Several months ago I wrote a companion article revealing 17 Reasons to Choose a Sit-on-Top Kayak to assist newbies in their decision-making process. I provided clues to those beginner kayakers to help them decide which type of kayak they might shoot for.
Again, every kayaker will face the same problems. When you decide you want to buy a new kayak, you’re confronted by seemingly endless styles, designs, and functions to choose from. Choose a wide boat for stability? A long boat for speed? Or a shorter boat for play and tricks? Some kayaks you Sit-on-Top, some are Sit-Inside. How do you decide which is best for you?
Having already presented many very good reasons to get a Sit-on-Top kayak, I’m now going to discuss many very good reasons you might want to get a Sit-In Kayak. Read this article as part of your own research into the differences and possibilities. I hope this will assist you in your decision-making process.
Based on my experience and research, here is my list of 17 equally good reasons to choose a Sit-In kayak that you might want to know:
Sit-on-Top’s are wet. With the open flat surface and scupper holes on a Sit-on-Top, it’s assumed that you’re going to get wet. It’s called a sit on top because you the hull is closed and you sit on top of it. With every little wave or change of direction, water is sure to splash over the top or come up through the scupper holes. It’s all part of the fun.
With a Sit-In kayak, the hull is open with a hole on top called the cockpit in which you sit inside. You sit enclosed within the hull. Like being in a canoe, the sides protect you from small waves. Wearing a cockpit cover or a spray skirt will keep the interior of a Sit-In kayak dry with larger surf and waves, even during capsizing.
Besides keeping you dryer, this enclosed sit inside feature is responsible for several other positive features
Many rivers are created from snow melt. Some are from dam releases which cause the temperature of the water to be colder even during the summer months. It’s difficult to stay warm on these rivers paddling a Sit-on-Top because you are always exposed to the cold water.
Sitting inside the kayak helps protect you from the cold and lets you paddle in places a Sit-on-Top would be uncomfortably cold and wet.
During the summer months when the air temperature is in the 80’s, it doesn’t matter that much if the water temperature is cold because you will warm quickly in the air. But when the air temperature gets cooler from late Fall to late Spring, a Sit-on-Top will do little to protect you and keep you warm, limiting the practical season to the summer months.
Because a Sit-In kayak helps protect you from the wind and cold water, you are able to paddle year-round with the proper dry or wetsuit. The rule of thumb is that if the air temp + water temp is <120 degrees, protective gear is necessary because hypothermia is a real issue. With a drysuit, I’ve been quite toasty paddling a scenic winter wonderland down to about 30 degrees air temp.
Because the lower half of your body is enclosed inside the hull of a Sit-In kayak, you are better protected from cold, wind, sun, and rocks than if you were sitting totally exposed on top of a kayak. Having your bottom half enclosed within the hull of a Sit-In kayak will keep you warmer because you are less exposed.
While may be easier to slide onto a Sit-on-Top kayak, it’s also easier to slide off of one.
Some might worry that a Sit-In kayak offers too much protection and feel claustrophobic by being enclosed by a sprayskirt. It only takes a single practice wet exit to assure yourself that getting out of a Sit-In kayak is very easy because gravity does most of the work for you.
Your choice of kayaks will be led by your primary intention of use.
There are Sit-In kayaks for fishing and recreational use. There are Sit-In kayaks for touring, rodeo, river running, and creeking. Each design tweaks the boat in different ways for greater efficiency for its intended use.
A touring kayak will be long and slender. A play boat will be short and stubby. Creekers will have greater bow rocker and more volume. River runners will be somewhere in between. Each year, new and better designs are developed.
Happily, some boats are more versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes. Called hybrids, you can think of them as the SUV’s of kayaks. But if you become an enthusiast, you will undoubtedly end up with several kayaks in your arsenal. I’m down to 4, but looking for another. Hopefully, you have enough room in your garage or shed!
Lower Center of Gravity
Because you sit inside the hull rather than on top of it, your center of gravity is lower in a si kayak. The lower your center of gravity is, the greater your stability is. Sit-on-Top’s try to compensate by being generally wider. But sitting lower also means you’ll be less affected by wind.
