Are you debating between a sit in vs sit on kayak? It only takes a few minutes of kayak shopping for the day-dreaming to kick in. As a mental image takes shape, you start to see your ‘perfect’ kayak, slicing through a clear mountain lake.
Naturally, that’s you sitting in the kayak. Or wait, maybe that’s you sitting ON the kayak. Either way, does it really matter?
Well, depending on your idea of the perfect paddling adventure, it just might.
The sit in vs sit on choice defines the two major styles that distinguish modern kayaks — and often it’s the first decision buyers have to make. Each style evolved quite differently, and each has its own reputation, advantages, and limitations.
Before the mid ’90s, you couldn’t even have the ‘sit in vs sit on kayak’ debate. Manufacturers hadn’t started producing the sit on style in earnest, although once introduced, their popularity soared.
That’s recently enough that the word “kayak” still reliably conjures images of the traditional sit in design, with the kayak hugging the paddler up to their waist. Due to the protection they provide from the elements, sit in kayaks remain the most popular option for cold water kayaking.
In warmer conditions, where protection from the elements is a lesser concern, many paddlers enjoy sit on kayaks for their less confining designs, greater stability, and the ease of water entry and exit.
Whatever experience you’re chasing, it’s the details of your day-dream that have the most to say about whether you’re better suited to a sit in or sit on kayak.
It’s easy to become hyper-focused on a single option, and miss the subtler points. How much does it really matter where the seat is mounted?
In some ways, it doesn’t. It’s reassuring to know what’s NOT at stake here. After all, the typical side-effects of kayaking are well-understood — dramatic stress reduction, mild to moderate euphoria, improved cardiovascular fitness — to name a few. You’re susceptible to all three whether you’re in the kayak or on it.
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In fact, answering the question of sit in vs sit on kayak is a coin-flip for many who just want some carefree hours on the water with family or friends. Stable and slower recreational kayaks come in both styles.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some important differences to consider. The deeper your understanding of how a sit on top vs sit in kayak stack up, the less likely you’ll be to overlook important factors that affect your safety and comfort, both in the water and on land. And, the more comfortable you’ll be with your decision.
Sit In vs Sit On Kayak — What’s the Difference?
Aside from seat location, what other features define sit in vs sit on kayaks?
Ultimately, like other watercraft, airplanes, and space ships, kayak design is about trade-offs, and optimizing them for a specific experience.
Sit In Kayak Style
In a sit in kayak, your legs are entirely covered by the hull. You’re exposed only above the waist, but sealed in below it. An optional spray skirt can attach to the cockpit rim to further protect the gap between your torso and the cockpit opening.
This traditional kayak provides a solid base for paddling by letting you brace your legs against the rigid hull. The paddler sits low in the water — that lower center of gravity is inherently stable, freeing designers to focus on speed or maneuverability.
The typical trade-offs? The tendency is for sit in kayaks to be lighter, and either faster or more maneuverable, than their sit on counterparts. However, they can feel less stable and almost always have less interior cargo room than their rivals.
Sit On Kayak Style
In a sit on kayak, you sit entirely outside and atop the hull. The seat back and foot wells are rigged on to the deck, which also has small openings, called scupper holes, designed to drain standing water.
Track mounted foot pedals can slide to adjust for the height of the paddler.
The typical trade-offs? The higher center of gravity means stability must be enhanced by design, often resulting in a heavier, slower, and wider kayak.
Performance aside, without the paddler taking up room in the hull, sit on models tend to offer significantly more cargo room.
With those trade-offs in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into each side of the sit in vs sit on kayak debate.
Sit In vs Sit On Kayak – Sit In is Definitely the Best Choice
Well, finally. At least someone is pointing you in a decisive direction.
There’s no shortage of opinions on the launch ramp about which is best. But a lot still depends on you, on the water conditions you’ll most frequently face, and your priorities.
The traditional sit in style is still the default choice for many seasoned kayakers, and there are some serious upsides to explain that.
Protection from Cold and Wet
By definition, sit in models provide insulation from the environment that sit on models don’t. The hull insulates your lower extremities from the wet and cold. An optional spray skirt can be attached to the cockpit rim to further seal the hull from splashing and seepage. Even in warm air, if you’re in cold water, the sit in style is often the best choice.
