Kayaks are categorized in many ways, but the first – and arguably most important – classification is based on hull style. It’s also the one that sparked the age-old debate in the paddling community:
Which is better, sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayaks?
Both sides have some valid arguments – and, in a way, both sides are right.
You see, the question isn’t so much which type of kayak is inherently better. Instead, it’s about which one’s better for you.
That’s why today, we’re getting up close and personal with sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks to highlight the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of both styles!
SOT Kayaks 101: What Is A Sit-On-Top Kayak?
Sit-on-top kayaks – or SOTs for short – aren’t as traditional-looking as you may imagine when you hear the word “kayak.”
The difference in hull design is impossible to overlook:
Sit-on-top kayaks lack an enclosed cockpit and are entirely sealed, top to bottom, save for the self-bailing scupper holes. The paddler sits above water level, on top of the kayak deck, hence the name “sit-on-top.”
Despite the not-so-traditional design, SOTs are gaining popularity – and fast – because they make for incredibly versatile vessels and come in various shapes, sizes, and purposes.
Think about it:
Pedal-powered sit-on-top kayaks, family-friendly tandems, inflatables, beginner-friendly kayaks, sea kayaks and those designed for fishing; it’s a long list. And let’s not forget that they’re virtually unbeatable when it comes to relaxing afternoons on the water.
Sit-on-top kayaks are versatility at its best, period.
SIK Kayaks 101: What Is A Sit-Inside Kayak?
Sit-in kayaks are, in all likelihood, exactly how you picture a kayak – probably because they’ve been around for thousands of years.
What sets them apart – although I’m sure you can tell by the name – is the cockpit design. SIK kayaks feature a closed cockpit you climb into and sit at water level, with your legs below the deck and your knees bracing the hull’s inside.
Native people of Arctic regions used such kayaks for hunting and fishing; that’s why the design seems more “familiar” and traditional-looking.
And in that sense, the design makes perfect sense, too:
The narrow hull and closed cockpit were supposed to ensure agility and maneuverability while still keeping the paddler dry and warm in harsh environments.
Modern-day sit-in kayaks track straight, move fast, and give you greater control, which makes them the go-to choice for rough waters and rapids, long-distance paddling, and colder weather.
Sit-In Vs. Sit-On-Top Kayak: 8 Crucial Differences Every Paddler Should Know
We’re here to discuss two types of kayaks; the fact that there are some notable differences between the two kayak designs shouldn’t come as a surprise. But the truth is that they’re a lot more alike than you imagine – and one isn’t inherently better than the other.
With that said, what is the difference between sit-on top and sit-in kayak?
Weight & Load Capacity
You can generally expect kayaks to weigh anywhere between 20 and 80 pounds. And, on average, sit-inside kayaks tend to weigh less than their sit-on-top rivals.
Then again, this depends on several factors; I can hardly give you a definite answer.
Sit-on-top kayaks tend to have a higher load capacity; in some cases, the difference can be as much as 100 pounds. SOTs can handle around 350 to 400 pounds, while cockpit-style kayaks usually hover around the 300-pound mark.
Shape & Design
The two types of kayak are designed for slightly different purposes, but the kayak design basics are still there. It’s also worth noting that hull design, along with length and width, plays into the kayak’s performance.
What does that mean for the whole sit on top vs. sit-in kayak debate?
Well, interestingly enough, if you were to compare the two types of kayaks, all things being equal, there wouldn’t be much of a difference in how they perform:
A longer and narrower kayak is still a faster one. A shorter hull with a more pronounced rocker will always be easier to turn. And a wider kayak with “fuller” ends generally promises a more stable ride.
Stability & Safety
Since capsizing seems to be the number one concern among beginner paddlers, I’ll go ahead and say it:
Capsizing a kayak is much harder than it seems. And as long as the hull’s design and size allow for stability, both sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks can be equally safe.
There’s a number of factors that affect the stability of a kayak, including:
- Kayak length
- Kayak width
- Hull shape
- Centre of gravity
Now, here’s where the differences kick in:
Sit-on-top kayaks tend to be on the broader side and have a higher center of gravity, meaning they have a higher degree of primary stability. Although typically narrower, sit-in kayaks have a lower center of gravity, which, in turn, significantly improves their secondary stability.
