Sit-on-top (SOT) and sit-in kayak (SIK) are two basic kayak styles designed for different purposes. While there are several differences between sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks, there are also a number of similarities. For both styles, the top of a kayak is called the deck, the front is called bow, the back called stern and the bottom called hull. And for both, the deck usually has bungees or deck lines, the stern usually has rudders, skegs and grab loops, and both kayak styles also have some form of seats and some kind of foot support (foot pedal or foot wells).
So what’s the difference between a sit-on-top and a sit-inside kayak?
Sit-on-top (SOT) kayak
Similar to the surfboard and typically used for leisure, a sit-on-top kayak is designed to allow a paddler to sit on the deck and has no “inside” column for the paddler to occupy. In fact, the only inward access in a SOT are the storage hatch openings, while everything else, including the seat and the foot wells, are rigged on the deck. It’s quite hard to remain dry when paddling a sit-on-top as each riffle, splash or wave easily reaches the paddler who is patched on top of the kayak, since there is no “real” cockpit to shield the paddler.
A SOT has a seat located on top of the boat where the kayaker sits, while tiny drain holes (scupper holes) at the bottom help drain water that splashes onto the deck. The scupper holes can be covered and blocked with the self-bailing scupper plugs in order to keep water splashes from getting up from underwater onto the deck through the holes, resulting in a drier ride.
Pros and cons of SOT kayaks
- SOT is user-friendly, very stable, quite easy to get inside and outside, and has no feeling of confinement. You slip on and off a SOT as you like.
- SOT is virtually unsinkable. If it tips over, it won’t sink, and you can just flip it over and get back on it with ease. The self-bailing scupper holes mean the water that gets in can be quickly drained out through the holes.
- SOT allows easier access to gear by offering a lot of storage space. You won’t struggle to reach your gear as is common with sit-inside kayaks.
- They are more comfortable for larger people because they have open cockpits and wide decks, which make them more stable and easier to use than SIKs.
- 5Less expensive than SIK because they are thinner, made of fewer materials and are easier to ship than SIK.
- SOT is an easier way to get on water and enjoy surfing, scuba diving or just paddling in warm environments. They are ideal for nervous paddlers and for kayaking with kids who like swimming.
- You are guaranteed to get wet as soon as you get on water with SOT, as opposed to a SIK that allows a paddler to stay dry.
Sit-Inside Kayak (SIK)
A sit-inside kayak is enclosed and has a sitting area called the cockpit. The cockpit is surrounded by a rim where a spray skirt can be attached to keep water out. In the cockpit is a seat and foot pedals, which you can adjust to your leg length for more comfortable paddling. The cockpit also may have a backrest, armrest, cup holder and an adjustable footrest for more comfort.
When using a sit-inside kayak, you climb into the open cockpit, sit inside the hull with your legs under the deck, and brace your knees off the walls. You then wear the spray skirt around your waist and tighten its cloth-piece to stretch the skirt material around the cockpit’s rim, closing the hull’s interior. The spray skirt will prevent water from splashing into the boat and reaching your legs, enabling you to stay dry provided you don’t flip the kayak. For this reason, a SIK is ideal for cold weather kayaking or for paddling in areas with shorter summer seasons.
Pros and cons of SIK
- You remain dry and out of reach of water because the cockpit is enclosed to stop water from splashing into the kayak. There are also no drain holes at the bottom, so the entire cockpit remains dry.
- More secondary stability than SOT because the cockpit is located inside the kayak, keeping you on the water line and with less risk of tipping over.
- More storage areas than in a SOT. If you intend to go for camping or longer fishing trips, a SIK is ideal because it has more storage areas for your gear.
- You have no freedom to move freely in and out of water.
- If a SIK flips over, you will have to swim to the shore to drain it out.
Which is more stable, a Sit-On-Top or a Sit-Inside Kayak?
The stability of any kayak depends on its design factors such as size, hull type, boat length and material, among others. But since sit-on-top kayaks generally have higher center of gravity than sit-inside kayaks, they are typically much wider with higher degree of initial (primary) stability than sit-inside kayaks. And because of their closed hull design, sit-on-tops are literally unsinkable, although they also come with self-bailing scupper holes to drain out water in case they tip over accidentally.
Because of their significantly lower center of gravity compared to sit-on-top kayaks, sit-inside kayaks have a higher secondary stability, which enables paddlers to lean and turn more efficiently and even remain upright when paddling in the rough seas. The lower center of gravity also ensures that sit-inside kayaks can be much narrower and much faster than sit-on-top kayaks. For this reason, sit-inside kayaks travel quicker with less effort and are ideal for expedition paddling and long-range day paddling.
In terms of boat length, the narrower and longer the boat the less stable and much faster it travels, while the wider and shorter the boat, the more stable and less fast it travels. So when you are considering whether to buy a sit-on-top or a sit-in kayak, make sure to choose a kayak with the length that will offer your desired speed and stability. Generally, sit-on-top kayaks are used as recreational kayaks because they are wider and more stable than sit-inside kayaks of the same length.
Nevertheless, some sit-inside kayaks are also often designed specifically for recreation as opposed to their sea kayaking (touring) counterparts. Such recreational sit-insides are typically wider, shorter boats with big cockpits, making them less confining. Recreational sit-inside kayaks have more or less the same stability as sit-on-top kayaks of similar length. In contrast, touring (sea) sit-inside kayaks are usually longer, narrower with smaller cockpits, so they are less stable than sit-on-tops, though they are easier to get out of and travel a lot faster. Choose a shorter, more stable kayak if speed is not essential to you, but go with a longer, narrower, less stable kayak if you desire more speed.
The material and weight of a kayak is also critical. While most kayaks are low-maintenance hard shells made of durable plastics, some are made of composite materials such as Kevlar, carbon and fiberglass, so they are much lighter but don’t take much abuse. There are also inflatable kayaks that can be folded, deflated or rolled up and actually carried in backpacks. Inflatable kayaks are made of coated fabrics and are quite durable, versatile and comfortable, but are not as fast-paced as hard-shell kayaks.
Which Should You Choose
A lot depends on what you want to do with your kayak and on your personal preferences. Generally, for camping trips and recreational paddling, a sit-inside kayak will serve you well. For scuba diving, fishing and surfing, sit-on-top kayaks are great. Also think of whether the water will be warm or cold, the speed at which you want to move and whether you will paddle in a sheltered or open river, lake or coastline. Eventually, the choice is yours, for there are fishermen who favor sit-insides and camping enthusiasts who prefer sit-on-tops.
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- Paddling.com. (2014). Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-Inside Kayaks. Retrieved from https://paddling.com/learn/sit-on-top-vs-sit-inside-kayaks/