Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak

So you’re thinking of entering into the exciting world of kayaking, but you don’t know the first thing about the sport. Well, to start with, you need to determine is what kind of kayak will best suit your needs.

Kayaks are divided into two main categories consisting of sit-on-top and sit-in designs. Each has a number of advantages and disadvantages over the other, depending on what type of activity you’re planning to do. So the first step is to work out which style will best suit your requirements.

Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak

So, let’s dive into this in-depth comparison of the Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak and find out which is the perfect one for you…

Sit On Top Kayaks

So, what features define a sit on top kayak from a sit in kayak? Well, as the name suggests, these Kayaks do not have an enclosed space or cockpit that you lower yourself into. Therefore, your body is always above the waterline rather than below the surface.

This makes it easier to clamber aboard in the likely event of capsizing. For this reason, this type of kayak is far more popular with beginners. Mainly because they don’t feel trapped in an enclosed space.

Sit-On-Top Kayaks
Photo by Peter Sandström

So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this design…

The Pros And Cons Of Sit On Top Kayaks


  • Sit-on-tops are the most user friendly, especially for beginners. They are easy to get in and out of, and there is no feeling of being trapped on them.
  • Sit-ons are, therefore, easier to master the basic kayaking techniques all beginners need to learn.
  • Stability – As the center of gravity is much higher with sit-on top kayaks. They are generally much wider than sit-ins. This makes them harder to capsize in calm conditions or when not paddling.
  • They’re also self-bailing, with small holes (called “scupper holes”) that allow the water to drain right through them. This is very useful in the event of a capsize.
  • It’s basically impossible to sink these kayaks due to the completely enclosed hull.
  • They are a great choice for warm environments where you’ll be getting wet.
  • The ease of access allows the choice to slip on and off as you please. This is, therefore, a great feature, especially if you have kids who love to swim.
  • The carrying capacity of sit on kayaks is a big plus. Most designs have an open ‘tank well’ in the stern, allowing the transport of bigger items. Making them very useful for recreational fishing trips.
  • Anglers and divers often prefer sit on’s due to the ease with which they can get on or off the kayak.


  • You are far more exposed to the elements with less protection from the sun and any waves crashing over the kayak. Any wind will also adversely affect sit-on-top’s as most of the kayak is above the surface.
  • Because of the wider beam design and subsequent increase in drag, it takes more energy to propel these kayaks forward. This makes them better suited to shorter trips or stationary fishing.
  • The wider beam design also means a longer paddle is required. A basic rule of kayaking is that the longer the paddle, the more energy is needed to propel your craft.
  • Maneuverability isn’t as good. This is due to the width and the inability of the paddler to wedge their knees against the hull of the kayak.
  • In rough conditions, the higher center of gravity provides less stability than sit ins, especially when turning or paddling.
  • With sit-ons, you are certain to get wet whilst paddling. While sit in kayaks, afford you a far drier experience. This generally isn’t a problem in warm conditions but makes a wetsuit essential in colder ones.
  • Sit on kayaks are overall less versatile in terms of the environments in which they can be used. They are more suited to recreational paddling on lakes, slow moving rivers, and calm coastal waters.

Sit-In Kayaks

So now you know about the pros and cons of sit on kayaks, let’s take a look at what differentiates them from the more versatile sit in kayaks.

Sit in kayaks are probably what comes to mind when you are thinking of a more traditional kayak. They can be specialized for different styles of kayaking and certain types of water. For example, touring, expedition, recreational, and white-water.

As the name indicates, the paddler’s lower body sits inside the hull of the kayak in what is called the cockpit. This means that the paddler is below the waterline, providing a lower center of gravity. Cockpits are enclosed with a spray skirt to stop water from entering the hull. They also have a narrower beam width than their on top counterparts.

However, it’s very important to practice getting in and out of the cockpit in the event of a capsize as beginners often feel a little trapped using sit-in kayaks.

Sit-In Kayaks
Photo by Rusty Clark

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of this design? Let’s take a look…

The Pros And Cons Of Sit-In Kayaks


  • Speed – Due to its narrower hull, a sit in kayak cuts through the water more efficiently, requiring less effort to achieve higher speeds. The paddler can also use a shorter paddle, which also increases the power of your strokes.
  • Maneuverability – The narrower hull combined with the ability to brace your knees, makes this kayak much easier to turn and increases the overall control the paddler has.
  • Stability – Due to the much lower center of gravity these kayaks possess, it makes them far more stable in rough seas. The paddler can also lean the kayak more easily when turning, thereby increasing efficiency.
  • Sit in kayaks are far more suited to longer journeys or expedition paddling over a number of days.
  • Exposure – The elements play far less of a role when using a sit in kayak. The lower half of your body isn’t exposed to the sun or water. Wind also plays less of a factor due to most of the kayak being below the waterline.
  • A spray skirt can be used to keep the lower part of your body completely dry and therefore warmer. This comes into its own in colder environments.
  • If your kayak has storage bulkheads, then you will have a lot more dry storage capability than a sit on kayak. Especially useful for longer expeditions.
  • Versatility – Sit in kayaks can be used in a wider variety of conditions and for more activities. The more extreme the weather and water conditions are, the better to use a sit in kayak.


  • The biggest disadvantage for beginners is the open cockpit design, which makes it much harder to get in and out of, especially in the event of a capsize. Many beginners initially feel confined within the cockpit and worry about their ability to escape when capsizing. Lots of practice is essential.
  • When a capsize occurs, water will invariably need to be pumped out of the hull using a hand or battery operated bilge pump. Obviously, this isn’t an issue with sit on kayaks.
  • It is possible to sink a sit in kayak in the event that the bulkhead hatch covers come off, although this would only occur in very heavy seas.
  • You have far less ability to move in and out of the water, so for activities such as diving, fishing, and swimming, they are less well suited.
  • Due to the lack of open deck storage space, sit in kayaks are restricted to carrying smaller items that can fit through the bulkhead hatches.

So Which Should You Choose In Our Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak Comparison?

There is no correct answer to this question. As we have seen, both types of kayak offer a range of pros and cons over the other. Your job is to choose the kayak that best suits your goals and experience level as a paddler.

As a beginner…

You are more likely to favor a sit on top kayak due to the ease of entry and stability in calm waters. If you’re planning on using your kayak for fishing trips, then a sit on is also preferable as you will be stationary most of the time.

Intermediate and more experienced paddlers…

Photo by Peter Sandström

Those who are looking for a faster and more maneuverable kayak will be better suited with a sit in design. These designs complement longer distance trips and even multi-day expeditions. If you are planning to venture further from the shore on multi-day trips, then a good touring kayak with storage and floatation bulkheads is what you should be looking at.

The best advice in the Sit On Top vs Sit In Kayak decision is to pick the kayak most suitable to the conditions you plan to experience most of the time, with some thought given to your ultimate goals as a paddler.

So What Are You Waiting For?

Remember that there’s a kayak out there for everyone, and with a little bit of homework and expert advice, you’ll be out on the water in no time.

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