top of page

Kayak Types Showdown: Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-Inside – Which Is Better?

Updated: Aug 2, 2023


Struggling with the decision between an inflatable or hardshell kayak? Check out our comprehensive comparison in Inflatable vs. Hardshell Kayaks: Which Is the Ultimate Choice

Introduction to Kayaking

Kayaking, an activity that brings you face-to-face with the diverse moods of water, is more than just a pastime – it's an immersive experience that engulfs you with a sense of freedom and exploration. Whether it's the exhilarating rush of skimming across a lively river or the peaceful meandering in serene lakes, kayaking offers an assortment of experiences that can stir the soul of adventurers and nature lovers alike.

At the heart of this thrilling activity is the humble kayak, a vessel designed for agility, control, and versatility. Kayaking allows you to tap into the unpredictable, yet liberating character of water, truly serving as a testament to mankind's undying spirit of exploration and adventure. Be it tackling challenging rapids, exploring coastal ecosystems, or simply enjoying a tranquil sunset, the appeal of kayaking lies in its diversity.

Even as we navigate through the intricate world of kayak designs, particularly the sit-on-top vs. sit-inside kayaks debate, it's crucial to recognize the core essence of kayaking. This isn't just about choosing a watercraft but about finding a reliable companion for your aquatic adventures. However, to truly appreciate the subtleties of modern kayaking, we must first paddle back in time to understand the origin and evolution of kayaking.

A journey that takes us back thousands of years, to when humans first attempted to ride the unbridled power of water. So, grab your paddles as we embark on this journey through the riveting world of kayaking!

When you have made a decision, we have reviewed several of the best kayaks on the market today:

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Embarking on a journey with sit-on-top kayaks is like sitting on a floating deck that offers you unobstructed access to the waters around you. These distinct watercraft, as their name clearly suggests, are designed with a sealed hull, over which the seating arrangement is conspicuously positioned.

The design and build of these kayaks encourage an open experience, a perfect companion for those looking to freely engage with their surrounding waterscape.

Features of Sit-On-Top Kayaks

The allure of sit-on-top kayaks lies in their unique set of features. They're characterized by a user-friendly design that places comfort and accessibility at its core. One of the standout features of sit-on-top kayaks is the incorporation of self-bailing holes, also known as scupper holes.

Scupper holes are essentially drain outlets strategically located along the deck of the kayak. Whenever water splashes onto the deck, be it from a paddle stroke or a wave, these scupper holes ensure that the water doesn't collect on your kayak. Instead, it drains right back out into the body of water you're navigating, keeping your kayak buoyant and your experience enjoyable.

To help you understand better, here's a detailed look at the key features of sit-on-top kayaks:

Advantages of Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Let's plunge into the benefits of sit-on-top kayaks, shall we? To me, these kayaks feel like the welcoming friends of the aquatic world. They extend an open invitation to anyone interested in a refreshing dalliance with water, making them an ideal choice for beginners and casual paddlers.

Their user-friendly design, marked by the ease of boarding and disembarking, has been a game-changer for many, including myself.

I remember my first kayaking adventure like it was yesterday. My hands trembled slightly with a mix of excitement and nervousness as I climbed onto a sit-on-top kayak.

The stability of the vessel was reassuring, its forgiving nature evident in the way it remained steady, almost as if comforting a newbie like me. The openness of the design made me feel connected to my surroundings rather than confined, further enhancing my experience. From that moment, I knew kayaking would become an integral part of my outdoor pursuits.

Moreover, the virtually unsinkable nature of sit-on-top kayaks, courtesy of their sealed hulls and self-bailing design, makes them a safe choice for families, leisure paddlers, and anglers. Plus, their ample storage space is a boon for kayak fishermen and picnickers alike!

Drawbacks of Sit-On-Top Kayaks

tipping kayak

Safety on the water should be a priority for all kayakers. Brush up on essential safety rules with our guide, Kayak Safety 101: 9 Essential Rules You Can't Ignore!

However, it's not all smooth sailing with sit-on-top kayaks. They do have their fair share of quirks that may not sit well with everyone. Due to the elevated seating position, these kayaks can be more susceptible to wind, sometimes making control and steering a bit challenging, especially on breezy days.

Moreover, the open design, while liberating, can leave you exposed to the splashes of your aquatic escapades. This isn't much of a concern when you're paddling in balmy weather or warm water. However, in colder climates, where the chilly water might be less than welcoming, you might find yourself longing for the sheltered comfort of a sit-inside kayak.

Like every adventure, kayaking is about weighing the pros and cons and finding the right fit for your unique needs and circumstances.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

While sit-on-top kayaks celebrate openness and accessibility, sit-inside kayaks embody a different philosophy. They stand as stalwarts of tradition in the kayak world, harkening back to the origins of this water sport and representing the conventional, time-honored design where paddlers sit inside the kayak hull. They offer an intimate connection to the water, fostering a unique kinship between the paddler and the aquatic realm.

Features of Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks come with their own set of defining features, led by their characteristic enclosed design. Unlike their sit-on-top counterparts, these kayaks come with a cockpit – an enclosed seating area that shelters the paddler from the direct splashes of water.

One key feature of these kayaks is the option to attach a spray skirt. For those unfamiliar with this term, a spray skirt is essentially a flexible cover that paddlers can use to seal the area around their waist and the kayak's cockpit. This ingenious accessory works wonders in preventing water from entering the kayak, keeping both the paddler and the cockpit dry even in choppier waters.

Here's a summary of sit-inside kayaks' features:

The choice between a sit-on-top and a sit-inside kayak can often be likened to choosing between a comfortable cruiser bike and a high-performance racing bike. While the former welcomes you with open arms, the latter entices you with the promise of speed, agility, and the thrill of mastering a skill.

