Sit-on-top kayaks are great for fishing, diving, and recreational use as they’re stable and hard to capsize. Sit-in kayaks are faster and more efficient to paddle, making them a better option for touring. They’re also more stable in rough water.
One of the biggest dilemmas you’ll face when shopping for a kayak is whether to go for a sit-in vs a sit-on kayak. It may seem a simple question, but when you start trawling the internet for information, you’re likely to end up with more questions than answers.
Do sit-in kayaks flip easily? Is a sit-on-top really more stable? Which is best for fishing? Or for ocean paddling?
Related: Do inflatable kayaks tip over easily?
The truth is, there isn’t a simple answer. Sit-in and sit-on kayaks each have advantages and disadvantages. This article will help you decide which design is best for you.
What Is the Difference Between a Sit-on and a Sit-in Kayak?
Sit-in kayaks have a traditional design with an enclosed cockpit. You sit inside the boat with your knees braced against the cockpit for stability. Anything you want to carry with you goes inside the boat, either in the cockpit or in a sealed bulkhead accessed by a hatch.
Sit-on-top kayaks were first designed in the 1970s and introduced to the mass market by the brand Ocean Kayak in the 1980s. They look like a cross between a kayak and a paddleboard. Most sit-on kayaks are fully sealed, with scupper holes that drain water from the open cockpit. As the name suggests, you sit on top of the kayak, above the water line.
Also read: What size kayak do I need?
Sit-in vs Sit-on Kayaks: Pros and Cons
Search any paddling forum for views on the best kayak design, and you’ll find strong opinions on both sides of the keel. Before we dive into the details, here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks.
|Sit-in Kayaks||Enclosed cockpit keeps you dryExcellent secondary stability (how well the kayak rights itself when tipped on the side, e.g. in rough water)Easy to maneuverFast and efficient to paddleWarm in cold and windy weatherAbundant dry storageLightweight and easy for a single person to carry||Hard to get in and out of. May fill with water if you capsizeLess easy to self-rescue if you fall inLower primary stability (i.e. feels less stable to sit in)Less freedom of movement (e.g. you can’t stand up)Harder to access storage on the moveMay not be able to carry bulky items (e.g. coolers)|
|Sit-on-Top Kayaks||Excellent primary stability (i.e. hard to capsize)Easy to self-rescue from the waterWon’t fill with waterCool in hot weatherStorage for coolers and other bulky itemsEasy to launch even if you have mobility issuesStable enough to stand up onEasy to access stored items when on the waterHigh weight capacityEasy to customize||No weather protectionNo way to stay drySlow and less efficient to paddleMore affected by windLimited dry storage optionsHeavy and harder to transport|
Sit-in vs Sit-on Kayaks: 6 Key Differences
The sit-in vs sit-on-top debate isn’t so much a question of which design is best. It’s more a case of which design is best for your intended use. This includes what you’re using the kayak for, the type of water you’re paddling on, and the weather conditions you’ll encounter.
To determine this, you need to understand a bit more about the main differences between sit-in and sit-on-top models.
1. Stability – Are Sit-on Kayaks More Stable Than Sit-In Kayaks?
At first glance, you may assume that sit-on-top kayaks are more stable than sit-inside kayaks. You’d be right—up to a point.
It depends on which type of stability you’re talking about, as there are two types of stability relevant to kayak performance. Let’s look at each in turn.
Primary stability refers to how stable a kayak is when resting on flat water. Inflatable and sit-on-top kayaks have a high degree of primary stability compared to sit-in kayaks. That said, many recreational sit-in kayaks are designed with primary stability in mind.
Also read: Are inflatable kayaks safe?
A wide kayak with a flat or pontoon hull maximizes primary stability. However, there is a trade-off between this kind of stability and performance. A flat-hulled boat will be a drag to paddle.
Most recreational kayaks are designed to balance stability and performance. For example, the Perception Pescador 10 is 32-inches wide, with a flat bottom and keel to help with tracking.
Fishing kayaks can be even wider and often have a pontoon-style hull, creating a stable platform for standing and casting.
Sit-on-top kayaks may feel more stable on calm lakes, slow-moving rivers, and sheltered ocean bays. You may choose a sit-on-top if you’re a beginner or recreational kayaker, as you’re more likely to be paddling in these environments.
Secondary stability refers to how stable it feels when you lean a kayak to one side, for example, when executing a sharp turn or running rapids. Sit-inside kayaks have a higher degree of secondary stability due to your lower center of gravity.
