The sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayaks debate is nothing new; practically everyone in the paddling community faced that choice at some point.
Both SOTs and SIKs have definite advantages and disadvantages – so the question isn’t which type of kayak is inherently better; it’s about which one’s better for you.
And I think the best way to settle that debate is to compare them.
This guide will discuss the main design differences, strengths, and weaknesses of sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks – and help you decide which type is better for you.
- Sit-on-top kayak: Sit-on-top kayaks are characterized by an open deck and self-bailing scupper holes, with the paddler sitting on the deck – hence the name.
- Sit-inside kayak: SIK kayaks feature a closed cockpit and a low-profile seating position, with your lower body below the deck, sitting inside the boat, bracing the hull.
- Sit-on-top kayaks are better for: Warmer climates, stability, comfort, ease of use, and beginners and people with limited mobility.
- Sit-inside kayaks are better for: Kayaking in challenging conditions and open waters, cold weather, long-distance touring, and performing advanced maneuvers.
Sit-On-Top Vs. Sit-In Kayaks Comparison Table
Let’s put the bottom line up front, and look at the main points of comparison between these two styles of kayak;
|Open deck, paddler sits on top of the kayak
|Enclosed cockpit, paddler sits inside the kayak hull
|Very stable, great primary stability
|Can feel tippy but very stable when tilted/leaned, excellent secondary stability
|Wider hull creates more drag, harder to control
|Narrow hull allows efficient paddling, easier to maneuver
|Typically slower, more effort to paddle
|Faster, better tracking ability
|Exposed to elements
|Cockpit and spray skirt provide protection from wind, waves, rain
|Lots of open cargo space, limited dry storage
|Watertight compartments under deck, less accessible
|Higher weight capacity, can carry more gear/people
|Lower capacity, around 300 lbs on average
|Very easy, open deck
|Can be difficult through enclosed cockpit
|Easy to re-enter after capsizing
|Harder, requires training and practice
|Typically cheaper on average
|More expensive on average
|Recreation, fishing, warm weather, beginners
|Touring, surfing, racing, cold weather
Pros And Cons Of Sit-In Vs. Sit-On Kayaks
As you go over the pros and cons of sit-in vs. sit-on kayaks outlined below, keep in mind that one is NOT necessarily better than the other:
Deciding between a sit-inside and a sit-on-top kayak means considering your needs, skill level, and the type of kayaking you plan on doing.
Sit-Inside Kayak Pros
Sit-in kayaks can be an excellent choice for many intermediate and advanced paddlers for several reasons:
- All-Weather Protection:The enclosed cockpit, fitted with a spray skirt, provides a barrier against wind, rain, waves, and cold weather. This allows paddlers to stay dry and comfortable even in rough or wintry conditions that the exposed sit-on-top design cannot match.
- Great For Touring: Streamlined hulls provide better tracking performance and paddling efficiency, which – coupled with built-in water-tight storage – makes them suitable for long-distance touring or multi-day trips.
- Enhanced Control and Maneuverability: The lower center of gravity and knee braces allow for advanced maneuvers and rolls – ideal for whitewater kayaking.
- Efficient and Fast: More contact points with the hull and ability to brace legs enables better power transfer and control, contributing to paddling efficiency and speed.
- Handles Rough Conditions: Excellent secondary stability makes them less affected by winds and waves, suitable for challenging open waters.
- Increased Storage Space: Typically found on sit-inside touring kayaks and sea kayaks, bulkheads offer watertight storage space accessed through sealed hatches.
- Lighter and More Portable: Sit-inside kayaks are lighter than sit-on-tops and can be carried on shoulders for portability.
Sit-Inside Kayak Cons
Sit-in kayaks won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; here are some downsides to keep in mind:
- Harder Entry and Exit: The enclosed cockpit makes getting in and out more difficult, especially for beginners or paddlers with limited mobility.
- Can Feel Confined: People prone to claustrophobia might find the confined space of a sit-in kayak’s cockpit particularly uncomfortable. The same goes for larger individuals.
- Challenging Self-Rescue: Capsizing tends to fill the cockpit with water, requiring a bilge pump for drainage before self-rescue, which is time-consuming.
- Risk of Sinking: Most recreational sit-inside kayaks lack bulkheads, making them prone to taking on significant water and sinking after capsizing.
- Less Comfortable in Heat: Limited airflow causes cockpits to get hot and stuffy quickly in warm weather.
