Sit on kayaks on display
Jo Richards
Jo Richards

Sit in vs sit on kayak – Which is better?

Should you go for a sit in or sit on kayak? This is an age-old question that no one can quite agree on. There isn’t just one correct answer – because the “right” decision is situational and is mostly a personal preference.

Besides personal choice, there are also factors that everyone has to consider. These include their kayaking experience, whether the water is cold or warm and for how long they plan to kayak. The other activities you’re into is also something to take into consideration.

Typically, sit on kayaks are recommended for those new to the kayaking world. Sit in kayaks are usually better suited to more experienced kayakers.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t fully understand the differences between these options. You’ve definitely come to the right page. Read the guide below so you can make an informed decision that best fits your situation and will keep you smiling for years to come.

Sit on kayak

Kids in a sit on top kayak

Before going in-depth on when each kayak is suitable for use, it’s essential to define each one. First, the sit-on-top (SOT) kayak. The name is kind of self-explanatory in that the paddler sits on top of the kayak (see picture above).

Sit on kayaks don’t have a cockpit to shelter your lower body; they just have a seat and footrest area. Most SOTs come with scuppers (drain holes) that are designed to drain out water. This may be water washing into the kayak naturally or from your paddle strokes. As a result, they can’t get filled with water when it’s rainy or in case of capsizing.

SOTs are also the cheaper of the two as most are entirely made from plastic. And this plastic body means they won’t sink should you flip over. This makes them great for kids who’re new to kayaking or anyone scared of flipping, which rarely happens.

Thus, they are preferred for beginner kayakers; even some intermediate kayakers prefer them. They are also popular among kayak fishermen. Due to the lack of a cockpit, SOTs are popular for use in warm weather or warm waters.

SOTs also have a high center of gravity, making them a little less stable. So they are ideal for calm lakes or rivers where there aren’t too many waves, as well as kayak trips further from shore.

Pros and cons of sit on top kayaks

Sit on top kayaks on the shore
As with most things in life, SOTs have advantages and disadvantages you should look out for. Here are the most important ones:

Pros

  • Cost

As already established above, sit-on-top kayaks are cheaper than sit in kayaks. Therefore, they’re better for entry-level kayaking as you wouldn’t have lost a lot of money if you lose interest.

  • Self-rescue

Self-rescue, in simple terms, means saving yourself in case of any accidents. In this case, it’s when your kayak flips over, and you have to get back on it. With SOTs, self-rescue is easy and doesn’t require you to receive special training. All you have to do is flip it back up, and you’re ready to go.

  • Mobility

SOTs allow for more mobility and ease of doing other activities whilst out on the open waters. Thanks to how easy entering and exiting the kayak is, you can go for a beneficial swim in the water without much trouble. The lack of a cockpit restraining your lower body also makes it great for fishing.

  • It won’t fill with water.

Thanks to the scuppers, SOTs won’t fill with water. This means that should you capsize, you will be able to go right back to paddling. You won’t have to swim to shore with your kayak to drain the water.

Cons

  • Shelter

You’re exposed to the rain, wind, blazing sun, and cold weather more in a SOT without a cockpit. This makes it a lot more important to wear appropriate gear suited to the conditions you’re kayaking in.

  • Scupper holes

Whilst being great for the most part, scupper holes mean your lower body probably won’t be dry. This is because water will find its way into the kayak from underneath. However, you can use scupper plugs to stop that from happening. This is a double-edged sword making draining water harder than it needs to be.

  • Unsuitable for rough waters

As mentioned earlier, sit on tops are meant for tranquil waters. They don’t hold up well in rough waters and for long kayaking trips.

  • Dry storage space

Despite usually having a hatch or two, many SOTs have less dry storage space than sit in kayaks.

Sit in kayak

Family kayaking in sit inside kayaks

Sit inside (SIS) kayaks are also defined by their name. It’s a kayak where you sit inside an enclosed cockpit, with just your upper body exposed. Like SOTs, they also have a seat and a footrest area. They are the more traditional kayak of the two.