Rounded or v-shaped hulls give a kayak secondary stability as they allow you to roll back from multiple angles. Kayaks with good secondary stability tend to be narrow with a more pronounced keel to help with tracking.
In a sit-in kayak, you brace your knees against the hull of the kayak. You can control the kayak using your core strength and body position. This allows you to take advantage of the secondary stability and treat the kayak as an extension of your body.
If you want to tackle whitewater rapids, ocean swells, or other rough conditions, a sit-in kayak will feel more stable. Experienced kayakers tend to prefer sit-in kayaks as they have more control in challenging waters.
2. Performance – Why Sit-in Kayaks Perform Better in the Water
As a general rule, sit-in kayaks perform better in the water. They are faster, easier to paddle, and more likely to track straight. Some budget, recreational sit-in kayaks are designed more with stability than performance in mind—they are the exception to the rule.
There are several aspects to performance.
Tracking refers to the ability of a kayak to maintain a straight line. Sit-in kayaks tend to have a deeper hull profile with a fine keel at the bow and stern that acts like a rudder to cut through the water and prevent the boat from spinning. They also sit lower in the water, so you’re less likely to be blown off-course by strong winds.
Long, narrow kayaks track better than short, wide kayaks. Touring kayaks tend to be longer than average, as they prioritize tracking over fine maneuverability.
The flip side to tracking is maneuverability. The factors that make a boat track straight also make it harder to execute sharp turns. If maneuverability is a priority (e.g. for kayak surfing or whitewater), then you want a short, stumpy kayak.
Both sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks can have great maneuverability, but sit-in kayaks have two big advantages. It’s easier to use your body to flip your kayak around, and the kayak’s secondary stability means you can lean the kayak to make tighter turns.
Long, narrow kayaks will be faster than short kayaks, regardless of whether they have a sit-on-top or sit-inside design.
A sit-in design gives you a lower center of gravity, which means your kayak doesn’t need to be as wide to get the same level of stability. That’s why sit-in kayaks often have a narrower design, making them faster in the water. That said, if you jump in an 8-foot, 32-inch wide sit-inside kayak you’re unlikely to paddle anywhere fast—unless you’re heading down rapids.
You may also like: How to store an inflatable kayak.
3. Storage – Why Sit-on Kayaks Have More Versatile Storage
When it comes to storage space on your kayak, you need to consider:
- How much gear you need to store
- Whether you need to keep your gear dry
- The shape and size of different items
- What you need to access on the water (as opposed to storing gear for a lunch or overnight stop)
In a sit-in kayak, your storage space is inside the hull. This protects your gear from the elements, but you have to be able to fit everything through a small hatch or between your legs. That’s fine for clothing or camping gear, but it may be tricky to find somewhere to store a hard cooler for your fishing catch.
It can also be hard to access gear through bulkhead hatches when you’re on the water, particularly if you feel a bit wobbly.
A sit-on-top kayak has more versatile storage than a sit-in kayak. Most sit-on-tops have a large tank well in the stern where you can store kayak cooler bag or larger items. Bungee cords are flexible enough to store large and small items. As sit-on-tops are more stable, it’s easier to move around to access things on the water.
The downside is that you expose your gear to wind, waves, and rain. Some sit-on-tops have small dry-storage wells. Otherwise, you’ll need to invest in some dry bags to keep clothes and valuables dry.
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4. Comfort – Which Type of Kayak is Most Comfortable?
Both sit-in and sit-on kayaks can be comfortable or uncomfortable. Comfort is largely dependent on the quality of the seat. More expensive kayaks tend to have more comfortable seats, but upgrading the seat in a budget kayak can be a quick fix.
The design of the kayak can affect your seated position. In a sit-in kayak, you’re stuck in the same position for however long you’re in the kayak. On a sit-on-top, it’s easier to shift your position and wriggle around without feeling like you’re going to end up in the water.
Fishing kayaks sometimes have a raised seat that gives you a more traditional chair-like position. This may be more comfortable if you have limited mobility or you’re sitting for long periods.
You also need to consider what weather you’ll be going out in. The enclosed cockpit of a sit-in kayak traps warm air and protects your lower body from wind chill. It also keeps you dry, particularly if you use a spray skirt. If you’re going out in cold weather, you may find a sit-in kayak more comfortable.
Also read: 16 Different types of kayaks.
5. Capacity – Which Type of Kayak Can Carry Most Weight?
On average, sit-in kayaks weigh less than sit-on-top kayaks. It’s worth bearing in mind that lighter isn’t always better. Heavier kayaks often have thicker plastic, making them more robust.