As for getting in and out, SOT kayaks feel more stable – and in turn, safer – since there’s no cockpit to squeeze your way into; you “enter” by hopping onboard.
When you hear people discussing a kayak’s performance, more often than not, it comes down to two things – speed and tracking.
The former isn’t affected by the hull’s design as much as its length and width. Both sit-on-top and sit-inside can impress you speed-wise, provided that they feature a longer and more streamlined hull.
Unlike speed, the kayak’s handling depends on the actual design, with sit-in models leading the way as more maneuverable and efficient kayaks with better tracking performance.
Intended Uses & Paddling Environments
Will you be kayaking in warmer weather? Would you prefer casual afternoons on the lake, or is paddling in open waters or whitewater rapids more your thing? Do you plan on clocking in some serious miles in your kayak?
The choice between a sit-on-top and a sit-in kayak depends on your answers; the harsher the environment, the higher the chances you’ll need a sit-inside kayak.
And what about sit-on vs. sit-in kayak for fishing?
I’m afraid SOT kayaks win this round. The open deck gives you more freedom to move around – even stand up when needed – and is far better suited for accommodating fishing gear.
Storage & Onboard Space
The bigger the kayak, the more space you’ll have at your disposal; that part’s clear. The differences in how the deck is organized in a sit-on-top vs. sit-in kayak mean onboard space and storage options will differ, too:
SOT kayaks have an open deck with dedicated tank wells, bungee tie-down areas, and in some instances, waterproof hatches. It’s all about ease of access. SOTs are greats for fishing gear such as; fish finder batteries or kayak GPS systems.
On the other hand, SIK models maximize under-the-deck storage by utilizing large bulkhead compartments that can be accessed through hatches. It’s clear why sit-in kayaks are the preferred choice for any long-distance excursions, as they can easily store tents or camping accessories under deck.
Seating & Comfort
With sit-on-top kayaks, you sit higher above the water level in either a molded-in seat or a “chair” attached to the deck. And with sit-inside kayaks, you sit at water level with the hull covering a good portion of your lower body.
As for the actual comfort – well, it depends on what your definition of “comfortable” is:
Sit-in kayaks are certainly a better choice for cold environments and will keep you dry and warm – but sit-on-top kayaks offer a lot more wiggle room.
One isn’t necessarily more comfortable than the other; what you’re hoping to get out of it is what matters.
It doesn’t matter if you go with a sit-on-top or a sit-inside; you’re looking at a three-digit amount minimum, either way. And to be frank, it’s not uncommon for the prices in the high-end range to reach thousands of dollars.
Then again, it depends on the construction, materials, size, capacity, comfort features, intended uses; everything I mentioned so far contributes to the end price in one way or another.
Touring kayaks and whitewater SIK models tend to cost a lot more than your average recreational SOT kayak. But while sit-on-top kayaks are generally cheaper, there are some exceptions to the rule; fishing kayaks are an excellent example.
Sit-On-Top Vs. Sit-In Kayaks – Weighing The Pros & Cons
What better way to sum up this whole sit-in vs. sit-on kayak debate than by highlighting their advantages and disadvantages
Advantages Of A Sit-On-Top Kayak
Sit-on-top kayaks are best described as versatile and user-friendly – and their most notable advantages reflect that perfectly:
- It’s much easier to self rescue and recover from capsizing because they’re inherently buoyant and have a completely sealed hull design.
- SOT kayaks are equipped with scupper holes as a part of their self-bailing design.
- Sit-on kayaks have a higher degree of primary stability as a direct result of their wider hull.
- They’re easier to launch and get in and out of; the open, flat deck makes entering the kayak as simple as hopping on board.
- Sit-on-top kayaks are more beginner-friendly and are the perfect choice for anyone who’s getting into kayaking, including kids and paddlers with reduced mobility – such as bad knees.
- They’re more comfortable for larger paddlers because of the spacious, open cockpit design.
- They can be used for fishing; the open deck and easily accessible storage, often paired with built-in rod holders and other kayak fishing accessories such as kayak coolers or fish finders, makes them the perfect choice for kayak anglers.
- SOT kayaks typically have a higher weight capacity, which is why they’re recommended for paddling duos and those who’d like to kayak with kids or pets.
- They are often cheaper, which makes them a better entry-level option.
