Why Do Kayaks Have Holes? (& Are They Needed for Paddling?)


If you’ve ever had the pleasure of paddling in a kayak, you may have noticed that there are holes fitted within the design of the kayak itself. These holes are deliberately installed into certain kayak brands, which prompts many novice paddlers to ask the question, “Why are they there?”

Sit-on-top kayaks are manufactured with holes (called scupper holes) to drain the excess water that pools within the boat. This built-in drainage system is necessary because there’s no protective barrier separating the wet exterior environment from the kayak’s interior, as with sit-inside kayaks.

Since beginners have no grasp of the underlying purpose behind these holes, many novices are actually afraid that the kayak may sink due to the presence of these holes. Fortunately, this is not the case. We’ll delve into the actual rationale behind why these holes are built into kayaks, as well as the reasons why these holes do not cause the kayak to sink.

The Purpose Behind Kayak Holes (a.k.a. Scupper Holes)

To reiterate, the main purpose behind kayak holes is water drainage. They’re commonly referred to as scupper holes in the kayaking community. Water drainage can be a major problem when kayaking because of the assortment of ways that water can find its way into the boat. A couple of common ways that water finds its way into the kayak’s interior include the following:

  • splashing from paddling strokes
  • water droplets dripping off of the paddle itself
  • rogue waves crashing against the kayak hull
  • accidental capsizes

Over the course of a prolonged paddling trip, a kayak can slowly fill up with water as a direct result of any number of the reasons listed above. These small water pools can go from a petty annoyance to a serious problem rather quickly in the absence of scupper holes.

For example, water that’s stuck within the interior may weigh the kayak down, causing you to waste valuable strength and effort trying to compensate for this excess load. If the kayak is trudging through the water particularly slow, you may end up spending so much excess energy that you have to cut the trip short altogether. Scupper holes prevent the interior pooling of water from seriously slowing you down.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that there are anywhere from four to eight scupper holes spread throughout the kayak. These holes are not spread out haphazardly or grouped up into one area of the kayak. They’re installed in a calculated fashion so that they can be evenly distributed and each part of the kayak can drain water effectively. This way, no specific part of the kayak is prone to entrapping water.

Do All Kayaks Have Scupper Holes?

For all the benefits in water drainage that scupper holes offer, not all kayaks need them. Kayaks are broadly classified into two categories: sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside kayaks.

Sit-on-top kayaks are intentionally made to have an open design so that the paddlers are not confined by any structural elements. Sit-inside kayaks, on the other hand, have an enclosed interior where the paddler sits. Kayakers refer to this seating area as the cockpit. You can see this major structural difference between sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside kayaks in the image below.

But how does this difference in kayak design relate to the presence (or absence) of scupper holes?

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

The lack of an enclosed interior with sit-on-top kayaks makes it more convenient for paddlers to enter and exit the kayak at their leisure. However, this lack of an enclosed interior also allows water to have a fairly easy time finding its way into the boat and staying within its confines. Since there’s no physical obstacle blocking the outside water, splashes from the river, lake, or ocean essentially have a free pass to enter the kayak.

Over time, kayaking manufacturers recognized this as a major issue for paddlers everywhere. Their solution was to fit the kayak with scupper holes to discard this unnecessary reserve of water. After some trial and error, kayaking manufacturers pinpointed an efficient “scupper hole” drainage system that did not interfere with the kayak’s buoyancy on the water.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Water drainage isn’t nearly as big of an issue for sit-inside kayaks. The enclosed nature of the kayak does a tremendous job at keeping water out, so scupper holes aren’t necessarily needed. For this reason, scupper holes are not as common of a feature for sit-inside kayaks relative to sit-on-top kayaks.

Plus, kayakers also have the option of wearing a spray skirt. For those of you that do not know, a spray skirt is a protective material that fits over the rim of the cockpit and covers up any exposed interior within the kayak. Not only is this an effective barrier at excluding water, it also retains heat for the paddler’s lower body.

You can find everything you need to know about spray skirts by clicking over to Kayak Spray Skirts: What They Are & How They’re Used.

In short, not all kayaks are equipped with scupper holes because not all kayaks have water drainage complications.

Can Scupper Holes Potentially Sink a Kayak?

After learning of the presence of scupper holes, a fair share of paddling beginners hold an irrational fear that their kayak may sink because of these holes. Put simply, kayaking manufacturers would not install such an exorbitant amount of scupper holes in their products if they had flotation issues. Otherwise, kayaking manufacturers would be solving one minor problem but causing a multitude of other serious problems.