That’s not happenstance — modern kayaks evolved from boats designed and built by the Inuit and other native Alaskans. They were used for hunting on inland lakes, rivers, and in coastal waters. The insulation provided by the hull was critical for survival.
Related: What Size Kayak Do I Need
But that’s Alaska. Is this really the kind of protection you need for paddling on a nearby lake?
It’s possible. Think about where you’ll be paddling most frequently and in what seasons and conditions. What’s the water temperature? Also, how long do you expect to spend on the water on any given day?
Even if the air temperature is pleasant enough, it’s the water temperature that dictates the need for the added protection of a sit in hull. If you like short stints on the water, that may not be an issue. But if you go out for longer stretches at a time, cold and wet that starts as mild discomfort can easily escalate to severe distress.
Understanding water temperature is important. We know what a particular air temperature ‘feels like’, but water temperature is different. That’s why it’s easy to get into trouble. Water temperatures below 70 degrees can be dangerous. Even 60 degrees F doesn’t sound all that cold, does it? Just understand that it’s chilly enough to cause loss of manual dexterity after just 15 minutes of exposure.
The protection provided by a sit in model deserves serious consideration. It’s a key differentiator in the sit in or sit on kayak debate.
Easy Transport and Storage
The tendency of sit in kayaks to be lighter and narrower may be a byproduct of designing for speed or maneuverability, but it also generates two additional benefits.
1) Lighter weight sit in models are typically easier to transport and carry.
2) The required storage room is smaller, on average, than a comparable sit on model.
Faster and Easier to Get Up to Speed
A lower center of gravity, long and sleek designs made for speed, that’s not an easy ask for most sit on kayaks.
Anything racy is almost always a job for a sit in style.
Let’s avoid discussing cargo room, however. If you need onboard storage, it may be time to admit that you’re one of those sit on top people after all.
Sit In vs Sit On Kayak – Sit On is Vastly Superior, Hands Down
Ah. At last, the truth surfaces.
Or has it?
Purists will tell you how heavy, unwieldy, and slow sit in boats are.
But let’s take the other side of the debate, ie. the more popular one.
Exposure Can Be a Good Thing
It’s pretty much the rule: if you’re paddling a sit on top kayak, you’re going to get wet. Because, water.
A swell here, a splash there, a little ocean spray. It quickly adds up.
The ‘sit on top’ label says it all. With no cockpit to protect the paddler, you sit entirely outside the hull, in an ‘L’ position, exposed to the elements from head to toe. Scupper holes provide drainage of standing deck water. That’s the intent, anyway. In rough conditions, those drains can act more like blow holes, spraying water upward, not always in a desirable way.
Related: How to Strap a Kayak to a Roof Rack
The good news is that in moderate climates and warmer water, most of those “drawbacks” become irrelevant, and some become benefits — the cooling effect of sitting above deck can be a welcome relief on a hot day. Obviously, this works both ways. A sit in hull traps body heat and can quickly become stuffy and uncomfortable in warm conditions.
That aside, you always have the option to fine tune your comfort level by wearing a wet suit or similar protective clothing.
Getting In and Out Easily
Sit on models are easier to exit and enter than the snug cockpits of their counterparts. That’s a convenience in many cases, but in others it’s a safety issue. If you flip or get thrown, you may have to exit or re-enter the kayak under duress.
That’s one reason the sit on top style is often recommended for kids, and for beginners in general.
One thing should be clear: with either style, you should never venture out without enough experience and training to reliably enter or exit the kayak. The relative ease of exiting and re-entering a sit on kayak might make it a good option for beginners, but that still no substitute for proper training and shallow-water practice.
Weight, Size, and Transportation Issues
Sit on models tend to be heavier. Many weigh in the 60 lbs. (27 kg) range, but there are some that weigh-in at around 40 lbs. (18 kg). It’s an important consideration. After all, you’ve got to get the kayak from the car to the water.
A surprising number of kayaking injuries happen on land as a result of someone trying to carry a kayak that’s a little too far above their weight class.
