Maybe you’ve been introduced to kayaking by a friend, or perhaps you’re just curious to give it a go. Watching people cruise around your local lake or river can look so serene. Maybe you’ve even been using kayaks for years, but are only ready to buy your own now. So the time has come to make a decision: a sit on top vs a sit in kayak?
Each type has its own set of pros and cons. At the end of the day, you’ll need to choose a kayak based on a few factors. This will include whether you’ll be paddling in warm or cold climates. Additionally, how long you intend to spend on kayaking trips, and which activities you hope to use your kayak for.
The Main Differences at a Glance
Firstly, what are the main differences between the physical structure of each kayak type?
Sit-on-Top Kayaks are stable, open-hulled vessels with contours that allow the paddler to comfortably sit and position their feet and legs on top of the kayak. Sit-In Kayaks have a cockpit which you will slip your legs inside to paddle the vessel. Some of these kayaks also come with a spray skirt which prevents water from entering the kayak with you. Those seeking easy, recreational paddling in calm waters may prefer sit-on-top kayaks, those seeking more adventurous or rigorous paddling experiences typically prefer sit-in kayaks.
Now let’s take a closer look at each type of kayak:
Sit in Kayaks
Sit in kayaks tend to have a slightly raised body (hull). They also have an opening (cockpit) into which a person climbs into. This means the legs of the paddler are housed inside the kayak. The inside of the hull is fairly roomy and is handy storage space for personal items or camping gear.
Some sit in kayak designs come with a cover for the cockpit called a spray skirt. The spray skirt tightens around the body of the paddler and prevents water from coming in. Some designs also have a place to rest your knees inside the hull. This can assist paddlers with paddling more powerfully and efficiently.
The shape of a sit in kayak is generally a bit longer and less broad than the sit on top variety. However, there are all kinds of variations and customized forms.
Sit on Top Kayaks
This style of kayak basically consists of a hull that has a hollowed-out impression for the paddler’s legs and rear. Small holes called scuppers are present in the hull to drain away any water that splashes onto the kayak.
These kayaks are generally broader and flatter. There isn’t a cockpit or storage hatch inside the hull of a sit on top vs sit in kayak. A number of sit on top kayaks come with extra gear that can be attached to the hull. This can include: straps for securing goods, fishing rod and tackle box fixtures, or mounts for camera gear.
Sit on Top vs Sit In Kayak Comparison (Ease of Use)
So is one type of kayak easier to use than the other? Let’s compare:
Sit In Kayak
This model is easier to get a good grip on when carrying it from your car or home to the water. These types are usually made from very lightweight materials so they aren’t too heavy.
However, once you get the kayak on the water, things get a bit more tricky! Sit in kayaks are more difficult to launch and dismount because climbing in and out literally rocks the boat. Unless you have a proper launching spot, it can be quite a wobbly affair. Inexperienced kayakers might end up capsizing in the shallows.
Sit on Top Kayak
These kayaks are much easier to get into and out of because you don’t need to slide into a cockpit. This can be an advantage if you have bad knees. They also tend to remain balanced when it comes to hopping on and off.
Once you’ve waded out into knee-deep water, you can just ease your rear onto the seat. From there, swing your legs over and up onto the hull.
This means the sit on top variety is a better option for those with limited mobility. It’s even relatively easy to get off a sit on top kayak in the middle of a lake for a swim and then clamber back on again.
On the downside, this kind of kayak is normally made from sturdier materials and is heavier than the sit in kayaks when being carried to the water. It’s likely you’ll need a buddy for help.
Personally I find a solo kayak with a sit-in cockpit much easier to carry to and from the water. I just pop the cockpit over my shoulder and carry the weight there, leaving my other hand free to carry my paddle and other gear.
What is the Best Climate for a Sit on Top vs Sit In Kayak?
The climate and paddling conditions where you’ll be kayaking will make a difference and understanding these differences will help you choose the right type of kayak.
Sit In Kayak
If you live in a region that’s cold and windy for much of the year, then a sit in kayak might be better suited to your climate. Just think about it: when there’s a cold wind and rain coming down, being able to keep your legs dry underneath a spray skirt will make your experience far more comfortable.
Having a sit in kayak that keeps your lower half dry while whizzing along rapids or paddling in other choppy water conditions will be sure to feel like a godsend at the time.
These more traditional-looking kayaks aren’t only for lakes and river kayaking in colder climates. You can also use them to explore harbours and sea shorelines too. The dimensions of the regular sit-in kayak make them easier to maneuver and turn.
The dry storage compartments in this kind of kayak are also a must-have for those intrepid explorers who want to go on multi-day trips.
Sit on Top Kayak
If you go paddling in a place that’s generally warm and where the water isn’t too rough, then a sit on top kayak should be perfectly fine. Having water splash up against you as you power along, as well as some water coming up from the scuppers below, will actually keep you cool if you hit the water on a hot day.
If you’re not a big fan of getting wet, then perhaps a sit on top model isn’t right for you.
What Activities Does a Sit on Top vs Sit In Kayak Support?
Now let’s compare the types of paddling and activities you can don on each type of kayak.
The type of paddling you plan to enjoy with your kayak will probably be the single biggest factor in choosing one design over the other.
Sit In Kayak
If you dream of long-distance trips that involve camping under the stars, choose a sit-in kayak. The same goes for those seeking the thrills of white water rafting, but in a kayak. Having a relatively large amount of dry storage space is crucial for longer adventures. They also have better agility to manoeuvre along winding rivers that flow at a faster pace.
Sit on Top Kayak
If you’re less interested in paddling long distances, or going very fast, then this user-friendly type is a good option. For paddlers keen on doing recreational activities like fishing and making GoPro videos, there are plenty of add-ons for sit on top models. You can select rigging to attach fishing rods and gear boxes, or mounts to attach camera equipment to the hull.
Stability Comparison: Sit-In vs Sit-on-Top Kayak
Once you’ve launched a kayak, they’re usually rather difficult to overturn in the water. But if you’re fighting against waves or particularly strong currents, tipping a kayak can happen.
This goes for both sit in and sit on top kayaks, and if you have concerns about tipping there are ways to improve the stability of your kayak. I also recommend practicing a wet-exit in calm, shallow water. When it comes to agility and efficiency, however, there are some differences.
Sit in Kayak
These have a reputation of being more agile due to the extra buoyancy they get from being lighter and containing larger spaces filled with air. This also gives the sit in kayak the advantage of being faster than most of its sit on top kayak siblings.
Comfort might be a trade-off of the sit in kayak for some people. Being rooted in the cockpit restricts their movements. If you happen to capsize the vessel, it’s also quite a challenge to get it upright again, get back in, and remove the water from it.
Sit on Top Kayak
There’s more freedom of movement in this type, and many paddlers report feeling less confined when taking a sit on top kayak for a spin.
While the kayak itself is less agile in the water than the sit in variety, it provides paddlers with more freedom of movement if they’d like to hop off for a swim, and then climb back on.
Ultimately, as long as you don’t mind getting wet, then this type of kayak offers a comfortable ride.
So Which Kayak is Right for You?
At the end of the day, there’s no type of kayak that’s better or worse than the other. You just need to get a model that matches the kind of water-based activities you like most.
And once you’ve got an idea of the type that’ll best suit your needs, all you need to do is go to your nearest dealer and check out or test the different models of sit on top vs sit in kayak. You also might find my list of the best kayak brands a helpful starting place in your search for a new kayak.