There are a lot of different kayak models out there. Just in the fishing kayak market there are over 250 different models that range from 9′ kid boats to 17′ pro fishing tandems. Every kayak, even the hybrids, can be broken down into two different categories: Sit-On-Top Kayaks (SOT) and Sit-Inside (SIS) kayaks. These classifications describe the paddler’s position relative to the water and have a massive influence on the vessel’s hydrodynamics and performance.
There are pros and cons to each type as well as some practical safety considerations worth taking into account. At the end of this article you should be well versed on the difference between these two kayak types and better prepared for the next time you peruse the classifieds for a new boat.
Sit-inside kayaks are the old school progenitor to all modern kayaks. Before there were sit on tops, paddleboards, or hybrid canoe/kayaks, there were sit-inside kayaks. Inuit hunters originally designed the sit inside to be a lightweight and fast vessel to hunt seals. And, beside the seal clubbing part, that’s largely the niche they fill today.
Sit-Inside Kayaks are easily recognized, as well as defined, by the paddler’s seat orientation. The paddler sit’s inside the kayak with their waist even with the waterline. The hull encapsulates the paddler around the seat to form a cockpit. Sit Inside’s are typically long and narrow. The skinny beam allows paddlers to stroke the water at a steeper angle which yields more thrust and better handling. This powerful stroke mechanism, combined with a narrow body, grants paddlers more speed, control, and endurance on the water.
Superior handling and endurance makes sit-inside kayaks great for a multitude of applications. They’re nimble enough to navigate whitewater rapids. And efficient enough for endurance treks and touring. Sharp-entry mono hulls and a slim beam permit sea-kayaks to slice through the waves to overcome rougher waters.
If sit-inside kayaks are sports cars then sit-on-top kayaks are like a Soccer-Mom’s minivan. These fat bottom boats trade speed and agility for comfort and stability. Paddlers in sit-on-top kayaks sit well above the waterline. Depending on seat style and position a paddlers waist can be between just a few inches to almost two feet above the water. This higher position is great for extra comfort and visibility, but raises the center of gravity, which in turn makes the boat inherently unstable.
To compensate most sit-on-top kayaks feature a wider beam and a catamaran or trimaran style hull. These hulls feature multiple chines that provide lateral stability; meaning you’re far less likely to tip over the side. Extra stability also makes it much easier to stand up, which is a huge plus for fishermen, or anybody wanting to stretch their legs.
Since the paddler is no longer enclosed by the walls of the kayak extra material is needed to form the upper deck. The inner sealed cavity provides additional buoyancy and optional storage in most cases. But it also translates into a lot of extra weight. For this reason sit-on-top kayaks tend to be heavier, more durable, and less prone to sinking. The interior cavity conveniently doubles as built-in buoyancy. These aren’t the type of boats you want to portage without a sturdy set of wheels, or a capable friend.
Pros and Cons
Both SIS and SOT kayaks have their own strengths and weaknesses. And these depend heavily on an individual craft’s unique characteristics. Manufacturers are constantly blurring lines with innovative designs and hybrid approaches. There are sit-inside kayaks you can stand in and sit-on-top kayaks that can easily outpace their mono-hull brethren. The following considerations are broadly applicable, but may not be necessarily true for every boat. Just something to keep in mind.
Getting into a kayak and onto the water gracefully can be a bit of a challenge, doubly so if you’re no spring chicken. Sit-inside kayaks tend to be much easier to roll due to their mono-hull structure and low center of gravity. The wider beam and flatter shape of SOT kayaks benefits them greatly during on-boarding. They’re much less prone to rolling and extra stability makes it possible, with some craft, to simply step aboard.
Seating position plays a critical factor here as well. Getting “on and in” to a boat is a lot more complicated than just getting “on”. So if you’re overly concerned about embarkation than consider opting for a sit-on-top.
If you kayak long enough eventually you’re going to flip your boat. It’s simply a truth of kayaking. When that happens the first thing to do is get back in the boat; which often times is easier said than done. SIS kayaks are notoriously difficult to re-enter on the water. It is possible to do it unassisted – but that’s a skill that requires a fair amount of athleticism, skill, and talent. With a friend holding the sit-inside kayak in place it’s far easier to clamber aboard, but still takes a lot of effort to get re-situated.