- Limited Gear Access: Stowing gear under deck makes items inconvenient to access without stopping paddling.
- Steeper Learning Curve: Mastering a sit-inside kayak requires more advanced paddling skills like bracing and rolling.
- Fewer Tandem Options: Tandem sit-in kayaks are few and far between; if you prefer paddling with a partner, your options will be somewhat limited.
Sit-On-Top Kayak Pros
Sit-on-top kayaks are best described as versatile and user-friendly – and their most notable advantages reflect that perfectly:
- Cooler In Warm Environments: You’re not sitting in an enclosed cockpit, allowing air to freely circulate and making it easier to stay cool. This makes sit-on-tops great for warmer weather.
- Easier To Enter And Exit: The open, flat deck makes getting in and out of a SOT kayak easier, making them suitable for beginners, children, and paddlers with limited mobility.
- Built-In Drainage System: Scupper holes let water drain through the deck, preventing pooling and keeping paddlers drier without the need to manually bail out water.
- High Stability: The wide hull and higher center of gravity gives sit-on-tops enhanced primary stability, making them less prone to tipping or flipping.
- Spacious And Comfortable: The open cockpit design with padded seats and adjustable backs provides comfort, especially for larger paddlers or nervous paddlers worried about being confined in a SIK.
- Diverse Paddler Appeal: With great stability, easy access, comfort, high capacity, and affordability, sit-on tops work for recreational beginners to advanced specialty uses like fishing.
- Easy Launching And Landing: The flat hull eases launching and landing.
- Large Weight Capacity: Improved buoyancy from the sealed, high-volume hull increases weight capacity, allowing you to bring more gear or passengers, and the reason they are a firm favorite with kayak anglers
- Easy To Recover From Capsizing: The sealed hull and scupper holes ensure buoyancy for easier recovery if capsized.
Sit-On-Top Kayak Cons
Here are a few downsides to keep in mind:
- Exposure To Elements: The open deck leaves you exposed to wind, rain and waves without a way to stay dry. This makes them less suitable for cold weather kayaking.
- Not For Rough Waters: Sit-on-tops tend to have less secondary stability coupled with a wider, heavier hull that creates more resistance. This makes them slower and more difficult to control in rough water conditions.
- Limited Dry Storage: Despite higher weight capacities, dry storage space is typically limited to tie-downs and tank wells.
- Heavier and Less Portable: Due to the significant difference in material usage, sit-on-top kayaks are generally heavier than their sit-in counterparts, making them harder to transport.
- Slower and Less Efficient: The wider hull creates more drag, making sit-on-tops slower and requiring more effort to paddle.
Comparing The Key Differences Between Sit-On-Top And Sit-In Kayaks
Here’s a comparison of the key differences between sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks in terms of their design, performance, features, and cost – everything you need to understand the two types of kayaks.
Shape And Design
What sets sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks apart is the hull shape and cockpit design.
Sit-on-top kayaks – or SOTs for short – lack an enclosed cockpit and the hull is entirely sealed, top to bottom, except the self-bailing scupper holes. The paddler sits above water level, on top of the kayak deck, hence the name “sit-on-top.”
In contrast, Sit-inside (SIK) kayaks feature a closed cockpit, you climb into and sit inside the hull at water level, with your legs below the deck and your knees braced against the interior walls of the hull.
In terms of dimensions, a typical recreational SOT kayak can range from 9 to 12 feet in length, with a beam of 28 to 34 inches. This shorter and wider design sets it apart from the longer and narrower sit-inside recreational kayak.
SIKs come in various sizes – most recreational kayaks, for instance, generally measure 10 to 12 feet long. Compare that to whitewater kayaks, such as a playboat, which average around 6 feet in length.
On the other hand, a specialized sit-inside touring kayak can measure up to 20 feet long, with a narrower beam of 18 to 28 inches
This wider range demonstrates the variety of dimensions possible for sit-inside kayak designs.
Seating And Comfort
Sit-on-top kayaks keep you in an elevated seating position. The high-back seats provide better back support – and with most fishing kayaks, you can even install a raised chair-like seat.
You’ll have greater freedom of movement in a sit-on kayak, too – and being able to stretch, move around freely, and adjust your position can make the outings much more comfortable.
The open deck will expose you to splashes, so it might be hard to stay dry. And, you are fully exposed to the sun’s harmful UV rays – but on the plus side, you’ll be cooler in warmer weather.