Sitting lower also means your paddle is closer to the water making a Sit-In kayak more efficient to paddle. Your strokes can be more vertical and go deeper to purchase more water giving you greater control and maneuverability. It’s more difficult to paddle efficiently from a Sit-on-Top because it is higher and wider which causes your strokes to be more sweeping.
Greater Boat Control
While having greater control is partly a function of the lower center of gravity, other factors such are involved such as narrower design, more efficient paddling, and boat length that merit giving greater boat control its own unique advantage.
The greater boat control of a Sit-In kayak enables you to tack easier (go in a straight line) , steer easier, and gives you greater turning power. The difference between paddling a Sit-on-Top versus a Sit-In kayak could be seen as similar to the difference to driving a bus/truck/tank versus a sports car.
Because they are wider and heavier, a Sit-on-Top kayak is more cumbersome to paddle. A Sit-In kayak is longer and more slender being built for speed and maneuverability. Touring kayaks, in particular, are very long and slender to cover greater distances much quicker than possible with a Sit-on-Top kayak.
If your fishing or enjoying a float on a lake, speed is not much of an issue. But if you’re traveling any distance on a river or on flatwater, you will appreciate being able to get to your destination quicker. Speed is required on whitewater in order to read and run the river to avoid holes and obstacles in a hurry.
Unless your sole purpose is to use a Sit-on-Top as a snorkeling platform or for stand up fishing, a Sit-In kayak is more versatile because they can go not only wherever a Sit-In kayak can go, but also on rivers Class II and above were a Sit-on-Top would not be appropriate.
While the design of many Sit-In kayaks is purpose specific, many are designed to be multi-purpose kayaks which work great in many different locations. You will see these advertised with terms such as the SUV of kayaks, or the 4×4’s of kayaks.
I should mention here that recreational Sit-In kayaks are more similar to Sit-on-Top kayaks in terms of function. They are different from whitewater kayaks and are more limited in their use as they are intended for more moderate currents and not whitewater. So if your intent is to run rivers, don’t invest in a rec kayak.
More Storage Space
Storage space is minimal on a Sit-on-Top kayak. Although there might be places to stack gear, everything must be tied down to secure it to keep it from falling off the kayak.
Because the hull of a Sit-In kayak is enclosed, it creates spaces in which gear can be stored. Some kayaks, particularly touring kayaks are built with holds and waterproof hatches to store food and camping gear.
Smaller Sit-In kayaks can use that space for flotation, which decreases the volume of water that can get into the boat in addition to having space to store a dry bag for your lunch.
A Sit-on-Top has an enclosed hull, is generally wider for stability, and made of thicker material. This makes them also heavier than a Sit-In Kayak. The kayak weight isn’t so much a factor while you’re on the water, it’s getting there that’s the issue. Often you can’t park right next to the water and sometimes it may require a lengthy carry, maybe even a few miles.
There’s also the possibility that you’ll have to portage around fallen trees or too intense rapids which means you’ll have to carry the boat over often difficult terrain. Getting the kayak on and off your vehicle to shuttle it to or from the water also makes weight an issue. You’ll be glad to have a lighter kayak, particularly if you have to do it by yourself.
Easier to Carry
A Sit-on-Top kayak is generally bulky and best carried by two people, one at each end or simply dragged leaving one end on the ground. Sit-on-Top kayaks are usually bulkier and heavier. While Sit-In kayaks can also be carried by two people, they are generally lighter, and the cockpit hole in the center makes it easier for a single person to carry. You are generally expected to be able to carry your own boat. See Carrying your Kayak for a good discussion.
Make sure to drain the water out of the kayak first by standing it up on end if it has a drain plug. You can also turn the kayak over to drain the water. This will ensure that you only have to carry the least possible weight.
The most common method to carry a Sit-In kayak is to hoist the kayak up so that the cockpit is rested and balanced on the shoulder. With some practice, you’ll find just the right spot and balance. Sometimes the rim of the cockpit can feel like it’s cutting into your shoulder, so you may have to stop to adjust its position. You may be able to sit some of the kayaks on your hip to better distribute the weight and take some pressure off the shoulder. Some people carry a sponge that they can use both to mop up water that may get inside the boat while they’re paddling and to use as a pad for their shoulder when they carry the boat.