Most SIS kayaks come with a spray skirt or can be equipped with one. Spray skirts work as a cover for the cockpit opening and are usually situated at waist level.

SIS kayaks are versatile and work for any type of kayaking. They’re suited for long expeditions, rough waters and multi-day trips. Crazily enough, some people are even using them to get to work.

Pros and cons of sit inside kayaks

SIS kayaks also have their own advantages and disadvantages that will influence your decision. Here they are:

Pros

  • Stability

Sit inside kayaks are incredibly stable due to their low center of gravity. Once you get in and sit, balance comes quickly. This makes it hard to flip or capsize in them, so they’re useful in rough water conditions.

  • Shelter

The spray skirt provides shelter for your body against the various weather and water elements. This means you’ll stay dry in most situations and won’t get cold and makes them preferred for cold water and cold weather. Their design also ensures water doesn’t get into the hull – providing your spray skirt is of excellent quality.

  • Dry storage space

SIS kayaks have more storage space built into the hulls than SOTs. This means you can store more equipment and supplies to use during your kayaking adventure. Some kayaks even come with fully watertight compartments.

This is great for anyone who might want to use technology to capture their whole experience. It’s also ideal for multi-day trips, like camping, for example.

  • Maneuverability

SIS kayaks are easy to steer and turn, making them great for crowded areas and rough tides. They are also generally faster than SOTs, which is great if you’re an adrenaline junkie.

Person kayaking alone

Cons

  • Self-rescue

Self-rescue is the worst disadvantage of sit in kayaks. It takes a lot of energy and movement to get back into the cockpit should you tip over. It also requires specialized training that isn’t necessary for SOTs.

  • Filling with water

Because they have cockpits, they will be filled with water in the event of capsizing. This is particularly bad because it means you will lose precious paddling time draining the water. Since emptying the kayak can’t be done in the water, you will likely have to also swim to shore, kayak in tow.

Thus, you’ll be limited in terms of how far you can go from the shore. Unless, of course, you’re highly experienced and confident that you won’t flip over. At the same time, there are specialized touring kayaks that have bulkheads limiting how much water enters the kayak.

  • Cost

As already mentioned, sit ins are the more expensive of the two types of kayaks. This is due to their more advanced design and extra features. The spray skirts are an additional expense as they are mostly sold separately.

Again, this further proves that they are for more experienced kayakers invested in kayaking for the long haul.

Most stable kayak: Which has better stability?

Group of people kayaking together

This question doesn’t specifically concern the sit on top vs sit in kayak debate. Stability is mainly dependent on things found on both boats. Yes, the SIS kayak is more stable, but the SOT doesn’t lag behind much with all things equal.

So what determines stability? Firstly, the width of the kayak. The wider the kayak, the more stable it will be. Secondly, the center of gravity is an important factor. The center of gravity is determined by seat height, and the lower it is, the better. In other words, the lower the seat, the more stable the kayak will be.

Regardless, ensure you don’t go alone when you’re in the beginner phase of kayaking.

Sit on vs sit in kayak: The verdict.

After reading the above, it should be clear that there will never be an outright verdict on the “sit in vs sit on top kayak” debate. Choosing between the two kayaks is down to personal preference, side activities, and your kayaking experience.

Sit on kayaks are suitable for novice kayakers and paddlers who are into other water activities, including swimming and fishing. They are best suited for when the water is calm and warmer.

Sit in kayaks are suitable for people who know their trade and plan to spend multiple days kayaking. They are ideal for rough waters that are colder.

Whichever kayak you choose based on the conditions, you’re sure to enjoy this fantastic pastime. If you feel a little more confident in making the best decision, check out the best beginner kayaks on the market. Or, if you’re after something portable, check out our guide to the best inflatable kayaks.

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