More Cargo Space
The fact that a sit on top has emptier hull-space means they offer much more potential cargo room for designers to exploit. Most models offer one or more spacious cargo holds with water-tight hatches.
Sit on models have a reputation for stability. Paddlers of sit ins are lower. Ironically, that low center of gravity is naturally more stable than that inherent to sit on designs.
To compensate for this, designers of sit ons not only have to add stability by using wider hull shapes, but must do so with sufficient margin to accommodate the range of possible heights and weights of paddlers. The overall result? Sit on designs, despite their higher center of gravity, tend to offer the most stability.
Paddling with Purpose — What are you doing out there, anyway?
If you’re still on the fence regarding the whole ‘sit in vs sit on’ debate, it might help to better define the experience you’re chasing.
The Need for Speed
As we’ve seen, the long narrow designs more typical of sit in boats, translate to higher speeds, and better tracking. While you can find sit on top models that emphasize speed over stability, you’ll find many more serious options for speed in the sit in category. There’s no real debate in this category about a sit on top vs sit in kayak.
You can pirouette and squirt your way down a Class III whether in a sit in or a sit on. Whitewater kayaks come in both variations. Although water temperature may require a sit in, the choice is otherwise yours. Sit ons also offer thigh straps to keep your legs in position for proper edging and roll control. It’s almost a draw when it comes to the sit in vs sit on kayak question.
If you opt for a sit on, also consider removing back rests or other attachments that may present entrapment risks.
There’s a wide variety of purpose-built fishing kayaks — but is this a sit in or sit on kayak? Most are sit on anyway. Although frequently on the heavier side, angling kayaks often come with fittings like rod holders, and mounting points for aftermarket hardware.
Many are stable enough to stand on, which can be a welcome feature when you’re wrestling a potentially delicious, yet uncooperative fish.
If you’re traveling light, you can, of course, fish from a sit in design. In fact, in windy conditions, your lower stance on the water makes you less susceptible to getting blown around by gusts.
You don’t have to be Ansel Adams to appreciate a rock-stable platform for snapping a landscape photos. Apart from extreme white knuckle film-makers using a GoPro in Class III rapids, wilderness photographers of all levels crave stability on the water. They also need ample storage space for lenses and other equipment.
Is a sit in or sit on kayak best here? Sit on. Definitely.
Swimming and Diving
The kayak as a platform for swimming or diving is becoming increasingly popular, and the ease of water entry and exit offered by a sit on top is well-suited to both.
SCUBA divers also need space to stow their gear. It’ll almost always be a tight fit. Molded tank holders are available, as are watertight cargo spaces. Inevitably you’ll end up storing some things there, and some things topside. As a rule, it’s important to tether anything stored on deck that might float away.
Going off grid? Good idea. Paddling to your favorite remote hideaway and setting up camp requires ample onboard cargo room. A stable, wide, sit on platform with water tight hatches and plenty of storage space is a good choice.
To maximize preparedness, consider screening Mosquito Coast for the whole family prior to embarking on your adventure.
If your idea of kayaking fun has you navigating the base of sheer cliffs in choppy saltwater, consider a sea kayak, and let the dominant water temperature and wind speeds dictate the choice of sit in or sit on kayak.
Just Paddling Around
Believe it or not, some of us just enjoy being on the water with no particular agenda. So, is this a sit in or sit on kayak? You’re free to choose. Recreational kayaks come in both form factors.
Bring Your Dog
Why would you go paddling without your best friend? Okay, yes, there are a good 12 to 15 reasons that come to mind immediately.
But spending time with your dog out on the water can be an unforgettable experience.
Make sure you get them an appropriate PFD, then a wide, stable, multi-seat kayak, with ample deck room is an excellent dog-friendly platform.
Which Style Suits You Best?
So, back to the original question.
Chances are, you’ll resolve the sit in vs sit on kayak debate just by considering the practical requirements entailed by your idea of fun. Whether that prioritizes speed, storage, weight, warmth, stability, agility, or comfort, there’s a model that ticks off all your boxes.
And whether you’re chasing the rush of whitewater, or perfecting the art of relaxation, once you’ve accounted for safety concerns and water conditions, your personal kayaking fantasy will tell you exactly the model and style that suits you best.