With sit-inside kayaks, you sit at water level, with the hull covering a good portion of your lower body and keeping you dry and warm – especially if you add a spray skirt to trap warm air inside – making them more comfortable in cold weather.
However, you’ll be stuck in the same position; there’s very little wiggle room in a sit-in kayak’s cockpit.
Performance, Maneuverability, And Speed
When you hear people discussing a kayak’s performance, it usually comes down to three things – speed, maneuverability, and tracking.
Generally speaking, sit-inside kayaks tend to outperform sit-on-top models.
Remember that a kayak’s speed is primarily affected by its length and width; a longer and narrower kayak will always be faster – whether it’s a SIK or a SOT.
That said, there are a few reasons why SIKs generally perform better:
For one, sit-in kayaks are narrower and have a lower center of gravity, making them faster and more agile; the streamlined hull glides through the water more efficiently. And two, your lower body is in direct contact with the hull; bracing allows you to leverage that connection, improving control over the kayak’s movement.
On the other hand, SOT kayaks are wider and designed to ensure ease of use and stability – which means they’re typically slower and less maneuverable. This happens because they displace more water, increasing drag in the process. Although this brings better primary stability, it creates more resistance, making them slower and requiring more effort to paddle – especially in swift waters.
Weight And Load Capacity
On average, sit-inside kayaks tend to weigh less than their sit-on-top counterparts.
If your typical hard-shell SIK weighs around 40 to 60 pounds, you can expect a SOT to clock in at 50 to 70 pounds – and it’s not uncommon for some SOT fishing kayaks to weigh more than 100 pounds.
On the plus side, sit-on-top kayaks tend to have a higher load capacity; in some cases, the difference can be more than 200 pounds:
SOTs can handle around 400 to 500 pounds – while SIKs usually hover around the 300-pound mark.
Sit-on-top kayaks offer tons of open storage options, including bungee rigging, tie-down points with D-rings, and large tank wells at the stern.
These open cargo areas are easier to access on the go and, more importantly, allow you to bring larger items – kayak coolers, tackle boxes, and camping gear – onboard. The downside is that your gear and supplies remain exposed – unless you invest in a dry bag.
While sit-in kayaks can also feature bungee deck rigging, the storage space is primarily located below the deck:
They maximize under-the-deck storage by utilizing large bulkhead compartments that can be accessed through waterproof hatches. Granted, you’ll have limited access to your gear while on the water – but you can count on it being safe and dry until you reach your destination. It’s clear why sit-in kayaks are the preferred choice for long-distance excursions.
The cost of sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks is influenced by several factors – features, outfitting, construction and materials, size, brand and intended use. However, generally speaking, sit-on-top kayaks cost less than sit-inside kayaks.
A typical recreational sit-on-top kayak will have a lower starting price of around $250 – while an entry-level recreational sit-in kayak will typically cost you $300 to $500.
Of course, specialized kayak designs drive the price up significantly:
Touring and whitewater SIK models tend to cost a lot more than your average recreational SOT ‘yak. Then again, a high-end SOT fishing kayak could easily end up being more expensive – at least $2000 – than a fully rigged sea kayak.
So, when comparing SOT and SIK kayaks in terms of prices, you must also consider their intended use.
Differences In Practicality: Living With Either Option
There are definite differences in practicality – more specifically, transportation, storage, and maintenance – between SIKs and SOTs. So, this section is about showing you what it’s like to live with a sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayak.
Transportation And Storage
When talking about transportation, sit-in kayaks tend to be lighter, longer, and narrower, making them easier to transport. In contrast, SOTs are wide, bulky, somewhat shorter, and can weigh upwards of 50 pounds, so handling them will require specialized carriers and ample storage space.
Either way, consider investing in a roof rack or a trailer; it’ll make transporting your kayak a lot easier.
While SOTs provide straightforward storage, sit-ins often need a cockpit cover to keep debris and critters out. What they lack in this area, they compensate with performance on the water, and lighter weight.
As for the amount of space that you’ll need to set aside for storage, let’s put it like this:
The bigger the kayak, the more room you need to store it – whether it’s a sit-on-top or a sit-in kayak.
Maintenance And Care
The open design of SOT ‘yaks makes maintenance and care relatively easy; properly cleaning and drying the cockpit of your SIK will typically require a bit more effort.
Plus, sit-on-top kayaks will be easier to repair; you’ll have a harder time accessing the areas you’re working on – bulkheads, for example – in a sit-in ‘yak.
