Sit-on-Top or Sit-In Kayak: How To Decide Which is Right for You

If you love kayaking as much as I do, having your own boat means more freedom and opportunities to paddle. A kayak is a relatively expensive purchase though, and you want to be happy with what you buy. Unfortunately, no boat works for all conditions or all types of paddlers, and few people have the storage space to hold multiple types of kayaks. So, you’ll have to make some decisions on what length, material, and shape work best for you.

But choosing between a sit-in or a sit-on-top kayak will be one of the key decisions you make. To decide which kind is right for you, there are three main questions you’ll need to ask yourself: what kind of conditions will you be in, what’s your style of kayaking, and what kind of gear will you need to haul in your boat? But first, let’s discuss the difference between sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks.

The Difference Between Sit-In and Sit-On-Top Kayaks

A sit-in kayak (SI) is what you would think of as a typical kayak. The paddler climbs into a cockpit, which seats them at the waterline, and the frame of the boat partially covers their legs. If water gets into the cockpit, it will cause the boat to sink lower in the water. A sit-on-top (SOT) kayak differs from this design in that the boat is a completely sealed compartment, and the paddler sits on top of it. Since the boat itself is sealed, SOT kayaks are unsinkable, and they often have drainage holes to allow any water that collects on top of the boat to flow out.  Paddling.com  suggests that SOT kayaks are the most user-friendly style of boat and are ideal for beginners.

Sit on Top Kayak

A Sit on Top Kayak

Where are you paddling, and what are the conditions?

There’s just no way around it: you’re going to get wet in a SOT kayak. Even on flat water, splashes from your paddle strokes and water dripping off the end of paddle quickly lead to wet clothing. That’s not a problem if you’re paddling in tropical waters; getting wet might actually be a nice reprieve from the heat. However, if you’re kayaking in an alpine lake in October, those little drops of water could lead to hypothermia. SI kayaks are a much better choice if you know you’ll be paddling in colder climates, or you want to have a longer paddling season in temperate locations.

What’s your style of kayaking?

Do you prefer to leisurely paddle around a lake or quiet cove, or are you more interesting in island hopping in the open ocean or getting some serious distance running rivers? SOT kayaks place the paddler above the waterline, resulting in a higher center of gravity and a less efficient paddle stroke. That position can certainly be more comfortable, especially for larger paddlers who might feel constricted in a SI kayak’s cockpit, but paddling an SOT kayak is slower, and covering several miles this way will get tiring.

Are you interested in going for a swim during your paddle? SOT kayaks are much easier to get in and out of than their SI counterparts. If you hop out of an SI kayak to get in the water, getting back will probably require special equipment, like a paddle float, and a maneuver called a self-rescue.

Sit in Kayak

A Sit in Kayak

What kind of gear do you need to bring?

The kind of gear you need to transport is another important consideration when choosing your boat. SI kayaks have a sealed bulkhead, a semi-waterproof section in the rear of the boat. SOT kayaks usually lack this bulkhead, and have either a very small waterproof storage space or none at all. Do you intend to do any camping with this kayak? If so, you’ll want a SI kayak; a larger storage area will be necessary for keeping all your camping equipment dry. Nobody wants to paddle up to a campsite only to find that their sleeping bag is completely soaked; dry bags  aren’t foolproof either.

On the other hand, if fishing or scuba diving  is more your style, an SOT kayak would be better. Equipment for those activities is meant to get wet, so the advantages of an SI kayak’s sealed bulkhead are moot. Additionally, fishing in an SI kayak can feel claustrophobic, and setting a hook is much easier when you have the range of motion available in an SOT kayak. Further, the bulky equipment needed for scuba diving makes the open cargo area of the SOT kayak a necessity – there’s no way you’ll be able to retrieve a full air tank from the rear bulkhead of an SI kayak without a burst of words that aren’t fit for print.

A Final Note

When it comes down to it, the biggest consideration is: how dry do you want you and your gear to be? While SI kayaks are more standard, the SOT option is great for people paddling in warm waters who don’t mind getting a little wet, or who are hauling gear that doesn’t have to stay dry. They’re also better for individuals who aren’t trying to paddle great distances or prefer the comfort of an open seating position. SI kayaks are a better choice for anyone planning to paddle long distances or needing waterproof storage. Finally, price is always another consideration, and SOT kayaks are less expensive than similar quality SI kayaks because of their small shipping volume. Once you consider these factors, you’ll be able to choose between a sit-in or sit-on-top kayak and make the best decision for you.

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About the author

Ian Waterman

Ian Waterman Here, my true passions in life are all things water related like kayaking, fishing and most water sports. I love being outdoors and trying new things. Some of my fondest memories are camping as a small boy and fishing with my family

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