A modern kayak is a great small boat that is exceptionally versatile. Although there are different hull designs tailored to specific activities, you can think of a kayak as having two basic designs; the sit-in kayak and the sit-on kayak. Here we will cover the differences so you can decide which kayak type is the better fit for you.
Sit-in vs sit-on kayak, which is best? A sit-in kayak is ideal for cruising, touring, camping, whitewater sports and ocean use. It has limited storage and a closed cockpit with no deck space or onboard maneuverability. A sit-on kayak is a great recreational boat that offers open deck space, more storage and the ability to move more freely onboard but is more limited in its uses.
If you are unsure which type of kayak is best for you then you should start with a few simple questions. Answering these questions will help you identify whether a sit-in or sit-on kayak will suit your needs better.
- Sit-in vs sit-on kayak – how to know which is best for you
- Differences between sit-in and sit-on kayaks
- Making the final decision
- Now you know the best type you need to get the best model
Sit-in vs sit-on kayak – how to know which is best for you
Before I cover the differences between a sit-in and a sit-on (more commonly known as a sit-on-top) kayak it is important for me to help you get clarity about what you want this type of boat for.
Once you are clear on exactly how you intend to use the boat it will be fairly easy for you to make a decision about which vessel is better for you as each one has different strengths and weakness.
Ask yourself the following questions
- What will you use the boat for?
- Where will you use the boat?
- How many people and how much gear will be onboard?
With the answers to the above questions you will be armed with all the knowledge you need to make the correct buying decision.
What will you use the boat for?
Although a sit-in and a sit-on kayak are essentially the same type of boat they have such key design differences that you should consider them to be completely different types of vessels.
By identify the main purposes for your boat it will become easier for you to see which type of kayak is better for your purposes and which type would not be a good fit. For example, a sit-on-top fishing kayak is great for fresh lake use but would be a terrible choice for ocean cruising; a sit-in touring kayak would offer much more protection, safety and maneuverability in turbulent waters.
So how do you intend to use your boat? Below are a few of the more common kayaking activities to get you thinking:
- Whitewater sports
- Surf kayaking
- Recreational cruising
- Long journeys on inland waterways
- Ocean touring
Sit-in kayaks are the best choice for some of the above activities while sit-on-top kayaks are better equipped for others.
So first identify what you intend to use your kayak for.
Then when you review the pros and cons of each boat type below you will instantly be able to tell which design is better for your intended purposes.
For long journeys, camping and ocean use, for example, a sit-in kayak offers you a lot more comfort, ease of paddling and protection from the elements – not to mention speed. However, if you love to fish in calm waters and fair weather then a sit-on-top kayak offers room for gear, and easy access to it, rod holders and the ability to move about on the boat and stand up on it.
Where will you use the boat?
So where do you intend to use your new boat? Although the environment in which you will use your kayak is strongly linked with how you will use it, this is still a question that deserves to be asked.
The difference in designs between a sit-in and a sit-on-top kayak mean that each boat type is better suited to, not just certain activities but also to, certain environments.
One of the most obvious differences between the two boats is that sit-on-top kayak leaves you much more open to the elements while a sit-in kayak protects you, to a large extent, from the elements. If you plan to use your kayak in calm water and in fair weather then a sit-on-top kayak offers a lot of advantages over a sit-in kayak (for certain activities).
However, in challenging waters and bad weather you will always be better off in a sit-in kayak. Likewise, for whitewater sports a sit-in kayak is the best choice as these boats are easy to roll, keep you drier and a river/whitewater kayak has exceptionally good secondary stability to ride rough turbulent rapids.
How many people and how much gear will be onboard?
If you you plan to go on a family outing or fishing with buddies then you need more deck space and more seats.
Although there are tandem (and 3-person) sit-in kayaks, a sit-on-top kayak will always offer more room for more passengers and more gear.
You should also note that although there are large 16+ feet sea kayaks that can store a lot of gear for the most part a sit-on-top kayak will give you more space. In addition, the gear you bring with will be within easy reach on a sit-on-top kayak whereas it will be in sealed compartments on a sit-in kayak that are only accessible when you get out of the boat.
The downside to this extra storage room on a sit-on-top kayak is that you will have to ensure your gear is put in waterproof bags or you run the risk of it getting wet.
