It can be confusing to understand the difference between a sit-on-top vs. sit-inside kayak. This article will break down each of these kayak’s pros and cons and help you understand what makes them unique.
The differences between a sit in vs sit on kayak can help you determine which is best for you. It often comes down to what type of paddling you will be doing and how you will use your kayak. This article centers on recreational, flat water kayak use.
From an anatomy standpoint, sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks still have a bow and a stern. Both have a hull and a deck. But it’s some of the nuances within the anatomy that you have to keep in mind. The most significant difference is kind of a giveaway, one you sit in and one you sit on.
With that said, let’s get to it.
Sit in vs. sit on kayak
Now let’s take a look at the two different styles of kayaks and see which is will work best for you and your kayak advenures.
What is a sit-inside kayak?
A sit-inside kayak is what most people think of when it comes to kayaks. These have been around seemingly forever and are a traditional looking kayak. Sit-inside kayaks have an enclosed cockpit area, whereas sit on kayaks have an open area.
The paddler sits inside the hull with a sit-inside kayak with his or her legs under the deck. Many sit-inside kayaks have padding around the cockpit area (called the coaming). This padding allows you to press out with your knees to help with stronger, more efficient strokes.
The seat and adjustable footrests reside in the cockpit on a sit-inside model. It’s a good idea to make sure the footrests are correctly adjusted before you hit the water. You can set the kayak on solid ground to make the adjustment. Adjusting the footrest length in the water can be challenging.
Many sit-inside kayaks are designed to work with a spray skirt, which helps keep water out of the boat. A spray skirt is excellent for cold weather paddling as it helps to keep the paddler warm and dry. You will be better protected from wind, sun, and water.
So that’s one great benefit of a sit-inside kayak; they are great for cold weather.
Pros of a sit-inside kayak
A spray skirt helps the paddler stay dry
Very stable, lower center of gravity – once you are inside the cockpit, it’s hard work to tip over
Excellent for traveling a long distance, they can be very fast
Storage hatches and bungee tie downs give you a lot of storage
You can also use the hull to store extra equipment
Versatile for different types of water
Nimble and easy to maneuver
Better protected from bad weather
Depending on the style, they can be pretty fast on the water
Cons of a sit-inside kayak
Harder to get in and out of than a sit on top kayak
If you do happen to flip, it’s not easy to get back in
Not great for fishing, with limited range of motion for casting and not a ton of accessible storage
What is a sit on top kayak?
The name says it all. A sit on top (SOT) kayak does not have a cockpit to sit inside of. The paddler sits on top of the kayak deck.
With a completely open deck area, sit on top kayaks are popular with beginners, fishermen, divers, and swimmers. There is more deck space on a SOT kayak.
Sit on top kayaks are much easier to get on and off than a sit-inside kayak. You simply step on and off the kayak, no crawling into a cockpit.
Some sit on top kayaks are specifically designed to safely stand up, making them ideal for fishing. With a sit-on-top kayak, you are exposed to the elements more than a sit-inside kayak Sit on top’s are great for warm weather!
These kayaks are also self-bailing. There are scupper holes in the bottom of the kayak, designed to let water flow out of the boat, so water doesn’t pool up.
Some people use scupper plugs to plug up the holes so that no water can enter the boat through the bottom. The footwells are typically fixed, and you can pick the length that fits you. Sit on top kayaks tend to be wider than their sit-inside counterparts.
Pros of a sit-on-top kayak
These are stable boats
Easy to get in and out of by stepping on the deck
Self-rescue – it’s much easier to get back on a SOT kayak if you go overboard or if you are swimming or diving
Self-bailing – water can exit the kayak through scupper holes
You can choose to plug the scupper holes, so water doesn’t enter the boat from below
Great warm weather, warm water kayaks
There is ample deck space
Great for fishing
Good for lakes and slow-moving bodies of water
Cons of sit-on-top kayak
You are most likely going to get wet, especially if you don’t use scupper plugs
You are more exposed to the elements, like sun and water, than with a sit-inside kayak
Not ideal for cold weather/water conditions
They can be slower in the water than more narrow sit-inside kayaks
You sit up higher, so the wind can play a more significant factor
Sit in vs sit on kayak – which is better?
When you choose between a sit on top vs. sit in kayak, it comes down to how you will use the kayak. Hands down, if you are doing a lot of fishing, a sit-on-top kayak is the way to go. You have plenty of room for fishing gear and accessories. You will have the range of motion you need to cast and reel in fish.
If you plan on getting in the water, on purpose or not, then a sit on top is a lot easier to get back on from the water. If you are just messing around on the lake on a summer day, a SOT is an excellent option. These boats are stable and can be less expensive than sit-inside kayaks.
Sit-inside kayaks are good recreational boats that can be used in a variety of different conditions. If speed is your game, then a long sit-inside kayak is a great option. If you are kayaking in colder water or weather, a sit-inside kayak is best. You can use a spray skirt to keep water and weather at bay.
Consider how you will use your kayak. If you intend to travel longer distances, a sit-inside kayak can cover more distance faster.
Either type of kayak can be used for camping; this will depend on how much gear you have and how far you plan on paddling. A simple overnight camping trip that isn’t too far to paddle can easily be made with a sit on top kayak.
For a more extended adventure, you may opt for a sleek sit-inside kayak with many storage compartments that can cover a lot of distance.
Sit on top vs sit in kayak – Single or tandem?
Both sit-inside kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks are available in tandem (2 person) models. Typically you will probably see more SOT kayaks designed for two paddlers. Having a partner to paddle with you can be a blessing and a curse.
Two people mean twice the paddling power or one person can take a break. But no matter how fast you paddle, you can’t get away from each other!
Safety – Sit on top vs sit in kayak
Kayak safety is an essential factor when considering what type of kayak to purchase. Always use the kayak as intended. For instance, you don’t want to take an entry-level SOT kayak down whitewater.
Most flat water, recreational kayaks are pretty stable. Sit-inside kayaks are challenging to flip over since you have a low center of gravity and you sit lower in the water.
Sit on top kayaks are easier to flip, but they are also much easier to get back on if you end up in the water. Make sure you are prepared for your day on the water. Always wear a lifejacket (PFD).
We covered a lot, and you should have a good idea of the difference between a sit-in vs. a sit-on kayak. The choice is up to you, depending on how you will use the kayak. Each type of kayak has similarities and unique differences.
Let me know if you have any questions. Happy paddling!
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.