is relatively easy to install, high quality, and tough. Its long, broad fin, while not retractable, is removable, and it’ll provide the improved tracking you’re looking for.

But if a rudder is more your speed, you could do a lot worse than the SmartTrack. Available in models to fit most kayaks, made from premium materials, and fitted with very well-designed foot controls, this kit offers advantages its competitors simply don’t. This system’s relatively easy to install, too, making it a clear choice if you’re in the market for an upgrade.

Whichever product you choose, you can be confident that it’ll help your kayak handle better in the wind.