Differences between sit-in and sit-on kayaks
The obvious difference between the two types of kayak are how you sit in them.
A sit-in kayak has a cockpit that covers the lower part of your body and with the aid of a fabric deck keeps the lower part of your body protected from water. On a sit-on-top kayak your entire body is open to the elements, as is your gear and anything else you have stored on the boat. However, this is not the only difference.
A sit-in kayak is much more difficult to get in and out of but it gives you a lower center of gravity when you are in it which makes the boat a lot more stable in the water. This also keeps you drier from the water that drips off the paddles because you are close to the water surface.
A sit-on-top kayak is wider and has great primary stability but has less secondary stability. It can feel more tippy in choppy water. For more about primary and secondary stability read this.
On a sit-on-top kayak you will also get wet, not just from rain or splashing waves but also from water dripping off the paddles.
A sit-in kayak is easy to roll. If the boat capsizes you can easily right it topside. Your gear also remains protected in the sealed compartments.
If a sit-on-top kayak capsizes it is more difficult to right it and your gear will float away and get wet if it is not protected in waterproof bags.
A sit-in kayak is much easier to maneuver than a sit-on-top model especially if you are paddling over distances. A sit-on-top will tend to move in the direction of each paddle stoke, while a sit-in kayak will stay in a straight line.
Sit-in kayak best uses
Here is a list of the most common uses for a sit-in kayak:
- Ocean use
- Long journeys
- Whitewater river kayaking
- Surf kayaking
- Recreational cruising in all types of environments
Be aware that there is no one-boat-fits-all option available.
For example, a flat bottom recreational kayak is a very bad choice for whitewater use.
If you intend to boat in weather and water than are in any way challenging or you like to paddle over distances then a site-in kayak is the best choice over a sit-on-top one.
Sit-in kayak pros and cons
- You stay warmer
- You stay drier
- More versatile for different environments
- There is at least one sit-in kayak that is perfect for your intended environment
- Great travelers – long journeys, camping etc
- Gear is kept dry in sealed compartments
- Sleeker with lower center of gravity for great secondary stability
- Easy to maneuver and keep straight while paddling
- Very easy to “right” if capsized (you can easily roll a kayak)
- Gear will stay dry in waterproof compartment if kayak is rolled
- Harder to get in and out of
- Difficult or impossible to access gear while in the boat
- Limited storage
Sit-on-top kayak best uses
Here is a list of the most common uses for a sit-on-top kayak:
- Recreational use in calm waters and fair weather
- Group activities (multiple people on one boat)
- Boating with dogs (more on that here)
If you are a fair-weather-boater and love to take a boat out on calm water in good weather then a sit-on-top kayak would be a great choice for you. These boats are super fun and very comfortable and convenient to use.
Sit-on-top kayak pros and cons
- Easier to get in and out of
- Wider for better primary stability – enough stability to stand in them
- More storage
- More deck space
- Better for fishing and hunting
- Easy access to onboard stored gear
- More customizable
- Better for fishing, hunting etc
- Available as hybrid canoe-kayaks
- Great recreational vessel in calm water and good weather
- Not good for long journeys
- Access to certain environments is limited (such as turbulent open water and whitewater)
- Good only in calm water
- You are more likely to get wet
- You need to wrap gear in waterproof bags
- More difficult to keep straight when paddling
- More difficult to right if capsized
- Gear will get wet or could be lost if kayak capsizes
Making the final decision
Below are a few tables to help you see instantly which kayak type is best suited to specific applications and environments.
Be sure to also watch the video below that covers the main areas where sit-in kayaks differ from sit-on kayaks and how those differences affect performance and usability.
Quick view comparison tables
When reviewing the tables below please bear in mind that different types of sit-in kayaks have different and distinct advantages. The pros associated with sit-in kayaks in the tables below are pros for different types of kayak and not for a sit-in kayak in general (because there are different kayak types designed for different purposes).
For example, one of the tables below indicates that a kayak is suitable for use in the ocean, but this does not mean that any kayak can be used safely in the ocean; it means that there is a kayak available that has been specifically designed for ocean use. A leisure kayak is not suited to ocean use for example; you will need a sea or touring kayak for ocean kayaking.