That said, keep in mind that SOTs are typically constructed out of rotomolded polyethylene and similar materials that are highly sensitive to UV exposure. So, UV protection is a must. As cracking on the deck, especially around the scupper holes, is typical issue for many sit-on-top kayaks.
The basics of kayak outfitting – seats, footrests, thigh and knee braces, rudders, and anchors – are more or less the same, which is great news considering how important the outfitting is comfort-wise. That said, you’ll have a bit more “freedom” with a SOT kayak:
The simple, open-deck layout leaves more room for custom outfitting and aftermarket accessories – from gear tracks, rod holders, and fish finders to camera mounts and trolling motors.
Nothing beats getting a good kayak and then making it even better by attaching your favorite accessories or modifications – but I’m afraid things aren’t as straightforward with sit-in kayaks. You have to either get a kayak pre-fitted with the necessary mounting points or make permanent modifications to the hull yourself.
Stability Of Sit-On-Tops Vs. Sit-In Kayaks
Regarding the stability of sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayaks, it’s important to note that both types of kayaks can feel stable – provided that the hull is designed for stability. The main difference is that SOT kayaks have a higher degree of primary stability – while SIKs offer a higher degree of secondary stability.
Sit-on-top kayaks typically boast a higher degree of primary stability (how stable the kayak feels when sitting upright on calm water). They’re on the broader side – a typical recreational SOT kayak will have a beam width of 28 to 34 inches on average – and have a higher center of gravity, which ensures overall steadiness.
In comparison, SIKs tend to feel tippy and unstable – especially in flat waters – because the narrow hull limits their initial stability.
Sit-in kayaks, with a lower center of gravity, provide higher secondary stability (the kayak’s ability to remain stable when tilted on its side, often referred to as “Edge Stability”) compared to SOTs.
SIKs can feel tippy initially due to the narrow beam, but they’ll remain stable and resist capsizing in rough, choppy waters – even when leaned over on their edge – which can’t be said for sit-on-top kayaks.
Safety And Ease Of Use
Let’s compare sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks in terms of overall safety and ease of use.
Which Type Is Safer?
Sit-on-top kayaks are generally safer, especially in calm, flat waters. On the other hand, sit-in kayaks tend to hold up better in rough waters and more challenging environments – even more so in the hands of skilled, highly experienced paddlers.
The reason why SOT kayaks are deemed safer is that they are more stable, inherently buoyant, and with their open cockpit easy to climb back into after capsizing. Plus, they’re self-draining by design, which prevents water from accumulating on the deck (unless the sealed hull is damaged, in which case, all bets are off – abandon ship!)
While it may be harder to recover after capsizing a sit-in kayak – mainly because the cockpit will fill up – and you’ll have to perform a wet exit and self-rescue techniques, they’re not inherently unsafe. In fact, a SOT could never compete with the safety of a sit-in ‘yak in rough waters.
Entry And Exit Differences
The difference in design means there are some entry and exit differences between sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks, too.
The open deck makes sit-on-top ‘yaks easier to enter and exit. There’s no cockpit to squeeze your way into; you “enter” by hopping onboard. This user-friendly, highly accessible design of SOT kayaks is one of the reasons why I recommend them to beginners and people with limited mobility.
While getting in and out of a sit-in kayak might be a bit harder for beginners, the lower center of gravity can be an advantage in an emergency – it’ll be easier to roll and exit into the water if needed.
Weather Exposure And Thermal Protection
Sit-inside kayaks have an enclosed cockpit and can be fitted with a spray skirt, minimizing weather exposure and offering better thermal protection. In contrast, a SOT kayak will leave you exposed to the elements.
It comes down to the weather conditions:
If you live in a colder climate and are no stranger to kayaking in winter, you’ll want the added protection of a closed cockpit. And for those hoping to avoid overheating during the summer and don’t mind getting wet, a sit-on-top is a much better choice.
Paddling Technique Differences
When it comes to the differences in paddling techniques, keep in mind that your kayak’s design can – and will – directly impact your paddling style:
SOT kayaks’ wider beam and higher seating position call for a low-angle paddling style. You’ll need to hold the paddle at a more horizontal angle, moving it further away from the hull in a sweeping motion.
With sit-inside kayaks, the blades tend to move closer to the hull. Your strokes have to be more aggressive and practically vertical – a defining characteristic of a high-angle paddling style that allows you to pack more force into each stroke.