Advantages of Sit-Inside Kayaks

man in kayak with dog

Planning to take your furry friend along on your next water adventure? Don't forget to read our guide, Kayak with Your Furry Friend: A Guide to Pet-Friendly Water Adventures!, which includes dog-friendly kayaking locations and tips.

Sit-inside kayaks, with their streamlined design and lower center of gravity, are known to deliver superior speed and agility on water. This makes them a favored choice among many seasoned paddlers and adventure seekers. I still remember the adrenaline rush from the first time I paddled a sit-inside kayak through rapids. The kayak seemed to respond to every stroke with a precision that made me feel like a true master of the waves.

Moreover, sitting inside the hull, you're closer to the water, which allows for efficient paddling and the potential for quicker navigation. Plus, the enclosed design offers better protection against the elements - wind, splashes, or even an unexpected rain shower.

Drawbacks of Sit-Inside Kayaks

However, with power comes responsibility. The performance advantages of sit-inside kayaks come hand in hand with a steeper learning curve. Mastering the techniques of maneuvering and balancing these kayaks may require more practice compared to their sit-on-top counterparts.

And then there's the matter of safety. In the event of a capsize, the risk of getting trapped inside a sit-inside kayak is higher. I must emphasize, though, that with proper training in self-rescue techniques, this risk can be significantly minimized. And for those with a zest for learning new skills, mastering a wet exit can be an exciting addition to your kayaking repertoire.

The decision between sit-on-top and sit-inside often comes down to personal preference, the conditions you'll be kayaking in, and the type of experience you seek.

The decision between a sit-on-top and a sit-inside kayak is not unlike the classic "apples or oranges" debate. Each brings its own flavors to the table, and the best choice depends on your personal taste, as well as the "climate" of your intended use - both in terms of physical weather conditions and the nature of your kayaking experience.

Comfort and Ease of Use

Sit-on-top kayaks are the ambassadors of comfort and ease in the kayaking world. Their open design, stability, and the ability to get on and off effortlessly make them a favorite among beginners, occasional paddlers, and those who value simplicity and convenience.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association's 2018 report, 54.6% of new participants preferred sit-on-top kayaks for their first kayaking experience.

Sit-inside kayaks, on the other hand, may require a bit more skill and practice to master. But once you've got the hang of it, they offer better control and responsiveness, making them popular among experienced paddlers and thrill-seekers.

Safety and Stability


To enhance your skills on the water, you might want to check out our guide on Paddle Like a Pro: 5 Expert Kayaking Techniques You Need to Know! where you'll find invaluable advice on advanced kayaking techniques and tips.

Safety is a paramount concern in any water sport, and kayaking is no exception. Both sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks have their safety features and concerns.

The risk of entrapment in sit-inside kayaks can be daunting for some, especially without proper training. However, it's worth noting that courses and workshops teaching self-rescue techniques can significantly mitigate this risk.

Sit-on-top kayaks, being virtually unsinkable and easy to reboard, provide a worry-free solution to safety concerns, particularly for novices and those anxious about capsizing. Their inherent stability makes them less likely to tip over, adding to their appeal in terms of safety.

Suitability for Various Water Conditions

When it comes to suitability for different water conditions, the choice between sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks largely depends on the climate and water characteristics.

Sit-on-top kayaks are ideal for warm climates and calm waters.

Their open design allows for cooling off in the water and getting back on easily. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation found that 72% of sit-on-top kayaking events occurred in calm, inland waters like lakes, ponds, and rivers.

In contrast, sit-inside kayaks provide superior protection against the elements, making them more suitable for colder environments and turbulent waters. Their streamlined design and the possibility of using a spray skirt make them an excellent choice for those intending to kayak in oceanic conditions or swift rivers.

Conclusion: Which Is Better?

kayak on top of car

Ready to take on the rapids? Master whitewater kayaking with our pro tips found in Mastering Whitewater Kayaking with These Pro Tips!

The Verdict

As we've navigated through the ins and outs of sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks, we've seen that each type has its unique features, benefits, and potential downsides. This showdown has no clear "knockout" winner because the champion kayak for you ultimately depends on your personal preferences, skills, and kayaking goals.

If you're a beginner, an occasional paddler, or someone who prioritizes ease and safety, a sit-on-top kayak might be your perfect match. With its user-friendly design, stability, and virtually unsinkable nature, it makes for a comforting and accessible introduction to the world of kayaking.

On the other hand, if you're an adrenaline junkie, an experienced paddler, or you're planning to paddle in colder or more turbulent waters, a sit-inside kayak could be your kayak of choice. It offers speed, agility, and protection from the elements that can heighten your kayaking experience to thrilling new levels.

To make your decision, consider the kind of kayaking experiences you want to have. Do you envision tranquil days fishing on calm waters, leisurely paddling on warm summer days, or making a splash in the fast-paced world of whitewater kayaking? Your answer to this question is the compass that will guide you to your perfect kayak.

At the end of the day, the best kayak for you is the one that meets your specific needs, keeps you safe, and most importantly, maximizes your enjoyment on the water. Because, when it comes to kayaking, it's all about embracing the adventure, basking in the tranquility, and making unforgettable memories on the water.

Get ready to make your choice and let the adventures begin. Paddle on!


Commenting has been turned off.

Get Our Free CPR Guide

Hey, I'm Steve Grella, founder of Lifeguard LI. It is my mission to teach every capable person CPR and lifesaving skills. My only question is, do you have what it takes to save a life?


About Our Founder

Steve Grella is a father of two young boys. He is a Police Detective, EMT, lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, who brings over 20 years of knowledge and expertise in safety and service. He has dedicated his life to educating students in vital lifesaving training and now strives to provide expert resources to arm you with the skills and training to one day save a life if called upon.

bottom of page