Sit-on-top kayaks usually have a higher weight capacity. This makes them a better option for heavier paddlers or kayak anglers with a lot of fishing gear.
Tandem kayaks have higher weight capacities. They may have a sit-in or sit-on-top design, but many sit-on-tops can be configured for one, two, or even three-person use.
Inflatable kayaks give you the best of both worlds. They’re lightweight and easy to transport, but once inflated, create a stable platform that can carry heavy loads. The Sea Eagle 380x has a whopping 750-pound capacity, more than twice the capacity of most recreational sit-inside kayaks.
Also read: Are inflatable kayaks good?
6. Intended Use – When Might You Want to Use a Sit-in or Sit-on-Top Kayak?
Both sit-on and sit-in kayaks are great for recreational paddling on calm water. If you want something for more specialist activities then the design becomes more important.
While there are exceptions to every rule, there are certain environments and activities where having the right type of kayak will make a big difference to your experience and safety.
Sit-in kayaks are best for:
- Paddling long distances
- Multi-day trips (touring designs)
- Ocean touring
- Tackling rough water
- Surf kayaking
- Paddling on cold water and in cold or wet weather
Sit-on-top kayaks are best for:
- Kayak fishing
- Diving or swimming
- Warm weather paddling
- Carrying heavy loads
- People with limited mobility
Also read: How to get in and out of a kayak.
Is a Sit-on or Sit-in Kayak Better for Beginners?
Both sit-in and sit-on kayaks are good for beginners. The best kayak for you will depend on whether you value stability over performance and whether you’ll be paddling in warm or cold conditions.
Also read: How to get in an inflatable kayak.
Sit-on-top kayaks are often marketed as being best for beginners. It’s probably more accurate to say beginners often feel safer in a sit-on-top kayak as there’s no cockpit to get trapped in if you capsize. However, most recreational sit-in kayaks have a large cockpit that you’ll easily fall out of in the event the boat flips.
Plus, it’s actually quite hard to capsize a beginner kayak as they’re designed to be stable.
Sit-on kayaks are easier to get on and off, so may be better if you have limited mobility or you’re planning on jumping in and out of the water.
Is a Sit-on or Sit-in Kayak Better for Fishing?
Sit-on kayaks are most commonly used for fishing. Their open design gives you space to maneuver and easily-accessible storage.
You may want to sit above the water to help you sight and cast when fishing. Many fishing kayaks have raised seats for this purpose. A sit-on-top kayak gives a wide, stable platform that makes it easy to move between standing and seated positions.
That said, there are some situations when you might prefer a sit-in kayak. If you have to paddle long distances, the lower seat and center of gravity in a sit-in kayak make paddling easier and more efficient. You may also prefer an enclosed cockpit in cold weather.
Sit-in kayaks often come with built-in rod holders, whereas sit-on-top kayaks tend to have mounting plates for you to add kayak fishing accessories.
Also read: Are inflatable kayaks good for fishing?
Is a Sit-on or Sit-in Kayak Better for Ocean Paddling?
Sit-on-top kayaks are safer than recreational sit-in kayaks for ocean paddling near to the shore. They’re difficult to capsize and if they flip, they won’t fill with water. If you end up in the water, their stable design makes it easy to climb back on board.
Also read: Scupper plugs for your sit-on-top kayak.
A sit-on kayak exposes your body to the elements, so it’s not the best choice in cold weather. Most sit-on-tops are designed for recreational use and are best used in sheltered bays and close to shore.
Sit-inside touring kayaks are the best kayaks for the open ocean. They have a long, narrow hull that’s designed for speed and efficiency. Sealed bulkheads trap air inside the hull, so the kayak will float even when swamped. The enclosed cockpit protects your lower body from wind and waves.
If you want to use a touring kayak for ocean paddling, you’ll need to use a spray skirt and carry a bilge pump and other equipment. You’ll also need to learn self-rescue skills, such as the cowboy scramble and the re-enter and roll method.
Which Is the Best Kayak for You?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, there isn’t a definitive answer to the sit-in vs sit-on kayak debate. Both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks work well for their intended uses.
I hope this article has helped you figure out your priorities when shopping for a kayak, based on your kayaking aspirations and the water and weather conditions you’re most likely to encounter.
Once you know which style of kayak you want, the next step is to research different models. Our roundup guides for the best sit-on-top kayaks, sit-inside kayaks, and inflatable kayaks are a good starting point.
Got any more questions? Leave a comment below.