That’s why you’ll typically have more control and be able to perform quick, precise maneuvers in a sit-in ‘yak.
Suitability For Various Activities And Environments
When discussing suitability for various activities and environments, there’s no simple answer; it comes down to your needs:
If you’re more likely to kayak in rough, open waters, the closed deck of a SIK would probably be a better fit. But if you’re still a beginner or the idea of a closed cockpit causes anxiety, you’ll be better off with a SOT ‘yak – at least until you build up your confidence.
I’ve compiled a quick overview of common kayaking scenarios, activities, and environments and “matching” kayaks to point you in the right direction.
Sit-Inside Or Sit-On-Top For Beginners?
Both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks can be a good choice for beginners, but SOT kayaks have a slight advantage:
They have better primary stability, a lower learning curve, and are easier to enter and exit. Plus, the open-deck design eliminates the fear of being trapped, which is common among beginners. And even if you do capsize, it’ll be easier to recover; it won’t automatically fill up with water.
Another factor that makes SOT kayaks better for beginners is – you guessed it – affordability. There are many factors that affect the price tag, but generally speaking, SOTs cost a bit less.
That said, a sit-in ‘yak would be a wiser choice for challenging environments – think open waters and whitewater rapids – whether you’re a beginner kayker or not.
Which Design Is Best For Families?
The sit-on-top kayak design is the preferred choice for families with younger children and pets. Most families want a spacious, stable, and easy-to-control kayak with a higher-than-average capacity and a reasonable price tag – and overall, SOT kayaks are better at meeting those requirements.
Besides, it’s not like you have much of a choice here; thee-person, family-style sit-in kayaks are quite rare.
Which Type Suits Tandem Paddling Best?
You’d assume that SOT kayaks are better suited for tandem paddling – simply because they’re more commonly available in two and three-person configurations. However, I’ve found that this mostly depends on the style of kayaking you’re interested in:
Yes, a SOT kayak with its open, spacious deck would be a much better choice for paddling duos for recreational purposes.
But for open-water kayaking and long-distance touring, you want a more performance-oriented kayak with tons of secondary stability and enclosed cockpits to protect you from the elements – and a two-person SIK will be your safest bet here.
Which Is Better For Kayak Fishing?
Here’s an interesting fact – in the current market, SOT fishing kayak sales outnumber SIKs 200 to 1. If you’re wondering whether you should consider a sit-in kayak for fishing, that’s your sign right there.
Jokes aside, SOT kayaks are better for kayak fishing for a few reasons:
One, they tend to be wider, more stable, and spacious, with a width of 30 to 42 inches. You’ll have more room to move around when casting and reeling in your catch, too – and some SOTs are even designed to allow you to stand up.
Two, the elevated seating position – coupled with the option to stand up – makes it a lot easier to spot fish and keep an eye on your floats and lures.
And three, they have a higher load capacity and large, open storage areas, which can be useful for anglers with lots of additional gear.
Plus, many SOTs feature rod holders and pedal drive systems for hands-free operation, making them that much more convenient.
Preferred Choice For Open Water And Ocean Kayaking?
While both types of kayaks can be used in open waters, sit-inside kayaks are the preferred choice for open water and ocean kayaking.
The lower center of gravity ensures improved secondary stability – a must when ocean paddling, where you have to deal with waves and strong currents.
Most importantly, you’ll have protection from the elements and splashing in a SIK – especially when you add in a spray skirt – making it easier to stay dry even when the waters get rough. I’ll put it this way:
The harsher the environment, the higher the chances you’ll need a sit-inside kayak.
Making A Decision – What Is The Best Option For You?
The key considerations regarding the sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayaks debate are where, when, and how you’ll use your kayak – and one is not inherently better than the other.
Sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks are better suited for:
- Warm weather
- Recreational uses and casual paddling
- Kids and beginners
- Fishing and duck hunting
- People with limited mobility
- Those who may be claustrophobic
Sit-in (SIK) kayaks are typically better for:
- Harsh weather and cold waters
- Staying dry
- Long-distance kayak excursions and ocean touring
- Surf kayaking
- Whitewater kayaking and the long-distance river runs
In other words, it’s a personal, subjective choice. That said, I hope this guide made your search for the right kayak type easier!
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Now all you need to decide is whether should you buy an inflatable or hard-shell kayak – on to the next choice!