Rest assured, scupper holes do more good for your kayak than bad. Scupper holes are meant to remove the water pooling around your bottom and your feet, not to capsize the paddler!

With that being said, it’s important to be weary of the water levels in your kayak and take note of any abnormalities. Often times, beginners are quick to blame high interior water levels on the scupper holes, when in fact it could be a problem entirely separate from the scupper holes.

As a hypothetical example, there may be an overabundance of gear on your kayak, allowing extra water to seep over the edge. This is actually the main reason why paddlers are encouraged to bring only what’s absolutely necessary for their trip. A minimal amount of belongings makes a vital difference in the overall buoyancy of the boat.

However, there are rare occurrences where scupper holes are to blame for water pooling.

Take adverse weather conditions for instance. Sadly, the weather is not always cooperative with paddling. A sudden increase in the wind or the choppiness of the water may cause the scupper holes to backfire and increase water levels within the boat. This happens when water from the depths below travels through the scupper holes and comes up onto the deck.

Luckily, this phenomenon does not happen in calm, flat water conditions.

The moral of the story is to not be so quick to blame your scupper holes for abnormally high water levels in the kayak. But if the scupper holes are presenting some paddling complications, you may want to consider plugging up the scupper holes, a topic will discuss in greater detail next.

Should You Plug Up the Scupper Holes, or Let Them Be?

Kayakers that are just beginning to familiarize themselves with scupper holes often have a hard time recognizing when to let the scupper holes be and when to plug them up. For this reason, I put together an explanation of the benefits and drawbacks of using scupper plugs so you could have a better idea of how to approach this problem.

Advantages of Scupper Plugs

Plugging up the scupper holes is a smart idea for rougher waters and harsher winds. In extremely unfavorable conditions, the scupper holes will be more of a nuisance than anything else since the water will be sprouting from belowdecks. Scupper holes are more geared toward leisurely paddling expeditions on tranquil waters.

However, it should be noted that the majority of whitewater kayaks and sea kayaks are designed to be sit-inside kayaks to help eliminate this problem in the first place. For this reason, there typically aren’t scupper holes on these types of kayaks.

Scupper plugs are also advantageous for kayaks that are carrying copious amounts of gear. In this case, the extra weight will push the kayak further down into the water, which will likely result in water shooting up from below. By installing scupper plugs, this issue is taken care of before it develops into anything major.

Disadvantages of Scupper Plugs

Although scupper plugs may be the ideal choice for adverse paddling conditions, they are of little use in flat water conditions. This is because the chances of water coming up from belowdecks is minimal at best in calm waters.

It’s far better to forget the scupper plugs for casual tours on the water. This way, any water that does find its way into the boat can drain properly. Trust me, cold puddles of water brushing against your legs for an entire paddling trip is not an ideal experience. It would be in your best interest to free up the scupper holes and let them do their job.

Alternative Ways to Rid the Kayak of Water (Besides Scupper Holes)

Even though scupper holes are normally effective at keeping interior water levels manageable, there may be times where scupper holes simply aren’t enough. Under these circumstances, you may need to seek out alternative strategies to dispel water from the kayak’s interior, namely the bilge pump and the sponge.

Bilge Pump

If you find that water levels are uncomfortably high in your kayak, the bilge pump is a must-have for your next kayaking trip. This tool pumps water out of the kayak’s interior at a rapid rate, which comes in handy in the event of a capsize. They’re built to be easily stored, since most kayaks don’t have that much storage room to begin with.

If you’re curious to see exactly how a bilge pump removes water from a kayak, check out the video below!

Electric bilge pumps are also an option to consider if you don’t want to manually pump the water out yourself. Just know that electric bilge pumps come at a noticeably higher price tag! Manual bilge pumps are around $20, whereas electric bilge pumps can be upwards of $30.

Sponge

If investing in a bilge pump seems like overkill, you may want to consider a simple absorbent sponge to remove excess water from your kayak.

These sponges are not your typical dish sponge. They’re specifically designed for maximum water absorbance to clear out a high degree of entrapped water in a short time interval. With this tool on hand, you won’t have to waste your precious paddling time dealing with water puddles. Instead, you can devote that time to doing what you love… kayaking!

The Bottom Line

At first glance, it may seem like something’s fishy about scupper holes, but after further analysis, you’ll soon realize that scupper holes are no danger to you or your paddling experience. They’re merely a means for water to drain out of your sit-on-top kayak. So now that you know these scupper holes are nothing to worry about, get out there and paddle!

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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