While one hand holds the kayak on your shoulder gripping the rim of the cockpit or a handhold built into the center foam brace, the other hand is free to carry your paddle. A good article that goes into further description can be found at Learn to Lift, Carry, and Load your own Kayak
Another style is to stand the kayak upside down and carry it kayak on your back, with the weight supported by your head in the cockpit using the back seat brace as a sling.
Better Back Support
When you paddle a Sit-on-Top you sit on the molded seat or perhaps a padded seat. Back support is minimal which can cause fatigue and back discomfort after a few hours of paddling. Although you can buy backrests that attach to the Sit-on-Top, they tend to be flimsy as they are held in place by straps.
Because you sit down inside a Sit-In kayak, the seating is incorporated into the boat so the backrest is generally higher on your lower back than with a Sit-on-Top kayak. The backrest is often adjustable, sometimes with a ratchet system so that you can adjust it from within while you’re paddling. Sit-In kayaks are outfitted to make you snug in the boat which gives you greater support, although it may be necessary to get out and stretch your legs every now and then!
Like most things in life, kayaking has a learning curve. Most people, I think, like to remain challenged to progress. Chances are the better you get, the more you will want to “step up” your game to explore the more difficult territory, greater thrills, more adventures.
The learning curve is not that step. You can very quickly advance from beginner to novice and then to solid intermediate where many people stay. While big water, steep creeks, and waterfalls looking exciting, the truth is that only a small percentage make it that far.
That means, unless you are forever content to paddle flatwater, you will quickly outgrow a Sit-on-Top. Chances are you will want to try to paddle with some current, which means stepping up to whitewater.
I never imagined I would be the type to paddle whitewater, yet here I am, a solid intermediate quite comfortable on Class III rivers, which means the occasional heart-stopping experience of Class IV.
Once you master the combat roll, your confidence and skill increases quickly and dramatically.
But guess what? You can’t advance very far with a Sit-on-Top. Whether you sell it or keep it for friends and family, you will too quickly decide you need a Sit-In Kayak. Since the learning curve is short, why not just start with a Sit-Inside?
Have you ever tried to meditate? You notice at first how the mind starts to wander. Problems, stress, past experiences, future worries, all collaborate to distract us throughout the day, raising our blood pressure, and causing depression and anxiety.
Kayaking will help you to focus your mind by making you live in the moment.
When you’re surfing that wave or riding through that rapid, you become totally absorbed by the moment. You are so focused on that next stroke, the next maneuver, the next wave that nothing else is relevant. I sometimes have to remind myself to breathe!
Such attentiveness is difficult to attain with a Sit-on-Top because you’re more limited to lesser rivers where there’s still plenty of excitement, but not as much as the places you can go with a Sit-In Kayak.
Oneness with the Boat
The ZEN of kayaking. With a rowboat, a Sit-on-Top, a canoe, or an inflatable, you will always be a passenger. With a si the idea is fit snugly so the boat is responsive to hip movements, thigh thrusts, and twisting torsos.
You become One with the kayak so that it responds to your movements as if it were an extension of self. Your connection to the river is more personal and intimate. Your Sit-In kayak responds in ways a Sit-on-Top cannot.
Ultimately, you may come to understand this oneness with the river, navigating the currents and the eddies, avoiding or dealing with the obstacles, with your community of fellow paddlers as a life metaphor. The skills and confidence you learn will help make you a better person and will prove beneficial to other areas of your life. See The Zen of Paddling.
Fun, for kayakers, is the excitement and enjoyment of being on the water, being immersed in nature. I have to tell you that paddling with even a little bit of current gives an additional adrenaline rush that will have you hooked on improving your skills to paddle more challenging rivers, enjoying a special bond of camaraderie with your fellow paddlers.
You will still enjoy the flora and the fauna from the eddys between rapids. But on the rapids, you will enter another realm devoid of time and distraction where you can feel alive and totally live in the moment.
There are many reasons to choose a Sit-In Kayak. Most full-time kayakers end up with multiple kayaks in their collection. But since the learning curve is relatively short, there is a good reason to begin with a kayak you can continue to paddle as your skills increase commensurate with the challenges.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve found this post helpful or would like to share an opinion of your own, please continue the discussion in the comment section below.