Disadvantages Of A Sit-On-Top Kayak
You knew this was coming. I mean, sure, sit-on-top kayaks are super popular these days – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any downsides:
- Sit-on-top kayaks aren’t suitable for rough waters, as having less control over the kayak can be dangerous in challenging open water conditions.
- There’s no way to stay dry in a sit-on-top kayak since there’s no way to attach a spray skirt to the cockpit rim.
- The open cockpit leaves the paddler exposed to the elements, such as wind, rain, and waves, making them a not-so-stellar choice for kayaking in cold weather.
- SOT kayaks usually feature limited dry storage options, focusing mostly on tie-down areas and tank wells.
- They tend to be slower than sit-in kayaks because they typically have a much broader beam, making them a poor choice for long-distance paddling.
- Sit-on-top kayaks are generally heavier than their sit-in counterparts, which also makes them harder to transport.
Advantages Of A Sit-Inside Kayak
Sit-in kayaks can be an excellent choice for many intermediate and advanced paddlers – and there are plenty of reasons to give SIK kayaks a try:
- They’re a perfect choice for long-distance travel due to the built-in water-tight storage and overall better handling and efficiency.
- SIK kayaks have a lower center of gravity, which means they offer better secondary stability.
- They have better tracking performance and are easier to maneuver; the streamlined hull gives them a nimble and agile feel on the water.
- It’s easier to stay dry in sit-inside kayaks, even in rough and choppy waters – especially with a spray skirt attached – making them the preferred choice as a whitewater and ocean kayak.
- The closed cockpit design keeps you warmer, as it traps heat inside, which is why sit-in kayaks are an excellent choice for winter weather.
- They tend to be lighter than sit-on-top kayaks and can be carried on your shoulder, making them more portable.
Disadvantages Of A Sit-Inside Kayak
Sit-in kayaks won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – and there are just as many downsides to prove it, including:
- They’re harder to launch and re-enter from the water because you can’t hop onto the deck as you would with a sit-on-top kayak.
- SIK kayaks don’t have suitable storage for fishing gear, nor do they allow the same freedom of movement a SOT kayak would, making them unsuitable for kayak anglers.
- Handling a sit-in kayak may require more advanced paddling skills, so it may not be the best choice for complete beginners.
- The cockpit of a sit inside tends to get uncomfortably warm and stuffy in hot weather; trapped heat is the last thing you want on a summer afternoon.
- Tandem sit-in kayaks are few and far between; if you prefer paddling with a partner, your options will be somewhat limited.
- Expect to pay more for specialized, purpose-built sit-in kayaks because they don’t come cheap.
- The cockpit will fill up if you capsize, meaning you’ll have to use a bilge pump to drain the excess water and “recover” from capsizing.
Sit-On-Top Or Sit-Inside Kayak: Which Is Right For Me?
The truth is that there’s no “right” or “wrong” type of kayak – at least not in the sense that one is inherently better than the other.
Sure, there are differences between SOT and SIK kayaks, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. But despite that, both are capable of providing a stellar kayaking experience – as long as you choose one that fits your skill level, intended use, and general needs, that is.
For instance, if you’re more likely to kayak in cold waters, the closed deck of a sit-inside kayak 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 sit-on-top – at least until you build up your confidence.
There’s no simple, straightforward answer; it comes down to you and your needs.
That said, I’ve put together a quick overview of common kayaking scenarios and “matching” kayaks to point you in the right direction.
Sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks are generally better suited for:
- Warm weather
- Recreational uses and casual paddling
- Kids and beginners
- As a fishing kayak and duck hunting kayak
- 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, such as an ocean touring kayak
- Surf kayaking
- Whitewater kayaking and the long-distance river runs
Which Is Better – Sit-On-Top Or Sit-Inside Kayak?
The most significant considerations regarding the whole sit-on-top versus. sit-in kayak debate are where, when, and how you’ll use your kayak.
If you’re an angler into kayak fishing, then yes, a sit-on-top kayak would be a better choice. And if you typically venture on multi-day kayaking adventures, you’re going to need a sit-inside kayak.
But does that mean one is better than the other?
If anything, it shows you that this is a personal, highly subjective choice – one that others can’t make for you. That said, I hope this guide provided you with enough knowledge to make your search for the right kayak type easier!
Now all you need to decide is whether should you buy an inflatable or hard-shell kayak – on to the next choice!