Sit-on-top kayaks still aren’t a walk in the park to get back on. But it’s a lot easier than a sit-in. Edge buoyancy on wider trimaran hull style kayaks is much higher than on a mono-hull. Pushing down on the edge causes the edge to push back against you, instead of just going straight into the water. It’ll never be as easy as getting out of a pool, but SOT kayaks tend to be more forgiving than SIS.
Lastly sit-inside kayaks are much easier to sink. SOT kayaks generally have a sealed (or semi sealed) interior hull that is great at trapping air and providing buoyancy. SIS kayaks have a big cockpit hole in the middle – which makes for easy sinking. Bilge pumps and spray skirts work great to keep water out. But if you don’t recover a capsize quickly there’s a fair chance you’ll be looking for a new boat.
The fastest kayaks in the world are insanely skinny, lightweight, and streamlined. The boats used in the Olympic Canoe Sprint look like a arrow slashing through the water. As you may have guessed the winner in this category is the sit-inside kayak. When it comes to speed sit-on-top kayaks can’t hold a candle to their streamlined cousins. As a general rule of thumb sit-inside kayaks will always be faster.
For this reason touring kayaks are almost always sit-inside. If you’re trying to cover a lot of ground each day it’s far easier to do so with a with a mono-hull, lightweight kayak, rather than a stocky wide-bodied boat.
Successfully navigating any body of water is an acquired skill. But, there’s a pretty big difference between paddling across a lake and running class 5 rapids. Sit Inside Kayaks lower center of gravity and form fitting cockpits connect the paddler to the kayak; almost making it an extension of the body rather than a separate vessel. Thighs braced against the hull and hips locked against the sidewall offer far superior connection and feel than any sort of SOT chair can offer.
Simply put no SOT kayak will ever offer the level of control that a SIS kayak can. Turning on a dime isn’t a big deal for most paddlers. But if you’re keen on running down rivers or romping in the surf then a SIS kayak is the way to go. Superior control and feel make sit-inside kayaks the obvious choice for whitewater applications. Specialized whitewater kayaks can quickly turn out of a jam for rapid recovery. Something mostly impossible to do in a sit-on-top.
While SIS kayaks offer unparalleled levels of control; it comes at a cost. Paddling in a Sit Inside can be relaxing, but it’s a much more active experience than what a lot of SOT’s can offer. Strapping into a SIS can be a lot like sitting coach in an airplane. It’s bearable, but not something you want to do for more than a few hours. Higher end sit-inside kayak models address this issue with strategically placed foam and ergonomic seats. Still not business class though.
Sit On Tops superior stability and extra space are huge advantages for a comfy ride. With a lawn-chair style seat and an open cockpit it’s easy to stretch out and move around. And in a lot of sit-on-top yaks it’s possible to stand up, which is hugely important. Being able to stand up and flex your legs is a monster benefit for long term treks. There are some SIS kayaks that permit standing, but they’re few and far between.
One of the key determinants in the price of any good is the amount of material used in production. Sit-on-top kayaks require a lot more plastic since there’s an encapsulating top deck. And as such they’re usually more expensive. On top of extra material SOT kayaks can be (and usually are) outfitted with extra luxuries. Lawn-chair style seating, center consoles, gear track, and more all require substantially more labor and parts, driving up cost.
Sit Inside kayaks are typically simpler machines and usually more affordable than their SOT brethren. Specialized models made for long distance touring or running whitewater can add a few cents to the sticker. But for the most part a plastic sit-inside kayak will be cheaper than a plastic sit on top.
Overview on Sit-Inside vs. Sit-on-top Kayaks
If you’re still on the fence about which type of kayak to go for ask yourself one simple question? Are you going kayaking for the sake of kayaking? Or are you using a kayak as a means to another end (i.e. fishing, birding etc.). If you answered yes to the first question; than a sit-inside kayak is probably the best for you. Yes to question 2, and grab yourself a sit-on-top. Regardless of your choice be sure to have fun and be safe!